Sounding Alarms Without Sounding Alarmist

By Jerome A. Chanes

Published August 20, 2004, issue of August 20, 2004.
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The New Anti-Semitism: The Current Crisis and What We Must Do About It

By Phyllis Chesler

Jossey-Bass, 320 pages, $24.95.

Never Again? The Threat of the New Anti-Semitism

By Abraham H. Foxman

HarperSanFrancisco, 320 pages, $24.95.

——

Those Who Forget the Past: The Question of Anti-Semitism

Edited by Ron Rosenbaum

Random House Trade Paperbacks,

649 pages, $16.95.

——

The Return of Anti-Semitism

By Gabriel Schoenfeld

Encounter Books, 280 pages, $25.95.

——

In a book titled “The New Anti-Semitism,” Arnold Foster and Benjamin R. Epstein address a “new” flavor of Jew-hatred sweeping the world in their day and age. From black militants and leftist activists to Arab lobbyists, they depict a new danger on the rise and deserving of immediate attention.

Date of publication: 1974.

Thirty years later, we are being treated to a gaggle of books that once again aver there is a “new” antisemitism in the land, and that Jewish security is in grave danger. What’s “new” about it in 2004? Is contemporary Jew hatred — from suicide bombings in Israel to swastikas on French synagogues — a new phenomenon, or are these simply examples of classic anti-Judaism refracted through the prism of current realities?

Perhaps it is a new rehearsing of the old, suggests journalist Ron Rosenbaum, who has collected a truly impressive array of essays in “Those Who Forget the Past: The Question of Anti-Semitism.” The title of Rosenbaum’s collection, drawn from George Santayana’s well-worn dictum, implies that Jews (and others) have learned little from the history of Jew hatred. Rosenbaum’s thesis is that Jews, even the overwhelming majority of Jews for whom fear of antisemitism does not compromise the ability to participate in society, should be alarmed about antisemitism, and that the failure to “face the facts and fight the good fight” gives aid and comfort to antisemites.

In seriatim sections — European antisemitism, the “right” and the “left,” the classic Christian deicide accusation, new forms of antisemitism, anti-Zionism, Israel and Muslims — Rosenbaum’s essayists engage in what emerges as a multifaceted and multilayered dialogue on antisemitism. It is to Rosenbaum’s credit that he has selected a collection of essays that, in their variety and substance, will serve the needs of students, scholars, journalists, public-affairs pros — and just plain folks.

My favorites? Leon Wieseltier and Ruth Wisse, at polar opposites of the gevalt-ism index; Jeffrey Goldberg’s essay, “Behind Mubarak”; Jonathan Rosen’s “The Uncomfortable Question of Anti-Semitism,” which in some ways kicked off the current discussion when it appeared in The New York Times Magazine in 2001; Fiamma Nirenstein’s insightful mini-memoir; Edward Said’s thinly veiled anti-Zionist venom. These essays and many others will serve to shape a useful discussion around antisemitism.

But in a very large book — the volume weighs in at more than 700 pages — there is likely to be some muddling and confusion. Rosenbaum, in his zeal to advance his grande thèse, abandons his natural journalistic discipline and tosses everything and everybody into the pot. It’s hard to pull out the chunks of succulent meat from this cholent. But the main problem with “Those Who Forget the Past” is that any of the balanced analysis that Rosenbaum made an effort to effect in collecting the essays is dissipated by his long and unfocused introduction. Rosenbaum appears to be obsessed with “side-shows”; to take but one example, his discussion of Holocaust denial is hopelessly muddled and misses the point with respect to its significance. Holocaust denial is a vehicle for the furtherance of antisemitic goals, not an antisemitic goal in itself — and it should be treated as such. This dynamic, an important one in the eyes of scholars of antisemitism, seems lost on Rosenbaum.

For him, there is precious little doubt where antisemitism is going: up, up, up. Islamic fundamentalism and Jew hatred; the rebirth of older antisemitic traditions in the West that were thought to have ended along with Nazism; antisemitism on the Internet; Holocaust denial, together with a “looking away” from the reality of the threat. These all lead us into a new miasma of Jew hatred.

But what Rosenbaum — no historian he! — ignores is that there is a fundamental difference between the historical dynamics that were present in Europe in the first decades of the 20th century, when antisemitism was embedded in the institutions of power, and Europe and America of the past 50 years, in which, whatever the vicious reality of antisemitism, the murder of Jews is not on the official agenda. (The story in a number of Arab lands is quite different, to be sure, and a number of authors — most cogently Bernard Lewis and Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan — address this issue.) “The village is not burning!” asserts Leon Wieseltier (one of the authors represented), and he is surely on to something.

There is a difference between “sounding an alarm” — as Rosenbaum wants done — and being an alarmist. Rosenbaum applauds several recent works for success in the former, though they may in fact be doing more of the latter.

The title of Abraham H. Foxman’s “Never Again? The Threat of the New Anti-Semitism” tells us a great deal about the author’s thesis. In appropriating the slogan of the late Jewish Defense League activist and Kach leader, Rabbi Meir Kahane, Foxman, longtime director of the Anti-Defamation League and one of the most highly visible and effective professionals in American Jewish life, sets an activist agenda for his book. Even with the question mark, “Never again” — the direct descendant of “Rak Kach!” (“Only thus!” and I leave it to the reader to figure out the “thus”), which was the battle-cry of the Zionist-Revisionist Irgun during its struggle with the British — is highly suggestive of a particular approach to Jewish security that borders on an extremism that the author may not have intended.

