Anti-Semitic Politics after September 11


“As we fight new manifestations of anti-Semitism, and as we define our place in world affairs, we must walk away, and help others do the same, from this elegant but misguided notion that ‘Islam’ and ‘the West’ are on the warpath,” writes Eran Lerman, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Israel/Middle East office.

The Mathematics of Anti-Semitic Politics in the Post-9/11 Era

by Dr. Eran Lerman

The Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism and Racism at Tel Aviv University, one of the world’s leading centers for the integrated study of anti-Semitism, held its Ninth Biennial Seminar this week.

It was an interesting gathering, bringing to Tel Aviv – in 2006, it was held in Budapest – scholars of this sad subject from around the world, as well as inspired young activists, older community leaders, and representatives of major Jewish organizations. (AJC was broadly represented by Rabbi David Rosen, Ken Stern, and myself as speakers or respondents.)

Prof. Dina Porath, the institute’s director, chose to focus on the lingering impact of 9/11 on the complex relationship between radical religious and nationalist ideologies, anti-Semitic attitudes, and terror. It fell to us to deliver comments at the opening session: Rabbi Rosen reported his impressions of the interfaith meeting in Madrid, convened by Saudi Arabia, which he had recently attended, and placed his observations in the context of the broader quest for interreligious understanding that began with the transformation of the Catholic attitude toward the Jewish people. As a respondent, I sought to locate this effort within the modern history of (bad) ideas – bearing in mind that anti-Semitism, with its horrific applications in practice, is first of all an idea, or as the French call it, an “idée fixe.”

In my remarks, I borrowed a mathematical term, the concept of “derivatives.” I suggested that when we speak of anti-Semitism, we are describing a wide variety of phenomena – from the obtuse violence of skinheads to the rants of radical Islamist ‘ulama (Islamic religious leaders), between which there is nothing in common but hatred – and expressions of Jew-hatred, from crude slogans on tenement walls to graphically rich websites, from the most primitive libels to the sophisticated arguments of well-established academics. Yet all are linked by an underlying cause; in other words, all are derivatives of the same overarching set of ideas.

Evil comes in various forms and from various sources. Indeed, as I write, every family in Israel is gripped by a frightening mystery beyond politics: How can a mother, or a grandfather, deliberately kill a helpless child? (Following the discovery of the case of little Rose last week, there have been two more cases, just this week, of four-year-old boys drowned by their mothers.)

The inhumanity of man – and woman – toward other human beings is as old as the species. And yet anti-Semitism is a unique and systemic subcategory therein: one with a special claim on world attention-despite the fact that there are other deep-seated hatreds-due to the fact that it has already generated the worst atrocities in human history. (We heard during the seminar, for example, that Russians, when polled, place Jews only seventh on their list of disliked peoples, with the general category of “dark … southerners from the Caucasus” taking first place.)

Having said this, what are we to do when we try to come to grips with this evil? Are we hunters, on the prowl for a hidden beast, so to speak; or are we social workers, sifting through the wreckage of failed policies and educational shortcomings? Both are facets of this work; but so is the need to place the challenge, and its ever-changing forms, in an historical context. The present quest to deny and delegitimize the right of the Jewish people to self-determination (which, it should be noted, is now formally recognized by the EU as a form of anti-Semitism) is, after all, different in both source and nature than the medieval burning of Jews at the stake. Indeed, if the notion of “derivatives” is to be taken further-and in math, every function can be posited as the derivative of another-it may well be said that anti-Semitism itself, or more specifically, its power to do harm, is, in turn, a derivative of the dominant ideas of its age; and there is no way for us to avoid the broader battlefield of ideas, if we want to confront what is aimed specifically at the Jews.

In the long period that extended from the Christianization of the Roman Empire well into modern times, what made the hatred of the Jew into such a powerful presence in European history was a certain Christian construction of religious lineage, the so-called “replacement theology,” which held that Judaism had been replaced by Christianity as the carrier of God’s true message. (This concept is still propounded here and there, not least by Na’im Ateek and the Sabeel Center, proponents of Christian liberation theology.) Some of the worst aspects of this ancient set of beliefs – and libels – have now invaded, and been adapted by, the world of Islam; there was a situation, in recent years, where a well-educated Saudi woman, in conversation with Israelis, innocently asked what they do on Pesach, now that there are no Christian children available. But overall, not least because of the dramatic redefinition of the relationship between Judaism and the Catholic Church since Nostra Aetate, this is no longer a significant element in the empowerment of anti-Semites.

