Analyzing the Wave

, October 1, 2003

Jewish Political Studies Review 15:3-4 (Fall 2003)

 

An anti-Jewish wave has shaken the Jewish world since October 2000. It is characterized by several eruptions of violent incidents (torchings of synagogues and various acts of aggression against Jewish passersby). It also translates into systematic media distortions in which the Israelis are depicted as cruel aggressors while the Palestinians, even though they are the perpetrators-and irrespective of the savagery of their attacks-benefit from the comfortable status of permanent “victims.” This wave has manifested itself by disseminating a form of anti-Zionist propaganda that easily turns into anti-Semitism.

The weapons are still smoking and minds are still focused on war, but we need to analyze what has happened. The aim of this document is to present a brief outline of some principles or rules which should govern this analysis.

The first rule is detachment and objectivity. Any study should not be written to voice indignation or protests, to launch appeals to the universal conscience, or to brandish the heroic flag of Jewish mobilization. It will not overdramatize the facts in order to rouse the world from its indifference. The aim of research is to help us understand what has happened and what is still happening. This means that all declarations must be based on appropriate documentation. It also means that we must not hesitate to admit that the level of violence is diminishing when it really is diminishing, and that the virulence of hostile speeches is subsiding when it is indeed subsiding.

We need to proceed in several complementary directions. One “territorial” direction will allow us to track, country by country, the events that have taken place since October 2000. Some countries, those that have been most affected, will naturally be the object of more profound study. At the same time, a “functional” direction will allow us to handle the questions asked in all the countries. The violence, media distortions, and university boycotts all form part of the questions that should be analyzed from a global perspective.

The most important element is our ability to make comparisons with previous anti-Jewish waves. It is possible to draw absurd parallels which reflect an excess, to say the least, of emotional rhetoric: for example, comparing the synagogues torched between 2000 and 2003 with those torched on Kristallnacht (“Crystal Night”) in November 1938. There are, however, justified and even instructive comparisons: for example, comparing those same acts of aggression against synagogues between 2000-2003 with those recorded, in all Western countries, in 1978, 1979, and 1980. Researchers should be wary of making the first type of comparison, yet they should develop the second type.

In order to make these comparisons, we need to remember that there have been other anti-Jewish waves since 1945, and it is precisely those other waves that constitute the most relevant elements of comparison and reference. It is particularly important to retain documentary evidence of these waves, which is still not always done and which requires additional effort from researchers.

The violence in the period 2000-2003 can only be analyzed in all its aspects (intensity, frequency, sociological profile, and ethno-religious origin of the perpetrators, etc.), when it is compared with the waves of incidents that have shaken Western Jewry since 1945. They are the swastika epidemic of 1959-1960, the wave at the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, and the wave at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s.

This also applies to the “anti-Zionist” upsurges that have characterized the years 2000-2003. Such upsurges occurred at the beginning of the 1950s with the trials in Eastern Europe and the “white coats” (i.e., doctors) crisis in the USSR. Traces of these upsurges were also discernible after the Suez crisis (Fall 1956). The Six-Day War and the development of Palestinian nationalism generated an anti-Israel campaign, the extent of which has yet to be equaled. It was after 1967, and particularly 1968, that denunciations of Israel’s policies and even of Israel’s legitimacy were first heard in European and American universities. This campaign was accompanied by a virulent condemnation of Zionism that was defined as an imperialist, colonialist, and racist movement. The notion of the “new anti-Semitism” was developed at that time by many writers whose works reveal the decline and perhaps even disappearance of the religious or racial forms of anti-Jewish hatred that has been replaced by a new form, which is camouflaged as anti-Zionism. From this perspective, the State of Israel had become the “Jew of the nations.”

