The recurring issue
Is there a single explanation for the astonishing persistence of anti-Semitism?
Natan Sharansky, the former soviet dissident and political prisoner, now serves in the government of Israel as Minister for Jerusalem and Diaspora affairs. This article draws in part on ideas presented at a conference on anti-Semitism in Paris in May at the World Forum of the American Enterprise Institute in June. Mr. Sharansky thanks Ron Dermer for help in developing the arguments and in preparing the manuscript.
No hatred has as rich and as lethal a history as anti-Semitism-"the longest hatred," as the historian Robert Wistrich has dubbed it. Over the millennia, anti-Semitism has infected a multitude of peoples, religions, and civilizations, in the process inflicting a host of terrors on its Jewish victims. But while there is no disputing the impressive reach of the phenomenon, there is surprisingly little agreement about its cause or causes.
Indeed, finding a single cause would seem too daunting a task-the incidence of anti -Semitism is too frequent, the time span too broad, the locales too numerous, the circumstances too varied. No doubt that is why some scholars have come to regard every outbreak as essentially unique, denying that a straight line can be drawn from the anti-Semitism of the ancient world to that of today. Whether it is the attack on the Jews of Alexandria in 38 C.E. or the ones that took place 200 years earlier in ancient Jerusalem, whether it is the Dreyfus affair in 1890's France or Kristallnacht in late-1930's Germany-each incident is seen as the outcome of a distinctive mix of political, social, economic, cultural, and religious forces that preclude the possibility of a deeper or recurring' cause.
A less extreme version of this same approach identifies certain patterns of anti-Semitism, but only within individual and discrete "eras." In particular, a distinction is drawn between the religiously based hatred of the Middle Ages and the racially based hatred of the modern era. Responsibility for the anti-Semitic waves that engulfed Europe from the age of Constantine to the dawn of the Enlightenment is laid largely at the foot of the Church and its offshoots, while the convulsions that erupted over the course of the next three centuries are viewed as the byproduct of the rise of virulent nationalism.
Obviously, separating out incidents or eras has its advantages, enabling researchers to focus more intensively on specific circumstances and to examine individual outbreaks from start to finish. But what such analyses may gain in local explanatory power they sacrifice in comprehensiveness. Besides, if every incident or era of anti-Semitism is largely distinct from every other, how to explain the cumulative ferocity of the phenomenon?
As if in response to this question, some scholars have attempted to offer more sweeping', trans-historical explanations. Perhaps the two best known are the "scapegoat" theory, according to which tensions within society are regulated and released by blaming a weaker group, often the Jews, for whatever is troubling the majority, and the "demonization" theory, according to which Jews have been cast into the role of the "other" by the seemingly perennial need to reject those who are ethnically, religiously, or racially different. Clearly, in this sociological approach, anti-Semitism emerges as a Jewish phenomenon in name only. Rather, it is but one variant in a family of hatreds that include racism and xenophobia. Thus, the specifically anti-Jewish violence in Russia at the turn of the 20th century has as much in common with the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia at the turn of the 21st as it does with the massacres of Jews in the Ukraine in the mid-1600's. Taken to its logical conclusion, this theory would redefine the Holocaust-at the hands of some scholars, it has redefined the Holocaust-as humanity's most destructive act of racism rather than as the most murderous campaign ever directed against the Jews.
Reacting to such universalizing tendencies a half-century ago, Hannah Arendt cited a piece of dialogue from "a joke which was told after the first World War":
An anti-Semite claimed that the Jews had caused the war; the reply was: Yes, the Jews and the bicyclists. Why the bicyclists? asks the one. Why the Jews? asks the other.
George Orwell offered a similar observation in 1944: "However true the scapegoat theory may be in general terms, it does not explain why the Jews rather than some other minority group are picked on, nor does it make clear what they are the scapegoat for."
Whatever the shortcomings of these approaches may be, I have to admit that my own track record as a theorist is no better.
Three decades ago, as a young dissident in the Soviet Union, I compiled underground reports on anti-Semitism for foreign journalists and Western diplomats. At the time, I firmly believed that the cause of the "disease" was totalitarianism, and that democracy was the way to cure it. Once the Soviet regime came to be replaced by democratic rule, I figured, anti-Semitism was bound to wither away. In the struggle toward that goal, the free world, which in the aftermath of the Holocaust appeared to have inoculated itself against a recurrence of murderous anti-Jewish hatred, was our natural ally, the one political entity with both the means and the will to combat the great evil.
