A crossroads for antisemitism?
By Steven Beller
In the conclusion to Antisemitism: A Very Short Introduction (2007) I saw antisemitism as an almost completely spent force. Events since then give one pause for thought. Israel appears no more accepted as a “good citizen” by much of the international community, and Jews continue to be attacked for their supposed support of the “Jewish state”. Moreover, nationalist parties that have links to an antisemitic political past are on the rise in Europe. It is thus not surprising that Jews around the world, and especially in Europe, increasingly fear a return of antisemitism. Yet antisemitism is still a spent force and will remain so—if the right measures are taken by reasonable actors, both non-Jewish and Jewish—in Israel and in the rest of the world.
The main difficulty in combating antisemitism is that the two main strategies for doing so are increasingly at cross purposes.
The first sees antisemitism from the perspective of Jewish nationalism (Zionism), for which the answer to antisemitism is Israel, as the political expression of the Jewish people’s right to national self-determination. From this perspective attacks on Israel are against the national rights of the Jewish people and hence are antisemitic because anti-Zionist. This linking of antisemitism with anti-Zionism, conceptualized most recently in the theory of “the new antisemitism”, has garnered strong support in the world’s Jewish communities, and is also written into the European Union’s working definition of antisemitism. If we approach antisemitism as a Jewish problem alone, this has a certain sense. It makes little if any sense from the perspective of the second strategy, which sees antisemitism as the ultimate expression of the exclusionary logic of nationalism.
The Zionist perspective actually undermines the most powerful arguments of antisemitism’s main antidote: liberal pluralism. In this view, as Jean-Paul Sartre famously suggested, antisemitism is not a problem for Jews but rather for non-Jews, indeed for all of us. It is representative of a universal moral evil: the exclusion, fear and, ultimately, destruction of the other in society simply because of difference. “Never again” becomes a promise not about preventing Jewish genocide, but any genocide. It is the refusal or inability to accept and embrace difference within a society that is the root of the problem. The solution is to throw over the apparently modern, but actually primitive “either/or” logic of nationalism, and replace it with the more complex, but more supple, inclusionary “both/and” logic that underpins liberal pluralism, the ability “to agree to disagree”, to comprehend, and embrace difference.
These two perspectives often intertwine, but they can result in clashing responses to antisemitism. The “Zionist” response targets Israel’s “antisemitic” enemies, including many among the Muslim immigrant communities in the West and their pro-Palestinian Western sympathizers on the political Left. Meanwhile the “liberal pluralist” response concentrates on countering the resurgent forces of xenophobic nationalism. Even if radical nationalist parties deny being antisemitic, their logic is seen as “antisemitism in everything but name,” endangering all who are “not of the nation,” however defined. Jews used to be the main candidate for nationalism’s scapegoat, but for some decades now the role in Europe has been assigned to the Muslim immigrant community. Their main defenders have been on the Left, on the principle that universal human rights include the individual’s right to be different (Muslim or Jewish) and still accepted as part of the whole citizenry. Hence liberal pluralists see the groups labelled by Zionists as antisemitic as the main victims of the antisemitic mind-set.
A tragic dialectic (one might even call it a “trialectic”) between Jews, Muslims, and the national “compact majority” has developed in each national society. Zionists help feed the growing Islamophobia in the West. They bolster the xenophobes’ case that Muslims are just not to be trusted—based partly on their irrational hatred of Israel and its Jewish supporters. Then Israel’s ethnonationalist demand for Palestinian recognition of Israel explicitly as a “Jewish state” confirms to nationalist leaders that Israel and its Jewish supporters are on their side, ideologically. Hence, Geert Wilders, the leader of Dutch right-radicalism, can be both an Islamophobe and an enthusiastic Zionist. Meanwhile some of those on the pluralist/multicultural Left, opposed both to Islamophobic nationalists in Europe and expansionist Israeli government policies, gloss over the exclusionary, indeed antisemitic, logic that is present in many versions of Islamist ideology.
There are other positions. There are still antisemites, whatever your definition. Then there are still many in the middle, who want to continue the old Zionist-progressive Left coalition against antisemitism; they want Israel to reaffirm its liberal-democratic credentials, and still see diaspora Jewry as allies in the battle against nationalist exclusion of minorities, including Muslims. There are also truly strange, cross-cutting alliances: Marine Le Pen, new leader of the French Front National, has disowned her father’s dalliance with Holocaust denial. She has also said she is not against French Muslims, only against “Islamification”. In recent years an alliance of sorts has grown up between the FN and a prominent French-Cameroonian comedian, Dieudonné—yet this is the very Dieudonné who was banned for, according to French law, antisemitic speech.
It appears a threatening world. The May 2014 elections for the European Parliament could bring a whole wave of radical-rightists into the assembly. In Israel the ethnonationalist wave still appears to advance. Yet most leaders of Diaspora Jewry appear intent on stifling any criticism of Israel as “antisemitic”. This will further strain the pluralist coalition, leaving the field ever more open to xenophobes, and heightening the threat in Europe of a truly new antisemitism. Something similar might happen in the United States. Israel might survive as a heavily defended, perhaps ethnically cleansed version of a new Masada, but would that really be what Jewish history was supposed to lead to?
I still think the recent upsurge in antisemitism will abate. The liberal pluralist centre still holds. Jews in the Diaspora and also Israel will recognize Israel cannot claim to be a proper liberal democracy when a large portion of the population under its control is denied its fundamental political rights. If Jews and non-Jews alike realize that their best interests lie in accommodation not conflict, then things will improve—if not, the future really is a dismal one.
Steven Beller is a Visiting Scholar at George Washington University and former Research Fellow in History at Peterhouse College, Cambridge. He is the author of Antisemitism: A Very Short Introduction. Steven has also taken part in this this Q & A for OUPblog.
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Image credits: (1) Jean-Paul Sartre [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; (2) Marine Le Pen, by Marie-Lan Nguyen (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons