The Magazine

The Suicidal Passion

Who is damaged more by anti-Semitism — Jews, or those who organize politics against them?

Nov 21, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 10 • By RUTH R. WISSE
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

It now seems that one Jew is worth more than 1,000 Arabs—the rate of exchange established not by Israel, but by Hamas, and celebrated on the Arab street. The “prisoner swap” of more than a thousand Arab prisoners for the single Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, kidnapped five years ago and held in captivity for just this purpose, represents a gap between two civilizations that has been widening for over six decades with no signs of contraction in sight. 

Photo of swastika

Arab leaders do not yet acknowledge that they sealed the doom of their societies in 1948 when they organized their politics against the Jewish state rather than toward the improvement of their countries. Like a great many autocrats, dictators, tyrants, and antiliberal rulers before them, the founders of the Arab League in 1945 found it convenient to mobilize against the Jews and against the competitive way of life they represent. Whereas Europeans were jolted by revelations of what came to be known as the Holocaust into awareness of the ruin anti-Semitism had wrought, Arab leaders saw in the Jews the same political opportunities that had enticed Germany. Anti-Semitism was the European ideology most eagerly imported and adapted to the Middle East. 

Victims of this process have been slow to realize its debilitating effects. “What if Arabs had recognized the State of Israel in 1948?” asks Abdulateef Al-Mulhim in a recent column in Arab News: “Would the Arab world have been more stable, more democratic, and more advanced?” His affirmative answer emphasizes how much better off the Palestinians and their fellow Arabs, as well as non-Arab Muslims, would have been had some Arab leaders not used the Palestinians “for their own agenda to suppress their own people and to stay in power.” The Palestinian journalist Khaled Abu Toameh censures Fatah and Hamas for depriving thousands of Palestinians “in the two Palestinian states in the West Bank and Gaza Strip” of the individual liberties that flourish across the border in Israel. The Israel News channel YNet quotes a Syrian publicist as saying, “Our government shoots at us; Israel works to return even rotted bones. Maybe the problem is with us.” (He is referring to earlier prisoner exchanges where hundreds of Arab prisoners were traded for the corpses of Israeli soldiers.) Not until these sentiments prevail will Arab citizens begin to enjoy the opportunities Israelis take for granted. 

Anti-Semitism, or the organization of politics against the Jews, is at once the most protean and the most misunderstood force in modern politics. Because it works through misdirection, most people associate it with Jews who are its target, rather than with anti-Semites who are its perpetrators. But whether aimed at the Jews in their dispersion or in their homeland, anti-Semitism and its offshoot anti-Zionism are about the Jews only in the way that fox hunting is about foxes. Those who organize their hunt around the fox consider it the best animal to hunt. Important as it may be to identify those features in the swift little animal that make it the chosen target of those giving chase, any analysis of fox hunting must concentrate on the hunters—their motivations, strategies, implements, goals, and perceived gains. Fox hunting stops when there is a change in hunters, not in foxes. So, too, with anti-Semitism. Only changes in the implicated countries can arrest the political process their leadership promotes. 

What is anti-Semitism? 

There are many versions of the joke that originated in the First World War about the police chief who tells his deputy to round up all Jews and bicyclists. His deputy asks, “Why the bicyclists?” How quickly you get the joke depends on how comfortable you are with the idea of rounding up Jews. Aggression against Jews has become so commonplace it seems to require no explanation. This is how Anthony Julius sums it up in Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England

[Perhaps] a repertoire of attitudes, myths, and defamations in circulation at any given time. It is a kind of discursive swamp, a resource on which religious and political movements, writers and artists, demagogues, and the variously disaffected, all draw, without ever draining. It is not a political philosophy, or anything close to one. It is not a conception of the world; it is merely an idée fixe—a hatred, dressed up as a conviction .  .  . a protean, unstable combination of received ideas, compounded by malice. 

Because he is tracking a historical process from 12th-century blood libels to today’s anti-Zionist rallies, Julius tries to account for all the varieties of prejudice and discrimination in what historian Robert Wistrich calls the “lethal obsession.” The great historian Salo Baron called it “the dislike of the unlike.” 

Recent Blog Posts