Yom Hashoah – Contemporary Anti-Semitism
Today is Yom Hashoah, the day to commemorate the Holocaust and the six million Jews murdered. Over seventy years ago, WWII ended and the world became aware of the worst genocide in human history, that deliberate mass murder, mostly, but not only, by Nazi forces especially tasked to carry out the operation even when the activities undermined the Germen war effort.
Anti-Semitism was endemic in the United States and Canada at the time, but it never approached the genocidal version of Nazi Germany. In my youth, I was made acutely aware of anti-Semitism as an integral part of everyday life. There were streets to avoid in the route to my mother’s cousin’s huge Passover seder. I risked being beaten because I was a Jew if I took the wrong route. When I attended university, there were fraternities that did not accept Jews and a separate medical fraternity for Jews and others. I was in the medical class of ’61 and the Jewish medical students, who constituted 25% of the class, though Jews made up less than 3% of the Ontario population, knew that at that time they would not get appointments to what was then called The Toronto General Hospital though after the war, Jewish doctors were granted privileges at THG..
However, in 1961 Dr. Charles Hollenberg, a 1955 graduate of the University of Manitoba Medical School and in Internal Medicine at McGill University, moved from being a very young professor at McGill, a university with a much older and longer tradition of tolerance towards Jews, to Toronto to become the first Jewish appointment at the Toronto General. By 1970, this outstanding medical scientist had become Chair of the Department of Internal Medicine and Physician-in-Chief at Toronto General. In ten years, for Jews in Toronto, the world had been turned upside down. When I started university in 1955, Nathan Phillips had become the first Jewish mayor of the City of Toronto. The politics of my home city would never again be under the control of the Protestant Orange Order. By 1961, Mt. Sinai Hospital would no longer be the only place to acquire a medical specialty in Toronto.
Anti-Jewish sentiments were polite. In the thirties, my mother worked at the Toronto Club. Her employers never knew that she was Jewish and she deliberately made sure that they did not know. The Granite Club openly did not accept Jews as members and I refused to attend the wedding of a fellow member of the executive of the University of Toronto Student Council because she was getting married in the Granite Club. Yet, my wife’s grandfather, a truly dear and terrific man, had been a member of the Granite Club and of the Orange Order all his adult life.
But the world was rapidly changing. Ezekiel Hart, though elected to the legislature of Lower Canada at the beginning of the nineteenth century, could not take his seat because he would not take an oath that he was a member “of the faith of a Christian.” But the discrimination for over one hundred and fifty years of life in Canada was not just religious; it was racial. We are now all aware that the Canadian government had the worst record of resettling Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, not only because Prime Minister Mackenzie King believed that Jewish immigrants would pollute the Canadian bloodstream, but, in the words of the Deputy Minister of Immigration, Frederick Blair, even the intake of one Jew would be one too many. “None Is Too Many,” was the slogan for denying Jews entry as we now all know.
The world was, however, changing. Whereas, Harold Innis, a great Canadian political economist, could campaign against the appointment of a new applicant to the department because he was Jewish, whereas in my history course I would read Godwin Smith and Abbé Lionel Groulx and never learn of their rabid anti-Semitism, when I studied T.S. Eliot in English Literature and wrote about the connection between his loquacious anti-Semitism, his theory of literary criticism and his poetic style, I could receive an A+. In Canada, anti-Semitism had not just been the prerogative of extremist right-wing nationalists, but permeated the intellectual, professional and political establishment. However, when I was in graduate school, Louis Rasminsky’s signature would appear on every Canadian dollar bill as he served as the Governor of the Bank of Canada from 1961 to 1973. The times they were a’changing.
Are they changing once again? B’nai Brith in its annual audit of anti-Semitic incidents, reported this year that, although those incidents fell into the expected range of 1,200 per year, the numbers held relatively constant because, although anti-Jewish vandalism declined in Canada in general, it had gone up by 30% in Quebec. And anti-Semitism was now unequivocally associated in most cases with expressions of anti-Israel attitudes. Had anti-Zionism become the predominant form and expression of the new anti-Semitism?
In the university where I taught for 37 years, in the latest series of incidents, a controversy arose over an anti-Israel mural hanging in the Student Centre. B’nai Brith Canada wrote President Dr. Mamdouh Shoukri expressing its disappointment that his promise to combat bigotry on campus and the growing alienation of Jewish students was totally undermined when half the members appointed to an inclusion committee to advise on the matter were either supporters of BDS or vocal critics of Israel.
How can that be? In the United States, the main challenger to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nominee as president was openly a Jew from Brooklyn. On the Republican side, Donald Trump not only has, but boasted that he has a daughter who converted to Judaism and is a practitioner of modern Jewish Orthodoxy. Jews pervade the professional, political and intellectual establishment in both countries. But incidents keep re-occurring reminding us all, not only that anti-Semitism is not dead, but in its association with anti-Israel stances, is often much more virulent. Of course, one can be critical of Israel and even be anti-Zionist and object to the Jewish people having a right of self-determination without being anti-Semitic. But listening to Israel’s critics often suggests otherwise.
