The Secret Passion of the New Antisemitism

By Assaf Sagiv

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The acclaimed Danish director Lars von Trier was likely just clowning around when, during a press conference at May’s Cannes Film Festival, he announced that he “understands” Hitler, and even “sympathize[s] with him a little bit.” In response to the crowd’s obvious discomfort, von Trier, a veteran scandalmonger, hastened to clarify that he has “nothing against Jews”—although, he couldn’t help admitting, “Israel is a pain in the ass.” But the stone he’d dropped had already hit the bottom of the well; not even his official apology could diminish the impression left by his remarks. Von Trier was declared persona non grata by the festival’s board of directors, and quickly left with his tail between his legs.1 It’s doubtful whether he took any comfort in those who came to his defense: The deputy minister of culture in Iran—a country not exactly known for its tolerance—rushed to denounce Cannes’ treatment of the director, calling it a dark stain on the festival’s history.2
It’s certainly possible that von Trier’s impolitic remarks were no more than a poor example of “Danish humor,” as he would later claim.3 But then, he would likely never have dared voice such a sentiment—jokingly or not—had he not felt confident that, so far as the Jews are concerned, one can get away with just about anything these days. And indeed, despite the justified severity of both the media and public backlash, such a belief would not be totally off the mark: Blatantly antisemitic attitudes, which were once met with scorn and revulsion, have slowly trickled into the mainstream of today’s European discourse. Key intellectual and cultural figures no longer hesitate to lash out at the Jewish people. The renowned Greek musician Mikis Theodorakis, for example, proclaimed in 2003 that the Jews “are the root of evil.”4 After setting off a tempest, Theodorakis tried to mitigate his assertion with the assurance that his words were directed exclusively at the government of Israel and at the American president’s Jewish advisers.5 But an interview he gave recently to a Greek television network left little room for doubt. “Everything that happens today in the world has to do with the Zionists,” he claimed, and then added for good measure, “American Jews are behind the world economic crisis that has hit Greece also.”6
José Saramago, the Portuguese winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in literature, sang a similar tune in 2002 when he announced that the Israeli blockade of Ramallah was “in the spirit of Auschwitz.… This place is being turned into a concentration camp.”7 Like Theodorakis, Saramago insisted that his scathing criticism of the Jewish state was not, in fact, antisemitic. His vigorous denial, however, was incompatible with a statement he made just a few months later. While visiting Brazil, Saramago announced that the Jews no longer deserved any “sympathy for the suffering they went through during the Holocaust.” After all, “they didn’t learn anything from the suffering of their parents and grandparents.”8
Said Jews, and Israelis in particular, have of necessity developed a thick skin over the generations. Having repeatedly been targeted for annihilation, they’re hardly going to get bent out of shape over a few verbal attacks, however repugnant they may be. But the statements by Theodorakis, Saramago, and others certainly astonished many, and disappointed their Jewish admirers. After all, Theodorakis has fought oppression his entire life; he even composed the Ballad of Mauthausen, a heartrending musical tribute to the inmates and survivors of the Nazi death camps. Saramago’s books also reveal his infinite compassion and profound love for the wretched of the earth. How, then, did antisemitism—the most ancient hatred, and the cause of some of mankind’s most atrocious crimes—creep into the hearts of these sworn humanists?
It is perhaps little wonder that the Jewish reaction to the so-called new antisemitism seems imbued with a sense of indignation, if not bitter disappointment, that many of those who pledged to fight racism and prejudice should choose to take a stand against the most persecuted nation on earth, and not with it. Some Jews, unable to digest this new reality, take pains to insist that fierce denunciations of the State of Israel and of Zionism cannot necessarily be equated with antisemitic sentiments. In fact, they assert, the motive for such criticism may actually be a deep concern for the Jews’ moral stature. Others take a more pessimistic view, stressing that such is the way of the world. When it comes to Jew-hatred, little has changed over the generations. Both opinions rest on certain prior assumptions: the former, on the belief that people who genuinely seek the betterment of all mankind must also desire the good of the Jews; the latter, on the conviction that even the contemporary, “progressive” version of antisemitism is motivated, ultimately, by the same familiar aversion to the Other.
