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The language of the new anti-Semitism

Talk presented at "Global Antisemitism:  A Crisis of Modernity" conference at Yale

JUF Executive Vice President Michael C. Kotzin presented the following talk at the Conference "Global Antisemitism:  A Crisis of Modernity," which was sponsored by the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism on Aug. 24, 2010. An edited version of the talk will be included in the upcoming publication of the proceedings of the conference.

For several years now scholars and commentators have been talking about the new anti-Semitism – a contemporary manifestation of the age-old hatred whose themes, as well as the vocabulary and imagery through which they are expressed, are mostly traditional. Though this manifestation sometimes takes new shape or is expressed in new venues, what is particularly distinctive about this trend is the fact that the targets of today’s attacks are not so much individual Jews or Jewish communities per se, as was the case formerly, but the Jewish collective – that is, the State of Israel, along with individual Jews based on their association with that entity.

When Naim Ateek and his Jerusalem-based Sabeel Center for Liberation Theology sent out an Easter message in 2001 saying that “In this season of Lent, it seems to many of us that Jesus is on the cross again with thousands of crucified Palestinians around Him,” and when they went on to say that “the Israeli crucifixion system is operating daily,” they were providing an example of the rebirth of Christian anti-Semitism in this new form. Though the Catholic Church and a number of Protestant denominations have explicitly repudiated the deicide charge that was at the core of anti-Semitic activity for centuries, that charge is an anti-Semitic trope that is now being conveyed through allusion and analogy in the works of Ateek and his followers and by representatives of Mainline Protestant denominations in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Similar discourse appeared in the draft of a report issued by the Middle East Study Committee of the Presbyterian Church USA this spring, preceding that church’s General Assembly in Minneapolis.  In a critique that appeared in the Christian Century magazine issue of June 29 entitled “Habits of Anti-Judaism,” Ted A. Smith and Amy-Jill Levine, both of them from the Vanderbilt Divinity School, cited a number of examples of this sort of rhetoric in the document. They concluded that the Presbyterian report “evokes old echoes of theological supersessionism” and that it “describes Jacob in ways that resonate with anti-Jewish stereotypes,” and they noted multiple other ways that the report used tropes with origins in Christian anti-Judaism.

Reacting to the Smith-Levine critique and to the comments of other critics of the Presbyterian report, James Wall, himself a former editor of Christian Century and an ordained United Methodist minister, similarly resurrected traditional anti-Semitism in new garb in a piece headed “Israeli ‘Agents’ Infiltrate Presbyterian General Assembly.” Alluding to a familiar New Testament phrase that referred to the episode in which Herod murdered all boys under the age of two in the Bethlehem area in an attempt to kill Jesus, Wall spoke of the way that “the slaughter of the innocents began with the Nakba in 1947.” 

Applying the themes of a stolen birthright and of supersessionism in the framework of his own hybrid application of religious traditions, the Nation of Islam’s inflammatory Minister Louis Farrakhan resurfaced this summer, baiting American Jewish communal leaders and proclaiming as he has in the past that “The Honorable Elijah Mohammad said that almighty God Allah revealed to him that the Black people of America are the real children of Israel and we are the choice of God.” Insisting that “To all of those who feel that the children of Israel are all over in that place they call Israel, you are mistaken,” he added: “The wickedly wise…are working night and day to trick you out of the promise of God and take you down to hell with them because the time of their end has come.”

Echoes of traditional Christian anti-Semitism can be heard not only in the words of theologians and spokesmen of religious bodies, mainstream or fringe, but also in more popular discourse.  For example, working in a medium that favors short-hand allusions that accompany or are conveyed by starkly rendered graphic images, cartoonists have recirculated the blood libel charge that had so much currency and did so much harm in the Christian Middle Ages. 

