The New Anti-Semitism? An Introduction
Last night at the Israel Studies Association, Irwin Cotler gave the keynote speech. The title was, “Israel, Human Rights, Global Anti-Semitism.” At dinner afterwards, I asked Irwin whether he thought characterizing the global anti-Zionism that has been raging at least for the last decade as anti-Semitism was the most appropriate way to categorize what has been taking place. To my surprise, one of the foremost proponents of that categorization said that he had raised that question for himself often, but continued to believe it was, but not without the inquiry and the question being a worthy one.
We could only probe the surface over a dinner in which there were many distractions – other people at the table I wanted to talk to: Dr. Richard Deckelbaum of Columbia University, an old friend, who was scheduled to give a talk today on the llnk between health services and advancing the dialogue between peoples and the peace process; Itzhak Galnoor who was awarded the lifetime achievement award by the Israel Studies Association for his phenomenal scholarship on both governance and government in Israel as well as on laughter; Howard Liebman who for twelve years was Irwin’s administrator-in-chief in Ottawa and had just started a new job working on international affairs for the Mayor of Montreal; and Ariella, Irwin’s wife, with whom I had to catch up on so much of the personal affairs of the Cotlers. And this was just at our table. There were so many friends and colleagues at other tables. You can see why we did not get very far into our probe. I promised Irwin that I would write my next blog on the topic to see if we could advance the inquiry.
One does not have to be a scholar to grasp the issue. It permeates the atmosphere and ordinary table talk when Jews gather and discuss the news stories in the media. I grew up in Canada in the golden age of Jewry in North America. I was born in the year when None Is Too Many was a dominant policy of my government and a ship loaded with Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazi regime was not allowed to land on Canadian shores. I grew up on stories of anti-Semitism that inflicted itself upon the lives of my parents.
My mother worked at the Toronto Club, but could only do so because her maiden name was Duviner and she did not look or sound like a Jew and had to hide that she was a Jew to keep her job. Anti-Semitism was an integral part of the casual conversation at the club and she listened to it very day. I went to university to study medicine because Jews could feel freer as an independent professional than as an employee of a large corporation. I was in the Class of ’61 in Medical School and the major teaching hospital in Toronto only appointed its first Jewish physician on staff in 1960. Fraternities, legal and accounting firms were all strictly divided between Jewish and non-Jewish ones, and the Jewish ones included blacks and Chinese.
It does not sound like a golden age, but it was one. For it was the period during which all those inherited anti-Semitic tropes were breaking down. Jews after WWII constituted the highest percentage of the Canadian population they had ever achieved before and would for the foreseeable future. Though Jews constituted at most 3% of the Jewish population of Canada, they were perceived in many surveys as making up 25% of the city of Toronto’s population because of their emerging prominence in Canadian cultural, business and professional life. Wayne and Schuster were Canada’s foremost comedians. Nathan Philips would become the first Jewish mayor of Toronto. Jews were in parliament and in the cabinet of government. The signature of Louis Rasminsky, the Governor of the Bank of Canada, was on all our one, two (yes, there once was a two dollar bill in Canada), five, ten and twenty dollar bills.
Not one of my teachers at high school was Jewish, though the population of the school consisted of 95% Jews. So the anti-Semitism was still present and permeated the society, but its tide was clearly receding. Further, as we told ourselves, the prejudice only made us work harder to prove we were worthy of respect. This has been and continues to be a common experience of new immigrant cohorts. The receded anti-Semitism allowed us to sharpen our wry humorous appreciation of the world and our love of its culture.
We were, of course, immensely assisted by what was taking place south of the border. I grew up loving Al Jolson as did most of America. America was being remade in the utopian dreams of Jews as Jewish songwriters dominated Tin Pan Alley and gave America so many of its most patriotic songs – “God Bless America” (Irving Berlin) for one. As in the U.S., Jews were the lead wave in the transformation of our society into a multicultural one. And Jews went into law and Bora Laskin rose to become Chief Justice as the rule of law rather than of men emerged as the predominate mode of governance in our country. I grew up when Orthodox Jewry was the norm rather than the exception, at least in our neighbourhood, but where we wore that orthodoxy like our T-shirts and learned in our teenage years that it could be taken off and thrown into the washing machine for a good cleansing.
Zionists were a distinct minority – only Ricky Rappaport, the second best student in our class, planned to make Aliyah. The best student was Judy Ochs, Rabbi Ochs’ definitively orthodox daughter. I sat in the front seat of my row given my name, and was the only one who was passionately and ideologically dedicated to being a non-ideologue. Behind me sat a communist, then a Bundist, then a Liberal and then a Conservative – all of whom went on to become physicians. Debating politics provided our life blood, next to reading Mad Magazine. Only slowly did the domination of Israel become the pervading force in Jewish life. I was perhaps the last convert, holding out until the Six Day War for my rebirth. As much as we gradually began to accept Israel as a predominant part of our identity, anti-Semitism as a fearful trope receded at the same time as the Eichmann trial at the beginning of the sixties brought the Holocaust into our intellectual lives and even more into our deepest fears.
