29 February '16..
In recent years, a rising tide of anti-Semitism in Europe has called into question the long-term viability of Jewish life in Western Europe. Given the involvement of terror groups in some of the spectacular instances of anti-Jewish violence, much of the discussion about the topic has been on the influence oft immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa, who have brought with them a mindset that is rooted in the conflict with Israel. But as much as those incidents are eroding the notion that Western capitals are safe places for those who wear items that identify them as Jews or even shop at businesses that cater to Jews, the problem can’t be pinned entirely on immigrants or radical Islam. What has happened in Europe is that at the same time a movement led by cultural elites has stigmatized the Jewish state and Jews that support it as illegitimate. But the notion that we can separate crude violence from the protests of intellectuals is misleading.
As our Jonathan Neumann pointed out last week recent events at Britain’s two leading universities — Oxford and Cambridge — have started to make “the elemental connection between hostility to the Jewish state and hostility to Jews” apparent to observers. Intellectual thought leaders who have been determined to try to preserve the conceit that their support for isolating Israel is a respectable position that has no connection to traditional Jew hatred are now acquiescing to a cultural shift that treats Jews with contempt. As historian Simon Schama noted last week in the Financial Times, this problem is to be found in the left’s beliefs about Europe’s original sins of imperialism and colonialism. The enthusiasm for the war on Israel among intellectuals is, he believes, to be explained in, “the collapse of the Soviet Union and the retreat of Marxist socialism around world,” that means, “militant energies have needed somewhere to go.”
The ability of the left to sell this fraudulent view of history in which the rights of Jews to their ancient homeland is conflated with European colonialism is, the historian thinks, rooted in the ignorance of the history of the Middle East and the Jews on the part of so many otherwise educated people. They have made the jump from criticism of specific Israeli policies to a belief that the creation of Israel was illegitimate and must be rescinded. Schama, who is a critic of the Netanyahu government, points out that such people are not only ignorant of Jewish rights to historic Palestine and the fact that Jewish ties and settlement there has been continuous throughout history but also the facts about anti-Semitism. Schama is correct when he says Zionism is primarily about Jewish self-determination, a concept that is considered sacred when it is exercised by anyone other than Jews.
“History says” anti-Semitism has not been caused by Zionism; it is precisely the other way round. Israel was caused by the centuries-long dehumanization of the Jews.”
If Jews once feared thugs in brown shirts and jackboots, he now points out that the Jew-haters are to be found elsewhere:
It is not the golf club nose-holders we have to worry about now; it is those who, in their indignation at the sufferings visited on the Palestinians, and their indifference to almost-daily stabbings in the streets of Israel, have discovered the excitement of saying the unspeakable, making hay with history, so Israel is the new reich, and a military attack on Gaza indistinguishable from the industrially processed incineration of millions.
That such attitudes have not caught on with the same kind of virulence in the United States is a source of some relief, but it should not lead to complacency. Hostility to Israel on American campuses is growing as academia has proved to be the one beachhead on these shores where the BDS movement has achieved some limited to success. Just as troubling is not merely the way intellectual fashion has branded Israel as the sole nation in the world that is worthy of boycotts and isolation but the fact that Jewish students and faculty are not always pushing back at these calumnies.
The alienation of young Jews from the pro-Israel cause has been a source of great angst in the organized Jewish community. Many on the left blame this trend on the Netanyahu government as well as what they view as an unhealthy acquiescence on the part of the pro-Israel community toward its policies on the West Bank. But the problem here is, as it is in Europe, to be found in an ignorance of history as well as broader trends that have erased a sense of Jewish peoplehood from American Jewish sensibilities.
On a panel discussion in Princeton yesterday where I also spoke about what it means to be pro-Israel and the threat of the BDS movement, Brandeis University historian Rachel Fish pointed out that for all too many young Jews, a belief that there is something dirty about Jews wielding power is at the core of alienation from Israel. In a country like the United States, where assimilation rather than violent anti-Semitism is the only real threat to Jewish existence, the notion of Jews exercising power with the consequent costs and moral dilemmas is off-putting. While I believe it is fairly obvious from the 2013 Pew Survey of Jewish Americans that a declining sense of identification with the Jewish people is responsible for a lot of the negative attitudes about Israel, I think she’s on to something here that tells us something important about attitudes towards anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism as well.
For those who know little about what happens to Jews when they don’t have power, the creation of Israel and its continued importance doesn’t resonate. If you judge Israel solely by a measure of whether it is uniformly perfect as opposed to the context of a war with Palestinians who will not recognize its legitimacy no matter where its borders are drawn, you may be inclined to view it as worthy of being as branded a pariah state. The calls for economic warfare being voiced by groups like Jewish Voices for Peace or for its dismantling by that group’s leftist allies can be seductive when you not only don’t understand that Jews have rights to the country but also that when Jews are left powerless and at the mercy of other peoples, the result is, as Schama notes, a legacy of horror.
The point here is that those who wish to speak up for Israel need to understand that it is only historical ignorance and willful blindness that can cause us to fail to notice that those who wish to deny Jews the rights to statehood and self-defense — rights that are not denied any other people — are engaging in an act of bias that is indistinguishable from anti-Semitism. While academic anti-Zionists see themselves as promoting a point of view that is distinct from those who are killing Jews in the streets of Paris or Jerusalem, they are, in effect, attempting to provide the killers with a moral legitimacy they don’t deserve.
As Schama observes, in the end, Zionism is the “prize whipping boy” of intellectual in the post-colonial era in search of a scapegoat. Such crusades, he says, always require a villain, and we know who will always play that role in the European imagination. If we are to ensure that this same contagion of hate doesn’t spread any further in the United States, it will take not merely a generation armed with the facts and historical knowledge needed to answer the false charges of the Israel-haters. It will also require the moral courage to stand up against the intellectual fashions of our day that will enable us to stand up to the intellectual anti-Zionists call them by their right name: anti-Semites.
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