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An Old Story: Anti-Semitism, Past and Present

December 30, 2001 | by

The worst things to accuse the Jews of: racism, apartheid, genocide, colonialism.

Every age begets the anti-Semitism best suited to it. And while the key emotion driving it may be a visceral hatred of Jews, the critical intellectual aim is to delegitimize them. In a spiritual age, the Jews are delegitimized spiritually. In early church polemics, they are deemed no longer worthy of their own Scriptures because they have failed to accept Christ as the Messiah – a message that justified almost 2,000 years of persecution, and was only halted through the courage of an enlightened papacy and like-minded Protestant churchmen.

Islam has shown two faces to the Jews, one benevolent, one less so. Mohammed welcomed both Jews and Christians to the new faith and saw them as teachers. His early dealings with them left a heritage by which they were treated as dhimmis, people who were at once protected and subservient. But the second chapter of the Koran, Al Baqarah, "the Cow," is suffused with injunctions against the Jews for rejecting Mohammed's mission.

Chastisement, in this case, is not only justified but divinely sanctioned, and it comes through the instruments of the Prophet's armies, who drive the Jewish tribes first from Medina and then altogether from the Hijaz – a campaign punctuated by assassination, broken pledges, massacre, and despoliation. Though not unusual by the standards of the time, the legacy seems to have persisted in alternating periods of persecution and tolerance through the following 1,400 years.

More recently, as faith gave way to materialism, anti-Semitism assumed a correspondingly secular mode, harnessing itself to the dominant ideologies of both the Left and the Right. The wave of nationalism that swept over Europe from the late-19th to the mid-20th centuries held as a tenet that the Jew was a priori an outsider, exploitive and subversive – a belief that ultimately led to their systematic exclusion and destruction.

The Left practiced its own brand of anti-Semitism. By simply turning xenophobia on its head – Socialist Nationalism – the Communists were able to attack their Jewish subjects as rootless cosmopolitans and class enemies. The terms of opprobrium were based on Marxism rather than fascism, but the intent was the same: to eradicate the Jews.


Now, in the era of post-colonialism, anti-Semitism has been cast in correspondingly post-colonial terms. A bracing example is the recent World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa, which was commandeered by the Arab states and their allies as an occasion to both vilify Israel and dust off the old canard equating Zionism with racism – the sanitized, politically acceptable version of the ancient blood libel.

Putatively a forum to encourage tolerance, the meeting devolved into little more than a latter-day Nuremberg rally, with scurrilous attacks replacing torch-lit parades. Egyptian delegates, for instance, distributed booklets with swastikas, and pictures of Jews with hooked noses and fangs dripping blood – items that would not have been out of place in Julius Streicher's Nazi party organ Der Sturmer.

Durban dusted off old canards equating Zionism with racism – a PC version of the ancient blood libel.

One would think that with all the ongoing oppression and injustice in the world, there would have been enough to keep the delegates at Durban busy. Muslim delegates concerned about rights in Palestine could have brought their enthusiasm closer to home by addressing the fate of black Christians being slaughtered and enslaved in the Sudan – where there have been a million deaths in the last 20 years – or the attempt to impose Islamic law on all subjects in northern Nigeria, or the oppression of the Berbers in Algeria, or the massacre of thousands of Kurds by Iraq's Saddam Hussein.

One could also add, for good measure, the recurrent persecution of the Copts in Egypt, the theocratic excesses and treatment of women by the mullahs in Iran, the persecution of gays throughout the Arab world – and, of course, the fanatic intolerance of the Taliban in Afghanistan. And certainly, under the Durban conference's rubric of "Related Intolerance," it would be hard to ignore the absence of democracy in any Arab nation, which makes one wonder whether their delegates should not have been more concerned about the rights of their own people before those of any other.

But given all these ripe opportunities to right human wrongs, what was the single situation that most obsessed the delegates at Durban? Palestine. How can this be? The answer, of course, is that the Arab representatives and their followers at Durban were not interested in the persecuted millions throughout the world (particularly in their own backyards); rather, they were fixed on a political agenda that distracted the world from their own serious shortcomings in the human-rights department, and focused on what they consider the West's last bastion in the third world: Israel. And the assault on Israel – whatever the disclaimers of its apologists – has become indistinguishable, by the reckoning of its own zealots, with an attack on Jews everywhere.

