The Middle East is where short tempers were born. One runs a risk in even attempting to discuss the notion of anti-Semitism in that flammable context. It is important to step lightly and heavily at the same time. Almost inevitably one is suspected of the sin for trying to make the necessary fine and not-so-fine distinctions. The gleeful decoder/propagandists will tell you what “critical of Israel” must mean; nothing less than full support is without its hazards.
This is not of course to say that there are no genuine anti-Semites in the mix. Obviously there are, and by that I mean that they are obvious—they stand out. The President of Iran comes immediately to mind, with his bone-headed introduction of Holocaust-denial into the current debates, and he’s not alone in that part of the world. Closer to home we have Hal Turner and David Duke. Anti-Semites can’t be expected to approve of any Jewish project whatsoever, and you’ll find, therefore, no friends of Israel in that quarter. But they are no friends of progressives, either, and we are no friends of theirs.
I hasten to qualify the second-last statement. Israel, to be sure, can fairly be characterized as a “Jewish project.” History tells us so, from the Balfour Declaration onwards, and that’s only recent history. But there are non-Zionist and indeed anti-Zionist Jews, and, perhaps more germane to this discussion, there are fervent supporters of Israel who happen to be non-Jewish and non-Israeli. It is that latter group that needs a closer look. Before doing so, however, we need to try to disentangle, at least for the purposes of argument, that which cannot be readily disentangled, if at all—“Israel” and “the Jewish people."
I will admit that this is a daunting task. In France, there are “the French.” In Israel, on the other hand, we find adherents of a form, or more properly several forms, of Israeli nationalism, under the umbrella term of Zionism, and at the same time a second identity: Jewishness. Jews, with their multiplicity of cultures, languages, traditions and histories, may have in some way formed a "community," but if community it was, it lacked a nationalism until the development of Zionism.
Israel has filled that void, and it is for this reason close to the hearts of those in the Jewish Diaspora, even, it must be admitted, of those Jews who are hostile to its aims and policies. Israel is not just a territory and not just a state comme les autres. The majority of its inhabitants are at once Jews and Israelis. There is a double identity here, far more profound than that of the so-called “hyphenated Canadian."
In this sense Israel is genuinely like no other country in the world. It is home and refuge not only to its own citizens, but, by law, to the citizens of many other countries. Forged out of the Holocaust, which claimed six million Jewish victims among the twelve million who perished in it, Israel is a conjuncture of state, land, history, myth, nationalist ideology, a multitude of peoples, a state of mind.
I do not here want to revert to the competing claims on the land. Suffice it to say that it was never terra nullius. For the purposes of this article, I want simply to underline the obvious: one cannot speak of Israel and ignore the Jews. The underlying reality, the unique double nature of the country, is laid bare when one appears too antagonistic to that state’s aims and policies. We are not accused of simply being anti-Israeli, which would be bad enough—opposition to state policy should not be taken as opposition to the subjects of the state. We are accused, rather, of anti-Semitism—of the so-called “new anti-Semitism” about which a substantial literature has already accumulated.
This phenomenon, taken so readily for granted by so many, is actually the subject of contentious debate among Jews and non-Jews alike. It's a bit of a grab-bag, in fact; the first books on the subject appeared in the early 1970s and were concerned with a resurgence of the old anti-Semitism emanating from the usual suspects on the Right. Only a few years later, the concept was linked to the Left, which had by that time taken up the Palestinian cause in earnest, while the Right had embraced Israel for a number of reasons ranging from the religious to the strategic.
This is not to say that the entire debate comes down to a kind of verbal proxy war between progressives and conservatives, but it must be said that Israel is obviously a site of ideological struggle. The distinctions that some commentators labour to make between, for example, anti-Semitism and "Israelphobia," between "legitimate" and "illegitimate" criticism of Israel, are too often completely erased in that wider conflict.
Lost also in the fog of these wars is the reason for the intensity of the original debate: the fate of European Jews at the hands of the Nazis and their allies, and the much longer history of persecution that, as Jean-Paul Sartre for one has has argued, may be the defining fact of Jewish identity (although, like so many of his summings-up, this seems unsatisfactorily narrow).
In any case, if Israel is not a nation like the others, anti-Semitism is not a prejudice like the others. There is a hierarchy of hatreds in our society, and Jew-hatred is at the very top. What influence can be mustered will be mustered by any people with such a history. Further influence will be exercised by those who have their own ideological reasons for doing so. But the result has been that one community is relatively privileged in comparison to other communities, which in fact suffer a kind of erasure. When neo-Nazis attack a Tamil or a Roma, spokepeople from those communities are not even consulted by the media. Instead, Bernie Farber of the Canadian Jewish Congress can be counted upon for a comment. And when it comes to Israel, the same voice is raised.
I am not here insisting that it not be: that would simply be foolish. The voice will be heard, for perfectly plausible reasons. But other voices need to be heard as well; those of other dispossessed or persecuted peoples and groups, and those of individuals who attempt, although the discursive space is lacking, to critique Israel as though it were simply another nation-state. Instead, such critiques are regularly undermined by, on the one hand, Jewish spokespersons who are so fiercely protective of Israel that they will readily silence or discredit critics with a temptingly handy label; and, on the other, conservatives who brandish that self-same label for their own political purposes. There is little genuine debate that can take place in such a climate.
And of course one of the unfortunate consequences of this is the hollowing out of the very notion of anti-Semitism, something that must give true anti-Semites considerable aid and comfort. I will conclude this post, therefore, by giving the last measured word on the subject to Brian Klug, writing in The Nation:
In his contribution to A New Antisemitism?, historian Peter Pulzer, faulting the way "the liberal press" sometimes reports the activities of the Israel Defense Forces in the occupied territories, makes a telling point about the misuse of words. He says: "When every civilian death is a war crime, that concept loses its significance. When every expulsion from a village is genocide, we no longer know how to recognize genocide. When Auschwitz is everywhere, it is nowhere." Point taken. But equally, when anti-Semitism is everywhere, it is nowhere. And when every anti-Zionist is an anti-Semite, we no longer know how to recognize the real thing--the concept of anti-Semitism loses its significance.