The Return of Antisemitism
Published in The Wall Street Journal on 30th January 2015
Last Tuesday, a group of Holocaust survivors, by now gaunt and frail, made their way back to Auschwitz, the West’s symbol of evil – back to the slave-labour side of the vast complex, with its mocking inscription Arbeit Macht Frei (“Work makes you free”), and back to the death camp, where a million and a quarter human beings, most of them Jews, were gassed, burned and turned to ash. They were there to commemorate the day, 70 years ago, when Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz and saw, for the first time, the true dimensions of the greatest crime since human beings first set foot on Earth.
The moment would have been emotional at the best of times, but this year brought an especially disturbing undercurrent. The Book of Genesis says that, when God told Abraham what would happen to his descendants, a “fear of great darkness” fell over him. Something of that fear haunted the survivors this week, who have witnessed the return of anti-Semitism to Europe after 70 years of political leaders constant avowals of “Never again.” As they finished saying Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for mourners, one man cried out, “I don’t want to come here again.” Everyone knew what he meant. For once, the fear was not only about the past but also about the future.
The murder of Jewish shoppers at a Parisian kosher supermarket three weeks ago, after the killing of 12 people at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, sent shivers down the spines of many Jews, not because it was the first such event but because it has become part of a pattern. In 2014, four were killed at the Jewish Museum in Brussels. In 2012, a Rabbi and three young children were murdered at a Jewish school in Toulouse. In 2008 in Mumbai, four terrorists separated themselves from a larger group killing people in the city’s cafes and hotels and made their way to a small Orthodox Jewish centre, where they murdered its young Rabbi and his pregnant wife after torturing and mutilating them. As the Sunday Times of London reported about the attack, “the terrorists would be told by their handlers in Pakistan that the lives of Jews were worth 50 times those of non-Jews.”
An ancient hatred has been reborn.
Some politicians around the world deny that what is happening in Europe is anti-Semitism. It is, they say, merely a reaction to the actions of the state of Israel, to the continuing conflict with the Palestinians. But the policies of the state of Israel are not made in kosher supermarkets in Paris or in Jewish cultural institutions in Brussels and Mumbai. The targets in these cities were not Israeli. They were Jewish.
According to the Middle East Media Research Institute, an Egyptian cleric, Muhammad Hussein Yaqub, speaking in January 2009 on Al Rahma, a popular religious TV station in Egypt, made the contours of the new hate impeccably clear: “If the Jews left Palestine to us, would we start loving them? Of course not. We will never love them…They are enemies not because they occupied Palestine. They would have been enemies even if they did not occupy a thing…You must believe that we will fight, defeat and annihilate them until not a single Jew remains on the face of the Earth…You will not survive as long as a single one of us remains.”
Not everyone would put it so forcefully, but this is the hate in which much of the Middle East and the Muslim world has been awash for decades, and it is now seeping back into Europe. For Jews, “never again” has become “ever again.”
The scope of the problem is, of course, difficult to gauge precisely. But recent polling is suggestive—and alarming. An Anti-Defamation League study released last May found “persistent and pervasive” anti-Jewish attitudes after surveying 53,100 adults in 102 countries and territories world-wide. The ADL found that 74% of those surveyed in the Middle East and North Africa held anti-Semitic attitudes; the number was 24% in Western Europe, 34% in Eastern Europe and 19% in the Americas.
Or consider a 2011 Pew Research Center study, which found that favorable views of Jews were “uniformly low” in predominantly Muslim regions that it surveyed: 4% in Turkey and the Palestinian territories, 3% in Lebanon, and 2% in Egypt, Jordan and Pakistan.
At this juncture in the history of hate, we must remember what anti-Semitism is. It is only contingently, even accidentally, about Jews. Jews die from it, but they are not its only victims. Today Christian communities are being ravaged, terrorised and decimated throughout the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia, and scores of Muslims are killed every day by their brothers, with Sunnis arrayed against Shiites, radicals against moderates, the religious against the secular. The hate that begins with Jews never ends with Jews.
