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May 17, 2003

Mutating Virus: Hatred of Jews

From The New York Times, a write up (free reg req'd) of a forum discussing the resurgence of anti-semitism
At a conference on anti-Semitism at the Center for Jewish History earlier this week one panelist told a classic Jewish joke:

After a Jewish man is rejected for a job as a radio announcer, the story goes, an acquaintance asks him why he was passed over. "Simple," the man replies with an agonized stutter, "Anti-S-S-S-S-Semitism."

That joke, of course, mocks the very idea of anti-Semitism, just as it mocks excessive Jewish sensitivity toward its slights. But the joke is also a declaration of assimilationist confidence. There are bigger problems than one's identity, and there are plentiful opportunities despite it.

Yet far from mocking the idea of anti-Semitism, the conference, organized by Leon Wieseltier and Martin Peretz of the New Republic and Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College, found the old virus freshly seeping through Western culture, taking new pathways, seeking new hosts and posing new threats.

The four-day conference, which was sponsored by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, included an impressive international roster of historians and social scientists, scholars of anti-Semitism, journalists and leaders of Jewish organizations. The theme of resurgent anti-Semitism also inspired another conference this week, in Paris, organized by the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Unesco. And last month a one-day symposium on the same subject was held at the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. This confluence of rising concerns is also evident in such recent histories as "The Anti-Semitic Moment: A Tour of France in 1898" by Pierre Birnbaum (Hill & Wang) and in the forthcoming "The New Anti-Semitism: The Current Crisis and What We Must Do About It" (Jossey-Bass) by Phyllis Chesler.

The anxieties are not groundless. In France during the last two years, hundreds of anti-Semitic incidents have included synagogue burnings and physical assaults. At the YIVO conference, the Polish writer Konstanty Gebert, who wears a skullcap, said he had just endured more insults during a few months in Paris than he had during years of living in Poland. The historian Simon Schama told of his family's graves being desecrated along with hundreds of others in a Jewish cemetery in England two weeks ago. The most egregious examples still come from the Arab world, where Der Stürmer-style cartoons are commonplace and the medieval blood libel flourishes.

Many of the incidents in Western Europe can be traced to young men in growing Muslim communities who have made targets of Jews. But these attacks and the responses to them have influenced the broader evolution of anti-Semitism. For some time the French government, at least, resisted treating them as anti-Semitic acts. In some cases they have also been justified or explained as reactions against Ariel Sharon's policies in Israel or President Bush's war on terror. Since such condemnations are also made on the European left, a sympathy developed.

This helped aggravate a form of intellectual anti-Semitism associated with harsh criticism of Israel. Of course, criticism of Israel need not be anti-Semitic, and accusations of anti-Semitism become devalued when they are used to describe all criticisms of Israel. But criticism is anti-Semitic when it demonizes Zionism, equates it with Nazism or justifies organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah that have pledged themselves to the destruction of Israel. And the Nazi analogy is so avidly applied to Israel that it seems to offer a form of relief and absolution to the accuser while condemning the state to the lowest rung of hell. Soon enough, the indictment expands to encompass other Jews.

In this transformation of anti-Semitism old myths and notions of the pariah people often reappear in new guises. Thus the idea that Jews devour the blood of Gentiles for ritual purposes was reincarnated in a political cartoon in The Independent of London this January, which spurred a protest from the Israeli government. It showed a Goya-esque ethnic monstrosity of an Ariel Sharon, gobbling the head of a Palestinian child as Israeli helicopters dropped bombs in the background. "What's wrong?" Sharon growls. "You never seen a politician kissing babies before?"

But why have newer forms of intellectual anti-Semitism become so familiar in Europe? Why have they thrived even when traditional anti-Semitism is forthrightly condemned? [more]