So we became part of the avant-garde of the sixties generation, campaigning against nuclear testing and then for civil rights and against the war in Vietnam. Just as Canadian nationalism was beginning to grow, we were at the same time being acculturated into a world dominated by America. We, however, were the new Jews, born in a world destined to be free of anti-Semitism, a generation not to be determined by others that we were Jewish, but a generation that could choose whether or not to be Jewish. So we read Phillip Roth, Saul Bellow and Mordechai Richler, Commentary and soon the new New York Review of Books.
Israel became integral parts of our lives and our experience. Even if were anti-Zionists, we trembled at the possible extinction of Israel prior to the Six Day War and exulted at the Israeli military triumph. Many of us quietly or more actively became born-again lovers of Zion. None of us had ever been subjected to the venomous and splenetic anti-Semitic treatment of two students at UCLA and Stanford about who we had read but whose stories became integrated into academic discourse at my session yesterday on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Those to Jewish women had been questioned about whether, as Jews, they were capable of being free of the Zionist virus when they applied for positions in student government.
In a recent study in the U.S., 54% of students reported experiencing anti-Semitism on campus. That anti-Semitism was integrally linked with anti-Zionism. But was that anti-Zionism, agreed in characterizing the ideology of the Iranian regime as both virulently anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic, best characterized as a new form of anti-Semitism? I greeted the negotiations of the Obama regime to deprive Iran of its potential nuclear arsenal as a beneficial course of action. Others, even more passionately, argued that President Obama had a deep visceral hatred for Benjamin Netanyahu and that the Obama regime was selling Israel down the river for an eventual future of extinction at the hands of a nuclear armed Iran determined to wipe the state of Israel off the map. That was a sign of a deep-seated but unacknowledged new form of anti-Semitism.
Jews as Jews, whether in California or a Jewish supermarket in Paris, were being targeted, sometimes even being murdered, and Israel as a state was clearly being targeted by a large number of states for discriminatory treatment. The anti-Semitism and the anti-Zionism were clearly linked. But was or should the new virulent anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism be conflated so that anti-Zionism is dubbed the new anti-Semitism? There is a suggestion that President Obama who refuses to call the new terrorists Muslim, has, perhaps unintentionally without malice aforethought, engaged in characterizing organized Jewish opposition and that of the Prime Minister of Israel to his new Iranian opening as raising the question of Jewish dual loyalty. Has the old hatred mutated into a new form that it even permeates the views of the President who may not recognize that he has been infected and is a carrier of this equivalent of an Ebola virus? When I chastise Netanyahu and his approach, who has a legitimate existential fear driving him in his approach, as hysterical and misrepresenting the case, have I fallen back into my pre-1967 mindset and lost my love for Zion? Am I on the edge of being infected with this new anti-Semitic virus?
Ironically, even Barack Obama in his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg very recently explicitly and clearly articulated the view that the new anti-Zionism was a mutated form of the old anti-Semitism. Pope Francis agreed. In his interview with Portugese-Israeli journalist Henrique Cynerman, he opined that the refusal to recognize and support Israel as a state among the states of the world and as the expression of the Jewish right of self-determination was an expression of anti-Semitism. Is the view that Israel does not have the right to exist best characterized as a new form of anti-Semitism? Irwin thinks it does. Barack Obama and Pope Francis agree.
In my next blog in this series I will question both the utility and the cogency of such an equation, not to provide a counter-claim, but to raise some central issues about the equation. The core of the justification is that if countries and movements want to eliminate Israel as a polity in the Middle East, and many of these target Jews elsewhere at the very least as fifth columnists and as worthy targets as well, this is anti-Semitism and a form of racism that is doubly guilty because it is blind to the fact that Jews come in all sorts of stripes and colours, from Ethiopian to Indian and Chinese Jews, and still want to identify in a way equivalent to racism.
Obama accused the new virulence as “implicitly equating anti-Zionism to anti-Semitism,” Some have attacked Obama for saying that the convergence of the two categories itself bordered on the new form of anti-Semitism because he said the connection was only implicit when it has been explicitly explicit. I will describe Irwin’s argument that he presented last evening in tomorrow’s blog – it will force me to keep my memory intact for another 24 hours – and I will begin with a closer examination of both Obama’s and Pope Francis’ views.