In June, some seventy scholars convened at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem for a thorough discussion on the “Dynamics of Antisemitism in the Second Half of the 20th Century.” Some forty papers were presented in three very compressed days of discussion. Let me extend our thanks to all the scholars and students who participated in the sessions and shared further thoughts and questions during coffee breaks and lunches. And let us not forget the staff of the Center, who contributed so much to the preparation and workings of the conference. In particular, we would like to extend hearty congratulations to Mr. Felix Posen, our longstanding friend and supporter, on the occasion of his seventieth birthday.
The conference papers demonstrated the importance of reexamining “classical” issues in the study of antisemitism, such as its definition and the proper use of the term in the second half of the twentieth century, the role of prejudice and traditional images of Jews in different countries and social groups in Europe, and in comparison to the United States. Despite a long lull in antisemitic activities in the 1990s, the central role of economic recession in the dynamic of antisemitic upsurges was discussed, but it was stressed again that these upsurges also form a cyclical wave of their own. The discussions provided fresh and new perspectives on antisemitism in the political, social, and cultural context of the last five decades.
Following the discussions on Post-Communist Eastern Europe, the tension resulting from expectations of emerging antisemitic outbursts and rumors about an upcoming pogrom that never happened came to the fore. The question was raised whether these expectations of trouble provide scholars with new insight and understanding of both the reality of relations between Jews and non-Jews in these countries, and the imagined scenario that would shape the responses of Jews and non-Jews during the transition. This in itself was a challenge to seek a redefinition of antisemitism in the post-Holocaust era, while realizing the impact of the Holocaust on the imagination and self-reflection of the generations born in its aftermath.
The need to relate to myth and reality, to perceptions and social forces, to demonization and real problems was reinforced by a reminder of the popularity and continued spread of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and legal steps taken to limit it.
The introduction of new comparisons within the Eastern bloc and a synthetic approach that incorporated the new national goals and identities contributed to the understanding of how important was the acknowledgment of East European politicians and elite of the central role of Jews in the politics, social, and cultural life of Western countries.
No less important for understanding the dynamics of antisemitism was the analysis that linked old and new antisemitic approaches to the reconstruction and emergence of the new regimes in Europe after the Second World War, during the Cold War era. The presentations on Germany during the postwar period of denazification and democratization established the revival of traditional anti-Jewish images that merged in the new reality of the defeat and destruction of the war-stricken country. Despite a legal ban on antisemitic expression, the reestablishment of Jewish communities and the presence of Jews in the DP camps brought out traditional and Nazi antisemitic stereotypes. The fate of the Jews during the war was an unspoken but still burdensome element in the self-understanding of both East and West Germans.
In the Communist countries, popular antisemitism was banned, although the regimes launched a number of anti-Jewish assaults such as the “Doctors’ Plot” in early 1953, and the campaign against economic crimes in the late 1960s. Almost a decade after the fall of Communism and with the availability of archival sources, scholars can begin to appreciate the impact of both the repression of popular anti-Jewish feeling and the official ban on antisemitic expression. Following the breakup of the Communist regimes, the new freedom of expression enabled extreme antisemites to establish fresh avenues for their propaganda. Their discourse was reinvigorated by promoting the image of “Judeo-Communism” rooted in East European countries in the aftermath of World War Two, and, prior to that, in the anti-Bolshevik rhetoric that flourished during and after the Russian Revolution.
The 1948 establishment of the State of Israel, and the Arab-Palestinian-Israeli conflict provided a new focus for anti-Jewish feelings among some groups on both Right and Left, even as it concurrently provided others with a positive example of the Jewish spirit and experience. Papers on antisemitism and anti-Zionism were presented from the perspective of the last two decades, during which human rights issues have become almost a new religion in Western society, particularly at the United Nations. From this point of view, the disproportionate number of condemnations of Israel’s human rights abuses in comparison to those of many other nations, represents a transition from the UN “Zionism is Racism” resolution of 1973, toward the use of Israel as the object of traditional anti-Jewish feelings.
The importance of acknowledging ambivalent — rather than strictly antisemitic — attitudes toward Jews was evident in discussing the various and often conflicting effects of political and economic factors on the situation of the Jews in Eastern Europe, as opposed to their prominent and accepted roles in the Western democracies. It is also clear that the “Jewish Question” — an almost universally used term in the discourse of the first half of this century — has disappeared. Shmuel Almog’s provocative opening address on the “Aging of the Victimized Jew” brought out the double meaning in the status of the Jews today and their own self-understanding of that status. In many respects, he claimed, the Jews carry within them the image of the ultimate victim, yet perhaps in the last fifty years they have moved 180 degrees toward a radically different reality. Are Jews in the different political settings still carrying the memory of being victimized? And in Western, pluralistic societies, could they still fall prey to victimization despite being part of the leading elite? And I will add, how do the Jews account for the situation of the Jewish State still living under threats by its neighbors, yet causing the victimization of the Palestinians?
