On July 14, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid suggested in a speech that antisemitism was not as special as many Jews believe, but rather is but one bigotry among many in the rich and variegated mosaic of human hatred.
Antisemitism, he told the Global Conference on Combating Antisemitism gathered in Jerusalem, “exists everywhere…. The antisemites weren’t just in the Budapest Ghetto” of his Holocaust survivor father’s youth. “The antisemites were slave traders who threw chained slaves overboard into the ocean. The antisemites were the members of the Hutu tribe in Rwanda who massacred members of the Tutsi tribe. The antisemites are the Muslim extremists who killed 20 million fellow Muslims in the last decade. The antisemites are Islamic State and Boko Haram. The antisemites are people who beat to death young members of the LGBT community.”
Indeed, Lapid said, “the antisemites are all those who persecute people not for what they’ve done, but for what they are, for how they were born…. Antisemitism isn’t the first name of hatred, it’s the family name; it’s all those consumed by hatred to the point that they want to murder and destroy and persecute and banish people just because they’re different.”
While he affirmed that the Holocaust was unique in human history, “modern antisemitism, with which we’re grappling today, exists everywhere. And to fight it, we need allies.”
His comments ignited a firestorm of criticism and a fierce left-right dustup in the Hebrew-language media.
Right-wingers, led by opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, lashed Lapid’s comments as “scandalous and irresponsible, warping history and emptying the concept of antisemitism of all content.”
“While antisemitism, hatred of Jews, is part of the general human phenomenon of hatred of others,” Netanyahu said in response, “it’s different from it in intensity, in its durability over millennia, and in the murderous ideology nurtured for generations to prepare the way for the extermination of the Jews.”
By asserting that antisemitism “isn’t just hatred of Jews, but hatred of people generally,” Lapid’s statement “marginalizes the uniqueness of the hatred of Jews in history, and the scale of the tragedy of the Holocaust, which destroyed a third of our people.”
As the argument heated up along partisan lines, the two men accused one another of profoundly harming the cause of combating antisemitism.
“If that’s how the foreign minister speaks,” warned Netanyahu, “how can the State of Israel continue to demand from other nations to continue to invest special efforts in protecting Jewish communities abroad?”
Labeling his critics “extreme right,” Lapid in turn accused them of “not only wanting to destroy Israeli society, but in order to score political points, being willing to help antisemites” by “flooding social media with decontextualized snippets from the speech.”
Playing politics with antisemitism
It was a fight typical of Israeli political bickering. A careful reader of the back-and-forth across Israeli media in recent days — Israel Hayom repeatedly chastised Lapid, Haaretz repeatedly defended him — might learn more about the dislike of each political camp for the other than about antisemitism itself.
What precisely was the complaint against Lapid?
Netanyahu accused Lapid of “minimizing the scale of the tragedy of the Holocaust,” yet Lapid bluntly stated that “there was nothing like the Holocaust in all the annals of humanity.” In fact, his speech opened with the story of his father Tommy, age 13, passing his bar mitzvah in the terrifying conditions of the Budapest Ghetto of late 1944. By that point, he related, Tommy’s father, Lapid’s grandfather, “was already dead in the gas chambers of the Mauthausen concentration camp.”
And Netanyahu himself, even as he castigated Lapid for generalizing about antisemitism, then acknowledged that it was “part of the general human phenomenon of hatred of others.”
Lapid emphatically placed antisemitism at the top of the hierarchy of human hatreds — its “family name” — and called the Holocaust hatred’s “extreme edge,” which was unlike anything ever experienced or perpetrated by human beings.
Antisemitism, Lapid even suggested, was the weathervane showing where the zeitgeist was headed. It begins with the Jews, he warned, but “we must tell [our allies] that antisemitism never stops at Jews alone.”
So what did Lapid get wrong, and why didn’t his critics seem able to articulate his mistake clearly and precisely? Was it petty politicking between two rivals or a more serious debate?
Is antisemitism, as so many Israelis believe, in some profound categorical sense unique among human hatreds, or is it merely an especially acute variant of the same basic phenomenon?
Antisemitism as rebellion
“If the Jew did not exist, the antisemite would invent him,” French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre decreed in a bitter essay written just after the liberation of Paris in late 1944 as the furnaces of Auschwitz still smoked in the east. European intellectuals, especially on the left, were hard at work trying to understand the power of this hatred of the Jews.
