Gutman in Trouble for Diagnosing Disease

Ambassador Roasted for Speaking Truth on Anti-Semitism

Speaking Truth: Critics slam Howard Gutman, the U.S. ambassador to tiny Belgium, because he tried to dig deeper into the causes of anti-Semitism instead of simply denouncing it.
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Speaking Truth: Critics slam Howard Gutman, the U.S. ambassador to tiny Belgium, because he tried to dig deeper into the causes of anti-Semitism instead of simply denouncing it.

By J.J. Goldberg

Published December 08, 2011, issue of December 16, 2011.
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The other objection to Gutman’s speech is more caustic: In trying to explain the motives of Muslim anti-Semites, he is effectively justifying their actions. As Senator Joseph Lieberman said of Gutman’s speech, in a statement released through a spokesman, “it is inexcusable to offer rationalizations for anti-Semitism or any other form of bigotry or hatred.” Moreover, claiming that solutions must be found in Middle East diplomacy shifts responsibility away from the perpetrators themselves. To end the offense, target the offender, not the victim.

Gutman isn’t the first person to find excuses for anti-Semitism and blame it on Jewish behavior. One journalist writing more than a century ago in Austria, Hitler’s birthplace, claimed that Jews carry it with them wherever they go: “Where it does not exist, it is carried by Jews in the course of their migrations.” In fact, he wrote, Jews “naturally move to those places where [they] are not persecuted,” and once there, their mere “presence produces persecution.” They complain that they’re treated like “strangers,” even in countries where they’ve lived for centuries, but the rejection is natural, he wrote: “The majority may decide which are the strangers; for this, as indeed every point which arises in the relations between nations, is a question of might.”

Another author, writing in Russia during the height of the tsarist pogroms of the 1880s, called the Jews “a nation long since dead,” the “ghostlike apparition of a living corpse” that understandably cause revulsion in others. “[I]f the fear of ghosts is something inborn, and has a certain justification in the psychic life of mankind,” he wrote, “why be surprised at the effect produced by this dead but still living nation?”

The first quote is from Theodor Herzl’s 1896 monograph “The Jewish State.” The second is from Leon Pinsker’s seminal 1882 essay “Auto-Emancipation,” which was arguably even more influential than Herzl’s in stirring Jews to action. Both men called on Jews to leave Europe and create their own Jewish nation in the Middle East. Pinsker’s pamphlet caused a sensation and inspired a generation of young Jewish activists, including David Ben-Gurion and Vladimir Jabotinsky, to pick up stakes and answer the call. Herzl created the organizational infrastructure that turned a hare-brained scheme into a historical fact.

Pinsker and Herzl tried to understand the reasons for anti-Semitism so they could come up with solutions. In their quaint, fin de siècle way, you might say they were applying Pasteur’s scientific method to social ills: First understand the disease, then find the cure. If they were alive today, we’d be telling them to stop blaming the victim and focus on the perpetrators. If they truly believed in emigration as the answer to bigotry, we’d say, they should tell the antisemites to emigrate. And perhaps they should have. Then Hamas would be shelling the anti-Semites, which would be rich.

But Pinsker and Herzl concluded that it was pointless to try arguing with anti-Semites, since that ultimately left the fate of the Jews up to their tormentors. Instead, they called on Jews to take their fate in their own hands. Of course, most European Jews thought the way we do and stayed put, which worked out pretty well, until it didn’t.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com


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