This theme was gruesomely evoked in a cartoon that appeared in the January 27, 2003, issue of The Independent in England. It showed a grotesque, naked Ariel Sharon eating the bloody body of a Palestinian youth. Another visualization of the theme appeared this past March in the form of a wall poster cartoon that was exhibited in the town square of Cologne, Germany. This drawing portrayed a person seen from chest level down who was wearing a bib with a Jewish Star on it, with a plate in front of him on which he was using a knife marked “Gaza” and a red, white, and blue fork to carve up a miniature, bleeding human figure dressed like a Palestinian (with a keffiyeh around his neck). Beside the plate was a glass filled with a red liquid.  Explaining why the public prosecutor’s office declined to charge the poster maker with inciting racial hatred, a spokesman explained: “It is not a tendency of hostility toward Jews, but an actual criticism of the situation in Gaza. The cartoon is a sarcastic expression of the Israeli army in Gaza.” I will talk about denial of anti-Semitism later in this presentation, but it is worth keeping this comment on a contemporary rendering of the blood libel theme in mind.

It has been widely noted by scholars that themes familiar from historic Christian anti-Semitism have found fertile soil in which to grow within the Islamic world. And thus the blood libel, for one thing, has often been repeated in Arab countries. But no theme from Western-generated anti-Semitism has become as widespread – both in the Islamic world and beyond – as the concept of a global Jewish conspiracy dedicated to controlling the world. It is a theme that Anthony Julius, in his recent book on the history of anti-Semitism in England, says was “new… in the late nineteenth century.” As Julius puts it, “Anti-Semitism… ceased to address a problem within medieval life; it instead addressed the pattern of modern life.”

Introduced at the time of the rise of modern Zionism, the theme was rendered in archetypal form in the notorious forgery called the Protocols of the Elders of Zion – an inspirational text for the Nazis which is now an accepted, widely circulated source of ideas about Jews in the Islamic world. Nowhere can that be seen more clearly than in the Hamas Charter, a strikingly direct and extensive rendering of the language of the new anti-Semitism that was issued in 1988 and continues to define the group’s nature and goals.

Hamas’ use of the Protocols and belief in their validity is explicit. “Today it is Palestine, tomorrow it will be one country or another,” reads Article Thirty-Two of the Charter. “The Zionist plan is limitless. After Palestine, the Zionists aspire to expand from the Nile to the Euphrates.  When they will have digested the region they overtook [an animal metaphor consistent with the derogatory and dehumanizing way in which Jews are spoken about throughout this document and in other Hamas-endorsed frameworks] they will aspire to further expansion, and so on. Their plan is embodied in the ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion,’ and their present conduct is the best proof of what we are saying.” Similarly, in Article Twenty-Eight, the Charter speaks of the “Zionist invasion” as “a vicious invasion” which “does not refrain from resorting to all methods, using all evil in contemptible ways to achieve its end.  It relies greatly in its infiltration and espionage operations on the secret organizations it gave rise to…and other sabotage groups. All these organizations, whether secret or open, work in the interest of Zionism and according to its instructions. They aim at undermining societies, destroying values, corrupting consciences, deteriorating character and annihilating Islam.” 

In this rendering of classic anti-Semitism in new garb, the word “Zionist” often replaces the word “Jew,” as it already did in the title of the Protocols though that book was written when the Zionist movement was in its infancy and well before the establishment of the state of Israel. When Article 30 of the Charter talks about “the ferocity of the Zionist offensive and the Zionist influence in many countries exercised through financial and media control,” we are hearing the language of the new anti-Semitism full-blown.

It is not only Hamas writing for its own followers and would-be followers who speaks this way today.  Addressing the United Nations General Assembly on September 23, 2009, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, referred to “barbaric attacks by the Zionist regime” on the Palestinians and, saying in that august setting the sort of thing he has said elsewhere as well, went on to proclaim:  “It is no longer acceptable that a small minority would dominate the politics, economy and culture of major parts of the world by its complicated networks, and establish a new form of slavery, and harm the reputation of other nations, even European nations and the U.S., to attain its racist ambitions.”

