An edited speech given by Eve Garrard, Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Manchester, to the Pears Institute for the study of Antisemitism’s event ‘Israel and Antisemitism in Britain: Now and in the Future’.
The murders in France of four innocent Jewish shoppers, connected arbitrarily but not accidentally with the killings of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, make the claim that antisemitism is once again on the rise in Europe seem depressingly plausible. Here in the UK the Community Security Trust thinks there’s been an increase in antisemitism, and since they monitor such things carefully, I for one am inclined to believe them. The Guardian even devoted a whole page (on 5 January 2015) to this resurgence, so I think we can take that as strong evidence that the phenomenon is a real one.
Some of us, perhaps many of us, thought that the Second World War, and the huge and ravenous killing of the European Jews which was so distinctive a part of that tremendous blood-letting, would have put an end to serious antisemitism in Europe; we thought that shame and horror would effectively preclude its resurrection from the grave of the death-camps. Well, if we did think that, we were wrong, and more fool us. We shouldn’t have expected so long-standing and deep-rooted a hostility to melt away in the post-war spring sunshine, such as it was.
People sometimes say that if we’re to understand the phenomenon of antisemitism we have to look at its root causes, and the root cause of its current increase is, supposedly, the behaviour of Israel, particularly in the Gaza war it fought last summer. Well, we can all agree that we should look at the root causes of outbreaks of racism in order to understand them better. But if we’re to find out what’s really going on we may need to spread our cause-catching net a little wider than is usual, in order to identify the various forces which are at work. What counts as the root cause may itself be a matter of dispute, and very often the identification by an observer of a cause as being the ‘root’ of the problem in hand is actually the result of prior political commitments and pre-judgements which ensure that the blame for the problem lands exactly where the observer has already decided it belongs. (Think of those people who regard immigration as the root cause of all social unrest in the UK, or who think that women’s immodest dress and behaviour is the root cause of rape. Their prior hostility to what they identify as root causes is often remarkably clear.)
People who think of antisemitism as being the result of the behaviour of Israel, or more widely the behaviour of Zionists, are concentrating on what we might call a push factor: the way Israel has fought its most recent war, or perhaps the fact that she fought it (or any other war) at all, is seen as pushing people, however reluctantly, into the otherwise unwelcome embrace of antisemitism. But the push explanation is in many ways very unsatisfactory. It’s supposed to work like this: people are horrified by what Israel has done in Gaza, where about 2,500 people were killed last summer, and that horror leads them to feel hostility towards Jews here in the UK, since they’re inevitably associated with Israel, the world’s only Jewish state. On this story the arrow of causation, so to speak, runs from Israel’s horrifying crimes to a resulting antisemitism. Perhaps those who are horrified may not feel actual hatred towards Jews, but the hostility aroused in them by Israel’s activities leads them to repeat some very familiar antisemitic tropes. These include the blood libel – that is, the charge that Jews, in this case Israeli Jews, callously and deliberately aim at the blood-letting of non-Jews, especially their children; and the trope that there exists a shadowy but powerful Zionist lobby (aka the Jewish lobby) which exerts a malign and well-nigh total control over international and especially economic affairs. Israel’s behaviour, so it is claimed, has pushed people into embracing these and other prejudicial and discriminatory responses. Or it has led them to say, as Ken Loach did, that they’re not antisemitic themselves, but they can understand why some people are – Israel’s behaviour feeds feelings of antisemitism.
But when we ask, ‘Why Israel? Why is there among the groups so hostile to Israel no comparable hostility, no demands to boycott and ostracise, polities which commit far more, and far more serious, violations of human rights?’ then the answers we get range from the implausible to the downright ludicrous. References are frequently made to Israel’s human rights violations, or to it being an occupying power – but these fail to explain the hostility, since there are other far worse rights-violators, and other occupying states whose occupations have killed far more people, but whose activities aren’t used to explain prejudice against them or their nationals. Indeed these other states, such as Turkey or China, often seem to get an entirely free pass from the very people who announce how absolutely intolerable they find Israel’s misdeeds. (A ludicrous rather than an implausible answer to the question ‘Why Israel?’ was offered by an American academic in support of an academic boycott of Israel. His astonishingly vacuous reply was, ‘Well, we have to start somewhere.’)
Clearly something else is going on here; there’s something other than moral outrage at occupation or human rights violations doing at least part of the work of generating so selective a hostility. A proper explanation of the resurgence of antisemitism is going to have to say something to account for that remarkable selectivity. And in view of how unsatisfactory most of the answers citing push factors are, we ought also to consider the possibility of pull factors: the possibility that there’s something about antisemitism which might actively attract some people and entice them to embrace it, however great a show of reluctance they may make. We ought, that is, to consider what rewards antisemitism offers, and what satisfactions it may provide.