The Yom Kippur War and the strengthening of the Arab countries following the rise in gasoline prices was greeted by a new wave of anti-Zionist hostility that was to culminate in the United Nations resolution proclaiming Zionism to be a form of racism (November 1975). The Lebanese War, in particular the siege of Beirut and the drama of Sabra and Shatilla, exacerbated the trend: parallels between Israelis and Nazis and overtly anti-Jewish sentiments that were no longer cloaked in anti-Zionism, proliferated. The first intifada and the first Gulf War prolonged this trend.

These historical memories should remain present in the minds of observers and analysts of the current crisis. It is impossible to discuss the violence of the years 2000-2003 without having studied statistics from earlier periods. It is impossible to discuss media distortions of the last three years without recalling those of 1988 or of 1982. It is impossible to discuss the “nazification” of Israel without remembering that this trend first manifested itself a long time ago and has only intensified in the last three years. It is impossible to discuss the “new anti-Semitism” without remembering that the notion of the “new anti-Semitism” came to the fore in 1967. It has made regular reappearances in the protest literature of the last thirty years.

We should not, however, neglect the anti-Semitism of the extreme right, in all its forms. Let us not forget that it is propagated by the radical movements which had no electoral presence at the end of the 1970s; and since the mid-1980s, most of these movements have received between 5 percent and 10 percent of votes, a small minority have received between 10 percent and 20 percent, and a few exceptions have received more than 20 percent. These parties have a natural penchant for anti-Semitism and negationism. Fearing legal repression and cultivating the respectability of their image, they endeavor, not always successfully, to moderate the expressions of their anti-Jewish hostility. However, reading the newspapers they disseminate or sponsor leaves no room for doubt. The illusion of the “new anti-Semitism” that is supposed to have replaced the previous anti-Semitism is promptly dispelled.

This brings us to one of the most important questions. We all feel that the wave of 2000-2003 is characterized by greater intensity in both physical violence and verbal virulence, when compared with previous waves. Several indicators appear to confirm this theory without, however, supporting the idea of a dramatic change in dimensions. A detailed study should allow us to draw more accurate conclusions.

Let us add that research into anti-Semitism should also tackle the question of Jewish reactions. It is impossible to discuss an anti-Jewish crisis without examining the manner in which Jews have reacted to it.

These reactions are first perceived on an institutional level, and concern the pressures exerted by the leaders of the Jewish communities on their respective governments and on public opinion in their countries. Jewish reactions have also taken on a militant aspect. Each anti-Jewish crisis leads to the emergence of improvised groups which always embark with enthusiasm-though with greater or lesser effectiveness and constancy-on defense (against physical violence) and on retaliation (to verbal violence). During the events of 2000-2003, the proliferation of these groups originated, inter alia, in the opportunities offered by the Internet. Several friends can easily form networks that circulate information and also serve as “mini-centers” of mobilization and action. Mapping these groups, large and small, stable and fleeting, could be of great interest to researchers. A study of Jewish reactions will have to deal with the general Jewish public and refer to all Jews of a given country. In general terms and subject to more profound analysis, it seems that the latest crisis has been perceived with greater acuity than the crises of ten or twenty years ago.

Another subject for analysis is the part played by anti-Zionist Jews in the propagation of hate themes. Jewish anti-Semitism had never completely disappeared, but it did decline considerably during the second half of the twentieth century. The crisis of 2000-2003 has, however, revealed the emergence of a new generation of Jewish anti-Zionists, most of whom are on the extreme left, and who have proven to be particularly virulent in universities and intellectual circles. These Jews display an anti-Zionist fanaticism that was believed to have disappeared in what used to be known as the “trashcans of history.” This resurgence is worthy of investigation.

Nevertheless, as everyone knows, the most fascinating and innovative research topics are never announced in advance. They are discovered as the work gets under way and progresses. This is true for all topics, and it will certainly be true for the study of the most recent developments in anti-Semitism.

Simon Epstein

Simon Epstein came to Jerusalem in 1974. In France he was secretary general of the French Zionist Federation. He worked as an economist in the budget department of the Israeli Ministry of Finance. He is a former director of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of anti-Semitism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he now carries out research.