January 8, 2004
Who Causes Anti-Semitism?
There is a gathering hysteria in the American Jewish community that is dangerously self-destructive. Life as a Jew these days may not be -- is not -- a bed of roses, but neither is it a bed of thorns. Yet to hear some in our community tell it, thorns are all there are.
Consider: George Soros, the multibillionaire and philanthropist, spoke on Nov. 5 to a meeting of the Jewish Funders Network. In response to a question about the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, he responded that "the policies of the Bush administration and the Sharon administration contribute to that."
Can there be any doubt that he is right?
Yes, of course, the anti-Semitism we witness is both disgusting and discouraging. Yes, of course, Israel's policies provide anti-Semites a convenient "excuse" for assaulting the Jewish State. And, of course, anti-Zionism is too often a translucent fig leaf that tries but fails to mask the underlying anti-Semitism.
But that is far from the whole of the story. Anti-Zionism is sometimes a cover for anti-Semitism -- but not always. Criticism of Israel's policies is sometimes a cover for anti-Zionism -- but not always.
Soros did not say that a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would bring an end to anti-Semitism. He said that the policies of Israel and the United States "contribute" to anti-Semitism, a point made repeatedly by scholars, journalists, observers of all kinds who are close observers of the issue.
To suppose that Soros was offering an "anti-Zionist" perspective is to impute anti-Zionism to any criticism of the Sharon government. By that measure, a very large number of Israeli Jews, along with a very large number of American Jews, along with a very large number of Israel's most veteran champions, are anti-Zionists. And that, of course, is utter nonsense.
The Sharon policies are, at the very least, controversial, and there is no reason in the world to demand that those policies be immune from thoughtful criticism. Lumping such criticism together with the genuinely hateful stuff, the assertions of Israel's illegitimacy, is a sloppy substitute for serious analysis.
It is one thing when Sharon or one of his colleagues (Natan Sharansky comes immediately to mind) chooses to dismiss vehement criticism of the policies of Israel's government as a cover for anti-Semitism. That kind of argument is what one would expect of politicians, who seek however they can to deflect criticism and to tar it with the handiest brush. It is quite another when others join in the tarring.
I have here in mind the response to Soros' remarks by Abe Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). According to a report by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), Foxman dismissed Soros' remarks as "absolutely obscene," saying, "He buys into the stereotype. It's a simplistic, counterproductive, biased and bigoted perception of what's out there. It's blaming the victim for all of Israel's and the Jewish people's ills."
Excuse me? Which is the more simplistic: Soros' assertion that the Sharon-Bush policies "contribute" to the rise in anti-Semitism or the Foxman assertion that Soros is blaming the victim for "all of Israel's and the Jewish people's ills?"
Before you answer that question, you ought to know that another JTA report, this one dealing with Foxman's new book, "Never Again?" tells us that the author argues there that "we currently face as great a threat to the safety and security of the Jewish people as the one we faced in the 1930s -- if not a greater one."
Pollyanna doesn't live here anymore. A Jew who is not concerned with the assaults on Israel and on the Jews is shameful. But a Jew who honestly believes this is the 1930s, or worse, has mired himself in a swamp of despair. Nothing in our current situation warrants so extreme and so disheartening and so ill-founded a conclusion. Pollyanna doesn't live here any more, but neither do Hitler and Goebbels.
This reasoning becomes doubly, triply important just now, as for the first time in many months, we witness some fragile shoots of hope regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Significant Israelis -- especially the four former chiefs of Israel's domestic security service, who issued a statement some days back warning that Sharon's policies were leading to a "catastrophe" for the Jewish State, and also the daring "virtual" peace agreement negotiated in Geneva by Yossi Beilin, Yasser Abed Rabo and their colleagues -- have lately begun to speak out more forcefully regarding both the danger and the promise that Israel now faces.
Are the former directors of the Shin Bet being "simplistic?" When Secretary of State Colin Powell praised the Geneva effort, he was criticized by the ADL: Such an endorsement could "diminish the negotiating position of the democratically elected government of Israel" and "weaken current peace efforts."
That's an interesting critique (which would carry considerably more weight if one had any idea what the ADL was referring to in mentioning "current peace efforts." How, in fact, does one weaken the already moribund?). But the idea that the United States, as a matter of policy, should not deal with alternative groups and with alternative proposals -- an idea with very little precedent -- has at least the virtue that it can be rationally discussed.
The idea that our condition today is perhaps even worse than it was in the 1930s is beyond discussion; it stems not from intellectual analysis but from the post-traumatic stress disorder that is the plague of contemporary Jewish life. That disorder is kept alive by the continuing minitraumas that we suffer. It is, I fear, also kept alive by those who, for whatever the reason, conflate our critics with our enemies, know and preach only the language of dread and despair.
Leonard Fein is the author of several books, including, "Against the Dying of the Light: A Father's Story of Love, Loss, and Hope (Jewish Lights, Woodstock, Vt., 2001).