Attacking Israel

The critical tactic in carrying out an anti-Semitic agenda is to attack the Jewish people at its strong point – where, ironically, it is both most exposed and most vulnerable. In the Middle Ages and beyond, the target was the Court Jew who had the ear of the ruler; during the Inquisition it was the Cristianos Nuevos – the Spanish Jews who had thrived after their conversion to Christianity. Under Hitler it was the entrepreneurial and professional classes who were the first victims of Nazi boycotts and exclusion. And today it is Israel, the most powerful symbol of Jewish national resurgence in two millennia.

Arab Propoganda

The most striking analogy between the current Arab onslaught and its fascist precedents is the use of propaganda. Like Goebbels, its practitioners have learned the efficacy of 1) the Big Lie (the more outrageous the better), brazenly repeated so that people will ultimately accept it as at least part of the truth; 2) hijacking the language and symbols of the enemy so that you tar them with your vices; 3) trivializing and muddling the very meaning of words, so that your transgressions can be blurred and your opponent's responses magnified.

Two key tactics in advancing this agenda are moral equivalence – for instance, equating the prevention of terror with terror itself, so that interdiction is seen as reprisal – and a distorted-numbers game, in which the only deaths that count in a violent conflict are one side's "martyrdoms" – since the other side's deaths are deserved.

The most flagrant Big Lie is the Arab assertion that there was never a Jewish presence in Palestine until modern times.

The most flagrant example of the Big Lie is the Arab assertion that there was never a Jewish presence in Palestine until modern times. The evidence of a Jewish civilization going back more than two millennia is overwhelmingly borne out in the archaeology of the region. The heritage of the Jews in Palestine is documented in the records of the peoples who prevailed against them, and not least in the annals of Muslim chroniclers. It is engraved in Rome's Arch of Titus depicting the captive Hebrews being brought to Rome after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. What brought Helen, mother of the Emperor Constantine, to the Holy Land in the fourth century A.D., was the search for relics of Christ, who preached as a Jew in the very Hebrew Temple whose existence the Arabs deny and whose Wall they appropriate as their own.


Turning the history of the Jews against them is another commonplace of anti-Semitism. If the Jews were victims in an actual genocide, what better way to transfer sympathy from them to their rivals than by painting them as modern Nazis, and their policies as a new holocaust? Genocide is an attempt to exterminate a people, not to alter their behavior. The Israelis – who employed a third of the Palestinian population, armed the Palestinian Authority and offered Yasser Arafat a state consisting of 95 percent of the West Bank – were hardly practicing genocide. Israel, however, is now sustaining a war for its own existence. A nation defending its citizens against terrorist bombings, mortar assaults, sniper attacks, and a military and diplomatic onslaught by an array of Arab foes is practicing survival, not genocide.


Equally damning is the collateral charge of "apartheid," which tars Israel with the brush of the truly racist former regime in South Africa, and further equates Palestinians with the blacks suffering white colonial domination. Since apartheid – keeping people apart – can only be practiced within a sovereign state, the only analogy would have to be made not with the Palestinians, but with the Israeli Arabs. And what is their condition? Yes, there is still some degree of discrimination, but Israeli Arabs have more political rights than any other Arabs in the Middle East – including their compatriots in the Palestinian Authority. And, whatever their grievances, they are still economically better off than the majority of their fellows in virtually every other Arab country. If they still face inequality it is because of the mutual hostility and mistrust between both communities, not because of race.

Beyond Israel's borders, the situation in the West Bank and Gaza involves a military occupation amid urban guerrilla warfare, analogous to the British security measures in Northern Island, that hopefully will end with a cease-fire and a Palestinian state. This is unfortunate, it is tragic, but it is not apartheid – and to call it so is to deliberately distort language for political advantage.

