Anti-Semitism in the Era of Selfies

In some parts of the world today, Anti-Semitism is the simplest answer to complex problems.

Germany did almost everything right. It instructed its children. It built memorials and museums. It turned the former concentration camps into theme parks on the consequences of hate. It named streets after the chief plotter against Hitler, so many streets that von Stauffenberg is the most popular one in Germany (Beethoven is second). It censored pro-Nazi literature, made it a crime to deny the Holocaust, brooded and worried, like a former alcoholic, that something would happen and it would all come back from where it had gone. Now, it seems, it is returning – some graffiti here, an epithet there, a kind of feeling, but nothing to worry about. Surely nothing to worry about. But worry. Anti-Semitism is always something to worry about.

There are virtual libraries of books wondering in their every page why Germany got seized by anti-Semitism in the first place. It was not some backward country, not Russia or Romania, but an advanced nation — not just the country of Beethoven and Goethe, but right up to the minute in the arts, science and philosophy. Weimar Germany was known not only for its chaotic, teetering democracy, but also for its avant garde cinema and theater, literature, wonderful science — so advanced in the speeded-up way of old, silent newsreels that Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz had the world’s first or second traffic light. And yet, without warning, Germany went mad and set out to kill all its Jews. There are many lessons to be learned from what happened — admonitions about the shock of cultural change, about the loss of empire, about defeat in war and the burden of reparations, about the silent assault of inflation . . . about so much. But over it all, the one uncontested lesson is this: It can happen.

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Is it us? an Israeli asked me the other day. Do we carry the germ of anti-Semitism with us wherever we go? I said no. One cannot — must not! — blame the victim. Besides, there is anti-Semitism in Japan, where there has never been any Jews to speak of, and of course in some of the European countries of today where the Jews are long gone — but not, perhaps, the memory of them. In the Arab world, too, a generation has come of age without knowing any Jews — they are all gone from the region — and yet anti-Semitism is endemic, associated of course with Israel, upon which much can be blamed, including shark attacks in the Red Sea engineered somehow by the clever and diabolical Mossad.

I mention that because anti-Semitism has no sense of humor. It does not recognize the absurd. Hitler, for example, said that the Jews had declared war on him and Germany and he was fighting, therefore, in self-defense. When, in 1938, the morose and frantic Herschel Grynszpan went to the German embassy in Paris and shot to death Ernst vom Rath, a junior diplomat, the Nazis seized on the incident and swore revenge against all Jews. “We understand the challenge, and we accept it,” the foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop vowed in his funeral oration. Within days, the government had unleashed a pogrom known forever more as Kristallnacht. Jews were beaten and killed in self-defense. Jewish-owned stores were looted in self-defense and synagogues were torched for the same reason. A heavily armed and ruthless majority was fighting a docile minority for its very survival.

Anti-Semitism permits such idiocy. It can caricature the Jews as the avaricious capitalist (Rothschild, et al.) or the lurking communist (Rosa Luxemburg or Karl Marx himself). It is the dandiest of all conspiracy theories, so infinitely malleable that the Jew can be blamed for anything. If you read Hamas’s charter, you will learn that the Jew was responsible for the French revolution, World War I and even World War II, from which it is hard to say that Jews benefitted. Hard, but not impossible. The Holocaust created Israel and so, naturally enough, it, too, was the doing of the Jews.

America is now largely free of anti-Semitism. Indeed, the reluctance of Jewish movie stars and the like to reveal their Jewishness — Kirk Douglas was once Issur Danielovitchhas evolved into the Seinfeld era, where actors not only keep their Jewish-sounding names, but also play unmistakably Jewish characters on TV or the screen.

