Last November, an arson attack against a Jewish school in Paris prompted Le Monde, a left-leaning daily hardly known for pro-Israeli sympathies, to editorialize that "disapproval and condemnation of Israel's policy in the Palestinian territories have clearly lowered the barrier—already unclear to some—between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism."
The resurgence of anti-Semitism worldwide, fueled largely by the backlash against Israel since the start of the second Palestinian intifada in 2000, has been the subject of much heated discussion. At the heart of the debate is the question: Has criticism of Israeli policies become a vehicle and a cover for anti-Jewish prejudices that are otherwise unspeakable in polite society?
Or, conversely, has the charge of anti-Semitism become an all-too-convenient way to silence critics of Israel and of the policies of Ariel Sharon's government?
It is beyond dispute that the hatred of Israel that now emanates from large sections of the Arab and Muslim worlds is intertwined with the most virulent strain of Jew-hatred.
A typical example is the screed delivered by Malaysia's then-prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, to the 10th Islamic Summit in October 2003, in which he declared that "the Jews rule this world by proxy" and mused that "they invented and successfully promoted socialism, communism, human rights, and democracy" as means to gain that control. For years now, the mostly government-run media in Arab countries, including "moderate" ones such as Egypt, have been feeding their audiences a stream of anti-Semitic vitriol that would do Nazi Germany proud.
Some of this fare is documented in the new book The Return of Anti-Semitism (Encounter Books), by Commentary Senior Editor Gabriel Schoenfeld. There's the recycling of anti-Semitic forgeries and canards, including the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion. There's Holocaust denial, sometimes accompanied by expressions of regret that the Holocaust didn't happen. There's the reappearance of the "blood libel" that accuses the Jews of using the blood of Gentile children in their rituals.
It has also been obvious for some time that the anti-Israeli backlash in Western Europe has been accompanied by a disturbing surge in literal Jew bashing—almost all of it perpetrated by Arab immigrant youths. From Paris to Berlin to Amsterdam, Jews wearing religious garb or Stars of David have been beaten, synagogues have been firebombed, and rocks have been thrown at buses carrying Jewish schoolchildren.
But things get murky when it comes to the charge that anti-Semitism manifests itself in much of the hostility directed at Israel and its treatment of Palestinians. Schoenfeld unequivocally endorses this view as he documents the vilification of Israel by respectable European intellectuals and the European media. Even in the United States, he claims, support for the Palestinian cause on progressive, multicultural campuses such as Berkeley has been tainted with Jew baiting.
This charge has been made by others, notably Harvard President Lawrence Summers in a speech delivered in late 2002. While Summers was careful to note that "there is much to be debated about the Middle East and much in Israel's foreign and defense policy that can be and should be vigorously challenged," some accused him of seeking to stifle legitimate debate on these issues by equating criticism of Israel with bigotry.
Sorting out the rights and wrongs in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is beyond the scope of this column. Schoenfeld makes a convincing case that European media coverage has been skewed. Israeli retaliation for terrorist acts often has received far more attention than the terrorist acts themselves; civilian casualties in operations primarily directed at military targets have been equated with murderous violence that intentionally targets civilians.
It is also true that the condemnation of Israel reeks of double standards. A deafening silence surrounds far worse human rights violations by numerous Third World regimes. There is a movement on American college campuses calling for divestment from companies that do business with Israel; in Europe, hundreds of academics have signed a petition urging a moratorium on research grants to Israeli scholars. There is no push for similar penalties against Russians, despite Russia's war crimes in occupied Chechnya.
All this has led Israeli cabinet minister and former Soviet dissident Anatoly Scharansky to declare that "Israel has effectively become the world's Jew," designated for pariah status because of deep-seated prejudice.
But is this anti-Semitism? This is hardly the first time the progressive intelligentsia has applied double standards to human rights abuses. Vile as apartheid was, it's absurd that in the 1980s South Africa was treated as though it were worse than the Soviet Union. Now Israel is the left's right-wing regime du jour, seen as a Western colonial outpost in the Third World oppressing the "wretched of the earth."
Extreme and unfair though denunciations of Israel may often be, labeling them anti-Semitic raises troubling questions. Is this a conservative version of political correctness—the equivalent of crying racism when African regimes are attacked as corrupt or incompetent?
And yet the fact is that critiques of Israel often do morph into more old-fashioned anti-Semitism, partly because of the equation of Israeli and Jew. Schoenfeld quotes the British writer Petronella Wyatt, who has written that conversation about the Middle East in educated British circles often abounds in such comments as, "Well, the Jews have been asking for it, and now, thank God, we can say what we think at last." A columnist for the London Observer has publicly declared that he refused to read pro-Israel letters signed with Jewish-sounding names.
There are also many instances of anti-Israel posters and cartoons employing shockingly anti-Semitic language and imagery, including the old "Christ killer" label. A cartoon in the respectable Italian newspaper La Stampa showed an infant Jesus lying in front of an Israeli tank, the caption saying, "Don't tell me they want to kill me again."
Far more common is the ploy of equating the Israelis with the Nazis: posters depicting Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon with a swastika armband, comments about "the Zionist S.S.," comparisons of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians to the Holocaust. Calling Sharon a hard-liner or a warmonger is hardly anti-Semitic, contrary to what Schoenfeld seems to imply—but comparing the head of the Jewish state to Hitler, who sought to exterminate the Jews, is beyond obscenity.
As Schoenfeld points out, it is a mistake to think that "real" anti-Semitism has to involve a naked hostility to Jews simply for being Jews, whether based on religion or ethnicity. In the 19th and 20th centuries, anti-Semitism was often associated both with anti-capitalism (since the Jews were seen as the epitome of the money-grubbing bourgeoisie) and with anti-communism (since the Jews were seen as the vanguard of Bolsheviks and other radicals).
Today, all too often, extremist anti-Israeli rhetoric becomes a vehicle for the kind of bigotry that one might have hoped was extinct in the civilized world. Critics of Israeli policies have a special responsibility to condemn it.