Malcolm F. Lowe on The Resurgence of Anti-Semitism: Jews, Israel and Liberal Opinion, by Bernard Harrison

, December 17, 2008

Jewish Political Studies Review 20:3-4 (Fall 2008)

Anatomy and Physiology of Anti-Semitism

The Resurgence of Anti-Semitism: Jews, Israel and Liberal Opinion, by Bernard Harrison, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2006, xv+219.

Reviewed by Malcolm F. Lowe


For some years, it has been customary to refer to the “anti-Semitism without Jews” that has survived in an Eastern Europe depleted of its former Jewish population. More recently, Henryk Broder, a prominent German-Jewish author and journalist, testified before the Interior Committee of the German Bundestag (June 2008) about a phenomenon that has spread rapidly in the last decade: the “anti-Semitism without anti-Semites” of many supposedly progressive academics and journalists in Western Europe.

These are people whose criticism of Israel, and collaterally of Jews, has a hardly deniable anti-Semitic resonance, yet who almost invariably believe, with as much sincerity as they can muster, that they are anything but anti-Semites, that they are actively opposed to all racism whether directed at Jews or anyone else. This is the phenomenon with which Harrison’s book is concerned. Like this reviewer, he is a British non-Jew with training in analytic philosophy and fluent in French. More than that, he is an expert in recent French literary theory (Derrida, etc.).

There are some features of the book that might distract the casual reader from appreciating its significance. For one, the title is misleading and undervalues its specific contribution. Harrison is not primarily concerned with documenting the manifestations of this “new” anti-Semitism; for that he relies partly on his own familiarity with especially the British media and academia, but largely on other recent authors, such as Phyllis Chesler, Alan Dershowitz and Jonathan Sacks. His aim is to apply the resources of analytic philosophy and literary theory to elucidating the intellectual and ideological roots of the phenomenon.

His sentences will also, for some, seem extremely long. But this is simply a style of writing that goes back among analytic philosophers to the 1929 manifesto of the Vienna Circle. For him, like them, a commitment to truth demands clarity and precision. With modest effort, the reader will discover that the sentences are clearly articulated, that every word is chosen with care, and that there is no vain rhetoric or needless jargon. Just for that reason, however, it is difficult to summarize his arguments in fewer words. This review will therefore concentrate on outlining Harrison’s enterprise; the reader should read the book for her/himself.

Two slips can be noted in Harrison’s marshalling of many facts. He speaks of the Austro-Hungarian occupation of Serbia, probably meaning Croatia or Bosnia, and he makes the Palestinian National Charter a reaction to UNSC Resolution 242, whereas it was rather revised after the Six Day War. There is also a superfluous “not” at the bottom of page 184. But the slips do not invalidate any of his arguments.

Definitions and Distinctions

Several of the chapter titles reflect familiar themes of anti-Israeli propaganda: “Jews against Israel,” “Against Demonizing Israel,” “The Accusation of Racism,” “Who Is to Blame?” Harrison’s aim, however, is not simply to follow others in offering facts in refutation of such accusations. Rather, he seeks to establish basic definitions and distinctions that can clarify the whole discourse both of and about the new anti-Semitism.

A fundamental distinction, made in his first chapter, is between “two types of anti-Semitism.” One is “social or distributive anti-Semitism,” namely, “contempt visited on individual Jews for no other reason than that they are Jews.” As he says: “Expressions of it abound in Victorian literature.” This has led some well known scholars of anti-Semitism to claim that British society has long dripped with anti-Semitism, but Harrison gives two reasons for not regarding it as presenting a serious threat to Jews. One is that Jews are not thereby singled out more than stage Irishmen or people whose lower class background is evident or all sorts of other kinds of sneered-at individuals. The other is that all such contemptuous attitudes are directed at people who are not themselves perceived as any sort of threat. “In the ordinary way of things, contempt drives out fear.”

The other type, “political anti-Semitism,” is the dangerous one: “anti-Semitism directed not at Jews perceived as forming, one by one, as one might put it, a collection of more or less socially unappetizing individuals, but at the Jewish community perceived as actively pursuing, on a collective basis, goals and policies inimical to non-Jewish individuals or polities” (the author’s italics). “This type of anti-Semitism is remarkable for having produced a specific body of beliefs about Jews, of considerable antiquity, supported by a mass of hate-filled literature…” Not that it would operate independently of the milder type. Rather: “For genocide to be set in train… it was necessary for a linkage to be formed between a widespread distributive anti-Semitism and millennial politics. Political anti-Semitism is what has always forged, and continues to forge, that linkage.”

