“The Uncomfortable Question of Anti-Semitism”

May 22, 2004

I attach part of chapter one of "Those Who Forget the Past: The Question of Anti-Semitism," a 50-chapter book recommended in one of my other emails of today.

This is the first part of an essay, written by Jonathan Rosen in the aftermath of 9/11, and was first published in the New York Times Sunday magazine on November 4, 2001. (Jonathan Rosen, author of "Eve's Apple" and "The Talmud and the Internet," is a long-time subscriber to this email list.)

-- Tom Gross



The Uncomfortable Question of Anti-Semitism
By Jonathan Rosen

When I was growing up, my father would go to bed with a transistor radio set to an all-news station. Even without a radio, my father was attuned to the menace of history. A Jew born in Vienna in 1924, he fled his homeland in 1938; his parents were killed in the Holocaust. I sometimes imagined my father was listening for some repetition of past evils so that he could rectify old responses, but he may just have been expecting more bad news. In any event, the grumbling static from the bedroom depressed me, and I vowed to replace it with music more cheerfully in tune with America. These days, however, I find myself on my father's frequency. I have awakened to anti-Semitism.

I am not being chased down alleyways and called a Christ killer, I do not feel that prejudicial hiring practices will keep me out of a job, and I am not afraid that the police will come and take away my family. I am, in fact, more grateful than ever that my father found refuge in this country. But in recent weeks I have been reminded, in ways too plentiful to ignore, about the role Jews play in the fantasy life of the world. Jews were not the cause of World War II, but they were at the metaphysical center of that conflict nonetheless, since the Holocaust was part of Hitler's agenda and a key motivation of his campaign. Jews are not the cause of World War III, if that's what we are facing, but they have been placed at the center of it in mysterious and disturbing ways.

I was born in 1963, a generation removed and an ocean away from the destruction of European Jewry. My mother was born here, so there was always half the family that breathed in the easy air of postwar America. You don't have to read a lot of Freud to discover that the key to a healthy life is the ability to fend off reality to a certain extent. Deny reality too much, of course, and you're crazy; too little and you're merely miserable. My own private balancing act has involved acknowledging the fate of my murdered grandparents and trying to live a modern American life. I studied English literature in college and in graduate school, where I toyed with a dissertation on Milton, a Christian concerned with justifying the ways of God to man. I dropped out of graduate school to become a writer, but I always felt about my life in America what Milton says of Adam and Eve entering exile-the world was all before me.

Living in New York, pursuing my writing life, I had the world forever all before me. I chose within it-I married and had a child. For ten years I worked at a Jewish newspaper. But my sense of endless American possibility never left me-even working at a Jewish newspaper seemed a paradoxical assertion of American comfort. My father's refugee sense of the world was something that both informed me and that I worked to define myself against. I felt it was an act of mental health to recognize that his world was not my world and that his fears were the product of an experience alien to me. I was critical of the Holocaust Museum in Washington. I didn't want ancient European anti-Semitism enshrined on federal land. But now everything has come to American soil.

Recently, I read an interview with Sheik Muhammad Gemeaha-who was not only the representative in the United States of the prominent Cairo Center of Islamic Learning, al-Azhar University, but also imam of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York City. The sheik, who until recently lived in Manhattan on the Upper West Side, explained that "only the Jews" were capable of destroying the World Trade Center and added that "if it became known to the American people, they would have done to Jews what Hitler did." This sentiment will be familiar to anyone who has been watching the news or reading the papers. In Kuwait, there were reports that New York rabbis told their followers to take their money out of the stock market before September 11; in Egypt, the Mossad was blamed for the attack. It is easy talk to dismiss as madness, I suppose, but because so many millions of Muslims seem to believe it, and because airplanes actually did crash into the World Trade Center, words have a different weight and menace than they had before.

