Updating Anti-Semitism

When I first saw Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, I left the theater with a powerful feeling. When my companion, Shelly, asked how I liked the film, I told her I enjoyed it a great deal, but that I wished it had never been made.

The film portrays a Jewish fantasy of revenge against the Nazis, including a successful plot to kill Hitler. I tried to explain to Shelly how it felt to watch it, growing up among Holocaust survivors and, like most Jews of my generation, having been inundated with Holocaust material that stood in stark contrast to the relatively easy life of a Jew growing up in New York during the 1970s.

For me, as one of the few American Jews of my generation or younger that I have ever met who has actually endured anti-Semitic physical assaults, the resonance was powerful, but also distressing.

When, I asked Shelly, can we Jews expect to define ourselves in other ways than through the prism of anti-Semitism and the violence committed against us in the past? Maybe we’re moving toward it, but the fantasy of revenge against the Nazis helps put us back into it, I told her.

She seemed to understand what I was getting at. However, she is not Jewish. I don’t know if any non-Jew can fully grasp the need for us to find an identity that transcends the Holocaust.

That hope is further set back by the current round of “Holocaust terror” being perpetrated in the tension between Israel and Iran. Given the hostile rhetoric and Holocaust denial engaged in by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and the enmity between Israel and Iran, it isn’t surprising that there is fear, and less surprising that pro-war demagogues would employ Holocaust rhetoric.

But when Ha’aretz’s Chemi Shalev argues that it is only natural that Jews would support an attack on Iran because of our experience with the Holocaust, no matter the consequences, despite solid analyses which show it will do more harm than good, it is more than simply the collective memory of suffering he is invoking. Shalev is actually perpetuating anti-Semitism.

One might think he speaks for a minority when he writes: “…when push comes to shove, when all the other options have been exhausted, when there is no other avenue left, when it’s yes or no, do or die, kill or be killed – then I think that most Israelis and Jews, including myself, will support a military attack.”

Maybe he’s right, but at this point, it’s not the case. A recent poll showed that only 43% of Israeli Jews support an attack on Iran, and 63% would support Israel giving up its own nuclear weapons if Iran would thereby not get such weapons of its own.

But Shalev contends that “… it is the expectation that when they come to make a decision about Iran, Israelis should ignore their experience (of the Holocaust), disregard their memories and forget the lessons that they learned from the destruction of European Jewry that is itself irrational.”

Shalev does not advocate for an attack on Iran on strategic grounds. Indeed, he grants the rationality of the argument against bombing. He simply contends that the Jewish experience should make us more aggressive when confronted with an enemy who could potentially kill a very large number of Jews and freely admits it is an emotional argument.

Is this really what the Holocaust taught us? That we must be blindly aggressive in our own defense, even when strategic analyses suggest that war is an even more terrible option than it usually is?

Israel certainly has enemies. Iran is the chief power broker among them. I do not minimize Israel’s need to defend itself. But no country can simply be allowed to act out of fear in ways that could plunge an entire region, even the world, into conflict.

Shalev’s argument speaks more powerfully than any Israel-hater ever could as to why Israel should not be allowed to have a nuclear arsenal itself, and to why its own view of “self-defense” cannot be trusted. The journalist characterizes the entire Jewish people as a group suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, despite the fact that, now 67 years since the end of World War II, only a small percentage of us were even alive when the Nazis committed their atrocities.

And this particular PTSD survivor has a nuclear arsenal and one of the world’s strongest militaries, but can only fantasize, as Tarantino did, about exacting revenge on his Nazi tormentors who have been buried in history’s coffins. Thus, we have a new image of Jews as hopelessly scarred emotionally, but armed to the teeth.

That image is the real “new anti-Semitism.” It represents not just a traumatized and out of control Jewish people, it also, if we accepted it, would mean the ultimate failure of Zionism. That ideology sought to create a strong and independent Jewish people—not one that acts out of fear of the past, but which transcends that past, puts it behind them and builds a new future.

But the old anti-Semitism may also have some life left in it.

Eric Alterman celebrates the death of US anti-Semitism. He holds up none other than Sheldon Adelson, the ultra-rich hood who unabashedly spends millions of dollars to promote the interests of the Israeli far-right and to influence the US government to support their policies. Yet, Alterman points out, this behavior, which could be ripped straight from the pages of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, has not spurred any sort of anti-Semitic backlash.

Alterman decries the continued narrative of anti-Semitism among US Jews: “…given the near-complete disappearance of this once wholly respectable American prejudice, one must ask why so many organizations in the American Jewish community—along with their neoconservative allies in the media and policy world—remain so intently focused on this problem. Is it that the past has left them so psychologically invested in a now-discredited discourse that they lack the ability to see reality for what it is and devote themselves to more worthy causes? Or do at least some of them, as I implied in my last column, find the accusation so politically useful against Israel’s critics that they prefer to level this nefarious accusation rather than argue the merits of their position?”

Adelson’s behavior, and that of the organized Jewish community, may yet provoke the anti-Semitic backlash that Alterman thinks is no longer in the cards.

But even if it doesn’t, the behavior of Adelson, and the only slightly more subtle political brinksmanship practiced by AIPAC, major Jewish organizations and PACs and their hateful cohorts among the Orwellian-named “Christian Zionists” serves to reinforce the new anti-Semitism that Shalev unwittingly perpetuates: the Jew as eternal victim, but who is now armed and able to lash out at its enemies as if another Holocaust is right around the corner.

