"It's so hard to be a German today," says Ilse Koch

January 17, 2009

In News

Standing against a tide of hatred

01.16.2009 | The Guardian
By Elizabeth Wurtzel

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For Ilse Koch, see

It is not Israel’s action, but the vitriolic reaction to it that has been disproportionate. There’s only one explanation: antisemitism

Is it good for the Jews?

If you were so inclined, you could ask that question about the Madoff mess, the Gaza offensive, the latest screed from Alan Dershowitz – or about a new recipe for angel-food cake. Which is to say, if you are looking for antisemitism, you can find it anywhere, even in a dessert cookbook. But if even paranoids have enemies, I think it’s fair to say that these are tough times for Jews.

While I would prefer to equate the fate of the Palestinians with that of Israel – meaning, I’d like to believe we’re all on the same side – I think that might be a difficult political fiction to maintain at the moment. And while I’d like to artificially separate anti-Zionism from antisemitism, like most American Jews, I’m not willing to make that false distinction: when there is more than one Jewish state, the world’s hatred of Israel might become no different from its exasperation with any other country, but since Israel is the only homeland, and really it is nothing more than six million Jews living together in an area the size of New Jersey, I can’t pretend that the problem with Israel is that it’s a poorly located country that happens to be at odds with its neighbours and only coincidentally happens to be Jewish. The trouble with Israel is the trouble with Jews.

This situation makes me profoundly uncomfortable. As the kind of left-leaning liberal who tends to agree with the positions taken by The Nation in most instances, I hate having to differ so completely on the Israel issue with many I otherwise would align with. As it is my good fortune to be American, I live in the only country that as a matter of policy is pro-Israel regardless of party allegiance; Democrats and Republicans equally unite behind the blue-and-white. But to communicate with anyone I think of as rightminded (and left-leaning) in any other part of the world is to experience the purest antisemitism since the Nazi era. In fact, in Europe right now, it is de rigueur to liken the current regime in Israel with the Nazi party, and to view the experience of the Palestinians as a form of ethnic cleansing. Hamas and Hezbollah are thought by the French and British to be social welfare organisations, and Israel is viewed as a terrorist state. Here, we honor the linguistic discoveries of Noam Chomsky and otherwise experience him as a quaintly brilliant crank, but in the bookstores in London there are entire sections devoted to his political thought – and he is read as if the distinctions between Leninist and Trotskyite philosophy had genuine consequence in today’s world.

Excepting a business trip I took to England, Scotland and Ireland in early 2002, I have not been to Europe since 9/11. It’s become an unbearable place to be, as the anti-American feelings in light of the Iraq war have mingled with antisemitism to a point where they are indistinguishable, the new phobias of the First World. Because I like taking the occasional trip abroad, especially now that even the Euro is sinking, I am doing my best to understand the European perspective, or somehow excuse it. After all, beyond being a Jewish homeland, Israel is also a geopolitical actor with nuclear weapons, and it might be construed as fair to criticise the actions the country has taken as a very well-armed American client that is dropping bombs on Hamas targets, to the terrible detriment of the civilian population. It’s impossible not to feel sorry for the plight of the Palestinians, and it’s even more impossible to imagine how any Palestinian could feel anything for Israel but animosity. I can see the problem.

But I think it is this very fact – my attempt to understand both sides – that disturbs me the most. Because trying to see all sides, such an instinct is particularly Jewish. The most vehement critics of Israel and champions of the Palestinians – hello, Professor Chomsky; greetings, Norman Finkelstein – are always Jews: we are always trying in our even, level, thoughtful way to see reason in the behaviour of those who are lobbing rocket grenades at us. As a people, we are hopeless Talmudists, we examine all the arguments and try to sort out an answer. What is both strange and difficult for Jews to watch in the case of Israel is that, as a nation surrounded by enemies, it does not make such calculations; it does not have the luxury of rationality that is eventually irrational. Israel fights back, which is very much at odds with the Jewish instinct to discuss and deconstruct everything until action itself seems senseless. Israel, hell-bent on survival, has learned to shoot first – or, at least, second – and blow away the consequences. Whereas it actually hurts my feelings when someone says something nasty about Israel, or even the United States, for Israelis, this is just the way of the world: they probably manufacture their flags to be flammable.

So, it is quite difficult to be Jewish, on the sidelines of this international crisis. Or maybe it’s just difficult to be Jewish. Before his death, the literary philosopher Jacques Derrida described the experience of living in the Jewish ghetto in Paris during the Nazi occupation: because Jews were not allowed to work or attend school, but had always been the most brilliant professors and teachers, this shtetl existence was gloriously intellectual and incandescent – the only problem was that they were stuck, imprisoned by their Jewishness. This, Derrida explained, is what it’s like to be Jewish: to know everyone around you is gifted, and to wish you could find a way out. Jews pride themselves on the over two hundred Nobel Prizes the group has won; and Jews pride themselves on being told: “But you don’t seem Jewish.” Or better still: “You certainly don’t look Jewish.”

Judaism will be enmeshed in pride and shame for as long as it endures. But to endure as a country, Israel must shun both these tendencies.

I watch the pro-Palestinian rallies that have been staged in capitals across the globe, and I try to tell myself that these people are not against me, or even Israel; that they just are dismayed with all the violence. I tell myself, as Jean Renoir pointed out with such pellucid irony in The Rules of the Game, that everybody has their reasons. But here is what I finally know: with all the troubles in the world, with the terrible things that the Chinese do in Tibet, and do to their own citizens; with the horrors of genocide committed in Darfur by Sudanese Muslims; with all the bad things that Arab governments in the Middle East visit upon their own people – no need for Israel to have a perfectly horrible time – still, the focus is on what the Jews may or may not be doing wrong in Gaza. And it makes people angry and vehement as nothing else does. The vitriol it inspires is downright weird. But that makes sense, because antisemitism itself – creepy, dark, ancient and insidious – is, more than anything else, just plain weird.