Three months ago, at Vassar College, Jasbir K. Puar, an Associate Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University, gave a lecture entitled, “Inhumanist Biopolitics: How Palestine Matters.” Her lecture was defended in the name of academic freedom as well as by the right to free speech, According to Mark G. Yudof and Ken Waltzer, who obtained a transcript of the talk, though Puar had requested that no one record the talk, she claimed that Israel had used dead Palestinians from the Gaza War to mine “for organs for scientific research.” She accused Jews of deliberately starving Palestinians to stunt their growth. Puar received widespread support, sometimes based on suspicions about Israeli activities and at other times simply in defence of academic freedom. Evidently, it was quite intellectually kosher to speculate on the possibility that Israel practiced “weaponized eugenics.” But why not defend such a brazen anti-Semitic lecture? If the research indeed does reflect serious scholarship and the highest academic standards, there is a right to express and publish one’s views no matter how controversial.
Why not indeed? Because, research exists within a context. Given that context, it is triply important to ensure that those standards are observed, that the research can be replicated and that the claims can be tested. But Puar threatened to sue anyone who publicly recorded or repeated her claims, inherently breaching academic standards. It is not as if she has not published on the topic and has not already advertised her forthcoming book– see the outline of her third book entitled, Inhumanist Biopolitics: The Prehensive Occupation of Palestine. When someone is a known advocate for the BDS movement, a known critic of the existence of Israel, it is incumbent on academics upholding standards of scholarship to ensure that scholarly conclusions are not merely expressions of political and personal bias. However, in a postmodernist age, it is much more difficult to uphold such objective scholarly standards.
The charge has been widely made that anti-Zionism is the new anti-Semitism. Britain’s former chief rabbi, the very esteemed Lord Jonathan Sacks, has not only made such a charge, but cites the exodus of Jews from Britain and continental Europe as a response. Almost half of the Jewish citizens of France and Britain experienced at least one anti-Semitic incident last year. Anti-Semitism has been compared to a virus that mutates into new forms in the desire to get around established defences. Is political anti-Zionism largely a new form of racial anti-Semitism and the religious anti-Semitism of the last two millennia? Just as religious anti-Semitism in the Middle Ages was defended by the highest esteemed source, the Church, just as racial anti-Semitism used science to back up its charges and give them legitimacy, do the rights to free speech and academic freedom now provide a new solid foundation for justifying political anti-Semitism? So Israeli soldiers are described as the new Nazis and Palestinians in the theology of victimization have become the Jews.
Britain has allegedly become a centre for the expression of this new political anti-Semitism. The Islamic Tarbiyah Academy in Dewsbury, which teaches 140 primary age children in after-school classes and offers a full-time program for over-16s, lists the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as reading material on its curriculum. The extreme fundamentalist, Mufti Zubair Dudha, teaches his students that Islam is under attack in a modern religious war with Jews behind the campaign. Dewsbury has developed a reputation as a breeder of extreme terrorism. This small town gave birth to one of the 2005 attackers against the London transit system. The youngest suicide bomber and youngest convicted terrorist in Britain both came from Dewsbury.
The problem in Britain, unlike in France, goes well beyond the extremist stream of Muslim political life. Naseem Shah, a Labour member of parliament from Bradford, and Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, were both suspended from the party for their anti-Semitic remarks. Shah had advocated the relocation of Israel to the U.S. Livingstone defended Naseem Shah by claiming that Hitler had been a Zionist. So it is not simply a matter of Jews becoming paranoid and equating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism; two prominent Labour officials in Britain had identified with a campaign, not simply for Palestinian self-determination, not even just for the elimination of Israel and the denial of the right to self-determination, but ethnic and religious cleansing by relocating Jews away from the Middle East, including those who could trace their families back two thousand years in the Middle East and in Israel in particular. The Oxford University Labour Club was forced to suspend some council members and activists for similar reasons. The National Union of Students President, Malia Bouattia, accused the international media of being “Zionist-led” and openly advocated violence against Israel.
Racism permeates British political life to this day. Boris Johnson, the Conservative current mayor of London, dismissed Barack Obama’s support for Britain remaining in the EU by claiming that this “part-Kenyan” president was displaying a traditional anti-British bias and an ancestral dislike of Britain by former African colonies. But the animus of anti-Zionism that has unequivocally crossed over into outright anti-Semitism seems to have infiltrated left wing politics in Britain quite deeply. As in all cases, it is not simply the outspoken views of the few that are the problem, but the dismissal of critics and the tolerance of such outrages by the many. Mehdi Hasan, a British political journalist who happens to be Muslim, has insisted that such expressions of anti-Semitism not only frequently emerge in his community, but are not confronted. They are even tolerated by the majority. “It pains me to have to admit this but anti-Semitism isn’t just tolerated in some sections of the British Muslim community; it’s routine and commonplace.”
As identity versus cosmopolitan ideas had once come to the fore in politics where the rights of some are defended in terms of universal rights, in the new era, the victimization of some are brought to the fore because of their special victimization and the shared responsibility of the majority to redress those particular historical sources of victimization. History would have to be corrected even at the cost of making another group pay the costs. Further, the rhetoric of anti-capitalism easily gets intermingled into this antipathy as the bankers in the world are held responsible for growing inequalities and once again identified with Jews.
Anti-Semitism, unfortunately has once again arisen from a relatively short sleep and become a significant part of international politics, not always but most frequently associated with attacks against Israel. Gideon Behar of Israel’s Foreign Ministry has outlined in briefings Israel’s determination to lead the efforts to fight anti-Semitism around the world as an integral part of Israeli foreign policy. On the 80th anniversary of the Nuremberg trials and the 70th anniversary of the Nuremberg laws which used the mask of justice to disguise gross injustice and set off the trajectory that would lead to the Holocaust, it is well to remember how the mask of one cause can be used to deliver a deep and venomous hatred wrapped in an ostensibly merely controversial political package.