Opinion // Ben Cohen
Blaming the Jews, Again
European intellectuals have come up with a nasty new twist to anti-Semitism.
“Die Juden sind unser Unglück!” (“The Jews are our misfortune!”) was the slogan that adorned every edition of Der Stürmer, the Nazi rag famed for its lurid, near-pornographic depiction of the nefarious Jewish influence that was supposedly wrecking German society. The slogan was also a pithy summation of what has made anti-Semitism distinct as a form of prejudice: namely, the fantasy that all social and political ills can be traced back to a powerful minority who are, in reality, a powerless target.
To an astonishing degree, this fantasy is still alive among European elites, with a new twist: If a century ago, the Jews were the authors of everyone else’s misfortune, these days they are the authors most of all of their own.
Seventy years after the liberation of Auschwitz, tens or hundreds of thousands of Europeans still endorse the basic idea that organized, powerful Jews are casting a gloomy pall over society’s collective spirit and harming the material well-being of everyone else. Although the wider society recognizes that anti-Semitism exists, and most educated people find it regrettable, a growing number are apparently comfortable arguing in public that certain types of Jewish behavior are in large part what causes anti-Semitism. Conveniently, blaming Jews for anti-Semitism gives both traditional anti-Semites and extreme anti-Zionists a focus for otherwise vague feelings of political discontent and moral indignation. (And in Europe right now, from Spain in the west to Greece in the east, there’s a lot of moral indignation in the air.)
Despite the views of some abroad, this is not a replay of the 1930s. For one thing, there is a Jewish state; for another, nearly all European governments have condemned anti-Semitism as a danger to civilization. On this point, the French and British prime ministers and Germany’s chancellor are in firm, even emotional, agreement.
Still, many opinion makers, especially in the European media—who would angrily deny that they themselves traffic in anti-Semitic ideas—are cynically spreading this latest variation. A good example appeared in the French magazine L’Express last August, at the tail end of Israel’s war against the Hamas regime in Gaza—another frightening period for French Jews, with several incidents of pro-Palestinian demonstrators attacking synagogues and beating up unsuspecting Jewish individuals. An article entitled Les Nouveaux Baal-Zebub (“The New Beelzebubs”), by leading pundit Christophe Barbier, opined that the Jews were in large part to blame for the anti-Semitic atmosphere around them—an atmosphere that, by the end of 2014, had persuaded a record 6,000 members of the community that they were better off living in Israel.
This desire to leave, Barbier wrote, showed the Jews were guilty of “communalism”—a cardinal political sin in France, where all citizens are expected to see themselves as members exclusively of the French republic—and was, in fact, fomenting the very anti-Semitism they feared. Instead of moving to a country led by a “war-mongering nationalist” (a.k.a. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu), French Jews owed it to their republic to stay in place and fight for the republican ideal. And if they did stay, they should recognize the need to avoid “bunkerizing” their religion and retreating into a self-imposed ghetto.
In other words: Stay, but stay on our terms, and within the framework we deem appropriate. Doubtless, Barbier would regard as impudent any suggestion that his article was anti-Semitic, even as he demanded that Jews rein in their suspiciously separatist tendencies for the sake of France.
One other kind of Jewish behavior is commonly said to regrettably-but-understandably trigger anti-Semitic responses in others: the behavior of the State of Israel. Occasionally, someone articulates this idea crudely enough to betray the underlying anti-Semitic assumption. For instance, at the unity rally held in Paris after the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket massacres, a live-on-air BBC correspondent told a Jewish woman he was interviewing, “Many critics of Israel’s policy would suggest that the Palestinians suffer hugely at Jewish hands as well.” My emphasis.
Setting aside the anti-Semitic tone of this comment—which appears to assign collective guilt to Jews for the policies of the Jewish state—what about its content? Can a legitimate case be made that countering anti-Semitism in Europe requires Jews to clearly distance themselves from Israel, and, more generally, to think and act outside of the tribal confines scorned by writers such as Christophe Barbier?
There are two reasons why not. First, as the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy observed at a recent UN General Assembly meeting on anti-Semitism, “Even if the Palestinians had a state, as is their right—even then, alas, this enigmatic and old hatred would not dissipate one iota.” The Islamist war on the Jews, like the Nazi one before it, is animated by a vision of a world in which Jews play, at best, a much subordinated role. An Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank to create a State of Palestine would not weaken this impulse at all.
Second, just as a free society respects individual rights, it must respect the rights of Jewish communities to freely declare that an affiliation with Israel is essential to their identity. Otherwise, we are left with soci-eties that contain people who are identified as Jews but are frowned upon the moment they say or do anything that underlines their Jewishness—with the exception of those Jews who publicly criticize or condemn Israel.
That might be acceptable to Christophe Barbier and those who, like him, believe that anti-Semitism will disappear only once the Jews themselves radically change their outlook. But it is not acceptable to the vast majority of Jews themselves. If European governments really are sincere about wanting their Jewish communities to remain in situ, they had better understand that. And fast.
Ben Cohen’s book, Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through 21st Century Antisemitism (Edition Critic 2014), is available on Amazon.