When former U.K. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw was confronted with the possibility that his comments against Israel, made in a discussion in the Global Diplomatic Forum in the House of Commons, drew on ancient anti-Semitic prejudices, he rejected the charge outright. He probably found it offensive. And rightly so. For the British upper class and intellectual elite, anti-Semitism is a primitive prejudice fitting for the uneducated and the lower classes.
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But anti-Semitism is known for successfully mutating to fit the spirit and needs of the times and the classes. In the 19th century racial anti-Semitism developed as a respectable “scientific” form of Jew hatred to replace the medieval religious form, no longer appropriate for a national secular age. As Jews left the ghettos, dressed no different from their countrymen, racial anti-Semitism ensured they would always remain different and perennially suspect.
It was the realization that the old anti-Semitism had mutated into a new and powerful form from which no Jew could escape – since race was immutable - and the fact that this new anti-Semitism was promoted by scholars, professors, and widely accepted on university campuses, that led Theodor Herzl to conceive of national sovereignty for the Jewish people as a proper response to the European nations who were never to truly accept the Jews as their own.
After World War II and the Holocaust, racial anti-Semitism, for obvious reasons, lost its respectability and became both outlawed and relegated to a prejudice that only uneducated boors of the lower classes could still entertain. But anti-Semitism among the upper class, the intellectual elite and students on campuses, was not to remain orphaned for long.
Obsessive anti-Zionism and anti-Israelism were to become the new and respectable form of anti-Semitism, sadly disproving Herzl’s fundamental premise that once the Jewish people would have a sovereign state of their own, it would rob the world of the basis for Jew-hatred.
The transformation has been subtle, but powerful, and it works through the transposition of ancient anti-Semitic themes into the Israeli and Zionist context. For example, an ancient anti-Semitic theme is that Jews and Judaism stand in the way of some form of universal (re: European) harmony. Straw’s comments that Germany’s “obsession” with defending Israel prevents concerted European action to pressure Israel, is one example of such a transformation of an ancient theme.
Another ancient theme is that Jews use money in order to manipulate world affairs and steer governments away from the will of the people. This theme, starting with the ground zero charge that the Jews manipulated the Romans to kill Jesus, was popular in modern times in Tsarist Russia, the Soviet Union, as well as Post WWI Germany. Today, it has evolved in the Israeli context: To use Straw’s comments as an example, “unlimited funds” available to Jewish organizations and to AIPAC to divert American policy. The implication again is that without these funds, U.S. policy would be substantially different, and that it would no longer stand in the way of global harmonious action to pressure Israel.
The possibility that there might be genuine reasons for supporting Israel, that the conflict is complex, multi-faceted and has a multiplicity of causes, is rejected in favor of a clear singling out of Israeli “intransigence” support by governments that have been manipulated into doing so, either by money, or a sick “obsessiveness”.
No, Jack Straw is not an anti-Semite.
But the way he described in my presence the obstacles to peace do draw on ancient anti-Semitic themes. Precisely because he believes his views are common and acceptable – which in his milieu they probably are - that they need to be exposed. Anti-Semitism becomes dangerous precisely when it becomes the common and transparent ideology of the ruling classes and intellectual elites.
Anti-Semitism is too ancient and persistent to ever disappear, but we can be vigilant to prevent the ideas from turning into actions. Exposing the implicit anti-Semitic assumptions that underlie the common discourse about Israel is critical to increasing public awareness so that pernicious thoughts don’t turn into dangerous deeds.
Dr. Einat Wilf is a former member of the Israeli Knesset and a Senior Fellow with the Jewish People Policy Institute. This piece draws on a larger paper on the issue by the JPPI to be published.