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A short history of anti-Semitism and its modern equivalent

By Ira Sharkansky

Ira Sharkansky

JERUSALEM–Anti-Semitism is ancient, although the term itself appears only from the 19th century onward. By the latter part of the 20th century, Arabs were ridiculing the charge that they were anti-Semites, on the grounds that they are Semites.

Tendentious claims aside, no less a reference than the Oxford English Dictionary defines anti-Semitism as “theory, action, or practice directed against the Jews.”

Josephus describes claims against the Jews from first century Alexandria, then a city populated largely by Greeks. They sound like some of those still expressed: that Jews are diseased; clannish; committed to bear no good will to non-Jews; kill non-Jews in order to eat their entrails and their blood; and observe laws that are inhumane.

The New Testament refers to Pharisees (predecessors of modern rabbis) as vipers, blind guides, and hypocrites who preach one thing and do another. It also claims that Jews demanded the death of Jesus, while the Roman official Pilate saw him as innocent of a charge that would require the death penalty; that Jewish priests bribed Roman soldiers to testify that disciples stole the body of Christ from his tomb, in order to create the image that he had not risen from the dead; that Jews poisoned the minds of Gentiles against Christians; and that Gentile authorities acted against Christians in order to curry favor with the Jews.

A later entry in the classic literature of anti-Semitism is The Protocols of The Learned Elders Of Zion. Civilized intellectuals recognize it as a concoction produced as anti-Jewish propaganda by authorities in Czarist Russia. In recent years it has been trumpeted by Arabs and others as a genuine document produced by Jewish leaders, and containing their plan to control the world.

Among the points in the Protocols said to come from the Elders of Zion are:

“God has granted to us, His Chosen People, the gift of dispersion . . .which has now brought us to the threshold of sovereignty over all the world. . . . when we come into our kingdom it will be undesirable for us that there should exist any other religion than ours . . .In this difference in capacity for thought between the GOYIM and ourselves may be clearly discerned the seal of our position as the Chosen People and of our higher quality of humanness, in contradistinction to the brute mind of the GOYIM. . . . From this it is plain that nature herself has destined us to guide and rule the world.”

Anti-Semitism got a bad press in the 1940s. Since then the Roman Catholic Church and other Christians have tended to emphasize friendship and accommodation. Many of their scholars concede that their earlier doctrines, including elements of the New Testament, were created to serve purposes no longer relevant, and ought to be archived.

Those looking for clear expressions of anti-Semitism can use the internet to find Muslim clerics preaching about the “Filth of the Jews, the Brothers of Apes and Pigs” 

While overt anti-Semitism has declined, anti-Zionism has become fashionable. It is directed against Israel, rather than against Jews, per se. Some of its practitioners are Jews and others are Gentiles who chafe at any accusation of anti-Semitism. “Some of my best friends are Jews” is still heard, although it has long since become a line of ridicule. 
Some of my best friends are Jews who accuse Israelis of claiming that every critic of the country is an anti-Semite. 
Some of Israel’s severest Jewish critics may be “self-hating Jews,” a phenomenon that has been around at least since Jewish collaborators testified at medieval trials of inquisition. However, many may simply be misguided in their choice of political fashions.
Distinguishing anti-Semitism from anti-Zionism is not easy. A useful conception is that anti-Zionism verges into anti-Semitism to the extent that individuals accuse Israel of violating standards of activity far more onerous than they use to judge other countries, including their own.
Americans and Europeans are among those who go over this line. People from other countries may be even guiltier, but Americans and Europeans may be reachable by argument, and their governments are most important to Israel. The United States is the largest and most powerful of this cluster. It is also a country not regularly censured by official bodies that censure Israel routinely, and it may be one of those most vulnerable to censure if it would be compared fairly to Israel. Norwegians, New Zealanders, and a few others may come out smelling even sweeter than Israel or the United States, but they are far from nastiness, and appear to be irrelevant to this discussion. 
There are several indicators to challenge the often-heard charge that Israel represses its Arab minority. Among the most persuasive is the summary indicator of health: longevity. Israeli Arabs do not live as long as Israeli Jews, but the differences are smaller than those between American Whites and Blacks. Not only do Israeli Arabs live, on the average, six years longer than American Blacks, but Israeli Arab men live longer than White American men.
The incidence of Israeli Arabs as opposed to African-Americans who are so far removed from the norms of their societies as to be incarcerated also shows that Israel is not the oppressive society often depicted. While Arabs are incarcerated at twice the incidence of Jews in Israel, Blacks are incarcerated at four times the rate of Whites in the United States.

Israel’s security actions often come under attack, but an inquiry into the balance of threat versus defensive action does not support the condemnation of Israel. Since 2000 the incidence of Israelis who have died from Palestinian violence and terrorism. is six times the incidence of American casualties on 9-11, in Iraq and Afghanistan, corrected for population . The casualties caused by Israel in its defense appear to be substantially fewer than those caused by the United States. Lacking the kind of international investigations focused on Israel, however, the figures about fighters and civilians killed by American troops are far from precise. Perhaps 7,500 Palestinians and Lebanese have been killed by Israeli security forces since 2000.

Estimates of those killed in Iraq since the US-led invasion of 2003 range between 100,000 and one million, and estimates of those killed in Afghanistan range up to 40,000. Both figures reflect violence among Iraqis and Afghans, as well as casualties traced to American and allied troops. Those willing to listen to a non-Israeli professional soldier on the morality of the IDF might consider the comments by the former commander of British forces in Afghanistan. He describes the IDF’s concerns to avoid civilian casualties as greater than those of any other military force. 

A friend in Thurston County, Washington is more certain than I that he can distinguish anti-Semitism from a posture against Israel. He described efforts to oppose the boycott of Israeli products by the Olympia Food Coop. He writes
This isn’t about anti-Semitism. The momentum for the boycott comes from anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian people in our community. For the most part they are careful to avoid doing/saying anything which would open them to a charge of anti-Semitism. 

He goes on to write that a hate crime at the Chabad Center produced an outpouring of support for the Jewish community; that he and his friends defeated a effort by pro-Palestinians to name Rafah as a sister city; and that hundreds of people, not just from the Jewish community, came out to protest when neo-Nazis tried to stage a rally. 

I am a long way from Thurston County, and I would not condemn its population on the basis of an unknown number who may have gone over the line between a reasonable posture against Israel and anti-Semitism. It appears to me, however, that my friend is being too generous in clearing his adversaries from the charge. What he describes smells too much like “Some of my best friends are Jews.”

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Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University
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