bak ghetto

This is my latest column for the International New York Times,  published under the headline ‘Enough Hate for Everyone’.

A few years ago, I was a guest on Start the Week, a BBC radio discussion show. Among the other guests was the novelist Eva Figes, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany and a fierce critic of Israel. Israel, she suggested, would have built gas chambers to exterminate the Palestinians but for the fear it would ‘be found out’.

What astonished me was not simply Ms. Figes’ comment itself, but the fact that I was the only one who challenged her on it. The other guests may well have felt that a Holocaust survivor had some special license to speak harshly about Israel. I certainly don’t see them as anti-Semitic. But in suggesting without a speck of evidence that Israelis had a desire to build gas chambers, Ms. Figes had, for me, given the history of the Holocaust, crossed a line.What the incident revealed was that many anti-Semitic ideas have become such an acceptable part of the liberal view on Israel that they are barely seen as such any more. They have become almost invisible.

I was reminded of that discussion as the question of anti-Semitism has returned to Europe — often disguised as anger against Israel’s assault on Gaza. Synagogues have been attacked, Jewish-owned shops smashed, Jews beaten up. In Britain this week, one London branch of a national supermarket cleared its shelves of kosher food after anti-Israel protests. At pro-Palestinian demonstrations in London, placards comparing Israelis to Nazis have become common. There have even, reportedly, been chants of ‘gas the Jews’ at demonstrations in Germany.

Today’s anti-Semitism in Europe is more than a replay of old themes; it is also the product of new developments. One is the growth of Muslim communities, or rather, their transformation.In the 1970s and ’80s, Muslim communities in Europe were broadly secular. Since the late ’80s, though, secular movements have been marginalized, while religious fervour has grown. Support for the Palestinian cause has always been strong, but only recently has a fervent anti-Semitism become entrenched.

It might be convenient for some to simply blame the growth of reactionary tendencies within Muslim communities for the new anti-Semitism, but the truth is more complicated. A 2008 survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project showed that hostility to Jews had increased in most European nations. In Britain, Muslims make up 4.6 percent of the population; in France, 7.5 percent. The proportion of people who possessed unfavourable views of Jews in those countries was, respectively, 9 percent and 20 percent. But in Spain, where just 2.3 percent of the population is Muslim, almost half the population was ill disposed toward Jews, a figure that had more than doubled in three years. In Poland, there are just 20,000 Muslims, or about 0.1 percent of the population; more than a third of Poles held anti-Semitic views. In other words, there is no clear correlation in Europe between the level of popular anti-Semitism and the size of the Muslim population. In fact, it is in those countries with fewer Muslims that anti-Semitism seems most prevalent.

Continue reading in the International New York Times


The painting is ‘The Ghetto of Jewish History’ by Samuel Bak.


  1. Rick Worth

    There is much to commend in this article. But to suggest that “anti-Semitic ideas have become such an acceptable part of the liberal view on Israel” is simply wrong. Dangerously and foolishly wrong. And I take it personally. Generalisations like that lead to things like, well, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia!

  2. Keith

    The anti-Semitism you are referring to is a natural response to an unnatural state of affairs… Israel in and of it’s own volition needs to perpetuate the very terrible nature of anti-Semitism just to validate it’s existence. Israel and anti-Semitism are both exclusive mutually. In other words, you can’t have one without the other. It is this reinforcing nature I think is what lies at the very heart or nature of justifiable hatred of Israel. Israel is a non-modernized state which refuses to engage or participate in a liberalized modern ethically humane world. It’s this particularism in arrested modern development as a nation which glorifies and perpetuates a myth of exclusion I think is what are the driving force of criticism. Remember, Jews were somewhat forced at first for the most part to settle there as a reaction to anti-Semitism…. With no extreme forms of anti-Semitism being practiced around the world we find that Israel acts as an “insurance policy” for those who live elsewhere.
    Not all Hate is justified but some justification just isn’t permitted amongst liberal circles.
    If anything, we need to see or look at the beneficial nature of being hated and how it strengthens the resolve of a group or person.
    It’s hard to love your enemies when your enemies love to be hated.
    Whether or not the hatred is real or imagined is irrelevant. The narrative which comes with the hate is exceptionally traditional going back to the time of Christ. It is this tradition that binds a people known mainly as the persecuted yet chosen…
    Real or true ant-Semitism can only exist in a world without an Israel… With an Israel it is that anti-Semitism which transforms itself into the very myth of it’s founding. Am I anti-Semitic if I don’t believe in anti-Semitism? Perhaps. But it is impossible to be both victim/benefactor of such hatred, yet this is precisely where Israel stands. In so far as the word goes perhaps it is time for newer discerning definitions… I really don’t know… Yet, I must say, that I personally see Israel as the great unqualified qualifier in this instance of pre-Israeli anti-semitism and Israeli anti-semitism. Without the preface of Israel anti-Semitism isn’t justified.
    Is it possible then to conceive of a “good” or “bad” anti-Semitism? That depends on who/whom benefits from the abuse. Yet as a group evolutionary strategy the “chosen ones” have done pretty good for themselves all in all, some in all and one in all… Although if we were to imagine an end to anti-Semitism, the end of Israel, then wouldn’t that thought be in fact anti-Semitic? Yet I mentioned before that without an Israel anti-Semitism gains in it’s significance. With no place to go for safety then the persecution becomes more relevant. Perhaps we need to look at “relevant” anti-Semitism or “irrelevant” anti-Semitism… In any case, more thoughts are needed to flesh the meaning out. Thoughts?

