On Tuesday night, Meretz USA screened the excellent PBS documentary, “Anti-Semitism in the 21st Century: The Resurgence.” I spoke afterwards, leading into a discussion by making reference to my op-ed article in The Forward, “Reconsidering Antisemitism,” which critiqued a conference at YIVO, four years ago.
As the film depicts, the violent European events of late 2000 and on, with the 2nd intifada, clearly have an antisemitic element. Still, the trigger is not the existence of Jews but rather painful images of Palestinian Arab suffering at the hands of Jews and televised into people’s homes. To be sure, more fair-minded media would show the suffering of both Israelis and Palestinians and provide proper context, but European Jews were targeted as surrogates for Israel, not simply because they are Jews.
In making this point, historian Tony Judt (among others) makes good sense, but he can’t resist making one anti-Zionist swipe, that not only do antisemitic attackers identify random Jews with Israel but the problem is worsened by Israel claiming to represent all Jews. I doubt that the latter abstract ideological point figures into attackers’ thinking. The most impressive talking heads were two young thoughtful Muslim writers: Reza Aslan and a woman whose name escaped me; she made the unoriginal but important observation that corrupt and authoritarian Muslim leaders have used Israel and antisemitism to deflect opposition to their rule.
As Bernard Lewis indicates, Jewish life under Islam was not idyllic and occasionally bad, but not usually as bad as under Christianity. The film also contends (with justice, I think) that hardcore ideological antisemitism is a Christian import into the Islamic world — brought by 19th century missionaries and Nazi penetration in the 1930s and ’40s.
The following are snippets in quotes from my article, with some current observations: Leon “Wieseltier [the YIVO conference keynoter] restated the common conclusion that antisemitism is more about Jew-haters than Jews, that there is no ‘Jewish problem’ as such but the moral problem of non-Jews who buy into age-old prejudices and the illogic of scapegoating and demonization. Hence, there is nothing that Jews can do to modify the opinions of antisemites. …
“This is a hard truth when related to hard-core antisemites, but not in relation to masses of people who react to news events and visual images, or the manipulation of same. …
But antisemitism was “on the wane until reignited by scenes of the intifada[.] We have forgotten — or never really knew — how much of the Arab world established a level of relations with Israel during Oslo’s halcyon days. How many of us recall Saudi expressions of compassion for the Israeli victims of a wave of suicide bombings in early 1996?”
I suggest “that we envision the Oslo peace process as a near success instead of merely a bloody failure. It would be useful to engage in what-ifs: What if Baruch Goldstein had not begun the on-again, off-again cycles of terrorism and counter-violence that marred the Oslo years? [It’s instructive that Yihya Ayyash, the innovator of the suicide belt, the Hamas master terrorist known as the engineer, was motivated by the Goldstein massacre to become a terrorist.]
“What if Yitzhak Rabin had survived to maintain his experienced grip on the tiller of government? [I think Rabin, although far from perfect, was a steadier and more prudent leader than his successor Peres.] What if Benjamin Netanyahu had lost the fateful prime ministerial election of 1996, instead of winning by a tiny margin? [When elected he didn’t end but he slowed down the peace process, delaying the final settlement and raising pressures of impatience among Palestinians that eventually fed their return to violence. And we should remember that it was Peres’s decision to okay a Shin Bet hit on Ayyash, the engineer, that triggered the wave of suicide attacks in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, killing 60 people, and raising Netanyahu 20 points in the polls.]”
I include more ‘what ifs’ in my article, but my point is that Oslo was a near miss:
“If Oslo had succeeded, the odious convulsions seizing Europe and the Islamic world would not be happening. Racist and especially theological antisemitism would endure, but increasingly on the margins. Since most of the anti-Jewish or anti-Israel occurrences we deplore are reactions to a changed political landscape, is it really best understood as antisemitism?”
Looking at these words four years later, my point is not really to say that it’s not antisemitism, but that the old adage that antisemitism is a disease that has nothing to do with Jewish behavior and can’t be affected by anything that Jews do is too rigid, dogmatic and self-defeating. Yitzhak Rabin himself knew this. His inaugural address to the Knesset as prime minister in 1992 was to reject the premise that “the whole world is against us.” He knew, very wisely, that if Israel’s statecraft is steeped in the view that most of the world, and the Arabs in particular, are unalterably and inevitably antisemites with whom we can never reconcile, this leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy — state policy that never seriously even tries to reach peace.
To sum up: These events depicted in the film had more to do with Israel than Jews as such. The Arab world was beginning to change in its attitudes toward Jews through Oslo, but this trend was stopped and reversed when Oslo crashed and burned.