The period between the two World Wars was the heyday of American anti-Semitism, but even then there was precious little violence. Indeed, American Jews have rarely felt physically threatened. In the nation’s entire history, maybe only six Jews were killed on account of being Jewish: the provocative Denver radio host Alan Berg in 1984; the Australian Talmudic scholar Yankel Rosenbaum; a victim of the Crown Heights riots of 1991; Aaron Halberstam, shot in 1994 when a gunman opened fire on a van carrying religious students; and the falsely accused Leo Frank, who was lynched in 1915. Arguably, the civil rights workers James Goodman and Michael Schwerner, murdered in 1964 along with the African American James Chaney, can be included since they were both identifiably Jewish. (Schwerner was known as “the bearded Jew.”) By way of comparison, the Tuskegee Institute estimates that 3,446 blacks were lynched between 1882 and 1968. America had other preoccupations.

The locus of present day anti-Semitism is the Middle East. In Europe, anti-Semitism may be a growing threat, but it is still a minority viewpoint, roundly condemned by the political, religious and cultural elites. Not so in the Middle East. In the Islamic lands of the region, it would be startling if a public figure was censured or condemned for an anti-Semitic statement — say one uttered over from the pulpit. There, such statements are common and not in the least controversial. Their Jew not only has all the odious characteristics of the traditional European one, but a dash of reality is added: the Jew controls Jerusalem and has evicted Palestinians from their own land. The last is a simplification — who was evicted and who chose to flee? — but Jewish power and Jewish might are no figment of the anti-Semite’s imagination. Nazi soldiers were often shocked to see the poverty of the supposedly rich and powerful Polish Jews, but if, say, a Hamas fighter could make it to Tel Aviv, he would find exactly what he imagines: a modern city in a powerful state that militarily dominates the region with a population of not even seven million.

The anti-Semitism of the Middle East has venerable roots, but it gained its modern impetus from the efforts of Nazi Germany to enlist the Arabs in its cause — both the war against the Allies and the obsessive desire to kill all Jews anywhere they could be found. (The Germans were stopped in North Africa, saving the Egyptian Jewish community from annihilation. The German plan — and promise to their Arab allies — was to kill all Jews in Arab lands.) As early as the 1930s, anti-Zionism was eliding into anti-Semitism — too often a distinction without a difference.

The question, then, is whether contemporary anti-Semitism — especially its apparent revival — is really a consequence of the existence of Israel and its policies, particularly the occupation of the West Bank. The apparent answer is: of course. Israel and its occupation of the West Bank and its use of coercion and power to keep the Palestinian population in line gives tangible proof to the claims of anti-Semites. Maybe so.

But my reading of the history of anti-Semitism suggests that no proof of Jewish perfidy is ever needed. For instance, I — along with many Israelis — would like Israel to pull out of the West Bank. At the same time, I’d like China to pull out of Tibet. Human Rights Watch reports that in the year 2012, 38 Tibetans set themselves on fire, 32 fatally. “Some stated that they were doing so to protest Chinese government policies,” the organization said. And yet, I cannot recall demonstrations in London and across Europe aimed at Chinese repression, nor any effort on American and European campuses to boycott Chinese manufactured goods. Let us start with smartphones.

My point is that anti-Semitism does not need anything tangible to survive and flourish. All its needs is the proper amount of gullibility and the need for a simple answer to complex problems. That’s why we should not be surprised that it has returned to Europe, even Germany. We are in a confusing, perplexing era — stagnant wages, high unemployment, a widening wealth disparity, and the abrupt collapse of social and cultural taboos. If you had told me 20 years ago that same-sex marriage would become common in the Western world, I would not have believed it — too good to be true, from my point of view. The changes have come fast and furious, riding the backs of devices and programs that simply did not exist a decade ago — the smart phone, Netflix, Amazon and the like. This, history suggests, is fertile field for anti-Semitism. Who is responsible for all this? Who is behind all this? Guess.

Finally, I come to what I call the anti-Semitic paradox. Had there been no such thing as anti-Semitism, it is highly likely there would be no such thing as Jews. We either would no longer exist, or we would be a cult, entirely marginal if a bit colorful. There has never been a whole lot of Jews. At the moment, of a world population of 7.1 billion or so, only about 13 million are Jews. Human nature being what it is, those 13 million would sooner or later be subsumed into the 7.1 billion.

