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The Return of Anti-Semitism
By Gabriel Schoenfeld
ENCOUNTER BOOKSCopyright © 2004 Gabriel Schoenfeld
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWarning Signs
Over the past several years, I have watched as ever tighter security restrictions have been set up in and around the building where I work in New York City. First came a redesign of the main entranceway to add a "man-trap," two bullet- and explosion-proof glass and steel doors that form a chamber through which all visitors must pass. Next came the installation of "Jersey barriers," heavy concrete emplacements on the sidewalk that form a perimeter through which a truck- or carbomber cannot easily penetrate. Then the windows of the building were laminated with a special plastic designed to keep glass from shattering in a blast. An electronic "sniffing" device was placed in the lobby to screen incoming mail for explosives. Video surveillance cameras were installed on the exterior of the building, and a professional security firm with uniformed guards was hired to monitor the cameras and to inspect the personal possessions of visitors. For a period of time, the New York City Police Department assigned a patrolman to guard the building's front door.
The building is headquarters of a national Jewish organization. One block away is a large and beautiful synagogue, the oldest Jewish house of worship in continuous use in the city. This Moorish-style landmark is also now surrounded by Jersey barriers, and congregants attending services on Saturdays and holidays are guarded by the police. The same is true of a great many synagogues and Jewish institutions throughout the New York area, across the United States, and around the world.
In my office building, as at my synagogue, we have rapidly grown accustomed to the new security regime; when the subject is discussed at all, our remarks are usually attended by resignation or dark mirth. In the face of terrorists willing to fly hijacked jet aircraft into skyscrapers, what genuine protection, one wonders, can heightened security actually provide? But as I have watched the building harden itself against attack, I have also felt an increasing sense of dismay and anger, even fury. As recently as five years ago, such measures would have been as unnecessary as they were inconceivable. Now they are ubiquitous. The plain fact is that something unprecedented is taking place: Jews in the United States are being targeted for murder. How did we reach this pass, and how did we come to accept it so blithely?
Such questions, and others that followed from them, provoked me to write this book, which is the story of how, virtually unnoticed and unremarked, a lethal hatred of Jews has once again come to play a large part in world events. Telling the story entailed proceeding in the same way an epidemiologist might, tracing the byways on which a pathogen has traveled from one location to another.
To anyone even modestly acquainted with current events, it is readily apparent that the Islamic world is today the epicenter of a particularly virulent brand of anti-Semitic hatred. But it is far less apparent how and why this came to be the case. Uncovering the origins of Islamic anti-Semitism, and the reasons why this quadrant of humanity has proved so eager both to consume the poison and to peddle it, is one major and absolutely crucial element of the story I wish to tell.
But the passions roiling the Islamic world are hardly the end of the matter. For anti-Semitism has also reawakened dramatically in Europe, where it was long thought to be completely dormant if not entirely extinct. And it is also making unprecedented headway in new precincts in the United States, a country where it has never before found truly fertile soil.
This reawakening has implications extending far beyond the Jewish community. In his posthumously published masterpiece, Defying Hitler, Sebastian Haffner noted how, in 1930s Germany, the passions unleashed against the Jews were fungible: "Once the violence and readiness to kill that lies beneath the surface of human nature has been awakened and turned against other humans, and even made into a duty, it is a simple matter to change the target." Haffner set those words to paper in early 1939. Only months after he did so, much of the world was in flames; along with six million Jews, tens of millions more would perish in the war that Hitler fomented.
Today, the same transpositional possibilities do not merely threaten us; they are already upon us. Those in Pakistan who beheaded the journalist Daniel Pearl as they forced him to utter the words, "my father's Jewish, my mother's Jewish, I'm Jewish," have already selected other targets for destruction in their zeal to eliminate Jews and other infidels from the face of the earth. Although our government hardly acknowledges the fact, and fails to orient its policies accordingly, the United States is now locked in a conflict with adversaries for whom hatred of Jews lies at the ideological core of their beliefs.