These assumptions may satisfy those who make them, but they do not coincide with reality. The antisemitic wave currently sweeping the West is simultaneously predictable and perplexing, but what makes it particularly challenging is its seemingly impossible combination of rejection and attraction, of Judeophobia on the one hand and—strange as it may sound—a fascination with what the Jews are meant to embody on the other. Such a bizarre phenomenon requires careful consideration. The first step is to bid farewell to several common but erroneous notions that undermine our ability to understand the forces confronting us, as well as their tangible threat.
The first preconception that must be reexamined has to do with the conventional distinction between “new” and “old” antisemitism. This distinction stems from the impression that the current strain of antisemitism, prevalent in circles that champion a universalist worldview, is a decisive departure from the traditional version of Jew-hatred, allegedly a product of a confrontation between two particularistic identities: a specific nation or “race” in the one instance, and the Jewish one in the other. Indeed, the Holocaust, the most horrific trauma in the history of the Jewish people, only strengthened the impression—now an undisputed cliché—that antisemitism is but an (if not the most) extreme expression of racism, understood in its broadest sense.9 Yet even a cursory historical survey will show that the dominant and most popular form of antisemitism derived precisely from universal paradigms, which could not be reconciled with Jewish particularism.
The first time the Jews ran afoul of a universalist paradigm was during the Hellenistic period. Hellenistic civilization, which flourished for some three centuries before and around the turn of the Common Era, exalted Greek heritage, and imposed it on the vast territories overrun by the armies of Alexander the Great. As part of hellenism’s quasi-missionary endeavor, “Greekness” was stripped of its geographical lineaments and became instead an inclusive identity, one that all persons could—and should—adopt.10 “Hellenism had a sense of cultural mission and its culture was disseminated not only as the fruit of unavoidable contacts between various segments of the population, but as part of a deliberate policy,” wrote historian Yaacov Shavit. “Hellenism was an assimilationist civilization with a cosmopolitan dimension, a-national and a-ethnic. It saw in ‘culture’ a platform for human partnership, and not in ‘race’ or ‘religion.’”11
The conflict between Hellenism and Judaism was therefore unavoidable, and also—as anyone who celebrates Hanuka knows—exceptionally violent. Clashes took place on battlefields in the Land of Israel, in the streets of mixed cities such as Alexandria, and even in the writings of historians. Indeed, the earliest known texts containing flagrantly anti-Jewish propaganda are those of the Hellenistic scholars Manetho, Diodorus Siculus, Lysimachus, and, best known of all, Apion, the director of the museum of Alexandria, whom Josephus Flavius savaged in a brilliant polemic work. These writings describe the Jews as arrogant, given to strange rites, and deeply hostile toward the rest of mankind.12 According to Diodorus, the Jews’ “misanthropy” and “xenophobia” nearly led to their destruction on at least one occasion: During his siege of Jerusalem in 135-134 B.C.E., the Seleucid king Antiochus VII (“Sidetes”) was urged by his advisers
to take the city by storm and to wipe out completely the nation of the Jews, since they alone of all nations avoided dealings with any other people and looked upon all men as their enemies. They pointed out, too, that the ancestors of the Jews had been driven out of Egypt as men who were impious and detested by the gods. For by way of purging the country all persons who had white and leprous marks on their bodies had been assembled and driven across the border, as being under a curse; the refugees had occupied the territory round about Jerusalem, and having organized the nation of the Jews had made their hatred of mankind into a tradition, and on this account had introduced utterly outlandish laws: not to break bread with any other people, nor to show them any good will at all.13
It is no accident that the second universal paradigm14 to challenge the Jewish people was formulated by a Hellenistic Jew: Paul (Saul of Tarsus). Pauline theology transferred the divine election from the Jewish collective—“Israel of the flesh”—which still upheld the precepts of the Torah, to all those who accepted Jesus as the Messiah—the so-called “Israel of the spirit.” In his Epistle to the Galatians, Paul tells the new, universal community of believers, “For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”15 Thus did the Jews, who stubbornly sealed their hearts to the true gospel, lose their special status as God’s chosen people. Nevertheless, the Church still assigned them a key role in history’s drama: The Jews’ bitter fate, Christians believed, was unequivocal proof of their mistake in rejecting Jesus.16 “But the Jews… were yet more miserably wasted by the Romans, and utterly rooted out from their kingdom, where aliens had already ruled over them, and were dispersed through the lands (so that indeed there is no place where they are not), and are thus by their own Scriptures a testimony to us that we have not forged the prophecies about Christ,” wrote St. Augustine in the City of God.
