|Europe’s New Frontier of Bigotry|
|By Professor Robert S. Wistrich|
Through most of European history, “the Other” of choice has been the Jew. Antisemitism has been the most persistent of the Other-blaming ideologies, partly because of the special position of Jews and Judaism within European Christian civilization; and in part, as a consequence of certain characteristics embedded in the Jewish diasporic experience itself. Inherited myths of the “wandering Jew”, along with the nomadic, rootless, protean, highly mobile and “international” character of Jewish life in the Diaspora, made it easier for Gentiles to construct a demonic image of “the Jew” as the quintessential stranger. Zionism, itself, was predicated on the need to put on an end to this extra-territorial “rootlessness” of Jewish experience in the Galut, by establishing a cohesive and autonomous national framework in the State of Israel.
But since the Holocaust and the establishment of Israel –and especially in the past two decades- the “collective Jew” embodied within the Israeli nation-state has also become the target of a revived antisemitism. The goal of this radical anti-Zionism has been to achieve a world “cleansed” of any Jewish State (Judenstaatrein). In the Middle East – where this has been a powerful trend for decades – the Israelis are still perceived by many Arabs as an alien “other”, while in Europe itself, the delegitimation and demonization of the Jewish State has been gathering pace since the turn of a new millennium. How has this come about, why has it happened and what elements of continuity and change can be discerned in the current manifestations of European hostility towards Jews and Israel? Are we talking about the Jew-hatred of yesteryear, about an altogether new phenomenon or a less familiar hybrid creature that has combined “old” and “new” disguises in which to mask its prejudice against Jews and Israelis?
I am inclined to accept the latter hypothesis. But it still leaves us with a puzzle. How can one explain, for example, the seeming paradox that in the contemporary European Union based on multi-culturalism, pluralistic ideals and a democratic, “anti-racist” consensus, there has nonetheless been an upsurge of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiment in the past four years? It is surely simplistic to attribute this revival solely – or even primarily – to the Palestinian intifada and its echoes in Europe. Major economic trends of globalization are also involved which have produced mass migrations on an unprecedented scale, a new diversity of cultures and exacerbated the growing sense of embattled identity among millions of “losers” in the modernization process. For some, these globalizing forces herald the end of the nation-state as well as the demise of religion, tradition and established values; for others, they represent the long-awaited promise of tolerance, respect for human dignity and the “right to be different”.
At first sight, the enlightened vision of an increasingly supranational European Union, might seem as if it should offer its best of all possible worlds to the Jews of Europe. Yet, for the moment, this promise has not materialised. Instead there are rising ethnic tensions, racism, xenophobia and an antisemitism, sometimes sailing under the mask of “anti-Zionism” or “criticism of Israel”. All of this has revived with a vengeance in a pluralistic and nominally “anti-racist” Europe after 2000! How can one reconcile this striking fact with the growing commemoration and institutionalization of the Shoah in the cultural life of Europe, which has been embraced as a matrix event? Furthermore, how is it possible that precisely this memory of the Shoah has come to be repeatedly utilized against Israel, with ever more widespread amalgams of Zionism with Nazism and of Europe’s martyred Jews with Palestinian suffering? The current trend of transforming yesterday’s Jewish victims into today’s “racist” perpetrators of “crimes against humanity” undoubtedly has deeper roots than the myths, libels and disinformation flashed through cyberspace or across TV screens today.
The conventional wisdom has long held that modern antisemitism is essentially a right-wing phenomenon, a backlash by conservatives, religious traditionalists, fascists and Nazis against liberal democracy, secularism, reason, universalist values of liberty and equality or humanist values in general. This “anti-modernist” aspect of antisemitism was, historically speaking, a potent factor until the Holocaust. It still has some resonance on the radical populist right or among Islamic fundamentalists who loathe liberalism, socialism, feminism, democratic egalitarianism and the mixing (métissage) of cultures. But the liberal “new look” prejudices, currently popular in European society repudiate the ethnic nationalism of an earlier approach. “Progressive” opinion likes to castigate Israel as an “exclusivist”, “apartheid” State that itself allegedly practises “ethnic cleansing”. Liberal prejudice is harder to pin down than its counterparts on the Right, precisely because it wraps itself in the language of human rights, multiculturalism and universalist ideas. This does not prevent a growing number of “liberals” from defaming Judaism as a bloodthirsty biblical fundamentalist faith that allegedly justifies genocide; or from reviving ancient blood libels in modern secular form (e.g. the Israeli Army as an organization of cruel, deliberate “childkillers”); or evoking conspiracy theories about an occult, secret power exercised by powerful Israeli/Jewish lobbies in Washington D.C. and other major capitals – which was supposedly responsible for 9/11, the Iraq war and even for the present wave of global terror.
