In this week’s edition of QUICK TAKES on current and newsworthy issues involving religion and theology by POLITICAL THEOLOGY TODAY, we consider the issue of growing global anti-Semitism.
In recent months anti-Semitism has been on the rise worldwide, according to various reports, not just in Europe but also on American college campuses, as the following dispatch from The Huffington Post indicates. Even more recently, the student council at UCLA was caught on camera making blatant discriminatory statements that had supposedly disappeared more than a generation ago. Why is it happening, and what does it mean? How much of it has to do with opposition to Israeli policy and how much to do with old-fashioned anti-Semitism? Or are the two inseparable?
Two Quick Takes contributors respond to our questions.
QUICK TAKES is a feature managed by PTT Current Affairs Editor Carl Raschke. If you would like to be part of the “rapid response teams” that responds in this section to news of the week, please send the editor an email along with a brief description of the general topics on which you would like to comment.
Anti-Semitism and Anti-Zionism Not the Same, But Not Unrelated Either
About to step into it one step deeper, I’d like to address a fundamental ambiguity at play about Israel and Judaism, or about anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism that makes its discourse and politics almost impossible to control or contain.
On the one hand, neither the one nor the other term is “identical” to the other term. They are separate ideological discourses, and it is important that supporters or critics of Israel not confuse the one with the other.
That’s what they call in Talmud peshita or simple. On the other hand, while we should not confuse the one with the other, it’s also the case that the two sides to the coin are fundamentally (i.e. historically and ideologically, structurally) confused. Separate phenomena, Judaism-Zionism and anti-Semitism-anti-Zionism are nonetheless not completely separable
My guess is that they are always going to be confused no matter how hard one tries to maintain and police the separation simply because Zionism and the creation of the State of Israel are such core components of the modern Jewish experience. It always remains to be said that, substantively, criticism of Israel, even rejection of Zionism, is not necessarily anti-Semitic. But there’s more to discourse than propositions and “substance.”
There’s also the affect that slips into the substance of the critique, giving it its particular tone and coloration. In the case of Israel and Zionism, there’s an affect of rage on both sides of the political that confuses the two phenomena.
On the anti-Zionist side of the line, there is a visceral anger that is particular to Israel that seems as if it were hardwired with anti-Semitism at its base, especially in Europe. There’s no way to explain the extreme acts of rhetorical and physical violence directed at Jews and Jewish institutions, which, especially in Europe, are easy to target and have always been easy to target going back to the 1970s. If Israel is, indeed, heinous, it’s hard to explain how it is so especially so to warrant such special vituperation.
Consider the “Israel = Nazi” meme. Not meant as a mere historical descriptor, this kind of utterance and others like it are powerful performatives with intense affective charge. Once you call something “Nazi,” you’ve given yourself a license to kill it, to seek its complete obliteration, and to attack those who carry it most closely.
As if anyone had that power, my point here is not to shut down debate about Israel or Zionism, but to understand it in a cautionary way. I would like to think that once we lower the affective charge that we can talk about these things more clearly and to the point. Anti-Semitism is not not going to be part of the discussion if you want to get at its “root.” I recognize that others will want stronger stuff than that, morally and politically.
But academic discourse analysts should have been able to tell us better. You cannot split so easily the difference between any one thing and another, in this case between Israel and Judaism, or between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. One should be careful with the affect attached to political expression. What the rage and recent outbursts of anti-Semitism at demonstrations against Israel show is that once you go down that rabbit hole you may not be able to recognize yourself; and then you undercut the very political and moral commitments upon which you hoped to stand when you went out to protest “genocide” in Palestine.
I will say the same thing, but not here today, about the rabbit hole of Affect Zionism, the form of Zionism charged by and saturated by unthinking anger, fear, and rage, and the miasma of group-think it demands and the fascism it generates.
Zachary Braiterman teaches modern Jewish thought and culture at the Department of Religion, Syracuse University. An earlier formulation of these observations can be found on Prof. Braiterman’s personal blog.
Anti-Semitism in Europe Is Related to Anti-Zionism, But Is Structural As Well
Pew Research Center’s Global Restrictions against Religion (2013) indicates that “harassment of Jews worldwide have reached a seven year high”, with Jews facing “harassment in about three quarters (34 of 45) of Europe’s countries.”
Recently, several journalists with hidden cameras wore Jewish religious markers, such as the kippah or tzitzit, and casually walked the busy streets of several major European cities to test and document the rise of anti-Semitic attitudes in the everyday life of Europe.