In such a complex political, social, and cultural reality, the study of antisemitism demands a comparative and multi-disciplinary approach. This greatly enhances the understanding of antisemitism in comparison to the status of other minorities in society. When the input of studies on the changes and self-understanding of those who live in a homogenized yet multi-ethnic society, as well as the quest by individuals for self-realization, will be integrated in order to understand the tendencies for exclusion in these same societies, the redefinition of the terminology will be enhanced. Then a more complete demonstration of the continuation and changes, and perhaps a reformulation of the definition of antisemitism will emerge.
I think the study of ethnic, minority, and identity issues will gain center stage in future research on antisemitism, and many of the scholars will struggle with rhetoric and perception. This, of course, is not new in the study of antisemitism; however, the transition to a more unified Europe with less significant economic borders on the one hand, and the strengthening of particular identities on the other, may provoke new dimensions that are hard to assess at the present moment.³
Aging of the Victimized Jew
This fear of mine may just be a well-known symptom of Jewish paranoia. Contrariwise, is it not merely an inflated sense of self-importance? Do not others envisage us as oversensitive busybodies? Or put it differently, in the self-searching vein of well-integrated Jews who repeatedly ask themselves: are we not too conspicuous?
Well, let's face it: Jews are news! A brief glance at the press reports, at the output of the news agencies or the electronic media, chosen at random anywhere, will naturally show the incessant recurrence of the Middle East conflict, in which Jews figure prominently, though not necessarily as such, not literally as Jews. The cumulative effect of this constant exposure cannot be adequately gauged. Apart from the habitual image of Israel as an area of constant danger, it is also perceived — hence, Jews are perceived — as the aggressor, fighting against the Palestinian underdog.
In recent years, Jews as a group have often been mentioned in the context of the Second World War and its never-ending sequels. It started with the chase after ex-Nazis and other war criminals; then continued with a protracted campaign against the denials of the Holocaust; now moving toward reparations for material damages suffered by Nazi victims, and the restitution of Jewish property — looted, confiscated, or expropriated. Jews have become a symbol of keeping alive the memory of the Shoah (a Hebrew term that has become a household word in general parlance). Jews are party to public debates about the advisability of erecting Holocaust memorials. Their presence often lurks behind criticism against second- and third-generation Europeans who try to normalize or historicize World War II. Jews also tend to chide Christianity (the Catholic Church in particular, other denominations to a somewhat lesser extent) for attempts to appropriate the spoils of memory and to Christianize the Jewish Holocaust.
There seems to have been lately — in the West at any rate — less of the traditional hate rhetoric against Jews. Even when Jews are involved in well-known financial scandals, their Jewishness is not publicly condemned, often not mentioned at all. The status of Jews in the world has considerably improved with time, but there is still some reluctance, now accompanied by an immense sense of guilt, to discuss their faults in public. Is there no resentment hidden behind this “politically correct” façade as regards Jews? This remains to be seen; however, the Jews themselves have probably lost some of their traditional cautiousness, the same kind of apprehension they used to share with other vulnerable minorities. Moreover, they seem to have partially overcome the so-called “victim mentality,” inherited through a long history of suffering.
Nowadays Jews seem to have developed a syndrome of a different kind: Levi Eshkol, the witty Israeli Prime Minister, aptly named it “Shimshon der nebbichdiker" — Samson, not as the biblical hero, mind you, but as a Nebbish. This paradox obviously originated with the age-old Jewish need to conform to standards imposed by others. For generations, Jews learned to be meek toward their “betters,” swallowing their pride while entertaining the hope for eventual redemption. With the advent of the messiah, they believed, all wrongs would be put right and the Chosen People would be recognized as such. In modern times, however, this traditional stance increasingly lost its grip on many Jews. Jews came up in the world and gradually felt free to express themselves as ordinary human beings. Individuals, no longer bound by previous restrictions, strove to assert themselves, not always quite aware of the impact such freedom may have had on their surroundings.
How does Jewish Power affect the individual Jew? Do Jews now feel more secure, are they less troubled by the fear of antisemitism, do they seem more confident about their relations with non-Jews? An answer to such overall questions can hardly be attempted, unless systematic research is conducted in many places and among various layers of the population. Short of that, one is left to one’s personal impressions, to gut feelings and vague generalizations. Thus, if I may summarize my own observations, it seems to me that there still reigns among Jews the basic ambivalence, which has been ours since the beginning of emancipation: self-assuredness and “victim mentality” reside side by side, yet the extent of either element is dynamic, subject to periodic changes.