* * *
In attempting to account for these developments, I have reached a set of conclusions about why events are unfolding as they are. Some of these conclusions are obvious and familiar; they revolve around the way certain perduring myths have time and again served to fuel suspicion and fear and hatred of Jews. But some of my conclusions are far more surprising, even counterintuitive.
One is that, today, the most vicious ideas about Jews are primarily voiced not by downtrodden and disenfranchised fringe elements of society but by its most successful, educated and "progressive" members. This is true in the Islamic world, and it is even truer in the West. One is less likely to find anti-Semites today in beer halls and trailer parks than on college campuses and among the opinion makers of the media elite.
This shift reflects an unexpected twist in the helix of anti-Semitism's DNA. In the past, anti-Semitism has typically come to the fore in undemocratic countries, and almost always in periods of great economic and political stress. But Europe today is democratic and tranquil, as is the United States, yet the disease is spreading nonetheless. This development places a crucial question squarely before us: are we witnessing a repeat performance of an old play or the beginning of something new? An answer, alas, can hardly be definitive. Anti-Semitism is a complex historical virus. And like any such organism it is composed of a variety of strains: ancient and modern, racialist and religious, left-wing and right-wing.
During the last century, we became intimately familiar with the right-wing variety, with its racialist and religious roots: the variety that found its most extreme expression in the Nazi era. Today, with that form of anti-Semitism utterly discredited, it is another tradition-anti-Semitism of the Left-that is gaining respectability and momentum. The roots of this strain can be traced back to the Enlightenment.
The eighteenth-century avatars of universal reason could not but perceive Judaism as the enemy of their rationalist faith; as the tree trunk from which the branch of Christianity had sprung, the religion of the Hebrew Bible was, they contended, ultimately responsible for Europe's subjugation to an irrational creed and the arbitrary reign of clerics. And the Enlightenment' s apostles of tolerance were not exactly tolerant when it came to living Jews: a "nation of usurers," in the words of Immanuel Kant; the flag-bearers of "superstitious blindness," in the words of Baron d'Holbach. This strand of anti-Semitism, having proliferated several branches of its own-socialist, populist, liberal-is today supplanting its right-wing cousin to become the dominant form of anti-Semitism in the West. Paradoxically, because Jews are so heavily over-represented on the Left, one finds a significant contingent of Jews who are themselves promoting nakedly anti-Semitic ideas.
The future force of this emerging Western form of anti-Semitism is impossible to gauge. As an intellectual movement it is not particularly impressive. Indeed, among its leading exponents are several crackpots and cranks. But because it is becoming increasingly energetic at the same moment that Islamic anti-Semitism is flourishing, it is enjoying successes far beyond what its modest numbers and the low caliber of its thinkers would suggest. A process of symbiosis is at work, and it would be cavalier to dismiss its potential.
* * *
Whatever the prospects of anti-Semitism are, the past would seem to contain an ample supply of lessons about the dangers of quiescence. In 1924, Louis Marshall, a distinguished leader of the American Jewish Committee, confidently proclaimed that there was "not the slightest likelihood that the Nazis' plan will ever be carried out to the slightest extent." In 1924, that seemed like an entirely reasonable prediction. It turned out to be entirely wrong. Yet even as the 1930s unfolded and the Nazis rose to power and openly proclaimed their aim of exterminating world Jewry, many still found it impossible to look evil in the face and grasp its true objectives. Few observers comprehended the depth of Adolf Hitler's obsession with the Jewish question, or the fact that he regarded both Stalin and Roosevelt as themselves tools of the Jews, or what any of this signified for the peace of the world. Willful ignorance, indifference, and stunned disbelief fed directly into the policy of appeasement, which ended with a catastrophe of unprecedented dimensions.
At present, the world does not face another Adolf Hitler. But we inhabit a planet in which there are weapons of mass destruction, where there are terrorists working assiduously to obtain such weapons, and where many of those same terrorists openly proclaim a desire to murder Jews. To complete the circle, there are also those eager to downplay the danger, who suggest that those concerned with fighting it, or even writing about it, have become prey to irrational fears or are wrongly projecting the lessons of the twentieth century onto the more secure screen of the twenty-first.
