Thu, Mar 16, 2006 - Page 9 News List

The fresh threat of an old hatred

By Ralf Dahrendorf

These are violent times. Some believe that we are experiencing a new kind of conflict: "culture wars," such as those between Sunni and Shiite Muslims or tribal groups in Africa and Asia, or indeed Islamists and Westerners. However, the deeper reasons for some of these conflicts may well be more traditional.

Belonging to a particular cultural group is merely a pretext for battles between the winners and losers of globalization. Ruthless leaders mobilize disoriented followers. Particularly the losers, often represented by young men with no future, can be induced to take even suicidal action against the alleged enemy.

Perhaps one should not be surprised that at such a time, the oldest of our ugly -- indeed, deadly -- resentments, anti-Semitism, is re-emerging from the shadows. Its comeback takes the classical form of attacks on individuals, like the recent killing of a young Jew in France, or of disfiguring symbolic places, like cemeteries and synagogues. But there is also a more general sense of hostility to all things Jewish.

One would have thought that anti-Semitism died forever with the Holocaust; but it did not. There are those who deny that the Holocaust ever took place, or that it did in its all-too-well-documented manner.

The deniers range from second-rate historians like David Irving to apparently popular politicians like the recently elected Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The evidence of what Nazi Germany did is so powerful that those who deny it can probably be dealt with even without putting them in prison and thereby drawing more attention to them than they deserve.

The more worrisome source of anti-Semitism is different and justifies speaking of a new anti-Semitism. It has to do with Israel. To be sure, the US is the first name in anti-Western resentment. But its second name is Israel, the only successful modern country in the Middle East, which is also highly militarized, an occupying power and ruthless in defense of its interests.

It is difficult to exaggerate the strange sentiment in the West which one might call Palestine romanticism. Intellectuals like the late Edward Said gave voice to it, but it has many followers in the US and Europe. Palestine romanticism glorifies the Palestinians as the victims of Israel's rule, points to the treatment of Israeli Palestinians as second-class citizens at best, and cites the many incidents of oppression in the occupied territories, including the effects of Israel's "security fence." Implicitly or explicitly, people take the side of the victims, contribute by sending money to them, declare even suicide bombers legitimate, and move ever further away from support for and defense of Israel.

Of course, it is true that in theory one can oppose Israel's policies without being anti-Semitic. After all, there are enough critics of Israel's policies among Israelis. Yet the distinction has become more and more difficult to maintain. Jews outside Israel feel that they have to defend -- right or wrong -- the country that, after all, is their ultimate hope of security. This makes their friends hesitate to speak up for fear of being painted into not just an anti-Israel, but also an anti-Semitic corner. The defensiveness of Jews and the uneasy silence of their friends mean that the stage of public debate is open for those who actually are anti-Semitic, though they confine themselves to anti-Israel language.

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