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Volume 1, Issue 1 (November2006 / Cheshvan 5767)
Article 4/9

An Interview with Walter Laqueur*
By Alexander H. Joffe

You have commented on antisemitism and anti-Zionism in a recent book (The Changing Face of Antisemtism, Oxford University Press, 2006, and a long article in The Times Literary Supplement. But let us begin on a personal note: You grew up in Nazi Germany; antisemitism has not been a purely academic issue in your life. Did you expect a resurgence of antisemitism after Hitler and the holocaust?

Hitler gave antisemitism a bad name, but there had been antisemitism before and there was no reason to believe that it had come to an end in 1945. Prior to Hitler antisemites did not mind to be called antisemites, (there were some exception--the Nazis did not like the term and virtually banned it during the war because it was offensive to some of their allies such as Haj Amin al-Husayni, the Jerusalem mufti). To day this term has gone out of fashion and there is great indignation in some circles to if they are charged with antisemitism. In some countries, it can lead to criminal prosecution. A spade is no longer called a spade but an agricultural implement. In any case the impact of the Nazi deterrent was limited to Europe and North America. There was closed season as far as the Jews were concerned; this lasted for several decades but was bound to come to an end. The surviving Jewish communities had been doing too well, moved into prominent positions in many fields and many people got impatient to be reminded constantly of the mass murder which had taken place. After all, they argued, there had been massacres on a massive scale in other places even in our time, how could one possibly maintain that the holocaust was somehow unique?

But some critics such as Chomsky maintain that antisemitism has virtually disappeared...

I wish he were right, but it is a ludicrous statement. Do we really have to discuss this? I don't think that upon further reflection even Chomsky will stick to this thesis. It is true that antisemitism is changing its manifestation and motivation, not for the first time in its long history. Racialist antisemitism has gone out of fashion after the Nazis, at least in Europe and America. But racialist antisemitism is a relatively recent (19th century) phenomenon, even though some antecedents can be found in 15th century Spain (the purity of the blood concept). Medieval antisemitism was largely religious-theological in inspiration. The Jews rejected the founders of two of the world's major religions and this was bound to lead to great hostility. Some historians believe there was antisemitism in the ancient world prior to the rise of Christianity. Others think this was no more than part of general, free floating xenophobia. This is a highly specialized field, I am not an expert but I tend to think the latter are right.

How then would you define the new antisemitism?

It is post racialist and in many respect similar to the earlier religious antisemitism, except of course that certain ideologies have replaced religion. "Usury" has become "Wall Street". The Protocols of the Elders of Zion are no longer in fashion in the West, they have been replaced by the neo-Conservatives as the nefarious plotters and wire pullers and the all powerful Jewish lobby in Washington. In the 1920s and 30s, one of the main accusations in the antisemitic arsenal concerned "Jewish Communism"; today it is Jewish globalism and capitalism. In Lessing's "Nathan"--the classic 18th century play--there is a famous repetitive scene: "Tut nichts, der Jude wird verbrannt," ("Never mind, the Jew is for burning"). Well, for the time being the Jew is not for burning, only for boycott.

The Church (and Islam) believed that there was no salvation outside the Church, but the moment the heretics desisted from their heresies and joined the fold (political correctness in modern parlance), they were no longer enemies but were treated as equals. This explains inter alia the presence of Jews (or lapsed Jews) in their ranks. Post racialist antisemitism (again I refer to Europe and the Americas--the situation elsewhere is not the same) does not aim at the expulsion of the Jews let alone their physical destruction. They want the Jews to desist from their erroneous belief that they have the right to have a state of their own and generally speaking take a lower profile.

Which leads to the issue of antisemitism and anti-Zionism. To what extent (to pick just one example) is antisemitism involved in the appeals to boycott Israel?

Had Israel committed crimes more heinous than any other country it would be only natural that it should come in for such massive attack. But if it is singled out for sins, real or spurious, committed by many other countries and governments on a far larger scale, the reasons must be other than those adduced. According to the peace researchers 25 million people were killed in internal conflicts since the end of World War Two. 8.000 civilians were killed in the Arab-Israeli conflict, which ranks forty-sixth in the list of victims. Yet Israel has been condemned far more often than all other countries taken together by the United Nations. Israel has been condemned for its treatment of its Arab minority and I am sure there could be improvements. But the situation of the Palestinian Arabs has been and is infinitely better than that (to name but one example) of the Dalets (the Untouchables) in India of which there are about a hundred millions. But I have not heard of any protest demonstrations in this context in the streets of Europe or any other continent.

Why this relentless focusing on Israel and who are its main protagonists?

This varies from country to country. In the UK the teachers unions have been very active, they were for many years under Communist influence, today the Trotskyites have key positions. But if there would be no willingness to follow their lead the boycott appeals would not be very successful. In the US the influence of certain churches has been strong. Sometimes the naivete displayed on these occasion is disarming. I read somewhere: Why can't we bar Ahmadinejad from coming to Europe on the occasion of the soccer world championship? After all we (meaning the European governments) decided not to let enter Lukashenka of White Russia and Mugabe of Zambia. As if the answer was not known--if Lukashenka and Mugabe had substantial oilfields in their countries and if they were close to producing nuclear weapons, no one would dare to deny them entry.

