Dodging the Anti-Semitism Bullet

The announcement that Helen Thomas has been sent to journalistic Valhalla is good news on several levels. Not only because it at last removes an erratic, out-of-control figure who has represented a political and social embarrassment for decades, but also because it signals that America has once again dodged the anti-Semitism bullet.

A country that accepts anti-Semitism is a country on its way to destruction. The historical record could not be clearer on this. Late 19th-century Germany was one of the leading states of the Western world, the heir of Beethoven and Goethe, a standard-setter for the sciences, the humanities, and education, a pioneer in social welfare and industrial-labor relations, with a vast influence across Europe and as far as the United States, Argentina, and Japan.

Less than half a century later, Germany was a ruin, a bombed-out wasteland split into several zones occupied by its enemies, its populace scrabbling for a living in the remains of its flattened cities. The obsessive anti-Semitism of its leadership played no small role in this outcome.

France, like Germany, was a world-class cultural center -- not only a leading military and scientific power, but the second-largest imperial state. But even as the century turned, France became embroiled in a controversy over a junior army officer, Alfred Dreyfus -- officious, stiff, and wildly patriotic -- who was accused of espionage on extremely dubious evidence. The country split into two factions, one insisting that Dreyfus must be guilty almost solely due to the fact that he was Jewish, the other working to reopen the investigation under some form of public oversight. Even after it was proven that Dreyfus had been framed, the controversy continued for decades, the split widening and deepening, with anti-Semitism becoming a badge of honor for certain ultramontane, ultranationalist elements. At last, in 1940, France collapsed under German attack, surrendering after only five weeks (the same duration as the far less powerful Poland), submitting meekly to a four-year occupation in which the mass of the country disgraced itself through collaboration, cooperation, and abject criminality. Here, too, anti-Semitism among the nation's leadership played a large role.

Countries subject to chronic anti-Semitism, such as Russia and the majority of the modern Arab states, never amount to much, remaining the jackal nations of civilization, lurking on the outskirts, awaiting an opportunity to tear something off. Anti-Semitism is an evil symptom, a sign that a nation has gone off the rails and is headed for the abyss. The reasons lie not only in the denial of the cumulative wisdom and capability of the oldest people still extant (when was the last time you spoke to a Sumerian?), but as evidence that things have gone wrong in a number of ways on extremely deep levels, that a nation and people have deliberately turned from the civilized virtues to embrace the foulest aspects of the human character.

The United States has never been an anti-Semitic nation. Since George Washington first welcomed the Jewish congregation of Newport's Kahal Kadosh Yeshuat Israel synagogue in 1790, Jews have thrived in America, gaining at the very least tolerance and often open acceptance. American anti-Jewish feeling, obnoxious as it may have been, never attained the viciousness of the European variety. Even the most reactionary American regime, the Confederacy, featured a prominent Jewish presence in Judah P. Benjamin, who served both as secretary of war and secretary of state. Only two anti-Jewish lynchings have occurred in this country: the Leo Frank case of 1915, in which an innocent man was railroaded to cover up a particularly repellent murder, and the Yankel Rosenbaum murder, in which a Jewish bystander was killed by a black mob following a fatal accident in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

So it is particularly disturbing to see signs of anti-Semitism beginning to emerge. Under the rubric of "anti-Zionism," anti-Semitism has made a dramatic resurgence in Europe. Hatred of Jews in the new European Reich is not only accepted, but it has also become hip. Intellectuals, officials, and media figures have adapted the most repellent myths in a new guise.

In late 2001, Daniel Bernard, French ambassador to the U.K., dismissed Israel as "a shitty little country." Mary Robinson, the former Irish president and a leading contemporary anti-Semite, recently complained of being "bullied" by "certain elements of the Jewish community." A recent work by the leading British playwright, Caryl Churchill's "Seven Jewish Children," consists of a series of scenes dealing with Jewish life over the past century, beginning with the Holocaust and ending with the recent Gaza raid, in which the roles are gradually reversed, with Jews transformed from victims to Nazi-like persecutors. "I wouldn't care if we wiped them out ... tell her we're better haters, tell her we're chosen people, tell her I look at one of their children covered in blood and what do I feel? Tell her all I feel is happy it's not her." We need only mention the names John Pilger and Robert Fisk.         

Echoes of this attitude have arisen in the U.S. as well. Anti-Semitic behavior and remarks from black "spokesmen" such as Louis Farrakhan, Al Sharpton, and Jesse Jackson have long been tolerated as the kind of black thing the rest of us can't understand. But in recent years, the bias has become more general. Scholars such as John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt and diplomats such as Charles Freeman have sounded the alarm against the Elders of Zion...excuse me, the Israel Lobby. In 2008, Oliphant published a cartoon attacking the Israeli Gaza campaign which featured a headless figure using a stylized, shark-toothed Mogen David to assault a mother and child, presumably Palestinian. This drawing could act as a text to illustrate the millennial form of anti-Semitism, featuring as it does almost every current motif -- dehumanization, atrocity, aggression, and a Nazi reference (the gigantic figure is goose-stepping).