Ordinary Jews have every so often basked in the glory of the Rothschilds, drawing satisfaction from the continuous loyalty to Judaism of this august dynasty. We are all, I suppose, proud to have some sort of family connection with Freud, Einstein, and the many other luminaries of Jewish extraction. Jewish political influence may also enjoy some prestige, helping to heal the stigma of a traditionally despised group. Both power and excellence affect the individual Jew, sometimes to the point of conceit; but at the same time, it is far from being a feeling of security and well being. The syndrome of Samson the Nebbish, I am afraid, still remains with us; notwithstanding that Jews today are one of the most successful groups, or that we never had it so good, and last not least: that for two generations now, Jews have had a sovereign and viable state after many centuries in dispersion.
There is nowadays a glaring discrepancy between the external facts of Jewish reality and the victim mentality that still haunts our self-perception. Jews do not trust their good fortune, the shadow of antisemitism is still lurking behind the goy, and the burdens of the past rest heavily on our shoulders.
The Holocaust opened an array of interpretations that presented Jews as the classic scapegoats. Jews are depicted as the “Other,” who must take the blame for all the ills of society. This may happen when they are weak and powerless, or — on the contrary — because they arouse jealousy for being too successful. There is even a victim ideology, representing the Jew as the sacrificial lamb, bearing a message that is repeatedly rejected by unworthy humankind. This idea is very old of course; it has its roots in Scripture and Jewish legend and mutatis mutandis in Christian theology. Since the rise of Nazism, it is being evoked in modified forms.
With such a heavy burden on our shoulders, we can hardly be well-balanced and have a realistic view of ourselves vis-à-vis the world around us. Like everybody else, we see our own problems looming larger than those of other peoples; to be self-centered is probably quite normal. Yet on top of that, there seems to reign among Jews a tendency to either exaggerate or else minimize their points of strength and weakness. Thus, it is extremely difficult to shake off the victim mentality and gain a well-rounded picture of the Jewish condition nowadays. It is likewise a hard task to obtain a true picture of antisemitism in our times: is it on the rise, or on the wane, and is it still dangerous? Researchers, whether Jewish or otherwise, cannot (and perhaps should not) extricate themselves from emotional involvement with the subject, but must be well aware of their own limitations at all times.³
of the Titans
Some controversies sparked during our international conference in June brought to mind two short articles in the Israeli press in January 1992. The first, published in the Jerusalem Post, announced (triumphantly) that antisemitism in the United States is “at an all-time lowest level.” The second, from Haaretz, warns us (dramatically) that “antisemitism is spreading worryingly in the U.S.,” much more than in the past. These two statements seem quite contradictory even to this grey-haired observer accustomed to the absurdity that oftecharacterizes discussioabout present-day antisemitism.
Two American Jewish organizations stand behind these antithetical headlines. The American Jewish Committee (AJC) is the optimist; the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) the pessimist. For the last twenty years they have been waging a titanic struggle as they keep watch on anti-Jewish hatred and evaluate its level. An awareness of this is essential for understanding Jewish public life in the United States, as well as in other countries. It would mean missing the mark to speak or write about antisemitism in the United States or elsewhere without mentioning the existence of these two conflicting perceptions.
Both organizations are pro-Israel but non-Zionist, which means that they believe in the future of the Jews in the Diaspora and particularly in the United States. It means also that they believe in the possibility of fighting antisemitism. There is an “agreement on fundamentals” between the AJC and the ADL: they believe in the same principles, but they don't use the same indicators of antisemitism, and herein lies the root of their confrontation.
The AJC operates exclusively with public opinion surveys, where people are asked questions such as: “Would you mind having a Jewish neighbor?,” “Would you agree to work under a Jewish boss?,” “Do you have Jewish friends?,” and so on. These surveys have repeatedly asked the same questions since the 1940s, at a frequency of once every five to ten years. When analyzed over a longer period, their cumulative results show without a doubt that there is a significant decrease in expressions of social antisemitism. The AJC has every reason to be satisfied with the last fifty years.
The ADL, by contrast, works mainly with statistics on anti-Jewish incidents: cemetery desecration, attacks against synagogues and community centers, etc. Classified and compiled each year, these statistics can be graphed to show “hot periods,” like the end of the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s; periods of decrease, as in the mid-1980s; and renewed “hot periods” in the early 1990s. This indicator alternates between phases of cyclical decline and increase, but the trend, from one peak to the following one, seems to be climbing. The ADL is entitled to be anxious about the future, especially in view of the most recent violent incidents against Jews in the United States.
