Reconsidering Antisemitism

A Conference Looks Into New Manifestations of an Old Problem

By Ralph Seliger

Published May 23, 2003, issue of May 23, 2003.
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All seats were sold for this month’s “Old Demons, New Debates: Anti-Semitism in the West” conference at the Center for Jewish History in New York. It was addressed by a glittering assemblage of academics, journalists and activists from the United States, England, France, Poland, Israel, Italy, Canada, Mexico and even Iran. Much brilliance was on display, but little light ultimately shed, and no real heat generated.

Despite the somber and scholarly tone, this was essentially a feel-good exercise or a solidarity rally. Not that these are bad things, especially given our besieged situation as Jews and Zionists. I share the general sense of indignation and concern at the anti-Israel frenzy at large in Europe today, the vulnerability of European Jewry and the rising tide of violent hatred emanating from the Islamic world.

Still, I grew uncomfortable with how little participants may have come away with other than reinforcing their sense of outrage. I may be overstating a little; there was value for the careful listener to the nine plenary sessions and the more than 30 speakers — nearly all of the highest caliber in their fields.

It’s always enthralling to listen to the challenging presentations of keynoter Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic — replete with wickedly acerbic wit and precisely refined vocabulary and syntax. He was quick to point out that today’s antisemitic manifestations in Europe are not akin to the genocidal threat arrayed against Jews 60 years ago, that our reasons for concern are not causes for panic. Yet Wieseltier restated the common conclusion that antisemitism is more about Jew-haters than Jews, that there is no “Jewish problem” as such but the moral problem of non-Jews who buy into age-old prejudices and the illogic of scapegoating and demonization. Hence, there is nothing that Jews can do to modify the opinions of antisemites.

This is a hard truth when related to hard-core antisemites, but not in relation to masses of people who react to news events and visual images, or the manipulation of same. If we can do “nothing,” after all, what in the world can we do?

Was not antisemitism on the wane until reignited by scenes of the intifada 32 months ago? We have forgotten — or never really knew — how much of the Arab world established a level of relations with Israel during Oslo’s halcyon days. How many of us recall Saudi expressions of compassion for the Israeli victims of a wave of suicide bombings in early 1996? There is even credible evidence shared by conference speakers from Poland that antisemitism is at a historic low in this long-standing hotbed of Jew-hatred.

Times change, news stories change. May we envision the Oslo peace process as a near success instead of merely a bloody failure?

It would be useful to engage in what-ifs: What if Baruch Goldstein had not begun the on-again, off-again cycles of terrorism and counter-violence that marred the Oslo years? What if Yitzhak Rabin had survived to maintain his experienced grip on the tiller of government? What if Benjamin Netanyahu had lost the fateful prime ministerial election of 1996, instead of winning by a tiny margin? What if Ariel Sharon had not ostentatiously paraded on the Temple Mount with hundreds of Israeli security personnel in his train? What if Yasser Arafat had negotiated energetically with Ehud Barak and Bill Clinton at Camp David or afterwards to iron out a mutually acceptable compromise — while clamping down on eruptions of violence from his quarter?

On this last point, the naysayers will protest that “obviously” Arafat never wanted peace. Maybe. But we know that there were tears from some in his retinue that a deal was not worked out, that Arafat’s former representative in Jerusalem courageously declared that the Palestinian “right of return” to Israel is an impossible dream, that Abu Mazen mapped out a reasonable territorial compromise with Yossi Beilin on the eve of Rabin’s assassination, and that now as prime minister, Abu Mazen reiterates his observation that the intifada has been a counterproductive disaster for the Palestinians.

If Oslo had succeeded, the odious convulsions seizing Europe and the Islamic world would not be happening. Racist and especially theological antisemitism would endure, but increasingly on the margins. Since most of the anti-Jewish or anti-Israel occurrences we deplore are reactions to a changed political landscape, is it really best understood as antisemitism?

Ralph Seliger is co-editor of Israel Horizons, a publication of Meretz USA.

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