The Jews of Europe had had no claims on the land of their neighbors, as neighboring nations might, had committed no discernible crime, certainly not as a group — yet no one could ever again doubt that they were hated with a passion far beyond mere prejudice.
In his essay, later translated into English as “Anti-Semite and Jew,” Sartre described antisemitism as something larger than the usual run of human bigotry. It was, he suggested, a rebellion against rationalism. The antisemite, he wrote, doesn’t hate Jews because of some bad experience with flesh-and-blood Jews, but uses a preexisting “idea of the Jew” as a prism for ordering his troubled world.
It was an escape mechanism. The antisemite was a coward, afraid “of himself, of his own consciousness, of his own liberty, of his instincts, of his responsibilities, of solitariness [as Sartre put it elsewhere, one does not hate alone], of change, of society, and the world — of everything except the Jews.”
Antisemitism was thus a psychic liberation from responsibility for one’s conscience, a rebellion against the burdens of rationalism.
As literary critic George Steiner put it in attempting to explain the “black mystery” of the Holocaust, it possessed a “philosophical intent” unseen in other genocides. The Nazis disliked many peoples in their hierarchies of inferiority. But they hated none more than the Jews, and in none invested a similar focus of attention and resources to ensure their extermination. The Jews’ destruction was a defining purpose of the regime.
No honest appraisal of the phenomenon, these intellectuals believed, could deny that strange, special standing of the Jew in the European imagination.
The idea that antisemitism stands apart from other hatreds, then, was not born on the Zionist right or in the claims of Israeli political leaders. Left-wing thinkers, Jewish and non-Jewish, have been the sharpest champions of the idea that antisemitism doesn’t fit the standard run of bigotries and can’t be explained by the usual sociological interpretations of prejudice.
The Zionist view
Zionism has always been a theory that went beyond the narrow experience of the Jews. The Zionists argued that the new European national identities, the new mass societies forged in the fires of industrialization and urbanization, were a threat to all minorities, all outsiders, all those of liminal identity who could be both “German” or “Polish” and also simultaneously something else, all those who thus called into question the immutability of those labels.
Zionism came in many forms, from revolutionary Marxism to liberal capitalism. But all shared a basic impulse: the idea that the Jews must be liberated from their otherness by becoming a nation like all other nations. Jews had lived for millennia “beyond history,” beyond the normal existence of tribes and nations as understood by the rest of the world.
Zionists acknowledged antisemitism’s strange power but argued it was caused by the strange condition of the Jews within the societies in which they lived. Normalize the Jews and you’ll end or at least “normalize” antisemitism, transforming it from a unique, society-mobilizing hatred to mere banal prejudice. Jewish nationhood and self-reliance would end the world’s obsession with the Jew.
For classical Zionism, something about the Jews was causing antisemitism, and altering that thing would cure it.
In his speech, Lapid rejected that idea. While channeling the original Zionist notion that antisemitism was no mystical force but rather a diagnosable and curable sociological phenomenon, he insisted that the cure could not be achieved by Jews changing their behavior.
And there’s the rub about the new left-right fracas on antisemitism. Beneath the shallow bickering lies a subtle but profound shift in how Israeli Jews understand antisemitism, a Zionist coming to terms with the possibility that the Jew is not, in fact, the subject of antisemitism.
“For too long we have been on the defensive,” Lapid said in a part of his speech ignored by his critics. “For too long, we thought we must tell the right story about the Jews so the antisemites stop hating us. I want to suggest the opposite possibility: It’s time that we start telling the right story about the antisemites.”
By removing the focus from the Jewish victim and placing it on the antisemite, Lapid could claim common cause with other victims and other anti-bigotry ideologies.
“Antisemitism is racism, so let’s talk to everyone opposed to racism,” he declared. “Antisemitism is extremism, so let’s cooperate with everyone who is frightened by extremism. Antisemitism is the hatred of the stranger, so let’s mobilize to our side anyone who was once a stranger, and say to him, ‘This is your war too. If you don’t help us today to battle against antisemitism, someone might one day look at your child and say to themselves, “I hate him, I want him to die.”’”
His argument, the innovation he thought he was bringing to the table but which went unheard in the exchange, was a rebellion against the old Zionist foregrounding of the Jew. It was Sartre’s insistence that the explanation for antisemitism lies in the antisemite’s troubled psyche, not in the Jew he hates.
