Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán appear at a news conference in Budapest on July 18. Photo by Bernadett Szabo/Reuters

In Hungary, rising anti-Semitism, growing fascism – and a Jewish renewal

On Shabbat morning in Budapest last week, Hungarian Jews did the same thing they’ve done every Shabbat for centuries: They went to shul.

But since theirs is among the world’s older and more established Jewish communities — Hungary’s first Jewish settlers arrived in Buda, west of the Danube River, as early as the 12th century — the Jews of Budapest do not daven in any ordinary shul. They pray in the historic Dohány Street Synagogue, known as “The Great Synagogue,” distinct for being the largest in Europe and the second-largest in the world.

When I arrived around 10:30 a.m. on Shabbat, I had to convince the guard I was not a tourist but a Jew who wished to pray. I passed through a metal detector and checked my phone into a lockbox, before I was ushered down a corridor to the synagogue doors.

Built in the mid-19th century in the Moorish Revival style, Dohány is one of Budapest’s most popular tourist destinations. Countless tour buses pass here daily, offloading visitors to take selfies in front of its grand, red-brick façade. Tourists visit even on Shabbat, when the synagogue and its adjacent museum, built on the site where Theodor Herzl was born, are closed to the public.

Passing through the synagogue doors feels like entering a secret world. The interior is opulent and stately: With three gallery levels, stained glass, glimmering chandeliers and a ceiling so high you must tilt your head to see the frescoes hovering above, the synagogue rivals the great cathedrals of Europe. There are enough pews to seat 3,000 people. And it is easy to imagine a time when it did.

But this Shabbat, just 30 are davening Musaf.

Most of the congregants appeared older and male. Wrapped in tallitot, they scattered themselves among the pews as if they were leaving room for latecomers. Toward the front, a young couple flirted over an imaginary mechitzah, since the vast upper galleries that once served as the women’s section have long been abandoned. Still, the presence of youth felt promising, until I discovered the couple was not Hungarian, but Israeli. And they were only visiting.

In front of me, an elderly, petite woman dressed in black turned around and tried to make conversation in Hungarian. Seeing my perplexed expression, she switched to English.

“I’m a survivor,” she whispered. 

At the end of the service, an eerie silence swept in, replacing the cantor’s chanting. The congregation departed in unison and gathered around a small memorial to say Kaddish with a feeling that suggested this is what they were here for — after all, this community was decimated during the Holocaust, when it is estimated as many as 600,000 Hungarian Jews were deported and killed inside of eight weeks. If there is any one thing that defines the Jews of Budapest, it is loss.

I turned to the survivor and asked if there is still anti-Semitism here.

“There are anti-Semites everywhere!” she said with a thick accent. Then she leaned in, as if to tell me a secret. “People don’t love us. I don’t know why.”

A defaced, government-sponsored billboard in Hungary, part of a campaign targeting Jewish financier George Soros. It reads, “Don’t let Soros have the last laugh.” Many say it comes with anti-Semitic overtones.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see why Hungarian Jews feel unloved. Their community was nearly annihilated during World War II, and even that catastrophe is but one example in a long history of anti-Semitic deeds and policies carried out both by the general population and successive Hungarian governments. The Communist rule that followed World War II sustained many of the Nazi-era, anti-Jewish hostilities that devastated the community.

Today, Hungarian Jews continue to live on edge. Although they carry on with normal lives and daily routines, they cannot shake a feeling of dread. Most of them move about their days trailed by an uneasy feeling that danger lurks just around the corner, and that no matter how “good” life might get, it all could disappear in an instant.

So it isn’t a stretch to connect the pestilence of anti-Semitism that has plagued this community for centuries with the fact that only 30 people are praying in a synagogue built for 3,000. But to offer only a grim portrayal of another lost community of Europe would belie a more complicated reality for Hungarian Jews.

Jewish life in Hungary has suffered primal and perhaps permanent wounds, but the country’s remaining Jews are dogged and determined. There is plenty of evidence that they are striving to pursue avenues to Jewish identity despite rising anti-Semitism and deep distrust in a right-wing, authoritarian government many say is duplicitous.

“The prime minister has said and written that our government will defend the Jewish community and the Jews here in Hungary,” Chief Rabbi Robert Frölich told me. “That’s what he says.”

“Do you believe him?” I ask.

“I believe in God and that the Mashiach will come,” he replied.

In recent weeks, tensions with the government led by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party have escalated. Although the government professes official support for the Jewish community in public statements and gatherings, it also encourages a Hungarian ethnic nationalism that undermines it. Words like Lebensraum (“living space”) have crept into national discourse in recent years, used to describe Hungarian geopolitical goals the same way Hitler used the term. To gin up national pride, Orbán has praised former Hungarian leader Miklós Horthy, the World War II regent who oversaw the deportation of half a million Hungarian Jews to death camps. Although some believe Horthy conspired in private to defy Hitler, his rise to power in 1920 was accompanied by the “White Terror,” a two-year campaign of violence and repression that targeted Jews, and his government is credited with passing the first anti-Semitic law of the 20th century.

Chief Rabbi Robert Frölich

Even if, as some say, he saved Jews, he wasn’t exactly Oskar Schindler. Orbán described Horthy as an “exceptional statesman.”

Earlier this month, the government displayed its indifference to Jewish sensitivities when it sponsored a multimillion-dollar anti-immigration campaign, targeting Hungarian-born Jewish financier George Soros, whose face is plastered on thousands of bus stops and billboards around the country. “Don’t let Soros have the last laugh,” the poster reads in Hungarian, referring to the Holocaust survivor’s support for policies that would allow immigrants to enter the country.

“He is public enemy No. 1,” said Judy K., a 64-year-old teacher and private tutor who asked that her full name not be printed, referring to Orbán. “There is an atmosphere of intimidation here and they can easily retaliate.” She said the Soros campaign is a perfect example. “It reminds me of the [George] Orwell novel ‘1984’ because it seems as if the government is following the same script: Pinpoint the scapegoat who can be blamed for everything,” she said. “And it has rather severe anti-Semitic connotations.”

Many in the Jewish community agree that the campaign panders to anti-Semitic tropes, depicting Soros as a wealthy internationalist Jew with outsized power who poses a threat to the Hungarian nation. Soros has compared the campaign against him to “Europe’s darkest hours,” a reference to the Nazi years, adding in a statement last week, “I am distressed by the current Hungarian regime’s use of anti-Semitic imagery as part of its deliberate disinformation campaign.”

Jewish concern with the campaign is reflected in the Anti-Defamation League’s definition of anti-Semitism, which it defines as “a form of hatred, mistrust, and contempt for Jews based on a variety of stereotypes and myths, [which] often invoke the belief that Jews have extraordinary influence with which they conspire to harm or control society. It can target Jews as individuals, as a group or as a people.” 