For generations, anti-Semitism and all its restrictions and persecutions kept Jews inside the ghetto — an actual place or a state of mind — and non-Jews out. But when the ghetto walls came down and Jews were emancipated, intermarriage and conversion decimated the community like a cultural black death. In Germany, for instance, emancipation resulted in a wholesale abandonment of Judaism. At times, the rates were astounding. At other times, they were merely high. The rate of baptism among Jewish men peaked at 21 percent in 1918 and in certain cities — Breslau for instance — it exceeded 50 percent.

Of course, conditions have changed. But what has not changed is anti-Semitism itself. It remains a cultural pathogen, something like Ebola, which comes and goes — and then comes again. It has been around for so long, has proved so useful, and is so plastic that it can be molded to fit any situation. It would be the height of folly to belittle it as yesterday’s preoccupation, a fusty artifact of the black-and-white snapshot era. It has managed to make it into the era of the selfie, rising from the ashes of Auschwitz, dusting itself off and eventually losing it acrid aroma. It has come back as reason, as protest, as a statement of common sense (never mind its more ludicrous assertions), but it remains what it has always been — a killer.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Richard Cohen
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  • bakabomb

    One of the dangers not addressed above is the mistaken notion that anti-Zionism = anti-Semitism. Zionism is a creature only recently birthed out of the Eastern European pogroms, largely a political rather than a religious creature. Recall that most of the prominent rabbis at the time of its inception didn’t favor it, and it was but one of a number of movements within Judaism at the time.

    Nowadays, given our modern ahistorical bent, we far too easily conflate Judaism and Zionism. The two are in no way synonymous. We tend to think “Eretz Israel” and “Next year in Jerusalem” have been the yearning of Jews worldwide, throughout the millennia since the destruction of the Second Temple. This simply is not so. During those millennia, Jews worldwide integrated themselves into the societies into which they were born and raised — Jewish by birth and religion, but cosmopolitan and nationalist otherwise. (The obvious exception is in the specific region of the world where they were forced into ghettos and suffered persecution, but that wasn’t the global norm.)

    As a result of this far-too-common and historically unsupportable conflation, too many today look at any and all opposition to the Israeli state as “anti-Semitism”. We see this in comment boards worldwide when the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict flares up, and it displays a woeful lack of understanding — or sometimes a deliberate attempt to mingle the two in order to smear those who don’t agree 110% with every act of the state of Israel. Let me re-emphasize: Zionism is first, foremost and always a political philosophy, and not always a savory one. It’s not synonymous with Judaism, never has been and never will be. And to oppose its excesses is most emphatically not to be anti-Semitic.

  • Martin Hughes

    People use words in different ways. To me ‘anti-Semitism’ means ‘prejudice against at least some things Jewish’, where prejudice is an irrational mode of thought manifested in a refusal to be fair: thus anti-Semitism is a moral fault. To me anti-Zionist is ‘rejection of the idea that Jewish people, and they only, have an inherent right (now commonly called a birthright) to a share of sovereignty over the Holy Land, with others sharing only by such grace and generosity as the true heirs judge it right to show’. I consider myself to be an anti-Zionist, not as a matter of prejudice but as a matter of reason, since the claim rejected by anti-Zionism has no basis in normal morality – see the classic account of enfranchisement in Locke’s Second Treatise. So I would consider that my anti-Zionism does not express prejudice and therefore is not anti-Semitic in the sense of those words that I use.
    I do have to accept that some people use the term ‘anti-Semitism’ to ‘objection (not necessarily prejudiced, but even fully reasoned) to at least some things Jewish’. Furthermore they consider Zionism, because it is so popular among Jewish people, to have become authentically Jewish – though as bakabomb says it wasn’t that popular not so long ago. (Jacqueline Rose, The Question of Zion, is good on this.) On these definitions I am an anti-Semite and there’s nothing I can do about it, though I would point out that something that falls by this definition into the box marked ‘anti-Semitism’ is not automatically excluded, as it is under my definition, from truth and justification.
    Bkb is right again to say that Judaism has often taken forms remote from Zionism, though to my mind no religious claim, however strong and however based in tradition, can overcome normal moral rules, which I am sure God does not wish us to disregard.