Explaining anti-Semitism (and Israel) to progressive Europeans

I was sitting in Cafe Aroma with my new French friends, a young couple I met while on a tour in Jerusalem, having a really enjoyable conversation – the kind you often have on vacation, especially long vacations where you’re more likely to throw your usual social caution to the wind.  It’s the kind of liberation you feel as the result of being by so far from everything and everyone you’ve ever known.  Though I’m not technically on vacation, making Aliyah (6000 miles away from the place I called home for most of my life) has definitely made me more prone to the mood I was in while backpacking across Europe in my 20s – the sense of unlimited possibilities.

I think the three of us ended up talking for over 2 hours, a conversation which revolved around many things, but politics and religion took up most of our time – which seemed quite natural given their obvious erudition and genuine curiosity. My new friends genuinely seemed to have more questions (about Judaism, Israel, the U.S.) than answers, assumptions, or specific opinions – all of which made them quite pleasant interlocutors.

My friends were not Jewish, not evangelical Christians or religious in any sense, and not in any way connected to the Jewish state in the usual way.  They were simply visiting Israel out of curiosity.  They were secular Europeans on vacation – the kind of visitors most countries take for granted but, in Israel, is at least a bit more unusual.  Indeed, their background made me think through my answers a bit longer than I normally would have. I felt that – especially when the conversation touched on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Zionism, and, American Jewry – I was, simultaneously representing my identities as an American, a new Israeli, and a Jew more broadly.

I must admit, my answer to the question, ”why did you move to Israel” is a bit different when posed by a non-Jew, both in the broader discourse I engage in, as well as in the specific language I use. How many non-Jews, for instance, know what the word ”Aliyah” means? To what degree do I need to defend/explain the Israeli Right of Return? Even the word, ”Zionist”, for instance, tragically, often has negative connotations for many in the non-Jewish progressive community – which made me wonder if much of what I was going to say would be lost in (political) translation.

Further, while conversing with my new friends I was trying hard to take them and their questions at face value, and not put them in the pre-assigned category of progressive Europeans (of the Guardian reading variety) who are hostile towards Israel – and, indeed, there was nothing even remotely indicating they held such views. And, in fact, I found their erudition quite refreshing.  Even though they may not be overly informed on the topic of modern Zionism, their education and open-mindedness allowed them absorb what I was saying with a broad understanding of the political, cultural, and religious themes I was exploring. They were truly European in the very best sense of the word. However, though their English was excellent, and I don’t think they missed much of what I was saying, there is, when discussing complex matters with non-native English speakers, always the fear that some of the nuance of the words and phrases you use may get lost or even slightly misinterpreted.

The most interesting part of our conversation was when my new friend asked me – during the course of the talk which touched on issues of perceived Jewish power in the U.S. – to provide any insight I had over the broad phenomena of anti-Semitism. ”Why do you think it occurs”, was what he was wondering.

Boy, there’s a topic!!! (And, sure, I realize that some of my friends would likely ask, “G-d, why couldn’t you have kept the conversation a bit lighter? There’s so much to discuss that isn’t so controversial and emotional…art, music, sports, or Croissants!”  But, what can I say, these conversations seem to follow me.  I, after all, took on this job with CiF Watch for a good reason.)

Anti-Semitism – what historian Robert Wistrich has referred to as the world’s longest hatred – is an issue which has shaped much of my professional and intellectual life, and one which I have spent a lot of time contemplating, as well as reading and writing about. There were so many angles I could have tackled the subject from, as anti-Semitism has gone through different stages over the years, and varies widely depending on the part of the world where this phenomena took place. For instance, early Christian anti-Judaic polemics – predicated largely by Jews’ rejection of Christ, and the related charge that Jews were responsible, as a group, for the death of Christ (deicide) – dates back to the first or second century CE, and certainly is/was quite a different creature than 20th century secular incarnations, such as the racially based anti-Semitism of the Nazis. And, the modern “progressive” anti-Semitism has some correlation to classic anti-Semitism, but, in many other respects, varies widely from that dynamic.

However, there were two themes which I thought worth commenting on, having decided to speak broadly on what I believe to be at the root of much (but, obviously not all) of the modern manifestation of anti-Semitism. The first one pertains to the reaction of many non-Jews to a very particularistic Jewish identity in a world increasingly under the influence of post-identity politics (which, for the sake of brevity, I didn’t explore), and the other, which I chose to elaborate on, was the reaction to the perception of Jewish power in the world.

