European Anti-Semitism – a Sideshow Compared With the Abyss Ahead?
Last week’s UK Sunday Times ran a story about anti-Semitism by Stephen Pollard, the editor of the Jewish Chronicle.
“Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident, is not prone to rash statements. He weighs up every word when he speaks, and kept himself sane during years of solitary confinement in Siberia by playing mental chess.
But in last week’s Jewish Chronicle, Sharansky — who runs the Jewish Agency, the main body responsible for the immigration of Jews to Israel — issued the most blunt warning about the future of Jews in Europe that I have seen.
According to Sharansky: “We are seeing the beginning of the end of Jewish history in Europe.” There is, he says, an “intellectual atmosphere which asks Jews to choose between their loyalty to Israel and their loyalty to Europe”.
The Europe he describes is not that of the Enlightenment or even of the noble post-war project to bring peace to a continent ravaged by conflict. It is a Europe that “is abandoning its basic values”, such as freedom and tolerance. And it is capitulating before those who place hatred and extremism above all else.”
Pollard goes on to describe attacks on Jews across Europe, particularly in France and Germany. He points out that many of the attackers are using Israel’s action in Gaza as the pretext for their verbal and physical assaults. The perpetrators, he says are not just the usual mish-mash of right-wing extremists, but an increasing number of radicalised Muslims. He questions why protesters target Israel, when there are more lethal conflicts elsewhere that do not receive the same attention. How many Palestinians have been killed in Syria, he asks? More than at Israel’s hand in Gaza, as it turns out. He also wonders why there have not been demonstrations about the abduction of 200 children by the Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram, and about the vicious slaughter of Iraqis by ISIS, or the Islamic State as it prefers to be known. Why then, if not for anti-Semitic motives, do people take to the streets to protest about Israel’s actions in Gaza?
I should have thought that the answer was pretty obvious. In the case of Boko Haram and ISIS, who is there to demonstrate against? Israel is a well-armed, potent state. The Gaza action is within Israel’s power to stop whenever it wants to. Nigeria, on the other hand is a shambolic, corrupt confederation of ethnic groups and faiths. It did not will Boko Haram on its people, and its ability to deal with this vicious group is limited, not just because of resources but because of a lack of a concerted national will and a concern that military action will result in the deaths of the children.
ISIS is an equally vicious, but a far more successful gang of opportunist religious fascists – a self-declared state with no embassies, no institutions and a currency of fear with which to cow its new-found subjects. What embodiment of ISIS is there to act as a focal point for protests against them?
Now I take issue with Sharansky’s assertion that Europe is abandoning its basic values of freedom and tolerance, because much of Europe never held those values particularly dear. Certainly not Russia, where he was born, and vast swathes of eastern Europe from the Baltic to the Balkans have a patchy record of respect for freedom of speech and ethnic diversity. I would argue that since the end of the Cold War there are more parts of the continent where those values hold sway than ever before, which is why comparisons with the pogroms of the past two centuries and the organised assault on German Jewry on Kristallnacht are somewhat overstated.
As for dual loyalty, being beholden to more than one entity has long been a fact of European political and social life. Germans before World War One could be loyal Bavarians as well as subjects of the Emperor, just as in Austria it was possible to be a patriotic Hungarian yet still be prepared to die for Franz Josef. Moreover, for many hundreds of years, the Papacy was far more than a powerless stakeholder in the lives of those who were the temporal subjects of kings and emperors. Those who feel loyalty to the state of Israel as well as their home countries are not outliers, and such divided loyalty is a rarely a problem unless the interests of one entity conflict with those of the other. There are many people both within and outside the US, for example, who feel that the Jewish lobby exerts a disproportionate influence on US foreign policy, and that without that influence, US politicians would have been more likely to have put stronger pressure on Israel to come to terms with Palestine.
Where anti-Semitism comes into play in the issue of divided loyalty is when a citizen is asked to chose between being a Jew, with all that culturally Jewishness entails, and being French, or German. These kind of pressures existed long before the the state of Israel, particularly in Germany, where Jewish musicians such as Gustav Mahler converted to Christianity in order to advance their careers.
