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Drawing the Line on Anti-Semitism

Human Rights

Remember Tolstoy’s “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”? Genocides and war are like that, too. They are each incomparable. As you surely know, millions of Jewish people like me (together with a substantial contingent of homosexuals, Communists, Roma and others) were cattle-carred to Nazi concentration camps, subjected to horrific medical experiments, labour to death, gassing and other inhuman ways to live and die.

While the Jewish Holocaust was bizarre and horrible and revolting beyond description, it’s ridiculous to compare mass murders. Nor is there anything magical that makes anti-Jewish hatred qualitatively worse than other murderous, contemptible hatreds. This even though its special name – antisemitism – suggests the way it has mutated over centuries, alternately taking the form of ethnic, racial and religious hatred. That it is a persistent, tremendously adaptable manifestation of racism means it bears watching for vigilantly as opportunists take advantage of Israel’s obstinate awfulness.

Antisemitism is indeed on the rise in Canada, the U.K., France and Germany. True, the same studies that show rising reports of hate crimes directed at Jewish people and their homes, places of worship, or schools suggest that most cases of renewed antisemitism involve disaffected young, white men – the same old neo-Nazi dreck taking advantage of the political climate. It’s a good time for it, as the situation in the Occupied Territories boils over, suicide bombers proliferate and Ariel Sharon runs amok.

But even smart people (including many disaffected young, white men) can be really stupid. Kalle Lasn, editor of Adbusters, recently head-counted prominent neoconservatives in the U.S., finding a disturbing (to him) number of Jews, something he attributed to cultural inheritance. (Did he count the number of Jewish left-wingers? Did he count the proportion of middle-of-the-road Americans who are Jewish? Or of neoconservatives who are middle-aged white males like himself?) On the readers’ forum of the respectable anti-censorship website, Index On Censorship (, sane, sensitive analysis about Israel and Palestine leapt abruptly to wild speculation on the supposed Jewish mafia controlling the world (since I came across this less than two months ago, the editors have removed the readers’ forum – a case of anti-censorship censorship?). Contrary to what “progressive” racists would have you believe, antisemitism is not a route to Palestinian liberation. Nor are Ariel Sharon’s views held by a cabal of mystical, fantasy, hook-nosed, Fagin-like, universal Jews with their hands in every pie – from trade unions and modern cinema to the international capitalist system. As well, charges that Jewish Holocaust angst is just a way of diverting energy from the Palestinian struggle are often implicit. Easy to suggest when media give more weight to a spate of anti-Semitic acts like swastikas on walls and toppled tombstones than to the decades-long literal apartheid of Israel’s wall or toppled Palestinian houses. But the Holocaust was no joke, and it is not silly to fear a new variant of antisemitism.

Nevertheless, there are Jewish organizations and Jewish people who take a difficult anti-racist, anti-oppression outlook that understands the Palestinian struggle as part and parcel of their own struggle for social justice. Although groups differ on strategies and on their visions for a future Middle East peace, they all see a just peace as morally right – oppressing another people is not the answer to the Holocaust and to antisemitism through the ages – but self-interested, too, the only way to create a sustainable world for Jews and non-Jews alike.

Toronto’s Jewish Women’s Committee to End The Occupation in the West Bank and Gaza (JWCEO) draws inspiration from the Israel-based Women in Black, and sees an end to the Occupation as necessary for Israel’s own security. The International Solidarity Movement, a Palestinian-led, non-violent, international solidarity movement, is not a Jewish group, although two founders and many members are Jewish. ISM’s official line is that they condone the Palestinians’ armed struggle as an act of resistance within international law; they oppose terrorism. Gush Shalom, the self-described hard core of the peace movement in Israel, wants to see two independent states separated by the “Green Line.”

Drawing lines is important if our politics are to be enlightened, insistently progressive and free of cant. The Left in general must vocally resist collusion with antisemitism, which has, it’s true, stood the test of time. And I must find a route to solidarity with oppressed peoples, even when the issues cut close to home.

This article appeared in the May/June 2004 issue of Canadian Dimension .


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