Naming the Plague

It’s possible, just possible, that there’s nothing more than coincidence behind the shocking increase in antisemitic incidents in various parts of the world during the last year. The surge may be entirely unconnected to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the escalating American war on Islamic extremism that has followed.

It’s possible, but not likely. New numbers released in the last few days suggest that something very serious is going on. In Northern California, antisemitic incidents — assaults, vandalism and harassment — increased in 2002 over the year before by an astounding 800%, according to an Anti-Defamation League audit reported by Josh Richman on Page 1. In France there was an increase of 500%, as Marc Perelman reports on Page 9. Numbers like that don’t just happen.

It could be, as some ADL officials have suggested recently, that America’s war on terrorism and the mood of anti-Western anger in much of the Islamic world have simply provided a trigger, giving longtime bigots an excuse to act out old hatreds that they used to suppress.

On the other hand, the numbers suggest another possibility: that the wave of anti-Jewish attacks is at least partly a reflection of a new strain of hatred, rooted not in old prejudices but in very new rage. It may be that some of the Jews and Jewish institutions being attacked are victims not of the old prejudice but of the new cold war that is rapidly heating up.

The evidence is considerable. First of all, there’s the suddenness of it. Something happened last year. Things have changed.

Second, most of the antisemitic violence in Europe is perpetrated by young Arabs who insist they are acting to avenge the Palestinians. Much of the new violence in this country seems to draw inspiration, if not direction, from the war against Israel and the West. And every day brings new press reports of Arabs and Muslims around the world calling for a holy war against Osama bin Laden’s twin demons of Crusaders and Jews. The rage starts in real events, then feeds on itself, and Jews are the victims.

Innocent victims they remain, bystanders in a war that they did not start and do not want. Antisemitism is barbaric whatever its cause. But you cannot cure a disease until you understand it. If this is something new, we must say so. We must name this plague.

These distinctions are not academic. If, as most Jewish communal leaders have been arguing, the rise in antisemitism is merely old poison in a new packaging, then no rethinking of responses or strategies is called for. If, on the other hand, this is a new phenomenon, then it demands new thinking.

Let’s be blunt: If the new antisemitism is indeed a new wave of Muslim rage, a response to headlines about American or Israeli actions in the Middle East, then it must be regarded — and factored in — as one of the costs of those American or Israeli actions. It is then fair to ask if the costs are worth the benefits. The answer may well be affirmative, but that cannot be known until the math is done. It could be that only a strong show of force will quell the rage. On the other hand, it could be that the danger can only be reduced by isolating the hard core of haters and winning over the periphery, thus shrinking the wells of hatred. That would require some new strategies.

The equations aren’t simple. The crusty British parliamentarian Lord Greville Janner, founder of Labour Friends of Israel and a vice president of the World Jewish Congress, has been arguing lately that the new wave of antisemitism must be understood not as a single phenomenon but as a confluence of multiple factors coming together through the force of historic events.

In a speech in Washington last week, addressing the new antisemitism in Europe, Janner laid out five distinct strains. One is a resurgence of Jew-hatred on the neo-Nazi far right. A second is a new spike in the antisemitism of the Marxist left. A third strain is the old, genteel antisemitism of the European upper classes, now infecting intellectuals and the media. Fourth, he cited unrest among young immigrants and children of immigrants from Muslim North Africa. The fifth strain is violence spilling over from the Middle East conflict, with Arabs in Europe acting as willing surrogates for their Palestinian cousins and targeting Jews as unwilling surrogates for their cousins in Israel.

Each of these strains has its own roots. During the last two years, thanks to events on the world stage, they have come together in an explosive brew. Addressing the problem requires isolating its sources and examining them separately — and then finding the right cures.

The magnitude of the crisis suggests that careful thinking is required. Answers are needed, but not just any answers. Good solutions fix problems. Bad solutions make them worse.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.
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Naming the Plague

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