It follows that when the Jews do not believe in our Scriptures, their own Scriptures are fulfilled in them, while they read them with blind eyes. Unless, perhaps, someone is going to say that the Christians fabricated the prophecies of Christ which are published under the name of the Sibyl, or any prophecies that there may be which are ascribed to others, which have no connection with the Jewish people. As for us, we find those prophecies sufficient which are produced from the books of our opponents; for which we recognize that it is in order to give this testimony, which, in spite of themselves, they supply for our benefit by their possession and preservation of those books, that they themselves are dispersed among all nations, in whatever direction the Christian Church spreads.17
The Augustinian “doctrine of witness” continued to shape the Church’s attitude toward Judaism for centuries. In certain respects, we ought perhaps to be thankful for this: Augustine may have harshly castigated the Jews, but he also instructed his fellow Christians to allow them to retain their separate and isolated existence. “Thou shalt not slay them, lest they should at last forget thy law: disperse them in thy might,” he quoted from Psalms.18 Indeed, although Catholicism persecuted the Jewish people and despoiled it in various ways throughout the ages—and even though the directives of Augustine and of the subsequent theologians and popes who adopted his position were regularly violated by kings, priests, and incited masses—the Jews never faced the danger of physical or spiritual annihilation under the shadow of the cross.19
The third universal paradigm, that of the Enlightenment, undoubtedly improved the situation of the Jews significantly, releasing them as it did from the ghettos and allowing them to integrate into European society.
Nevertheless, even under these auspicious circumstances, antisemitism flourished. This was no accident; the desire to liberate humanity from the shackles of superstition and antiquated custom stood in stark contrast to the obstinate, even proud refusal of most Jews to give up their particularity. Voltaire, the sworn enemy of all prejudice, addressed the Jews in words dripping with venom: “You have surpassed all nations in exorbitant legends, bad conduct, and barbarism. You are paying for it; it is your destiny.”20 Similar sentiments were conveyed by Diderot and d’Holbach, who condemned the Jews’ tendency toward segregation and religious fanaticism.21 Immanuel Kant, the most important thinker of the Enlightenment, urged the Jews to accept Christianity publically and to study the Gospels in order that they might prove themselves worthy of civil rights, thus bringing about “the euthanasia of Judaism.”22 It turns out, then, that the new universalism, though humanistic and rationalist in nature, sought to eradicate Jewish existence even before the very same idea had begun to titillate the Enlightenment’s ideological foes. “Modern, secular, antisemitism,” noted Arthur Hertzberg, “was fashioned not as a reaction to the Enlightenment and the [French] Revolution, but within the Enlightenment and Revolution themselves.”23
Until the end of the nineteenth century, the Jews were subjected to relentless attacks from both left and right. While one cannot over-emphasize the negative impact of nationalists and racists such as Wilhelm Marr, Karl Luger, Richard Wagner, and Edouard Drumont, prominent figures on the other side of the political spectrum—fearless warriors for equality and freedom—made their own weighty contribution to the brew of hatred. The French thinker Charles Fourier saw the Jews as a nation of cheats and thieves; Karl Marx despised their greed; Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, one of the founding fathers of anarchism, believed that “the Jew is the enemy of the human race. This race must be sent back to Asia or exterminated.”24 Even Jean Jaurès, the socialist leader who came to Dreyfus’s defense (and consequently has streets named after him in Israel), was not always an advocate of philosemitism. In 1895, the very year Dreyfus was convicted of treason, Jaurès published an article in the daily La Dépêche de Toulouse in which he welcomed the growing hostility among native Algerians toward the Jewish presence in their midst. Why, he wondered, “isn’t there a serious antisemitic movement in Algeria, since the Jews are practicing their methods of appropriation and extortion on the Arabs?”25 Thus spoke someone who is still considered a historical icon of the French Left. If this sounds all too familiar, it is because similar proclamations are regularly uttered today by those who swear undying devotion to the ideals of equality, justice, and love for all mankind.