Today I know better. This year, following publication of a report by an Israeli government forum charged with addressing the issue of anti-Semitism, I invited to my office the ambassadors of the two countries that have outpaced all others in the frequency and intensity of anti-Jewish attacks within their borders. The emissaries were from France and Belgium-two mature democracies in the heart of Western Europe. It was in these ostensible bastions of enlightenment and tolerance that Jewish cemeteries were being desecrated, children assaulted, synagogues scorched.
To be sure, the anti-Semitism now pervasive in Western Europe is very different from the anti-Semitism I encountered a generation ago in the Soviet Union. In the latter, it was nurtured by systematic, government-imposed discrimination against Jews. In the former, it has largely been condemned and opposed by governments (though far less vigilantly than it should be). But this only makes anti-Semitism in the democracies more disturbing, shattering the illusion-which was hardly mine alone-that representative governance is an infallible antidote to active hatred of Jews.
Another shattered illusion is even more pertinent to our search. Shocked by the visceral anti-Semitism he witnessed at the Dreyfus trial in supposedly enlightened France, Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, became convinced that the primary cause of anti-Semitism was the anomalous condition of the Jews: a people without a polity of its own. In his seminal work, The Jewish State (1896), published two years after the trial, Herzl envisioned the creation of such a Jewish polity and predicted that a mass emigration to it of European Jews would spell the end of anti-Semitism. Although his seemingly utopian political treatise would turn out to be one of the 20th century's most prescient books, on this point history has not been kind to Herzl; no one would seriously argue today that anti-Semitism came to a halt with the founding of the state of Israel. To the contrary, this particular illusion has come full circle: while Herzl and most Zionists after him believed that the emergence of a Jewish state would end anti-Semitism, an increasing number of people today, including some Jews, are convinced that anti-Semitism will end only with the disappearance of the Jewish state. I first encountered this idea quite a long time ago, in the Soviet Union. In the period before, during, and after the Six-Day war of June 1967-a time when I and many others were experiencing a heady reawakening of our Jewish identity-the Soviet press was filled with scathing attacks on Israel and Zionism, and a wave of official anti-Semitism was unleashed to accompany them. To quite a few Soviet Jews who had been trying their best to melt into Soviet life, Israel suddenly became a jarring reminder of their true status in the "workers' paradise": trapped in a world where they were free neither to live openly as Jews nor to escape the stigma of tlleir J ewishness. To these Jews, Israel came to seem part of the problem, not (as it was for me and others) part of the solution. Expressing what was no doubt a shared sentiment, a distant relative of mine quipped: "If only Israel didn't exist, everything would be all right."
In the decades since, and especially over the last three years, the notion that Israel is one of the primary causes of anti -Semitism, if not the primary cause, has gained much wider currency. The world, we are told by friend and foe alike, increasingly hates Jews because it increasingly hates Israel. Surely this is what the Belgian ambassador had in mind when he informed me during his visit that anti-Semitism in his country would cease once Belgians no longer had to watch pictures on television of Israeli Jews oppressing Palestinian Arabs.
Obviously, the state of Israel cannot be the cause of a phenomenon that predates it by over 2,000 years. But might it be properly regarded as the cause of contemporary anti-Semitism? What is certain is that, everywhere one looks, the Jewish state does appear to be at the center of the anti-Semitic storm-and nowhere more so, of course, than in the Middle East.
The rise in viciously anti-Semitic content disseminated through state-run Arab media is quite staggering, and has been thoroughly documented. Arab propagandists, journalists, and scholars now regularly employ the methods and the vocabulary used to demonize European Jews for centuries calling Jews Christ-killers, charging them with poisoning non-Jews, fabricating blood libels, and the like. In a region where the Christian faith has few adherents, a lurid and time-worn Christian anti-Semitism boasts an enormous following.
To take only one example: this past February, the Egyptian government, formally at peace with Israel, saw fit to broadcast on its state-run television a 41-part series based on the infamous Czarist forgery about a global Jewish conspiracy to dominate humanity, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. To ensure the highest ratings, the show was first aired, in prime time, just as millions of families were breaking their traditional Ramadan fast; Arab satellite television then rebroadcast the series to tens of millions more throughout the Middle East.
