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Parley Takes a Fresh Look at World’s Oldest ‘Demon’

There is often comfort in the familiar, even in a familiar evil. That is why in the analysis of antisemitism, the historical approach, the search for continuities, is often an emotionally and rhetorically conflicted one. Casting one’s eyes back on the past millennia of persecution offers a terrifying vista. But if such a perspective can make one world-weary, it can also make one worldly-wise. Such a tension between discomfort and comfort, between incomprehension and comprehension, is nicely summed up in the rabbinic dictum, “It is a known law: Esau hates Jacob.” If the animus of the goyim toward the Jews is immutable, a part of the divine order, it can be, and must be, endured.

A similar tension was on display in the four-day conference hosted earlier this week by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, “Old Demons, New Debates: Anti-semitism in the West.” Held at the Center for Jewish History in New York, where YIVO’s offices and archives are housed, the conference included panel discussions with some 35 eminent scholars, journalists and intellectuals from more than 10 countries, all assembled to confront these “old demons.”

In a sense, the YIVO Institute’s own past suggests the search for historical continuities. Founded in 1925 as the Yidisher visnshaftlekher institut (Yiddish Scientific Institute) in Vilna, Poland, YIVO served as an academic center for the study of Yiddish and Eastern European Jewish culture. (Among its early supporters were Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud). In 1940, the institute relocated to New York City, where an affiliate was already in operation. It thereby became the only pre-Holocaust scholarly institution to transfer its mission successfully from the Old World to the New, and now boasts the world’s largest collections of documentary materials on Eastern European Jewry.

Moreover, according to YIVO’s executive director, Carl Rheins, nearly half of the members of the institute’s 28-member board are Holocaust survivors or children of survivors, for whom the memories of past persecutions are especially poignant. When, last May, board members heard reports of the disturbing rise of antisemitic incidents in Western Europe, they decided that some action on their part was necessary. “Old Demons, New Debates” was the result.

The conference’s first speaker was Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, who served as an advisor to the conference (many of the participants have appeared in the magazine’s pages). In his opening remarks, Wieseltier declared that “Jews and students of Jewish history have long ago developed what Rebecca West called ‘an unsurprisable mind.’” Wieseltier invoked this phrase to counsel sobriety and responsible analysis.

Yet many of the speakers during the next several days freely admitted surprise. During a panel discussion on “What’s Old, What’s New —- Continuities and Discontinuities,” the writer and translator Hillel Halkin announced: “I would never have imaged several years ago that I would soon be attending a conference on antisemitism, considered not as a historical phenomenon… but as — once again — a clear and present danger to the Jewish people.”

In fact, French philosopher and scholar of Jewish history Alain Finkielkraut suggested, an investigation of contemporary antisemitism might actually require “a surprisable mind.” We speak of old demons and new debates, Finkielkraut said, but we face new demons and old debates, and surprise might force us to recognize the difference.

Finkielkraut was not alone in his preoccupation with novelty. During the last decade, some prominent Jewish intellectuals have taken it upon themselves to publicly restrain what they consider to be the professional practitioners of Jewish panic. But though a few speakers warned against hysteria, the YIVO conference suggests that the divide between the Pollyannas and the Cassandras in the Jewish community has been considerably narrowed. At the very least, a general consensus seemed to have been reached among the conference participants that they faced a new, unfamiliar challenge, of one sort or another.

Throughout the sessions, three main features were presented distinguishing contemporary Western antisemitism from its predecessors. The first, and most hopeful, was that it existed in conjuncture with the lack of antisemitism in the United States. Wieseltier described the Jews’ status in the United States, and antisemitism’s lack of legitimacy here as “representing a revolution in Jewish history.” “Something really has changed,” Wieseltier said. “We must bless the discontinuity…. We have earned the pleasure of pronouncing vigilantly, vigilantly, vigilantly, a Shehecheyanu [the Jewish blessing over a novel occasion].”

But a second development discussed by the participants, the rising tide of global anti-Americanism, compromises the first. Speaking of America’s war against terrorism, Christopher Caldwell, a senior editor at The Weekly Standard, noted that “The United States will spend much of its money in the coming years fighting antisemites.” Yet if an increasingly distrusted America is linked in the world’s eyes with the Jews — and with Israel — then antisemitism and anti-Americanism will feed off each other. And thus the more that America protects the Jews, the more that protection will be necessary. The feedback cycle suggests that, for the immediate future, discussions of antisemitism will also be discussions of American security as well, and that for American Jews, disentangling their own sense of security from their feelings of insecurity will become increasingly more difficult.

