Graffiti On History's Walls
All the isms," an English wag once said, "are wasms." Well, not quite. In the 20th century, fascism came and went. Communism came and went. Socialism came and waned. But today several virulent "isms" inhabit the world still. Among the most pernicious are an atavistic anti-Semitism and its 20th-century version, anti-Zionism. These "isms" are graffiti on the wall of history, emblems of a poison still potent and raw, evidenced, most recently, by the remarks of Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who said, "Today the Jews rule this world by proxy. They get others to fight and die for them."
Mahathir's words were widely condemned. But such comments obscure a deeper truth about this new strain of anti-Semitism, which is not that it is directed at individual Jews or even at Judaism itself. It is directed, rather, against the Jewish collective, the modern State of Israel.
Just as historic anti-Semitism has denied individual Jews the right to live as equal members of society, anti-Zionism would deny the collective expression of the Jewish people, the State of Israel, the right to live as an equal member of the family of nations. Israel's policies are thus subjected to criticism that causes it to be singled out when others in similar circumstances escape any criticism at all. Surely if any other country were bleeding from terrorism as Israel is today, there would be no question of its right to defend itself. But Israel's efforts merely to protect its own citizens are routinely portrayed as aggression.
To complain that such portrayals are unfair and illogical is not to dismiss all criticism of the Israeli government as anti-Semitic. A democracy must welcome critics, and Israel surely has its critics in spades--just look at the spirited Israeli press. "Jews," as one commentator put it, "are gold medalists in the art of self-criticism." But for many, recent criticism of Israel has become so perverse, so persistent, so divorced from reality that it can be seen only as emotional anti-Semitism hiding behind the insidious political mask of anti-Zionism.
The new anti-Semitism transcends boundaries, nationalities, politics, and social systems. Israel has become the object of envy and resentment in much the same way that the individual Jew was once the object of envy and resentment. Israel, in effect, is emerging as the collective Jew among nations. After more than half a century of Holocaust education, hundreds of courses in high schools and colleges, and thousands of books dedicated to exposing its evils, traditional anti-Semitism as a domestic issue had all but disappeared in much of the world. "The Jewish problem" was no longer defined by what happened to the Jews of Germany or France or Poland or Russia. Instead, in Europe and the Muslim world--even in Asia--traditional anti-Semitism has lately re-emerged as anti-Zionism, focused on the Jews of Israel, the role of Israel, and, for some, on Jews in the United States who support Israel.
This phenomenon has its origins in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Since then, the image of the Jew has been transformed. Shylock, suddenly, has been replaced by a new Jew, cartooned as an aggressive, all-powerful collective called Israel. "Rambo Jew," as the writer Daniel Goldhagen put it, "has largely supplanted Shylock in the anti-Semitic imagination." With the territories seized at the end of the war, the "plucky little Jewish state" was no more. In the years since, as it responded again and again to Arab attacks, sympathy for Israel eroded further still as the world's TVs broadcast images not of terrorists but of armed Israelis responding to terrorism. Only somehow the word "responding" too often got lost in the chaos. The TV pictures seemed to imply that the Israelis were guilty of a disproportionate use of force, for they were rarely accompanied by an understanding that a country with just 6 million in a sea of over 120 million Arabs could never fight a war of equal attrition.