Just exactly who or what is anti-Semitic?
The new director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research takes a liberal stance on anti-Semitism.
The situation of world Jewry is much better than Israel and the major Jewish organizations would like us to think, says historian Dr. Antony Lerman, the new director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research in London.
In his opinion, all of the talk in recent years about a new form of anti-Semitism that is camouflaged as criticism of Israel is nothing but pure drivel. True, he says, there are more instances in Europe of attacks on Jews by Muslim immigrants, but the problem can be easily resolved: as soon as Israel agrees to a "just solution to the Palestinian problem."
True, he says, the murderers of the young Jew in France last month chose their victim because "all of the Jews are wealthy," but he still doubts that this is enough to make the murder an anti-Semitic incident.
In general, Lerman feels that paranoia has developed around the issue of anti-Semitism, and the tendency to define anything negative that happens to a Jew as an anti-Semitic incident.
Representatives of the Jewish community in Britain, he contends, only complicate matters by insisting on public debates with public figures they consider to be anti-Semites, instead of arranging matters in the traditional and respectable manner, behind closed doors.
Lerman, 60, who until January served as director of European programs for the Rothschild family's Yad Hanadiv Foundation, previously served as director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR) in the 1990s. The institute is a prestigious private think-tank: four lords of Jewish descent - Rothschild, Weidenfeld, Kalms and Haskel - are on the honorary board of directors of JPR; and the British media and governing authorities place great weight on the position adopted by the institute.
In 1999, during Lerman's first term as executive director, the institute played a major role in persuading prime minister Tony Blair to abandon his initiative to legislate a law against Holocaust denial. In 2003, the institute sparked a public debate following publication of the book "A New Anti-Semitism?", an anthology of articles related to the contention that an anti-Semitism of a new form - reflected by a tendency to attribute to the Jewish state stereotypes that were in the past attributed to Jews as individuals - had spread among what is called the "liberal elites" in Britain. Lerman, who authored one of the articles, dismissed out of hand the would-be phenomenon, and claimed that there was nothing new in anti-Semitism.
The new anti-Semitism thesis has gained some recognition in recent years in the non-Jewish European establishment. An international conference in Berlin in April 2004 stated that what was happening in the Middle East "could not justify the expression of anti-Semitism opinions." A public report submitted to the French administration in June of that year confirmed that anti-Zionism was one of the forms of expression of anti-Semitic opinions in France.
Professor Robert Wistrich of Hebrew University, a colleague and old adversary of Lerman's, charges that the man has been saying the same things for the past 15 years.
"The reality has completely changed in the past few years," says Wistrich, who heads the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism, "but Lerman has not changed his opinions one whit."
In response, Lerman says, "I never claimed that anti-Semitism is not a serious problem. At the same time, I feel now, no less than in the past, that it is impossible to say that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are the same thing."
Lerman considers allegations of anti-Semitism in the British left to be absurd.
"On the extreme left there is a problem and there has been, but I find this obsession with the left rather strange," he says. "I don't believe they have great deal of influence. But people like Barry Kosmin [Lerman's predecessor at the JPR] indeed see the anti-Semitism of the left as having seeped into Liberal circles. He and Paul Igansky [who co-edited the "A New Anti-Semitism?" book] wrote an article several years ago in which they argued that the Observer newspaper was institutionally anti-Semitic.
"This seems to me to be utterly, utterly absurd, and I think there is no basis for arguing that whatsoever," says Lerman. "The Observer newspaper has been and I believe still is, a very strong supporter of Jews and of Jewish emancipation, and very much opposed to anti-Semitism. So I think you will find even among the Liberal circles certainly a degree of anti-Semitism, but nowhere near to the degree that will lead you to the conclusion that newspapers like the Observer are anti-Semitic."
Since officially taking up his post last month, Lerman has aimed his arrows at major elements in the community who have failed, he says, in representing the interests of Britain's Jews.
In an interview on BBC four weeks ago, Lerman attacked Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Britain's chief rabbi, for his use of the term 'tsunami' to describe anti-Semitism in the Muslim world. Two weeks ago, Lerman attacked the Board of Deputies, the community's umbrella organization, for having lodged the complaint against London Mayor Ken Livingstone for having told a Jewish reporter that he could have been a guard in a concentration camp. The complaint led to the mayor's suspension for two weeks, and provoked a public storm.
"My feeling in relation to the incident was that it was clearly offensive, but I question the wisdom of turning it into a major public incident," he said.
But, in effect, ever since you entered the job you have not stopped criticizing the official representatives of the community.
