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Anti-semitism and Israelís moral imperative

By Alon Ben-Meir - posted Friday, 8 May 2015


Horrific outbursts against the Jews are on the rise all over Europe – exclamations like “gas the Jews” and “Jews burn best” are being heard at soccer games and similar social gatherings. While there is nothing to excuse or justify such hateful speech, some effort still needs to be made to understand why this is taking place now, and to such a degree that has not been seen for decades. That means coming to grips with the ways in which Israeli leaders have directly, and Jews in general inadvertently, contributed to this alarming development.

Although the term anti-Semitism did not become commonly used until the end of the 19th century – when Germany popularized it as a scientific-sounding name for Judenhass (Jew-hatred) – in a sense, Jews have been experiencing it at least as early as the 3rd century BC. The current rise of anti-Semitism across much of Western Europe, and to a lesser extent in the Americas, cannot be explained, however, by merely referencing its historical persistence.

It is tempting to revert to ready and familiar explanations for anti-Semitism. One such hypothesis – which astonishingly is still entertained – is the “scapegoat theory,” according to which the Jews have always been a convenient group to blame for the intractable social/political conflicts of the time.

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In her seminal study The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt points out the obvious problem with this view – namely, that it “implies that the scapegoat might have been anyone else as well” – and as soon as we begin to “explain why a specific scapegoat was so well suited to his role,” we have to put the theory aside and get “involved in the usual historical research – where nothing is ever discovered except that history is made by many groups and that for certain reasons one group was singled out.”

The opposite, but no less popular, theory is the doctrine of “eternal antisemitism,” where “Jew-hatred is a normal and natural reaction to which history gives only more or less opportunity.” That is, the surge of anti-Semitism is not instigated by a special occurrence or event because it is a natural outcome of an undying phenomenon.

What is surprising is that even Jews themselves share this notion; just as the anti-Semite does not want to take responsibility for his actions, many Jews understandably do not want to consider or “discuss their share of responsibility.”

What has added potency to the substantial rise in anti-Semitism in recent years is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israel’s defiance of international norms of conduct, its leaders’ sense of righteousness and arrogance, and the image they project to the outside world.

The philosopher Slavoj Žižek has observed how, in order to justify its expansionist policies, Israel has been playing a dangerous game with potentially catastrophic consequences. Radical Zionists claim that a multi-culturist Israel cannot survive – that apartheid, or something like it, is the only viable alternative – essentially acknowledging the argument which was used in earlier European history against the Jews themselves.

It suggests that Israeli extremists on the right are ready to ignore Western European intolerance towards the influx of other cultures, such as Islam, if their prerogative not to tolerate Palestinians is accepted. We might add that Israeli discrimination is not confined to the Palestinians, but extends even to Middle Eastern and Ethiopian Jews as well.

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Žižek is right to point out that Israel is making a tragic miscalculation in deciding “to downplay… the so-called ‘old’ (traditional European) anti-Semitism…when the old anti-Semitism is returning all around Europe.”

It is in this light that we can also understand the strange alliance between the radical Israeli right and US Christian fundamentalists, who are historically anti-Semitic but passionately support Israel’s expansionistic politics: “Jewish critics of the State of Israel are regularly dismissed as self-hating Jews; however, …the true self-hating Jews, those who secretly hate the true greatness of the Jewish nation [are] precisely the Zionists making a pact with [Western conservative] anti-Semites.”

Many Jews still believe that they are the “chosen people,” chosen to be in a covenant with God. But what does “chosenness” signify? The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas described it most aptly: “The chosenness of the Jewish people…is always considered as a surplus of responsibility… very often it takes on an attitude of excellence, a pretension to aristocracy in the bad sense of the term, the right to privileges. In authentic thinking, however, it means a surplus of obligations.”

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About the Author

Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.

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