Avoid Context and Specifics

Which brings us to a corollary tactic: Avoid context and specifics; whenever possible, generalize and keep repeating the generalization. Blowing up houses and tearing down olive groves and keeping people locked in their communities is horrendous – in peacetime, but not in the context of an urban guerrilla war. When many of these towns have sent out suicide bombers, when the houses have served as hilltop redoubts to fire incessantly and indiscriminately into Jewish communities, and when the orchards have served as cover for snipers – they become legitimate targets. When Arab apologists wring their hands over an Israeli military incursion, they never mention what the Israelis are reacting to, or else diminish and distort it. A fair observer only has to ask: "If there is violence, who profits?"


Two other word distortions often used together are "colonial" and "settler," conjuring up images of whites exploiting indigenous populations in Africa. But the truth is that Jews are not part of a European ruling class imposed on helpless natives, but are caught up in a tragedy in which two peoples are struggling for the same piece of land. Jewish and Palestinian nationalism are virtually contemporaneous, and grew out of the disruptions that created new national movements from the ruins of the old empires – including the Ottoman Empire.

As for settlements, the matter of borders for the new Palestinian state was one of the issues to be determined by negotiations over the final status of the West Bank territory to which Jordan renounced its claim. For the Palestinians to assume that all of this is their sovereign territory – before there is even a sovereign Palestine, and before a final status agreement – is a unilateral end run around serious negotiations. Nor should it go unremarked that in the heated rhetoric of Arab polemics, all Israelis are indiscriminately lumped together as settlers. The developing agenda of the Palestinians – which Hamas makes no secret of trumpeting – is that Israel is a foreign implant in the heart of the Islamic world, and all of its citizens are settlers – usurpers who must be disgorged, however long it takes.

The only potential genocide in play here is not that of the Palestinians, but that of the Jews. The West should understand that the intifada is being driven ever more by the religious fanatics of Hamas – with whom Arafat has increasingly made common cause – whose goals are not only destructive to Israel, but inimical to the West, as the recent terror attacks on New York and Washington have made clear. The radicalization of the Palestinian cause is fueled not by the secular Left, but by Muslim zealots whose aim is not to achieve a democratic Palestine, but to impose an Islamic theocracy akin to that of their Iranian sponsors.

While Muslims may insist that the zealotry of Hezbollah and the Taliban are not representative of Islam, it has now been made chillingly clear that this intolerant strain of the faith is on the ascendancy, claiming the allegiance of up to 15 percent of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims. For many, the religious movement has become a political ideology which is totalitarian, anti-democratic, violent, and terroristic. Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East, is one of its primary targets. It is not the last outpost of colonialism, but the first bulwark of democracy.

The Right of Return

One of the most effective acts of Arab topsy-turvy has been harnessing Israel's concept of "the right of return" to the Palestinian agenda. A response to centuries of persecution, this right was fostered by Israel to offer a haven to Jews in the Diaspora who had heretofore lacked a refuge. It was granted by a sovereign state and obtained exclusively within its borders. The Palestinian mockery of this process is to "invite" half a million compatriots, not back to their own burgeoning state, but to another country – Israel.

Imagine the absurdity of India inviting millions of Hindus back to their pre-partition homes in Pakistan.

Imagine if India were to "invite" millions of Hindus back to their pre-partition homes in Pakistan. The idea would be absurd. It would destabilize the Muslim nation (which is exactly what the Palestinians have in mind for the state of Israel by insisting on this "right"). The world has yet to insist on returning the three million Sudetan Germans to the Czech Republic, or on the mass repatriation of any civilian population unmoored in the global turmoil that followed World War II – with only one exception: Israel.

(It might be noted that the 1948 General Assembly Resolution 194 so often cited by Arabs, according the Palestinians the right of return, stipulates that the refugees must be willing "to live at peace with their neighbors." Given the climate of hatred, violence, and revanchism ubiquitous in the refugee camps, the likelihood of meeting this requirement is nil.)

Why does Israel have to pay a price higher than any other nation in this context? One of the tenets of anti-Semitism over the centuries has been a reverse exceptionalism in which Jews are judged more harshly for acting like everyone else.

