Pandaemonium

HATREDS, OLD AND NEW

Beckmann_Night

This is the full version of my essay on anti-Semitism in Europe published in the New York Times in August under the headline ‘Enough Hate for Everyone’. (I cannot post the full versions of my New York Times articles on Pandaemonium until a month after the original publication.)


A few years ago, I was a guest on Start the Week, a BBC radio discussion show. Among the other guests was the novelist Eva Figes, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany and a fierce critic of Israel. Israel, she suggested, would have built gas chambers to exterminate the Palestinians but for the fear it would ‘be found out’.

What astonished me was not simply Ms Figes’ comment itself, but the fact that I was the only one who challenged her on it. The other guests may well have felt that a Holocaust survivor had some special license to speak harshly about Israel; I certainly don’t see them as anti-Semitic. But in suggesting without a speck of evidence that Israelis had a desire to build gas chambers, Ms Figes had, for me, given the history of the Holocaust, crossed a line. The incident revealed how many anti-Semitic ideas have become such an acceptable part of the liberal view on Israel that they are barely seen as such anymore. They have become almost invisible.

I was reminded of that discussion as the question of anti-Semitism has returned to Europe — often disguised as anger against Israel’s assault on Gaza. Synagogues have been attacked, Jewish-owned shops smashed, Jews beaten up. In Britain this week, one London branch of a national supermarket cleared its shelves of kosher food after anti-Israel protests. At pro-Palestinian demonstrations, placards comparing Israelis to Nazis have become common. There have even, reportedly, been chants of ‘gas the Jews’ at demonstrations in Germany.

What has been striking has not been so much the expression by some of anti-Semitic sentiments as the reluctance of others to challenge them. As with that Start the Week discussion, the bigotry has become almost invisible. It is not that hatred of Jews has become respectable – it hasn’t. But the culture that can give rise to such hatred is all too often ignored.

Today’s anti-Semitism in Europe is more than a replay of old themes; it is also the product of new developments. One is the growth of Muslim communities, or rather, their transformation. In the 1970s and 1980s, Muslim communities in Europe were broadly secular. Since the late 1980s, though, secular movements have been marginalized, while religious fervour has grown. Support for the Palestinian cause has always been strong, but only recently has a fervent anti-Semitism become entrenched.

It might be convenient for some to simply blame the growth of reactionary tendencies within Muslim communities for the new anti-Semitism, but the truth is more complicated. A 2008 survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project showed that hostility to Jews had increased in most European nations. In Britain, Muslims make up 4.6 percent of the population; in France, 7.5 percent. The proportion of people who possessed unfavorable views of Jews in those countries was, respectively, 9 percent and 20 percent. But in Spain, where just 2.3 percent of the population is Muslim, almost half the population was ill disposed toward Jews, a figure that had more than doubled in three years. In Poland, there are just 20,000 Muslims, or about 0.1 percent of the population; more than a third of Poles held anti-Semitic views. There is, in other words,  no clear correlation in Europe between the level of popular anti-Semitism and the size of the Muslim population. It is, in fact, in those countries with fewer Muslims that anti-Semitism seems most prevalent.

One explanation for this is that many of the drivers of change within Muslim communities that have paved the way for greater hostility toward Jews have had an equally corrosive effect on public opinion at large. The rise of identity politics has helped create a more fragmented, tribal society, and made sectarian hatred more acceptable generally. At the same time, the emergence of ‘anti-politics’, the growing contempt for mainstream politics and politicians noticeable throughout Europe, has laid the groundwork for a melding of radicalism and bigotry. Many perceive a world out of control and driven by malign forces; conspiracy theories, once confined to the fringes of politics, have become mainstream.

bak ghetto

Anti-Semitism has become a catchall sentiment for many different groups of angry people. The distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism has eroded, as many see Israeli action in terms of grand conspiracies. Thus someone can imagine that Israel would build gas chambers on the West Bank if it could get away with it.

Perhaps in no country are the corrosive effects more visible than in France. And perhaps no figure better represents the character of the new anti-Semitism than the stand-up comic Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala, notorious for popularizing the ‘quenelle’, a hand gesture that, for some, is an expression of hatred for the system, and for others, an anti-Semitic taunt. In reality it is both, and Dieudonné’s success rests on his ability to merge the two.