The Soros campaign made international headlines in recent weeks after leaders in the Hungarian community denounced its sinister undertones. András Heisler, president of Mazsihisz, the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities, wrote a carefully worded letter to Orbán asking him to remove the posters. Although “not openly anti-Semitic, [the campaign] is capable of inducing anti-Semitic sentiments,” Heisler wrote.

In a rather tetchy response, Orbán replied that his campaign against immigration was in fact protecting the Jewish community. “I don’t expect thanks or recognition for our struggle against illegal migration, but a little help from your community would be nice.” 

It is amid this fraught atmosphere that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made an official visit to the country this week, the first by a sitting Israeli prime minister since 1989, when Yitzhak Shamir made an unofficial visit to Budapest for one day. But locals had low expectations and mixed feelings about Netanyahu’s historic visit.

“We don’t really care; it doesn’t really help us,” Kata Nadas, a 33-year-old Jewish tour guide told me.

If there was any hope that the Israeli prime minister might provide moral support to the local community and denounce the Soros campaign, it was dashed when instead of criticizing the government, he criticized Soros.

Budapest’s Dohány Street Synagogue is the largest in Europe. Photo from Wikipedia

“If Netanyahu is a person who doesn’t think this [campaign] is anti-Semitism, then for me, if he’s here or not here, it doesn’t make a difference,” Nadas said.

By the afternoon of July 18, news had spread that Orbán struck all the right rhetorical notes with the Israeli leader. “I made it clear to Prime Minister Netanyahu that the government will secure the Jewish minority and that we have zero tolerance to anti-Semitism,” he said.

In a stunning about-face, he also appeared to accept responsibility for Hungarian collaboration in the Holocaust. “We decided in World War II, instead of protecting the Jewish community, to cooperate with the Nazis. This will never happen again. Former Hungarian governments made a sin not protecting Jews.”

Despite Orbán’s overtures to Netanyahu, Hungarian Jews question his sincerity. In 2014, Orbán came under fire for hastily erecting a Holocaust monument that many felt whitewashed Hungary’s crimes. Although the monument is a memorial to victims of World War II and includes an inscription in Hebrew, it depicts Hungary as the archangel Gabriel as he’s about to be mauled by a German imperial eagle, a clear implication that Hungary was an innocent victim of Germany, and not a willing accomplice. It raised the ire of locals who erected their own counter-monument in protest.

Orbán’s latest concession to the Israeli prime minister looked to some like a quid pro quo for Netanyahu’s refusal to denounce the anti-Soros campaign.

Last week, Israel’s ambassador to Budapest, Yossi Amrani, published a statement on the Israeli embassy’s Facebook page, calling for “those involved in the current billboard campaign … to reconsider.”

“The campaign not only evokes sad memories but also sows hatred and fear,” he said. “It’s our moral responsibility to raise a voice and call on the relevant authorities to exert their power and put an end to this cycle.”

But soon after his message was posted, Israel’s foreign ministry stepped in and backpedaled. “Israel deplores any expression of anti-Semitism in any country and stands with Jewish communities everywhere in confronting this hatred,” the statement read. But, “in no way was the [ambassador’s] statement meant to delegitimize criticism of George Soros, who continuously undermines Israel’s democratically elected government by funding organizations that defame the Jewish state and seek to deny it the right to defend itself.”

Hungarian Jews felt betrayed. Even if Netanyahu has a legitimate beef with Soros, who has supported organizations in the Jewish state that have criticized his government, to allow the Hungarian government to depict him as a singular source of menace and evil — in a country that associates him with Judaism — it was a step too far.

“Whether the intention behind the campaign was consciously anti-Semitic or not, the posters both verbally and visually resemble political discourse in the interwar years, and even worse,” Rabbi Radnóti Zoltán wrote to me via email. “By now it is clear that it evokes dormant anti-Semitism: several of the posters have been inscribed with Stars of David or slogans such as ‘dirty Jew.’ It is pure hate-speech directed against one individual — who happens to be a millionaire and a Jew, which [several forums], including state media, are eager to point out.”

The back and forth over this campaign has been intense. Paul Nussbaum, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, told me, “I broke my long-standing rule, which is: I never publicly criticize the Israeli government in writing because I consider it to be ‘inside baseball,’ but this is not inside baseball.”

Nussbaum is the son of two Hungarian Holocaust survivors and has relatives who live here. Last week, he traveled to Budapest to protest the Soros campaign in a meeting with Orbán’s top ministers. “It is very disappointing to see the Israeli leader pandering to the right-wing, totalitarian, revisionist government in Hungary,” Nussbaum said. “Orbán has been ostracized by the European Union and the European community because of his turn to the right and his dismantling of democratic institutions.”

The majority of local Jews I spoke to expressed dismay at what they see as an unholy alliance between Orbán and Netanyahu. Many say it is symptomatic of a worldwide trend in which populist leaders are using their mandate to dismantle or diminish democratic institutions and weaken opposition to their power. It is not uncommon to hear comparisons of Orbán with Netanyahu, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan — and President Donald Trump.

“These illiberal governments get legitimacy from each other,” Nussbaum said. “Their club is a very small club.”

Some describe Orbán’s governing style as “state capture.”

“His policy is divide and rule,” Judy K., the teacher said. “We have a completely incapacitated opposition, and there are no checks and balances to check those in power — for example, there are no opposition members in any of the major institutions, including the constitutional court, law enforcement and legislation.”

The economy also is stagnant. “The middle class is shrinking very rapidly,” Judy K. added, “and Orbán has waged a war against the European Union. Hundreds of thousands of Hungarians have left to work in Germany, Austria and London. The young professionals have left. People cannot make plans for the future because it is so unpredictable. This is not a pretty picture.”

But it does provide a perfect opportunity for a scapegoat.

“What you do when the domestic situation is awful is you try to get everyone to focus on something beyond the domestic,” Nussbaum said. “So you focus on borders and followers of Islam coming through and destroying Hungarian culture. That’s why you could successfully wage the Soros campaign, which is like a cartoon out of Der Stürmer, [the Nazi-era tabloid], or ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion.’ It works: You blame your problems on a Jewish extra-rich capitalist who is trying to control events inside the country.

Chief Rabbi Frölich also said the economic downturn is partly to blame for the rise in anti-Semitism. “When people become poorer and poorer, they have to find someone to blame. This is the experience of the last couple hundred years; the Jews are always there to be blamed.”

Despite general indifference to Netanyahu’s visit, some say it is a powerful signal to Orbán that Hungarian Jews are a force to be reckoned with, and Jewish leaders welcomed a show of solidarity with Netanyahu’s office.   