Put simply, I explained – and as I touched on in my CW post about Tisha B’Av and Jewish power – classic anti-Semitism (such as the Jewish conspiracy posited in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion) was predicated upon the fear of Jews (Judeophobia, as such) as aliens, different, the other who can’t be trusted and who, it was supposed, meets in secret with other Jews with some malicious intent, so that anything undesirable, economic or political could be projected upon the them. In the Middle Ages, Jews, to use but one example, were accused of being behind the Black Plague.

Today, however, while such wildly conspiratorial narratives pertaining to the Jews, sadly, still have currency in many parts of the world, by and large, such views have lost credibility in most of the West, and has instead morphed into a general fear of Jews insofar as they – who have achieved a good deal of economic and educational success – are perceived to possess power which is, in this view, disproportionate to their numbers. Indeed, a poll taken during the height of the economic downturn in the U.S., in 2008, indicated that 25% of Americans (including 1/3 of those identifying as Democrats) believed that Jews, as a group, were primarily responsible for the downturn. Jews are no longer accused in polite circles of ”poisoning the wells”, but, as representing in the eyes of many, the ruling class and perceived to be the group who has benefitted most by the capitalist system, they could be associated with other modern social and economic miseries which, even for the well-educated, often defy simple explanations.

This perception of Jews as wielding a disproportionate degree of power and influence in the world can also be found in critiques suggesting that Jews exercise too much power over U.S. foreign policy. The book by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy – which argues that many of America’s deleterious foreign policy decisions (such as their support for Israel, as well as the decision, in 2003, to go to war with Iraq)  was only made possible as a result of the disproportionate influence of the organized Jewish community – is the intellectual ground zero of such a narrative.  (The Guardian’s Jonathan Steele published an essay in August advancing this ugly narrative of the corrosive effects of organized Jewry on the American body politic.)

This is obviously a much longer discussion, but, I think that our modern political culture has come to almost fetishize powerlessness, and, indeed, much of our discourse seems to almost lionize those perceived to be victims. It’s as if the status of being perceived to be an ”underdog” is assumed, a priori, to carry with it a positive moral dimension – a position which often allows political actors in the world arena perceived to be weak to get a sort of moral get-out-of-jail-free card.  Thus, denied the moral agency (the responsibility for one’s moral actions) that we assign to all other political actors, we can’t possibly ask as much from them as we do their stronger competitor? (Hamas may have an openly anti-Semitic founding charter, and be at its core, a totally reactionary political movement, but, it is often argued, at least implicitly, ”who are we to condemn their use of civilians as human shields in their war with Israel”? ”What can we expect from them”? ”Look how much stronger the Israeli military is than those ”rag-tag” fighters in Gaza”.)

And, as Jews in the West have shown that a historically oppressed minority can indeed overcome their oppression and succeed and prosper, they are, tragically, now often on the wrong side of this political paradigm. For, taking this politics of victimhood to its natural end, if the weakest members of society are weak for no reason other than the machinations of a system which oppresses them, then the inverse would naturally be true – those who benefit most from this same society must invariably reap these benefits by some nefarious undertakings or at least owing to some inherent systemic injustice. Much of modern anti-Semitism (and, to some degree, anti-Zionism), I argued, is only one component within a broader Western political current which, at its core, is about our perception of the relationship between power, personal (and group) responsibility, and success.  Modern Jewry, and the state of Israel – in their example of a historically oppressed minority who (through their own grit and determination) overcame their weakness and victimhood and now generally thrive (socially and economically) both as a people and as a nation – runs counter to the post-colonial paradigm which often lay at the core of “progressive” politics.  Many truly seem to resent the Jews for having emerged from their immemorial weakness – the mission “assigned” to them since the first diaspora – to achieve, by any standard, to a degree immensely disproportional to their numbers.  Once seen as powerless (the wretched of the earth), Jews are now accused of being arrogant, domineering, and immensely powerful.

I don’t know if I necessarily converted my new friends to my view, but they did genuinely seem interested in what I said, and seemed open-minded to my explanations.

CiF Watch can only hope that the ideologically dogmatic essayists  (and their readers) who often display a seemingly reflexive enmity towards Israel and their Jewish supporters – a dynamic this blog is dedicated to exposing – will one day be equally as open-minded in their analyses, a bit more self-critical, and tread more carefully on rhetorical ground that has been claimed in the service of such a historically lethal hatred.  I don’t think this is too much to ask of a powerful European media enterprise claiming such an elite “progressive” pedigree.

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