Dieudonné began his career as a relatively mainstream, satirical observer of French society, and in particular of its racial mores. Over the past decade he has become increasingly obsessed by Jews, whom Dieudonné blames much of the torment of black people, not least because, in his mind, obsession with the Holocaust has diverted attention from black suffering. Dieudonné’s ‘anti-racism’ has not stopped him flirting with the far-right Front National. He has also teamed up with Alain Soral, a politician who has moved from the Communist Party to the Front National. In 2009, Dieudonné and Sorel set up the Parti antisioniste (Anti-Zionist party). Dieudonné’s popularity shows how ‘anti-system’ anger and anti-Semitic sentiment can become all too easily fused.

If the new political landscape has nourished a new anti-Semitism, it has also helped distort the struggle against anti-Jewish prejudice. The Pew survey showed not just that anti-Semitism had increased throughout Europe, but also that the ‘publics that view Jews unfavorably also tend to see Muslims in a negative light’. The caustic fusion of xenophobia, conspiracy theory, identity politics and anti-politics that has nurtured the new anti-Semitism has also cultivated hostility to Muslims. The Pew report found that in every country surveyed, ‘Opinions about Muslims in almost all of these countries are considerably more negative than are views of Jews’.

Against this background, what is troubling is that many who rightly challenge anti-Semitism do so in a way that fuels anti-Muslim prejudice. Many commentators talk of anti-Semitism as an almost wholly Muslim problem, and have used the growth of anti-Semitism to question the wisdom of allowing Muslim immigration to Europe. Others suggest that Muslim support for Palestine shows that Muslims cannot be truly integrated into Western societies. The irony is that such arguments only entrench further hostility toward ‘the other’, and so inflame not just anti-Muslim but anti-Jewish sentiment, too.

Israel’s action in Gaza should not be a moral shield for complaisance with anti-Semitism in Europe. But neither should anti-Semitism be a moral shield for the justification of anti-Muslim prejudices. Bigots on both sides need to be held to account.

 

The paintings are ‘Die Nacht’ by Max Beckmann and ‘The Ghetto of Jewish History’ by Samuel Bak.

6 comments

  1. Shelley

    I would be interested to hear how you square your support for liberal immigration policies with the rise of identity politics and tribalism. I am convinced that as there is more immigration from culturally dissimilar countries that we will see more tribalism and as more borders become more porous, civil wars.

    I think you underestimate how well-organized and strategic a few Muslims can be and how small groups can draw other colonized (to use their language) peoples to their anti-Zionism cause. They inflame and polarize, putting Jews at risk, whether or not they support Israel but simply because they are Jews.

    Btw, where are the massive demonstrations by Muslims and the left against ISIS atrocities? Only the Kurds in Europe are demonstrating and dying in Turkey.

    • It’s a myth that immigration itself is responsible for the rise of identity politics. Far more pertinent are the public policies used to manage diversity.

      Why single out Muslims (as opposed to Jews or Christians or Scottish nationalists) as being duty-bound to organize ‘massive demonstrations’ against IS? Unless you, too, buy into identity politics and believe that because IS claim to be Islamic so Muslims possess a special relationship to (perhaps even responsibility for) IS atrocities?

      Finally, be careful when you start talking in sinister terms of ‘small groups’ of ‘well-organized and strategic’ Muslims orchestrating anti-Semitism across the world. I would have thought that the last thing opponents of anti-Semitism want to echo are ill-founded conspiracy theories.

      • niknak

        Some good points in that post. You have been consistent in criticising multiculturalism, meaning a form of bureaucratic resource allocation which entrenches ethnicity over class, boosts the profiles of often self-appointed community leaders, and so on.

        But what has gone wrong in France? Multiculturalism does not seem to be part of state doctrine but this hasn’t stopped the growth of the Front National or other forms of organised ethnic hostility.

      • Tony Buck

        IS aren’t merely claiming to be Islamic – they are Islamic. Maybe a distorted form of the Islamic, but unquestionably Islamic nonetheless; not least because they are well-funded by more respectable (not to say wealthy) Moslems and because IS is a near-inevitable consequence of the hardline preaching and writing that has been going on throughout the Moslem world for some time. IS aren’t a visitation from hell or outer space, but the bitter fruit of developments within Islam.

        Therefore the Moslem world is especially duty-bound to oppose IS (publicly) if only for the honour and preservation of Islam.

  2. Anonymous

    I believe you once wrote an article which mentioned Muslims who advocated for atheists’ rights. Could you please direct me to it.

    • Tony Buck

      KM is working from an a priori assumption – that hatred and bigotry are wrong.

      But are they ? What’s right and what’s wrong ?

      No secular philosophy can prove hatred and bigotry are wrong; on paper, yes, but not so that the public will listen.

      Therefore, like it or not, you are thrown back upon religious faith to define what’s right and what’s wrong, to give people a moral compass.

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