Anti-Semitism has existed for a very long time. One critical moment came around the end of the 1st century C.E., when the Gospel of John attributed to Jesus these words about the Jews: “You belong to your father, the Devil.” From being the children of Abraham, Jews had been transformed into the children of Satan.
But it took a millennium for this text to spark widespread violence against Jews. That came in 1095, when Pope Urban II delivered his call for the First Crusade. A year later, some Crusaders, on their way to “liberate” the holy city of Jerusalem, paused to massacre Jewish communities in Northern Europe, in Cologne, Worms and Mainz. Thousands died. Many Jews committed suicide rather than submit to the mob and forcible conversion to Christianity. It was a traumatising moment for European Jewry—and the portent of worse to come.
From the time of the Crusades onward, Jews in Christian Europe began to be seen not as human beings but as a malevolent force, a demonic and destructive power that mysteriously yet actively sought the harm of others. Jews were accused of desecrating the sacramental bread used in communion, poisoning wells and spreading the plague. They were held responsible for the Black Death, the epidemic that in the 14th century cost millions of lives. They lived in fear.
This period added to the repressive vocabulary of the medieval West such terms as book burning, forced conversion, Inquisition, auto-da-fe, expulsion, ghetto and pogrom. In duration and intensity, it ranks among the most sustained chronicles of enmity in history. What had happened to activate a hate that had been incubating for 10 centuries, since Christianity emerged from Judaism?
The same question could be asked about Nazi Germany. Had someone been asked in the 1890s to identify the epicenters of anti-Semitism in Europe, the answers would probably have been Paris (where Alfred Dreyfus, a French military office of Jewish descent, was framed as a spy and unjustly imprisoned) and Vienna (whose bigoted mayor, Karl Lueger, became Hitler’s inspiration and role model). Why was it Germany that conceived and executed the Final Solution, an elaborate program with the sole purpose of exterminating Europe’s Jews?
The answer is the same in both cases: Anti-Semitism becomes deadly only when a culture, nation or faith suffers from a cognitive dissonance so profound that it becomes unbearable. It happens when the way a group sees itself is contradicted by the way it is seen by the world. It is the symptom of an unendurable sense of humiliation.
Christianity, which had been transformed by the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine in the fourth century, found itself overtaken by Islam by the 11th century. Germany, which had seen itself as the supreme nation in Europe, was defeated in World War I and then punished under the Treaty of Versailles.
These humiliations resulted not in introspection but in a search for foreign culprits – for external enemies who could be blamed and destroyed. The parallel in Islam over the past century was the defeat and dissolution of its one remaining bastion of imperial power, the Ottoman Empire, in 1922. Six years later, radical political Islam was born in Egypt in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Hate cultivated for such cultural and political ends resolves the dissonance between past glory and current ignominy. By turning the question “What did we do wrong?” into “Who did this to us?”, it restores some measure of self-respect and provides a course of action. In psychiatry, the clinical terms for this process are splitting and projection; it allows people to define themselves as victims.
The question then becomes: victims of whom? There were many possibilities. Between the 15th and 18th centuries, Europe blamed witches and killed some 40,000 of them, according to the British historian Ronald Hutton. But Europe’s problems remained. For two millennia, another candidate also has been available: the Jews.
Despite what some intemperate voices claim, anti-Semitism has no genuine provenance within Islam. The historian Bernard Lewis drew a wry distinction: Islam has traditionally had contempt for the Jews, he said, not hate – adding, “From contempt you don’t die. From hate you do.” Anti-Semitism entered Islam from the outside, in the form of two classic myths imported from Europe.
The first was the blood libel, the mad idea that Jews kill Christian children to use their blood to make matzah, the unleavened bread eaten during Passover. The idea is absurd, not least because even the tiniest speck of blood in food renders it inedible in Jewish law. The libel was an English invention, born in Norwich around 1144, and was unsuccessfully condemned by several popes. It was introduced into the Middle East by Christians in the 19th century, leading to trials of innocent Jews in Lebanon and Egypt and, most famously, in Damascus in 1840.
