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A crossroads for antisemitism?

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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

Recent Comments

  1. Margaret Reardon

    Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper, in his recent address to the Knesset, said that criticism of the Israeli government’s exclusionary policy toward Israeli Arabs is anti-semitic. He thinks it ridiculous to call the policy “apartheid”, because it is obvious (to him) that Israel is a democratic, liberal nation and therefore cannot be racist. Make of that what you will.

  2. Steven Beller

    Stephen Harper exemplifies the blindness of so many of Israel’s supporters to the real problems with Israel’s current predicament, and its negative impact on countering the antisemitic mindset elsewhere. You could use his speech as a prime example of the problem I am identifying in this blog. But then who is surprised, given what we know about Harper–a classic, “either/or” nationalist who sees no point in things like the United Nations and/or efforts to counter climate change?

  3. Marc R

    Maybe Sartre is right that anti-semitism is a problem for non-Jews rather than Jews. But it sure does seem that Jews have suffered far more for a problem that someone else has.

    And maybe it’s true that anti-semitism will go away once the benevolent ideals of tolerance and diversity are universally accepted. Until that time, however, it’s probably pretty fortunate that Jews now have an army and a navy.

  4. William Malmstrom

    I think many of us have minimal problems with Zionism, provided said Zionism is confined to the internationally recognized state of Israel. The negative view of Zionism happens when the Zionism crosses the border into the illegal foreign colonies that are tolerated, even supported and defended by Israel. The great many of us who feel that way cannot understand why, when we complain about such behavior, we’re suddenly “anti-Semites”, but of course we make EXACTLY the same criticism of this behavior when it’s done by non-Jews. The constant accusations of anti-Semitism which seem to be the only reply to critiques of Israeli policy has long since ruined the credibility of defenders of said policy.

  5. a cook

    If there is presently an upsurge of antisemitism, and a heightened threat in Europe and America of “a truly new antisemitism”, is it not illogical to also believe that antisemitism is a spent force? How can any spent force have an upsurge, or be a threat?

    “Yet this is the very Dieudonné who was banned for, according to French law, antisemitic speech.”
    “Yet” conveys your surprise, that Marine Le Pen could ally herself with an antisemite. What is it about this”truly strange” alliance that surprises you?
    “According to French law” suggests that, although the French legal system may suppress Dieudonné’s freedom of speech because it considers it antisemitic, you reserve judgement on the matter.
    If you consider Dieudonné to be antisemitic, why do you go out of your way to avoid saying so?
    If you consider Dieudonné to be unjustly accused of antisemitic speech, do you also consider Robert Faurisson, whom Dieudonné’s publicly honored and was censured by the French legal system for doing so, to be unjustly accused of Holocaust denial, because he is merely an anti-Zionist activist?

    You refer to “irrational hatred of Israel and its Jewish supporters”.
    It is not clear from the immediate context, whether you believe Zionist expressions of concern about this hatred are legitimate, as distinct from spurious or imagined. However, as you have elsewhere described Muslim antisemtism as “very serious and very threatening”, it would appear that you accept these expressions of concern are legitimate.
    If so, how can you also maintain that “antisemitism is still a spent force”?
    And if so, why do you argue that Zionists, rather than Islamists, “help feed the growing Islamophobia in the West”?
    But if you believe these Zionist expressions of concern are merely spurious or imagined, how can you also maintain that “antisemitic logic” is present in many versions of Islamist ideology?
    And if these expressions of concern are spurious or imagined, do you likewise consider the popularity of Dieudonné, and his ilk, amongst a significant proportion of the Muslim community in Europe, to be a figment of the Zionist imagination?
    If not, how do you account for the popularity?

    You claim that Europe’s Muslim immigrant community has replaced Jews as “nationalism’s scapegoat”.
    What is the evidence to support your claim?

    If antisemitism derives from the “exclusion, fear and, ultimately, destruction of the other in society simply because of difference”, how do you account for the fact that a significant proportion of intellectuals,in Europe, America and beyond—not all of whom can be considered to be united by the exclusionary logic of nationalism—hold Israel and its supporters in such singularly low regard?

    If antisemitism ultimately derives from the “exclusion, fear and, ultimately, destruction of the other in society simply because of difference”, how do you account for the fact that a significant proportion of the Islamic world, which can hardly be considered to be a single society, much less united by the exclusionary logic of nationalism, holds Jews in singularly low regard?

    And if antisemitism may be “the ultimate expression of the exclusionary logic of nationalism”, how do you account for the hatred of Jews, (not just “Israel and its Jewish supporters”) by a significant proportion of the Islamic world (not just Islamists, and not just a significant proportion of Muslim community in Europe).

    And how, given all this, can you elsewhere maintain that there is any “rational aspect” to Muslim antisemitism?

  6. […] wrote a few months ago in my blog at Oxford University Press that antisemitism was at a crossroads, inasmuch as the two dominant ways of understanding and […]

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