Desperate Imaginings: Rhetoric and Ideology of the 'New Antisemitism,' Siena Lecture, 9 March 2011

This text was prepared for a lecture delivered at the Centro Siena-Toronto of the Università degli Studi di Siena, Bianchi di Sotto, 81, Siena, on 9 March 2011. Together with a translation (“Fantasie disperate: Retorica e ideologia del 'Nuovo Antisemitismo'”) by Tiziana Tampinelli, the text was printed by the Centro for local distribution.


The title of my talk today is also that of the final chapter of a book I edited and co-authored last year, Antisemitism Real and Imagined: Responses to the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Antisemitism. In addition to my own four long chapters, the book also contains shorter texts by eleven Canadian human rights activists and scholars, as well as statements by seven Canadian human rights organizations.

The book analyzes some primarily Canadian issues, but also engages with others that are of wider relevance—as a journalist in the Toronto Globe and Mail suggested last summer when he called the book “timely” and “indispensable,” and recommended it to the politicians of our governing party as of use in understanding the Israel-Palestine conflict. (That is, regrettably, a subject on which they remain ill-informed.)

I am going to begin by outlining the implications of recent events in the Middle East. I will then suggest ways in which current debates in Canada around the meaning and the prevalence of antisemitism—debates whose real subject is the orientation of Canadian foreign policy—may be of interest to Europeans grappling with parallel issues. I will conclude with some recommendations, both ethical and political. I hope the following brief notes will make my comments easier to follow.


1. Democracy in the Middle East? (and democracy at home?)

US foreign policy since 2001 (and indeed for some decades previously) has been devoted to replacing insufficiently submissive governments throughout the Middle East and western Asia with regimes willing to accept ‘Washington Consensus’ globalization and American geopolitics, including complicity in (or at least passive acceptance of) Israel’s colonization of the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

In addition to the appalling suffering and loss of life that the post-2001 version of this policy has caused, and its staggering criminality—the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq have violated all the major principles of international law—this policy has manifestly failed. American rhetoric about exporting democracy has been fraudulent for at least the past half-century, but U.S. behaviour since 2001 has contributed both to sharp declines in American military prestige and economic power, and also, ironically, to the current surge of pro-democracy protests that is toppling US and EU client regimes across North Africa and the Middle East.

Part of the irony here may be that while an attempt to implant submissive autocracies has helped produce a pro-democratic surge abroad, the ‘Global War on Terror’ has also subverted democracy at home, both in the US, where the Patriot Act led to an effective elimination of the US Constitution and Bill of Rights, and also in countries like Canada which adopted similar ‘anti-terror’ legislation. Canada has been a strong supporter of US policy in Afghanistan, where our troops have suffered disproportionately high losses, and in the Middle East, where Canada has become, next to the US, Israel’s most dogmatic and uncritical supporter.

One very interesting recent development in Canadian politics has been the incorporation of claims about antisemitism into attempts to limit free debate over our foreign policy. These claims have typically involved assertions that Canadian civility and decency are menaced by a “new antisemitism,” in which the traditional antisemitic loathing of Jews and Judaism has mutated into hatred of “the collective Jew,” and now takes the form of attempts to demonize and delegitimize the state of Israel. The concept of antisemitism is thus being extended to include any sustained criticism of Israeli state policies—and in particular any criticism of the occupation and colonization of the Palestinian Territories occupied by Israel since 1967.

This concept of a “new antisemitism” is unacceptable. I do not claim any originality for this opinion, which has in recent years been voiced by many distinguished contemporary scholars of Judaism and antisemitism. These include the late Raul Hilberg, whose magisterial three-volume work The Destruction of the European Jews (1961) is acknowledged as the seminal study of the Shoah; University of Oxford philosopher Brian Klug, whose writings on antisemitism include “The Collective Jew: Israel and the New Antisemitism,” Patterns of Prejudice (June 2003), and “The Myth of the New Antisemitism,” The Nation (February 2004); Yakov M. Rabkin, Professor of History at the Université de Montréal, whose book Au nom de la Torah: une histoire de l’opposition juive au sionisme (2004) was shortlisted in Canada for a Governor-General’s Award; and Marc H. Ellis, Director of the Center for Jewish Studies at Baylor University, a theologian whose nearly two dozen books include The End of Jewish History: Auschwitz, the Holocaust and Palestine (2005).