And what of Netanyahu’s argument? What did he mean by the “uniqueness of the hatred of Jews?” Of what content, specifically, did Lapid “empty the concept of antisemitism?” Is there a compelling argument, not on the French post-war left of Sartre but on the present-day Israeli right, that antisemitism is genuinely and truly unique among the world’s hatreds?
It’s hard not to sympathize with the original Zionist view of antisemitism, Ruth Wisse, a now-retired Harvard historian of Yiddish and Jewish history, told The Times of Israel in a conversation this week. But it was wrongheaded.
“Zionism’s approach was very sound. The problem was they didn’t realize — nobody wants to realize, and one can see why Jews do not want to accept this idea, especially Jews of a certain kind, and no one should want to accept the idea — that antisemitism is something entirely unique and that it has nothing to do with the Jews,” Wisse said.
“If you try to universalize it, you get it all wrong. Because it has nothing to do with hatred as such.”
The term that today has become synonymous with Jew-hatred was coined by Wilhelm Marr, a 19th-century German nationalist who penned treatises against the rising wave of liberalization and democracy sweeping the continent. Democracy, he warned, was a Jewish conspiracy to “conquer Germany from within.”
It was a powerful and sophisticated misdirection of conservative anxieties about larger processes in German society toward a minority that could not fight back.
As Wisse wrote in a 2017 essay, Marr’s and others’ conspiratorial reorganization of German conservative politics against the Jews “had the advantage of clarity — the Jews were a clear culprit and target for a politics of grievance and blame. A single explanation answered a multitude of dissatisfactions.”
It was a perfect trap. Jews could neither solve the troubles they were blamed for, nor escape the blame, so that “misattribution of causality prevented the amelioration of the country’s real difficulties,” she wrote then. “Anti-Semitism was therefore bound to generate mounting dissatisfaction and frustration. Stoked to the point of violence, the public assailed the Jews, but the violence could never find satisfaction in them because they were not, in fact, the source of the malaise. Fatal in the long run, but seductive in the here and now, anti-Semitism was a form of political prestidigitation, pointing away from the actual bid for power toward its alleged usurpers. The more attention it focused on the Jews, the less perceptible became the manipulator’s appropriation of power.”
Jews are a uniquely convenient target for such political sleight of hand, Wisse told The Times of Israel. “The Jews are a very small people with an enormously inflated image, a largely negative image in the life of Christianity and in the life of Islam. And so it’s got accumulative resonance. You say ‘the Jews’ and people who don’t know anything about the Jews and never heard about them, once you’ve got all that demonic attribution, it’s already there. If you’re a politician or leader, you reach for an implement that’s handy. In a sense, the Jews were handy.”
Jews became stand-ins for the fears and anxieties of competing political camps in a fast-changing world, first in Europe and later in the Arab and Muslim worlds. They became a vocabulary for distracting populations from their troubled leaderships.
Antisemitism, in other words, is nothing less than “the organization of politics against the Jews.”
Left and right
When the white supremacists marching in Charlottesville in 2017 chanted “Jews will not replace us,” they were deploying the same mechanism: Explain away real anxieties and fears by misdirecting them onto a nefarious Jewish power.
To European conservatives of the 19th century, Jews were the unwanted liberalizers or communist agitators. But they were no safer in the Soviet sphere in the 20th century, where they quickly became the regime’s favorite target.
Where conservatives and nationalists hated the Jews’ “cosmopolitanism,” communists depicted them as a capitalist vanguard and nationalist reactionaries whose clinging to their cultural distinctiveness threatened the global progressive revolution.
In hindsight, it might astonish us that Zionism could ever have believed the solution lay in changing the Jew. Antisemitism, then and now, was simply too useful to be abandoned just because the Jews of the eastern hemisphere had reorganized themselves into a nation-state.
Strident opposition to Israel’s existence on the ideological left has its intellectual roots in that Soviet antisemitism. In Soviet discourse, Jewish peoplehood was a very specific sort of threat: a retreat from the progressive project toward the old nationalisms that communism (and more to the point, Soviet imperialism) sought to eradicate. The USSR invested a great deal of effort in erasing Jewish distinctiveness, systematically persecuting and killing off the Jewish cultural elite and outlawing the study of Hebrew.