Pollard is right to raise the alarm against European anti-Semitism, but wrong to compare it with conditions in play in 1938. Much of the anti-Semitism he describes is by groups that would themselves claim to be discriminated against – such as under-privileged Muslim minorities and others who have missed out on economic prosperity. For all the electoral gains made by the far right parties in France, Hungary and other European States, no member of the EU is likely to elect a government that advocates and subsequently practices institutional anti-Semitism on any serious level, let alone on a scale comparable with what the Nazis did. And if it did so, it would be unlikely to remain in the EU for long. It would also be subjected to international opprobrium and punitive measures far more severe than those being introduced against Russia.
Israel, whose unending conflict with the Palestinians appears to be at the bottom of the current upsurge of anti-Semitism, fights its battles with every weapon at its disposal, including the underlying threat of its ultimate nuclear deterrent. Its use of hasbara, Hebrew for “explanation”, is one of those weapons. Every embassy has a representative whose job is to put forward Israel’s point of view in the media. The state deploys armies of volunteers to scour the web for opportunities to rebut material critical of Israel and its policies. Journalist Brian Whitaker has posted two interesting articles about hasbara on his website Al-Bab here and here.
It seems that in addition to having created a fearsome citizen army ready to respond to military threats at a moment’s notice, Israel is systematically equipping its citizens with the rebuttal narratives. This is a concern, because consistent arguments can easily turn into ideology, and those who question the top-down narratives become liable to accusations of being unpatriotic. And rigidly enforced orthodoxy can the the first step towards totalitarianism. The other night I watched a BBC current affairs program hosted by Rageh Omaar, in which a young Israeli pilot talked about his role in the selection of targets in Gaza. His answers to questions about the moral dimension of his work used the same diversionary techniques employed by professional Israeli spokesmen. It was pretty obvious that he had received media training – otherwise it would have been unlikely that he would have ended up on screen.
Stephen Pollard, as a prominent British Jew, would probably be insulted at the suggestion that he is an instrument of Israeli hasbara. Yet the recent torrent of reports about anti-Semitic activity across Europe surely serves the purpose of diverting attention from Israel’s activities in Gaza towards what is being portrayed as a widespread wave of anti-Semitism. He rightly points out that there is still a latent seam of anti-Semitism on the continent, particularly in France. And Gaza has provided the pretext for latent becoming blatant. But vicious as they are, individual and collective acts of violence against French Jews are not state-sponsored as they were in Germany in 1938.
Unfortunately, as Whitaker points out, hasbara is starting to wear thin, as more people start to see through the stonewalling techniques it employs. This is particularly noticeable in the social media. Whether the result of individual sentiment or organised counter-hasbara initiatives, Facebook, for example, is rife with anti-Israel posts. A video of Jon Snow of the UK’s Channel 4 News interviewing an Israeli spokesman and struggling to break through Mark Regev’s formulaic defence tactics recently went viral. Suggestions that Snow “destroyed” Regev’s arguments are a bit wide of the mark, but it was certainly a good example of the line that all official Israeli commentators take with the media. A video by an emotional Snow shot after his return from Gaza, not broadcast on the terrestrial news show but on the station’s YouTube channel because of fears that it breaches the TV regulators stipulations on impartiality, has notched up over a million views in five days.
To paraphrase one commentator, Israel is winning its war on Gaza, but is in the process destroying what remains of its reputation as a bastion of personal freedom and democratic values in a region dominated by autocrats. Sadly, the reputational blow-back is indeed sparking the attacks by bigots who are only too happy to blame innocent Jews for the actions of the Jewish state with which they have no ties and for whose policies many have no sympathy.
I repeat, we are not looking at 1938 all over again. But ahead of us is a new, equally worrying threat, in which the Palestinian cause becomes inseparable from the most extreme forms of political Islam, and fuels ever more virulent incarnations of ISIS-type insurgencies. With the ever-present possibility of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East (if Iran get the bomb, Saudi Arabia has to have it, and then the Emirates and so on), we may be approaching a point at which Israel’s much-vaunted Iron Dome missile defence system becomes no more effective than a greenhouse in protecting its population from weapons that may become available to a future rogue theocracy. At that point attacks on European Jews will become a sideshow.
Because I frequently write on these subjects, people sometimes ask me how I think the conflict will end as if I was some kind of authority. I’m not. I shrug my shoulders, because I honestly don’t know. But deep down I sense that it will not end until some catastrophe occurs that wipes out the memory of participants in the last seventy years of conflict in the region. And that will only happen if the participants themselves are wiped out.
Let’s hope I’m wrong, and that there are enough sane people to call a halt to this cyclical madness before insatiable bloodlust produces the biggest fire-break of all time.