In Europe, the connection between Israel and anti-Semitism is equally conspicuous. For one thing, the timing and nature of the attacks on European Jews, whether physical or verbal, have all revolved around Israel, and the anti-Semitic wave itself, which began soon after the Palestinians launched their terrorist campaign against the Jewish state in September 2000, reached a peak (so far) when Israel initiated Operation Defensive Shield at the end of March 2002, a month in which 125 Israelis had been killed by terrorists.
Though most of the physical attacks in Europe were perpetrated by Muslims, most of the verbal and cultural assaults came from European elites. Thus, the Italian newspaper La Stampa published a cartoon of an infant Jesus lying at the foot of an Israeli tank, pleading, "Don't tell me they want to kill me again." The frequent comparisons of Ariel Sharon to Adolf Hitler, of Israelis to Nazis, and of Palestinians to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust were not the work of hooligans spray-painting graffiti on the wall of a synagogue but of university educators and sophisticated columnists. As the Nobel Prize-winning author Jose Saramago declared of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians: "We can compare it with what happened at Auschwitz."
The centrality of Israel to the revival of a more generalized anti-Semitism is also evident in tl1e international arena. Almost a year after the current round of Palestinian violence began, and after hundreds of Israelis had already been killed in buses, discos, and pizzerias, a so-called "World Conference against Racism" was held under the auspices of the United Nations in Durban, South Africa. It turned into an anti-Semitic circus, with the Jewish state being accused of everything from racism and apartheid to crimes against humanity and genocide. In this theatre of the absurd, the Jews themselves were turned into perpetrators of anti-Semitism, as Israel was denounced for its "Zionist practices against Semitism"-the Semitism, that is to say, of the Palestinian Arabs.
Naturally, then, in searching for the "root cause" of anti-Semitism, the Jewish state would appear to be the prime suspect. But Israel, it should be clear, is not guilty. The Jewish state is no more the cause of anti-Semitism today than the absence of a Jewish state was its cause a century ago.
To see why, we must first appreciate that the always specious line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism has now become completely blurred: Israel has effectively become the world's Jew. From Middle Eastern mosques, the bloodcurdling cry is not "Death to the Israelis," but "Death to the Jews." In more civilized circles, a columnist for the London Observer proudly announces that he does not read published letters in support of Israel that are signed by Jews. (That the complaints commission for the British press found nothing amiss in this statement only goes to show how far things have changed since Orwell wrote of Britain in 1945 that "it is not at present possible, indeed, that anti-Semitism should become respectable.") When discussion at fashionable European dinner parties turns to the Middle East, the air, we have been reliably informed, turns blue with old-fashioned anti-Semitism.
No less revealing is what might be called the mechanics of the discussion. For centuries, a clear sign of the anti-Semitic impulse at work has been the use of the double standard: social behavior that in others passes without comment or with the mildest questioning becomes, when exhibited by Jews, a pretext for wholesale group denunciation. Such double standards are applied just as recklessly today to the Jewish state. It is democratic Israel, not any of the dozens of tyrannies represented in the United Nations General Assembly, that that body singles out for condemnation in over two dozen resolutions each year; it is against Israel not Cuba, North Korea, China, or Iran-that the UN human-rights commission, chaired recently by a lily-pure Libya, directs nearly a third of its official ire; it is Israel whose alleged misbehavior provoked the only joint session ever held by the signatories to the Geneva Convention; it is Israel, alone among nations, that has lately been targeted by Western campaigns of divestment; it is Israel's Magen David Adom, alone among ambulance services in the world, that is denied membership in the International Red Cross; it is Israeli scholars, alone among academics in the world, who are denied grants and prevented from publishing articles in prestigious journals. The list goes on and on.
The idea that Israel has become the world's Jew and that anti-Zionism is a substitute for anti-Semitism is certainly not new. Years ago, Norman Podhoretz observed that the Jewish state "has become the touchstone of attitudes toward the Jewish people, and anti-Zionism has become the most relevant form of anti-Semitism." And well before that, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was even more unequivocal:
You declare, my friend, that you do not hate the Jews, you are merely "anti-Zionist." And I say, let the truth ring forth from the high mountain tops, let it echo through the valleys of God's green earth; when people criticize Zionism, they mean Jews-this is God's own truth.