Are they right? Are all those concrete emplacements and bomb-sniffing devices evidence of what one such scoffer has called "ethnic panic," and a colossal waste of money to boot?
Let us review the evidence.
Chapter TwoThe Islamic Strain
The Muslim world is the necessary starting point for our inquiry. There the ancient and modern strands of anti-Semitism have been most successfully fused today, and from there the hatred of Jews receives its main propulsion outward.
An immense historical irony arises here. If the Islamic world is today an exporter of anti-Semitism, until fairly recently it has been mostly an importer, and a relatively lax one at that. Historically, hatred of Jews flourished most luxuriantly by far in Europe, and therefore many of the contemporary Islamic notions about Jews could be traced to Europe. Of course, Islam has its own, indigenous anti-Jewish traditions, which have often been scanted or overlooked by historians. These two strands, the European and the indigenous, have now merged. They are being spread across the globe by the force of the worldwide Islamic revival and the flood of petrodollars that underwrites it.
The Muslim world is an exceedingly complex and variegated terrain. If we were to confine ourselves just to those countries where Muslims are in the majority, we would be confronting some forty-six separate lands, each with its own distinct history, politics and culture. Of these forty-six countries, whose combined population approaches a billion, almost half are Arab, and are thus intertwined directly or indirectly in the longstanding Arab war against Israel. This fact lends an especially fervent character to the anti-Semitism that infects almost all of them.
But even far from Israel's shores, in Islamic countries where Jews have never had a presence or played a role, the poison has spread prolifically. Malaysia, in Southeast Asia, five thousand miles from Jerusalem, is a stunning case in point. In this country of 23 million, anti-Semitism flows from the top down. Throughout his long career in public life, Mahathir Mohamad, the country's prime minister for the last two decades, has traded in harsh invective against Jews and Israel. Well before he occupied his present high office, Mahathir was pointing to the "hook-nosed Jews" who "understand money instinctively" and who, he contended, were responsible for Malaysia's continuing economic woes. As prime minister, Mahathir has built on this formula both to garner public support and to deflect criticism from himself, condemning foreign newspapers like the Wall Street Journal as "Jewish owned" and leveling baseless charges about "Zionist plots" aimed against his government. A special target has been the international financier George Soros, who he claims is part of a sinister conspiracy to undermine the Malaysian currency.
In the international arena, Mahathir has supported every resolution against Israel in the multilateral organizations of which Malaysia is a member, and has vilified Israel and Jews in whatever forums give him a platform. All Israelis are barred from entering the country; so are third-country nationals whose passports indicate a visit to Israel. At a 1986 meeting of the Non-Aligned countries, Mahathir declared that "the Nazi oppression of Jews has taught them nothing," instead transforming Jews "into the very monsters that they condemn so roundly in their propaganda material. They have been apt pupils of the late Dr. Goebbels."
Not all that far from Malaysia lies Pakistan, where 98 percent of the 140 million inhabitants are Muslim; the country's minuscule Jewish population-some two thousand members of the Bene Israel community at the time the British withdrew in 1948-is long gone, having fled abroad in the face of subsequent pogroms. But even without a Jew in sight, Pakistani anti-Semitism flourishes. Michael Kamber, a writer for the Village Voice who spent several months in the country in the wake of 9/11, has described a society rife with the fear and hatred of Jews. Almost all of his interlocutors, for example, were convinced that four thousand Jews who worked at the World Trade Center had called in sick on the morning of 9/11 to save their own lives, having been informed about the attack in advance. Nor was that all. "To me," one Islamabad mullah explained, the attack itself "seems the design of the Jewish lobby. The Jewish lobby wants to pit Islam against Christianity."
No matter what subject was under discussion, reports Kamber, government officials would
veer off into long diatribes about the Jews; fundamentalist religious leaders, who educate hundreds of thousands of children in the country's madrassas, spoke of little else.... Seeking out more moderate voices, I introduced myself to a religious leader from Pakistan's much persecuted Shia community.
Excerpted from The Return of Anti-Semitism by Gabriel Schoenfeld Copyright © 2004 by Gabriel Schoenfeld. Excerpted by permission.
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