The Magazine

Blaming the Jews

Do we face a new anti-Semitism, or the return of the old anti-Semitism?

May 10, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 33 • By WERNER J. DANNHAUSER
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Foxman's book is more immediately personal than Schoenfeld's book. That is not surprising, because Foxman is more active in the public forum. Also, he likes to talk about himself. At one point, when he writes about his childhood, he tells a most moving story. Born in Poland in 1940, he was, for his safety, put in the care of a Polish Catholic woman by his parents, a woman whose obvious decency did not always eradicate her bias against Jews. At other times he fails to be as touching, as when he shows himself as exceptionally partial to the limelight, a man whom Jerry Falwell calls "Abe" and who redeems Dolly Parton from talking thoughtlessly about the Jews. At times he is simply unfair, as when he accuses William F. Buckley Jr. of either latent anti-Semitism or a flirtation with it, without deigning to offer any evidence whatsoever. These reservations are not meant to deny that Foxman has fought the good fight for many years; he has been dogged and fearless in holding public figures to account. But he might have written a better book if he had used a tone less brash.

GABRIEL SCHOENFELD'S tone is perfect. He has thought deeply about the dreadful phenomenon he ponders. In spite of some similarities to Foxman's book, The Return of Anti-Semitism is really quite different. Foxman dwells on the public sphere; Schoenfeld specializes in the domain of theory, of thought that molds and sometimes determines practice. He deals deftly with dozens of intellectuals and their ideas. Thus one finds in his book mentions of names like Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, Norman Cohn, Karl Marx, Tony Judt, and Stanley Hoffman, all of whom fail to appear in Foxman's book.

Schoenfeld's heavy emphasis on the intellectual sphere is compelling. There may be no such thing as an entirely new hatred of Jews, but the disease today has a different visage than it did in the first half of the twentieth century: "One is less likely to find anti-Semites today in beer halls and trailer parks than on college campuses and among the opinion makers of the media elite."

SCHOENFELD BEGINS HIS DISSECTION of the disease with an analysis of what he calls "the Islamic strain." That is a sensible and even obvious start, but not an inevitable one, for anti-Semitism has a long history. Christianity must bear some responsibility for spreading it, a fact acknowledged of late by the Vatican, but one finds anti-Semitism even before Christianity: when Haman in the Book of Esther plots against "a certain people," for instance, and when even as wise a Roman as Tacitus indulges it. In a cruel historical irony, the Muslim world inherited a long and dishonorable European legacy at a time when the illness at last showed signs of abating in Europe itself.

Nobody, certainly not Schoenfeld, denies that the state of Israel, productive and free and modern, is an irritant to the Arab world, a thorn in its side. Nobody, certainly not Schoenfeld, denies that Israel's policies and deeds are not always what they ought to be. Nevertheless, hatred of Zionism and Israel are today the core and essence of anti-Semitism. Israel is judged by standards not applied to any other country in the world, and only Israel (with the possible exception of the United States) is the subject of limitless calumny.

Some, of course, say they are harsh on Israel and the Jews because they expect more of Jews and their country. That might excuse the Biblical prophets, who gave evidence of their steadfast love of the Jews. Where is the love of Israel in the authors who issue after issue castigate it in the New York Review of Books? Having more or less exported modern anti-Semitism to the Muslim world, Europe has been reinfected by the disease it sent abroad. (That was a sad story, brought home to me personally when I realized I no longer felt comfortable visiting Paris, one of the cities of my dreams.)

The Return of Anti-Semitism tells a sad story that becomes especially worrisome toward the end, when Schoenfeld forces himself and the reader to consider the possibility of "the end of the American exception." He does not mean that we have ever been completely free of anti-Semitism; he knows all about Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh. He worries about the combination of a new virulence and respectability. We would do well, all of us, to worry with him, as we brace ourselves against what he calls "a descent into delusion."

THE ONLY CURE for delusion is understanding. One should not blame these books for their failure to offer complete understanding. Fully to understand anti-Semitism would mean fully to understand the Jews, and such understanding may well not be accessible to reason. It is surely not available to the vocabulary and methods of social science that are dear to Abraham Foxman, who has too much faith in surveys and in terms such as "stereotype." It eludes even Gabriel Schoenfeld, at least here. Neither book tells us enough about the Jews.