But if Israel is indeed nothing more than the world's Jew, then to say that the world increasingly hates Jews because the world increasingly hates Israel means as much, or as little, as saying that the world hates Jews because the world hates Jews. We still need to know: why?
This may be a good juncture to let the anti Semites speak for themselves.
Here is the reasoning invoked by Haman, the in famous viceroy of Persia in the biblical book of Esther, to convince his king to order the annihilation of the Jews:
There is a certain people scattered and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of your kingdom, and their laws are different from those of other peoples, and the king's laws they do not keep, so that it is of no benefit for the king to tolerate them. If it please the king, let it be written that they be destroyed. [emphasis added]
This is hardly the only ancient source pointing to the Jews' incorrigible separateness, or their rejection of the majority's customs and moral concepts, as the reason for hostility toward them. Centuries after HeIlenistic values had spread throughout and beyond the Mediterranean, the Roman historian Tacitus had this to say:
Among the Jews, all things are profane that we hold sacred; on the other hand, they regard as permissible what seems to us immoral. ...The rest of the world they confront with the hatred reserved for enemies. They will not feed or intermarry with gentiles. ...They have introduced circumcision to show that they are different from others. ...It is a crime among them to kill any newly born infant.
Philostratus, a Greek writer who lived a century later, offered a similar analysis:
For the Jews have long been in revolt not only against the Romans, but against humanity; and a race that has made its own life apart and irreconcilable, that cannot share with the rest of mankind in the pleasures of the table, nor join in their libations or prayers or sacrifices, are separated from ourselves by a greater gulf than divides us from Sura or Bactra of the more distant Indies.
Did the Jews actually reject the values that were dominant in the ancient world, or was this simply a fantasy of their enemies? While many of the allegations leveled at Jews were spurious-they did lot ritually slaughter non-Jews, as the Greek writer Apion claimed-some were obviously based on true facts. The Jews did oppose intermarriage. They did refuse to sacrifice to foreign gods. And hey did emphatically consider killing a newborn infant to be a crime.
Some, perhaps many, individual Jews in those days opted to join the (alluring) Hellenist stream; most did not. Even more important, the Jews were the only people seriously to challenge the moral system of the Greeks. They were not an "other" in the ancient world; they were the "other"-another, moreover, steadfast in the conviction that Judaism represented not only a different way of life but, in a word, the truth. Jewish tradition claims that Abraham was chosen as the patriarch of what was to become the Jewish nation only after he had smashed the idols in his father's home. His descendants would continue to defy the pagan world around them, championing the idea of the one God and, unlike other peoples of antiquity, refusing to subordinate their beliefs to those of their conquerors.
The (by and large correct) perception of the Jews as rejecting the prevailing value system of the ancient world hardly justifies the anti-Semitism directed against them; but it does take anti-Semitism out of the realm of fantasy, turning it into a genuine clash of ideals and of values. with the arrival of Christianity on the world stage, that same clash, based once again on the charge of Jewish rejectionism, would intensify a thousandfold. The refusal of the people of the "old covenant" to accept the new came to be defined as a threat to the very legitimacy of Christianity, and one that required a mobilized response.
Branding the Jews "Christ killers" and "sons of devils," the Church launched a systematic campaign to denigrate Christianity's parent religion and its adherents. Accusations of desecrating the host, ritual murder, and poisoning wells would be added over the centuries, creating an ever larger powder keg of hatred. With the growing power of the Church and the global spread of Christianity, these potentially explosive sentiments were carried to the far corners of the world, bringing anti-Semitism to places where no Jewish foot had ever trod.
According to some Christian thinkers, persecution of the powerless Jews was justified as a kind of divine payback for the Jewish rejection of Jesus. This heavenly stamp of approval would be invoked many times through the centuries, especially by those who had tried and failed to convince the Jews to acknowledge the superior truth of Christianity. The most famous case may be that of Martin Luther: at first extremely friendly toward Jews-as a young man he had complained about their mistreatment by the Church-Luther turned into one of their bitterest enemies as soon as he realized that his efforts to woo them to his new form of Christianity would never bear fruit.