Their principal reason for rejecting the conflation of antisemitism with criticism of Israeli policies is that its obvious purpose is to deflect attention away from Israel’s systematic violations of international law, including the Geneva Conventions, in its treatment since 1967 of the people of the Palestinian Occupied Territories.

A secondary reason is that this conflation actually detracts from the struggle against real antisemitism. As Professor Yanis Varoufakis of the University of Athens has written,

[W]hen a worthy cause, like that of ‘zero-tolerance to antisemites’, is appropriated by a regressive campaign whose purpose is, in effect, to terminate any critical engagement with the subjugation, repression and expropriation of another people, the Palestinians, then the worthy cause suffers. Antisemites rejoice when criticism of Israel’s Wall in Palestine is equated with antisemitism. For they are suddenly included in the wider community of fair minded people for whom the collective humiliation, mass harassment and disconnection of a whole people from their own backyards, not to mention the rest of the world, constitutes a hideous state of affairs in need of urgent redress.


2. Antisemitism in Canada

Let me provide you with some historical context. Consider, first, the comparative sizes of Canada’s and Italy’s Jewish communities. With an overall population of a little more than half that of Italy (34 million to your nearly 61 million), we have a Jewish community some thirteen times larger than yours (about 370,000 people compared to your 28,000). As scholars of Canadian literature here know very well, this community has made very important contributions to Canadian culture: one need only mention such names as those of the great Montreal poet Abraham Moses Klein and his successors Irving Layton and Leonard Cohen, and such novelists as Adele Wiseman, Mordecai Richler, and Matt Cohen to have some sense of the weight of that contribution.

It is perhaps less well-known, given Canada’s present strongly pro-Israel orientation, that Canada has had a shameful history of antisemitism. The very good historical scholarship on this issue is summarized in one of the chapters of my book. I will comment here only on the fact that between 1933 and 1939, when the Jews of Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and other European countries were seeking desperately to escape from Nazism, Canada accepted, on a per capita basis, only one-fifth as many Jewish refugees as did Britain, the US, and Australia.

Scholars of racism commonly distinguish between contemptuous or hateful attitudes and opinions, and their instantiation in law and in institutional practices. Some antisemitic practices such as quotas on admissions of Jews to universities were still in place in Canada in the early 1960s. However, antisemitic attitudes in Canada have declined steadily in recent decades. One must be vigilant about any possible resurgence of antisemitism—neo-Nazi groups which would like to exploit hostilities generated by the state of Israel’s crimes certainly exist in Canada—but at the same time one must admit that the principal groups currently exposed to institutionalized hostility are Muslims and First Nations people.


3. The rhetoric of the ‘new antisemitism’

The question of a ‘new antisemitism’ became a political issue in Canada in 2009, when a group of parliamentarians announced the formation of a Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Antisemitism (CPCCA) whose purpose would be to conduct a parliamentary inquiry into antisemitism in Canada, with emphasis on Canadian universities and the media. This group announced its conclusions before beginning its inquiry—claiming that Jewish students suffer persecution, intimidation, and mockery in Canadian universities, and that the country as a whole is experiencing a surge in antisemitism and antisemitic hate crimes. The former claim was refuted by the testimony of university administrators and human rights officials at the parliamentary inquiry; the latter claim is also untrue, as I have shown in one of chapters of Antisemitism Real and Imagined through a study of the available statistics.

The ideology of the “new antisemitism” deals with criticisms of the state of Israel by re-describing them as revivals of the traditional tropes of antisemitism. Reports of Israeli war crimes against Palestinian civilians, for example, are defined as “blood libels” and denounced as vile and abusive. This rhetoric does away with the material evidence, slandering as antisemites those who report and analyze violations of human rights. And by identifying all serious criticisms of the state of Israel Israel as evidence of antisemitic hatred, it legitimizes abusive and aggressive behaviour as self-defense.

Two dangerous “feedback loops” can be identified here. First, when Israel is treated as indistinguishable from world Jewry, and its Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is introduced (as he was at the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly in Washington, DC in November 2009) as not just the elected leader of Israel, but also as “the leader of the Jewish people,” it becomes difficult to interpret thoroughgoing criticism of Israel as anything but antisemitic. Of course, the deeper that state plunges into apartheid policies, the more vocal become the criticisms of its behaviour—and the louder also are claims that Jews worldwide are beset by antisemites, who must be combated by all means available.