Ahmadinejad is often regarded as a crackpot, as a figure from another century if not from another world. But the kinds of ideas that he and his Hamas counterparts convey is becoming more and more common in the mainstream. This is so not only in England and Europe, where we have come to expect it, but in the U.S. as well.  For one thing, that is especially true for Internet postings, where writers can give rein to unfiltered vituperation. And so, for example, John Petras, a former professor of sociology at Binghamton University, can write in an Internet newsletter called “Dissident Voice” that “[Elana] Kagan’s ties to the staunchly Zionist faculty at both Chicago and Harvard Law Schools…account for her meteoric promotions to tenure, deanship and now the U.S. Supreme Court.” And he can go on to link those advances to her “ethnic connections” and can conclude that “another active pro-Zionist advocate on the Court will provide a legal cover for the advance of Zionist-dictated authoritarianism over the American people.”  

Even respected academics working through mainstream publications are joining the chorus in their way these days. In what began as a long article published in the London Review of Books in 2006, then turned into a book titled The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy that was published in 2007 in the U.S., University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer and Harvard professor Stephen Walt  talked about their subject in more veiled language that, though they repeatedly deny meaning it to be heard that way, still sounds an awful lot like the way Jews and Zionists are portrayed by Hamas, Ahmadinejad, and the legion of other echoers of the concepts crystallized by the Protocols. Reduced to its essence, in the Mearsheimer/Walt construction, the supporters of Israel come together to exert an influence powerful enough to lead the United States to ignore its own interests in the Middle East and the world, and instead to be driven by what the lobby sees as in Israel’s interest. 

Mearsheimer and Walt may assert that they do not believe there is a Jewish cabal or conspiracy, and that in their minds the Israel lobby is like any other interest group or ethnic lobby. Still, for them the members of the so-called Israel lobby “are in an unusually favorable position to influence foreign policy” while “what sets [that lobby] apart is its extraordinary effectiveness.” And in fact, throughout their book Israel’s supporters are portrayed as constituting a powerful force undermining America’s well being, with the members of that lobby skillful enough to cover up their behind-the-scenes subterfuge from others. The Hamas Charter calls it “sabotage.” Mearsheimer and Walt may not overtly use the term in their text, but through their subtext they certainly convey a similar idea.

Since gaining widespread notice thanks to the book, Mearsheimer has continued to advance its themes, sometimes more bluntly. “In short,” he said in a speech at the Palestine Center in Washington this past April, “President Obama is no match for the lobby.” In an even more recent post on his blog, he proclaimed that “the lobby believes it can finesse any issue….America’s interests and Israel’s interests are going to continue to diverge. An end result of that…is that the lobby is going to have to work overtime to cover that up.”

In that same post, Mearsheimer proclaimed that “The Israelis can do almost anything and get away with it….If I went to the Middle East, visited Israel, and I was killed, somebody shot me, do you think there would be any accountability?  Seriously.” Surely the venom verging on paranoia with which this notable professor now talks about Israel and its supporters has entered some very off-the-wall but familiar terrain.

In his April speech at the Palestine Center, Mearsheimer talked about what he described as the inevitability of Israel’s becoming an apartheid state, entering into territory widely occupied today by those who have discovered that the term is an especially useful slur. In so doing, he himself engaged in a couple of revealing maneuvers. First, he switched from talking about Israel and apartheid in the future subjunctive, as though that linkage is only a hypothetical possibility, to doing so in the present tense, using a grammatical double move to make it sound like Israel has already become an apartheid state while leaving himself room to deny having said that.  Secondly, he demonstrated how scornfully he regards Israel’s mainstream supporters by using name-calling derived from South African history. Thus, after listing what he calls “righteous Jews” (including people who are prepared to sharply attack Israel and, in some cases, question its right to exist), he said:  “On the other side we have the new Afrikaners who will support Israel even if it is an apartheid state.” The people on the latter list, it should be noted, are not only personalities who might fairly be placed toward the right-wing of the political spectrum, but also others who objectively would not be regarded as having that political profile – including what he calls “individuals who head the Israel lobby’s major organizations.” Here it is worth citing Anthony Julius’ observation that “the master trope, that there are ‘good Jews’ and ‘bad Jews,’ has been continuous in the political culture for at least the last hundred years.  It… is itself an anti-Semitic construction.”

