May 20, 2004
The New Black
It's a sad fact of modern Jewish life that more of us believe Hitler will come back before the Messiah comes at all.
Our texts and greatest prophets hold out a future of messianic promise. But real life has taught us to drive with one or both eyes in the rearview mirror. I'd like to make a convincing case that we're overreacting, but current events convince me otherwise.
At a time when most American Jews feel safe and secure -- as they should -- Jews in Europe and Israel face enormous dangers. Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum wrote in these pages several months ago that our fears are overheated, that this is not 1933. Back then, the whole world turned its back on us -- there was no State of Israel and millions of Jews lived where anti-Semites ruled. Last week, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe's (OSCE) second Conference on anti-Semitism ended -- in Berlin -- by condemning all acts motivated by anti-Semitism or other forms of religious or racial hatred, and participating states agreed to take specific, practical countermeasures.
"Anti-Semitism is currently a tool of the powerless," Berenbaum wrote, "not the instrument of the powerful."
All this is, thankfully, true. But Berenbaum was not saying there is no cause for concern, just no reason for hysteria and hyperbole.
A new anthology, "Those Who Forget the Past: The Question of Anti-Semitism" (Random House), is powerful precisely because, unlike many of the recent books on anti-Semitism, its varied voices do not cry 1933, but parse the new "postmodern" anti-Semitism, as the book's editor Ron Rosenbaum calls it. This is Jew-hatred in light of Jew power. It is virulent, it is dangerous, and it is fashionable. (In his pitch-perfect essay, David Mamet calls anti-Semitism, "the new black.") With the advent of nuclear weapons and dirty bombs, it poses severe, even existential, threats, though its practitioners might only be a relative few "Islamo-facists," as Christopher Hitchens calls them, and their amen chorus on the obsequious left and lunatic right. Today's anti-Semitism is, in many ways, just the same as pre-modern anti-Semitism, a visceral and "eliminationist," form of human hatred, to use Daniel Goldhagen's word. Anyone who doubts that could read deeper down in the stories on the American businessman Nicholas Berg, whose beheading last week at the hands of Arab terrorists could not possibly be separated from the fact that he was a Jew with an Israeli stamp in his passport.
But this anti-Semitism is also complex. Israeli actions can spark justifiable outrage; as London Times columnist Melanie Phillips writes, there is, "equally no doubt that anti-Zionism is now being used to cloak a terrifying nexus between genocidal Arab and Islamist hatred of the Jews and deep-seated European prejudices."
What can we do? Two recently introduced bills in Congress deserve our support, and their authors our praise. The Global Anti-Semitism Review Act, authored by Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) and introduced by Sens. Voinovich, Joseph Biden (D-Del.), George Allen (R-Va.) and Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), requires the State Department to provide a country-by-country report on anti-Semitic acts and harassment and the governmental response.
A similar bill in the House (HR 4230) would authorize the State Department to create an Office to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, to require inclusion in annual State Department reports of information concerning acts of anti-Semitism around the world. That bill is sponsored by Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), Mark Steven Kirk (R-Ill.) and John Lewis (D-Ga.).
"The U.S. government has not had an international policy on anti-Semitism," Waxman told me by phone this week from Washington, "and the logical place for it should be the State Department." The State Department has an office on international religious freedom but, according to Waxman, monitors haven't been doing a very good job pinpointing anti-Semitism.
The result is a policy at odds with itself. A 2003 State Department human rights report took the United Arab Emirates to task for suppressing free speech when it banned the screening of a vicious anti-Semitic program.
Waxman said his bill will focus bureaucratic attention on anti-Semitic content itself. Will it lead to suppression of free speech abroad, as its critics claim?
Waxman said monitors will focus on instances where anti-Semitic actions or speech have violated a nation's own anti-incitement or anti-racism laws. The bill also calls on the government to pass a United Nations resolution denouncing anti-Semitism, and work with the OSCE to institute steps to combat it.
Neither bill replaces good-faith efforts by countries themselves to counter anti-Semitism. But they are, at least, one more clear signal that 2004 is not 1933. Thank God.