Monday, March 15, 2004

The other night I heard Gabriel Schoenfeld speak about his new book, "The Return of Anti-Semitism". His basic thesis is that anti-Semitism is on the rise in three areas: the Islamic world, where quotations from Muslim texts are mingled with classic European slanders to create a virulent, widely embraced brand of hatred; in Europe, where the political left has joined the alienated Muslim minority in bashing Israel and Jews with increasing fervor; and in America, where the radical left, particularly on university campuses, feels free to indulge in unprecedentedly frank expressions of animosity towards Jews.

The problem with this thesis, however, is that it doesn't stand up to a thorough consideration of the past. In the Muslim world, for example, rabid anti-Semitism has been rampant for decades. Mahathir Mohamad, the Malaysian leader who made the news last year by complaining about Jews ruling the world, set down his anti-Semitic ideas in writing a decade and a half ago. The "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" has long been a standard source of anti-Israel propaganda in the Arab world. The Hamas charter, dating back to 1988, is as slanderously anti-Semitic a document as one will see anywhere in the world today, blaming the Jews, their money and their "secret societies" for, among other things, the French and Communist revolutions and both world wars.

Europe, as well, is hardly a newcomer to anti-Semitism--even in the postwar era. The continent of Kurt Waldheim and Jean-Marie Le Pen didn't suddenly rediscover its roots a couple of years ago. Schoenfeld is correct in saying that anti-Semitism is stronger on the political left than it used to be--but then, it's also weaker than before on the political right. (Who, a few years ago, would have imagined the descendants of the Italian Fascists defending Jews and Israel?) In effect, the hatred has shifted around a bit, but it's hard to argue that it's significantly increased.

In America, moreover, there's reason to estimate that anti-Semitism has significantly decreased. In 1991, a Jew was ruthlessly murdered, and many more injured, during what can only be described as a pogrom in Brooklyn's Crown Heights neighborhood. The political leadership of the city could barely muster a word of regret over the incident, for fear of antagonizing militantly anti-Jewish constituents. Black leaders like Al Sharpton and Louis Farrakhan openly engaged in anti-Semitic rhetoric, winning massive support. Today, even minor politicians who use similar tactics soon taste resounding political defeat.

But if anti-Semitism around the world isn't noticeably more intense today than in past decades, it's certainly more intensely noticed. Schoenfeld's book is only one example of the attention that the supposed worldwide rise in anti-Semitism has lately received. Why now?

My speculation: from 1993 to 2000--the Oslo years--world Jewry were lulled into a state of unjustified complacency. Confident that Israel's future had been secured, and with it the safety of the Jewish people, a normally vigilant group came to view all signs of anti-Semitism as minor incidents of little concern. The rude awakenings of 2000 (the "Al Aqsa Intifada"), 2001 (September 11th) and 2002 (the "Jenin Massacre") have since converted the previous serenity into panic, and today's more normal perception of the anti-Semitic threat seems disproportionately worse (only) in comparison with the calm that directly preceded it.

UPDATE: Volokh Conspirator Randy Barnett seems to agree with Schoenfeld.

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