Waking Up to Urbane Anti-Semitism

As a child of the 1950s, I grew up hearing stories about the Holocaust and the indifference of a world that allowed the atrocities to occur. I learned about the St. Louis and the refugees aboard who, when refused permission to disembark in Florida, returned to Europe and, for most, met their deaths. I saw photos from Auschwitz and other concentration camps where the remains of children and adults provided a chilling indictment of anti-Semitism in its most horrific form. The evidence was unimpeachable, my generation was warned, and "Never Again" became our pledge.

Today, that pledge is being challenged. As respected journalist Melanie Phillips notes in her important new book, The World Turned Upside Down, a virulent anti-Semitism has emerged that is sophisticated in its presentation, pedagogical in its outreach, and international in its acceptance.

Today's brand of anti-Semitism is perhaps best personified by the global reaction to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Iran. In Iran, the State of Israel is demonized as a "cancerous tumor to be excised" and the Jewish people as "evil incarnate." If Iran were an economic backwater, the world might happily condemn its leadership. But Iran has money to spend, and many of the world's largest companies, together with their governments, do not want to miss a profitable opportunity.

So silence in the face of incitement to genocide has become an accepted cost of doing business.

The diplomatic elite have also joined the ranks of anti-Semites. They use rights-based juridical platforms such as the International Criminal Court and the United Nations to deny Israel, the historic homeland of the Jewish people, the right to be treated equally amongst nations. 

This is not the thuggish anti-Semitism of the Cossack mobs, or even the populist anti-Semitism of the Nuremberg stadium. It is the anti-Semitism of the elite, the intellectual, and the literate. It is thoroughly modern and urbane.

There are academics who deny conference attendance and teaching posts to Israeli scholars. There are student governments that seek divestiture of university funds from companies that engage in business with Israel. There is even campus outrage at having the Israeli Ambassador to the U.S., a noted historian, present the commencement address at Brandeis University, an institution named for a respected Jewish jurist and a leading American Zionist of his day.

Today's modern anti-Semites contend that these activities are appropriate expressions of disagreement with Israel's policies. They argue that their responses reflect no anti-Semitism but rather measured criticism toward illegal actions perpetrated by Israel. However, the distinction is a false one, and no other country suffers this kind of ostracism. As Per Ahhmark, a former Deputy Prime Minister of Sweden, explained, "In the past, the most dangerous anti-Semites were those who wanted to make the world Judenrein, 'free of Jews.' Today, the most dangerous anti-Semites might be those who want to make the world Judenstaatrein, 'free of a Jewish state.'"

This is a clever anti-Semitism. It seeks to justify the physical elimination of the Jewish state by revising the Middle East narrative. Anti-Semites refer to the establishment of modern Israel as a historical mistake, part of a vast colonial conspiracy, involving the subjugation of the Palestinian Arabs and occupation of Palestinian Arab land. Their solution to correct this error is quite clear.

British jurist Anthony Julius explains further: "To maintain that the very existence of Israel is without legitimacy, and to contemplate with equanimity the certain catastrophe of its dismantling ... is a kind of anti-Semitism indistinguishable in its compass and its consequences from practically any that has yet been inflicted on Jews." Julius is correct in this assessment with the exception that the potential consequences are far worse.

Preparing for the elimination of the Jewish state requires constructing a self-righteous logic by which the Jewish state deserves to be dismantled. Norwegian diplomat Trine Lilleng has already supplied the reasoning: "The grandchildren of Holocaust survivors are doing to the Palestinians exactly what was done to them by Nazi Germany." In Spain, Barcelona canceled its Holocaust memorial ceremony since "making a Jewish Holocaust ceremony whilst a Palestinian Holocaust was taking place was not right."

This is anti-Semitism set on winning the mind to achieve its goals. Anti-Semites are using the universities, new technologies, and multimedia platforms to influence the minds of the easily impressionable. And if the mind is the target of this virulent anti-Semitism, we must respond with a comprehensive educational strategy focusing on the intellect. 

We must make available Holocaust curriculum detailing the dangers of ethnic and racial hatred in all its forms. We must also present an accurate history of biblical and modern Israel. We must confront those who pervert history with incontrovertible evidence of their falsehoods. Awareness of the dangers of anti-Semitism must be made clear not just to the young, but also to educators, elected officials, and law enforcement officers. 

We must, in the end, affirm what is true, what is right, and what Western civilization stands for. These are the stakes in fighting the new anti-Semitism. This hatred threatens not only the Jewish community and Israel. It threatens all who value personal freedom, democracy, and the sanctity of life itself. With the world once again turned upside-down, it will take a collective effort to turn it right-side-up. 

Cheryl Halpern is a member of the council of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and a former U.S. Public Delegate to the United Nations.
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