“When the prime minister of Israel visits us, it’s an honor for us,” Frölich said. “It shows that we cannot be put down, that we are a significant part of Hungarian society.”

Although he stopped short of describing Hungarian Jewry as flourishing, Frölich said Jewish life in Budapest is strong. Population estimates hover around 100,000. The city has synagogues, schools and kosher restaurants. There are Jewish newspapers, Jewish theater and Jewish cultural events. Earlier this month, the Jewish street fair, “Judafest,” celebrated its 10th anniversary, convening 28 Jewish organizations and attracting an estimated 10,000 Jews for a weekend of cultural, educational and religious programs.

“Jewish life is pretty good here because you have everything you need to keep your religious life — you can go to services every morning, you have kosher food, you have a Jewish educational system — anything you need, you have,” said Frölich, who ministers at Dohany Street Synagogue.

A Jewish summer festival in Budapest is a sign of a reawakened community.

Chabad Rabbi Slomó Köves, who leads the Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation (EMIH), also offered an optimistic portrait.

“When I look at Jewish life in Hungary, I see that religious life and communal life is thriving,” he said by phone from Berlin.

The 38-year-old Köves was born in Hungary to secular parents but now leads an Orthodox congregation. “To be Jewish today in Hungary, you don’t need a survival strategy,” he said. “But if I go to France and walk down the street in a kippah, I need a survival strategy.

“I’m speaking to you now from Berlin,” he added, “and when I entered the synagogue, I had to go through three gates of security. In Hungary, if you go to the synagogue, you can go freely.”

When I point out that I had to pass through security myself on Shabbat, he challenged me. “Where?” he asked. “You should go to different synagogues. If you go to any synagogue in Europe, you have to call ahead and give your passport. But forget about this. Just look at the figures.”

Köves cited statistics from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which tracks hate crimes throughout the continent. According to the OSCE, in 2015 there were 786 anti-Semitic incidents in the United Kingdom, 715 in France and 79 in Hungary in 2014, the latest year statistics are available. The U.K. and French governments report their own statistics, while Hungary depends upon “civil society” reporting.

“I’m not saying there’s no work to do; anti-Semitism in Hungary is definitely an issue,” Köves said. “But it’s very different from anti-Semitism in Western European countries. Since there is no Muslim community here in Hungary, there’s practically no anti-Semitic assault.”

Ah, there’s the rub.

Muslims, of course, are the real target of the government’s anti-Soros campaign. The feared “illegal immigration” and “migrant” problem that has obsessed Orbán’s government for the past several years is a direct reference to the wave of Syrian and other refugees fleeing war and famine in the Middle East.

“In their [Hungarian government’s] proxy war against the immigrant, Soros has become a symbolic figure of somebody who is for bringing in immigrants,” Köves said. But that should not, he insisted, be confused with anti-Semitism.

“I wouldn’t call [the Soros campaign] anti-Semitism; I would call it something which touches on sensitive nerves of the general public and the Jewish community,” he said. “This political campaign is definitely, in my view, not a very elegant one, but I believe it’s a mistake if we turn the criticism into a Jewish criticism. It could end up a self-fulfilling prophecy. … Even if some people think it could be understood [as] anti-Semitism, why should I come and confirm them? Why should I say to the general public, ‘Well, whoever criticizes Soros is an anti-Semite.’ ”

Judy K. said Köves and his community provide cover for the Hungarian government. “Orbán uses his closeness [to the EMIH community] to demonstrate that he wants to protect Jews against the migrants.”

But the majority of Hungarian Jews I spoke to weren’t mincing words. “Anti-Semitism runs deep, deep in the Hungarian DNA,” said Hungarian-born film producer Robert Lantos, who is a friend of mine.

Even for Soros haters, the anti-immigration campaign reeks of something rotten. And yet, like Netanyahu, Lantos feels no love lost for Soros, who has contributed millions of dollars to left-leaning organizations in Israel, some of which define themselves as human rights groups, most of them ferociously critical of Netanyahu’s government. “Soros is an enemy of Israel and there’s no reason for Israel to defend him,” Lantos said.

As far as I can tell, Hungarian Jews are like most Jews: proud, opinionated, diverse, defensive, politically differentiated and devoted to Jewish continuity. The difference for those who live here is that they live with a persistent, gnawing anxiety, “an intangible kind of threat,” as Judy K. put it, that exists just beneath the surface of civility but which could explode into physical danger or violence at any moment.

How thin is the veil that could eclipse the good life they’ve worked so hard to rebuild? After all, Hungary is a place in which the memory of the Holocaust is not a distant story but an ever-present reality. It transpired on its neighborhood street corners and along the beautiful banks of the Danube River, the now merged cities of Buda on one side, Pest on the other. For Hungarian Jews, this country will always exist as part living graveyard.

How much longer will things remain tolerable?

The threat of anti-Semitism “is growing stronger and stronger,” Frölich said. “The dangerous level is when anti-Semitism shows itself in deeds. Now, here in Hungary, we have ‘only’ the verbal anti-Semitism. But we’re not so far from the dangerous level.”

The prayers of the refugees should be our prayers

As we read in last Shabbat's Torah portion, Jacob left Canaan for Paddan-Aram, not knowing whether he would return, asking for divine help. He negotiated with God — if you protect me and return me safely, only then will you be my God, only then will I worship you. (Gen. 28:20-21)

When Jacob left for Paddan-Aram, he left as a refugee, fleeing his brother Esau, and when he returned to Canaan with his wives and family, he was fleeing from his father-in-law Laban. Even while Jacob was in Paddan-Aram, Jacob says, he lived like a refugee, unprotected, robbed of sleep, suffering heat by day, cold by night. (Gen. 31:10) In between, he passed through what is now Syria, and the region where Jacob spent twenty years serving for his wives and flocks is now part of the territory controlled by ISIL.

My great-grandfather Benyamin left Ottoman Jerusalem for the United States in 1910, when the empire started drafting Jews into its army. And my great-grandmother Farida came from Aleppo Syria in 1913, for the same reason, because she was chosen by her family to shepherd her younger brother and a male cousin to the United States when they were approaching draft age.

Of course there was no modern Syria then, and the whole area, from Syria to Jerusalem, was a province of the Ottoman Empire. Benyamin, like Farida, was a Syrian Jew who followed Syrian nusach and customs.

Farida knew when she left that she would never return to Aleppo. But for the rest of his life, Benyamin hoped he would some day return to Nachlaot, near the market in west Jerusalem, to see his family.

