From The Times Literary Supplement
November 19, 2008
The new anti-Semitism?
How ancient prejudice and outright hostility have re-emerged since the Nuremberg Trials
I was once introduced, in the Cosmos Club in Washington, to Willis Carto of the Liberty Lobby, a group frequently accused of being insufficiently philo-Semitic. Mr Carto unburdened himself of quite a long burst about the power of finance capital, whereupon our host, to lighten the atmosphere, said, “Come on Willis, you’re sounding like Ezra Pound”. “Ezra Pound!” exclaimed Mr Carto. “Why, I love that man’s work. Except for all that goddam poetry!” I thought then that if one ever needed a working definition of an anti-Semite, it might perhaps be an individual who esteemed everything about Ezra Pound except his Cantos.
Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith has a different definition. For him, anti-Semitism is revealed not when someone criticizes the state of Israel, but when someone denies the right of Israel to exist. This, however, will not do, since many Orthodox Jews and Marxist Jews were opposed ab initio to the founding of a Jewish state, and indeed, for the first few years of the Zionist movement’s existence, almost all its enemies were Jewish. (By the same token, the idea of a Levantine state into which European Jewry could be decanted often found favour with those who were not all fond of Jewry per se.)
The overt expression of anti-Semitic views has been extremely muted since the Nuremberg Trials, and the somewhat later decision of the Roman Catholic Church to withdraw its historic charge of “deicide” against the Jewish people as a whole. But the Labour MP Denis MacShane, who chaired an all-party commission of inquiry into the subject, argues that this most ancient and fierce of hatreds is undergoing a worldwide recrudescence. Rather dauntingly, he begins his book Globalising Hatred with a taxonomy of six distinct kinds of anti-Semitism, as compiled by the no less dauntingly named Professor Armin Pfahl-Traughber. The disease, it seems, can present as religious, social, political, racist, secondary or anti-Zionist, and of course these symptoms are not mutually exclusive and may often be found in clusters.
I would propose to begin more economically, by separating anti-Semitism from other forms of prejudice. One might certainly begin by distinguishing it from any too obvious stratification: MacShane likes to put the word “upper-class” in front of his main noun, but it was the great German socialist August Bebel who characterized anti-Jewish ranting as “the socialism of fools” and identified it as a perverted form of class resentment. This may have been slightly reductionist, as if to place a creepy and occult belief on all fours with more ordinary styles of xenophobia. British people who dislike Pakistanis, say, or Sinhalese who dislike Tamils, or Ulstermen who look down on Gaels, will tend to express themselves in fairly vulgar terms. The disliked ones are dirty and lazy, and have over-large families and a generally low cultural level. Anti-Semitism, by contrast, has something almost vicariously admiring about it. The targeted and hated tribe is believed to have awesome secret power and a positive genius for finance, as well as an ability to infiltrate and annex large swathes of professional life, such as the law and medicine. Not only this, but the Jew is seen as so protean as to have been – in the course of the past century alone – the covert engineer of both capitalism and Bolshevism. Examples of this combination of envy with paranoia are not difficult to locate: a recent New York Times report from Egypt described a settled conviction at all levels of society that, while nineteen Arabs could not have brought down the World Trade Center, the Israeli Mossad had the means, the method, the motive and the opportunity to do so. (One might pause to note the element of Arab self-hatred that is latent in this view.) When asked for proof, the believers point to the fact, which “everybody knows”, that all the Jews employed in the Twin Towers left work shortly before the planes arrived. I have myself heard this alleged at elite dinner parties in Islamabad, and MacShane has heard it from educated Muslims in his own constituency of Rotherham.
Perhaps over-anxious not to single out these as if they were the only offenders, MacShane is careful to spread his net wide. Neo-fascists in Argentina and Germany, the British National Party, the anti-Israeli American academics John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, the demagogues of Radio Maria in Poland, the sneers of Alan Clark in his Diaries, the gibes of David Irving, and a few of the anti-Zionist positions taken by Noam Chomsky and Perry Anderson are all included in the trawl. Surely this is too indiscriminate, especially in the case of the last two named? More important, does it not run the risk of treating Islamist anti-Semitism as if it were merely one form of the malady among many?
In point of fact, there is only one area of the world where pure, old-fashioned undiluted Jew-hatred is preached from the pulpit, broadcast on the official airwaves, given high-level state sanction and taught in the schools. All across the Muslim Middle East and well into Muslim Asia, the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion are freely available, often disseminated by ruling circles as well as by insurgent and now quasi-government movements such as Hamas and Hizbollah. (Incidentally, it is wrong to call this toxic document a “forgery”, since a forgery is a copy of something authentic. The Protocols are a mere fabrication, put together by Eastern Orthodox Christian fanatics in the pay of the tsarist secret police. Despite their suggestive name, they contain no mention of Israel or Zionism, as MacShane appears to think.)