The evocation of apartheid of course conjures up the racist regime of South Africa, which ultimately was overthrown. Numerous scholars have pointed to the differences between contemporary Israel and that regime, but despite that, references to the practice of apartheid and use of the word itself have become increasingly common as a way to malign Israel and, ultimately, deny its legitimacy. Such usage is one of the central ways that Israel and its supporters are linguistically tarred and feathered today, in an age in which racism is the prototypical sin and apartheid-era South Africa the model of a regime that did not deserve to exist.

Expressions of Israel-connected anti-Semitism keep turning up these days, even – or perhaps one might say particularly – in the words of celebrities who get widespread attention in our culture.  Thus when  a rabbi cum camera toting YouTube reporter asked the aging but still active Helen Thomas, a respected journalist despite her cantankerous style, for a comment on Israel, she replied by saying: “Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine” and “go home” to “Poland, Germany, America and everywhere else.” As commentators such as Jeffrey Goldberg and Shelby Steele have observed, this comment reveals both a denial of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state and insensitivity to, if not blatant ignorance of, the realities of the Holocaust and its effects. Coincidentally enough, within a week or so of the Thomas incident, a Jewish dance group ironically named “Chaverim” was stoned while attempting to perform in the German city of Hanover when attacking youths, reportedly young Muslims themselves obviously well in touch with the language of the historic anti-Semitism of that landscape, shouted “Juden raus.” 

Even more recently, in another verbal outpouring that the perpetrator later said he regretted, the American film writer and director Oliver Stone told The Sunday Times in the U.K. that though “Hitler did far more damage to the Russians than the Jewish people,” there is a greater focus on the Holocaust than on Russian suffering because of “the Jewish domination of the media.” “There’s a major lobby in the United States,” Stone added in the Mearsheimer and Walt vein:  “They are hard workers.  They stay on top of every comment, the most powerful lobby in Washington.  Israel has f***** up U.S. foreign policy for years.” Whatever pro forma retraction Stone may have offered – and in what he said afterwards he really did not totally exonerate himself from the implications of all that he had been quoted as saying in the interview – his readiness to come out with such comments suggests the extent to which these attitudes and the kind of language used to convey them seem to be “out there” these days, beneath the surface if not always explicitly rendered.

The fact that both the Thomas and the Stone comments were connected with the Holocaust is not an incidental matter. Increasingly, the Holocaust context has become a dominating component of the new ant-Semitism. That can be seen in a number of frameworks, but the linguistic trope I wish to focus on here has to do with the way in which the Nazi war against the Jews, surely one of the most devastating expressions of anti-Semitism in all of Jewish history as well as one of the most cataclysmic events of the twentieth century, is today itself being used to harm the Jewish people and the nation state that they established in their ancient homeland following World War II. 

As Robert Wistrich and others have shown, comparisons of the Israelis and the Nazis could be seen as a theme in the Soviet Union, particularly following the Six Day War in 1967, and then in the Arab world as well. In the Soviet Union there was a certain appropriateness to the propaganda technique, since the Russians had been besieged and in their ways indeed victimized by the Nazis, and if you wanted to demonize the Israelis, it made a certain sense to say that the Nazis had been reborn in the Israelis’ skins. For the Arabs, however, the approach was ironic, since key leadership of theirs had sympathized with the Nazis during the war and since some of their countries had provided refuge for Nazi war criminals. All the same, the equation caught on, and cartoons and other forms of propaganda promoting it were then reiterated and expanded at the time of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and subsequently. 

Still, it has pretty much been since the 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and especially during the past decade, that the Israel/Nazi analogy has become a major motif in the West as well as in the Islamic world. It is now a leading weapon in the propaganda assault against Israel directed by activist Palestinians and other Muslims who have made their way to the West and by radical left-wing individuals and groups. With Nazism widely recognized as the most profound manifestation of evil in modern times, the painting of Zionism as Nazism reborn and Israel as the new Nazi Germany is an attempt to transfer the substance of that evil.