Last year Danny Glover, Eve Ensler, and...did I read that right? Jane Fonda? boycotted the Toronto Film Festival, not because of the baby seals or prejudice against the First Nations, but because its program honored the hundred-year anniversary of the city of Tel Aviv. These noted humanists asserted that the city had been built on the "suffering of thousands of former residents and descendants." A strange claim -- in the general sense, all cities bear this weight to some extent or another, and if extended on behalf of the Palestinians, it's difficult to discern what the statement actually refers to.

Finally we have the tone of the Obama administration, most clearly revealed by the studied insult to Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu, who was forced to wait while America's elected president ate with his family. It would be difficult find an act by a previous president to match this for sheer coarseness. Equally disturbing was the reaction of the press -- or rather, the lack of reaction; the incident was merely reported by Oliphant's colleagues with no comment, as if it reflected the proper method of dealing with a Jewish head of state.    

Is the United States in danger of following Europe down the slope of mass, institutionalized anti-Semitism on the 20th-century model? To answer that question, we need to examine how anti-Semitism enters societies.

It is often taken for granted that anti-Semitism has always existed underground, a survival of medievalism that bursts forth when the correct stimulus appears. But in fact, anti-Semitism is a new development, distinct from customary anti-Jewish feelings. The modern variant is a social mutation, a vicious product of the Age of Reason, established on a pseudo-scientific basis utilizing seriously distorted concepts derived from Darwinism and early anthropological theories. Anti-Semitism was formulated by the educated classes; it required introduction and cultivation where the rest of society was concerned. 

Germany can serve as an illustration. Anti-Semitism began to enter German society in force thanks to composer Richard Wagner. The tendency clearly exists in Wagner's operas, though usually camouflaged by caricature and metaphor. But in Wagner's artistic writings, anti-Semitism is blatant and unhidden. "Das Judenthum in der Musik" (Judaism in Music), first published in 1850, stated that Judaism was a foul religion, that Jewish artists were worms feeding on European culture, and that Jews were hostile, alien misfits, all motifs that later became standard among anti-Semites, and the Nazis in particular.

The essay was a bitter swipe by the not-yet-successful Wagner against Felix Mendelssohn and Giacomo Meyerbeer, who happened to be Jewish, and perhaps understandable as the type of gesture made by young figures that are later viewed with regret. But twenty years afterward, Wagner published a thoroughly revised version which was if anything worse than the original, with the invective reiterated and redoubled. "Judaism," Wagner insisted, "is the evil conscience of our modern civilisation."

By this time, Wagner had become the 19th-century equivalent of a rock star, his every word and action noted, discussed, and emulated. When Wagner gave anti-Semitism his imprimatur in further essays such as "Deutsche Kunst und Deutsche Politik" (German Art and German Politics) and "Oper und Drama" (Opera and Drama), it became acceptable to a large swath of German society. Wagner's influence prevailed even after his death. His widow, Cosima, became queen and custodian of an anti-Semitic Wagner cult centered on the Bayreuth circle, which eventually included anti-Semitic theorist Houston Stewart Chamberlain -- who married Wagner's daughter -- and the man who may well have been Wagner's biggest fan, Adolf Hitler.

Through the work of a compulsive and massively talented mythographer, anti-Semitism attained a place at the center of German history and culture, eventually almost becoming a part of the national character, so far as to deform the country's history for a century to come.

Anti-Semitism trickles down from the elites. This is why the rebuke to Helen Thomas comes as such a relief. Little was said in response to the transgressions of Fonda, Glover, or Oliphant; they pretty much got away with it. But the Thomas ouster demonstrates that a definite threshold of shame still exists, that such types can go so far and no farther.

The late-modern world does not really possess figures like Wagner, who are popular, artistic, and intellectual leaders at the same time. (Confirmation of this can be found by looking at some of the glitterati's intellectual ruminations on Huffington Post.) The individuals who have adapted the millennial variant of anti-Semitism are second-rank or over the hill, not figures of a stature to create a vast following or exercise enormous influence.

The danger is that a truly outsized individual may arise who reprises the role of Wagner in American form, a kind of anti-Bono who instead of preaching good works indulges in the oldest hatred. We can be certain he would receive an enthusiastic welcome from certain quarters. We must assure that it does not extend to America as a whole.

J.R. Dunn is consulting editor of American Thinker and editor of the forthcoming Military Thinker.