General Antisemitism

The Big Lie Returns


The following piece by Ben Cohen, published at Commentary Magazine, is one of the more thoughtful meditations on contemporary antisemitism I’ve read in a while, and strongly recommend following the link below to read the essay in full.

A blurb on a book jacket would seem an unlikely vehicle for the introduction of a new and sinister tactic in the promotion of an ancient prejudice.  But in September 2011, a word of appreciation on the cover of The Wandering Who launched a fresh chapter in the modern history of anti-Semitism. And when the dust had settled—what little dust there was—on the events surrounding the blurb, it had become horrifyingly clear that the role of defining the meaning of the term anti-Semitism did not belong to the Jews. It may, in fact, belong to anti-Semites.

The flattering quotation came from John Mearsheimer, the University of Chicago professor and co-author, with Harvard’s Stephen Walt, of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. Mearsheimer’s 2007 bestseller, which contends that Israel’s American supporters are powerful enough to subvert the U.S. national interest, has been controversial for its adoption of anti-Semitic tropes—tropes Mearsheimer danced around cleverly. But in endorsing The Wandering Who and its Israeli-born author, Gilad Atzmon, Mearsheimer crossed the boundary.

The man whose book Mearsheimer called “fascinating and provocative,” a work that “should be widely read by Jews and non-Jews alike,” is an anti-Semite, pure and simple. A saxophone player by trade, Atzmon was born and raised in Israel but subsequently moved to London. He proclaims himself either an “ex-Jew” or a “proud self-hating Jew” and was quoted approvingly by Turkey’s Islamist prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, at the Davos conference in 2009: Denouncing Israel in vociferous terms before a horrified Shimon Peres, Erdogan quoted Atzmon as saying, “Israeli barbarity is far beyond even ordinary cruelty.”

Atzmon fixates upon the irredeemably tribal and racist identity he calls “Jewishness.” The anti-Gentile separatism that compels Jews to amass greater power and influence is manifested, he preaches, in any context where Jews come together as a group. The Wandering Who finds Atzmon on territory well-trodden by anti-Semites past and present: Holocaust revisionism (one chapter is entitled “Swindler’s List”), the rehabilitation of Hitler (he argues that Israel’s behavior makes all the more tempting the conclusion that the Führer was right about the Jews), the separation of Jesus from Judaism (Christ was the original proud, self-hating Jew, whose example Spinoza, Marx, and now, Atzmon himself, have followed).

One would think this was categorically indefensible stuff. Yet, when the blogger Adam Holland e-mailed Mearsheimer to ask whether he was aware of Atzmon’s flirtation with Holocaust denial, as well as his recital of telltale anti-Semitic provocations, Mearsheimer stood by his endorsement of the book. Holland duly published Mearsheimer’s response: “The blurb below is the one I wrote for The Wandering Who and I have no reason to amend it or embellish it, as it accurately reflects my view of the book.” A number of prominent commentators—among them Jeffrey Goldberg, Walter Russell Mead, and even Andrew Sullivan, up to that point a dependable supporter of Mearsheimer—rushed to confront and condemn the professor. But Mearsheimer maintained in various blog posts that Atzmon was no anti-Semite and those who said otherwise were guilty of vicious smear jobs. He wrote on the Foreign Policy magazine blog of his co-author, Stephen Walt: “[Jeffrey Goldberg’s] insinuation that I have any sympathy for Holocaust denial and am an anti-Semite . . . is just another attempt in his longstanding effort to smear Steve Walt and me.”

And that was that. No affaire Mearsheimer unfolded.

The fact that a controversy did not erupt, that the endorsement of a Holocaust revisionist by a prominent professor at a major university did not lead to calls for his dismissal or resignation or even a chin-pulling symposium in the pages of the New York Times’s “Sunday Review,” represents an important shift in the privileges that anti-Semites and their sympathizers enjoy. Now, it appears, anti-Semites are being given additional power to define anti-Semitism by stating that it is something other than what they themselves represent—before rising in moral outrage to denounce anyone who might say different. Their views are not offensive, not anti-Semitic; no, it is the opinions of those who object to their views that should be considered beyond the pale.

Read the rest of the essay here.

6 replies »

  1. Yes, it’s a lucid, frightening piece. Having assembled the evidence, Ben Cohen asks “if we accept that anti-Semitism has, by exchanging violence for discourse, also been emasculated, does its persistence matter?” and answers the question with “the anti-Semite who avoids violence has no reservations about enabling, excusing, and rationalizing it”.
    Did Julius Streicher, as a Nazi party member, ever kill a Jew? And has Qaradawi, who has praised Hitler and prayed for Jews to be killed, ever killed one?
    Yet who can doubt the inspiration that they have given millions, some of whom did exactly what they wanted them to. Who can reasonably doubt that Streicher’s and Qaradawi’s words and the extent to which these words were carried made these two accessories to murder?
    In what areas does Atzmon’s denigration of Jews and understanding of anti-Semitism against Jews, as Jews, overlap with the anti-Semitism that calls for the expropriation, expulsion and extirpation of Jews as Jews? Qualitatively, in what way does Atzmon differ from those whom he understands?
    And, in endorsing The Wandering Who?, with its rehabilitation of Hitler, doesn’t Mearsheimer realise how thin is the intellectual ice he’s skating on over the cess-pit that so inspires Atzmon?