So does history, or rather the forces that shape history-particularly the history of the Jews. It would be wrong to say that everything changed on the eleventh of September for me. Like the man in the Hemingway novel who went bankrupt two ways-gradually and then suddenly-my awareness of things had also been growing slowly. My father's sister escaped in the 1930s from Vienna to Palestine-now, of course, called Israel-and I have a lot of family there. I grew up knowing that Israel, for all its vitality, was ringed with enemies; I knew how perilous and bleak life had become after the collapse of the Oslo peace process a year ago and how perilous and bleak it could be before that.

I knew, too, that works like "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," the Russian forgery about demonic Jewish power, have been imported into Arab society, like obsolete but deadly Soviet weapons. By grafting ancient Christian calumnies onto modern political grievances, Arab governments have transformed Israel into an outpost of malevolent world Jewry, viewing Israelis and Jews as interchangeable emblems of cosmic evil. So when the Syrian defense minister recently told a delegation from the British Royal College of Defense Studies that the destruction of the World Trade Center was part of a Jewish conspiracy, I wasn't really surprised.

I'd gotten a whiff of this back in early September, while following the United Nations conference on racism and discrimination in Durban, South Africa, where the Arab Lawyers Union distributed booklets at the conference containing anti-Semitic caricatures of Jews with fangs dripping blood-a mere sideshow to the isolation of Israel and the equating of Zionism with racism that ultimately led to the United States' withdrawal. Singling out Israel made of a modern nation an archetypal villain-Jews were the problem and the countries of the world were figuring out the solution. This was hardly new in the history of the United Nations, but there was something so naked about the resurrected Nazi propaganda and the anti-Semitism fueling the political denunciations that I felt kidnapped by history. The past had come calling.

I felt this in a different form reading coverage of Israel in European papers. Though public expressions of anti-Semitism are taboo in a post-Holocaust world, many Europeans, in writing about Israel, have felt free to conjure images of determined child killers and mass murderers. Earlier this year, the Spanish daily La Vanguardia published a cartoon depicting a large building labeled "Museum of the Jewish Holocaust" and behind it a building under construction labeled "Future Museum of the Palestinian Holocaust." The cartoon manages to demonize Jews and trivialize the Holocaust simultaneously. Tom Gross, an Israel-based journalist, recently pointed out to me that a BBC correspondent, Hilary Andersson, declared that to describe adequately the outrage of Israel's murder of Palestinian children one would have to reach back to Herod's slaughter of the innocents-alluding to Herod's attempt to kill Christ in the cradle by massacring Jewish babies. After leading an editor from The Guardian on a tour of the occupied territories, Gross was astonished at the resulting front-page editorial in that highly influential British paper declaring that the establishment of Israel has exacted such a high moral price that "the international community cannot support this cost indefinitely."

I understood that the editorial, speaking of the cost of the establishment of Israel-not of any particular policies-implied that Israel's very right to exist is somehow still at issue. (One cannot imagine something similar being formulated about, say, Russia, in response to its battle with Chechen rebels, however much The Guardian might have disagreed with that country's policies.) And this reminded me inevitably of the situation of the Jews in 1940s Europe, where simply to be was an unpardonable crime.

I had somehow believed that the Jewish Question, which so obsessed both Jews and anti-Semites in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, had been solved-most horribly by Hitler's "final solution," most hopefully by Zionism. But more and more I feel Jews being turned into a question mark once again. How is it, the world still asks-about Israel, about Jews, about me-that you are still here? I have always known that much of the world wanted Jews simply to disappear, but there are degrees of knowledge, and after September 11 my imagination seems more terribly able to imagine a world of rhetoric fulfilled.

There are five million Jews in Israel and eight million more Jews in the rest of the world. There are one billion Muslims. How has it happened that Israel and "world Jewry," along with the United States, is the enemy of so many of them? To be singled out inside a singled-out country is doubly disconcerting. There are a lot of reasons why modernizing, secularizing, globalizing America, whose every decision has universal impact, would disturb large swaths of the world; we are, after all, a superpower. Surely it is stranger that Jews, by their mere presence in the world, would unleash such hysteria.