If Benyamin, my Gidau (“grandpa” in Arabic), prayed like Jacob, then most of his prayers were answered — he found work in Manhattan's garment district, raised a family, led prayers in his Syrian shtibl on Rivington Street (to use the Ashkenazi word for an intimate neighborhood synagogue), got to play rhythms on his Syrian doumbek for his great-grandson. But he never did get to return to Jerusalem.

Benyamin and Farida were both immigrants, not refugees. I never met any of my other great-grandparents, and I only know a little about their circumstances. One came from Warszawa (Warsaw), the rest from other places in Europe, and all arrived in the U.S. well before the second World War. I don't think any of them ever expected to return to their birthplaces in Europe. I don't know about the names or the fates of the people they left behind. But if they tried to get into the U.S. just a few decades later, when they would have been desperate refugees, they would have been out of luck.

Make no mistake, hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees were kept out of this country because politicians drummed up fears and put up walls, saying that a wave of Jewish refugees might conceal Nazi infiltrators, that we had to “take care of our own” first, and such — almost ” rel=”noreferrer” target=”_blank”> and the author of

Rise of Greece’s Golden Dawn: A presage of doom

The undisguised extremism promoted by Golden Dawn is a chilling watershed in Greece’s postwar democracy. Fascist gangs are turning Athens into a city of shifting front lines, seizing on crimes and local protests to promote their own movement, by claiming to be the defenders of recession-ravaged Greece.

The People’s Association – Golden Dawn — usually referred to simply as Golden Dawn — is a right-wing extremist political organization in Greece. It is led by Nikolaos Michaloliakos, and has grown considerably since its inception to a widely known Greek political party with nationwide support.

Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn Party is gaining popularity in the midst of the country’s deepening financial crisis. The group has been implicated in torture cases, and for inciting a wave of racial violence sweeping the country.

An opinion poll published by KAPA Research in October showed that support for the extremist political group had grown from 7.5 percent of the population in June to 10.4 percent currently.

The Golden Dawn emerged from political obscurity into the mainstream in May after winning 7 percent of the vote in the Greek parliamentary elections. Since then, the country has reportedly witnessed an upsurge in racial violence connected to the right-wing group.

The party entered the international spotlight after some of its members reportedly participated in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of Bosnian Muslims. Its publication praises the Third Reich and often features photographs of Hitler and other Nazis.

Golden Dawn has manipulated a weak Greek state and disastrous austerity management by European bureaucrats to become, according to recent polls, the third-most popular political party in the country — a noxious omen for the eurozone and a worrying challenge and counterpoint to the very idea of the European Union itself, which received last year’s Nobel Peace Prize.

Three years ago, Greeks ignored Golden Dawn, seeing its members as neo-Nazi thugs waging war against migrants and giving it a miserable 0.29 percent of the vote. Last year, however, Golden Dawn — rebranded as an anti-austerity party — won nearly 7 percent and secured 18 of the 300 seats in Parliament. Its ascent has continued in opinion surveys despite its parliamentary deputies’ being filmed attacking immigrant vendors and demanding that all non-Greek children be kicked out of day-care centers and hospitals.

As the cash-strapped government struggles to offer its citizens basic services, Golden Dawn has set up parastate organizations to police the streets, donate to Greek-only blood banks and help unemployed Greeks find jobs. The party has also promised to cancel household debt for the unemployed and low-wage earners. “Soon we’ll be running this country,” said Ilias Panagiotaros, a beefy 38-year-old army-supply-shop owner who is now a Golden Dawn parliamentary deputy representing Athens.

Public Love from Fear

“The people love us,” said Panagiotaros, who is among the 18 Golden Dawn members elected to Parliament. Golden Dawn draws much of that love from fear. Greece is now the main entry point for at least 80 percent of the EU’s undocumented immigrants. Frontex, the European Union border-patrolling agency, estimates that 57,000 illegal immigrants slipped into Greece last year and more than 100,000 entered in 2010. Many travel through Turkey, often via a land border that Golden Dawn wants to plant with land mines. Some seek asylum, and because of EU rules, those who want to apply for refugee status must do so in their country of entry — in this case, Greece, which often takes years to review the applications. As Europe turns a blind eye to the immigration crisis, many impoverished foreigners find themselves trapped in an economically crippled country that can’t sustain them.

Some Greeks no longer want to be hospitable. In the past year, gangs of vigilantes, many sporting Golden Dawn’s black shirts, have beaten and stabbed hundreds of migrants, according to human-rights groups.

In June 2012, a number of them broke into the Piraeus home of Abouzeid Mubarak, 28, an Egyptian fisherman, bashing him with iron rods until he fell into a coma. “It was a hate that was inhuman,” said Mubarak, who is still recovering.

Ali Rahimi, a 27-year-old Afghan asylum seeker, was hanging around with friends outside his building in central Athens when more than a dozen Greeks approached. Several men set upon Rahimi, one with a knife. Panicked, he fled into his apartment and fought back, managing to push the men out the door. He found blood gushing from just above his heart, one of five stab wounds in his back and chest.

Rahimi survived and is staying put for now. But his friend, Reza Mohammed, who was also injured in the attack, is considering what was once unthinkable: moving back to Afghanistan, which he feels would be safer than Greece.

Parts of Athens feel like a war zone. Racist gangs cruise the streets at night in search of victims. Themis Skordeli, a member of the group that is accused of stabbing Rahimi, ran unsuccessfully for Parliament on the Golden Dawn ticket.

A few blocks down the street, a crowd was leaving a mosque after Friday prayer. At the mention of Golden Dawn, immigrant men began lifting their shirts to show their scars. A short, sullen-looking young man with a cut across his nose and freshly sutured cheekbone was pushed forward by the crowd. Just the night before, he said, he was beaten and cut with a knife by “fascists.”

“Go into the Omonia police station,” another man said. “You will see how violence is going on.” Several blocks away, I walked into just such a scene. As I stepped out of the elevator at the police station, I saw an officer screaming at a black man and backhanding him hard across the shoulder.

In Athens, Sayd Jafari owns a cafe frequented by fellow Afghans. It has been repeatedly ransacked by mobs of black-clad attackers wielding sticks, chains and knives and gesturing fascist salutes.

Like others who have been assaulted, Jafari is also contemplating returning home to Afghanistan. “There, maybe someone has a bomb hidden on his body that he detonates,” he said. “Here, you don’t see where the knife that kills you comes from.”

It’s now common to see police line up immigrants from South Asia and Africa in public squares and along streets in central Athens. Those without legal-residency permits are arrested and sent to detention centers to be deported.

Police claim they have detained nearly 42,000 people since August, though only about 3,400 were arrested for not having residency papers. They defended the crackdown, which was strongly denounced by human-rights groups, by comparing undocumented immigrants to the Dorian invaders who purportedly brought down the Mycenaeans in 1100 B.C.E.

