Opinion

A Dishonest Fallacy: Israel’s Occupation Isn't Why anti-Semitism’s Spiking

Anti-Jewish agitators in every era claim they're only responding to the 'actual' misdeeds of Jews. For violent Islamists and the left, Israel's occupation is just the latest iteration

Iranian students set an Israeli flag afire during a protest to defend their country's nuclear program. Qom, November 19, 2013
A dishonest fallacy: Israel’s occupation isn't why anti-Semitism’s spiking. Iranian students set an Israeli flag afire during a pro-nuclear program protest. Qom, November 19, 2013 AFP

Identifying anti-Semitism and working out how to challenge and overcome it is no easy task, but in more than two decades of work and study in this field I’ve come up with one simple rule: Don’t mimic the anti-Semites you're fighting.

At least, you’d think this is a simple rule; but British writer and activist Tony Klug fell straight into this trap when he wrote recently in Haaretz (If Israel's Occupation Doesn't End, Anti-Semitism Worldwide Will Rise to Sinister Heights) of an acquaintance who, he claimed, said to him: "I thought an anti-Semite was someone who hated Jews, not someone whom Jews hated.”

I first heard Klug use this line two months ago, at a conference on Zionism and anti-Semitism held in London by the Pears Institute for the Study of Anti-Semitism. You can hear Klug make the comment here, followed by some laughter and applause. (Full disclosure: I am an Associate Research Fellow of the Pears Institute, on its Advisory Group and spoke at the same conference as Klug, but I had no role in the planning or organization of that conference).

However, this wasn’t the first time I’d heard the line itself, because for many years it was one of David Irving’s favorite jokes. He would tell it in his speeches to audiences of anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers, and he usually got a much bigger laugh than Klug did.

David Irving, the British Holocaust-denier, speaks to Reuters during an interview in Warsaw during a 'tour' of Holocaust sites. September 21, 2010
REUTERS

I pointed this out to Klug, publicly, at the conference in May. I suggested that as he had used the same joke as David Irving – a man described by a British court, on losing his 2000 libel action against Professor Deborah Lipstadt, as "an active Holocaust denier [] anti-Semitic and racist and [..] associates with right wing extremists who promote neo-Nazism" – he might want to rethink.

At the time, Klug seemed unperturbed by the revelation that he was parroting David Irving. He was much more animated by the suggestion that he had intended to make a joke. He was deadly serious, he assured the gathered academics, in  implying that Jews have inverted the meaning of anti-Semitism to create a weapon of Jewish hatred against others. Apparently he still thinks it is a line worth using, despite knowing what company it puts him in.

In fact, Irving was not the first to come up with this quip. That dubious honor probably belongs to the late Joseph Sobran, who came up with it in the early 1990s. Sobran was fired by National Review in 1993 for writing a series of anti-Semitic columns, and became a fixture on the international Holocaust denial conference circuit where he, like Irving,  would tell people that "an anti-Semite used to mean a man who hated Jews. Now it means a man who is hated by Jews."

Thanks to Klug, this line has now made its way from the proceedings of the Institute for Historical Review to a conference of the Pears Institute for the Study of Anti-Semitism. Perhaps Klug was unaware of the joke’s origins when he used it in May, but he has no such excuse when deciding to repeat it in Haaretz this week.

Why does this joke work? I think it is because it plays to a stereotype of the complaining Jew; the paranoid Jew who sees anti-Semitism everywhere; the dishonest, cunning Jew who uses his cleverness to confound his unsuspecting foe. It’s a joke that gives permission to laugh dismissively at Jewish fears of anti-Semitism.

9 year old Anette Rubinstein Talu was among 24 people killed in suspected al Qaida bombings of two Istanbul synagogues. Nov. 17, 2003
AP

Yet those fears are real and justified. Klug acknowledges that anti-Semitism is rising, but the best he can do to explain why this is the case is to blame it on the occupation; and the only solution he offers is for Israel to make peace with the Palestinians and, with a wave of its magic wand, end anti-Semitism at a stroke.

History tells us that life is not so simple. Anti-Jewish agitators in every era have claimed that they are only responding to the actual misdeeds of Jews.

Anti-Semitism, being a conspiracy theory, a prejudice and a closed worldview all rolled into one, does not behave rationally. If Israel does make peace, social media will probably fill with theories about how it is a Rothschild plot to subjugate the region under the yoke of Jewish capital, or some similar nonsense that will be believed by millions.

Tell the Jews of Argentina that they were safer in the Oslo 'peace era' of the 1990s: Commemorating the 85 people killed in the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center. Buenos Aires, Argentina, July 18, 2017
MARCOS BRINDICCI/REUTERS

Klug cites the Oslo period as one when anti-Semitism declined due, he claims, to hopes of peace in Israel and Palestine. But those years also saw a surge in Islamist terrorism in Israel and overseas designed specifically to derail that peace process. Tell the Jews of Argentina that they were safer in the 1990s, when Iran and Hezbollah destroyed the AMIA Jewish community center killing 85 people, than they are now.

This violent jihadist terrorism, combined with the conspiracy theories that circulate unchallenged in parts of Muslim communities and on the hard left as well as the far right, are what alarm European Jews today.

Too much of the left has too little to say about this and even less to offer Jews in terms of solidarity. Instead we are told to distance ourselves from Israel or face the consequences.

Israel needs to make peace for its own reasons, but it is naïve to imagine that the likes of David Irving will end their anti-Jewish propaganda if such a day comes to pass; and it is foolish for people who claim to oppose anti-Semitism to mimic that propaganda now.

Dave Rich is Deputy Director of Communications for the Community Security Trust and author of The Left’s Jewish Problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and Anti-Semitism (Biteback, 2016)