Israel (and the Jews) have been singled out for attack because they were few and weak. Let us engage in a simple exercise in counterfactual history. If the Ottoman Empire had collapsed not in 1918 but at the time of the Crimean war, or after the Russian-Turkish war 1828/9. What if the great majority of European Jewry would have decided to migrate to Palestine , and what, if with a birthrate like the Gaza Strip, it would now have fifty million inhabitants or even more? Such a Greater Palestine extending from the Nile to the Euphrates with substantial oilfields would be a major force in world politics. It would live in peace with its neighbors, the refugee issue would be settled, just as it has been settled everywhere else, no one wants to trifle with a country this size. It would be a honored member of the United Nations, Muslim religious leaders would invoke quotations from the Koran and the Hadith stressing the closeness and friendship between Muslims and Jews, children of the same ancestor--- Abraham-Ibrahim. The Norman Finkelsteins of this world would sing songs of praise concerning the miraculous renaissance of an old people its progressive, tolerant character--or legoyim--a shining beacon to the rest of the world.

These are of course mere fantasies that might have appealed to a visionary like Disraeli. The Ottoman empire did not collapse and the Jews did not emigrate and Israel is a small country without oilfields or other such resources. It is safe to attack Israel.

This may explain anti Zionism and hostility towards Israel, but to what extent does it explain the new antisemitism? Where is the border line?

It goes without saying that not all anti-Zionism is antisemitism. We should not forget that up to the 1930 the great majority of Jews were either opposed to Zionism or indifferent--which did not make them antisemites. And there is room for legitimate criticism of Israeli policy; I for one have been more than uneasy since 1967 about Israeli policy vis-a-vis the West Bank and Gaza which I thought shortsighted and self defeating. This explains why Israel lost a great deal of sympathy. But it does not explain why other countries, many of them not great and powerful, who have been responsible for gross violations of human rights have been immune to attack--no demonstrations, no UN resolutions, no boycott. In other words there is some specific animosity whenever Israel is concerned--whether to call this Judeophobia or post racial antisemitism or radical anti-Zionism is an interesting semantic question. But whatever terminology is used, there is some element involved which does not exist when the behavior of other people is judged. If Palestinian hostility can be explained as a consequence of the conflict, why should Israel and the Jews generate such strong passions among the likes of Mikis Theodorakis or Carlos the Jackal, people without a known personal stake in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict who have not suffered from it physically or emotionally? Sympathy with the underdog? But if so why concentrate on one specific underdog and ignore all the others?

To what extent is the situation of European Jewry affected by the new wave of hostility?

It has been affected for years; Jewish institutions such as schools all over Europe need special protection by police and other security forces; no other ethnic or religious group is in a similar position. Amsterdam has a Jewish mayor, but he cannot move a step without his bodyguards. I am less concerned about the countries in which antisemitism was rampant before World War Two, simply because the Jewish communities there are quite small. There is xenophobia and aggression against aliens, but the Jews are a very small part of these aliens and if dangers are perceived by, for instance, ultra nationalist Russians they are threatening from very different directions.

If there is a physical danger facing Jews in countries such as France it comes from among Muslim radicals. We all know that the ethnic composition of European countries is rapidly changing. About a third of the young generation in many West European cities (and this goes not only for France but also for Germany, the Netherlands, etc) is now of Muslim origin, and their birth rate is much higher than that of the local population. Since the Jewish communities are also concentrated in the big cities it means that soon they will live in a largely or even predominantly Muslim milieu. Some years ago a French left wing intellectual wrote in Le Monde that the political implication of the fact that there are ten times as many Arabs as Jews in France cannot be disregarded. The person was attacked, but he only articulated what many others were thinking. In less than a generation from now there will be more politicians such as a Ken Livingston the mayor or London. He is not of course, an antisemite, some of his assistants are Jews, some are Muslims. But these Muslims hate the Jews, and the Jewish friends hate the Zionists, whatever that may mean. In brief, the situation of Jews in this new Europe will not be an easy one.

What about Jewish self hate, which is sometimes mentioned as a motive--and indignantly rejected?

In our time a great many people have been distancing themselves from religion and (to a lesser degree) from their ethnic origins. This is true a fortiori for the Jews among whom assimilation has been more widespread than among any other group. It has been in many ways a natural process and I find nothing reprehensible in it--there is no moral obligation to identify with the Jewish community or support Israel. But if "anti-Zionism" is the only known Jewish activity of such a person, the question of a deeper motive such as self hate inevitably arises. Self hate does exist. And it is not a Jewish monopoly, Pascal wrote "le moi is haissable". This goes back among the Jewish left too for a long time, well before the existence of Israel. Rosa Luxemburg wrote in one of her letters from prison to Mathilde Wurm (I quote from memory)--do not come to me with your specific Jewish concerns (she had written about the pogroms in Eastern Europe). The fate of the Indians in Putamayo (Colombia) she wrote was closer to her. She felt, that she had to prove that she was a true internationalist. There was something (to put it very mildly ) self-conscious in such utterances.

*Walter Laqueur was director of the Wiener Library in London and chairman of the International Research Council of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He is the author of over 25 books on history and contemporary affairs, including Dying for Jerusalem: The Past, Present and Future of the Holiest City (Sourcebooks, 2006), The Changing Face of Anti-Semitism: From Ancient Times to Present Day (Oxford, 2006), No End to War: Terrorism In The Twenty-first Century (Continuum, 2003), A History of Zionism: From the French Revolution to the Establishment of the State of Israel (Random House, 2003), and Fascism: Past, Present and Future (Oxford, 1996).

About the Author
Alexander H. Joffe is co-editor of Covenant and director of research for The David Project of Boston, Massachusetts. An archaeologist and historian, he has written widely on the ancient Near East, arms control and international security, and cultural politics.

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