Following is a paper presented at the International Conference:
Antisemitism in the Contemporary World
Monash University, Melbourne 6 — 7 February 2005
We all know what it’s like — someone in social conversation, unaware that we are Jewish, makes an antisemitic remark. A smear of disgust flicks over the face of the speaker. We curl up inside, that strong sense of being the object of so much hatred, so much repugnance and fear, well rooted in our psyches.
I grew up in New Zealand, very few Jews, the Jewish community hardly visible. My parents had got out of Prague the day Hitler marched in and settled in what my mother described so bitterly as ‘the end of the earth’. I was more aware of being perceived as a foreigner than as a Jew. One girl in the playground, knowing I was something different and undesirable, pointed her finger at me, yelling "Vivienne’s a Roman Catholic! Vivienne’s a Roman Catholic!" That is the nearest thing to antisemitism that I experienced growing up in New Zealand. However, as a daughter of refugees from the Holocaust, I imbibed that sense of being the object of disgust and hatred with my mother’s milk, though the subject was shrouded with near total silence in our household.
I am shocked and dismayed at how unashamed antisemitic remarks have now become part of everyday conversation. It is particularly disappointing when this occurs in left circles, but it does.
Our community is not alone in experiencing racism. Verbal and physical attacks on Jews and Jewish property need to be seen in the context of similar attacks on other groups: attacks on mosques and people ‘of Middle Eastern appearance’ for instance. Racism varies in time and place in its incidence and the people it vilifies.
In 1991, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission found that the four most vilified and racially-attacked groups in Australia were Muslims, Aboriginal Australians, Asians and Jews. Racism in general is undoubtedly on the rise, including the racism specific to Jews, anti-Semitism. However, we don’t know how much because of gross under-reporting of incidents, especially by less well-resourced communities.
What each of us experiences as antisemitic varies enormously. It is very subjective. There are some examples we would all agree are antisemitic, some that we would debate, and then there are the various criticisms of the State of Israel.
I take it we can all agree that attacks on synagogues and Jewish cemeteries, from graffiti to fire bombing, are antisemitic. Similarly, no one will quarrel with the characterisation as antisemitic of verbal and physical assaults on those who are visibly Jewish, such as men wearing a kippah. Nor will we have much argument about verbal abuse specifically mentioning Jews whether by phone, mail or in person.
However, there is a host of other more ambiguous examples.
In March 2003, ABC’s Four Corners screened the program ‘American Dreamers’. This program focussed on the neo-conservatives in the United States. The program noted that a significant number of them were Jewish and very hawkishly pro-Israel.
I found this program perceptive and nuanced and not antisemitic. However, despite this, it trod dangerous ground. It was considered antisemitic by many Jews, and some non-Jews took from it messages of ‘Jewish power’ in traditional antisemitic terms. In fact, in some quarters, ‘neo-con’ has become code for ‘Jew’.
Criticism of Israel
Criticism of Israel is particularly fraught. The question of what is antisemitic in relation to Israel is complicated by the fact that sometimes anti-Zionism manifests as antisemitism, sometimes antisemitism manifests as anti-Zionism, so how do we tell one from the other?
Criticism of Israel can become antisemitic when it is exaggerated, or highly generalised, as is much criticism of Israel. But such criticism isn’t necessarily so. We must bear in mind that protest rhetoric of all kinds can be unmeasured and exaggerated, that is its nature.
Criticism of Israel can also be antisemitic when double standards are applied. Anti-Zionism is an arguable position to take. (Is it good for the Jews, is it bad for the Jews? should not be questions banished from communal debate. One would hope that issues of justice and human rights would also be central.) However, I question anti-Zionist positions that are not equally opposed to forms of Palestinian nationalism which exclude the right of Israeli Jews to nationhood and to self-determination. It is only on the basis of universal human rights and international law that we can most securely defend the rights of both the Israelis and the Palestinians.
My next example of what is considered antisemitism is from campus where the Australian Union of Jewish Students is zealous in hunting down and challenging any criticism of Israel as antisemitic. In an article on dialogue among students at the University of Sydney, a Jewish student active in AUJS comments on the discomfort of dealing with the level of opposition to Israel on campus. She is quoted as saying:
It is not a very comfortable thing to walk into a café on campus and be served by someone wearing [T-shirts with] ‘Free Palestine’ or … ‘End the Occupation’ or ‘End the Apartheid in Palestine’.
Indeed, it is ‘not a very comfortable thing’ for many Jews to see Israel described and challenged in these terms, but it is the reality that should make us uncomfortable, not opposition to it.
The Leunig cartoon
In May 2002, The Age refused to publish a Michael Leunig cartoon which drew a parallel between Israel and Auschwitz. Of course, it is violently anti-Israel. It is also very exaggerated, cartoons always are. I find it offensive. At the same time, it does contain some harsh kernels of truth: that Israel is seeking to bring peace for itself through the total defeat of the Palestinians by war and by denying their national and human rights. It says that the treatment of the Palestinians by Israel carries some ghastly parallels with our own history. I believe that is true. Is the cartoon antisemitic? Perhaps. But should it be banned?