The most recent example of fascism shown by Golden Dawn in its series of discriminating activities is when it said a visit to Greece by American Jewish Committee leader David Harris is meant to ensure further “Jewish influence over Greek political issues” and safeguard the interests of “international loan sharks.”

Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), led a Jewish delegation to the region to meet with several Greek leaders, including Prime Minister Antonis Samaras. During the meetings, Harris expressed his “concern and solidarity for Greece during the crisis.”

“The only solidarity of this gentleman is to his compatriots — the international loan sharks, who are humiliating the Greek people. His concern most likely is related to the inability of Greece to make the payments of the predatory interest rates of the vile loans,” Golden Dawn said in a statement, adding: “We do not need the crocodile tears of a Jew.”

Its leader, Michaloliakos, uses the “Heil Hitler” salute and has denied the existence of gas chambers at Nazi death camps during World War II. Another lawmaker read a passage from the anti-Semitic hoax “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” during a parliamentary session.

The attack on Harris and a separate article titled “Absolute Evil” that was published on the party’s Web site in January appeared to be a hardening of Golden Dawn’s anti-Semitic rhetoric, apparently in anger over pressure from Jewish groups to get the Greek government to rein in the party. The “Evil” statement said that blaming Golden Dawn for Greece’s woes constituted an attempt to divert attention from the real culprits for Greece’s financial crisis.

“They are none other than those who possess most of the international wealth. The people behind the international loan-sharks,” the statement said. “Everyone knows they belong to a certain race, which presents itself as a victim, while in reality it is the perpetrator. Everyone knows that they are none other than those pulling the strings behind the marionettes. They are the absolute evil for mankind.”

The second statement ended with a threat.

“The time will come when the nationalists of the Golden Dawn will take revenge like the horsemen of the storm, and all of them, being the absolute evil, will pay!”

Not content to proselytizing in their homeland, Golden Dawn has started to expand worldwide.

Barely a month after their electoral victories, Golden Dawn launched a widely criticized branch in Melbourne, Australia, home to one of the largest Greek populations outside of Athens. In October, several groups protested the opening of a Golden Dawn office in New York City, which had opened for the explicit purpose of building support for the party among Greek expatriate communities and collecting food and medicine to distribute in Greece — only for Greeks. And in Montreal, Golden Dawn held a Christmas food drive. The catch: It said it would give food only to Greek Christians.

Golden Dawn members in the United States have told CBC News they plan to open chapters shortly in Chicago, Connecticut and Toronto.

What’s at stake is the health of European democracy and the values and institutions on which it rests. But although the euro crisis touched off a scramble to halt a financial meltdown, European leaders have done virtually nothing to reverse the union’s dangerous political trends.

As recent polls show that its strength continues to grow, and its support runs as high as 50 percent among police officers, who routinely fail to investigate growing numbers of hate crimes.

Far-right ultranationalist groups are exploiting old enmities and new fears across the Continent. Although this is not the Europe of the 1930s, the disillusioned citizens of countries like Greece and Hungary have turned increasingly to simple answers, electing parties that blame familiar scapegoats — Jews, Gypsies, gays and foreigners — for their ills.

Maria Chandraki, 29, an unemployed beautician, hadn’t heard of Golden Dawn until the last election. “Their positions may be extreme,” she said, holding plastic bags of food she’d just received, “but the situation is extreme as well. So we need extreme measures.” She went on, “We can’t have so many nations and so many different sets of values and ideals under the same roof.”

Beneath the looming basilica of Athens’ largest church, middle-aged men and women in black Golden Dawn T-shirts were busy one bright September morning distributing food to needy Greeks. Kids ran across the courtyard, which was painted with the party’s unofficial platform: “Get foreigners out of Greece.” Clusters of fit, stoic young men in dark glasses ringed the perimeter.

Nikolaos Michos, a square-jawed Golden Dawn member of Parliament with the build and tattoos of a heavyweight boxer, leaned against a bloodmobile watching. He wore a black polo embossed with the party’s swastika-like logo. “We’re fighters and we’re not going to back down,” he said, referring to death threats from leftists and the burning of a Golden Dawn office. “But they’re not striking fear into us because every center they destroy, we’ll build new ones,” he added.

European leaders must not cede the battleground in the war of ideas. They should publicly denounce parties that espouse racist doctrines and spew hate-filled rhetoric and clearly define and defend the shared values of an increasingly integrated Europe.

To do so, they must develop a pan-European approach to monitor hate crimes and investigate right-wing extremist networks that operate across borders. And the European Union must ensure that all member-states, old and new, respect the same criteria that countries currently aspiring to join the European Union are required to meet, especially maintaining the “stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights, respect for and protection of minorities.” Otherwise, Europe faces the specter of more xenophobic violence and the unraveling of the liberal democratic order that has drawn so many persecuted people to seek asylum and opportunity on European shores.

Nikos Katapodis, 69, can see the crossroads where his family has lived since 1863. A bald, chain-smoking funeral-home owner, Katapodis described the Greek government with a string of expletives. The flood of immigrants over the last decade created ghettos in central Athens, he explained. Crime rates rose, property values dropped and bars appeared on second-floor windows. “It looks like a prison,” he said, nodding to the street. “Today it reminds me of the late 1940s,” he added. “You see people scrounging for food in the trash cans.”

Although he didn’t vote for Golden Dawn, he sees it as “the only party that is actually doing things for the Greek people” — a cross between the welfare state and the Mafia. If he needed an escort to walk down the street or help paying for his cancer medicine, said he’d call Golden Dawn. “They’re doing what the politicians should be doing,” he said. “There’s a hole, and they fill it.”

Authoritarian elements in the Greek government have a history of using far-right groups to outsource political violence against critics. Recent moves to rein in Golden Dawn came only after it grew too powerful to control and the state felt its own authority was challenged, explained Anastassia Tsoukala, a legal scholar. “They were bitten by their own snake,” she said. And Greece is not alone. Golden Dawn’s rise has parallels across Europe, and its significance should be of Continental concern. 

Hatef Mokhtar is editor-in-chief of The Oslo Times. This is his first piece for the Jewish Journal.

Honoring of Italian fascist angers local Jewish group

A new Italian women’s group has added its voice to protests over a publicly funded monument honoring the World War II-era fascist leader Rodolfo Graziani.

The leadership of Binah, an all-women Jewish party represented on the board of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, recently urged Italian Jewish leaders to take urgent measures against what it called a “shame on Italian soil” and also take a firm stance against other perceived episodes of anti-Semitism in Italy.