Without intervening in the dispute, and without trying to find a “you are right and you are right” compromise, I would like, briefly, to bring some precision to the outlines of the debate:
2) There are other kinds of surveys, asking people about anti-Jewish stereotypes (Jewish power, Jewish finance, Jewish plots, etc.). These surveys indicate that quite a large number of people believe in these well-known myths. When speaking of polls, we have to take this category into account as well.
3) Statistics of anti-Jewish violence are compiled and published by State institutions, like the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (BfV) in Germany, the French Ministry of the Interior, the FBI in the United States. They are also collected by Jewish organizations all over the world. The system has its lacunae, and its methodological weaknesses, like every system in the social sciences — including public opinion polls. But it is operative, and it helps to identify peaks and ebbs of antisemitic waves, and to delineate general trends in anti-Jewish feelings and activities. Those who believe in the “decline of antisemitism” are certainly free to object to statistics, but they have to bring arguments more serious than the traditional “ADL needs money from the Jewish donors.” Unless they think that the FBI, or the Germans, or the French, who work basically with the same statistical system, are also dependent on their Jewish donors.
4) And a word now to the ADL. When the graph goes down — which recurs periodically because the phenomenon is basically cyclical — you are from time to time tempted to minimalize the decrease, not by manipulating the data itself, which remains beyond suspicion, but by the tenor of its press releases and publications. My advice is to follow a very naive but healthy rule, the rule of truth. When violence goes up, say it goes up. When it goes down, simply say it goes down.
in the Holocaust, edited by Dalia Ofer and Lenore J. Weitzman (Yale
University Press, 1998), is among the finalists for the Jewish Book Council’s
Morris J. and Betty Kaplan Foundation Award for writings on the Holocaust,
and the Barbara Dobkin Honorary Award for women’s studies.
Toward the Next Century
In the ten minutes that I have, I want to deal with only some scattered thoughts. Two paradoxes: one is that it seems that outside of this country, the Jewish people dispersed in the various countries of the world are declining in numbers. And in the Western countries at least, that decline is accompanied by an increase in power and influence. The paradox can be explained of course, because within contemporary reality, the two things are connected. In societies where Jews are accepted there is a tendency first of all to participate in the general social development of that country, and one can see that the decline in the Jewish populations is mainly due to, one, the decline in the number of children per family, or rather per woman; and, two, outmarriage — which indicates widespread acceptance of Jews in general society. And because they are accepted, there is an upward mobility, and therefore there is an increase in visibility and power. In the long run, maybe twenty years, or fifty years or a hundred years or a hundred and fifty years, provided things remain equal (which they never do), there is a possibility at least of a decline in Jewish influence, simply because there will be fewer Jews. And if that possibility occurs, then some of the defenses that we have as minorities decline in importance. They may also not decline in importance, because in an open society, provided it develops in the way that it does now — and that is by no means assured — the defense is within the society itself, and the Jews become just one of a number of minorities that has special problems. That arouses dislike among certain sections of the population, but there are other minorities that arouse dislike no less.
There are certain areas of real concern, and I do not mean in North America or Western Europe. We have heard two papers that mention the United Nations. Irwin Cotler’s paper presented another paradox. The paradox that at the United Nations there is a conattack over a long period of tim, where the accusation remains, although the context changes. The accusation is in the most blatant and coarse form that one can imagine — a combination of overt and latent antisemitism. The overt antisemites consist largely of representatives of Arab countries, say in the last twenty or twenty-five years; and until 1989, representatives of the Communist countries. The Western representatives are among the latent antisemites, because they don’t protest, they don’t say a word. There’s no defense. The United States and Israel are very often left to stand alone. And the paradox is that this has been going on for decades, yet only a very few individuals have been trying to tell us about it and nobody listens to them. Not the Israeli government, not the Jewish organizations, not the Jewish public, not the public that is allied to Jews because of common concerns about discrimination and racism and so on. And the question is, why? — why does nobody take a stand? We heard from Hadassah Ben-Itto about the wide distribution of the Protocols — which is another aspect of the same thing. And you know, it’s not even behind the scenes, it’s quite open in the most important international forum that exists, a forum that is not declining in influence. That is a deep concern. Have we done our job as researchers to find why and how and when and to what extent and what the influence is or maybe isn’t. I don’t think we have. And I think that is the task that must be faced.