A second feedback loop is set in motion by this one—one in which the vile prejudices of a real if residual antisemitism find confirmation in the lawless violence of a state that the antisemite believes, because ideologues like Netanyahu tell him so, is acting on behalf of Jews worldwide. This second loop also amplifies the first one: any increase in real, and not just imagined antisemitism that may be prompted by the state of Israel’s actions contributes to a belief that Jews are inescapably the victims of irrational hatred.


4. One example: the blood libel

To show briefly how the rhetoric of the ‘new antisemitism’ works, I will analyze its deployment of the most vicious trope of traditional antisemitism, the blood libel, to deflect criticisms of even the most flagrant crimes and illegalities, libeling human rights activists as antisemites and representing victimizers as victims.

The blood libel appears to have arisen in the 12th century from reflection on the image of the Christ child, the future crucified Redeemer whose blood would be shed to atone for human sins. The disbelief of Jews in this Messiah was generally thought to exclude them from the community for whom Christ’s blood was shed; through a sick projection and inversion, this conviction prompted accusations of ritual murder involving the crucifixion of a Christian child in a demonic parody of the Christian narrative of redemption. Further extensions of the same process led to elaborations including a parodic kosher butchery of the victim, whose blood would then be incorporated into Passover matzohs in a blasphemous mockery of the Mass.

The blood libel represented the obviously dominant Christian community as victimized—and incited the ‘victims’ to take revenge, in the form of judicial and mob violence against a Jewish community that was of course already systematically victimized by Christians. The claim that the reports of human rights agencies on the victimization of Palestinian civilians by the Israeli army are simply a new form of the blood libel involves a further displacement—one in which the antisemitic trope hides or erase actual present-day social actions, and turns the Israeli soldiers from victimizers into the victims of an international campaign against Jews.

Thus in March 2009 Jonathan Kay of the National Post complained that “From the opening days of the Gaza campaign, the blood-libels of ‘massacre’ and ‘genocide’ have flown thick and fast”; and on the same day, his English counterpart in unwavering support for Israel, Melanie Phillips, went so far as to accuse the Israeli newspaper Haaretz of a blood libel for having reported the testimony of Israeli soldiers that they had witnessed and participated in war crimes against Gaza civilians. In August 2009 a Human Rights Watch report that documented the murder during Operation Cast Lead of eleven Palestinian civilians holding white flags was dismissed by an American pro-Israel blog as “a blood libel disguised as an investigative report.”

But by mid-September 2009, when the Goldstone Report, Human Rights in Palestine and Other Occupied Arab Territories: Report of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, was released, with its meticulous and scrupulous documenting of war crimes, the blood-libel tactic seemed to be losing its effectiveness. Harvard law professor and Israel apologist Alan Dershowitz declared that the report “is so filled with lies, distortions and blood libels that it could have been drafted by Hamas extremists.” There are multiple ironies here: Goldstone is, like Dershowitz, a very senior member of the legal profession, a Jew, and a lifelong Zionist. The difference between them would appear to reside in the fact that Goldstone’s personal and judicial integrity has led him to face up to realities of a kind that Dershowitz has spent most of his adult life concealing, distorting, or defending.

Dershowitz’s rhetoric is undermined within Israel itself by the courageous testimonies of 180 Israeli soldiers, led by Yehuda Shaul, whose book Breaking the Silence describes their actions and experiences in the Occupied Palestinian Territories from 2000 to 2009. Shaul, an orthodox Jew, is acting on the principle of a refusal to remain silence in the face of evil. The occupation, he says, is monstrous, and the code-words used to win the Israeli public’s assent to it—sikkul (the prevention of terrorism), afradah (the separation of populations), and akhifat hok (the application of laws) “conceal terrible deviations which go from sadism to complete anarchy and sweep aside the most elementary human rights.”


5. Principles of interpretation

In approaching these issues, my position is the one announced by the great English poet William Blake in one of his proverbs: “Opposition is true friendship.” As Israeli journalist and peace activist Uri Avnery has written, “It is the duty of all who consider themselves true friends of Israel, Jews and non-Jews alike, to confront AIPAC [the principal embodiment of the Israel lobby in the US] and break its power of silencing criticism. This is the only hope for Israel’s future.” Avnery also argues that Israelis must change not just their policies, “but our basic outlook, our geographical orientation. We must understand that we are not a bridgehead from somewhere distant, but a part of a region that is now—at long last—joining the human march toward freedom.”

Canadians, and the citizens of other countries that have supported Israel’s policies of apartheid and colonization in the Occupied Territories, have a still stronger ethical obligation to work towards changing our governments’ orientations.