It seems safe to say, then, that the “new antisemitism” simply follows the path paved by three earlier universal paradigms: Hellenism, Catholicism, and modernity. Nevertheless, it also represents something new. What makes it a novel phenomenon is not the bond between a progressive worldview and antisemitism—a combination as old as the Enlightenment itself—but rather the radically pluralistic character of the new universal vision. It is not a modern cosmopolitanism of the Kantian variety, for instance, which aims to abolish all ethnic and national particularism in the name of the humanist cause; it is, instead, a postmodern state of mind, which denies any pretense of totalism and vigorously advocates for the recognition of difference and the acceptance of the Other. In other words, instead of striving to overcome distinct identities, it praises the particular and celebrates diversity.
How can an ideology that champions such openness and tolerance be reconciled with the rejection of one specific brand of particularism—namely, the Jewish one? The answer can be found in Zionism’s ethnocentric model of the nation-state. As far as purist liberals and radicals are concerned, Israel’s very essence is illegitimate: It is a racist apartheid state that brutally tramples on the rights of its non-Jewish citizens—not to mention the millions of Palestinians who live in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza under direct or indirect occupation. But opposition to Zionism, which paints itself in bold moral hues, frequently camouflages a deeper animosity, one that is directed against the Jews as a whole. This fact has been pointed out by Robert Wistrich, a leading authority on antisemitism:
Left-leaning Judeophobes, unlike their predecessors of a century ago, never call themselves “antisemitic.” Indeed, they are usually indignant at the very suggestion that they have something against the Jews. Such denials notwithstanding, they are generally obsessed with stigmatizing Israel. The dream of the far left has long been to dissolve the hated “Zionist entity” and, in the name of human rights, make the world Judenstaatrein. Thus, they deny to the Jewish people a fundamental human and political right that they would militantly defend for nonwhite peoples—above all, the Palestinians—namely, the right to national self-determination. This anti-Zionism of the radical leftist camp, profoundly discriminatory toward Jewish nationalism, has now spread into the mainstream liberal left, whose rhetoric relentlessly seeks to undermine the moral and historic legitimacy of a Jewish state. Liberal leftists portray Israel as a state born of the “original sin” of displacing, expropriating, or expelling an “aboriginal” population.26
What distinguishes antisemitic propaganda from legitimate criticism, then, is the stubborn insistence on holding Israel to standards from which other countries are exempt, and the demand that Jews be denied a right to which other peoples are entitled, even obligated, to exercise themselves. Nevertheless, one cannot dismiss the new antisemitism as a modern version of the same old hatred; in some sense, after all, postmodern universalism deeply identifies with what the “Jew” was supposed to stand for. And it is precisely this identification that leads, we will see, to the widespread denunciation of the Jews so common today.
A 2002 article published by José Saramago in the Spanish daily El País may help us understand this complex phenomenon. In this text, an all-out antisemitic libel, Saramago denounced not only the “pathological and obsessive racism” of the Zionists, but also the effrontery of the Jewish people in asserting its victimhood at the expense of everyone else. The Jews, Saramago wrote, are “educated and trained in the idea that any suffering that has been inflicted, or is being inflicted, or will be inflicted on everyone else, especially the Palestinians, will always be inferior to that which they themselves suffered in the Holocaust. The Jews endlessly scratch their own wound to keep it bleeding, to make it incurable, and they show it to the world as if it were a banner.”27
The resentment that resonates in Saramago’s charge reflects what sociologist Jean-Michel Chaumont has famously called the “competition among victims.”28 Indeed, the eagerness to don the mantle of victimhood is a sign of the times. As a result, the postmodern subject—if he may be so called—has undergone a comprehensive transformation: No longer is he an active force, the self-legislator and self-creator praised by the thinkers of the Enlightenment. He is, rather, a passive being, abused and manipulated, ever trampled on by the daunting forces of the state, global capitalism, male hegemony, Western colonialism, and the like. If the eighteenth century celebrated the triumph of man, the present era revels in mourning his ultimate defeat.
