Last Wednesday's Holocaust Remembrance Day, which this year commemorated the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, was marked by customary calls to combat anti-Semitism worldwide. Yet resisting bigotry is not as clear-cut an issue as it might seem at first glance, at a time when the very definition of anti-Semitism is shifting and constantly questioned. Where some see the cancer of Jew-hatred, others see the charge of anti-Semitism being used to stifle discussion of issues particularly in relation to Israel and the conflict in the Middle East.
Anti-Semitism is probably the world's oldest still-extant form of group hate. But where does legitimate opinion end and bigotry begin? Last week, Israeli Information Minister Yuli Edelstein told the media that the recent United Nations report harshly critical of Israel's military operations in Gaza in December 2008-January 2009 was a type of anti-Semitism despite the fact that its author, South African judge Richard Goldstone, is Jewish. Plenty of commentators have criticized the Goldstone report as tendentious, particularly in downplaying the Hamas fighters practice of hiding among civilians. But if the anti-Israel bias is real, is it based on anti-Semitism or on a left-leaning prejudice that favors Third World people over Western democracies and their allies? The latter seems more likely.
Yet, if it too simplistic and unfair automatically to equate critiques of Israeli policies with anti-Jewish prejudice, the truth remains that critiques of Israel often serve as a convenient smokescreen and vehicle for genuine bigotry. Attacks on the Israel Lobby have a tendency to descend into nasty insinuations about Jewish control of major American institutions and American Jews as disloyal citizens who always put Israel first.
A striking demonstration of this occurred earlier this month. Policy analyst Michael Scheuer, former head of the CIAs Bin Laden unit, has portrayed himself as a victim of the Israel Lobby. Scheuer charges that he was fired by the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington, DC think tank, over a caustic remark about Barack Obama doing the Tel Aviv two-step pandering to Israel backers during the 2008 campaign. Scheuer is also a vocal proponent of the view that the United States should end its support for Israel in order to improve relations with the Muslim world.
On January 4, Scheuer appeared on a C-SPAN program where a caller from Franklin, New York declared that he was sick and tired of all these Jews coming on C-SPAN and other stations and pushing us to go to war against our Muslim friends and went on to say, "They have way too much power in this country. People like Wolfowitz and Feith and the other neo-cons they jewed us into Iraq." In response, Scheuer not only failed to condemn this blatant bigotry but seemed to agree with the caller, saying that whether we want to be involved in fighting Israel's wars in the future is something that Americans should be able to talk about.
Elsewhere in the world, Polish Catholic bishop Tadeusz Pieronek marked Holocaust Remembrance Day with a statement to a Catholic website accusing Jews of using the Holocaust as a weapon of propaganda to obtain unjust advantages such as American support for Israel and to treat Palestinians like animals. And hostility to Israel in the Arab and Muslim world often manifests itself in updated versions of ancient, vicious libels against Jews. Thus, the medieval blood libel claiming that Jews kill Christian children to use their blood for ritual purposes finds new life in a story peddled by government-run Iranian television station charging that Israeli doctors helping earthquake survivors in Haiti are really there to harvest human organs for sale.
There are, of course, spurious charges of anti-Semitism made for political advantage. Recently, conservative radio talk show king Rush Limbaugh accused Obama of appealing to anti-Semitic prejudice by going after Wall Street and the banks, since many people equate banker with Jew. Ironically, the Anti-Defamation League, which tends to focus on enemies on the right, then accused Limbaugh of anti-Semitism for these comments, compounding one groundless claim of bigotry with another equally groundless one.
Yet real anti-Jewish bigotry not only exists but seems to be on the rise. Traditional right-wing anti-Semitism, based on religious and cultural prejudice and on the perception of Jews as rootless and subversive, coexists and often overlaps with a new left-wing anti-Semitism that sees Jews as proxies for Israel, and Israel as a carrier of Western imperialism in the Middle East.
Combating these trends from the bully pulpit is important. Yet President Obamas recently appointed special envoy and head of the Office to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, Hannah Rosenthal, has been largely quiet, reserving her most outspoken criticism so far for the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, whom she blasted in December 2009 for his harsh remarks about pro-peace Jewish groups.
Fear of being labeled anti-Semitic should not stifle debate about Israeli policies or U.S. policy in the Middle East. But no debate should ever be allowed to become a cover or an excuse for hate and, in this particular debate, theres plenty of hate to go around.
Cathy Young writes a weekly column for RealClearPolitics and is also a contributing editor at Reason magazine. She blogs at http://cathyyoung.wordpress.com. A version of this article originally appeared at RealClearPolitics.