The monument, a mausoleum and park dedicated to Graziani, a former defense minister in the fascist Italian Social Republic of Salo, was inaugurated in August in the town of Affile, near Rome. According to news reports it was financed by about $150,000 of regional and local public funding.

The monument triggered widespread controversy and sparked protests, including a demonstration two weeks ago that drew hundreds of protesters.

The National Partisans Association announced last week that it would sue the Affile mayor for an “apology for fascism” and related crimes.

Graziani signed the 1938 fascist racial laws against Jews. He also took part in massacres of anti-fascist partisans and was responsible for the brutal executions and killings of thousands in Africa.

The new ‘Fascism’

These days, the word “fascism” is used here in Israel – as also abroad – almost casually.  It is sometimes spoken with glee, often spoken in sorrow.  Yet while it is fair (and painful) to say that a crop of laws, recent and prospective, are anti-democratic, the word “fascism” simply does not fit the Israeli reality.  Bibi Netanyahu makes a preposterous Mussolini.  (Of course, so did Mussolini.)  The Israeli people, setting aside the most extreme of the settlers, are grotesquely miscast as Fascisti.

Those who use the word gleefully, the genuinely anti-Israel crowd, are more than happy to pillory Israel, using whatever vocabulary is at hand.  For them, fascism is simply a synonym for “odious.”  But what of those who speak the word in sorrow?  Who are they?  What can they be thinking?

At a small dinner party the other night – journalists, NGO types, film-makers – one guest confided in me that he thought of himself as a “prisoner of Zion.”  He and his wife have been here for 40 years, leave the country whenever they can, feel trapped here.  Health insurance, as simple as that.  Otherwise, he says, they’d move, maybe to Sri Lanka, where he wouldn’t care, wouldn’t feel invested, wouldn’t experience the daily disappointment of a dream gone sour.  Another guest, an expert on the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza, bombastically informed us that he has applied for a Lithuanian passport, or perhaps it was Rumanian,  wherever it was his grandparents once had citizenship.  “Just in case,” he lamely added sotto voce.

But the gathering sense of disappointment is not restricted to such malcontents.  By now, “fascism” has been mainstreamed, largely in the wake of last year’s new Boycott Law.  That law, now under review by the Supreme Court, took the power to determine what is and what is not a boycott from the courts and gave it to bureaucrats; it asserts that private citizens can be convicted for voicing their endorsement of any form of boycott, and it includes the power to sentence them to pay compensation even without proof of damage.  In its wake, the passionate Ha’aretz journalist Bradley Burston wrote last July, “The Boycott Law is the litmus test for Israeli democracy, the threshold test for Israeli fascism.”  And columnist Ben Caspit, hardly a left-winger, wrote about the law, “This is fascism. This is a blatant and a resounding shutting of people’s mouths. This is a thought police. There is no choice but to use this word. Fascism at its worst is raging.”  And yet another columnist, Alon Idan, observed, “The widely held view that the slew of anti-democratic laws legislated by the 18th Knesset is a slippery slope to Fascism in the future is disingenuous. The Boycott Law is Fascism: it is a categorically anti-democratic law whose goal is to annul any possibility of legitimate protest.”

New laws which nibble away at freedom of expression and threaten NGOs engaged in political work have been passed, are under active consideration or have begun to be discussed.  The independence of the Supreme Court is under vigorous assault and may be fatally compromised.  Arabic may lose its status as an official language.  And public opinion is sufficiently ambivalent to be inadequate as a barrier to such laws.  In the end, what is very clearly at stake is not this word or that, but the very nature of Israel’s democracy – its nature and, heaven help us, its continued existence.

The downward slope seems to become steeper with each passing week; the Knesset is riddled by members for whom the word “democracy” is used every bit as loosely as others use “fascism.”

But even though the slippage is real, the battle is not yet decided.  It turns out that opposition to the troubling omens is not restricted to leftish columnists and intellectuals.  The currently most contentious bills would restrict the moneys local NGOs can receive from foreign governments or their surrogates to some $6000 a year—cutting by anywhere from 27 to 50 percent and even more the revenue of dozens of organizations that are vital components of the human rights, social justice and civil liberties sector.  And, adding injury to injury, would then tax their revenues at 45 percent.  But Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin (Likud), argues in response that “The new Likud is not committed to the ethic of liberty, to the values of Jabotinsky and Begin,” and Minister Benny Begin (Likud) goes farther: “Zimbabwe, Eritrea, Uzbekistan – these are countries that have similar laws to this one … What kind of society are we living in?”

Don’t ask.  Consider instead that “Jewish and democratic” is more than a slogan.  Some will disagree, but if democracy’s defenders prove inadequate to the task, if “democratic” is allowed to go down the drain, the kind of “Jewish” that will be left – delusional, racist, cultic, idolatrous – will rend our people irreparably.

The other ‘N- word’

Few words have the power to upset individuals and corrode a conversation more than the N-word. Its very use short-circuits rational discourse. Thrown around with frequency in certain circles, the N-word provokes and torments, gaining totemic power with each use.

The N-word I refer to is, of course, “Nazi.”

Over 60 years after the end of World War II, the N-word and its relatives, the F-bomb (“fascist”) and the H-bomb (“Hitler”), continue to wreak havoc on our language and political discourse.

For years, leftist critics have been quick to brand their rightwing opponents as fascists and spiritual heirs of der Fuhrer. Just months ago, the cultural critic and erstwhile Democratic political consultant Naomi Wolf published an entire book dedicated to the proposition that America is sliding toward fascism.

Lately, the right has gotten in on the act. Members of the Bush administration have branded Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a modern-day Hitler. And Jonah Goldberg, an editor at National Review, has published a book with the subtle title, “Liberal Fascism.”

Ironically, what Goldberg denounces as “argumentum ad hitlerum” is the very form of rhetoric he engages in. Only he says that such fascistic behavior is the domain of the left and not his beloved right.

Unfortunately for Wolf, Goldberg and others who let the N-word fly and drop F-bombs, their logic is deeply flawed. Although Socrates was a man and Hitler was a man, Socrates was not Hitler.

Writers like Wolf and Goldberg may argue that they are trying to learn from history in order not to repeat it, but labeling Ahmadinejad “Hitler” or Bush a “Nazi” or the entire Democratic Party since Woodrow Wilson a fascist movement sheds only heat and no light on the topics and cheapen the terms themselves.

In addition, these labels are not mere descriptions, but calls to action. For example, if Ahmadinejad is Hitler and Iran is Nazi Germany, then there is no question whether we need to strike Iran. And, if Bush is a fascist, then armed resistance is imperative.

