In a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece of August 6 about “the surge of poisonous anti-Semitism around the world, particularly in Europe,” Andrew Nagorski had the temerity to note that “the president [Obama] has not prominently addressed the subject of rising anti-Semitism in Europe, much less its pervasiveness in the Muslim world.” This is, of course, an understatement.
Let us have a history lesson. President Obama's first presidential grand tour of Europe took place in spring of 2009, shortly after Muslims had been expressing outrage over Israeli actions (in Gaza in January) by staging violent pro-Hamas demonstrations throughout the continent. Mobs of Brotherhood members and their leftist sympathizers had intimidated policemen in London and Malmo, smashed up the Place de'Opera in Paris, burned Israeli and American flags.
Nowhere in Europe was this more blatant than in Turkey, chosen by Obama for the culmination of his European tour, in part because Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was his "favorite European politician," to whom he is reportedly “closer” than to any other world leader. In the months prior to that April 6-7 visit five years ago, Turkey had been the scene of the fiercest anti-Semitic agitation in Europe, extending from streets to schools, newspapers, and TV--for the very good reason that it was encouraged by Obama's friend Erdogan, who declared that "Israelis know very well how to kill" and that "Jews control the media." But nary a word of this unpleasantness crept into Obama's speeches to Turkish parliamentarians and students. Rather they were full of his usual calls for "respect" for Islam and assurances that America is not and "never will be" at war with Islam. (How quaint, dangerously so, this now sounds when leaders of the ISIS/ Islamic State juggernaut declare several times a day that “We will raise the flag of Allah in the White House.”)
The resurgence of anti-Semitism, “particularly in Europe,” is hardly a new subject. In fact, If we extend our history lesson by six more years to 2003, we find that another American president, named George W. Bush, directly addressed it in a speech at London’s Whitehall Palace on November 19 of that year. He not only warned of the return of anti-Semitism; he scolded European leaders for averting their eyes from it. “Leaders in Europe should withdraw all favor and support from any Palestinian ruler who fails his people and betrays their cause. And Europe's leaders -- and all leaders -- should strongly oppose anti-Semitism, which poisons public debates over the future of the Middle East.” (When I had the opportunity, at a White House reception, to thank Mr. Bush in person for these remarks, he replied that “it’s much worse there than you can imagine.”)
The late Irving Howe once said to me that “in the warmest of hearts there’s always a cold spot for the Jews.” But we need not take President Obama’s temperature to know that he always mocks American exceptionalism, without having any clear idea of what the term means. What it means, primarily, is that historical conditions in the U.S. differ crucially from those laid down by the Marxist model for the development of capitalism. Werner Sombart defined America as “the promised land of capitalism [where] on the reefs of roast beef and apple pie socialist Utopias are sent to their doom.” This can hardly be music to Obama’s ears; but he is also blind, willfully so, to the fact that America has differed from Europe in its rejection of political antisemitism, which continues to be endemic in the old continent, where its current tribunes hold that the Holocaust gave it a bad name.
Edward Alexander is the author of, among other books, Irving Howe: Socialist, Critic, Jew.