Anti-Semitism by any other name

Anti-Semitism by any other name

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

This plaque at the Palazzo Salvadori in Trent, Italy, illustrates the supposed martyrdom of Simon of Trent at the hands of Jews.     
This plaque at the Palazzo Salvadori in Trent, Italy, illustrates the supposed martyrdom of Simon of Trent at the hands of Jews.     

Are those who opposed Israel or Zionism also (or only) anti-Semitic? At one level there is a clear distinction, and at another level anti-Semite and anti-Zionist are totally synonymous. Not all critics of Israel are anti-Semites, although there is a difference between seeking a change in Israeli policy and wishing it gone as a political entity. Meanwhile, virtually all those who are anti-Semitic also hate Israel. 

When the leadership in Iran says that they wish to eliminate Israel, they also say that they do not wish to eliminate Jews. Much of their — and the Muslim world’s — anti-Israel feeling is not based on an exterminationist mindset, but rather on an unwillingness to accept the legitimacy or existence of a Jewish state in the region. While there are conflicting theological and philosophical debates within Islam as to the place and status of the dhimmi (Christians, Jews, and other non-Muslims living in Islamic lands), Jews historically were much more comfortable in Muslim countries than they were in many Christian lands. 

Before Vatican II overturned centuries of church teachings, Christianity was much more hostile to Jews, based on the widely held Christian beliefs of supersessionism — which means the church replaced the Jews as God’s chosen people — and deicide, the charge that Jews are responsible for the death of Jesus. The perversion of this hatred reached its nadir under the Nazis, who added racial hostility toward Jews. 

Since the creation of the State of Israel in the aftermath of the Holocaust, there developed a relatively new form of hatred of Jews, now seen most starkly among Muslims living in the Middle East. While there always had been episodic attacks by Christians and Muslims against Jews in the Holy Land throughout the ages, only with the beginning of modern Zionism and Jewish immigration to Palestine in the latter part of the 19th century did a renewed physical hostility against Jews emerge there with real gusto. 

Already during the British mandatory period in Palestine — both prior to World War II and well afterwards — there was a sense of imminent danger for the Yishuv. Attacks against Jews (and Jewish retaliation) intensified during the 1930s and then again prior to the 1947 UN vote on partition. For the most part Muslims based their political resentment and hostility toward Jews as “invading” their land, without the history or narrative that gave credence to a legitimate Jewish claim to the Holy Land.

With the growth of the Palestinian movement in the mid-1960s, those supporting the Palestinian cause also adopted the anti-Zionist mantel. Leftist political groups and those who supported Palestinian liberation ideology in its many guises began also to espouse anti-Israel and anti-Zionist rhetoric. As attacks against Israel became more and more manifest in Europe and throughout the West, it became evident to many that the residue of historical anti-Semitism as well as more contemporary racial anti-Semitism had found a new rationale and outlet for those who had always hated Jews. They now could hide behind the cover of contemporary politics and justify their positions based on current events. 

The growth of the BDS movement (whose leaders support a one-state solution that means the demise of Israel), as well as growing efforts to target Israel as an apartheid state (thus undermining its claims to legitimacy), became natural expressions for those who were most outspoken in their attacks against Israel’s right to exist. For the Muslim world, therefore, it became very easy to piggy-back on to the rhetoric of the anti-Zionist form of anti-Semitism. 

It is against this background that the 5th Global Forum for Combating Antisemitism — which I will be attending — will be taking place in the middle of May in Jerusalem. The main focus for the attendees will be the situation in Europe as well as the use of the Internet to fan anti-Semitism.

Europeans are both sympathetic to Palestinian suffering and fearful about the radicalization of their own growing Muslim populations. Combined with fears generated by ISIS, Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, and the possibility of a nuclear Iran, Europeans appear to be adopting a policy of appeasement redux. The result is a willingness to make use of the ancient canard of anti-Semitism, repackaged now as anti-Zionism. Although they can pretend that their argument is only with the “idea” of Zionism and the reality of Israel, in practice they are empowering those willing and able to victimize these countries’ own Jewish citizens.

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