For Jews and supporters of Israel, the use and abuse of these terms (not to mention the A-bomb, “apartheid,” and the other H-bomb, “Holocaust”) is particularly troubling. When critics of Israel label it the new South Africa guilty of committing a Holocaust, it precludes any reasoned discussion of the conflict or potential solutions. Instead, Zionism becomes racism, and the Jewish people must be denied the right to fulfill their national aspirations.

Amos Oz has warned against failing to differentiate between degrees of evil. I would go one step further and caution that use of the N-word, F-bombs and H-bombs represents the evil of banality and demonstrates a failing to understand both the past and the present.

When one starts on the track, there really is no stopping: school uniforms are fascistic; reverie for natural splendor is Nazi-like; and any charismatic demagogue becomes Hitler.

Instead of reaching for incendiary metaphors and historically inaccurate labels, we should strive, in the words of Pasternak, “to call each thing by its right name.”

Neither Ahmadinejad nor Bush is Hitler. The new left was not the Gestapo. Neocons are not Nazis. And Israel is not South Africa.

However, whether Los Angeles’ traffic is the devil incarnate is no longer even a question.

Jordan Susman is an associate at the law firm of Holme Roberts & Owen. He has written numerous articles for the Los Angeles Daily Journal and the Orange County Register. Before moving to Los Angeles, he was a Voice of Israel foreign desk correspondent in Jerusalem.

For Rosh Hashanah: Make your own joy

The best part about Y2K, in my judgment, was that it signaled the end of the 20th century.

Who among us would want to relive the last 100 years? Tens of millions of
people died during the previous century in the most violent and brutal ways.

World War I, at the start of the century, was supposed to be the war to end all wars; it turned out to be merely the beginning. Fascism, Nazism, Stalinism, Maoism and many other iterations of -isms, resulted in the bloodiest century in human history. Auschwitz and Hiroshima were two cataclysmic events that demonstrated the unbridled power and willingness of human beings to destroy life.

I, for one, was delighted to see the century end. Because how could the next one be worse?

Now that we are halfway through the first decade of the 21st century we are beginning to see how it could be worse. The penchant for genocide and murder on a massive scale as a result of secular orthodoxies apparently has not abated. But now, as we begin this new century, it has been supplemented by a penchant for genocide and murder on a massive scale by religious orthodoxies.

The definition of a fanatic used to be someone who believed in something so strongly he was willing to give up your life for it. Today’s religious fanatic is not only willing to give up your life to reach their goals, but also their own lives and the lives of their children, as well. Martyrdom, what you and I call suicide with maximum collateral damage, is a religious ideal. This brand of religious fanaticism seeks to re-establish the glory of the Islamic caliphate.

In effect, these fanatics want to return us to the seventh century, when Islam first conquered the world and spread its message by word and by sword. It is not paranoid to express fear over what could possibly happen if these groups trade the sword for something nuclear. They will then have the power to return much of the world to the seventh century — if, indeed, there would still be a world.

Kind of hard to wish each other Happy New Year after that.

Fear turns to anxiety and then to despair if we allow ourselves to feel helpless in the face of the threat of cataclysmic destruction. But despair is just not the Jewish way. We are simply not allowed, the sages of the Talmud tell us (Shabbat 30b), to allow sadness to dominate our mood: “The Shechina, the Divine Presence, cannot dwell in the midst of sadness.”

To live in sadness is to block the presence of God from entering the world. To despair of a peaceful future is to give a victory to the forces of darkness. That is why Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, who himself struggled with depression, is famous among Chasidim for his great teaching: “Mitzvah gedolah lihiyot b’simcha tamid” — it is a great mitzvah to be in joy perpetually.

How do we turn despair to joy? By exercising control over our environment. By utilizing the personal and collective power we have yet to tap. By responding to this homicidal religious fanaticism with a religious determination of our own. By endowing certain economic, political and technological policies with the holiness of a religious imperative.

The transition from an economy based on oil to something that doesn’t enrich Muslim theocracies is a mitzvah. We condemn Iran for having funded Hezbollah, but the reality is they did so with our petrodollars. Reducing their income from the exportation of oil removes a powerful tool for Iranian mischief.

Conservation — buying a hybrid, flipping off unused lights and unwatched TVs, recycling and more — is a mitzvah of the highest order. Establishing the greening of Jewish institutions — including synagogues, schools and communal buildings — is not just good for the environment, which should be motivation enough, but it will help save lives. And it goes without saying that actively opposing nuclear proliferation is also a mitzvah.

These are mitzvot that have taken on great urgency and will change the world. If each of us finds the determination and the strength to begin this now, this will indeed be a happy New Year. And a much safer one as well.


Perry Netter is rabbi of Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles and author of “Divorce Is a Mitzvah: A Practical Guide to Finding Wholeness and Holiness When Your Marriage Dies” (Jewish Lights, 2002). He can be reached at

A Friendly Drink in a Time of War

A friend leaned across a bar and said, "You call the war in Iraq an anti-fascist war. You even call it a left-wing war — a war of liberation. That language of yours. And yet, on the left, not too many people agree with you."

"Not true," I said. "Apart from X, Y and Z, whose left-wing names you know very well, what do you think of Adam Michnik in Poland? And doesn’t Vaclav Havel count for something in your eyes? These are among the heroes of our time. Anyway, who is fighting in Iraq right now? The coalition is led by a Texas right-winger, which is a pity; but in the second rank, by the prime minister of Britain, who is a socialist, sort of, and, in the third rank, by the president of Poland, a communist — an ex-communist, anyway. One Texas right-winger and two Europeans who are more or less on the left. Anyway, these categories, right and left, are disintegrating by the minute. And who do you regard as the leader of the worldwide left? Jacques Chirac? A conservative, I hate to tell you."

My friend persisted.

"Still, most people don’t seem to agree with you. You do have to see that. And why do you suppose that is?"

That was an aggressive question. And I answered in kind.

"Why don’t people on the left see it my way? Except for the ones who do? I’ll give you six reasons. People on the left have been unable to see the anti-fascist nature of the war because…." My hand hovered over the bar, ready to thump six times, demonstrating the powerful force of my argument.

"The left doesn’t see because" — thump! — "George W. Bush is an unusually repulsive politician, except to his own followers, and people are blinded by the revulsion they feel. And, in their blindness, they cannot identify the main contours of reality right now. They peer at Iraq and see the smirking face of George W. Bush. They even feel a kind of schadenfreude, or satisfaction at his errors and failures. This is a modern, television-age example of what used to be called ‘false consciousness.’"

Thump! "The left doesn’t see because a lot of otherwise intelligent people have decided, a priori, that all the big problems around the world stem from America — even the problems that don’t. This is an attitude that, 60 years ago, would have prevented those same people from making sense of the fascists of Europe, too."

