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Feb 2007 Journal

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Towards a victim mentality (book review)

THE CHANGING FACE OF ANTI-SEMITISM
by Walter Laqueur
Oxford University Press, 2006, 228 pp., £12.99 (Amazon)

The distinguished academic Walter Laqueur has in this book attempted to satisfy the disparate audiences of Jews and academics. He chronicles succinctly the history of antisemitism from the destruction of the Jewish temple in Elephantine in 410 BCE (but was this antisemitism in the modern sense?) to the present day, and delineates its numerous and contrasting causes. Jews killed Jesus, but Jesus and his disciples were all Jews. Jews were accused of being Bolsheviks, but were persecuted by other left-wing revolutionaries. Jews are accused of being neo-conservatives, but most Jews in the US vote Democrat and the truly right-wing neo-fascist parties reject them utterly. Jews are accused of being foreigners everywhere, yet they are loathed for establishing a state of their own. Jews are racially inferior, yet somehow they manage to assemble the talent to organise an international conspiracy to dominate the world.

As an academic account, this is well written and Laqueur emphasises the shift in antisemitism, which used to be a preoccupation of Christian right-wing groups and is now more frequently found among Muslims and the left. This change has perhaps been more gradual than Laqueur claims. Robert Wistrich wrote his book The Left Against Zion in 1978 and August Babel described antisemitism as 'the socialism of fools' in around 1892. In reality, antisemitism is a characteristic of dirigiste political or theological philosophies on both left and right and Jews have flourished only in bourgeois liberal societies.

It is facile to say that the new antisemitism is merely opposition to Israeli government policies. There are still many areas in the world where massacres are, or have recently been, perpetrated, for example Darfur, Rwanda, Bosnia, Angola, Indonesia, Algeria, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Iraq. None of these has drawn the opprobrium that has been visited on Israel, which has killed in an order of magnitude far fewer people, and those mainly in self-defence.

Laqueur is still right to focus on the incongruous alliance between right-wing Islamo-fascists (subjugation of women, anti-democracy and so on) and left-wing neo-Stalinists. Muslim countries, which used to tolerate Jews as second-class citizens, were deeply humiliated by their defeats in 1948 and 1967. The principle of Dar-el-Islam means that those parts of the world once subject to Islamic rule need to be re-conquered before attention is turned to the other bits. Islamic theologians re-emphasise the anti-Jewish statements in the Koran without ever bothering to make the distinction between anti-Zionism and antisemitism so beloved of Western intellectuals. The president of Iran is only one Holocaust-denier among many.

As an academic account, Laqueur's book covers the ground as well as it could be covered in 228 pages. For Jews, who are the actors in the drama, however, the book has two deficiencies. First, the material is so compressed that Jewish life appears to have been one damned thing after another. In reality, there were periods of relative quiet, when Jews were able to get on with their lives and enjoy a modest happiness. Such episodes could scarcely be included in a book on antisemitism, yet their absence is likely to deepen paranoia among its Jewish readers.

Second, part of the duty of the historian is to deduce consistencies in world events. The only consistency in the history of antisemitism as expressed in Laqueur's book is that quite a lot of people (even including some Jews) hate Jews and are disposed to use violence against them. To believe this is to give way to a dangerous 'victim' mentality. Not everybody hates Jews - indeed, much of the world's population has never seen a Jew, and much of the remainder is indifferent or even philosemitic. It doesn't seem that way when the media publish faked photos of Lebanon (I think of it as the Photoshop War) and it can only be a matter of time before someone publishes a forged photo of Jews drinking gentile blood on Passover or Purim. Nevertheless, we have a Jewish state and there is much that we, as Jews, can do to defend ourselves. I wish Laqueur's book had ended on a more positive note.
Bryan Reuben

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