Unfortunately there’s a wide variety of such rewards, but the one I want to focus on here is the satisfaction of participating in long-standing traditions, and in doing this I’ll be drawing to a large extent on the historian David Nirenberg’s recent work on the very idea of Jewishness: Anti-Judaism. In this book, Nirenberg isn’t investigating prejudicial or discriminatory behaviour against actual Jews; rather, he’s interested in the role played by the idea of Jewishness in the broader culture in which it’s embedded. He argues, with a great deal of very wide-ranging evidence, that the idea of Jewishness, always a hostile idea, has played a very notable role in Western culture: it’s acted as a prism through which people make sense of the world, and in particular make sense of their enemies. This is the phenomenon which Nirenberg labels ‘anti-Judaism’: it’s a picture of Jewishness which is used to identify and explain the forces that we find hostile to us. The precise characteristics which make up this idea of Jewishness have varied across the centuries, though there are some constant themes: Jewishness supposedly concentrates on and cares for the material rather than the spiritual; it’s wedded to a love of money; it exercises a deep and sinister influence in the corridors of power, wherever they are; it’s cruel and retrograde, and relishes the chance to shed the blood of non-Jews, especially children – the infamous blood libel (which we can see again in some of the cartoons produced by anti-Zionists and anti-Semites in this country and others). Even where there are few or no Jews in a particular country, this idea of Jewishness persists and flourishes, enabling people to criticise their enemies as being Jews, or at least in some way ‘Jew-ish’. (Some very striking examples of this recently occurred in Egypt, when the elected President Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood was ousted by the army under Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Sisi was accused of being Jewish by those who opposed him. After the coup, supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood on trial for various alleged offences were accused by the court of being demons who preached Jewish scripture. Needless to say neither accusation is even remotely plausible, but Nirenberg’s work suggests that literal plausibility isn’t what matters in these cases: the important thing is that the designated enemy can be understood in terms of his exemplification of Jewish traits.)
Antisemitism morphs through the centuries, taking on the colour of the local culture in which it exists. In Medieval times, religion, specifically Christianity, was culturally pre-eminent in the West, and antisemitism took the form of declaring Jews to be God-killers and hostile to divine revelation. As time went by, and the rationalist wave of the Enlightenment poured over Europe, the charge against Jewishness changed from its being hostile to revelation (and hence being the enemy of Christ) to its being impervious to reason (and hence the enemy of rationality). With the rise in power and prestige of science in the 19th and 20th centuries, the pseudo-biological discipline of ‘race science’ declared Jews to be an inferior, perhaps sub-human, race, which tainted and infected the supposedly more advanced and progressive races such as the Aryans. The defeat of the Nazis in the Second World War, and the revelations about what their version of antisemitism led them to do, gave race science, and for a time antisemitism itself, a very bad name, and not too much of it was heard in Western countries in the aftermath of the war, although in the Soviet Union antisemitism continued to flourish very successfully under the fig-leaf of anti-Zionism. But in due course, with the increasing emphasis on human rights in liberal-left circles, we find the growth of an obsessional interest in every violation of human rights that Israel could be thought to have committed (and indeed some that she clearly didn’t, such as the alleged massacre at Jenin). In this latest development, we see a shift from what has been aptly called the bierkeller antisemitism of the right to the bistro antisemitism of the liberal left (see Ben Cohen’s, Some of my Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism).
If this were simply a proportionate part of a general increase in sensitivity to violations of human rights everywhere, it might be unobjectionable and even welcome. But in Israel’s case, it is not proportionate. Many of those who are on red alert to any Israeli moral or legal transgressions are strangely silent when far worse horrors are committed by other states and non-state actors. The thousands killed in Nigeria, the tens of thousands killed in Sri Lanka, the hundreds of thousands killed in Syria, generated far less protest in the UK from the anti-Zionist parts of the liberal left, and the Islamist groups which they sometimes support, than Israel’s war in Gaza did, even though the death toll there was so much lower. So, appealing to the idea of an increasing concern about human rights doesn’t explain the strangely selective attention to Israel’s putative violations of those rights, and the equally selective hostility towards Jews which these alleged violations are supposed to account for. (I say ‘alleged’ violations, not because I imagine that Israel has never committed any human rights violations – that would indeed be unique in human history – but because many of the charges of rights violations so readily levelled at Israel are simply untrue.)