Thump! "Another reason: a lot of people suppose that any sort of anti-colonial movement must be admirable or, at least, acceptable. Or they think that, at minimum, we shouldn’t do more than tut-tut — even in the case of a movement that, like the Baath Party, was founded under a Nazi influence. In 1943, no less!"

Thump! "The left doesn’t see because a lot of people, in their good-hearted effort to respect cultural differences, have concluded that Arabs must, for inscrutable reasons of their own, like to live under grotesque dictatorships and are not really capable of anything else, or won’t be ready to do so for another 500 years, and Arab liberals should be regarded as somehow inauthentic. Which is to say, a lot of people, swept along by their own high-minded principles of cultural tolerance, have ended up clinging to attitudes that can only be regarded as racist against Arabs.

"The old-fashioned left used to be universalist, used to think that everyone, all over the world, would some day want to live according to the same fundamental values, and ought to be helped to do so. They thought this was especially true for people in reasonably modern societies with universities, industries and a sophisticated bureaucracy — societies like the one in Iraq. But no more. Today, people say, out of a spirit of egalitarian tolerance, Social democracy for Swedes! Tyranny for Arabs!, And this is supposed to be a left-wing attitude? By the way, you don’t hear much from the left about the non-Arabs in countries like Iraq, do you? The left, the real left, used to be the champion of minority populations, of people like the Kurds. No more. The left, my friend, has abandoned the values of the left — except for a few of us, of course."

Thump! "Another reason: A lot of people honestly believe that Israel’s problems with the Palestinians represent something more than a miserable dispute over borders and recognition — that Israel’s problems represent something huger, a uniquely diabolical aspect of Zionism, which explains the rage and humiliation felt by Muslims from Morocco to Indonesia. Which is to say, a lot of people have succumbed to anti-Semitic fantasies about the cosmic quality of Jewish crime and cannot get their minds to think about anything else.

"I mean, look at the discussions that go on even among people who call themselves the democratic left, the good left — a relentless harping on the sins of Israel, an obsessive harping, with very little said about the fascist-influenced movements that have caused hundreds of thousands and even millions of deaths in other parts of the Muslim world. The distortions are wild, if you stop to think about them. Look at some of our big, influential liberal magazines — one article after another about Israeli crimes and stupidities, and even a few statements in favor of abolishing Israel, and hardly anything about the sufferings of the Arabs in the rest of the world. And even less is said about the Arab liberals — our own comrades, who have been pretty much abandoned. What do you make of that, my friend? There’s a name for that, a systematic distortion — what we Marxists, when we were Marxists, used to call ideology."

Thump! "The left doesn’t see because a lot of people are, in any case, willfully blind to anti-Semitism in other cultures. They cannot get themselves to recognize the degree to which Nazi-like doctrines about the supernatural quality of Jewish evil have influenced mass political movements across large swaths of the world. It is 1943 right now in huge portions of the world, and people don’t see it. And so, people simply cannot detect the fascist nature of all kinds of mass movements and political parties. In the Muslim world, especially."

Six thumps. I was done. My friend looked incredulous. His incredulity drove me to continue.

"And yet," I insisted, "if good-hearted people like you would only open your left-wing eyes, you would see clearly enough that the Baath Party is very nearly a classic fascist movement, and so is the radical Islamist movement, in a somewhat different fashion — two strands of a single impulse, which happens to be Europe’s fascist and totalitarian legacy to the modern Muslim world. If only people like you would wake up, you would see that war against the radical Islamist and Baathist movements, in Afghanistan exactly as in Iraq, is war against fascism."

I grew still more heated.

"What a tragedy that you don’t see this! It’s a tragedy for the Afghanis and the Iraqis, who need more help than they are receiving. A tragedy for the genuine liberals all over the Muslim world! A tragedy for the American soldiers, the British, the Poles and everyone else who has gone to Iraq lately, the nongovernmental organization volunteers and the occupying forces from abroad, who have to struggle on bitterly against the worst kind of nihilists, and have been getting damn little support or even moral solidarity from people who describe themselves as anti-fascists in the world’s richest and fattest neighborhoods.

"What a tragedy for the left, the worldwide left. This left of ours which, in failing to play much of a role in the anti-fascism of our own era, is right now committing a gigantic historic error. Not for the first time, my friend! And yet, if the left all over the world took up this particular struggle as its own, the whole nature of events in Iraq and throughout the region could be influenced in a very useful way, and Bush’s many blunders could be rectified, and the struggle could be advanced."

My friend’s eyes widened, maybe in astonishment, maybe in pity.

He said, "And so, the United Nations and international law mean nothing to you, not a thing? You think it’s alright for America to go do whatever it wants, and ignore the rest of the world?"

I answered, "The United Nations and international law are fine by me, and more than fine. I am their supporter. Or, rather, would like to support them. It would be better to fight an anti-fascist war with more than a begrudging U.N. approval. It would be better to fight with the approving sanction of international law — better in a million ways. Better politically, therefore militarily. Better for the precedents that would be set. Better for the purpose of expressing the liberal principles at stake. If I had my druthers, that is how we would have gone about fighting the war. But my druthers don’t count for much. We have had to choose between supporting the war, or opposing it — supporting the war in the name of anti-fascism, or opposing it in the name of some kind of concept of international law. Anti-fascism without international law, or international law without anti-fascism. A miserable choice, but one does have to choose, unfortunately."

My friend said, "I’m for the U.N. and international law, and I think you’ve become a traitor to the left. A neocon!"

I said, "I’m for overthrowing tyrants, and since when did overthrowing fascism become treason to the left?"

"But isn’t George Bush himself a fascist, more or less? I mean, admit it!"

My own eyes widened. "You haven’t the foggiest idea what fascism is," I said. "I always figured that a keen awareness of extreme oppression was the deepest trait of a left-wing heart. Mass graves, 300,000 missing Iraqis, a population crushed by 35 years of Baathist boots stomping on their faces — that is what fascism means! And you think that a few corrupt insider contracts with Bush’s cronies at Halliburton and a bit of retrograde Bible-thumping and Bush’s ridiculous tax cuts and his bonanzas for the super-rich are indistinguishable from that? Indistinguishable from fascism? From a politics of slaughter? Leftism is supposed to be a reality principle. Leftism is supposed to embody an ability to take in the big picture. The traitor to the left is you, my friend…."

But this made not the slightest sense to him, and there was nothing left to do but to hit each other over the head with our respective drinks.

Paul Berman is the author of “Terror and
Liberalism.” His book “The Passion of Joschka Fischer” will come out in the
spring. Reprinted with permission from the winter 2004 issue of Dissent