And so it is that, were you to have witnessed anti-Israel rallies in the streets not just of European metropolises but  North American cities as well subsequent to Israel’s military advance into Gaza in late December and early January 2009-2010, or following the recent episode involving the Turkish flotilla, you would have seen demonstrators waving the flags of Hamas and Hezbollah while holding signs bearing images equating the swastika and the Star of David and calling Gaza the new Warsaw Ghetto, labeling Israel soldiers the new storm troopers, and accusing Israel of Nazi-like genocide. Dominating the rhetoric of these rallies, such signage -- along with other signs and the chanting and speeches of the rallies -- conveyed not sympathy for the Palestinians as much as hatred for Israel and its supporters.  And meanwhile, this trope too has made its way into the mainstream  -- again often in the hands of a cartoonist like Pat Oliphant, who at the time of Operation Cast Lead, drew an image of a headless, brutal storm trooper to characterize Israel’s behavior in Gaza.

In using swastikas and images of storm troopers to portray Israel and its supporters, Israel’s enemies have appropriated motifs with a power that Hitler exploited in his time. It is the power of a stark twisted cross; the power of cruel Hitler-saluting soldiers in black boots, with which the power of the magnetizing madman Hitler himself is associated. Through the years neo-Nazis and other adversaries of the Jewish people have used the swastika to hurt individual Jews, painting swastikas on Jewish institutions, for example, as a form of anti-Semitic expression. Now, however, the swastika is used not just against Jews but, when attached to the State of Israel, to portray Jews. It is not just a vehicle for inflicting pain on Jews by trying to create the impression that their worst tormentors have returned, but a way to insultingly accuse them of having become those tormentors themselves.

In the new equation, not only have the Jews become the Nazis, but they have been replaced by new Jews, by new victims, namely the Palestinians, who are regarded as the true heirs to the Promised Land. Seen this way, the Nazi-Israel analogy is a contemporary equivalent of the replacement theology which drove Christian anti-Semitism for centuries, and thus can be likened to other current expressions of supersessionism.

The equation also creates a particular form of literal Holocaust revisionism, it can be suggested – that is, a way to lead the world to revise its thoughts and feelings about the Holocaust. For as this realignment of roles goes on, the Holocaust ceases to be regarded as the historic event it was, with facts and details to be learned about.  It rather becomes a repository of images, of symbols of innocence and evil to be evoked and applied in whatever way one chooses to suit one’s ideological purposes, however twisted that may be.  It becomes, in sum, a toolbox full of icons to be taken out and assigned while the reality of the Holocaust, if not actively denied, melts away into a post-modern penumbra.

Traditional anti-Semitism demonized and scapegoated individual Jews and the Jewish people, regarding them as the evil “other” responsible for the ills of society and the world. The new anti-Semitism uses language that treats Israel and its supporters in similar ways. Whereas in earlier eras anti-Semitism, with its personal approach, caused Jews to be discriminated against, expelled from one country after another, and ultimately annihilated throughout most of Europe, it is the Jewish national state that today’s anti-Semitism, serving a geopolitical agenda, would have treated as a pariah and ultimately eliminated. This goal is bluntly declared not only by the likes of Ahmadinejad and Hamas but in our own cities, for example by graffiti artists who, in this case abjuring the ubiquitous swastika, paint “Death to Israel” on synagogues they have vandalized. And a similar message is less directly stated but still implied by individuals and groups closer to the mainstream. 

“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible,” wrote George Orwell in his classic essay on “Politics and the English Language” in 1946. The eras and contexts may have their differences, but Orwell’s insights apply as well to the use of language I have been talking about, especially his observation that “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”  Like that before it, the language of today’s anti-Semitism depends upon distortions of the truth to fulfill its purpose, a “hijacking of meaning” as Bernard-Henry Lévy called it when commenting on the post-flotilla demonizations of Israel.  Some of those who call Israel an apartheid state or who equate Israel with Nazi Germany must realize that there are differences, and they can be said to be cynically corrupting language to promote such likenesses and to get others to believe them.  But there are also people who truly believe even the extremist, delusional concepts about Israel and its supporters that they proclaim, who, haunted by their obsessions – often, it seems, projections of their own hatreds and intentions – have allowed themselves to be separated from reality.