This long tradition of appealing to the idea of Jewishness to explain the world’s troubles, and in particular the wickedness of our enemies, persists today, both in the West and in the East. It means that such appeal has the deep attractions of tradition. There’s a Jew-shaped space, and not a pleasant one, in Western culture, and placing actual Jews, both inside and outside the Jewish state, into that space seems obvious, familiar and natural – they seem to fit the space so remarkably well, especially once their actual activities have been reconstructed to conform to a deeply hostile picture of them. (For example, Baroness Jenny Tonge’s claim that Israel only provided a field hospital to Haiti in order to steal human organs for sale on the black market, or the more recent claim that the IDF had a policy of killing children in the war in Gaza this summer, thereby implying that Israelis are fools as well as villains, since Israel knows just as well as Hamas does that every dead Palestinian child is not only a desperate human tragedy but also a propaganda disaster for Israel.)
Nirenberg isn’t arguing for the inevitability of anti-Judaism leading to genocidal antisemitism – that phenomenon is too complex to have just one cause. What he says is this: ‘The “Jewish” terrors that assailed Germany and many of its neighbours in the first half of the twentieth century … didn’t make the Holocaust inevitable. They were rather the product of a history that had encoded the threat of Judaism into some of the basic concepts of Western thought, regenerating that threat in new forms fitting for new periods, and helping far too many citizens of the twentieth century make sense of their world.’
This encoding, and this way of making sense of the world, continues today, and helps to explain why antisemitism recurs, and why Israel is the target of so much hostility, especially in parts of the liberal left which might once have been expected to put up a strong resistance to any form of racism. But racism, we have to acknowledge, is for many people deeply enjoyable, though this is rarely admitted by its practitioners. Such enjoyment isn’t peculiar to antisemitism, as the evidence from the horrors of the Rwandan genocide demonstrates. But antisemitism is peculiarly familiar; both in the West and in the East, Jewishness is an accustomed, easy target for people’s hostilities, and supposed Jewish machinations provide an explanation of social and political troubles which leaves people well within their traditional comfort zone.
The causal force of anti-Judaism can be seen at work in the issue which Howard Jacobson (among others) has recently labelled and discussed: when will Jews be forgiven the Holocaust? Jacobson points out that we often have trouble forgiving those whom we have wronged, since if we can believe that they’re thoroughly objectionable, they probably deserved what we did to them, and so we can reach the comfortable conclusion that we haven’t really wronged them after all; instead, we’ve given them what they really deserve. So, if the state which the Jews have created, the only Jewish state in the world, can be thought of as deep-dyed in blood and oppression, just as the anti-Judaism prism invites us to think, then perhaps the Jews weren’t so wronged after all, and we can sustain an antipathy towards them in ways that are comfortably familiar.
What I’m suggesting, then, is that if Nirenberg’s thesis about the nature of anti-Judaism is correct, then the causal link between Israel and antisemitism runs in exactly the opposite direction from that presupposed by the push explanation. The story embedded in the push explanation of resurgent antisemitism is that the horror produced by Israel’s (alleged) crimes prompts hostility towards Jews; unjustified, perhaps, but deeply understandable. On the alternative, pull explanation, things are more complicated. The deep anti-Judaism embedded in the culture generates an interpretation of Israel which construes it, in the teeth of the evidence, as a uniquely criminal political entity. This hostility towards Israel in turn provides an alibi for the antisemitism of people who might otherwise have been embarrassed and ashamed to display this ancient and blood-soaked form of racism. In this pull explanation, the causal arrow runs from anti-Judaism through anti-Zionism to the resurgent antisemitism that we are trying to explain. The advantage of the pull rather than the push account is that it does help to explain the obsessional hostility towards Israel, which has become distressingly prevalent in some social and cultural groups in the UK, and which figures so significantly in the story of resurgent racism towards Jews.
What does all this imply for those who want to combat antisemitism? Well, it’s not going to be easy; but we already knew that. However, it’s not going to be impossible either – think of the advances made by another group which has also been the target of prejudice and oppression for millennia, and still is in many places today: the female half of the human race. Consider the position of women in Europe 1,000 years ago, or even 100 years ago, and compare it to their position now, in the UK, in the early 21st century. With respect to misogyny, we’ve come a long way in the UK, and more broadly in the West, though this is regrettably not the case in all parts of the world. Progress is possible, even in the face of millennia of prejudice. So although things seem to be deteriorating, we can reasonably maintain hope for the struggle against antisemitism. It’s worth continuing the fight, particularly since there’s absolutely nothing else to be done.