The inability that Shalev ascribes to Jews to look past Holocaust rhetoric and recognize the Iranian threat for the real, is not the problem the journalist says it is. Israelis, and most Jews around the world have more sense than that. Israel’s patrons in Washington and Europe are not prepared to let a conflict with Iran happen, in any case, despite neo-conservative pressures.

And for myself as a Jew, I think we’ve come farther than Shalev thinks in getting past the Holocaust, even if our leadership hasn’t. I think the day is not that far off that we can share in the pure escapism that Tarantino produced, with a stronger identification with the heroes, yes, but without letting that trauma define us.

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit


  1. You misrepresent one aspect of my article: I do not advocate attacking Iran just because of the Holocaust, and I do support, as the article states, any and all alternative measures. But if these efforts fail, and if Iran is deemed certain to acquire nuclear weapons, and if then the choice is to attack or not, then yes, I think the Holocaust is a good, rational reason for supporting such an attack. You may think that Israel can somehow live with a nuclear Iran, and that’s your right, but I disagree, and that is mine. I think the claim that this somehow enhances anti-Semitism is preposterous.
    Che shalev

  2. I’ll let others decide whether the claim that this enhances anti-Semitism has merit. But as to misrepresenting your view, I quoted you directly: “…when push comes to shove, when all the other options have been exhausted, when there is no other avenue left, when it’s yes or no, do or die, kill or be killed – then I think that most Israelis and Jews, including myself, will support a military attack.”
    I don’t know how I could make it clearer that you were advocating an attack if other options failed.

  3. Very insightful if disturbing piece, Mitchell. One reality the Alterman article also suggests is that although we may be beyond classic anti-Semitism we are not, unfortunately, beyond its seductively dangerous twin, philo-Semitism. 

  4. And why does the distinguished Mr. Shalev believe that the entire Middle East should be acquiesced to live with a nuclear Israel? Perhaps they should also be granted the right to disarm Israel’s nuclear program by force?

    Of course, such thoughts do not even cross the mind of someone who’s been raised on the ideals of Jewish exclusivity. Not a single person that I asked, even the most adamant Israel supporters, could come up with a reasonable explanation why Israel should be allowed to have nuclear weapons and Iran shouldn’t.

  5. To Ahad Ha’am: Seriously? Not one? The reason is quite simple, really: It is Iran that advocates “wiping Israel off the map” and not vice versa. If it was vice versa, I’m sure the world would have something to say about it.

  6. Chemi, while I certainly don’t share the other commentor’s views, Iran has not advocated wiping Israel off the map, nor made any other explicit threat or ever launched an aggressive war on another state. It is certainly hostile, it supports armed groups that attack Israelis, it is a legitimate security threat. But this false translation that has been around for years and etched itself on everyone’s memory is precisely why rational decision making on this issue is in short supply. Please check out this old article that will explain: http://mitchellplitnick.com/2007/09/28/a-dose-of-reason-on-iran/

  7. Mr. Shalev, while you and Mr. Plitnick argue about what Ahmedinajad meant when he quoted the Grand Ayatola Homeini, I suggest that you open a map from 70 years ago and witness for yourself who wiped whom from the map, in practice! So perhaps again this is the Zionist tendency to project unto others their own collective tendencies?

    I assure you that while Iran has not wiped off the map anybody in recorded history, everyone in the Middle East is just as terrified as you are that their fate will be that of Palestinians at some point, for the existence of a belligerent expansionist border-less state in their midst armed to the teeth with modern American weaponry and a nuclear arsenal enough to wipe out the entire Middle East and beyond.

    So please understand that the other side has just about enough reason to fear as you do and that peace in the Middle East will not be achieved through war or military strikes, nor pax Americana in its current format. Peace will come when you, like myself, start self introspecting with courage and candor, to understand why the Middle East in its entirety is rejecting the Zionist project and what can be done to gain acceptance – not by force and iron walls – but through integration. I will just give you a hint: all colonial states became accepted and even welcomed, when they started treating the natives as equals and admitted and tried to rectify past injustices. And once again, it always reverts to the original sin of Israel and the current abuse of Palestinians, as Mr. Plitnick eloquently expressed on this blog. So while to you the Palestinian plight seems like a mild inconvenience compared to your existential fears, the rest of the Middle East has the exact opposite image.

  8. What an excellent article! It’s a keeper.

    It doesn’t help that there are many U.S. officials who believe that Israel is “hopelessly scarred emotionally, but armed to the teeth.” And they apparently use the argument in support of the U.S.-Israel “special relationship.” Quoting Johns Hopkins University Professor and Israeli army veteran Ariel Roth, Scott McConnell writes:

    “. . . Roth is asserting that the principal ally of the United States in the twenty-first century — its main source of strategic advice, the nation whose leaders have an unequaled access to American political leadership — is not a rational actor. The United States is in the position of a wife whose spouse is acting erratically. A “panicked and unrestrained Israel,” armed with an estimated 200 nuclear weapons, could do an extraordinary amount of damage. The only conclusion one can draw is that the special relationship would now be very difficult to exit, even if Israel had no clout whatsoever within the American political system, even if the United States desired emphatically to pursue a more independent course.

    “I submit that this argument has long been internalized by those U.S. officials who recognize that the special relationship brings the United States far more trouble than benefits. It is the principal reason no major American figure has ever advocated simply walking away from Israel.”

    Scott McConnell, “The special relationship with Israel: Is it worth the costs?” http://www.mepc.org/journal/middle-east-policy-archives/special-relationship-israel

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