  3. A very thought-provoking analyis, Do human beings just naturally divide into competing tribes – do they enjoy it? Do we like making skapegoats? But having analysed the causes of malfunction, we need to find and apply the mechanisms of one of our great achievements: effective cooperation, permitting both cohesion and imaginative innovation.

  4. A wonderful, even handed, post!

    Although not Jewish myself, I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood and always had a very positive view of Israel. The first time I went to London (well, the only time) I went for a convention. In the bar area the first day I met an older woman from Israel who told me that she had grown up in Germany. She said that some of the things she was hearing in Israel reminded her of the same things she had heard in Germany and it disturbed her. She mentioned that she had a daughter who was living in Germany and she didn’t know if she should go back or stay in Israel to better opposed the sort of opinions that were upsetting her. That was the first time I had heard something negative about Israel. This was in 1996.

    The first time I went to Europe, the were some scary moments when we were harassed by some Germans who though I was Turkish. (I’m your basic American mutt and have no ethnic identity.) Also, the friend with whom I was traveling is Jewish and we encountered antisemitism as well. It was very eye-opening, especially since I grew up being told that Europeans were all so much more sophisticated and intellectual. (Just for the record, overall I like Europe and will be going back again in a month.)

    Although I didn’t know it for a fact, I’m not surprised that there seems to be a correlation between antisemitism and anti-Muslim prejudice, since the both spring from feelings of tribalism.

  5. Debbie

    In recent days I’ve been reading too many comments on the subject of Israel and the Palestinians, and as a NY Times reader have been shocked by the raw dislike and condemnation of Israel, and how the comments show a real lack of knowledge of the history. Today’s Times piece was about something called Liberal Zionism being dead, and that we should welcome something called The Left. I think the reason liberals oppose Israel is simpler than anti-semitism, it’s just the IN thing to do and be right now. I think it stems from the 60s, Vietnam and the Cold War. The correct, cool, hip thing – I’m not saying it was wrong – was to oppose the war, which meant the Soviet Union and Communism weren’t evil, and the Soviet Union became virulently anti-Israel. Sympathy for Israel started to disappear fast, and it’s going down the drain.

    • Rick Worth

      Debbie, the issue is not of history, but what is happening today. There is no dichotomy. It is quite possible to support the right of both Israel and Palestine to live inside secure internationally-recognised borders, condemn Hamas rockets, and still be appalled by Israel’s actions in Gaza. My generation, the one which solidly supported Israel in 1967, is probably more appalled than many others. Liberals don’t oppose Israel. They oppose Israel’s action in Gaza right now. But anti-Semitism is something else and the charge is thrown around far to often when Israeli actions in Gaza are criticised. It should be saved for the real anti-Semites.

      • Rick, instead of vague assertions of how you are “appalled by Israel’s actions in Gaza,” lay out a clear, comprehensive military solution that would be superior to Israel’s. How would you deal with Hamas, an Islamic supremacist organization expressly dedicated to the complete destruction of Israel and engaged in almost non-stop acts of aggression?

        What I see is the sanctimony of secure Westerners who do not have to make life-and-death decisions based on incomplete information. You are the same lot that were raging at Obama during lulls in the Islamist conflicts for his drones policy, even though the whole point of drones is to have fewer innocent casualties and less direct military incursions on foreign states. I notice the success of ISIS and Boko Haram have muted those criticisms noticeably.

  6. I was naïve about the sheer degree of venom and obsession manifest towards Israel until I spent time at Huffington Post. Having gone to Berkeley, I always knew Israel-Palestine was one of the cliché leftist causes on campus, but things were muted after Oslo, when I was in school. I was shocked by the venomous, bombastic rhetoric that not only poured forth routinely, but made it consistently past Huff Post’s otherwise aggressive pre-moderation.

    Thus I can affect no surprise at a critic casually using Holocaust-terminology to describe the conflict. There is no firm, consensus number, but somewhere between 40,000 and 110,000 have died in Arab-Jewish violence since 1918. That is literally a few week’s death toll during the height of the actual Holocaust and obviously pales in comparison to the death toll of numerous conflicts over the same period, including reasonably analogous situations like West Papua.

    To compare them is intellectually and morally insupportable. Owen Jones, a real bien pensant socialist at The Guardian, was even saying how Gaza reminded him of a book on nuclear war! I mean, how can you even begin to rationally discuss the issue when supposedly serious journalists think in those terms?

    My current shibboleth, with a nod to its Hebrew etymology, is to probe Israel critics acknowledgement of the fate of Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews in the Muslim world after 1948 (now the majority of Jews in Israel) and how that factors into their moral calculus. You cannot hold a morally or intellectually serious view of the conflict without that being central.

    I certainly am critical of Israeli policy. In particular I think the settlements are simply reprehensible. Even in the cases where they are reestablishing a Jewish community that ceased in 1948, they simply complicate any solution needlessly. I favor Jordan retaking sovereignty over the West Bank, Egypt over Gaza, and Israel keeping Golan. The entire concept of “Palestine” as some unique Arab entity is a product of political gamesmanship, not reality.

  7. josh

    Can you give some more evidence for the rise of a New Anti-Semitism? A comment on a liberal radio show hardly seems sufficient, particularly since it seems directed against the state not the people. The New Anti-Semitism has been talked about for years, chiefly by apologists for US/Israeli state violence. Finkelstein has demolished the claims in the past. What is the evidence? As a Jew in London I simply don’t see it.

  8. Roger

    “Eva Figes, [suggested] Israel…would have built gas chambers to exterminate the Palestinians but for the fear it would ‘be found out’.”
    It’s an absurd and contemptible remark and virulently anti-Israeli, but is it actually anti-Semitic? Antisemitism depends on the attribution of particular qualities to all jews, regardless of where they live.

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