Opinion |

Jews Are Making anti-Semitism and Victimhood Our Entire Identity

From Trump to Corbyn, jihadists to nationalists, Europe to America, too many commentators see Jewish life as under siege from anti-Semitism. But that's not true

Jerome Chanes
Jerome Chanes
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A Bulgarian far-right nationalist whose T shirt bears the image of Hristo Lukov, a World War II general known for his anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi activities, at the 'Lukov March' in Sofia, Bulgaria. Feb. 16, 2019
A far-right nationalist whose T shirt bears the image of Hristo Lukov, a World War II general known for his anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi activities, at the 'Lukov March' in Sofia, Bulgaria. Feb 16, 2019Credit: Vadim Ghirda,AP
Jerome Chanes
Jerome Chanes

These days, anti-Semitism is almost constantly in the headlines. Hillel Halkin, one of the more canny observers of the Jewish condition, commented some years ago that it was unbelievable that we were still discussing that foul topic.

In fact, it's not at all unbelievable. Historian Victor Tcherichover famously said that there are few things in human history that have a history of 2000 years; anti-Semitism is one of them.

But is the coverage suggesting an anti-Semitic tsunami, from Europe to the United States, justified? How far we are in danger of succumbing to hysteria and losing historical perspective? Is anti-Semitism right now really comparable in its ubiquity and centrality to general culture to previous eras and geographies?

Amongst the books in recent years (some rather "gevaltist") focusing and stoking the new interest in anti-Semitism is Deborah Lipstadt’s "Anti-Semitism: Here and Now," which explores the nature and persistence, and ultimately, the continuing threat, of Jew-hatred in Western lands. Alas, "Anti-Semitism: Here and Now," whilst rich in reportage of recent anti-Jewish manifestations, misses the point.

A van with a slogan aimed at Britain's Labour Party is driven around Parliament Square ahead of a debate on antisemitism in Parliament, in London, April 17, 2018Credit: \ HANNAH MCKAY/ REUTERS

Anti-Semitism in varied forms - including new versions of old hatreds - is out there. No question. Yet I begin with a seemingly counter-intuitive assertion: The Jewish condition in 2019 is one not of anti-Semitism but of security.

I say this in full awareness - possibly a greater awareness than most - of outbreaks of anti-Semitism in Europe in 2002, in the first half of 2004, and in recent years in France and elsewhere; of jihadist Jew-hating maniacs in many Arab lands and in the West as well; of the current atmosphere in some corners of the academy, especially in Europe, in which anti-Zionism is quite the vogue, and in the arena of culture; of anti-Semitic expression on the internet; and of political developments in Poland, in Hungary, in Jeremy Corbyn’s musings and proclivities, and (not the least) in the current American administration - all of which have created an atmosphere in which anti-Semitic expression is legitimate, and acceptable.

Notwithstanding these manifestations of anti-Semitism, I argue that the issue is not anti-Semitism; the issue is Jewish security. In any analysis of anti-Semitism anywhere in the world, a crucial distinction must be made, a distinction between anti-Semitism, which does exist and must be monitored and counteracted; and Jewish security.

My definition of Jewish security? Jewish security is the ability of Jews to participate in society. If this be the criterion for security, then Jews globally are in good shape. It is difficult to find a Jew, anywhere, who cannot participate in his or her society because of the fear or reality of anti-Semitic animus.

It’s counterintuitive, given current events. We are talking about Poland’s far-right Law and Justice party, about Victor Orbán’s Hungary, about Jeremy Corbyn in the U.K. and American Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s rants ("AIPAC pays politicians!" roars Omar, in effect.) But the Europe, the America, of 2019 is not the Europe or America of 1919, or of 1929 or 1939, when anti-Semitism was embedded in the institutions of power.

President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump, alongside Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, pay their respects at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, October 30, 2018.Credit: AFP

The problem with anti-Semitism today is not anti-Semitism; it is Jewish perceptions of anti-Semitism. Whatever the reality of Jewish security, polls of Jews taken over a 40-year period show that Jews consistently report that anti-Semitism "is a serious problem" or that anti-Semitism is on the rise - even when it has been on the decline over the past half-century.

It’s what I have called the "kishka factor": all too often incidents or expressions are characterized as anti-Semitism when they are not; it’s the gut feeling.

Enhancing the impact of the kishka factor over the past two decades is the question of anti-Israel rhetoric and activity. The question, of course, goes to the nature of anti-Israel rhetoric. Is this anti-Semitism? To refine the question: At what point does anti-Israel expression become anti-Semitism? There is a vigorous debate that has developed around this question.

This is clearly a "threshold" question, and therefore subjective. My threshold: criticism of the policies of the government of the State of Israel - indeed harsh criticism - is entirely legitimate. (The Israeli polity is itself deeply divided over its relations today and tomorrow with the Palestinians.) The point at which such attacks become anti-Semitism is the point at which the legitimacy of the Zionist enterprise or the State of Israel is questioned, because it is at that point that the legitimacy of Jewish peoplehood is questioned.

This, tautologically, is anti-Semitism, leading to the "double-standard": the assertion that Jews may not defend themselves, physically or in international fora or in the business or academic arenas, as may any other person or people. The legitimacy of a Jewish historical particularism, a Jewish historical identity, is challenged. Deriving from this, of course, is the isolation of the State of Israel and the relegation of Israel to the status of "pariah state."

Herve Ryssen, ultra-right activist once convicted for anti-Semitic and racist comments, participating in the 'yellow vests' clashes with riot police officers on Paris' Champs-Elysees Ave. Nov 24, 2018Credit: Kamil Zihnioglu,AP

Serious, to be sure - but does this terrible state of affairs have an impact on the ability of Jews in Europe or America participate in society? No.

Too often, a basic verity gets scant attention: anti-Semitism is not a Jewish problem; it is a non-Jewish problem. But as anti-Semitism becomes more and more the overriding issue on the Jewish community's agenda, we are formalizing the hatred against us as the key marker of our identity and culture.

Leon Wieseltier wrote that the analysis of anti-Semitism must take place somewhere between the indifferent and the hysterical. To keep perspective, to be wary, to sound the alarm when necessary. But today, the biggest danger in analysing anti-Semitism is the danger to Jews ourselves. The "cult of victimization" is coarsening and flattening.

It was never true that adversity was what held Jews together, that anti-Semitism was what kept Jews "Jewish." This fallacy has a long history. In our tormented history, we Jews did not instill our torments at the heart of our identity. We were never reduced by our suffering. Vitality, not morbidity, and participation, not passivity, has been the Jewish characteristic. This has been our Jewish way.

Writers on anti-Semitism: take note.

Jerome Chanes is the author of four books and numerous articles on Jewish public affairs, Zionism, and arts and letters. His forthcoming book develops a historical context for 100 years of Israeli theatre

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