The experiment began with Swedish journalist Peter Ljunggren, who walked through Malmö, Sweden with a kippah. Ljunggren was harassed and insulted with epithets such as “Jewish Devil”, “Jewish Sh*t”, and was warned by one local to flee the neighborhood for his own safety. Israeli journalist Zivka Klein walked around Paris for ten hours, modeling his experiment after Shoshana Robert’s 10 Hours of Walking in NYC. Klein received similar results as Ljunggren, being scorned as “Homo” and spat upon.
British journalist Jonathan Kalmus followed suit and strolled through the cities of Manchester and Bradford in England, and was treated alike with aggressive intimidation that British Prime Minister David Cameron described as “shocking”, such as the jeer “fight the Jewish Scum”. Several others in both Rome and Copenhagen repeated this journalistic experiment, and underwent the same abusive experiences of anti-Semitism.
Moshe Kantor, president of the European Jewish Congress, stated in CNN that, “as a result of the intensified wave of anti-Semitism and Islamist terrorism, Jews in Europe are eschewing Jewish identifying symbols and are afraid to attend prayers and to send their children to their Jewish schools. This has led to an unprecedented desire to leave their home countries and flee to greater freedom and security.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has observed the possible desire of European Jews to exit, and caused furor by offering the lure of aliyah (or permanent emigration to the Jewish homeland) for the European Jews, saying, “Israel is your home”.
France is exceptionally aware of the flight of French Jews to Israel for security reasons as much as the economic ones, for French Jews are making aliyah to Israel more so than any other European country. Estimates from the Jewish Agency show an increase from 3,293 French Jews in 2013 making aliyah to 7,086 in 2014.
Nathan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency, forecasts that up to 15,000 French Jews may possibly make aliyah for 2015. A growing anti-Semitic sentiment in France began to develop over time beginning with the kidnapping, torture and death of Ilam Halimi from Paris in 2006, then the 2012 shootings in Toulouse at the Ozar Hatorah school where 4 Jewish people were killed, including three children, then the 2014 shootings at the Jewish Museum of Belgium in Brussels by French national Mehdi Nemmouche that killed four people, and lastly the four Jewish hostages killed in the Hypercacher kosher market right after the shootings at Charlie Hebdo.
The murder of the volunteer Jewish security guard Dan Uzan over three weeks ago outside the central Copenhagen synagogue is the latest to add to the overall volatile atmosphere of anti-Semitism in Europe, not least France. French Prime minster Manuel Valls recently said in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg from The Atlantic that there “there is a new anti-semitism in France” in which “something far more profound is taking place”, what he considers a “radical criticism of the very existence of Israel, which is anti-Semitic.”
Manuel Valls notes that this new anti-Semitism “comes from the difficult neighborhoods, from immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa, who have turned anger about Gaza into something very dangerous. Israel and Palestine are just a pretext.” Journalists for The Economist wrote in an article concerning European anti-Semitism that, “once a phenomenon of the nationalist right, it is now found more among Europe’s Muslims than elsewhere.” The far right is more concerned to oppose Islam and immigration, as PEGIDA and Le Pen’s National Front have made clear.
That Europe experiences upheavals in the wake of political actions between Israel and Palestine, and that this has both a direct and indirect effect on anti-Semitic attitudes, is a given. The pro-Palestinian demonstrations last summer against Israel’s offensive in Gaza turned violent in the Sarcelles district of Paris, known as “Little Jerusalem”, with many shops and the synagogue targeted, and with reports of “gas the Jews” and “kill the Jews” heard chanted by protestors.
Yet this conventional link between what happens between Israel and Palestine and the rising anti-Semitism in Europe is problematic as a final, sole explanatory model. Simone Rodan-Benzaquen and Daniel Schwammenthal of the American Jewish Committee have written in The Wall Street Journal that “the simplistic notion, though, that their anti-Jewish acts are triggered by the Arab-Israeli conflict is just that—simplistic. It also risks rationalizing criminal behavior.
The reality is that the problem of anti-Semitism has long become structural.” This social structure makes anti-semitism not simply a Jewish problem, but a problem of all those who inhabit democratic societies. The globalization of anti-Semitic attitudes, which is concomitant with a general rise in social hostilities against religions worldwide, makes victims of Jews, Christians, “seculars” and Muslims alike.
Joshua Ramos, a fellow with the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Vienna is finishing his doctoral studies at the University of Denver. His research and publications focus on religion, demography, and globalization.