The Meaning of Anti-Semitism

‘ANTISEMITISM ISN’T THE first name of hate, it’s the family name’. So spoke Israel’s Foreign Minister, Yair Lapid at last week’s ‘Global Forum for Combatting Antisemitism’ in Jerusalem.

Lapid went on to say that the term ‘antisemitism’ applied to ‘anyone who hates so much that they want to kill, eliminate, persecute and expel people just because they are different.’.

He cited the Rwandan massacre of 1994 and the Islamist atrocities of ISIS and Boko Haram as examples of such a virulent obsession.

This broader perception of antisemitism, however, provoked anger and opprobrium from the nationalist Right in Israel, voiced by Lapid’s bitter opponent, the former prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Yet Lapid is no dyed-in-the-wool Leftist, as is evidenced by his standard, unthinking response this week to the somewhat cack-handed decision by Ben and Jerry to refuse to sell their ice cream in the occupied territories. It was “a shameful capitulation to antisemitism, BDS, and everything bad in the anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish discourse,” Lapid commented.

Netanyahu, who is now in the throes of a sulphurous campaign to demonstrate that the premiership was stolen from him, and that Bennett and Lapid are merely temporary occupants of high office, believes that ‘Israel First’ should be the primary concern of all Jews. In his view, the very idea of ‘Israel as a light unto the nations’ should be relegated to way down the ladder of priorities.

In contrast, Lapid argues that a polarisation between these two sets of outlooks is never the solution. He instead expounds an approach that integrates both in a symbiotic relationship.

Contrary to Netanyahu’s assertion, Lapid did actually refer to the Shoah in terms of its uniqueness in world history as “the extreme manifestation of hate”. He should know: his grandfather met his end in Mauthausen.

Lapid also said somewhat cryptically that “antisemites weren’t only in the Budapest Ghetto….”

He had good reason for saying this; his father, Tommy, had survived the lethal misery of this wretched ghetto in the Hungarian capital in 1944. As a young boy of barmitzvah age at the time, he had managed to escape the clutches of the murderous local fascists, the Arrow Cross, but owed his life and his freedom to a non-Jew, Raoul Wallenberg.

This Swedish diplomat saved the lives of countless Jews by issuing a “schutz-pass” — a protective passport bearing the insignia of the three Swedish crowns — to anyone who needed it. Some 8,000-9,000 Jews were protected by the Swedes in the international ghetto. More importantly, Wallenberg’s emissary persuaded the German commander in Budapest, General Gerhard Schmidhuber, not to liquidate the general ghetto and its 100,000 Jewish inhabitants as the Nazi forces withdrew from Hungary before the advance of the Red Army.

The scourge of antisemitism for Jews is self-evidently central to their concerns, but the lessons of history also reinforce the need to take action against racism in any form. One can argue with Lapid’s choice of words and labels, but the implicit meaning of his eloquent initiative is that after the Shoah, no Jew can be a bystander.

It is for this reason that Jews were conspicuously prominent in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and in the civil rights movement in the United States.

Netanyahu’s narrow framing of how Jews should act in the 21st century is not one shared by many Jews in the Diaspora — who just happen to live among non-Jews.

Two weeks ago, the English football team was defeated in the final of the European championship. Their brilliance on the field had raised the spirits of the entire country in a time of pandemic. Their defeat was the result of three missed shots during a penalty shoot-out at the end of an arduous, exhausting final — and those who took the shots happened to be young black players.

The disappointment of losing launched a torrent of racist abuse on social media. It also saw the defacing of a mural of Marcus Rashford in Manchester — one of those footballers who missed his penalty. Yet Rashford had become a national hero in Britain. He came from a poor home — to the extent that the state provided free meals for him at school.

When the British Government recently insisted on cancelling this provision of free meals during lockdown when schools were closed, Rashford mounted an eloquent, yet sophisticated campaign against this decision, which ended in tears for Boris Johnson, who conducted yet another U-turn and continued to provide free meals for needy children.