Harrison remarks that his distinction of two types is one “that I have not found generally marked or observed in discussions of the topic.” It would be more correct to say that there have been other attempts to make such a distinction, but sporadically and with varying terminology. For instance, Broder in his recent testimony similarly distinguished between Vorurteile about Jews, prejudices of the kind that we typically have – be they favorable or unfavorable – about all kinds of people and things, and Ressentiment against them, a Franco-German word that means unremitting hostility rather than just resentment. This reviewer prefers to distinguish between petty prejudice and Judeophobia; that is, both types defined in the manner of Harrison but reserving the term “anti-Semitism” only for the latter, like Broder, or not using it at all. But since much of the literature does use the term indiscriminately, maybe Harrison’s terminology is the best antidote for scholarly imprecision. More importantly, he uses this as part of a battery of carefully defined terms to elucidate skillfully several major manifestations of the new anti-Semitism.

The following chapters are devoted to identifying, again and again, two constant features of the anti-Israeli discourse fashionable in many European and some American circles of the Left: that it does constitute political anti-Semitism, and not merely because it typically lapses into branding all Jews in some way, and that its accusations, like those of political anti-Semitism of earlier varieties, turn out to be not so much false as, when subjected to detailed analysis, incoherent and ultimately meaningless.

Sometimes the analysis has to be quite complex. But a simpler example is given in the discussion of “Who Is to Blame?” This chapter points out that the attempts of leftist journalists and academics to pin the blame for the situation on Israel fail because they are misusing the concept of guilt. From the viewpoint of philosophical ethics, guilt can often be pinned on individuals and sometimes, in a more diffuse way, on bodies that have taken a collective decision. But guilt cannot be pinned on a whole people because there are always individuals opposed to the decision and because any sense of a collective decision by everybody (such as previous elections, if elections are held) has become too diffuse. As Harrison adds, it is likewise incoherent to blame “the Arabs” or “the Germans” for anything.

The present situation is the product of many past decisions, for some of which blame might be pinned on particular individuals or small groups. So nobody is “to blame” for this situation, but not because of our lack of knowledge but because the question is without sense. This, then, is not a reason to despair of an “insoluble” problem – a familiar kind of reaction – but to realize that solutions can proceed only from a basis that is not inherently incoherent.

Just the chapter on “Fascism and the Idea of Total War” would make this book essential reading. Through his analysis of the nature of fascism, Harrison follows others in arguing that it is absurd to call Israel a fascist state and he confirms the hunch of some that the Soviet Union was and certain Arab and Islamic regimes are fundamentally fascist. He then shows that it is through endorsement of, or more frequently expressing “understanding for,” the total war practiced by various Arab and Islamic organizations that the new anti-Semitism itself adopts fascist conceptions.

The Uses of Anti-Semitism

This, the title of Harrison’s last chapter, could also mislead some readers. It is presumably a jocular allusion, of the kind that analytic philosophers love, to an earlier book: Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy (1957), which examined how mass culture rather abused the literacy acquired by the British working classes in basic education. Like Hoggart, Harrison is also a resolute opponent of moral relativism in any form, while his earlier chapters include case studies in the abuse of literacy in media coverage of Israel.

This last chapter is in fact virtually a second part of the book in which Harrison proceeds from the anatomy to the physiology of anti-Semitism in general, and of the “new” anti-Semitism in particular, or to what might be called their natural history. The importance of the chapter is that here he leaves behind the refutation of specific theses of the new anti-Semitism, an enterprise that he shares with Alan Dershowitz and others, though pursuing it on the level of philosophical analysis rather than that of advocacy. Instead, he lays bare the mindset that generates such theses and demonstrates its futility and intellectual anachronism. This is a more powerful means of combating the new anti-Semitism, since the confutation of the mindset implies the confutation of any future theses that it might generate. But because this is an argument at a higher level of abstraction, the previous chapters were necessary to facilitate its comprehension.