I was amused by the argument between Simcha Epstein, Leonard Dinnerstein, and Tony Lerman. I find much in common among those three individuals, who all do very important research. And of course, Leonard is right in saying that you have to be very accurate about your sources. And it’s very important to examine whether the cyclical theory of Simcha Epstein is correct and to what extent. He presented a paper on the subject in 1993, and there has been no reaction to it as far as I can tell. Now if you oppose it, say so. And if you question the sources, question him, and let him answer. But this is crucial — because the context has changed — and where I think he made a mistake was in taking the activities of the pre-1939 Jewish defense organizations and positing that they were doing the same things after 1945, but in completely different circumstances. You know the famous old joke of the drunkard who stands at a lamppost with a big key in his hand and turns the key in mid-air and the policeman comes up to him and says: “What on earth are you doing?” and he replies, “Well, the globe is turning around so I’m just waiting until my house comes along.” And in this case the house did come along; the situation did change. And you have today a completely different ambiance. You have today a civic religion about human rights and civic rights, about anti-racism and against antisemitism and so forth, at least in some parts of the world. In these circumstances, Jewish responses of the pre-1939 do work. And therefore there is nothing wrong in trying to do so. On the contrary, that is exactly what they should do, because now there is a possibility that there may be a positive influence of these organizations. I think that is basically what he was saying. I think that is basically what the others were saying, too.
Remember what Haim Avni said at the beginning of the last session —there are areas of the world that we have not examined, simply because we don’t have proper access. But we can work to develop that access and should indeed be doing so. We are not threatened by an antisemitic wave that endangers the Jews in the United States, let’s face it, or in England, or in France, or in Germany. Not even, I would venture to say, in Eastern Europe, outside of Russia. But we are faced with a tremendous attack as Jews — and Israel as a Jewish State — by the intellectuals of the Arab countries, by certain very important groups in Russia, and we don’t know exactly how to deal with that. We are faced in Latin America with very deep changes that may produce new types of antisemitism. That should be faced.
Finally, I was struck by Gulie Ne’eman Arad’s paper, because she seemed to indicate that the Holocaust has had a tremendous effect on whatever face antisemitism assumes. She seemed to decry kitsch, but kitsch is part of culture. And serious dealing with the Holocaust and its effects is inevitably combined with popular culture, which includes kitsch. There is nothing more kitschy than the 1978 television series, “Holocaust,” but it had a tremendous salutary effect. And I would say the same about Schindler’s List. So do we have to be kitschy? No! We can realize kitsch is inevitable, but we can do other things to face the kitsch. And I think that is exactly what this international group that Per Ahlmark referred to is trying to do. It is trying to put itself in a position where it utilizes popular culture, the popular concern, the tremendous rise in interest in the Holocaust, therefore in the Jews, and in relationships between Jews and non-Jews. And then, since the Holocaust has become a symbol for radical evil in the world, that means the Jews are important; that means the attitudes toward Jews are important; these attitudes are a symbol of intergroup relations altogether, racism, hatred of foreigners, you name it. There is nothing wrong with this kind of universalism, provided you realize that there are similarities and dissimilarities and we have to deal with both. And the Jews are a very small, declining, but very important member of the family of nations.³
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany. In the summer of 1999, we now have a newly rethought Germany, which has quickly come to be called the Berlin Republic. And that Germany has become a normal country.
One of the things that becoming normal means is that there is a dynamic and ever-growing Jewish community in Germany. Growing both in terms of real demographic numbers and in terms of its visibility. And it is an interesting community — it’s a religious community; it’s a secular community; it’s an atheistic community. It’s a community in which some Jews wear Russian Orthodox crosses just as they do in Jerusalem. It is a community that is a real part of a new multicultural Germany.
The Berlin Republic is no utopia. Antisemitism is clearly one of the tones of the Berlin Republic in which that community exists, but it is only one of the tones. Germany has, in this sense, become normal. How normal it has become can be seen in the following factoid: Ignaz Bubis, the Polish-born head of the German Jewish community died in the summer of 1999. The new socialist chancellor of Germany, Gerhard Schröder, did not break off his vacation to attend the memorial service, as would have been the case even a few years ago (though German President Johannes Rau was present). Seen by some as an affront, it was clearly a purposeful act. The chancellor would not have broken off his vacation to attend the burial of virtually any one else in the important political caste to which Bubis belonged. His death was treated as “normal.” Bubis’s burial was in Israel, because Bubis had feared that his great visibility would be a temptation for vandals to desecrate his grave. Shortly after he was buried in Israel, a Jewish vandal desecrated his Israeli grave. This is (sadly) now “normal.” Last year we celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of Israel — a state that I never saw as normal until this election in 1999. It was normal because, for the first time, when shortly before the election it was decided to put the head of the Shas party on trial, the cry went up from the supporters of Shas that this was an antisemitic act. This is a healthy undertaking.
If Germany can become normal by having antisemitism again as one of the tones in which a new Jewish Diaspora community thrives, then Israel now has become a normal community in which the old, nineteenth-century charge of Jewish self-hatred or Jewish antisemitism reappears as a political weapon. Antisemitism, in the of Jewish self-hatred, is now part of the poldiscourse of the Jewish State. But how is it to be understood and configured?