"I define myself as someone who tries to look at these things in a kind of pragmatic, analytic way. I'm not a natural oppositionist, my default position isn't to be anti the establishment or anti the Board of Deputies. It seems to me you need to judge things on the basis of whether they're right or wrong, whether the tactics followed are correct or not correct. And I say this with some sadness - it appears to me that quite a lot of the things that are being said by people in the establishment today, whether it's Jonathan Sachs or the Board of Deputies, are not well-considered. I don't believe they're in the best interest of the Jews of Britain. The Livingstone case could have been handled much better. The way that the Board of Deputies handled it only aggravated the situation."
Livingstone published a column last week in the Guardian, in which he charged - basing himself on Lerman - that he is not anti-Semitic, because criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitism. Lerman says he has no problem with the use made of him, and that he does not believe that Livingstone is anti-Semitic.
Don't you see a problem in the fact that you are coming to the defense of a person like Livingstone at a time when the Jewish establishment is conducting a serious struggle against him?
"Why did they have to be in a struggle against him to begin with? Instead of clashing with him, they should have sought dialogue. This is a horrible tactic. It would have been possible to accomplish much more had they made contact with him behind closed doors and tried to convince him to understand the Jewish side."
In you opinion, why isn't the denial of Israel's right to exist considered anti-Semitism?
"Because if I was a Palestinian and my family had lived in Palestine for six generations, and I thought of this as my home, and somebody comes in from outside and says, "actually, this is my home and I'm going to set up a state here," I can quite understand that persons' feelings that the people who have done this and set up this state are illegitimate. If I were a Palestinian, I would say that I understand the claim of the Jews because they suffered etc., but why should it be here? They [the Jews] say it's because biblically they have an attachment but I, as a Palestinian, say, 'well my people have been here for centuries, generations - that to me is equal if not more equal than the biblical claim.' I can understand that view."
So then the statements by the Iranian president that the State of Israel should have been established in Europe are not anti-Semitic?
"I don't think it's automatically anti-Semitic, no. I can understand that kind of resentment, but I think that it's not very helpful."
Professor Wistrich and activists in the Jewish community in Britain are convinced that Lerman's conservative views on anti-Semitism and his abhorrence of public clashes comprised the primary consideration in his selection for the post at JPR.
"The reason they preferred him has to do with the traditional stand of the wealthiest and most assimilated circles in English Jewry," says Wistrich. "These are people who don't like the Jews going out into the streets and causing a confrontation, because as they see it, that endangers their own status in general British society. Lerman's views are very convenient for them."
"Goodness me," responds Lerman. "This is absolute nonsense. There is a range of views on the board. I'm pretty sure I'll be in minority as far as the board members of the JPR are concerned on the question of Ken Livingstone. When I was working for the Hanadiv Foundation, the question of anti-Semitism came up a number of times, and I don't think for a minute that Lord Rothschild agreed with my views on anti-Semitism. He is not a person who feels that anti-Semitism was exaggerated."
Since the outbreak of the Aqsa Intifada, young Muslim immigrants have become the primary factor in attacks against Jews in France and other European countries. Lerman shows a degree of understanding for the motives of the assailants.
"For Muslims it's a way of expressing their anger - I don't condone it, and I think they should find other ways of expressing their anger, but I think I can understand why they use it. But I also think that if the conflict was solved, the degree of anti-Semitism that one finds - although we don't know exactly what that degree is, but whatever degree there is - I think it would be diminished if there was a solution to the conflict."
This leads to the conclusion that Israel, as a party that bears at least partial blame for the conflict not yet being resolved, also bears indirect responsibility for Muslim anti-Semitism in Europe.
"Yes, I think that's right. Israel is a sovereign state, it has to take what actions it feels are right, but the fact of the matter is that it has consequences for Jewish communities, and some these consequences are indeed to aggravate the problem of anti-Semitism."
And what about a case such as the murder of Ilan Halimi. Is that also part of the Muslim solidarity with the Palestinians?
"To be honest, I haven't followed it very closely. What I have read is that there is some controversy surrounding the issue as to whether this should be seen as entirely an anti-Semitic incident. Clearly they picked on this person because they had this notion that Jews are wealthy, but does that make it an anti-Semitic incident? I'm not sure. As indeed in France, a number of the high-profile incidents that have happened in the last years have been rather complex.
"Take, for example, the story of the woman who claimed that she was attacked on the train by youth. At the time that caused the most extreme concern, and in the end it turned out she made it up. I think what that shows is how complex the problem is. Certainly when you are living in that kind of feudal atmosphere, you could easily get into that paranoid situation which doesn't conform to the reality of what's actually going on. It doesn't mean that there isn't a serious problem of anti-Semitism - there is, but not everything negative that happens to a Jew is anti-Semitism. That is a misuse of the word 'anti-Semitism,' it almost loses its meaning."
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