An Ancient Enemy, Reconfigured
On resurgent anti-Semitism, and its intellectual roots
The Western world, at least since the Enlightenment, was built on evidence-based argument. But in the last quarter of the twentieth century, Enlightenment ideals were undermined by postmodernism, with its shift to “narrative” as the source of meaning—an invitation to fraud. What followed, eventually, was the era of fake news and out-and-out hoaxes, as in the case of the concocted “Russian collusion” narrative, which has produced one of the greatest political scandals in American history.
When it comes to fake news, Jews have heard it all for the past 2,000 years—from the charge of deicide to the poisoning of wells, from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Henry Ford’s fervid speculations to more recent false narratives about the perfidies of the Zionist State. But twenty-first-century France has sadly added some new twists. In his pathbreaking article “Revisiting Netzarim Junction and the Birth of Fake News,” Boston University professor Richard Landes unpacked the notorious al-Durra affair, which occurred in 2000 and involved the apparent murder of a nine-year-old boy by Israeli soldiers during a supposed gunfight in the Gaza Strip. Filmed with the contrivance of French public television, the scene depicting Israelis in an ugly light went viral. It helped produce an intifada in Israel; in France, it generated Arab and Islamic hostility toward French Jews, as Mark Weitzman chronicles in his fascinating book Hate: The Rising Tide of Anti-Semitism in France.
Weitzman’s book originally appeared as a series of articles in the American online magazine Tablet, to which he turned because of lack of interest in France, where elites feared that even discussing the topic would encourage Islamophobia. The modern use of the term “Islamophobia” was largely initiated by Iranians in the wake of their country’s disastrous 1979 revolution. As philosopher Pascal Bruckner has explained, this new thought crime was designed with a dual aim. First, it equated criticism of Islam with racism—an odd concept, since Islam includes whites of Bosnia, blacks of the Cameroons, and olive-skinned Arabs of North Africa, as well as their darker-skinned religious brethren. “The second, even more important aim,” notes Bruckner, “was to forge a weapon of enforcement against liberal Muslims, who dared to criticize their faith and who called for reform.”
Hate examines a number of Islamist murders of French Jews in considerable detail, including the 2005 kidnapping, torture, and murder of 23-year-old Ilan Halimi; the 2012 attack on a Jewish religious school in Toulouse; and the 2017 beating, torture, and killing of Jewish doctor Sarah Halimi (not related to Ilan Halimi). Mohammed Merah, the perpetrator of the Toulouse attacks, first murdered three French soldiers and then attacked a Jewish day school, where he murdered the rabbi, two of the rabbi’s young children, and an eight-year-old girl. Merah, who made no secret of his allegiance to al-Qaida, was shot by police after a long siege.
Through much of the last 20 years, the killing of Jews in France was explained away as the action of “lone wolves,” demented maniacs or thrill-seeking juvenile delinquents. As all this played out against the backdrop of the Arab–Israeli conflict, some speculated that the wily Mossad was behind these atrocities, intending to drum up sympathy for Israel. Could it be a coincidence, for instance, that the Charlie Hebdo massacre occurred just before the 2015 Israeli election? Besides, went a corollary argument, Israel was a neocolonial power, so the Jewish state and Jews in France were getting what they deserved.
In The Lion’s Den: Zionism and the Left from Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky, Susie Linfield, a liberal Israel supporter, explicates the arguments of eight left-wing writers whose ideological commitments have blinded them to Middle East realities. The Marxist Maxime Rodinson, for instance, compared Muhammad with Stalin. “Both were men of conviction who became men of state,” he wrote. “In both cases true believers were forced by circumstances to face reality, to change, and resort to the use of power.” More importantly, Rodinson, a cynosure of the so-called New Left, exemplified a conceptual shift from a focus on antifascism to an obsession with anticolonialism, which has endured long after subject states achieved independence.
Franco-Jewish writer Albert Memmi, another figure discussed by Linfield, deserves to be better known. A friend of Camus and a man of great subtlety, Memmi understood the postcolonial guilt of European writers, but he also noted its tendency to warp analysis of contemporary realities. Writing about his native North Africa, Memmi refers to people “who are no longer colonized,” yet “sometimes continue to believe that they are.” In Memmi’s memorable The Colonizer and the Colonized, the shame of the colonized is shown to stand in the way of realistic self-assessment. During the aftermath of colonialism, when some Western leftists hailed Saddam Hussein, Memmi saw that the so-called Third World (China excepted) had failed to achieve an alternative to capitalism.
Third Worldism lives on in the Left’s adulation of Palestine, where anti-Semitism has been transmuted into anti-Zionism and vice versa. Israel, according to Linfield, is “the Rorschach test of the Left,” which has “twisted itself into support for some of the world’s most sadistic” regimes. The heart of her book comes in its opening chapter, about Hannah Arendt, and its closing chapters, on I. F. Stone and Noam Chomsky. What these figures have in common, Linfield maintains, is the elevation of ideology over evidence. Arendt, she writes, “based her analysis of the Jewish–Arab conflict on her unshakable belief that the anti-national, anti-sovereign world was just around the corner.” The very idea of a sovereign Jewish state was emotionally abhorrent to Arendt, and she never shifted this perspective, even as the 1950s brought a profusion of new sovereign states into existence.
In the late 1940s, Stone, on the ground in Israel, noted the prominence of recently active Nazis fighting for the Arabs in the Israeli war for independence. But with 1967’s Six-Day War, Stone, writing from New York, saw the idea of Jewish sovereignty as an abomination. He wrote as if the Palestinians and their allies were mirror images of the Israelis, complete with their own peace camp. But there was no Arab counterpart to the Jewish peaceniks. Writing for The New York Review of Books, Stone never dealt with the centrality of radical Islam for the Palestinian “resistance.” The same was true of Chomsky, who, based on a single purported document, claimed that the Palestinians had offered peace, only to have it rejected by the Israelis.
In France, the Israelis were often depicted in elite outlets like Le Monde or Nouvelle Observateur as privileged European oppressors. Opposition to Zionist villainy would atone, in part, for the then-repudiated French role in the colonization of Algeria. But French (and American) critics of Zionism have a distorted picture of Zionist history. They would benefit from reading Matti Friedman’s Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel. Friedman effectively rebuts the now-standard account of Israel’s origins as entirely the creation of European Jews, a formulation that makes it easy to define Israel within the model of European colonialism. It is common to hear, as from Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, that the Palestinians were burdened with “taking in” refugees from Hitler and the Holocaust. Journalist Helen Thomas notoriously remarked that Israel should fold up shop, and that the Jews should “go home” to Europe. But more than half of today’s Israeli Jewish population has at least partial Mizrachi descent, meaning that they or their ancestors originate from the non-European Jewish world. Nearly 1 million Jews left, were pressured to leave, or were expelled from the Arab world—and from Iran, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, and India. After 1948, most wound up in Israel.
The Mizrachim, largely ignored by the likes of Arendt, Stone, and Chomsky, complicate the story, peddled by Islamists and their left-wing allies, of Israel as a nation of white-skinned settler-colonialists, who arrived to subjugate the dark-skinned natives. These accounts reveal an empirical ignorance puffed up by ideological afflatus. They have created ill-informed narratives, all too commonly believed, in these waning days of the Enlightenment West.
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