And yet what I kept hearing in those first days in the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center is that it was our support of Israel that had somehow brought this devastation down on us. It was a kind of respectable variant of the belief that the Mossad had literally blown up the World Trade Center. It could of course be parried-after all, the turning point in Osama bin Laden's hatred of the United States came during the Gulf war, when American troops were stationed in Saudi Arabia. But it had a lingering effect; it was hard to avoid a certain feeling that there was something almost magical about Israel that made it toxic for friends and foes alike.

This feeling will not go away, if only because our support of that nation makes it harder to maintain our coalition. Israel has somehow become an obstacle to war and an obstacle to peace simultaneously.

Lately, of course, bin Laden has added treatment of Palestinians to his list of grievances, and this may revive the sense that Israel bears some measure of responsibility. Large lies can be constructed out of smaller truths. The occupation of the West Bank by Israel, though it grew out of a war Israel did not want, has been a nightmare for the Palestinians and a disaster for Israel morally, politically, and spiritually. It is a peculiar misery to feel this way and to feel, at the same time, that the situation has become a weapon in the war against Israel. Bin Laden would not want a Palestinian state on the West Bank, because he could not abide a Jewish state alongside it.

Neither could many of our allies in the Muslim world, who keep euphemistically suggesting that if only the "Mideast crisis" were resolved, terrorism would diminish. It has a plausible veneer-and indeed, it would be an extraordinary achievement if the Palestinians got a homeland and Israel got safe borders. But since most of the players in the Middle East do not accept the existence of Israel, since "solving the Mideast crisis" would for them entail a modern version of Hitler's final solution, the phrase takes on weird and even sinister overtones when it is blandly employed by well-intentioned governments calling for a speedy solution. And this Orwellian transformation of language is one of the most exasperating and disorienting aspects of the campaign against Israel. It has turned the word "peace" into a euphemism for war.

I grew up in a post-Holocaust world. For all the grim weight of that burden, and for all its echoing emptiness, there was a weird sort of safety in it too. After all, the worst thing had already happened-everything else was aftermath. In the wake of the Holocaust, American anti-Semitism dissipated, the church expunged old calumnies. The horror had been sufficient to shock even countries like the Soviet Union into supporting a newly declared Jewish state. Israel after 1967 was a powerful nation-besieged, but secure. American Jews were safe as houses.

I am not writing this essay to predict some inevitable calamity but to identify a change of mood. To say aloud that European anti-Semitism, which made the Holocaust possible, is still shaping the way Jews are perceived; Arab anti-Israel propaganda has joined hands with it and found a home in the embattled Muslim world. Something terrible has been born. What happened on September 11 is proof, as if we needed it, that people who threaten evil intend evil. This comes with the dawning awareness that weapons of mass destruction did not vanish with the Soviet Union; the knowledge that in fact they may pose a greater threat of actually being used in this century, if only in a limited fashion, is sinking in only now.

That a solution to one century's Jewish problem has become another century's Jewish problem is a cruel paradox. This tragedy has intensified to such a degree that friends, supporters of Israel, have wondered aloud to me if the time has come to acknowledge that the Israeli experiment has failed, that there is something in the enterprise itself that doomed it. This is the thinking of despair. I suppose one could wonder as much about America in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, since many American values will now be challenged and since, in fighting a war, you always become a little like your enemy, if only in accepting the need to kill. I grew up at a time when sex education was considered essential but what might be called war education, what a country must do to survive, was looked upon with a kind of prudish horror. I suppose that will now change. In any event, Israel has been at war for fifty years. Without that context, clear judgment is impossible, especially by those accustomed to the Holocaust notion that Jews in war are nothing but helpless victims-a standard that can make images to the contrary seem aberrant.

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.