The following article, “A Tsunami of Confusion – Antisemitism and the Arab-Israeli conflict,” completed in July of this year by Tony Klug, appears abbreviated in Prospect Magazine, August 2006. I am reproducing the first part here, along with my commentary.
I met the British-Jewish writer and social analyst, Tony Klug, along with his brother Brian (similarly engaged intellectually) at a conference of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom nearly two years ago. I don’t know how close I am to him (and them) politically, but I find this article stimulating. In particular, almost alone among analysts, he notes toward the end of this posting that the Oslo years initially brought an ebb of antisemitism within the Arab world, as many Arabs noticed that the government of Yitzhak Rabin was attempting something historically different and very positive during the early years of the Oslo peace process. I noticed this at the very moment that things were beginning to go bad, as a high-level Saudi reacted to the wave of suicide bombings, which eventually catapulted Netanyahu to a narrow electoral victory over Shimon Peres in 1996, with an expression of sympathy for the Israelis.
There were some harsh Jewish reactions, when I dared to write something similar in an op-ed article in The Forward, criticizing the YIVO’s conference on antisemitism in 2003, for referring to the anti-Jewish utterances and violence that erupted in Europe after the beginning of the Intifada as something other than traditional antisemitism. In particular, it seemed obvious to me that if antisemitism is classically thought of as having everything to do with the fantasies of the antisemite rather than anything really to do with the behavior of Jews, then this was NOT antisemitism. What was happening was bad and wrong, but it was a different phenomenon – a set of inappropriate responses to the televised visuals of the suffering being inflicted on the Palestinians by Israel as the latter’s defense against this new round of conflict and terrorism. – R. Seliger
Recent actions by the Israeli military in Gaza and Lebanon, and the responses to them, have prompted renewed fears of antisemitism among Jewish communities around the globe. Sir Jonathan Sachs, the British chief rabbi, had already warned earlier this year of “a kind of tsunami of antisemitism”. By contrast, his predecessor, Lord Jakobovits, had exclaimed only a few years earlier: “For the first time in over 2,000 years … there is not a single Jewish community anywhere in the world where Jews are officially persecuted because they are Jews.”
In a way, it is not surprising that even such prominent figures within the Jewish world should see the matter so differently. The whole debate in recent years has been marred by contradiction, confusion and more than a little dogmatism. How do we distinguish alarmism from complacency, paranoia from denial, objective analysis from special pleading? In short, how are we supposed to make sense of it all?
There is little doubt that there has been a marked increase in open antipathy towards Jews in a number of countries around the world, most strikingly among Arabs and Muslims. If this trend continues much longer, the mood it reflects could become firmly entrenched within these societies. While deeply worrying, there is no mystery about what has triggered it. Equally, it is not a coincidence that there has been a simultaneous upsurge in anti-Muslim and anti-Arab sentiment among Jews. However, the contemporary mutual animosity – with an emphasis on its contemporariness – has relatively little to do with Muslim or Jewish religious beliefs or cultural traditions, which go way back and have much in common, but is primarily a tragic offspring of the territorial clash in the Middle East.
This is not a new or even a particularly controversial idea. Chief Rabbi Sachs himself co-signed a Council of Christians and Jews statement in January 2004 that included this passage: “We share with so many others a deep longing for peace, justice and reconciliation in the Holy Land and we believe that achieving this would help to make it harder for antisemitism to flourish.”
Yet some voices from within these same communities are quick to deny any link between Israeli policies and anti-Jewish feelings. Rather, current enmity towards both Jews and Israel from within the Arab and Muslim worlds – as elsewhere – is explained as a phase in Jew-hatred stretching back centuries. The journalist Melanie Phillips promotes such a theme in her book Londonistan, where she writes: “the fight against Israel is not fundamentally about land. It is about hatred of the Jews” who, she says, are viewed by Islam as “a cosmic evil”. From this, it follows that the way Israel conducts itself is at most a minor factor in the hostility directed towards it.
