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

Anti-Semitism releases aggression against a familiar target and offers a simple explanation for complex and occasionally intractable problems (Unemployed? Jews have your jobs. Destitute? Rothschilds have your money. Losing confidence in your country? Jews control your press, the arts, the courts, education, medicine .  .  . ). It uses negative campaigning that provokes no response in kind. Since Jews seek acceptance from those who agitate against them, they have no incentive to wage the kind of countercampaign that we see between rival political parties. 

Anti-Semitism drew its demonic images from religious sources, further magnifying suspicion of an already suspect people. And it united otherwise antagonistic or even warring constituencies. Marx singled out the Jews as the evil embodiment of capitalism. Internationalists identified Jewish separatism as the chief impediment to their universal ideals. Nationalists targeted Jews as corrupting aliens. Conservative Christians and, later, Muslims continued to see them as challengers of their faith. Atheists and secularists condemned their retrograde religion. Racial theorists called them agents of impurity. An equal-opportunity instrument of blame, anti-Semitism had as one of its chief advantages the ability to unite political forces that had nothing else in common. 

Last but hardly least, folks could anticipate the acquisition of Jewish property, goods, or positions as a tangible by-product of Jewish expulsion or annihilation. The prospect of acquiring Jewish property and possessions was something Nazism offered to all the countries it conquered. Similarly, when Arabs draw their map of “Palestine” to include all of Israel, they especially have their eye on the bounty that Israelis have created as a result of their open, democratic ways. Rather than compete with the Jews, anti-Semitism tries to have it both ways—organizing political resistance to the liberal democracy that profits the Jews, and doing so confident that it can exploit the weakness of those who value individual life too highly to squander it on defensive war. The Jews of Europe, who had never developed independent means of self-defense, never had a chance against their destroyers. Modern Israel is the current test case. 

The term “scapegoat” does not begin to do justice to the uses of anti-Semitism in domestic, regional, and international affairs. We do well to note its short-term advantages before identifying the liabilities alluded to above. 

How anti-Semitism succeeds

"How did we get to pick up the tab for a bunch of tyrants and terrorists to come to our city to curse us out?” asked the New York taxi driver dropping me off at the United Nations plaza on the opening day of the 66th annual U.N. General Assembly. The police were treating the plaza as the war zone it had become. 

According to its charter, the United Nations was created in the wake of the Second World War 

to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind; to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small; to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained; to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.

In commitment to these ideals, in 1947 the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution for the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab zones that midwifed the birth of Israel half a year later. The Jews were already poised to reclaim their sovereignty after two millennia, but this vote granted them the international sanction to do so within the same decade that had witnessed their greatest national defeat. 

Many Arab countries were just then similarly emerging from the loosening grip of European powers. The Arab League was founded in 1945, the same year as the United Nations, its six original members—Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Transjordan, Syria—soon joined by Yemen, and then by 15 others. The league’s stated goal was to create pan-Arab unity by promoting closer relations between member states. But rather than emulate Israel by settling Palestinian Arabs in their allotted land (possibly in federation with Jordan, which was already largely Palestinian Arab), the Arab League dedicated itself to preventing the existence of a Jewish state. Its first major action was the war against Israel in 1948, and opposition to Israel has remained its indispensable unifier ever since. 

It was Arab, not Jewish, leadership that urged all Arabs to flee from Haifa and Jaffa, warning that those who remained in a Jewish state would be treated as renegades. The exploitation of the Palestinians by their fellow Arabs has been noted repeatedly, including in 1976 by Mahmoud Abbas, currently head of the Palestinian Authority: “The Arab armies entered Palestine to protect the Palestinians from Zionist tyranny, but instead they abandoned them, forced them to emigrate and to leave their homeland, imposed upon them a political and ideological blockade, and threw them into prisons similar to the ghettos in which the Jews used to live in Eastern Europe.” In sum, Arab leaders did not oppose Israel because it displaced the Palestinians; they displaced Palestinian Arabs in order to sustain opposition to Israel. 

Despite their vast expanses of land, natural resources, financial capacities, and so forth, Arab League members created a refugee time bomb to justify their “resistance” to what the U.N. had wrought. 

Had the U.N. lived up to its charter, it would have expelled the belligerents from membership or placed them on probation for contravening its terms. But here is the logic of aggression against Jews: The secretariat and supporting nations would not risk the U.N.’s coherence to protect one of its smallest members against antagonists with huge demographic, market, resource, and political advantages on their side. Ignored as a parochial issue, the Arab war against Israel safely violated the liberal ideals of the United Nations by appearing to oppose only Jews. Arab leaders gained traction domestically by flexing their power against an enemy they knew had no incentive for war and every incentive for accommodation. And opposition to Israel shored up pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism by flaunting contempt for the liberal democratic culture of the West that Israel embodied. 