The current purveyors of such myths are often mainstream intellectuals, journalists, leftists and anti-globalists who vehemently deny being racist or antisemitic. Ironically, the indignation with which they react to charges of being “antisemitic” at times leads them into convoluted and prejudiced statements which allege, for example, that a “spurious” debate over anti-Jewish racism has been deliberately manipulated to make Israel “immune” from criticism. Such arguments are common enough on the European Left, which is, of course, officially “anti-racist”. Its special brand of prejudice tends to be expressed in the name of a universalist multiculturalist ideal and defending the Palestinian “other”. What makes this particularly objectionable is the accompanying effort to boycott, ostracise and exclude Israel from the community of nations – a cumulative process which it successful, might help to bring about its demise. The fact that Jews and Israelis are themselves sometimes involved in such discriminatory actions and engage in rationalising Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel or turn a blind eye to the dangers of Islamist antisemitism is especially offensive and even pathological. There are Jewish intellectuals in the forefront not only of Israel-bashing but even shield Palestinian jihadism and shahidism from any significant moral condemnation on the Left. This has not prevented a populist backlash against an increasingly fundamentalist Islam in Europe, whose implication in the Madrid bombings and the 7th July terrorist assault on London has clearly shaken the public opinion as well as government policies.
European Jews have found themselves on the frontline of the contemporary “war of cultures” provoked by a radicalized Islam. In this context, the growing linkage between anti-Americanism, anti-Israel feeling and antisemitism is highly significant. European demonization of President Bush and Ariel Sharon may in part be a straight-forward response to policies in Iraq and Palestine that are widely criticized or disliked. But images and clichés about Americans and Jews branded as rapacious, war-mongering “Shylocks” and ruthless conspirators belong to a historic arsenal of antisemitism which cannot be ignored. It will surely outlast the temporary chorus of approval surrounding Sharon’s disengagement from Gaza.
Although an Israel which cedes territory is clearly more popular than one stands its ground, this has not led to any diminution in efforts to isolate and segregate the Jewish state. The Israeli state still represents the “bad Jew” for many Europeans, while the “good Jews” are those who unequivocally condemn Zionism and question Israel’s right to defend itself against terror. As a result of this process European society is in danger of repudiating its own core values while appeasing totalitarian Islamism. Instead of vigorously standing up for foundational values like the rule of law, religious toleration, secularism, equality of the sexes, the inalienable rights of man, and freedom of criticism, It is obsessed with the dangers of “Islamophobia” which paralyses much needed criticism of Islamist extremism.
This failure of nerve, if unchecked, will lead to a creeping and possibly irreversible Islamicization of European society, culture and politics.
Since 2000, the anti-Jewish virus in Europe has clearly been undergoing a mutation. The older variety of political antisemitism which arose in the late 19th century, in an age of rising ethnic nationalism and racism, excluded the Jews as quintessential “stangers”. The present resurgence has occurred in a nominally post-nationalist Europe, where except for the radical populist Right and neo-Nazi fringe groups, völkisch and racist bigotry is generally considered beyond the pale by educated opinion. European elites today regard the right to a distinct cultural identity as normal. This was not the case sixty or a hundred years ago. Classical racist antisemitism claimed, for example, that Jews were “unassimilable”; indeed, their absorption was considered extremely dangerous since it might bring about the “judaization” of Western culture. Liberalism, capitalism, secularism, socialism, pornography, the cultural avant-garde, psychoanalysis and Marxism were branded by antisemites as manifestations of the modernist “Jewish spirit”. These views have not disappeared today. But in a new age of “mixed cultures”, it is Israel itself which is viewed by growing numbers of Europeans as the paradigm of “racism” in the contemporary world – as the new South Africa of our times and the ultimate symbol of apartheid. At the same time, those Islamists who totally reject the West and fight to destroy it, are treated with kid gloves as if tolerating such aberrations helps the cause of Islam and the desire of more moderate Muslims to integrate. What could be more perverse and counter-productive?
The multiculturalist credo embraced by Europe forgets that boundaries have always been essential to religious, cultural and national identity. So, too, is a sense of belonging. Religion and integral nationalism are in no small degree about identity. These realities have also underpinned antisemitism as a cultural code from Antiquity to the present day. What then are the consequences for national, cultural and political identity of the ever-widening European Union? What happens, for example, to specific French, British, German, Italian, Belgian, Dutch or Spanish identities when they are threatened not only by jihadi mass murderers but also by the accelerated pace of globalization and mass immigration of Muslims from a different cultural universe?
Multiculturalism ought to be about the “dignity of difference”, respect for diversity, “loving the stranger”, making a public space for the other, overcoming tribalism, hubris and also rejecting a uniform style of universalism. Ideally, there should be no place for racism and antisemitism in the multiculturalist world imagined by the European Union, nor for any form of “exclusion” of the Other. Yet the current version of a globalizing, multiculturalist society as it is emerging in a “post-national” Europe where ethnic politics is still potent, suggests that matters are in reality far more complex. We stand at a historical turning-point for the Old Continent in which a return of antisemitism, along with terrorism, jihad and identity politics represents a major challenge to present and future.
This is a shortened version of an address delivered by the author at the Royal Institute of International Relations in Brussels in January 2005.