We are hearing an awful lot of nonsense about the remarks of Howard Gutman, the United States ambassador to Belgium, regarding whether Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is to “blame” for the increase in anti-Semitism.
A summary of Gutman’s remarks, not a direct quote, appeared in an Israeli newspaper. American bloggers took it as gospel, and Republican political candidates called for Gutman’s ouster. Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, himself condemned the remarks as an excuse for inaction on anti-Semitism, and the headlines blared “American Ambassador Blamed Israel for Anti-Semitism.”
For the record, we should follow the trail of remarks:
The Israeli newspaper quoted Gutman, who is Jewish and whose father survived the Holocaust in Poland, as saying: “A distinction should be made between traditional anti-Semitism, which should be condemned, and Muslim hatred for Jews, which stems from the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.”
What he actually said is quite different and a bit more nuanced:
“There is and has long been some amount of anti-Semitism, of hatred and violence against Jews, from a small sector of the population who hate others who may be different or perceived to be different, largely for the sake of hating. … What I do see as growing, as gaining much more attention in the newspapers and among politicians and communities, is a different phenomenon.
“It is a tension, and perhaps hatred, largely born of and reflecting the tension between Israel, the Palestinian territories and neighboring Arab states in the Middle East over the continuing Israeli-Palestinian problem. … An Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty will significantly diminish Muslim anti-Semitism.”
Foxman wrote in response: “This assessment of Muslim anti-Semitism, and your attempt to distinguish it from traditional or classical anti-Semitism, is not only wrongheaded but could undermine the important effort to combat the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe.
“When one tries to attribute this anti-Semitism to outside forces — in this case, the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict — one not only misunderstands the role of anti-Semitism in that conflict, but provides an unacceptable rationale for inaction.”
I respect and admire Foxman and regard him as a cherished friend, but every scholar I know distinguishes between classical anti-Semitism and its politicalization.
The evidence of history would suggest that Jews fared far better under Moslem domination and dhimmi than they did under Christian domination. All would also agree that Jews fared and fare best when they were treated as equal citizens and not under any religious domination.
But instead of engaging in charges and countercharges, perhaps it is wisest for us to consider what we know for certain about anti-Semitism, what all responsible scholars would agree with even if the news is unpleasant.
1. Israel can quench the thirst of anti-Semitism; it can also fuel the flames.
Theodore Herzl’s “The Jewish State” had two premises: Jews were a non-European element within Europe, and anti-Semitism would only diminish by a process of normalization of the Jewish condition. The Jewish state — it was not yet termed Israel — would be a state like any other, with an army and a flag, and the Jewish situation would be normalized. It stood to reason, the founder of political Zionism believed, that anti-Semitism would then disappear.
Throughout the past 63 years, despite its considerable accomplishments and the marvels of its achievement, we have seen that Israel has not achieved normalization, the Jewish state is not a state like any other state, and the Jewish people not a people like any other people. Only a people desperate for normalization would have given up the oil fields and the depth of the Sinai for the promise of normalization some 30 years ago.
Almost two decades ago, in what seems a distant memory, after the Oslo Accords, it seemed as if anti-Semitism would be a minor phenomenon, confined to the fringes of society. Americans of my postwar generation know no barriers to advancement because we are Jews — none in higher education, none in the professions or in industry. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the demise of communism, a major pillar of worldwide anti-Semitism fell. When some Arab countries sought normalization with Israel, a muting of anti-Semitic rhetoric, if not of anti-Semitic feeling, was required; it seemed as if more might follow. In Eastern Europe, the Jewish communities were small, and in some places there were advantages to being Jewish. Roman Catholicism and a significant segment of Protestant Christianity were changing their views on the Jews and knocking down another pillar of anti-Semitism. One could be optimistic that a generation after the Holocaust, anti-Semitism was quarantined.
The last decade has now shattered those hopes. While one can argue how severe a problem anti-Semitism is in the second decade of the 21st century, no one can dispute that there has been a resurgence in Europe, both on the left and the right and within the immigrant populations of major European countries. This is most particularly true in the Muslim world, where major themes of anti-Semitism that were endemic to Christianity, and rejected by it in the post-Holocaust world — such as the blood libel and “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” — have re-emerged with great ferocity.