The perpetual Arab war against Israel worked like a charm. In 1949, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) was established as a temporary measure to help resettle a relatively small group of displaced persons in a century notorious for its many millions of refugees. Only in this single case was a refugee agency made permanent. At Arab insistence, the U.N. cultivated, not an infrastructure for self-government, but a network of refugee institutions and an industry of welfare workers with a stake in maintaining refugee dependency, feeding the grievance of generations by insisting on their “right” of return—as if the Displaced Persons at the end of World War II had been continually maintained as such in the heart of Europe. Scholars Asaf Romirowsky and Nicole Brackman have rightly called UNRWA an “anomaly within the world of refugee relief” for the way it prolonged suffering and anger to become “a weapon to encourage [generations] toward terrorism and intransigence.” The Arab League used the U.N. agency to evade its responsibilities for fellow Arabs, and to foster an Arab protostate that would replace the Jewish one in time.

Arab leaders scored another substantial victory on November 10, 1975, when they won passage of U.N. General Assembly Resolution 3379, which called Zionism a “form of racism and racial discrimination.” The Arab bloc that championed the resolution with Soviet bloc support had waged two unsuccessful wars against Israel in 1967 and 1973. Now the same countries laid the political groundwork for a much larger antidemocratic coalition that would use the U.N. for its own ends. 

The anti-Zionist umbrella included countries that functioned in opposition to the human rights principles of the United Nations. Arab rulers who denied the Jews their land accused Jews of denying Arabs theirs. Shifting political language from right to left, they no longer threatened to drive the Jews of Israel into the sea but accused them of the imperialism and racism they actually practiced. Resolution 3379 adopted the anti-Zionist terminology that had been developed by the Soviets in the 1930s (and not incidentally had informed the education of many Arab leaders, like Mahmoud Abbas, who received his Ph.D. in Moscow for a dissertation on connections between Zionism and the Nazis). Since anti-Zionism was the last ideological component of communism left standing when the Soviet Union collapsed, it provided a common terminology for self-defined “progressives” in rallies from Berkeley to Cairo. Anti-Zionism became a permanent feature of the left, including, currently, Occupy Wall Street. 

The infamy of the anti-Israel resolution hardly went unnoticed. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said, “A great evil has been loosed upon the world.” But nothing was done to stop this evil. Countries that incorporated forms of racism and discrimination in their political and legal systems enjoyed their symbolic political victory over the only liberal democracy in the Middle East. Racism, once known as the denial to Jews of their right to exist, was turned against the Jews for claiming the right. Around this banner there formed the coalition against liberal democracies that began taking over one after another of the U.N. committees and programs, culminating in Durban, South Africa, at the 2001 World Conference Against Racism. Those who commandeered the Durban conference focused exclusively on Israel, to deflect attention from their own practices of slavery, abuse of women, suppression of minorities, torture of prisoners, autocratic rule, systemic corruption, and various forms of state criminality. 

Coalition against liberal democracies

The organization of politics against Israel had moved from the Middle East into the world arena. Outrages became bolder year by year: Cuba, which jails people for circulating the Human Rights Declaration, became vice chair of the U.N. Human Rights Council. Saudi Arabia, which forbids women to drive, was elected to the board of the agency charged with ending discrimination against women. Iran, which sentences adulteresses to death, was elected to the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women. Nuclear-armed North Korea was appointed head of the U.N. Council on Disarmament. Meanwhile, no resolutions were taken against the ongoing Arab slave trade in Sudan or for the rights of women and minorities in places where these were denied. 

Could there have been any political means other than the organization of politics against the Jewish state for thus hijacking the United Nations and inverting its mandate while ensuring that Western nations continued to foot the bill? I can think of none. In 1991, after 16 years, the United States won repeal of U.N. Resolution 3379—the only General Assembly resolution ever to be revoked. But unlike the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which inspired massive cleanup efforts to contain the damage it had done, the repeal inspired no attempt to alleviate or even moderate the effects of this systematic diffusion of political poison. Demonization of the Jewish state had spread to areas that had never known or known of a Jew. The Arab boycott against the Jews, which began even before the establishment of Israel, was fanned into the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign that lately garnered supporters as diverse as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and 218 members of the faculty and students of Sweden’s Royal Institute of Technology, under the preposterous excuse of gaining rights for the abused Palestinians. Using the U.N. for their podium, Arab and Muslim leaders and their political allies make the Jews internationally suspect. 