A number of scholars, among them Bernard Wasserstein, and here, Yehuda Bauer, bemoan the dilution and disappearance of THE Jews. I differ radically from them — world Jewry is growing and expanding. Outmarriage (intermarriage rather than intramarriage) has the potential to mean many more Jews, not less Jews. In this, Yossi Beilin is quite right. We need to have a new secular Jewish identity for Jews in Israel and in the Diaspora. Part of that identity will be the confrontation with antisemitism as part of the Christian and secular inheritance of the West, even in Israel.
A new, broader, and more complex understanding of antisemitism means that it is no longer a weapon used only by “non-Jews” (however defined) to attack Jews (however defined). Antisemitism becomes a label evoked by self-defined groups of Jews to label any criticism or attack even from other groups of Jews. While this is hardly new, in a post-Shoah world it seems to have become more and more frequent. Dealing with Jewish self-hatred, whether on the part of religious or secular Jews, becomes part of the mandate of those trying to understand antisemitism in the next millennium.
The dynamics of antisemitism in the second half of the twentieth century, at least in the West — and Israel is part of the West — means, then, exploring the dynamics of antisemitism as existing within affluent, developed, and evolving cultures where Jews have some degree of power and control. It is much harder today to be a Jew in these cultures than in other cultures. And that’s true of Chicago as well as Tel Aviv. But it’s also much more difficult to be an antisemite. If one can talk about antisemitism at the end of the twentieth century — and that was indeed our task — I would argue that it has become part of a discourse on race and racism, and antisemitism is present in that discourse. It is clearly an important aspect for both secular and religious Jews. It is important because of that question that my grandfather used to ask me: “What does it mean for the Yidn?” But racism in the present world is greater than antisemitism. And to combat the one means to combat the other.³
Instead of speaking about the future, I would prefer to question it, and to do so in connection with some current intellectual controversies. It seems to me that we can grasp, in some recent public discussions on the Holocaust, a certain tiredness and boredom, also an obvious irritation, if not even widespread “envy” toward the way the “Jewish conspiracy” succeeded not only in the financial, cultural, political, or other areas of conquering the world, but also in the harsher and harsher global competition for martyrdom.
We may want to think about this aspect in connection to the general title of the conference.
A recent review of two interesting books, The Holocaust in American Life, by Peter Novick and While America Watches: Televising the Holocaust, by Jeffrey Shandler, appeared in the New York Jewish newspaper, the Forward. It was entitled “Going for the Gold Medal in the Victimization Olympics.” We may assume that such Olympics will continue and the Jewish theme will keep its unenviable central place.
The Holocaust is and will remain the nightmarish climax of antisemitism. A close look at the manner in which comments on the Holocaust are made will be most revealing of the new dynamics of the old prejudices.
Therefore, I would like to address two controversies on the Holocaust that took place last year and in which I was involved myself.
The first debate took place in the French press, and, not totally unexpected, in the Romanian press. It was provoked by the publication of Roger Garaudy’s book, The Founding Myths of Israeli Policy, banned across Europe because of its antisemitic contents. Roger Garaudy was once a leading French Communist intellectual, then converted to Catholicism, and finally, to Islam. His book uses excerpts from works by Jewish and Israeli scholars to sustain his claim that the number of Holocaust victims was highly exaggerated, that Auschwitz was never the site of gas chambers, etc.
In his deposition to the French Court in the Garaudy trial, the French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut stated that he considered the book similar to the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion, namely, in the vein of “ideological antisemitism.”
Though banned in France, the book was published not only in many Arab countries, but also by a Romanian publishing house, Alma, which also published the Protocols and a propaganda brochure in support of the radical Islamic organization Hamas. The Romanian afterword to the Garaudy book stated:
The author of the Adev?rul article is an influential journalist, praised by some Romanian intellectuals as “one of the most powerful writers of the last decade” and a “great conscience of the present time.”
Even more disturbing was the reaction towards the publication of Garaudy’s book by the most important literary magazine of the country, România Literar? (Literary Romania), that more than once defended the book’s publication. When the book appeared, strange articles with antisemitic overtones were published in that magazine, focusing on the “Holocaust-Gulag” connection. It seemed that the Jews were not only guilty of manipulating and successfully selling the Holocaust and for being the founding fathers of Communism (which they presented as antifascism, rather than another type of fascism created by themselves), but also for not allowing today any real debate about the “Gulag.” “Is somebody afraid to lose the monopoly on unmasking the crimes against humanity?” asked a reader in a letter to the director of România Literar?. He added:
Well, losing this monopoly over this specific lobby seems to make some people nervous. But it’s not correct and it is immoral to silence millions of victims of Communism out of fear that not enough people will remain to bemoan the victims of Nazism.