Holocaust denial, originally a European phenomenon — after all, Germany and its allies killed the Jews — has migrated to the Arab and Iranian world, where, in some sort of distorted logic, Holocaust denial is used as a means of eliminating Israel. Deniers reason that if Israel is an outgrowth of the Holocaust, then if there was no Holocaust, Israel would cease to exist.
2. Let us say it loudly and clearly: Israel is not to blame for anti-Semitism; anti-Semites are to blame for anti-Semitism.
Now that we have gotten that rhetoric out of our system, let us consider the other reality.
3. There is a direct correlation between actions in the Middle East and an increase in manifestations of anti-Semitism.
I could cite many examples, but let me confine myself to France over the past decade. Increased anti-Semitism came in waves, which occurred with greatest intensity in five periods: October 2000, just after the start of the Second Intifada; post-Sept. 11, 2001, after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center; in April 2002, following the bombings of Passover and the massive Israeli response to the intolerable bombings of its civilians; the war in Lebanon; and the war in Gaza. There can be no doubt about the correlation.
4. When Israel is negotiating with the Palestinians or with other Arab countries, there is a decrease in the expressions of Muslim anti-Semitism.
I am not naïve enough to believe that it is because Muslims suddenly come to like Israel or love Jews, but because such expressions are counterproductive to the process and only stiffen the terms of the negotiations. Can anyone dispute the last part of the ambassador’s statement: “An Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty will significantly diminish Muslim anti-Semitism”?
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta reiterated the point, restating the obvious when he said that Israel-Palestinian negotiations would deprive Muslim extremists of one of the sources of oxygen to fuel the fires of their militant agenda.
Let me leave it to others to determine who is to blame for the absence of negotiations, but there can be no denying that the absence of negotiations fuels the extremists’ fires. I spoke to several people who attended the meeting at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center, a high-level conference of Americans and Israelis — the room was full of people who support Israel, Panetta has long been regarded as a friend, and no one disagreed with what Panetta had said.
Panetta also said that Israel’s security would be enhanced if it would “reach out and mend fences with those who share an interest in regional stability — countries like Turkey and Egypt, as well as Jordan. This is an important time to be able to develop and restore those key relationships in this crucial area.”
No one can dispute this statement. Some do argue that it is difficult to reach out to Egypt under current circumstances with the Muslim Brotherhood on the political ascent and the military in retreat. President Shimon Peres’ publicized visit to Jordan was indeed the reaching out that Panetta called for, and though a newly empowered Turkey is not easy to deal with, no one can dispute that Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon’s public humiliation of the Turkish ambassador was not a way to win friends and influence people.
5. Political problems can be solved by compromise. Religious fundamentalism is antithetical to compromise.
Contrary to Foxman, I and most scholars of anti-Semitism believe there is a difference between classical anti-Semitism and the current politicalization of anti-Semitism in the Middle East, and it does the Jewish community no good to deny it. For centuries Jews held limited power, had no state and no army. Israel is a political entity, and opposition to Israel may be anti-Semitic, but it is also political, perhaps primarily political. Acknowledging the differences between the two forms of anti-Semitism does not undermine efforts to combat anti-Semitism but may actually enhance them.
But we must also be equally mindful that while the current conflict exacerbates Muslim anti-Semitism, the problem would be solved for some — but not for all — were peace to be. For many Muslims, the very existence of a Jewish state in historically Muslim territory is a religious insult to Islam, a point that would not sound so strange to those religious Jews who see territorial conquest as a manifestation of the triumph of the God of Israel.
If the divide is religious, there may well be no compromise. If the divide can be seen in political terms, it will be far easier to reach some sort of agreement.
But the conversation in the Jewish community is not helped when serious issues cannot be confronted by serious people publicly and directly among friends, among lovers of Israel and Zion.
Michael Berenbaum is professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University.