There is much about Jonathan Freedland’s latest piece in the Guardian (Antisemitism: the hatred that refuses to go away, March 3) to admire. As a Guardian columnist, especially, it is heartening to read what appears to be a sincere attempt to grapple with the maddening staying power of the world’s longest hatred.
Indeed, Freedland strikes many of the right cords in his analysis, such as this passage:
[Recent events could make one believe] that antisemitism is making a sudden and unwelcome return. The trouble is, it never really went away. What’s more, it is not confined to the celebrity wackos and eccentrics who have let the mask slip in recent days. It is more widespread than that – contrary to those who like to pretend antisemitism is a historical phenomenon, one that faded away with the Third Reich.
Freedland then adds:
What exercises Jews rather more are the less clear-cut cases, those subtler expressions of anti-Jewish feeling, for which they suspect they get rather less understanding, especially from the liberal or progressive quarters where once they would have expected to find allies….Much of this centres on Israel. Some new cliches have arisen that act as barriers to sympathy for Jews. One is the claim that Jews brand any and all criticism of Israel as antisemitic; another is the claim that Jews “cry antisemitism” in order to silence opposition to Israel. These cliches – which are belied by the sheer volume of criticism of Israel by Israelis and Jews themselves, let alone by everyone else – have now become so durable that it is now difficult for Jews to get a hearing on antisemitism connected with the Middle East debate. And yet it is this that raises more unease than the alcohol-fuelled ravings of a washed-up Hollywood star or clothes designer.
Freedland then correctly notes that:
“what most Jews object to is not, in fact, criticism of Israel itself, but when that criticism comes wrapped in the language or imagery of Jew-hatred…Tom Paulin’s polemical poem Killed in Crossfire, published in the Observer at the height of the second intifada, or Caryl Churchill’s 2009 play Seven Jewish Children, suggesting they are the latest in a long line of English literary works that tap into the “blood libel”
“Similarly, Jews are unnerved when they read learned essays by foreign policy experts alleging the domination of US affairs by the “Zionist lobby” – seeing in such arguments a veiled, upmarket form of the perennial conspiracy theory. They feel similarly alarmed by claims that the hidden hand behind all world events is really Israel”
What makes all this terrain so tricky is not only that every inch of it is vigorously contested but that many of those who resort to anti-Jewish tropes when tackling Israel do so apparently inadvertently, even at the very same time as they fiercely denounce antisemitism. Because they don’t lapse into Galliano-esque abuse, they believe they must be free of all prejudice. To many, it comes as a shock to discover the provenance of the imagery they have just deployed.
What accounts, then, for the stubborn resilience of what has been called “the longest hatred”? Why does it continue to appear even among those educated, liberal elites who pride themselves on their opposition to racism?
By offering a conspiracy theory of power, rather than just the crude anti-immigrant stereotypes of other racisms, it provides, he says, “a compelling short cut to certainty. It allows the antisemite to claim they are in the know; it offers access to an occult world where everything makes sense, when the real world is, in fact, complex and difficult. ‘The Jews are responsible’ is a very appealing, very seductive explanation. It requires great self-discipline to resist its blandishments.”
We may want to see the likes of Galliano as relics from another era or as mere eccentrics, but they are expressing a set of attitudes that remain deep in the soil and which have never been fully shaken off. They can appear in the most respected institutions, voiced by the most respectable people
This final passage is fascinating, and though we can’t get into the mind of Freedland, its impossible not to at least suspect that the “respectable institution” he’s referring to may indeed be the paper he writes for. While it, of course, would have been preferable to call the paper out by name, his failure to name and shame the Guardian – which, we continue to demonstrate, is one of the largest legitimizers of anti-Semitic thought in the Anglo world – is extremely unfortunate, that isn’t nearly the most unfortunate omission in Freedland’s otherwise admirable analysis.
It seems almost incomprehensible that such a serious effort to analyze contemporary anti-Semitism could possibly fail to even mention where such Judeophobic invectives enjoy the most fertile ideological ground and most hospitable political climate, where the most vile and ingrained anti-Semitism is not considered aberrant: The Arab and Muslim world.
Indeed, in 2011, nobody should really need convincing of the tragic but simply undeniable fact that anti-Semitism in the Muslim world is quite normative, where such attitudes are free of the social opprobrium which – even in Western countries, such as the UK, where anti-Semitism is still a serious problem – normally would keep it in check by exacting, at the very least, a social cost.
As I’ve noted previously, polls of Muslim countries in the Middle East clearly demonstrate that animosity towards Jews (not merely Israel) often exceed a staggering 95% of the population – based on empirical data compiled by one of the more credible global polling organizations.
Indeed, the problem of focusing too heavily on the stray anti-Semitic comment of a Western celebrity, media personality, or politician – in Western countries which at least contain self-correcting progressive mechanisms (a free press, democratic culture, and ideals of tolerance which are firmly planted in the zeitgeist of the culture) – is that it often deflects the focus away from where it should properly be centered: regions in the world where such democratic and liberal ideals and institutions are absent and where, therefore, Judeophobic narratives have little or no ideological competition.
Historian Robert Wistrich, Director of the International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism, has argued:
“The scale and extremism of the literature and commentary available in Arab or Muslim newspapers, journals, magazines, caricatures, on Islamist websites, on the Middle Eastern radio and TV news, in documentaries, films, and educational materials, is comparable only to that of Nazi Germany at its worst.”
Indeed, unlike in previous eras where decent people could reasonably have claimed ignorance about anti-Semitic attitudes, it is incomprehensible, in an era of the internet and mass communications (and with sites which consistently document such racism), how anyone can seriously argue that they are unaware of the extent to which this malignant animosity towards Jews dominates the public discourse in places like Cairo, Damascus, Amman, Islamabad, Riyadh, Tehran and Ramallah.
Jonathan Freedland – whose meditation on the scourge of anti-Semitism was clearly sincere and well-intentioned – unfortunately seemed to lack the fortitude to honestly confront and expose the epicenter of anti-Jewish racism in the world today.
It was a golden opportunity to shed light on extremely inconvenient truths about the problem of anti-Semitic hate and intolerance to a Guardian audience sorely in need of such insights: one which Freedland, tragically, let slip away.