Michael Berenbaum
Jewish Journal (Opinion)
December 6, 2011 - 1:00am

We are hearing an awful lot of nonsense about the remarks of Howard Gutman, the US Ambassador to Belgium regarding whether Israel treatment of the Palestinians is to “blame” for the increase in antisemitism.

A summary of Gutman’s remarks, not a direct quote appeared in an Israeli newspaper and American bloggers took them as gospel and Republican political candidates called for Howard Gutman’s ouster. Abraham Foxman himself condemned the remarks as an excuse for inaction on antisemitism and the headlines blared American Ambassador blamed Israel for antisemitism.

For the record we should follow the trail of remarks:

The Israeli newspaper quote Gutman, who is Jewish and whose father survived the Holocaust in Poland as saying: “A distinction should be made between traditional anti-Semitism, which should be condemned, and Muslim hatred for Jews, which stems from the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.”
What he actually said is actually quite different and a bit more nuanced:

“There is and has long been some amount of anti-Semitism, of hatred and violence against Jews, from a small sector of the population who hate others who may be different or perceived to be different, largely for the sake of hating,”
Let’s turn to the harder and more complex part.. “What I do see as growing, as gaining much more attention in the newspapers and among politicians and communities, is a different phenomena. ...

“It is a tension and perhaps hatred largely born of and reflecting the tension between Israel, the Palestinian territories and neighboring Arab states in the Middle East over the continuing Israeli-Palestinian problem… An Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty will significantly diminish Muslim anti-Semitism.”

Abraham Foxman wrote in response: This assessment of Muslim anti-Semitism, and your attempt to distinguish it from traditional or classical anti-Semitism, is not only wrongheaded but could undermine the important effort to combat the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe.”
“When one tries to attribute this anti-Semitism to outside forces – in this case the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict – one not only misunderstands the role of anti-Semitism in that conflict, but provides an unacceptable rationale for inaction.”

I respect and admire Abe Foxman and regard him as cherished friend but every scholar I know distinguishes between classical antisemitism and its politicalization. The evidence of history would suggest that Jews fared far better under Moslem domination and dhimi than they did under Christian domination. All would also agree that Jews fared best when they were treated as equal citizens and not under any religious domination.

But instead of engaging in charges and counter charges perhaps it is wisest for us to consider what we know for certain about antisemitism, what all responsible scholars would agree with even if the news is unpleasant.

I: Israel can quench the first of antisemitism; it can also fuel the flames.

Theodore Herzl’s the Jewish State, had two premises. Jews were a non-European element within Europe and that antisemitism would only diminish by a process of normalization of the Jewish condition. The Jewish State – it was not yet termed Israel – would be a state like any other state with an army and a flag and the Jewish situation would be normalized. It stood to reason, the founder of political Zionism believed that antisemitism would then disappear.

Throughout the past 63 years that despite its considerable accomplishments, the marvels of its achievement, we have seen that Israel has not achieved normalization, the Jewish State is not a State like any other State and the Jewish people a people like any other people. Only a people desperate for normalization would have given up the oil fields of the Sinai for the promise of normalization some thirty years ago.

Almost two decades ago in what seems as a distant memory, after the Oslo Accords, it seemed as if antisemitism would be a minor phenomenon, confined to the fringes of society. Americans of my post-war generation know no barriers to advancement because we are Jews, none in higher education, none in the professions or in industry. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the demise of Communism, a major pillar of worldwide antisemitism fell. When some Arab countries sought normalization with Israel, a muting of antisemitic rhetoric, if not of antisemitic feeling, was required; it seemed as if more might follow. In Eastern Europe, the Jewish communities were small and in some places there were advantages in being Jewish. Roman Catholicism and some significant segment of Protestant Christianity were changing their views on the Jews and knocking down another pillar of antisemitism. One could be optimistic that a generation after the Holocaust, antisemitism was quarantined.