The blood libel is still in circulation. In 1983, Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass embraced it in his book, “The Matzo of Zion,” according to scholars like Stephen Eric Bonner and Anthony Julius. In 1991, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the Syrian delegate to the U.N. Human Rights Commission praised this “valuable book,” saying it “unmasked the racist character of Zionism.”
“The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” – a late 19th-century forgery about a supposed global Jewish conspiracy, produced by members of the czar’s secret police and exposed as a fiction by the Times of London as early as 1921 – become one of Hitler’s favorite texts. In Nazi Germany, it became, as the historian Norman Cohn put it, a “warrant for genocide.” The “Protocols” were introduced into the Middle East in Arabic translation in the 1930s by, among others, the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husayni, who spent World War II in Berlin, producing Arabic broadcasts for the Nazis.
“The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” continues to be reprinted and widely read. In 2002, a 41-part dramatic series called “Horseman Without a Horse,” which the Anti-Defamation League reported “portrays the ‘Protocols’ as historical fact,” was shown on Egyptian television during Ramadan. In 2003, a similar series called “Diaspora” was shown on a Lebanon-based satellite television network owned by the terrorist organisation Hezbollah, also according to the Anti-Defamation League. The 1988 charter of the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas warns that the Zionists’ “plan is embodied in the ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion,’ and their present conduct is the best proof of what we are saying.”
Tragically, Europe, having largely cured itself of anti-Semitism, now finds it returning, carried by the very cultures that Europe itself infected with the virus. Fortunately, there are young Muslims, some of them ex-radicals, who are working for a more tolerant Islam, and in organisations such as the Coexist Foundation and New York University’s “Of Many” Institute for Multifaith Leadership, you find Jews and Muslims fighting anti-Semitism and Islamophobia together.
The real tragedy would be if the West continued to see anti-Semitism as a strictly Jewish problem. It isn’t. Jews die from it, but it isn’t about Jews.
The blood libel was the creation of Christians who believed in the Eucharist and feared that the power of the sacraments and the Church were slipping away. The “Protocols” were a fabrication of Russian czarists, dreaming of empire and glory while fearing that their world was about to be shattered by revolution. To understand hate, it is crucial to examine the hater, not the hated.
Judeophobia in the Middle Ages led Christians to defeat in the Crusades. Anti-Semitism led Germany to self-destruction and moral shame. Today, anti-Semitism is a key ingredient in the poisonous mix of ideas that has turned so much of the Middle East into a cruel state of nature, a war of “every man against every man,” as Thomas Hobbes memorably described it. Hate harms the hated, but it destroys the hater.
A passage in Deuteronomy has momentous modern-day implications. Moses, nearing the end of his life, is addressing the next generation of Israelites, the people who will cross the Jordan River and enter the Promised Land. “Do not hate an Egyptian,” he tells them, “for you were a stranger in his land.”
This is one of the most counterintuitive verses in the Bible. The Egyptians had enslaved the Israelites and planned a slow genocide against them. Was this not a reason to hate them?
But Moses’ words are among history’s wisest political insights. If the Israelites had continued to hate their erstwhile persecutors, Moses might have succeeded in leading them out of Egypt, but he would have failed in taking Egypt out of them. The Israelites would still have been slaves: to their memories and resentments, their sense of humiliation – slaves, in short, to the past. To be free, you have to let go of hate. You have to stop seeing yourself as a victim – or else you will succeed only in making more victims.
Judaism, Christianity and Islam are religions of love, not of hate. We must listen and heed the survivor in Auschwitz this week when he said, “I don’t want to be here again” – for that is the end of the road that begins in hate. All of us – Jews, Christians and Muslims, brothers and sisters in Abraham’s family – must choose another way.