March 18, 2019

The Trick of Anti-Semitism

Rep. Ilhan Omar. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

The State of Israel has done a few successful things since its establishment, but in one mission it certainly has failed. If the leaders of Zionism hoped that a Jewish state would eliminate anti-Semitism, they were wrong.

Of course, this was a mistake in good faith. These leaders assumed that anti-Semitism was closely linked to the situation of the Jews and found it hard to understand that anti-Semitism was more closely related to the situation of anti-Semites. When anti-Semites are angry, confused or seeking answers to complex questions, the Jews are a convenient explanation.

The State of Israel strongly rejects anti-Semitism, as do all Jews, but has never formulated a clear strategy for dealing with it. Perhaps this is because after the Holocaust and the establishment of the State, a relatively comfortable period of calm began in the anti-Semitic discourse — at least in Western countries. Perhaps it is for other reasons. Either way, it might be the right time to reformulate a response to anti-Semitism. And doing it in a way that Israel’s Jews and America’s Jews would accept won’t be easy.

Why do it now? Because there is an awakening of anti-Semitic discourse around the world, which has become difficult to ignore. We see it on the right and on the left, in Britain, Poland, the United States and France. And no — there is no reason to panic. Jews are not being persecuted. They still have a lot of support and firm protection from most governments. And yet, things that until recently could only have been whispered are now out in the open, uttered by a candidate for prime minister (United Kingdom), or a member of Congress (United States). Suddenly, Jews are having a silly debate about the exact rules a person has to follow if he or she wants to be a non-anti-Semitic critic of the Jews. 

You are familiar with many features of this debate: In what words can Israel be criticized without the criticism becoming anti-Semitism? Is it necessarily anti-Semitic to suggest that support for Israel in Congress is bought with Jewish money? Should the Jews conduct a civil dialogue with public figures who seem to toy with anti-Semitic tendencies? Should the Jews consider forming certain specific alliances with anti-Semites if this serves the greater purpose of securing the Jews? 

Obviously, different circumstances beget different answers to these questions from different Jews. Some American Jews complain when Israel becomes cozy with Hungary’s Victor Orban — but still want to have fruitful relations with Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.). Some Israelis are puzzled by the tendency of Americans to forgive Omar — but are ready to suppress what they know about Orban. American Jews feel that Israel is throwing them under the bus by forging close ties with President Donald Trump’s administration. Israeli Jews feel that American Jews are ready to throw Israel under the bus, as long as the hateful critics of Jewishness agree to keep their criticism focused on the bad Jews of Israel and spare the good Jews of America.

What can Israel offer in such context? Its main offer is a safe haven against anti-Semitism. This is a generous offer that should not be taken lightly. And yet it does not go beyond the familiar pattern of Zionism: If we distance the Jews from the rest of humanity and gather them together, anti-Semitism will become redundant. Of course, there is a problem with this offer, because it’s already clear that anti-Semitism does not follow this script. In other words, even if all Jews live in Israel, it is doubtful that anti-Semitism will come to an end. 

“Anti-Semitism is a serious matter. Many generations of Jews can testify to this. So whatever we do, we should not fall into the end-of-history trap.

Israel’s Zionism is not naïve. So, the country responds to concerns about anti-Semitism with contemporary realism. True, there will be anti-Semitism but Jews will be protected. The Israel Defense Forces will protect them. That is, if they all gather here. And of course, that may be true. They will be protected as long as Israel is strong enough to withstand attacks. 

Is there a way for Israel and the Jews to go beyond safe haven (Israel) and condemnation (American Jews)? There is no easy answer to such a question, except that maybe the time has come to reconsider the options. We can assume that anti-Semitism is also our fault, and take the appropriate steps; we can prepare mobile homes for Jewish refugees who would soon be fleeing to Israel; we can form groups of assassins and kill anyone suspected of anti-Semitism (without being caught); we can provide economic assistance to organizations working against anti-Semitism in key countries; we can launch a campaign to change the image of the Jews. And still, it is not clear that any of these options, or a combination of them all, will be of much help. So, we also have the option of doing nothing for now. But even doing nothing is better as a conscious decision, and not as one born out of laziness.

Anti-Semitism is a serious matter. Many generations of Jews can testify to this. So whatever we do, we should not fall into the end-of-history trap. We shouldn’t assume that the establishment of the State of Israel, or the great Jewish renaissance in America, nullified the relevance of anti-Semitism. We should remember that this is a dangerous and cunning enemy. And one of its nastiest tricks is to turn the Jews against one another.  


Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.