Israeli Leaders as War Criminals

Naturally, a criminal nation must be led by a war criminal, and so it is not surprising that the Arabs – with help from their European friends – have decried Israel's premier as such. It is now a given in these circles that Ariel Sharon has blood on his hands, and that he was responsible for the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians at the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in 1982.

People may have forgotten by now that the killings were actually done by Maronite Christians known as the Lebanese Forces. Many of them came from the Christian town of Damour, where hundreds of people had been massacred by Palestinians who attacked and destroyed the town six years earlier. This was part of a bloody civil war in Lebanon – in which the PLO played a brutal, and perhaps seminal, role – with massacres and counter-reprisals that had gone on for years before the Israelis ever arrived. At the time, the Palestinians had set up a quasi-state-within-a-state in Lebanon, informed by terror, intimidation, and corruption, and led by none other than Yasser Arafat. Yet there appears to be no great enthusiasm in Belgium to try him as a war criminal.

The world may also have forgotten that what triggered the Sabra massacre was the Syrian-sponsored terrorist explosion that killed Lebanese president-elect Bashir Gemayel, head of the Phalangist party and a Palestinian foe, along with 21 other party and militia officials. To be sure, Sharon's forces should have intervened earlier, and accordingly he was forced by Israel's own Kahan Commission to resign as defense minister. But failing to prevent a massacre is a far cry from perpetrating one. Why then is Sharon being held up to standards to which no others are held accountable? If the U.N. is interested in examining ethnic cleansing, it should begin with the PLO atrocities in Damour – whose survivors cannot remind us of what happened, since Lebanon itself is under the occupation of Syria (itself no timid nation when it comes to mass murder, as it demonstrated in the massacre of 20,000 Muslim fundamentalists in Hama).

And, indeed, if the world wants to accuse someone of a crime for the massacres at Sabra and Shatila, it can prosecute Elie Hobeika, the leader of the Phalangist forces who perpetrated the massacre after his own people were slaughtered by the Palestinians. He currently resides in Lebanon under the protection of the Syrians. No one seems interested in putting him in the dock.

Palestinian Ministry of Truth

Palestinian ideology has become a lethal cocktail of radical nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism. In its Islamist mode it is remorseless in its exhortations to drive the Jews into the sea, and revert all of Palestine to a Muslim trust; in its secular form it has adopted Frantz Fanon's maxims that "truth is that which hurries on the breakup of the colonial regime," and that "the good is quite simply that which is evil for them."

The paradox of anti-Semitism is that it is invariably up to the Jews to explain away the charges.

Consequently, Palestinian propagandists can say and do anything they please without concern for the truth, in the belief that if they repeat it often enough it will simply become the truth. Thus, Arab propagandists ask: "In the current political climate, what is the worst thing of which we can accuse the Jews?" The answer: Racism, Apartheid. Genocide. Colonialism. Is it true? It doesn't matter. Let the Jews worry about whether it's true. The paradox of anti-Semitism is that it is invariably up to the Jews to explain away the charges. The anti-Semite simply has to make them.

It is not surprising that some pro-Taliban Pakistanis are now complaining because the U.S. failed to put Israel on its target list of terrorism. The goal is to vitiate the meanings of words so that, in the subsequent confusion, the onus is taken off the perpetrators and equivalence placed on the victims. We have entered an Orwellian realm in which the Palestinian Authority has created its own Ministry of Truth, with a vociferous global bully pulpit. It's a world where a conference on racial tolerance is turned into a hate rally, where mass murder is called martyrdom, where people who indulge in lynching complain about persecution, in which accusations of Israeli disrespect are made by Palestinians whose airwaves and newspapers and pulpits are rife with obscene, anti-Semitic venom, in which condemnations of Zionism are conflated with attacks on the Jewish people so that there is no longer a distinction between the Palestinian movement's professed anti-Zionism and its rampant anti-Semitism.

