Jewish museum's obsolete debate on anti-Semitism

There's something very wrong in the discussion about defining today's anti-Semitism when endlessly recycled, outdated and worn-out views are feted as gospel.

Members of the Greek extreme right Golden Dawn party hold red flares outside the town hall
Members of the Greek extreme right Golden Dawn party hold red flares outside the town hall of Perama town, near Athens, during a... / Photo by Reuters
By Ben Cohen
Published 09:04 07.11.13

There is a beguiling paradox around the term "anti-Semitism." Prejudice of varying degrees toward Jews is a centuries-old phenomenon, yet there remains precious little agreement as to what anti-Semitism involves in our own time.

Anyone who has observed the twists of the anti-Semitism debate during the last decade will know that the quarrel about definition has been extraordinarily polarized. On one side are those who believe that global hostility to Zionism and Israel's existence, frequently based upon sinister theories about Jewish power, represents the most acute form of anti-Semitism today. On the other is a cluster of Jewish and non-Jewish voices who insist that this "new anti-Semitism" is a mischievous attempt to conflate legitimate opposition to Zionism as a political movement with that odious, largely defunct bigotry, anti-Semitism.

As someone who has actively participated in this debate, I'll readily admit that the back and forth has gotten rather stale. However, as the brouhaha  over a conference on anti-Semitism at Berlin's Jewish Museum on Thursday night illustrates, the differences that animated this dispute in the first place aren't likely to disappear anytime soon.

To begin with, there is the seemingly unimportant matter of the conference's timing. Organized to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, when Nazi mobs rampaged through Germany, rounding up and murdering Jews and ransacking Jewish stores and synagogues, it begins on Friday night and ends on Saturday. Critics charge that it is inappropriate to hold a conference on anti-Semitism over the Jewish Sabbath, since it is almost impossible for observant Jews to attend.

In an email to me, one of the conference organizers defended the decision on the grounds that Herbert A. Strauss, a German Jewish intellectual who established the Center for Research on Anti-Semitism at the Technical University of Berlin in 1980, "always insisted in that it is not forbidden to... learn on Shabbat."

As well-intentioned as this response is, the absence of observant Jews from the proceedings – they will be sitting down for Shabbat dinner around about the time of the keynote conference lecture – will actually restrict any number of lived-in-the-skin learning opportunities. Since Jews who are visibly Jewish, by dint of wearing kippot, shopping in kosher stores, or dropping off their children at Jewish schools, are more likely to be targeted in anti-Semitic attacks than their secular brethren, one can reasonably assume that a conference on anti-Semitism would be much enhanced by their attendance.

A far bigger controversy revolves around the academic chosen to deliver the keynote lecture, the Oxford University philosopher Brian Klug. Klug famously intervened in the contemporary anti-Semitism debate with a 2004 article in the left-wing American journal The Nation, in which he argued that the notion of a reignited "war against the Jews" was "as much a figment of the imagination as its mirror image: a Jewish conspiracy against the world." In subsequent writings, Klug has reiterated this core point.

As I remarked in a dossier to the Berlin conference that highlighted Klug's problematic statements, I do not object to the invitation per se. Nor do I believe that Klug is a crude chauvinist like, for example, the American political activist Max Blumenthal, whose recent, widely ridiculed book attacking Israel is replete with insultingly anti-Semitic chapter headings like "The Concentration Camp" and "How to Kill Goyim and Influence People." What alarms me and others is that Klug is being given an unchallenged podium at prestigious venue to restate positions that are frankly worn out (assuming, of course, that he isn't planning to use the occasion to announce a radical change of heart.)

The very title of Klug's lecture, "What do we mean when we say 'anti-Semitism'?" implies that very little has changed since his Nation article nearly a decade ago. Whereas in fact, the parameters of both the anti-Semitism debate itself, as well as the broader issues with which it intersects, have been dramatically transformed.

One of the claims behind the dissociation of anti-Zionism from anti-Semitism - that the two couldn't be equated - rested upon the supposed global import of the Palestinian conflict with Israel. The argument went like this: Parochial Jewish anxieties about past Jewish suffering should not block efforts to challenge the "Zionist narrative" behind the "the occupation," AKA the greatest threat to world peace and justice.