On the other hand, in the terrible “short century” of wars, 1914-1989, it came to be that the powerful totalitarian movements – Red, Brown, and Black, which fought for global dominance – latched onto anti-Semitism as a tool.

This was true, above all, for the Nazis, but also, to a rather significant degree, particularly from the early ‘50s onward, in the Soviet version. Totalitarian ideas promise salvation in the here and now; when things go wrong, there must be a designing enemy out there. The Jew (or, for other fantasists, anything from the Illuminati to the British royal family) provides an easy-and globally available-foil. Thus, in the battle of ideas that pitched the lands of the free against the totalitarian powers, Jews could not stay neutral – a notion that was clear to David Ben-Gurion even before 1948, when he argued that the Jewish people must ultimately stand with America, which allowed its Jews to have a say, against the Soviets, who did not.

Should this lesson from history lead us today, in a simple transposition-favored by some, in Israel and the Jewish world-to stand with the West (and “Christendom”) against Islam as such, the latter being defined as the enemy in the post-9/11 world? This is where the so-called Huntington thesis, the “clash of civilizations,” would presumably take us. Or should we, in a reversal of alliances, seek common cause with Islam, which in many religious respects is closer to Judaic principles? The clear-minded and forceful answer should be: no, neither.

As we face this new twist in the history of ideas, it is very much our duty – as we fight new manifestations of anti-Semitism, and as we define our place in world affairs – to walk away from, and to help others do so, this elegant but misguided notion that “Islam” and the “West” are on the warpath (an idea, we should remember, that notorious anti-Semites such as former Prime Minister Mahathir Muhammad of Malaysia gladly latched onto).

It is very much in our interest, and in the interest of historical truth- yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as historical truth, even in our postmodern world of “narratives” – to look upon the war now raging worldwide not as a clash of civilizations but (to borrow a phrase from Professor Emmanuel Sivan) “a clash within a civilization,” a civil war for the soul of Islam.

This is what gave the Madrid meeting its true meaning. It was a bid from within Islam to establish an alternative to the dynamics of hate-which should be welcomed as a symbol of reconciliatory intent, even if we should “trust but verify” that the Saudis have truly changed. Elements of the Saudi Arabian establishment, after all, continue to be among the leading purveyors of anti-Semitic filth on a global scale, and nasty Iranian elements (who appear, as Dr. Shimon Samuels of the Simon Wiesenthal Center reminded the seminar, on Interpol’s wanted list for the Buenos Aires AMIA massacre in 1994) were among those invited to the preparatory meeting in Mecca prior to Madrid. The level of hate toward Jews as such in the Arab world, let alone the pervasive rejection of the Jewish people’s right to have its own national movement and sovereign state, are not about to go away. Nevertheless, insofar as the decisive battle is being fought for the soul of Islam from the inside, every step, however guarded, in the right direction needs to be encouraged and pursued to the next level.

We cannot, however, stand alone in this struggle, if the other side of the ledger – international support against the dark totalitarian forces that threaten to engulf the Muslim world – begins to falter. People who run the “siege” to stand beside the Hamas rulers of Gaza are not pro-Palestinian “peace activists”; they are deluded servants of a violent Islamist regime and inadvertent supporters of its hate agenda, which still bears the stamp of Nazi influences.

A tolerant attitude toward Hezbollah’s rape of Lebanon would bring similar results. If Iran’s proxies do carry out-as they threatened to do last week – a major terror attack beyond their borders, in “retaliation” for the death of ‘Imad Mugniyah, this should meet with a swift international response on par with the UN Security Council’s response to 9/11. If it does not, we may come to learn a bitter lesson: Namely, that despite all that has happened, our blood is still cheaper. The test may soon be upon us.

About the author: Dr. Eran Lerman is executive director AJC’s Israel/Middle East Office in Jerusalem and one of the top strategic analysts on the Middle East. Eran earned a doctorate from the London School of Economics, a bachelor’s degree in Modern Middle Eastern history from Tel Aviv University, and a degree in public administration at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

Reprinted with kindly permission of The American Jewish Committee. 

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