While the discourse of anti-Semitism is always drenched in corruptions of the truth and those who use and believe those corruptions are always separated from reality to some extent, there is something particularly troubling about the ways that the kinds of views circulating today not only are held by people clearly beyond the fringe but are also finding some degree of acceptance in the academy and elsewhere in the mainstream. That process is facilitated when mainstream figures who explicitly or implicitly use the language of the new anti-Semitism deny such intent and even dismiss the very existence of this new anti-Semitism, insisting that they and others like them are only criticizing Israel the way one can legitimately criticize any country. 

The pattern is common. We have already seen it in the words of the spokesman of the public prosecutor’s office in Cologne. Another example is provided by Mearsheimer and Walt, who devote a whole section of their book to advancing the misleading charge that “pro-Israel groups now claim there is a ‘new anti-Semitism,’ which they equate with criticism of Israel.”  Mearsheimer and Walt’s insistent, repetitive use of the word “criticism” in this section as a description of what is being objected to becomes a stylistic tic, but that still doesn’t make it accurate. 

The reason they say this happens is because, they charge, Israel’s supporters want to “silence” the country’s critics. And they further advance their argument by turning other people’s charges about the use of concepts into name calling about personalities who use those concepts, deliberately conflating the two by saying, for example: “Anyone who criticizes Israeli actions or says that pro-Israel groups have significant influence over U.S. Middle East policy stands a good chance of being labeled an anti-Semite.” While this labeling admittedly happens sometimes, it is not nearly as common as is implied by these authors and by others who would prevent readers from taking unfair attacks on Israel or expressions of the new anti-Semitism seriously. (After the recent flotilla incident, to give but one more example of this pattern, the cartoonist Oliphant drew a pirate with a Star of David on his head-covering climbing on board ship with sword in hand saying: “If you don’t like piracy on the high seas, you’re anti-Semitic.”) 

On the one hand, rejection of the existence of anti-Semitic meaning in statements partaking of the new anti-Semitism can be seen as a preemptive tactic which reveals an acknowledgment that, however much the taboo against anti-Semitism may have eroded in recent years, the charge still carries weight. On the other hand, though, attempts to obfuscate the difference between fair criticism of Israel and hate-filled rhetoric (a distinction Israel’s supporters need to keep in mind too) leads to further corruption of language. Moreover, this new approach can be seen as problematic and even hostile in its own fashion.

In a way, active denial of the existence of the new anti-Semitism can be related to Holocaust denial.  In the minds of those who embrace these positions the twentieth century’s Nazi-driven scapegoating and victimization of Jews and the early twenty-first century’s demonization of Israel and its supporters are both considered myths made up by the Jews. For the Holocaust deniers, the first myth was created to evoke sympathy for the Jews and to elicit support for the establishment of Israel. (This is a leitmotif for Ahmadinejad, and the notion was rendered in shorthand by graffiti spray painted in Rome last January that said “The Holocaust equals Zionist propaganda.”) In the eyes of those who object to the claims that there is a new anti-Semitism, it too is a fiction, in this case created to block criticism of Israel and thus to maintain support for that country. Furthermore, in both cases there is an underlying belief that the ability of the Jews to get the world -- at least the West – to buy into these fictions is proof of their skill in controlling others and thus of their nefarious, conspiratorial powers.

In fact, the world today truly is witness to the emergence of a new form of anti-Semitism, one that is no less potent than that of earlier eras. It is conveyed through language and images that are at once traditional in their substance and contemporary in their modes of expression.  But experience reveals that for the man on the street, for the media, for officials in national governments and local jurisdictions, and for university administrators, there has been a serious deficiency in identifying and addressing this new form of hate. 

The shift in the specific nature of the target apparently makes it difficult for people of goodwill who hold preconceptions based on what the situation was in earlier times and who are thus programmed to recognize only the classic forms of anti-Semitism that come from traditional sources to immediately understand what is happening today, especially with those who circulate the new anti-Semitism not wanting it to be acknowledged.  But it is incumbent upon those who do realize what is going on, what it means, and what is at stake to speak out and to properly identify the danger that is out there. It is not just Israel’s security and the safety of the Jewish people but reality, justice, and just plain common decency that demand no less.

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