The last decade has not shattered those hopes. While one can argue how severe a problem antisemitism is in the second decade of the twenty first century, no one can dispute that there has been a resurgence in Europe, both on the left and the right and within the immigrant populations of major European countries, and most particularly in the Muslim world where major themes of antisemitism that were endemic to Christianity – and rejected by it in the post-Holocaust world—such as the blood libel, and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion have reemerged with great ferocity.

Holocaust denial should be a European phenomena , after all Germany and its allies killed the Jews, has migrated to the Arab world where Jewish blood, excepting Iraq, had not been shed, but in some sort of distorted logic, Holocaust denial is used as a means of eliminating Israel. Deniers reason that if Israel is an outgrowth of the Holocaust, then if there was no Holocaust, Israel will cease to exist.

II. Let us say it loudly and clearly that Israel is not to blame for antisemitism – antisemites are to blame for antisemitism.

Now that we have gotten that rhetoric out of our system, let us consider the other reality.

III. There is a direct correlation between actions in the Middle East and an increase in manifestations of antisemitism.

I could cite many examples, but let me confine myself to France. Increased antisemitism came in waves. They occurred with much greater intensity in five periods, October 2000, just after the start of Intifada II; post September 11, 2001, after the bombing of the World Trade Center; and in April 2002, following the bombings of Passover and the massive Israeli response to an intolerable bombings of its civilians, the War in Lebanon and the War in Gaza. There can be no doubt about the correlation.

III: If Israel is negotiating with the Palestinians or with other Arab countries, there is a decrease in the expressions of Muslim antisemitism.

I am not naïve enough to believe that it is because Muslim suddenly have come to like Israel or love Jews but because such expressions are counterproductive to the process and only stiffen its terms of the negotiations. Can anyone dispute the last part of the Ambassador’s statement: “An Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty will significantly diminish Muslim anti-Semitism.”

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta reiterated the point, restating the obvious when he said that Israel-Palestinian negotiations would deprive Moslem extremists of one of the sources of oxygen to fuel the fires of their militant agenda.

Let me leave it to others to determine who is to blame for the absence of negotiations, but there can be no denying that the absence of negotiations fuel for the extremists fires. I spoke to several people who attended the meeting – the room was full of people who support Israel and Panetta has long been regarded as a friend, and no one disagreed with what Panetta had said.

Panetta also said: Israel’s security would be enhanced if it would “reach out and mend fences with those who share an interest in regional stability — countries like Turkey and Egypt, as well as Jordan. This is an important time to be able to develop and restore those key relationships in this crucial area.”

No one can dispute this statement. Some do argue that it is difficult to reach out to Egypt under current circumstances with Muslim brotherhood on the political ascent and the military in retreat. President Shimon Peres publicized visit to Jordan was indeed the reaching out that Panetta called for and though a newly empowered Turkey is no each to deal with, no one can dispute that Deputy Foreign Minister’s Danny Ayalon public humiliation of the Turkish Ambassador was not a way to win friends and influence people.

IV: Political Problems can be solved by compromise. Religious fundamentalism is antithetical to compromise:

Contrary to Foxman, I and most scholars of antisemitism believe that there is a difference between classical antisemitism and the current politicalization of antisemitism in the Middle East and it does the Jewish community no good to deny it. For centuries Jews held limited power, had no state and no army. Israel is a political entity and opposition to Israel may be antisemitic but it is also political.

But we must also be equally mindful that while the current conflict exacerbates Muslim antisemitism, a problem that will be solved for some were peace to be achieved – for some but not for all. For many Moslems, the very existence of a Jewish state in historically Muslim territory is a religious insult to Islam, a point that would not sound so strange to those religious Jews who see territorial conquest as a manifestation of the triumph of the God of Israel.

If the divide is religious, they may well be no compromise. If the divide can be seen in political terms, it will be far easier to reach some sort of agreement.

But the conversation in the Jewish community is not helped when serious issues cannot be confronted by serious people publicly and directly among friends, among lovers of Israel and Zion.


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