This is certainly a convenient argument for those who have a political or ideological interest in making it. But the burden of the evidence points in the opposite direction, as exemplified by the Israeli-Palestinian accords of the ‘Oslo years’ in the mid-1990s which changed the whole atmosphere and shot up Israel’s stock in the Arab world and globally to unprecedented heights. In the same period, according to leading Jewish research institutions, “a general lessening of antisemitic pressure was recorded”.
As for the claim of historical ‘Jew-hatred’ in the Islamic world, its validity has been repudiated by no less an authority than the veteran historian Bernard Lewis, a Middle Eastern scholar of impeccable pro-Israel credentials. In a presentation in 1985, he distinguished three kinds of hostility to Jews: opposition to Zionism, `normal` prejudice (what Reverend James Parkes has described as ‘the normal rough and tumble between peoples’), and ‘that special and peculiar hatred of Jews, which has its origins in the role assigned to Jews in certain Christian writings and beliefs…`. Using the term ‘antisemitism’ to refer to the third kind of hostility only, he remarked: `In this specialized sense, antisemitism did not exist in the traditional Islamic world`. Although he held that Jews “were never free from discrimination”, they were, he said, “only occasionally subject to persecution”.
He identified three factors that gave rise to a more recent `European-style anti-Semitism in the Islamic world`: the rise of the European empires, the breakdown and collapse of the old political structures, and Jewish resettlement in Palestine along with the creation of Israel and subsequent Israeli-Arab wars. While arguing that antisemitism played a part from the start of the Mandate period, “the real change began after the Sinai War of 1956 and was accelerated after the Six Day War of 1967”.
What distinguished the 1967 war from previous battles was that it concluded with Israeli military rule over occupied territories that contained over a million Palestinian Arab inhabitants, a number that has more than tripled since then. In a pamphlet published in the mid-1970s – a relatively calm period in the Palestinian territories – this writer addressed the question of what effect a prolonged Israeli occupation over the Palestinian people was likely to have on Arab attitudes towards Jews in general:
While Israel continues to rule over the West Bank, there are bound to be ever more frequent and more intensive acts of resistance by a population that is suffering the consequences of economic difficulties in Israel, that is feeling encroached upon by a spreading pattern of Jewish colonization, and whose yearning for independence is no less than was that of the Palestinian Jews in the early months of 1948. As long as Israel continues to govern that territory, she will have little choice but to retaliate in an increasingly oppressive fashion – just to keep order. The charge of the ‘brutal occupier’ which has been spread by Arab propaganda over the recent years and which (with notable exceptions) has been mostly unfounded will eventually, through force of circumstances, come to resemble the truth. The moral appeal of Israel`s case will consequently suffer (alongside the fading memory of the Nazi holocaust) and this will further erode her level of international support, although probably not amongst organized opinion within the Jewish diaspora. This sharpening polarization is bound to contribute to an upsurge in overt antisemitism, of which there are already ominous indications.
It may be seen, then, that the signals were there many years ago for anyone who cared to notice them. The causes are not difficult to identify and the current manifestations are hardly a great surprise. There is no need for convoluted alternative explanations, even less so when they take the form of self-serving, post facto, rationalizations.
Although, in the quoted passage above, the term ‘antisemitism’ was employed loosely, the importance of the distinction highlighted by Lewis between the centuries-old European Christian prejudice with its demonic conception of the Jew and the more recent antipathy sparked off by a bitter, contemporary political conflict is compelling. Using the word ‘antisemitism’ to cover antagonism to almost anything Jewish, including Israeli policies, Zionism as an ideology, or even the existence of Israel, and then rationalizing this modern tendency by slapping on the prefix ‘new’ is not just simplistic and muddling but carries a serious risk of debasing the coinage . On the other hand, it is not as straightforward as this, for in certain circumstances the different phenomena may blend into and nourish each other (what Dr. Brian Klug has termed “poisonous intercourse”). I shall return to this matter below.
To be continued….