A much more interesting controversy originated in Germany, in response to Martin Walser’s acceptance speech on receiving the Peace Prize of the German Booksellers Association at the Frankfurt Book Fair in the fall of 1998.
Walser warned against the “permanent representation” of the Holocaust in the mass media as an enduring argument against Germany and the Germans. He also spoke of the media’s use of the Holocaust as a “moral cudgel.”
What followed was a wide and persisting discussion in the German-language press, very revealing about current public opinion on such topics as guilt, resentment, memory, manipulation, denial, and, of course, about the boredom, anger, and indifference provoked by the subject of antisemitism and the Holocaust.
Of course, the Holocaust is not exclusively a Gproblem, while the question of reassessing German guilt, now, after unification, remains a moral obligation for Germany itself.
No doubt Martin Walser’s irritation was provoked above all by the way in which the memory of this tragedy has repeatedly been commercialized, trivialized, and even instrumentalized for various ends (including political ones). I have to say that for a Jew — above all for one who has his own memories of that horror — it is not easy to come to terms with the sensationalist notoriety that sometimes surrounds this terrible wound.
But, after all, what would have been the alternative? If poetry did not cease to exist after Auschwitz, why should other expressions of life in its various manifestations cease, whether they belong to the “higher spheres” or are of a more banal, “humble origin”? Without this “lower sphere,” life could not go on. The Holocaust, after all, did not become well-known primarily through sophisticated forms of representation.
Reactions to the Holocaust are no less varied and contradictory than other human responses, for even this barbarism was the work of humans; it came neither from hell nor out of nothing. Some sacralized the tragedy, others denied its existence; some suffered silently from the wounds they bore, still others took it as a basis for investigation, pity, hate, revelation, revenge, despair.
Perhaps Samuel Beckett described the problem best. Not long after the war, in 1949, he wrote: “There is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express … together with the obligation to express.”
In fact, expression took a variety of forms: documents, memoirs, reminiscences, diaries, novels, poems, films, plays, works of art. Many of these works are minor, but many are original, authentic, and striking. The substantial repercussions in the mass media, sparked less by the most significant works than by the products appealing to the general public, have kept the memory of these events alive in the public imagination.
Is this a way of directing the “moral cudgel” of the trivial mass media against Germany and the Germans, of which Martin Walser spoke? Is this the “monumentalizing of German shame” which Walser, perhaps rightly so, fears?
Assigning an individual or a community to the permanent role of victim or perpetrator certainly entails alienation. As we know from the case of the Jews, who have always been the world’s scapegoats, the assignment of such a role is unbearable. But don’t we still have to ask ourselves whether the Holocaust has rightly come to serve as a sort of moral cudgel, regardless of what Miss Media — this frivolous, cynical, omnipresent concubine of modernity — has to say about it? And do we not have to ask ourselves where exactly the danger of “monumentalizing the shame” would lie, whether or not the guilt in question is German?
Past, present, and future are related. Christian iconography functioned for centuries as a more or less fanatic “mass media” propaganda, which for two thousand years constantly emphasized the image of crucifixion as an example and proof of the inextinguishable Jewish guilt. An untruth that, as one knows, nevertheless has had a mystifying power that was all but impossible to resist. A dangerous cultivation of the hatred of Jews, which paved the way for the atmosphere of crime and its denial. A millennium-old monumentalizing of shame?
Is the “moral cudgel” of the Holocaust nothing more than an excessive invention of the media’s postmodern trivial machinery? And is the truth really so difficult to distinguish from its commodifications? Is the horror of some current international events totally unrelated to the past? And will the unpredictable future not be a predictable consequence of the present?
I wonder if we are allowed to lose sight of these questions, even when the banalization, ritualization, and trivialization of truth proves too much for many of us. The aftermath of the truth, even the “Victimization Olympics” are, after all, nothing compared to the horrible truth itself — a fact which, I hope, is news to no one. And will not be, I hope, news to the future.
This is an essential hope, but also a big question, which will perhaps decide the human future itself.³
This will be the last time in this millennium that I will ever have to speak about the dynamics of antisemitism, and probably the last time that any of you will actually have to hear about it. At the same time, I ask myself the question, does antisemitism have a future? The simple answer would have to be yes for the following reason. I believe that antisemitism is one of the fundamental expressions of human baseness and perversity, not to say depravity. Now, it is not the only expression of it. Racism, ethnic hatred, and many other abominations we might list, could be placed in that category. But it is the manifestation of human baseness that concerns us Jews over the long haul, perhaps more than any other.