Actually, events in the Middle East over the last three years have underlined the reverse of this occupation-centric view of history. The Israeli-Palestinian dimension is only one, and certainly not the most significant, aspect of a regional crisis that sweeps up national identities, religious sectarianism, and the persistence of corrupt, undemocratic regimes. The more fitting question to examine, therefore, is why western intellectuals concerned with the Middle East are so preoccupied with Israel alone, and the extent to which this reflects inherited ideas about the dangers of Jewish power.

Then there's the equally discredited assumption that Arab and Muslim anti-Semitism is principally an outgrowth of enmity to Zionism. In the last decade, a coalition of scholars and activists has made a persuasive case that the mass expulsion of Jewish communities from the Arab world in the 1940s and 1950s would not have been possible without a powerful strand of indigenous anti-Semitism to build upon. But if the Berlin conference does not deem a largely hidden historic injustice like this one to be worthy of consideration, how can we arrive at a rounded picture of anti-Zionism's relationship to anti-Semitism?

Lastly, there are the perceptions and feelings of Jews in Europe right now. A preview of the forthcoming European Union Fundamental Rights Agency survey on anti-Semitism reveals that almost 50 per cent of Jews in Belgium, France and Hungary have considered emigrating because of anti-Semitism.

Are we simply to reassure them that the brewing opposition in Europe to ritual slaughter and circumcision is based on human rights concerns, or that anti-Zionism is motivated by aspirations to justice? How do we resolve that with the overwhelming evidence that far-right parties like Jobbik in Hungary and Golden Dawn in Greece oppose Zionism solely because of their loathing of Jews? Indeed, can those American Jews who argue that there is no future for Jews in Europe ever be proved wrong, considering this context?

I won't claim to have a monopoly on the answers to these questions. But I do know that until we acknowledge what we've got profoundly wrong in the current anti-Semitism debate, there's no scope to make any progress. And despite the forthcoming conference's timeliness and resonant location, there are good reasons to believe that our understanding of anti-Semitism today will not be refined by its keynote speaker.

Ben Cohen is a New York-based writer on Jewish and international affairs. His articles and commentaries have been published in, amongst others, the Wall Street Journal, Commentary and Tablet. Follow him on Twitter.


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  • 3.
    Anti-Semithism, racism and injustice
    The writer is concerned about anti-Semithism - I'm too. But I'm also concerned about racism, human rights and justice for all. The writer completely dismisses the long (46 years) Israeli occupation of the Palestinian population which has been accompanied by oppression, persecution, lack of basic human and civil rights toward the Palestinians. For some peculiar reason he finds it comforting to compare it to past and present evils in some parts of the Arab world. I wonder why he, by the same token, won't dismiss expressions of anti-Semitism (not main stream, at least for now) by other more troublesome human right issues around the world. He won't be able to convince anybody by himself and like minded people.
  • 2.
    Amazing!
    An article about a speech...which the writer hasn't seen or heard - amazing!. The repeated attempts by Cohen and others to conflate anti-Zionism and anti-semitism remains a live issue.
  • 1.
    Most Modern Day Antisemitism Is Directed Against Israel
    It's easy to determine who and what antisemitism is, just read the comments left on the Haaretz website.
  • Israeli arbitrary use of the Term Anti Semitism
    Has rendered it useless and meaningless. If Israel continually and historically breaks International Law and its signed agreements then valid criticism of those facts cannot continually be described as anti semitic. Israel by its own hand has cried victim once too often when the facts do not stack up. Anti Semitism as a term has successfully been rendered useless by Israeli's. Particularly settlers.
  • Inbound39
    Just as actions by Muslim nations should not be used as a justification for Anti-Muslim sentiment, actions by Israel should not be used to justify anti-Semitism. The meaning is far from useless. The hatred and intense scrutiny directed at Israel has little to do with it's actions, and nearly everything to do with hatred of the Jewish people. Why else would the world be so obsessed on Israel? Israel has kept all of it's agreements, to a fault I might add. Laws against the Jews have existed for millenniums, and that does not make the laws just.