When he does turn his attention to this region, however, MacShane’s treatment of the lucubrations of Tariq Ramadan and Sayyid Qtub is fairly comprehensive. Not everybody will agree with his generally lenient approach to the state of Israel, but he does argue convincingly, with some telling quotations, that resentment at Israel’s occupation of the West Bank simply cannot explain some of the more lurid formulations of Arab and Muslim propaganda. The fairly temperate Ghada Karmi, for example, speaks of Israel “encircling the Arab world” (my italics), while regional self-pity – a natural sibling of self-hatred by the way, as is self-righteousness – often blames all the ills of a backward and benighted region on arcane Jewish manipulations. The relatively recent history of Europe shows how fantastically dangerous such delusions can be, and MacShane is right to stress the comparison as well as the implications.
When all this is taken into account, though, I am not sure that he is correct in so often using the prefix “neo” to describe the resurgent phenomenon. The pseudo-intellectual and superstitious tropes of Judaeophobia are very much the same as they ever were. They involve the hatred of the countryside for the urban (and the urbane), the hatred of the provinces for the capital (and for capital), the disdain of the settled establishment for the subversive, and the visceral loathing of the tradition-minded “organic” community for the rootless and the cosmopolitan. In this, one can understand both the nastier moments that one may encounter in the study of T. S. Eliot and also the mentality of those Argentine fascists who tortured the Jewish editor and journalist, Jacobo Timerman. As Timerman recalled the obsessions of the death-squad Right in his imperishable book Prisoner without a Name: Cell without a number, his interrogators believed that “Argentina has three main enemies: Karl Marx, because he tried to destroy the Christian concept of society; Sigmund Freud, because he tried to destroy the Christian concept of the family; and Albert Einstein, because he tried to destroy the Christian concept of time and space”. I went to look this up after I had read MacShane citing Argentine military men who to this day believe that there is a Jewish conspiracy to annex and Zionize the remoter areas of Patagonia, the better, presumably, to extend Protocol power to the Jew-free wastes of Antarctica.
“You catch it on the edge of a remark”, as Harold Isaacs phrases it in Chariots of Fire. I have felt myself “catching” it quite a few times of late, as when chaps from the BBC insisted despite repeated correction on saying Paul “Vulfovitz” with a special emphasis, instead of pronouncing the name correctly the first time round, as the BBC used to train people to do. Writing about the same person, the American isolationist and Charles Lindbergh admirer Patrick J. Buchanan referred to him as playing Fagin to George Bush’s Oliver Twist which, an arresting image as it certainly is, makes rather the same point in an only somewhat different way. And meanwhile I would never expect to read the sort of criticism of Pakistan that I read every day about Israel. Yet of these two states, born at almost the same moment at the close of Britain’s imperium, can it really be said that Israel is so much the greater offender in terms of democratic rights for citizens, invasions of neighbours like Afghanistan, oppressions of non-Punjabi minority inhabitants, massacres of co-religionists as in Bangladesh, and illegal acquisition of nuclear weapons? One can just about picture a worldwide campaign to redress the injustices of Pakistan, in which unions of British teachers and journalists would join with their own courageous boycotts, but I confess to a slight difficulty in picturing the same level of enthusiasm and commitment. There is some sense in which any challenge to what can be viewed as specifically Jewish power is more exciting and possibly more “transgressive”, and we might be more honest if we admitted as much. Here’s a thought experiment: you get an email telling you that all the Anglo-Saxons left the World Trade Center just an hour before the planes hit (not having merely stayed away with all the benefit of their advance warning, but having actually gone to all the trouble of turning up at 8 a.m. and trustingly assuming that the terror-strike would take place just on schedule and thus give them time to check their Rolexes for an orderly and early departure). See what I mean? It’s just not such a thrilling hypothesis. When directed at the Jews, however, it at least adds insult to injury, and the true bigot knows that every little helps.
“The bitch that bore him is on heat again”, as Brecht has his closing speaker say about Hitler at the curtain of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. The next nightmare will not take the same shape or form, but it will be sure to emit the same plain and unmistakable warnings. MacShane has done a service by giving us a handbook of the signs.
The new antisemitism 188pp. Orion. £12.99.
978 0 297 84473 0
Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair. His most recent book, God Is Not Great: The case against religion, appeared earlier this year.
Copyright 2008 Times Newspapers Ltd.