It was in Soviet ideology and its response to Jewish nonconformity that antisemitism became anti-Zionist — Israel was the epitome of the distinctiveness they sought to uproot. The Soviet intertwining of antisemitism and anti-Zionism swept through the Arab world to become a dominant paradigm of Arab politics for generations.
In March 1945, as Adolf Hitler hid in his Berlin bunker awaiting the Soviet advance on Berlin, Arab leaders met in Cairo to declare the founding of the Arab League. “It was organized around one principal unifying idea: being anti-Israel, the prevention of the creation of the State of Israel, and then after 1948, war against the State of Israel,” said Wisse.
Resisting Israel wasn’t one of the Arab League’s policies, it was its raison d’etre, the organizing principle of pan-Arab politics from that moment on.
“Why did they need to do that? They could have organized in 1945 against any other thing. It was a marvelous time for the Arabs. All their imperial overlords had been involved in this devastating war. Britain was crawling home. So suddenly the whole Arab world was free. They could have done anything,” Wisse said.
“But they couldn’t, because their leaders were worried about democracy, modernization. So the handiest thing was to organize [their politics] against the emergence of the State of Israel. They used opposition to Israel as a unifying element among all these disparate and politically dysfunctional countries and leaderships.
“The more dysfunctional you are, the handier it is to point to Israel, to make Israel the target, to make Israel and the Jews” — and not your domestic troubles and failings — “the subject.”
It’s no great leap to notice the parallel between the Charlottesville argument that Jews, through some secret political order, are the cause of America’s troubles, and the claims by some progressives amid the racial reckoning now rocking American society that Israel, in some equally hidden political order, is responsible for those racial ills. What explains the linkage on the progressive left in recent years between occasional American police delegations to Israel and US police violence and militarization? The existence of exchange programs between police departments around the world is seen as evidence enough to claim that without the nefarious influence of Israel, America would have been spared its most recent racial bloodletting and pain.
The upshot is clear, and the point must be said plainly in a discourse prone to politicization. Criticism of Israel isn’t antisemitism. Even an emotional distaste for Israel, as one might dislike any other country for even the shallowest and most irrational of reasons, isn’t antisemitism. The same is true about Jews. Antisemitism, at least in its unique form, isn’t simply a dislike of Jews. It isn’t even, as economist and social theorist Thomas Sowell suggested, the active discrimination Jews have faced due to their “middleman minority” standing in American society in the early decades of their acculturation. Those forms of prejudice have been faced by many others throughout human history.
The antisemitism being debated in Israel over the past two weeks is something else, something apparently unique to Jews: It is the role Jews are forced to play in the political imaginations of non-Jews as the incarnation of and explanation for their deepest fears and most vexing social ills. It is not the idea that Israel is doing wrong, but the idea that Israel, in some deep order of global affairs, is what is wrong with the world. It is the political device that brought Adolf Hitler to tell the Reichstag in January 1939 that if a world war was coming, it was the Jews who will have started it: “If the international Jewish financiers in and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, then the result will not be the Bolshevization of the Earth, and thus the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe!”
No other people and no other country serves a similar role across so many cultural and political divides, from Malaysian politics to American activist groups, from Stalin’s USSR to present-day Algeria, as the go-to culprit for malaises they can’t possibly have caused.
‘Israelis don’t understand antisemitism’
Lapid sought last week to turn the classical Zionist conception of antisemitism away from its call to change the Jews and toward the recognition that the Jew is in a deep sense irrelevant to antisemitism, merely the ideologized object around which antisemitism organizes itself — its target, not its cause.
Yet Lapid did so without offering any clear sense of why the Jew plays that role, of where antisemitism comes from or what distinguishes it from other hatreds.
Netanyahu, partly for reasons of political gamesmanship, took Lapid to task, but in the process missed the foreign minister’s main point and failed to clearly articulate what Lapid got wrong.
The debate among Israelis over the past week was loud and shallow. And that’s no accident. Israelis, one American Jewish writer quipped about the dustup, “really don’t understand antisemitism.”
“The Zionists could never have anticipated” that antisemitism wouldn’t disappear with Israel’s founding, noted Wisse. And maybe that’s a good thing.
“If they had, what would they have done? It would have been too despairing. You were going to go to all this work and you weren’t going to solve the main problem — the organization of politics against the Jews.”