Why I Changed My Mind about Anti-Semitism and Anti-Israelism

I once thought it possible to address the world’s turn against Israel without bringing in anti-Semitism. No longer.
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The seven weeks of war between Israel and Hamas in the summer of 2014 occasioned the greatest outpouring of raw anti-Semitism since the demise of Nazism. Ironically, relatively little of this, or at least less than usual, occurred in the Arab world: Cairo, Damascus, Beirut, and Baghdad were quieter than during any earlier wars between Israel and its neighbors. But across Europe and here and there in Latin America, Africa, and even in the U.S. and Canada, incident followed upon incident of vicious Jew-baiting and occasional violence.

By odd coincidence, my 2014 book, Making David Into Goliath: How the World Turned Against Israel, had been released on the very day that Israeli forces moved into Gaza in response to a wave of Hamas rockets. In it, I wrote much about anti-Zionism and anti-Israelism but little about anti-Semitism, a point on which I was repeatedly challenged when I spoke before Jewish audiences. Given that the world’s current hostility to Israel is manifestly unreasonable, many assume that its source must lie in the world’s most ancient hatred. So why did I neglect it?

The main reason is that I was aiming to explain change. No nation other than Israel has ever experienced such a dramatic reversal in the way it is perceived and treated by the rest of the world. On the eve of the Six-Day War, polls showed French and British publics favoring Israel over the Arabs by near-unanimous ratios (28 to 1). In recent years, in contrast, those same publics have registered intense hostility to Israel. But surely the world was not devoid of anti-Semitism in 1967. If “Israel” is a stand-in for the real target—Jews—would that not have been manifest back in 1967 as well?

Rather than anti-Semitism, therefore, my book focused on the concrete historical and political forces that might help to account for the turn against Israel. First, the occupation: the 1967 war left Israel in control of territories inhabited by a few million Palestinian Arabs and, by demolishing pan-Arabism, paved the way for the crystallization of Palestinian nationalism. This transformed the image of the conflict from one pitting the vast Arab world against tiny Israel to one pitting an apparently mighty Israel against the pitiable Palestinians. Second, world politics: the Arabs, having failed dismally to translate their numerical advantage into military achievements, learned belatedly to use it diplomatically, turning the UN into the world’s bully pulpit for the vilification of Israel and the engine-room of anti-Israel activism. Third, the global campaign for “social justice,” which cast the Jews as white colonialist Westerners and the Arabs or Palestinians as “people of color.”

There was also a secondary reason why I did not focus on anti-Semitism: except where animus toward Jews is expressed openly, it is difficult to know another person’s motives. Therefore, in my book I concentrated on what could actually be demonstrated: namely, that most of the charges against Israel are false, tendentious, disproportionate, and often made in bad faith. On the whole, demonstrating this seemed to me more effective than engaging in a sterile debate over motives. Besides, with or without anti-Semitism, hatred of Israel is in itself the most deadly thing facing the Jewish people since Hitler, and even those who would shrink from committing violence against Israel with their own hands work vigorously to harm it or, in the case of the BDS campaign, aim to undermine and destroy it.

And yet:if, in 2013-14, I still thought it possible to deal with anti-Israelism without tackling the issue of anti-Semitism, I no longer think so. The naked anti-Jewish vitriol laced through reactions to the war in Gaza, and only intensifying since then, makes it clear that whether or not anti-Semitism is the unspoken source of hostility to Israel, the converse is certainly true: hatred of Israel has grown so febrile as to have unleashed an unvarnished hatred of Jews. Ultimately, whichever comes first, the boundary between anti-Israelism and anti-Semitism grows fainter by the day.

There is a paradox here: coarse or violent expressions of animosity to Jews don’t necessarily mean that anti-Semitism itself is growing more common. In fact, recent society-wide polls suggest that it is becoming less common in the United States and even in Europe. At the same time, however, the frequency of hate crimes against Jews, notably in Europe, has climbed sharply. And here we can zero in with some precision. Some of the abuse and violence is attributable to skinheads or neo-Nazis. But the lion’s share is the work of Muslim immigrants or their offspring.

The source is not hard to find: in much of the Islamic world, and in virtually the entire Arab world, the distinction between Israel and Jews is rarely recognized. Thus, the Hamas charter states that “Israel, Judaism, and Jews [emphasis added] challenge Islam and the Muslim people,” adding a purported quotation from Muhammad: “The Day of Judgment will not come about until Muslims fight the Jews, [and] the stones and trees will say O Muslims, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.” The Palestinian Authority (PA), somewhat less sanguinary, similarly conflates Jews and Israel, as when a PA ambassador tells an international conference that the “Elders of Zion” have a master plan for “dominating life in the entire planet.”

As these examples suggest, antipathy to Israel melds readily with traditional religious prejudice tracing back to the Quran and the life of the prophet. Against this background, the success of Israel in its struggle with the Arabs is especially galling, and in the popular imagination has endowed Jews with something like demonic powers. In turn, that demonization has often had deadly consequences, as witness the many incidents of violent aggression purportedly related to Israel but aimed at non-Israeli Jews by Muslims in Europe.

In France alone, the tale begins with a 1980 synagogue bombing in Paris that killed four and injured 40 and stretches to this past January’s jihadist attack on the kosher supermarket. Add to these the less noticed fact that in the assault days earlier on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, all the women present were spared except one whom the killers evidently knew to be Jewish, and the more recent disclosures about the intentions of the November 13 Islamic State plotters to move on from their initial targets to specifically Jewish ones. And add to these the attacks in Vienna (1982) and Rome (1984) and on the Chabad house in Mumbai (2004); the bombing, masterminded by Iran, on the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that killed 84 and wounded hundreds (1994); and many more.

One result of this prolonged violence has been the worldwide flight of Jews from countries that hitherto sheltered them. It all started in the Middle East, where the birth of the Jewish state in 1948 opened a new chapter in persecution as Jews were driven from Arab countries and, after the Islamic revolution in 1979, fled Iran. The rise of Turkey’s Islamist movement over the past decade, on top of mass murders at Turkish synagogues in 1986 and 2003, have prompted a flight of Jews from that country, accelerating recently in the face of open abuse in the media and boycotts of Jewish businesses.

Non-Muslim countries whose governments are allied with anti-Israel forces—Venezuela, whose dictator, Hugo Chavez, embraced Iran, or South Africa where the dominant African National Congress has long maintained close ties to the PLO—have also witnessed waves of abuse and violence aimed at indigenous Jews and a consequent radical reduction of their Jewish populations.

As the number of places on earth where Jews can reside in peace and security has shrunk, the question has arisen as to whether Europe will continue to be among the few remaining. Events before and since June 2014 have convinced some serious observers that the answer is no. Jews have been departing Europe, and especially France, in numbers not seen since the 1930s. “We are seeing the beginning of the end of Jewish history in [Western] Europe,” said Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency. Unless officials in these countries are prepared to act with unwonted rigor to suppress the predations of radical Islamists, a sizable exodus is well-nigh inevitable.

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Why I Changed My Mind about Anti-Semitism and Anti-Israelism

I once thought it possible to address the world’s turn against Israel without bringing in anti-Semitism. No longer.
  • 0
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