The defacing of the Rushford mural deeply upset Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, the Senior Rabbi of the Masorti movement in the UK. At two o’clock in the morning he made a decision to drive from London to Manchester, a trip of several hours, to visit the mural, pay homage to those who had left messages at the site — and leave a missive of hope and solidarity from his own Jewish community.

This small moral gesture may have had little influence on the battalions of mindless racists, but it certainly inspired thousands of Jews and non-Jews in the UK when Wittenberg’s journey became known. So why was Wittenberg so anguished? It was because his grandfather’s synagogue had been burned to the ground during Kristallnacht in November 1938. The family escaped to England and Palestine shortly afterwards.

Rabbi Wittenberg’s example is something Benjamin Netanyahu will never understand.

It is perhaps too early to judge the performance of the new Israeli government of Naftali Bennett, but clearly what unites the eight disparate parties that constitute the coalition, is to differentiate themselves from Netanyahu’s indifference to moral conduct in policy and in office.

It attempts to reclaim the universalism of Jewish tradition but does not reject its particularism — and specifically in this regard, the ongoing struggle against antisemitism and support for the state of Israel. While Lapid does not overegg the belief that antisemitism has reared its head from time to time since 1945, neither does he underestimate its historical durability.

It has been reported that Lapid would like to publicly condemn the massacre of the Armenians during World War I as a genocide. Although many Jewish organisations in the Diaspora have done so, Netanyahu’s governments repeatedly turned away from such a recognition, no doubt for fear that the nationalist Turkish president, Recep Erdoğan would erupt in his usual mercurial fashion.

Yet few Israelis can forget that Erdoğan hypocritically accused Israel of being guilty of genocide in 2014 after a prolonged conflict with Hamas. Once again, the call of Jewish history is clashing with Netanyahu’s perception of national interest today.

Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi in 2019 published their work on the mass murder of the Armenians, The Thirty-Year Genocide, and demonstrated that this was a deliberate attempt to extinguish Anatolia’s Christian population — Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians.

While the Nazis used guns and gas, many of the murdered Christians were killed with knives, bayonets, axes and stones; thousands were burned alive (the Nazis burned corpses); tens of thousands of women and girls were gang-raped and murdered; clerics were crucified; and thousands of Christian dignitaries were tortured — eyes gouged out, noses and ears cut off…

The Israeli academics concluded that “in terms of the behaviour of the perpetrators, on the level of individual actions, the Turkish massacre of Christians was far more sadistic than the Nazi murder of the Jews”.

Such powerful commentary from two distinguished scholars had no effect on Netanyahu. Neither did President Biden’s recent pronouncement on the issue: calling it out for what it was — “genocide”.

And the word of the law did not come forth from Zion, only silence.

Lapid signalled his belief in his speech that involvement in the fight against racism will bring allies in the fight against antisemitism. In contrast, Netanyahu preferred to be dependent on the Kahanists of Otzma Yehudit — and their often-racist taunts — to reclaim power.

During the conflict between the Ottoman Turks and the forces of the British Empire in the Holy Land during World War I, many local Jews in Palestine prayed for a British victory. They also worried that the presence of the Jewish Legion of Jabotinsky and Trumpeldor, fighting alongside the British, would force the hands of the Turks and precipitate a pogrom in the manner of the Armenian killings.

A few young Jews in Zikhron Ya’akov disregarded this mindset. Instead, they established the Nili espionage ring which courageously supplied intelligence to the British. Several members gave their lives in the process.

The Nili member, Avshalom Feinberg, clearly understood the danger that he had placed himself in. He compared the Turks to Titus, the Roman destroyer of Zion two millennia before. But he also remembered the Armenian tragedy as a sign of the dark times that he lived in. He wrote:

And I, a Jew, forgot that I am a Jew. I asked myself whether I have the right to weep ‘over the tragedy of the daughter of my people’ only — and whether Jeremiah did not shed tears of blood for the Armenians as well.

Feinberg met the same fate of his compatriots in Nili and was killed at the age of 27.

It is the moral legacy of Zionist heroes such as Feinberg that Yair Lapid is trying to reclaim for today’s generation in the struggle against racism.

Plus61j 23 July 2021

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