Finally, nearly all the participants in the conference recognized that the most virulent form of contemporary antisemitism is now disguised as a pathologically insistent anti-Zionism, what Halkin called “Israelophobia.” What is new is that this hatred of Israel is in active conversation with Islamic fundamentalism. For instance, European forms of antisemitism are adopted by Islamic radicals, and then recycled back to the West, as with the recent Egyptian television series that was based on the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” Perhaps this is what terrified the conference speakers the most: One could no longer even distinguish the old demons from the new.

One of the more profound explanations of this relationship between Western and Islamic antisemitism was offered by Finkielkraut. France, he claimed, has become what Albert Camus called “‘a judge-penitent,’ a universal moralizer whose credentials to judge everybody, everywhere, all the time, rest on the awareness of its own past and potential criminality.” This zeal for moralizing has taken the form of an “obsessive remembrance that empties the universe of everything that is not Nazi or victim.” The French progressive left, atoning for its colonial crimes, has identified the Palestinian as the victim par excellence, and so Israelis necessarily become Nazis and Sharon becomes Hitler. All other European nations “have done their civilizing homework except the Jews,” the French left insists; only Israelis have forgotten the Holocaust. And so, with a terrible irony, the antisemitism of the French can be traced to the belief that the Jews have become “the last antisemites of the Western world.”

Indeed, according to Finkielkraut, Israel’s great crime is to be the enemy of the Other, which the post-colonial West has taken upon itself to support unquestioningly. Such an accusation represents a terrible joke on the Jewish dream of normalcy, for now Jews are singled out and doomed for not being as other as the Other. Paul Berman, political and cultural essayist and author of the recently published “Terror and Liberalism,” offered another explanation of antisemitism that elaborated on this Western encounter of the Other. Berman proposed that contemporary Western antisemitism is actually a rationalist reaction to the irrationality of Islamic fundamentalist hatred of the Jews. In order to make sense of suicide bombings, he suggested, the West must assume that Israel has perpetrated enormous depredations on the Palestinians.

Yet the precise nature of the relationship between rationality and antisemitism was one of the more contested subjects of the conference. If Berman suggested that Israelophobia is actually the product of a desperate, fevered rationalist imagination, many conference participants insisted that there were limits to the rationalism one should assign to antisemites. There was, for instance, a resistance to attributing antisemitism primarily to the self-interest of countries wishing to curry favor with their own large Muslim populations. Participants preferred to focus on the psychological, emotional and sub-rational, rather than on the strategic motivations for antisemitism. “Even when there are strategic reasons,” Finkielkraut claimed, “there is self-righteousness behind it.”

In his remarks, Halkin gestured to another possible reason for the emphasis on the non-rational, as a response to what he called “the question”: “whether the real cause of antisemitism is to be found in the Jews or in the world.” Earlier in the conference, Wieseltier had announced that such a question was beneath the dignity of Jews to address. Strictly speaking, antisemitism is not a Jewish problem, but a non-Jewish problem, he declared. But Halkin pointed out that throughout Jewish and Zionist history, Jews have often attributed their persecution to their own actions and own condition, whether it be their sinfulness, or their lack of national aspirations. Halkin reminded the audience that Jewish self-blame can be considered an optimistic dispensation, because “if you are the cause of your own suffering, you have the ability to rectify it.” Yet the conference seemed to reject such consolation. Few of the other speakers suggested that there was any concession that Israel could make that might allay antisemitism, or any reform it could undergo that might lessen the hostility of the European or Arab nations. This is partially due to the fact that there were few outspoken critics of Israel among the participants (one of the most eloquent of those critics, Tony Judt, was slated to speak but was unable to attend). When the occasional criticism of Israeli settlement policy was offered by audience members, it was often met with a chorus of hisses. But the privileging of the non-rational was also attributable to the belief that these new, post-colonial and Islamist demons could not be argued with, only fiercely resisted on the world stage.

Such a belief provoked both determination and desperation from the conference participants. But one of the event’s final speakers seemed to offer some measure of hope. Konstanty Gebert, a columnist for Gazata Wyborcza, Poland’s largest daily newspaper, told the audience of the increasingly warm relations between the Polish state and its Jewish citizens, and Israel.

“Poland has over the last fifteen years gone through a transformation beyond my wildest dreams,” Gebert announced. Such a transformation was all the more profound because Poland, as Gebert himself admitted, was the center of so much Jewish hatred during the last centuries. There is still some antisemitism in Poland, Gebert admitted, but he rejected the notion that “Amalek remains Amalek,” referring to the Children of Israel’s ancient enemy. In other words, though new demons keep emerging, some old demons can be retired.

Still, those old demons are familiar ones, ones with which the Jewish people have wrestled before, and with which they will wrestle again. Such recognition can be something of a consolation in itself. Struggling with new demons, unfamiliar demons — now that is terrifying.

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