In this political climate, it hardly matters whether one is among the prosecutors or defenders of Israel, as long as Israel is in the dock. Many well-meaning people, Jews included, fail to appreciate that the prosecution prevails once it makes Israel the defendant. Some ask naïvely, “But aren’t we allowed to criticize Israel?” or even boast that Israel is being held to a “higher standard,” ignoring that the war against the Jews is won by charging them with the crimes being committed against them. The point of the “trial” is to keep Jews at its center. The United Nations provides an unprecedented stage for accusing Jews in full view of the world, thereby obscuring or reducing scrutiny of the worst actors on the planet. This year, hundreds of delegates and guests enjoyed U.N. hospitality and displayed their hatred of liberal democracy—aka Israel—with the assurance that they would suffer no political cost. 

The cabby’s question—why should he be paying for the vilification of his way of life—has now been raised in Congress by the chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who is urging the United States to spearhead significant reform of what she calls “an anti-Semitic organization.” “What are we paying for?” she asks, citing the bid by Palestinian leadership to gain U.N. recognition for a Palestinian state, in violation of all previous agreements. “So how could we allow even one cent of our dollars to go to this organization that will have in its midst terrorists who want to destroy Israel, and in turn destroy the United States?” More important than this belated attempt to limit the damage is realizing that Ros-Lehtinen is not “standing up for Israel” but making the logical connection between the organization of politics against Israel and the much larger intended targets that “Zionism” represents—the United States foremost among them. Anti-Semitism penetrated the United Nations as it did several democracies of Europe, enjoying the access to the platform that democracy provides, in order to subvert the democratic commitment to human rights. Its perpetrators work by prosecuting “only” the Jews, and when they get away with it, they corrupt the charter beyond repair. 

But the point should also be made that shutting down UNWRA is the only way to begin repairing the lives of Palestinian Arabs, and that shutting down the U.N. as it presently functions is America’s best hope for helping to repair the world. 

How anti-Semitism fails

The ability of Arab and Muslim leaders to dominate the United Nations while celebrating their contempt for everything it stands for seems to confirm anti-Semitism’s success. Yet caveat emptor—early benefits of organizing politics against the Jews are inevitably outweighed by the ruin that overtakes its practitioners. Why inevitably? Because anti-Semitism attributes real problems to a phony cause. Putting off problems tends to compound them, and aggression fomented against a convenient target cannot be permanently controlled or contained. Strategies of blame may temporarily help justify repression, quell rebellion, camouflage corruption, channel dissatisfaction, and redirect aggression, but societies that resort to them collapse under the weight of their negativity. Palestinians—once considered the ablest Arabs, and perhaps sacrificed by their fellow Arabs for that reason—are now in strong competition with Germans of the last century in the sweepstakes of self-destruction. Jonathan Tobin makes the obvious point: “Rather than ask why Israel is willing to trade so many terrorists for one soldier, the world should be asking why the Palestinians are cheering the release of sociopaths.” What does the trade of one for a thousand say about the relative value Jews and Arabs place on human life, and the effect of those values on building or destroying? 

Anti-Semitism’s strategy of inversion—holding Jews responsible for the aggression against them—obscures the domestic repression that is always practiced in its name. Jews are the ostensible but not ultimate casualties of the organization of politics against them. Yasser Arafat used opposition to Israel as the vehicle for a corrupt and vicious dictatorship that could otherwise not have garnered billions of dollars of support. Saudi Arabia expended billions of dollars in mobilizing war against Israel to shore up its image of protecting Islam while sustaining a bigoted and sexist sheikhdom. Recent uprisings against dictatorships in Arab countries demonstrate their woeful unpreparedness for creative self-government, the direct consequence of diverting political energies to keep those dictatorships in power. 

Paradoxically, commemoration of the Holocaust, which was presumably intended to help prevent another genocide of the Jews, exacerbated the problem it was meant to alleviate. Holocaust studies equate anti-Semitism with Nazism and see in the defeat of one the demise of the other. The actuality is otherwise. The political features that made anti-Semitism attractive in the past remain replicable and applicable in the present and future. It is they, the replicable features of anti-Semitism, not the Holocaust, that should be at the center of investigation into that mass murder. Without an attempt to identify the critical variables, there is no redemptive lesson in the destruction of European Jewry or in the collapse of Germany or in the failure of the League of Nations to arrest the process. Only by isolating its copycat features, as science does in researching disease, can Holocaust study prevent the same descent into depravity. 

No one can know what is unfolding in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and other countries of the Arab League. There is one critical variable that holds the key to their political future: Will their leaders resort to the political instrument that brought about their decline? Will Egypt abrogate or weaken its treaty with Israel, or develop a culture of human rights? Will Turkey join the competition over who stands strongest against Israel and suffer the fate of its rivals? Arab leaders sealed the doom of their societies when they organized politics against the Jewish state. Only new and would-be leaders have the power to undo the failure they reaped.

Ruth R. Wisse, the author most recently of Jews and Power, is Martin Peretz professor of Yiddish literature and professor of comparative literature at Harvard.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 18 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers