'Without anti-Semitism Sharon would be impossible'
Brian Winston on anti-semitism
As a 62year old English Jew I have endured exactly two anti-Semitic incidents in my life so far. Once, when I was in the infants, the 'J' word was slung at me by some ten-year-old bullies and my dad had to come to the school to sort it out. Half a century later, I, on foot, upset a white-van man in Mayfair who called me 'a piece of Jewish shit' with a certainty about my ethnicity that I couldn't match about his. Although, I must say, he was swarthy, stubbled, spoke with thick accent not unlike Arafat's and looked the image of the chaps filmed for TV news on the Arab street. Given the claim that anti-Semitism is on a serious rise, I can assume the third incident will happen before another half-century or so passes. In fact, any day now.
The claim of increasing general anti-Semitism is showing signs of being a classic 'moral panic'. All moral panics are flawed because they have no base line. If there is real evidence of a situation, then to worry about it is quite an un-panicky thing to do; but belief in an outbreak of general anti-Jewish hostility among Western populations has little evidence behind it, once Muslim involvement is removed. The hardest statistic – anti-Semitic incidents – is increasing but scarcely exponentially. As to Western public opinion, a context for any claim of an outbreak of anti-Semitism would be handy. For example, is it going up or down? Or: What percentage of the European population is hostile to immigrants and asylum seekers? Or to the Roma? Or to any of the ethnically alien European groups that find themselves isolated in a larger national populations – the Welsh in England, the Finns in Sweden, the Friesians in Holland and so on and on and on? (Such groups are as common to nations as borders.)
How does that compare to the 17/18 per cent, as discovered – (bit of prejudice here) not just by sociologists but by Italian sociologists – to hate the Jews or deny the Holocaust or think its effects have been exaggerated? To be shocked by this result, assuming your trust in polling is strong enough to buy it in the first place, suggests you believe the stain of anti-Semitism was removed from the European psyche by the solvent of the Holocaust. I, despite a life thankfully free of prejudice, have never so believed. I might not see it, almost never hear it, but I have always assumed a low-level cultural hostility is somewhere out there. National identities cannot, seemingly, be maintained unless underpinned by suburban prejudices and anti-Semitism is, after all, the bigot's bigotry of choice.
The new thing now though, we are told, is anti-Zionism and this, which is clearly flourishing on the left, actually is nothing but the old anti-Semitism behind a new mask. Anti-Zionism is merely a mutated strain. It is certainly true that there are many anti-Semitisms and hostility to Israel can easily mesh with these, although it does not necessarily do so. On the rock of the Gospels, medieval Europe constructed the Jew as the alien who by her difference defines the native: 'You cannot live amongst as Jews – but you can convert to Christianity.' On the rock of liberty, fraternity and equality, the European nation-state demanded she assimilate herself to the practices of the state's majority: 'You cannot live amongst us -unless you hide your ways.' On the rock of supposedly scientific 'race theory' and nationalism, fascist Europe commanded: 'You cannot live.' And on the Rock of Zion? There seems to me not much evidence that, despite the ever-present low level buzz of diluted cultural anti-Semitism, a 21st century world, however anti-Zionist, is really threatening diasporic Jews with anything like the traditional oppressions and annihilation.
'Anti-Zionism = anti-Semitism' in essence speaks to the politics of Israel. For Ariel Sharon, and for most Jews, Zionism as a whole is grounded in the reality of European anti-Jewish hostility and a Jewish version of 19th century ideas about nationalism. Israel is then founded in the aftermath of that European prejudice's worst and bloodiest expression. The continued legitimacy of the Zionist project is, by these lights, best sustained by a demonstration of the persistence of anti-Semitism – the more virulent, the better. To deny the possibility of anti-Zionism – to see it always and inevitably as a species of anti-Semitism – is to play a particular Israeli political game. Without anti-Semitism, Sharon would be impossible.
But anti-Zionism is not really anti-Semitism by another name any more than Sharon's Zionism itself encompasses all of Zionism. His party, the Likud, grows from the politics of Vladimir Jabotinsky, a Russian-born journalist who led a Mule Corps for the British in World War I. He broke with Zionist socialists like David Ben Gurion over the use of terrorism against the British during period of the Mandate. Sharon is of a piece with this pioneer. Were I an Israeli, I wouldn't vote for the corrupt, murderous bastard. That doesn't make me anti-Semitic. It makes me anti-right wing, racist, militaristic politicians. That they some of them are Jews feels with shame but, repeat, opposing them doesn't make me anti-Semitic.
Anyway, neither Jabotinsky nor Ben Gurion, who both shared a triumphalist vision of Zionism, are the whole story. Asher Ginsburg, who is still taught in Israeli schools as an early master of revived Hebrew and who has roads named after him (or, rather, after his nom de plume Achad ha'Am – 'One of the People') had a different vision. He saw that the land of Palestine was not empty. For him Zionism was a matter of the organic growth of small, secular Jewish communities in harmonious concert with their Arab neighbours. He thought that the Zionist ambitions for a state were hostile to the basic spirit of the Jews. Dead nearly 80 years, what he would think of Sharon is almost certainly unprintable. It is also almost certainly what I think of Sharon. Neither of us is anti-Semitic.
Brian Winston is Dean of Media and Humanities at Lincoln University
To read Eliane Glaser's article Paranoia or prejudice click here.
To read Howard Jacobson's views on anti-Semitism, click here.