TUNIS - Whenever I get sent on a foreign assignment, the last instruction of the editor will invariably be, "And while you're there, check out what's happening with the Jews." While there is a slightly provincial tone to this request, there are practical considerations behind it. Our readers hail from around the globe and many of them still have relatives in their lands of origin, so it is natural that we should try to supply them with some relevant information.
There are also deeper, historical reasons - war, revolution, famine, plague, recession - events which have tended over the centuries to have unique repercussions for Jewish communities. Indeed, the adverse affect on the Jews' lives has often served as a reliable barometer for the enormity of a calamity and the significance of upheavals. But that may not be so true anymore. At least that was the impression I got this week in Tunisia.
At the beginning of the week, the Israeli and Jewish press ran stories on fears within the local Jewish community and dire prophecies that the violent demonstrations were harbingers of doom that would ultimately force the remaining Tunisian Jews to leave.
Under the impression of those headlines, when I eventually spoke with Jews in Tunisia this week, I felt at first that their reticence to be interviewed was indeed due to their fear of an anti-Semitic backlash. But then I spoke with a local lawyer, blogger and political activist, Souhail Ftouh, who though not Jewish himself is probably the most vocal pro-Zionist in the whole of Tunisia.
"The Jewish community here are like all the other Tunisians. They have submitted years ago to the repression of the regime and they know better than to say anything remotely political," he said. "Like everyone else, they just want to carry on their lives and make money with minimal complications. The government is not anti-Semitic and neither are most Tunisians. Most Jews got along well with President [Zine El Abidine] Ben Ali and they will find a way to get along with whoever comes next. It's all about money in the end."
I heard a similar sentiment from those who hate Israel. "That country doesn't exist to me," said Ibrahim Chouchan, a young Islamist student who invited me to his home. "I can't condone what they are doing to the Palestinians, but I know Jews here in Tunis and I will defend their equal rights."
Much of the fear for the Tunisian Jews' welfare is based on predictions that with the collapse of the one-party rule, the country will rapidly Islamize. But there are few indications that staunchly secular, semi-Westernized Tunisia is on that path - and even if it was, the local brand of religious Islam is not particularly bothered with Jews either way. The only significant anti-Semitic attack to take place on Tunisian soil was carried out by foreign terrorists in the Al-Qaida bombing of the Djerba Synagogue in 2002.
A freak exception
So is Tunisia just a freak exception to the old adage that when the goyim are fighting among themselves, the Jews must take flight? Not if you look at all the recent scares of potential anti-Semitic outbreaks. What happened to the backlash against Jewish financiers following the collapse of Morgan Stanley and the Bernie Madoff embezzlement case? Besides a few nutters on the Internet, the global recession doesn't seem to have resulted in a witch hunt of Hebrew bloodsuckers. And it's not just in the West where sanity prevailed.
Three years ago I was in Ukraine, where local community leaders warned that an impending financial catastrophe would lead the thousands of unemployed workers to vent their frustration against the Jews who owned the factories. That also failed to materialize. Neither did the Russians' deep hostility toward the government of Georgia (which even boiled over in the 2008 South Ossetia War ), with its heavy representation of Jews in key ministerial positions, translate into anti-Semitism on the home front.
And where are the terrible reprisals against the Jews of Iran? Granted, their lot is not a happy one, but then who is happy in Ahmadinejad's Iran? The fact remains that the country's 20,000 Persian Jews are free to leave (albeit at a relatively heavy financial cost ) and few of them are doing so.
Anti-Semitism is not dead, but it has certainly become very unpopular, definitely a minority taste; something that all right-thinking people, and not just in the civilized West, frown upon. Jews are no longer being blamed for all the black plagues of the world.
Ah but you say, anti-Semitism is alive and well, it has just changed in form and evolved into anti-Israelism. Indeed the only real waves of anti-Jewish attacks in recent years have been in the wake of Israel's campaigns against the Palestinians and Lebanon. And they were hardly waves really, more like outbreaks of vandalism - but still we should not belittle any form of hate crime.
It is almost as if Israel did the Jews of the world a huge favor by setting itself up as a much bigger target. These days, they get hit with a bit of collateral damage, at most. Maybe that is what the existence of Israel has done? Render anti-Semitism toward the Jews of any other country in the world obsolete. But is being anti-Israel really anti-Semitism?
Awe, envy and bewilderment
I know all the arguments on either side of that dilemma, but I simply don't think that disproportionate and unfair criticism of Israel, as unfair and disproportionate as it may be, is necessarily anti-Semitic. Anti-Israelism is almost identical to the anti-Americanism that has been sweeping the world in recent years.
A mixture of fascination, awe, envy and bewilderment leads the opinion-formers of the world to hold Israel and the United States to different standards than any other of the United Nations' 192 member states. This is often unjustified, but for better or worse the Jewish state is a special case, and you don't have to be anti-Semitic to admit that.
Jewish leaders have recently been complaining that Israel's conduct toward the Palestinians and its own minority groups reflects poorly upon them. They are correct in saying that such conduct is too frequently indefensible, but it only reflects upon them if they choose it to be so. Whatever anti-Semitism there still is in this world, Israel draws almost all of it in its direction. The next time something bad happens somewhere, we can allow ourselves to be more concerned for all human beings; the Jews will probably be alright.
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