There is much that is commendable in Foxman’s book, and the data, scrupulously gleaned from the files of the ADL, are comprehensive, accurate and informative. Still, the value of the data is somewhat diminished by the self-serving manner in which they are presented. Foxman rarely misses an opportunity to attribute various Jewish achievements to the Anti-Defamation League; he seems to have forgotten that other, never-mentioned, Jewish groups have been active in the struggle for Jewish security. But it is Foxman’s “Never again!” thesis that may be most troubling.

Foxman has adopted a “worst-case-scenario” strategy in crafting his book and, in his defense, no Jewish leader wants to be in a position in which he minimizes the threats of antisemitism; events in Europe during 2002 and again this year provide plenty of cause for concern. But the crucial issue in any discussion of contemporary antisemitism is not antisemitism per se, but the nature of the relationship of antisemitism to Jewish security: the ability of Jews to participate in the workings of a society at any level. This dynamic is missing in “Never Again,” and that’s the central problem with Foxman’s book.

As it is with Phyllis Chesler’s energetic book, “The New Anti-Semitism: The Current Crisis and What We Must Do About It.” Chesler’s good spirit bursts through on every page, and there is much of value in this well-written book, especially her telescopic rendering of the history of anti-Zionism. But ultimately, “The New Anti-Semitism” suffers from the same lack of nuance as does Foxman’s book.

But the alarmism reaches its greatest heights in Gabriel Schoenfeld’s recent work, “The Return of Anti-Semitism.” In a chapter entitled “Descent into Delusion,” Schoenfeld, senior editor of Commentary magazine, asks: “Are we approaching a 1933 or a 1939?”; he develops a formidable array of data (all from the Islamic world) in support of his “It could happen again” thesis, and asserts that the only thing to prevent it from happening again is “a sufficient show of [Jewish] aggressiveness and determination.” Perhaps so, but comparisons between the Europe of 1933, where antisemitism was embedded in the institutions of power — often the formal institutions over many centuries — and the world of 2003 are both wrong and wrong-headed.

Moreover, lumping together America with Europe ignores the recent history of, and the profound differences between, the two regions. In five exceptionally concentrated paragraphs, Schoenfeld gives the reader a superb outline of the history of American antisemitism. But his proposition that America has begun to resemble Europe — in large measure because of a growing number of Muslims — is simply wrong. For one thing, Schoenfeld clearly does not feel the cold air issuing from the open demographic trapdoor behind him: Demographics as a predictor of social trends is the secret killer of historians. Further, the Islamic catalog of horrors offers little in the way of cogent analysis of the American situation, which always has been understood in terms of the singular nature of American pluralism.

Finally, and most troubling, is Schoenfeld’s penchant for demonizing those with whom he is in disagreement, arguing that, in effect, if you don’t agree that antisemitism is on the rise, you are part of a “gruesome tale of Jewish anti-Semitism.” To put legitimate discussion of the nature and extent of antisemitism in the same category as crackpot and vicious antisemitism, as Schoenfeld does, is to engage in nothing less than scholarly anarchy.

The lack of nuance in the recent literature on antisemitism, particularly with respect to the delicate relationship between antisemitic expression and the security of Jews in the contemporary world, does these distinguished authors — and their public — a disservice.

At bottom, for most Jews, the issue is not antisemitism, it is Jewish security. There is the need for analysts to distinguish, both in the United States and in Europe, between antisemitism — which does exist to a greater or lesser degree and must be monitored, repudiated and counteracted — and Jewish security, which is strong, especially in the United States and indeed in most places. Jewish security best may be defined as the ability of Jews, individually and collectively, to participate in the society at any level without the fear of anti-Jewish animus.

It is true that in 2002, and again in 2004, this distinction was and is less clear in Europe than it is in the United States. In the United States, whatever antisemitism there may be has nothing to do with the security of Jews, which is unparalleled. Conversely, the threats to Jewish security in the United States come from sources that probably have little if anything to do with anti-Jewish animus; attacks on constitutional protections, especially on church-state separation, fall under this rubric. As one analyst put it, the destiny of the Jews has at last left Europe — to the sovereignty of Israel, to the pluralism of the United States. The United States is not just another address for Jews on the run; America is structurally hospitable to Jews. And whatever the nature and extent of the threat in Europe from militant Islam — and one must not minimize the threat — a contextual analysis is necessary when addressing questions of the relationship of expressed antisemitism to Jewish security.

The peroration of “Those Who Forget the Past” — and frankly, the strongest chapter in the book — is a powerful essay by novelist and literary analyst Cynthia Ozick. Ozick’s essay, a tour-de-force, is brilliant, erudite, comprehensive, scholarly, moving — and hysterical. The reader will learn much from Ozick’s thoughtful essay. Her chapter, though, is essentially an effective parade of horrors. But the horrors of the past, while they inform the present, do not necessarily conform to the realities of the present. It is all reminiscent of my mother’s favorite one-liner: “What’s a Jewish telegram? ‘Start worrying: Letter to follow.’”

There is much going on in the world that is serious; one need not go further than the new bursts of antisemitism in France in the first half of this year. But not forgetting the past — and hence our analysis — calls for more than the Jewish telegram.






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