It was on full display last year at the global anti-racism conference in Durban, South Africa, but the "demonization" of Israel has reached a fever pitch during the past month with the surging death toll in the Middle East, say Jewish observers.
Even as Holocaust Remembrance Day is marked this week, anti-Israel critics worldwide increasingly are employing Nazi and Holocaust imagery and analogies to describe the Jewish state’s behavior toward the Palestinians.
At the same time, Western Europe — particularly France — has seen a rash of attacks on synagogues and other Jewish institutions, prompting one French Jewish leader to compare the current situation to Kristallnacht.
All of which seems to prove the adage coined by the French writer and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre: "Words are loaded pistols."
Pro-Israel advocates say they accept the fallibility of Israel and the right to criticize it. However the line between anti-Israel sentiment and anti-Semitism blurs when the world seems to hold Israel to a higher standard than all other countries.
"I wouldn’t have a problem if the Fourth Geneva Convention were convened to discuss Rwanda and Northern Ireland and Kashmir and the Middle East, but why is it that it’s been convened only twice in its 53-year history — both times to discuss Israel? That’s anti-Semitism," Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), said, referring to a set of human rights guidelines passed after World War II.
Veiled beneath today’s vitriol for Israel, Jewish observers detect a form of anti-Semitism of the we-don’t-hate-Jews-just-the-Jewish-state variety, which was first formally enshrined when the United Nations equated Zionism with racism in 1975. Likening Israelis to Nazis is particularly nefarious, advocates say, and goes hand in hand with the Holocaust denial pervasive in the Arab world.
"To open the world for new crimes against Jews, you either have to say the Holocaust did not exist or to minimize or trivialize it by saying that the victims are really the victimizers," said Rabbi Michael Melchior, Israel’s deputy foreign minister. "This is total demonization of the state of Israel, and, therefore, of the Jew. Whether they be an Israeli Jew or a French Jew."
In some cases, the rhetoric is purely political, aimed at damaging Israel’s image. For many of those who blindly mimic the rhetoric, it’s ignorance of history. But for a sizable portion — especially many in Western Europe — it is a way to ease the conscience, said Holocaust historian Michael Berenbaum.
"It’s some measure of solace for Europeans that Israel seems to be in the morally compromised position, because it relieves them of the residual guilt they have for the Holocaust," said Berenbaum, a professor at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles and the former director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Research Institute. "It’s a way of getting even with Jews, whom they think have lorded the moral depravity of the Europeans over their heads."
The current movement can be traced to the 1960s, Foxman said, when some in the Arab world embraced the Holocaust denial propagated by unreformed Nazis.
"The idea was, if the only reason Jews were given Israel was because of the Holocaust, then if this is a hoax, they don’t really deserve it," Foxman said. Over time, he said, Arab and Muslim Holocaust deniers have generally become even more zealous than neo-Nazis. Then came the "Zionism Is Racism" equation, a U.N. resolution that remained on the books until it was rescinded in 1991. U.N. officials, including Secretary-General Kofi Annan, have described that period as a stain on the world body’s record.
Nevertheless, it was feared the Arab world was angling to resurrect the equation at the U.N.-sponsored World Conference Against Racism, late last summer in Durban. In fact, the denunciations of Israel there were broader and more visceral. Israel and the Middle East overwhelmed all other issues, as Israel was branded an "apartheid state" guilty of "genocide," "ethnic cleansing" and "war crimes."
As Irwin Cotler, a Canadian politician and human rights lawyer, said in Durban, "In a world in which human rights has emerged as the secular religion of our time, Israel, portrayed as the worst of human rights violators, is the new anti-Christ."
Most disturbing to Jewish observers was not that Arab and Muslim delegates were ganging up on Israel, but how easily so many otherwise compassionate activists from around the world jumped aboard the bandwagon.
In light of the now-renewed rhetorical offensive against Israel, Foxman said, "Durban was the dress rehearsal to see if this kind of anti-Semitism could sell. And with all these well-meaning people there who would have laid down their lives for others, no one was willing to stand up for the Jews."
With Israel’s siege of Palestinian cities, refugee camps and the Ramallah headquarters of Yasser Arafat, Israel has been barraged with Holocaust denials, Nazi comparisons and blood libels that circulate globally via the Internet.
On March 7, according to the ADL, the director of the Palestinian News Agency, Ziad Abd-al-Fatah, said: "What they are doing now to our people is a ‘Holocaust’ in every sense of the word, while what happened to them was not a ‘Holocaust,’ since researchers doubt its veracity and the testimonies are also doubtful."
On March 21, Algerian diplomat Mohamed-Salah Dembri told the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva that "Kristallnacht repeats itself daily" against "the ghettoized Palestinian people."
The fusillade has also come from beyond the Arab world.
On March 26, Portuguese writer Jose Saramago, who won the 1998 Nobel Prize in Literature, was quoted as describing the Israeli blockade of Ramallah as "in the spirit of Auschwitz" and "this place is being turned into a concentration camp." On April 5, the Kuala Lumpur-based newspaper, The Star, quoted Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad saying Israelis needed to be stopped, like the Bosnian Serbs.
Not many are speaking out against the incendiary rhetoric.
One notable exception, though, was the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Jakob Kellenberger. On March 26, in his address to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, Kellenberger said: "It would be misleading to think that recent or present-day international crimes surpass the evils that humans have historically inflicted on humans. Does anyone really believe that the suffering caused by current conflicts around the globe surpasses the ravages of World War II and the atrocities that accompanied it?"
Still, rebuttals seem few and far between.
"I’m concerned that people have not stood up," Berenbaum said, "but maybe what I’m saying is that I’m also concerned that I haven’t stood up.
"I’m equally concerned that perhaps we haven’t made our point over many years about the Holocaust, which allows for this ignorance and God-awful abuse of history."
To more forcefully counter this "demonization" of Jews, Melchior announced in January plans to create the International Forum for Combating Anti-Semitism. The blue-ribbon panel of non-Jewish figures should be in place within six months, he said.
"Anti-Semitism undermines the basic fundamentals of democracy and decency, and anyone who cares about those two things should fight against it," Melchior said." As someone once said, anti-Semitism is a sickness that non-Jews have, but which Jews die of."
We have to start taking seriously what they say, because they mean what they say."