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The new anti-Semitism

A YEAR AGO, Harvard President Lawrence Summers caused a stir with a speech in which he charged that anti-Semitism was making a comeback under the guise of criticizing Israel's conduct toward the Palestinians. Some applauded Summers's message, while others accused him of equating criticism of Israel with bigotry.


Today, the "new anti-Semitism" is garnering more and more attention in the United States and in Europe. In France, which many regard as an epicenter of this phenomenon, the government has recently stepped up its condemnation of anti-Semitic hate crimes -- and even the mainstream press, which is rife with an anti-Israeli animus, has started to admit that the lines between "anti-Zionism" and "anti-Semitism" are being blurred.

That anti-Semitism is bad hardly seems subject to debate. Yet the debate rages on. Just last month, it was reported that the European Union's racism watchdog group, the European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia, had shelved a report on anti-Semitism which it had commissioned earlier from a Berlin-based research group. The center's staff apparently objected to the study's definition of anti-Semitism -- which included some anti-Israeli rhetoric -- and to its conclusion that Muslims and pro-Palestinian activists were largely responsible for anti-Jewish vandalism and violence.

Obviously, criticism of Israel is not automatically anti-Semitic -- just as, say, criticism of Robert Mugabe's regime in Zimbabwe, or other dictatorships in Africa, is not automatically racist. At the same time, few would deny that right now, the hatred of Israel emanating from much of the Muslim world has become virtually indistinguishable from the most virulent kind of anti-Semitism. One may recall the notorious speech by then-Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia to the Tenth Islamic Summit conference in October, in which he charged that "the Jews rule this world by proxy" (a statement that was widely condemned in Europe and America but applauded by many Arab leaders).

For years now, the mostly government-run media in Arab countries, including "moderate" ones such as Egypt, have been feeding their audiences a steady stream of anti-Semitic propaganda that would not seem out of place in Nazi Germany -- and that makes no distinction between "Zionists" and Jews. This revolting fare includes Holocaust denial as well as recycling of old anti-Semitic forgeries and canards, from the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" to the "blood libel" which accuses the Jews of using the blood of Gentile children in their rituals.

The "new anti-Semitism" in Western Europe is a more complex issue. As Gabriel Schoenfeld documents in his forthcoming book "The Return of Anti-Semitism" (Encounter Books), the anti-Israeli backlash has often taken the form of physical attacks on Jews, including beatings of Jewish children in schools, assaults on Jews wearing religious garb in the streets, and vandalism against Jewish cemeteries and synagogues. But there is also the question of what Schoenfeld and many others regard as a more "genteel" anti-Semitic bias perpetrated by progressive intellectuals.

Often, the lines are difficult to draw. Some time ago, an intense controversy surrounded a cartoon in a British newspaper which depicted Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon devouring a child. Critics saw this as a clear-cut reference to the "blood libel"; the cartoonist responded that he was alluding to the famous Goya painting of Saturn devouring his children, not to Sharon's Jewishness. It is quite true that many non-Jewish political leaders who have presided over military operations, including President Bush, have been labeled as child killers. It is difficult to be sure of the cartoonist's intent -- though, arguably, he should have been more sensitive to the cultural implications of the image he used.

But there are other, far less ambiguous examples. Thus, a cartoon in a respectable Italian daily, La Stampa, showed an infant Jesus lying in front of an Israeli tank -- with a caption saying, "Don't tell me they want to kill me again." The reference to the smear against Jews as "Christ killers" is impossible to miss. In England, a columnist for a leading newspaper, The Observer, declared that he refused to read pro-Israel letters signed with Jewish-sounding names, and suggested that Jews writing on issues related to the Middle East should identify their background.

The report censored by the European Union's center on racism pointed to the dangers of the anti-Israeli animus on the left: "Israel, seen as a capitalistic, imperialistic power, the `Zionist lobby,' and the United States are depicted as the evildoers in the Middle East conflict as well as exerting negative influence on global affairs." In many cases, it seems that this "progressive" outlook is providing a cover for a very old prejudice.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. Her column appears regularly in the Globe.

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