On the endless list of the oppressed, the Jew is supposed to occupy a privileged place; he was, after all, the archetypal victim. And for a while, the European left indeed granted him this role. At first, the eagerness to shake off the heavy burden of guilt left by National Socialism and to formulate a pointed antithesis even pushed the radical intelligentsia to the opposite pole of demonstrative philosemitism. When the French authorities prevented the student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit—“Danny the Red” or “the German Jew,” as the Gaullists referred to him—from returning to France in May 1968, thousands of young people took to the streets of Paris and angrily chanted: “We are all German Jews.” “The improvised march was also a festival,” recalls Alain Finkielkraut. “Jewish identity was no longer for Jews alone.”29
European thought adopted a similar attitude. For centuries, philosophy unequivocally sided with Athens in its eternal rivalry with Jerusalem. Since the 1960s, however, it has shown an increasing interest in Jewish ethics, thanks to the work of thinkers such as Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida. While Western metaphysics, rationalism, and modernity were convicted of breeding violence and repression, if not actually paving the road to Auschwitz, the cultural alternative embodied by the persecuted victims enjoyed a sudden popularity among the intellectual elite.
But this reversal of fortune had its downside: As the new objects of an enthusiastic moral cult, the Jews gradually lost their tangible reality. They metamorphosed from flesh-and-blood beings into somewhat abstract universal figures who embodied victimhood and everything associated with it: transience, rootlessness, a lack of power. Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy, prominent French philosophers, wrote, for example, that “Jewish identity is not an identity. The Jewish people do not compose a subject and there is no proper Jewish being.… What must be understood is that because of this lack of subject, the Jews are carriers of the revelation that a social formation or political institution, whatever it may be… is never capable of fulfilling itself as a subject. There is, in general, no completed political identity.”30 “‘The Jews,’” complains Alain Badiou, a provocative thinker often accused of being antisemitic himself, “is now something, a word one is bound to recognize and respect, and before which one must bow—a master word, in effect.”31 And in Heidegger and the Jews, written by Jean-François Lyotard, the word juifs was spelled with a lower case “j,” in order to make clear that it does not represent a specific ethnic group, but all of the dispossessed, wherever and whoever they may be.32
Alas, the attempt to disassociate the marker “Jews” from reality was unsuccessful. The original and very tangible people it signifies refused to exit the stage of history. Worse, it had the gall to redefine itself by means of a powerful and successful nation-state. Perhaps this role reversal would not have inspired such great displeasure had the Jews not, at the same time, continued to insist that humanity bow its head in shame on account of their past suffering. For the fanatical adherents of the cult of victimhood, this was an intolerable demand: Zionism’s hybrid creature, the master-victim, was a walking, talking contradiction, an anathema to the postmodern moral vision. The disappointment stirred by this outrageous turn of events gave birth to the argument that the Jewish state is not really Jewish at all—certainly not in its essence. As Finkielkraut explains,
We Europeans no longer denounce the Jews’ cosmopolitan vocation; on the contrary, we exalt it and we reproach them for having betrayed it. We lament that ‘Jewishness’ is no longer what it once was, with the admirable exception of a few righteous men, a few dissidents and stubborn prophets who will not be intimidated and who dare to think freely. Yet instead of appreciating the disquieting foreignness of the Jews, we take them to task for joining us Europeans at the very moment when we are taking leave of ourselves. We are upset about their untimely assimilation among the nations, about the winding path that led them to the idolatry of Place just when the enlightened world has switched en masse to borderlessness and wandering.33
This attempt to convert the intolerably exclusive “old” Jew into an all-inclusive, new and improved model, one that transcends the bounds of specific communities, is the driving force behind the new antisemitism. The universalization of victimhood demands the liquidation—physical or symbolic—of the persecuted particular.
A comparison between this position and the abovementioned Catholic paradigm might prove instructive. The Augustinian doctrine viewed the Jews’ sufferings as a heavenly punishment; no Christian was ever envious of the Jews’ bitter fate. By contrast, post-nationalist and post-colonialist morality idolizes the downtrodden. It is precisely for this reason that the Jew, who holds fast to his suffering as if defending his private property, must let go of his exceptionalism, in order that he be absorbed into the suffering whole.34
The mantle of righteousness assumed by this unique species of Judeophobia makes it extremely appealing to people of conscience. Good-hearted activists and intellectuals—Israelis among them—are lured into joining the growing public campaign against the Zionist state, all in the belief that they are fulfilling their moral obligation to humanity, and perhaps even to the Jewish people as well. True, their denunciations of Israel are often over-zealous, motivated by a fierce desire to prove themselves worthy in the eyes of their partners in the struggle. But most of them are not really self-hating Jews, as their critics assert. They are instead just terribly misguided, unwitting parties to an insidious campaign. We can only hope they sober up, before it is too late.
Assaf Sagiv
July 2011

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