Reconsidering Antisemitism

A Conference Looks Into New Manifestations of an Old Problem

By Ralph Seliger

Published May 23, 2003, issue of May 23, 2003.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here:
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv?
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.