December 26, 2009
By David HirshJohn Mann is a British Labor MP who explains that there isn’t a single Jew among the industrial workers, farmers and retired coal miners in his constituency. He is one of the handful of MPs who came out of the recent parliamentary-expenses scandals cleaner than he went in. He was honored with an award at the Knesset during last week’s conference of the Global Forum for Combating Anti-Semitism, for his work in Britain and internationally against anti-Jewish racism. Mann compared the Jews to a canary, like the ones his constituents used to take three miles down into the mines to make sure that the atmosphere was healthy for human beings. The process of the decay of all human values begins with anti-Semitism, said Gert Weisskirchen, who was honored in the same ceremony. Weisskirchen is a scholar as well as a long-time member of the Bundestag, a man imbued with the spirit of the gentle, civilized and worldly social democracy that built post-war West Germany out of the ashes of the Holocaust. So what’s going on? The Jews are hawks, not canaries, aren’t they? The Global Forum is run by Israel’s Foreign Ministry, making Avigdor Lieberman its current host. He is a political figure who has broken new ground in Israel, mainstreaming the kind of racialized thinking of which anti-Semitism was a historic prototype, garnering votes by rhetorically threatening the status of the state’s Arab citizens. He is the deputy prime minister in a government that continues to fail to bring its army and its settlers home from Palestinian territory, where they perpetrate the daily violence and humiliation characteristic of all occupations. In truth, it is only by denying whole facets of reality that one can fit Jews and Israelis into a simple worldview that defines everyone either as oppressed or as oppressor. Similarly, we would all like to believe that anti-Semitism is a thing of the past, but the ready-made ways of thinking that it offers are too deeply embedded in various cultural imaginations around the world for it to disappear easily. No matter how much serious consideration of anti-Semitism is ridiculed as a dishonest attempt to silence criticism of Israel; no matter how much Israelis would prefer to think of themselves as strong, and as being responsible for their own situation rather than perceiving themselves as victims of anti-Semitism – the old libels are still manifested in the ways in which people think about Israel and about Jews. Sammy Eppel, a journalist from Venezuela, explained to the conference in Jerusalem how half the members of that country’s Jewish community have left, as the Chavez regime continues to whip up fervor against “Jewish Zionist imperialism” and to embrace the Jew-hating Iranian regime. Furthermore, a 747 fully loaded with who-knows-what flies from Caracas to Tehran weekly. Dovid Katz, who teaches Yiddish in Vilnius, raised the alarm about current trends to normalize the Holocaust in the Baltic states by portraying Stalin and Hitler as perpetrators of twin genocides. This is a rhetoric that hides a preference for Hitler, and allows surviving perpetrators of the Holocaust to be honored as anti-communist partisans, and anti-fascists to be put on trial as Stalin’s collaborators. An additional worry is that this kind of “re-understanding” of the Holocaust fits in with other kinds of revisionism – like those that portray the Shoah as an invented justification for the State of Israel, or as a minor intra-European spat, dwarfed in importance and impact by the history of European colonialism – of which the oppression of the Palestinians is currently the key manifestation. Patrick Desbois, a quiet but hugely charismatic French Catholic priest, was also present at the Global Forum gathering, explaining how he has been traveling Ukraine and Belarus encouraging perpetrators, witnesses and bystanders of the Nazi genocide to divulge their memories before they are lost. Many who refuse to talk to investigators, and who appear to be Jewish, happily chat with him when he is wearing his comforting priest’s collar. Stories were also presented to the conference about intellectuals, trade unionists, anti-racists and other good people who seek to exclude Israelis, and only Israelis, from the global academic, cultural and economic community; who declare that anti-boycott lawyers are financed by stolen Lehman Brothers money from New York; who say that “Zionist” Jews are the new Nazis, the new racists, the new imperialists, the new supporters of apartheid; who teach that the “Israel lobby” is responsible for the Iraq war; who find excuses for anti-Semitic violence and terrorism; who act as apologists for “critics of Israel” who learn from far-right conspiracy theorists; and who seek to silence those who speak up against anti-Semitism by saying that they only do so to give Prime Minister Netanyahu an easy ride. Eminent Israeli scholars Yehuda Bauer and Emmanuel Sivan skewered the worldview of those who ignorantly and innocently embrace anti-Semitic notions when all they think they are doing is speaking up for Palestinians. Yet they both warned the Global Forum that the fight against anti-Semitism is only part of the general fight against bigotry. Both found it necessary to spell out what ought to have been obvious to the delegates: that the struggles against Islamophobia and other types of racism are intimately related to the fight against anti-Jewish racism. David Hirsh is a lecturer in sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London.