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Genocide and Wisecracks

February 14, 2002

The February issue of Commentary magazine features a long essay titled “The Return of Anti-Semitism,” by Hillel Halkin. The title contains a curious word: return. Is Commentary implying that anti-Semitism ever went away?

A frequent reader of the magazine would get the impression that anti-Semitism is one of the pervading and abiding realities of the world. It’s in the air we breath, the water we drink, the language we speak, our culture, our religion, our heritage. Christianity is anti-Semitic. So is Islam. So are most of the countries of Europe. Many of the great writers of the West have been accused of anti-Semitism, including Chaucer, Shakespeare, Voltaire, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, G.K. Chesterton, T.S. Eliot, Orwell, and Solzhenitsyn.

And no wonder. Halkin doesn’t define anti-Semitism, but he finds it in every nook and corner. He counts genocide and persecution against Jews as anti-Semitic, which is surely reasonable, but he also counts a French diplomat’s private wisecrack about Israel. Even a justified criticism of Israel, Halkin argues, can be anti-Semitic! “Anti-Semitism” seems to be a pretty broad concept, even broader than the concept of sin.

Halkin admits that the concept can be abused, but he doesn’t offer any helpful examples. Maybe he can’t think of any.

One of his chief complaints is that Israel is often judged by double standards. True enough, but it is also defended by double standards. In fact, it is based on double standards: one set for Jews, another for gentiles. That’s more or less the whole idea. This is a country that denounces “terrorism,” then chooses leaders like Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, and Ariel Sharon.

[Breaker quote: Has 
anti-Semitism 'returned']Anti-Semitism is a Soviet-style word, an all-purpose accusation, and naturally the Soviet Union declared anti-Semitism a capital crime. Since it defies definition, it can’t be falsified or refuted. In this court, as in a Stalinist show trial, there are no acquittals. Once you’re accused, you’re as good as convicted.

That’s why people in public life dread the charge of anti-Semitism. It not only reflects Jewish, particularly Zionist, power; it reflects the amazing self-absorption now prevalent among many Jews. Everything is judged by the standard of organized Jewish interests, and whatever impedes those interests — even a passing remark — becomes “anti-Semitism.”

So the chief purpose of the word is not to deter great crimes against Jews — it isn’t likely to stop an Osama bin Laden — but to prevent even the most minor verbal offenses against Jewish amour-propre. It conflates mere criticism with persecution. Many blacks, feminists, and homosexuals try to use racism, sexism, and homophobia to the same effect, but these words don’t have nearly as much power to frighten.

Israel is far from the worst state in the Middle East, but we should be free to criticize it from the standpoints of morality and American interests. To criticize is not necessarily to attack; properly speaking, it means to measure, to put in proportion.

If Jews tend to be self-centered, well, so do we all. The difference is that many Jews now expect everyone else to think in a Jew-centered way, as if the Holocaust and Israel were the most important facts of modern history. So to try to see these things in a different proportion is to outrage a certain Jewish sensibility.

It’s too bad. Not only are the taboos unfair to gentiles; they deprive Jews of the honest criticism everyone needs. Wise Jews don’t want to be defined by anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, and Israel; many of them realize that Zionism, which dreamed of ending the tragic history of the Jews, may instead prove only one more tragic episode. Israel was supposed to offer the Jewish Diaspora a safe haven; instead, Diaspora Jews now have to worry about the safety of Israel itself. You can make a good case that Israel has defeated the very purpose of Zionism.

What a change from the era of the Old Testament! The ancient Hebrews had no concept of anti-Semitism; in fact they were remarkably objective about themselves. They recorded their sins, the fierce rebukes of their prophets, and the divine chastisements in their holy books! What a contrast with the boasting, vanity, and self-glorification of most nations.

Even at their most self-centered, those Jews retained a spirit that was uniquely God-centered. They remain a model for us all, and for modern Israel.

Joseph Sobran

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