What is at the heart of the Islamist assault on the Zionist project is not the issue of national rights, but the humiliation engendered by a formerly subject people ruling where Muslims once held sway. This can only be eradicated by subjugating the offenders and restoring them to their humble status. It explains why the Islamists no longer bother to distinguish between attacking Zionists and Jews. In their worldview, the Israelis, by their nation's very existence, are committing blasphemy.

We have seen in the last century that it is possible for virtually an entire society to be seized with a fury that causes unfathomable harm until it abates. For the Palestinians – awash in self-righteousness, disdainful of compromise, and convinced of their ultimate victory – to indulge in this marriage of delusion and triumphalism, is one thing. For their Arab sponsors to abet them is, regrettably, also understandable. But what of the West?

How do we explain the daily diet of distorted coverage, vilification of Israel, and conflation of its sins with anti-Semitic imagery in mainstream European newspapers such as the Guardian in England (which has editorialized on its front page that "the international community cannot indefinitely support the very high cost in human rights and human lives" of the establishment of Israel), Le Monde in France (which suggested that the Jews themselves were responsible for the Tel Aviv disco bombing), and the Spanish press (where it is now open season on anti-Semitic caricatures of hook-nosed Jews wearing yarmulkes, imagery of swastikas inside Stars of David, and editorials equating Israelis with Nazis)?

Anti-Zionism as Anti-Semitism

The answer may reside in a new strain of politically correct anti-Semitism. Forty years of indoctrinating an elite on a diet of post-colonialism, racism, and class, have paid bizarre dividends. Worse still, a historically challenged generation more impressed by images than analysis, impelled by a herd instinct, and easily manipulated by a simplistic David & Goliath show, is now reporting from the Middle East. Add to this a growing cluster of Europeans who feel that enough reparations have been paid to the Jews and their lawyers – the sectors who traditionally have never cared too much for Jews anyway – and the Left in whose gun sights the Jews were re-targeted from class enemy to colonial enemy.

Add to them the old-fashioned patrician elites, who still considered Jews unwashed and pushy (and, oh yes, arrogant) and were never comfortable with them running their own state. To this combustible fuel, add the match of the growing Islamist rancor in the West, and we have the makings of a new conflagration of anti-Semitism. Aside from rabid Islamists, no one who wishes to be taken seriously can publicly say anything bad about the old Jews of Europe – most of whom are gone – without sounding like reactionary troglodytes. But many can transcend the problem by embracing the cause of Palestinian rights.

By identifying with a post-colonial liberation movement, they can be ideologically fashionable, in favor of the downtrodden, against oppression, supportive of an even-handed approach in diplomacy, applauded by the Third World, and insulated from the charge of anti-Semitism – because how can anyone who is against racism (in its Zionist form) be an anti-Semite?

As noted at the outset, every age begets the anti-Semitism that most suits it; and in this era of anti-racist enthusiasm, it is anti-Zionism. In all ages, the goal of the anti-Semitic project is to delegitimize Jews. In this one, it's to undermine the legitimacy of the Jewish state, as a prelude to its ultimate destruction. The "fairness" that Palestinian supporters advocate has the ultimate goal of sufficiently weakening Israel that it will be unable to defend itself. And without a Jewish state, the iron truth of history is that the Jewish people sooner or later become even more vulnerable to the next wave of anti-Semitism.

The metaphor of Exodus is one that has dogged the Jews from the outset. Their very success attracts resentment – as they learned in Egypt where, according to Scripture, a new king arose "who did not know Joseph." The issue is no longer, Will there be a Palestinian state – that is inevitable – but rather, Will there be a Jewish one? The disappearance of the Jewish state will not mean the disappearance of anti-Semitism – quite the opposite.

In 1968, Martin Luther King Jr., addressed his listeners with the following words: "You declare that you do not hate Jews, you are merely anti-Zionist. And I say, let the truth ring forth from high on the mountaintops... When people criticize Zionism, they mean Jews... What is anti-Zionism? It is the denial of the Jewish people of a fundamental right that we justly claim for the people of Africa and freely accord all other nations of the globe.'' Dr. King, who recognized bias when he saw it, knew what he was talking about.

This article originally appeared on


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