Social scientists have long pondered the curious fact that anti-Semitism thrives in societies which — like modern Japan, for example — have virtually no Jews. But the first dissertation has yet to be written about the emergence, in our very own day, of an even greater paradox. Anti-Semitism, it seems, can exist even without anti-Semites! Puzzled?
Well, then, join me for a brief historical flashback to Central Europe, in the ominous decades between the end of the First World War and the onset of the Second, when, alas, there was no shortage of anti-Semites. In fact, so numerous were anti-Semites, that they became the butt of a wide-spread, darkly-humored joke. It went like this:
Q: Who is an anti-Semite?
A: Anyone who hates Jews more than necessary!
You’re not laughing? Then, you have surely forgotten a bit of knowledge once taken for granted by any cultivated Central European: that a certain amount of animosity toward Jews is not only universal, but is in fact inevitable. Everyone assumed that a wee bit of anti-Jewish sentiment is as normal as, say, suspicion of Gypsies or contempt for homosexuals.
“Good Europeans” had a problem with Jew-hatred only when this natural antipathy got out of hand. As every “good European” well knew, hating Jews more than necessary was an unsavory social pathology. It caused, for example, crimes against property, disruptions of the public order, and assassinations of government leaders. The problem with anti-Semitism, in other words, is not that its premise is nuts, but the fact that this antipathy often becomes a consuming obsession.
The topic of anti-Semitism caused mirth among Europe’s “better classes” only as long as anti-Semites minded their manners. By 1945, only a genuine sicko (or Stalin) could fail to notice that obsessive anti-Semitism had harmed anti-Semites almost as horribly as it had the Jews. It was about then that self-confessed anti-Semites began to seem as rare as Flat Earthniks.
Fast-forward to 2007. As we all know, anti-Semitism has for some time been out of the closet. But where are the anti-Semites? Anti-Semitism remains a dirty word among the “better classes,” a thoroughly discredited “ideology of hate.” The KKK’s David Duke and Hollywood’s Mel Gibson (while sober) shrink in horror from the term! Even President Ahmedinejad claims to be beyond such crass irrationalities.
But notice this: what has become entirely permissible is precisely what interwar Europeans recognized as a pathology — the idea that major world events are orchestrated by hidden Jewish conspirators for the benefit of international Jewish interests. Which is to say: the reason why anti-Semites have disappeared is that they have morphed into a new creature — anti-Zionists.
We might even revise our old Central European joke and ask: Who is an anti-Zionist? Anyone who regards anti-Semitism as a low-brow reason to hate the Jewish State. In other words, there are still plenty of anti-Semites; but they are hiding under different rocks.
Can you imagine a greater irony? The Zionism that imagined and, then, created the Jewish State explicitly portrayed itself to the world as a Jewish contribution to the “cure of anti-Semitism!”
By removing European Jews from economic competition with European ethnics, by creating a Jewish national ethos rooted in Jewish labor, Zionists from Pinsker and Herzl to Gordon and Ben-Gurion, proposed to eliminate the social conditions that made personal distaste for Jews and global anti-Semitic ideologies alike seem plausible. Such a deal! If Gentiles wouldn’t deal with anti-Semitism, the Jews would take care of it for them!
Should Zionists have foreseen that their “cure of anti-Semitism” would ultimately reproduce the very political, cultural, and economic conflicts that fed the anti-Semitic virus in Christian Europe?
A very few — mavericks like Judah Magnes, and non-conformists like Martin Buber — did. But, in any event, by the late 1930s, it hardly mattered. The growing anti-Semitic tone of Arab anti-Zionism certainly seemed amateurish compared to the professionalism of Hitler’s Final Solution to the Jewish Question. Swampy Palestine, even with its resentful Arabs, seemed a much better bet than Fascist Europe.
And the Zionists were right. For all its flaws in conception and execution, the Zionist achievement in eretz Yisrael is the grandest act of collective Jewish faith in the concept of humanity since the Emancipation.
Few of us — whether the Jews of eretz Yisrael, who daily re-create the reality of the Jewish State with their life-energy, or we Diaspora Jews, in our twin roles as cheerleaders of Israel’s many achievements and spinmeisters of some of her inevitable missteps — have any doubts about the essential rightness of the Zionist Idea.
If our cultivation of American support for Israel counts as participation in “an international Zionist conspiracy,” then so be it. But we may ask of those “good people” who “oppose anti-Semitism” yet demonize Israel: in what sense are “Zionist interests” in conflict with essential “American interests,” or, for that matter, the “interests of humanity?”
Does humanity have an interest in the conquest of disease? Then where in the modern Middle East does this conquest happen more routinely than in Israel’s faculties of medical research?
Does humanity have an interest in the advancement of the human sciences that serve the vision of a common human nature upon which all modern democracy is based? Then where in the modern Middle East is this vision cultivated more assiduously than in Jerusalem’s Hebrew University or Ben-Gurion University of the Negev?
Does humanity have an interest in understanding and controlling humanly made stresses on the planetary environment? Then where in the modern Middle East is the rival to the dozens of Israeli centers devoted to projects from water conservation research to protecting ocean life?
To those “enemies of anti-Semitism” who claim that support of Israel is “against the interests of humanity,” we “Zionist conspirators” might reply: “Then just whose interests are you promoting?”
Martin Jaffee teaches in both the Comparative Religion and Jewish Studies programs at the University of Washington. When not masquerading as a journalist, he writes on the history of Talmudic literature as well as theoretical problems in the study of religion.