Another point that I think this conference has certainly underlined, is that history teaches us to be very cautious indeed about predicting the future of antisemitism. How many times has its obituary been prematurely written in the course of modern Jewish history? In this respect, I would like to recount a joke. I don’t normally tell jokes, least of all on the subject of antisemitism. But this was a joke that seems to me to be very relevant to us at this late hour. In fact I heard it from John Gross in New York, once editor at the Times Literary Supplement. And this is how it went: We’re in Russia just after the fall of Communism, sometime in 1991. A Jew applies for a job — he has all of the right qualifications, but he’s turned down out of hand. So he asked the official, surely at least he deserved an interview. And the official decides to be open and he says: “We don’t give jobs to Jews.” The Jew is shocked, he says: “But I thought that that was the way things were under the old regime; now everything is different.” The official looks at him hard and long, and then he says: “We especially don’t give jobs to stupid Jews.”
The question of the future of antisemitism, at least as it’s come out of our deliberations, is indeed a complex one. I think it’s fair to say that, listening to all the papers, we have to acknowledge that antisemitism today is indeed more diffuse, more fragmented, and more difficult to define. Its contours and boundaries are less clear than they used to be. We are no longer dealing, for the most part, primarily with classical antisemitism, or with the antisemitism of the Nazi era. And there are important national differences. The United States is not Britain, as far as Jews or Judaism is concerned. Britain is not France; France is not Germany; Germany is not Poland; Poland is not Russia; and Russia is not the Middle East. All of the situations in each of those countries and regions are different for Jews. Even if we accept, for the sake of argument — and I have my doubts about it — that antisemitism is on the decline in some parts of the world, we also know that tomorrow is not like today, just as today is not like yesterday. And banal as that may sound, it is necessary to remind ourselves of that simple fact, above all with antisemitism.
Another point that I think we need to remind ourselves of, is that anti-Jewishness is “a protean phenomenon,” extremely elusive when it comes to its definition. And here I think we need more precision in distinguishing between the real and the imaginary Jew. This was an issue addressed in the opening talk by Shmuel Almog, but it seems to me that somewhere along the line we lost that dimension, and I think that perhaps we need to remind ourselves of it — that antisemitism today can thrive where no Jews have ever lived. It thrives where Jews are long dead; it is as much if not more about antisemites and the way that they see themselves as it is about real Jews. Unfortunately, it affects us as Jews all too palpably and viscerally.
One other dimension which I think it is worth reflecting on is that the strength or weakness of antisemitiat any given time, or in any given place, is also related to how anare regarded and treated by the surrounding society. Are they shunned, are they marginalized, or are they respected, tolerated, or perhaps even encouraged? This seems to me to be an often crucial dimension. It’s one of the differences between the Western world (particularly the English-speaking part of the Western world) and Eastern Europe, Russia, and the Middle East. I think also it’s been very clear from all of our discussions, that the Jew, although he or she may no longer be the primary target of xenophobia or racism, remains a barometer and a touchstone for understanding the dynamics of prejudice in modern society as a whole. The conspiracy theories without which antisemitism could not flourish in the modern era will continue to thrive in the twenty-first century — this I’m ready to bet on — as a significant part of human experience. And where you have conspiracy theories, you can be sure to find the Jews being implicated.. The politicization of antisemitism ebbs and flows; none of us can guarantee that it will disappear. Equally, the irrationality and mythic quality in antisemitism, which has characterized it through the centuries, is not likely to suddenly evaporate in the new age. The “myth of the Jew,” I believe, is still intact, even if it is currently in a more dormant state, except in Russia and the Middle East. I will close by recalling a remark by a philosopher who was discussed during this conference, who got many things wrong in relation to the “Jewish Question,” but whose work, I believe, still remains interesting, namely Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre’s insight that antisemitism reflects a fear of the human condition, and an escape from freedom and responsibility, is something that connects both to my original comment and to the future prospects of antisemitism. It will not disappear, but if we can manage somehow to neutralize or eliminate its sting, that will have been a great achievement.³
SICSA on the World Wide Web
The Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism inaugurated its website in 1994. At that time, we were pioneers on the WWW. Since then, we have been joined by many prestigious academic and activist organizations, many of which have created links to our site.
The website, maintained by Rosalind Arzt, is constantly being improved and updated. Anyone utilizing one of the Internet search engines for material on antisemitism will find us.
Our home page menu guides the visitor to information on our various activities and projects, including upcoming lectures and workshops. The Felix Posen Bibliographic Project online databases can be accessed and searched from this site. In addition, the full text of the ACTA occasional papers are now online, along with information about ordering our publications.
We invite you to take a look:
Report 1999: Table of Contents
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