Harrison’s overall definition of the typical use to which anti-Semitism is put would seem to owe not a little to insights from the philosophy of science. In his words: “Anti-Semitism is, in essence, a response by holders of a highly moralized worldview, to situations in which that worldview appears to be seriously under threat, not in ways which the patterns of explanation intrinsic to it would lead one to expect, but in ways which cannot easily be grasped or articulated by appeal to any pattern of explanation internal to the worldview in question, and which are thus, precisely to the extent that their minds continue to be dominated by it, necessarily and intrinsically mysterious to its adherents.”

After unpacking this sentence clause by clause, with historical examples, Harrison goes on to identify the highly moralized worldview that has desperately resorted to the new anti-Semitism. It is, as others have suspected, the “messianic liberalism” that “traces its main line of descent from the tradition of broadly rationalist moral and political theory which proceeds from Leibniz, by way of Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel, to Marx.” Inasmuch as this tradition culminated in an economic and sociological theory, it was defeated by the inefficiency, cruelty, corruption and eventual collapse of the Soviet system. Yet because it was so important to so many decent educated people, the latter still cling to one of its subsidiary features, namely, the division of the world into “Saints and Reprobates,” despite the fact that the justification for such subsidiary features vanishes with the theory from which they were derived. Thus all that is left of the ideology is a division of the world into victims and victimizers with accompanying moral postures.

So “Why Anti-Semitism?” asks Harrison in a subsection, when other responses to mysterious failure are theoretically possible. Because since Islamic terrorist movements are implacably hostile to all the traditional Reprobates, they have become a new category of Saints, and since they are even more hostile to Israel, this is a greater Reprobate than any other, and since most Jews are concerned about Israel, they can only escape classification among the Reprobates – if at all – by themselves reprobating Israel.

Socratic Aspiration

Harrison’s penultimate subsection is titled “Does It Matter?” Since the new anti-Semitism is the last redoubt of a collapsing worldview, he thinks that is unlikely that it will survive into the next generation. As it is, European governments continue to maintain generally cordial relations with Israel and he quotes Richard Bolchover to the effect that “The business world is a friendlier environment for British Jews and other minorities now than it has ever been,” and that “as a colleague remarked to me recently, ‘In the city no-one reads the Guardian.’” Since Harrison wrote, moreover, many of the leading British universities have explicitly repudiated attempts to boycott their Israeli counterparts.

So why not just wait until the proponents of the new anti-Semitism disappear? Indeed, Broder’s advice to the Interior Committee was that “nothing is achieved by discussing with anti-Semites, by seeking to convince them of the absurdity of their convictions. One must marginalize them, isolate them in a kind of social quarantine.”

For Harrison, that is too simple. An early chapter deals with a notorious issue of the New Statesman (14 January 2002), that flagship of the British mainstream Left, which highlighted the question of support for Israel in Britain with a cover on which a large golden Star of David pierced a small Union Jack, together with the question “A Kosher Conspiracy?” Harrison scrutinizes the two main articles and also the later printed apology of the editor for the evidently anti-Semitic imagery of the cover. Both of the authors and the editor protest, of course, that they are not anti-Semites, but Harrison can argue that they do seem to be haunted by the suspicion that perhaps they have, after all, wandered into dubious territory.

Further examples of such lurking self-doubt are given later in the book. Harrison’s “Does It Matter?” ends with the suggestion that it is worth trying to nudge these self-styled decent and progressive people into recognizing their error. “I would in particular ask people in academic life, in my own field and others,” he appeals, to understand that with their unqualified condemnation of Israel they are both “encouraging attacks, some of them murderous, on Jews” and disregarding the fact that “the peace and progress for the Palestinians that they claim to desire… can only conceivably be secured through some advance by the Palestinians beyond the politics of terror.”

Here Harrison is going back to a very old philosophical theme, the surmise of Socrates that many people, maybe all, do want to do what is good, only that many, and maybe all, are ignorant about what truly is good, so they lapse into evil. Socrates paid for that surmise with his life, while the worst harm that can be wreaked on a philosopher today is what the Germans aptly call Rufmord, literally the murder of one’s reputation. But we may hope that Harrison’s reputation will survive as unharmed as that of Socrates.

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MALCOLM F. LOWE is a Welsh academic in the fields of Greek philosophy, the New Testament, and Christian-Jewish dialogue.

About Malcolm F. Lowe

Malcolm F. Lowe is a Welsh academic in the fields of Greek philosophy, the New Testament, and Christian-Jewish dialogue.