Responses from the Jewish community
Regularly, the Jewish communal leadership, in Australia and around the world, seeks to have suppressed items or decisions that are critical of Israel or bordering on antisemitism. A host of individuals, institutions, especially the media become the focus of this activity: Chomsky, Ashrawi, Tanya Plibersek, the ABC and SBS, Women in Black, the United Nations, even yours truly, have all been the focus of the blowtorch of establishment Jewish wrath. Often, the opposition is so strident and fuelled with disinformation that it succeeds in completely distorting events or personalities in public perception, especially in the eyes of members of the organised Jewish community.
Such campaigns ensure that critics of Israel are demonised and their views are completely discounted and ‘beyond the pale’ set by Jewish fears. Through fear and disinformation, faithful community members are successfully inoculated from giving serious consideration to the issues raised by the ‘dissidents’.
Items considered offensive by many Jews are regularly pulled from exhibitions and publications after pressure from Jewish lobbying. There is a Jewish lobby, often an overly effective one. Many in the organised Jewish community support its activities. Lobbying is a legitimate activity and our community is as entitled to engage in it as is any other group or individual. Obviously, some groups like ourselves are better resourced and organised to achieve their sectional aims in this way. But this kind of capacity to influence is not the same thing as the ‘Jewish power’ of antisemitic demonology. The problem is, the way the Jewish lobby functions to take issues out of the public domain when Jews feel hurt or offended, sure feeds that demonic image.
A few examples:
Treasures of Palestine exhibition
In October 2003, an exhibition, Treasures of Palestine, was mounted at the Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum. After interventions by leaders of the Sydney Jewish community, a significant number of items of a political nature were excluded. These had been an integral part of the unabridged exhibition in other places round Australia.
In May last year, an exhibit at a Melbourne art gallery was withdrawn after vigorous protest from the local Jewish community. It depicted the Israeli flag superimposed over a number of statements and statistics about the history of Israel from the Palestinian point of view. A number of the statistics were wrong and very exaggerated. It was certainly anti-Israel. It involved the kind of hyperbole about Israel that I am inclined to see as anti-Semitic. But should it have been banned?
The constant attribution of antisemitism to the UN and similar international forums serves to deny their legitimacy. This in turn absolves the US and Israel of accountability to global civil society for their actions.
Cartoons were among the responses to Durban on a Zionist web site (from Middle East Truth).
There is what can only be described as a frenzy in these responses, an absolute desperation to obliterate statements and positions critical of Israel. This frenzy is a symptom of a psychosocial malaise among Jews. I will explore its nature and causes further in my paper.
Contradiction between Reality and Perception
This malaise is underscored by the fact that the reality contradicts Jewish self-perception as a threatened minority.
Philip Mendes and Geoffrey Brahm Levey in their recent article on the Hanan Ashrawi ‘Affair’ also note the contradiction between the way Jews see themselves, as an ‘insecure minority’, and the way they are viewed by the broader Australian community as ‘affluent, privileged and influential’.
While this sense of threat is pervasive in the community, it is paradoxical that the reality is so much the reverse. Israel is overwhelmingly powerful, militarily and politically. Within the Australian community, Jews are comparatively ‘affluent, privileged and influential’.
The recognition and acceptance of Jews is evident in the considerable support for Jews against antisemitism voiced by establishment figures and organisations in Australia and around the world. This goes right up to the unquestioning support for Israel by the United States of America, the most powerful nation on earth.
Jewish Identity as Eternal Victim
How to account for this chronic sense of vulnerability, both in regard to Israel and to the Australian community in the face of this relatively secure reality? Some will see this as a silly question — ‘It’s obvious’, they will say. ‘It’s the Holocaust — antisemitism is always with us.’ As Professor Clive Kessler put it at a public forum, "We defeat the Arabs by day and are destroyed by the Germans by night."
But it is not only the memory and experience of actual history that oppresses us; it is the way we construct it in memory and in our day-to-day reality. In the stories we tell ourselves as a community, we construct Jewish identity as Always Already Victim, regardless of time and place. ‘from Time Immemorial’, ‘the Longest Hatred’ are some of the phrases in which we eternalise our own Victim-hood. In this context, the Holocaust is constructed as an almost inevitable outcome of this never-ending hatred against us.
A casual selection of prominently placed Australian Jewish News headlines demonstrate and promote a strong sense of threat:
‘Will the hatred ever end?’
‘Rash of antisemitic incidents leaves Argentinean Jews rattled’
‘Lowy in the lion’s den’
In 2004, the Jewish Community Appeal ran full page length advertisements, 1/3 of a page wide, in the Australian Jewish News to announce that ‘Antisemitism is on the rise. Once again, Jews are the target.’ All this reinforcement of fear to fuel the fund-raising.
The same Australian Jewish News editorial discussed earlier commences: ‘So long as Jews live in Australia, antisemitism will always exist in one form or another.’ QED. It is stated as an axiom, a taken-for-granted truth.
There are consolations in Victim-hood — it is a great psychic anaesthetic, one is absolved from often painful responsibility — the Other is always responsible. If the world hates us, and we are always under threat, anything is justified. This applies particularly to the State of Israel.
The cultivation of the identity of Jews as Always Already Victims also provides communal leaders with a tempting climate of fear which makes it easy to control and manipulate communal members. John Howard plays this game brilliantly with the bogies of ‘border-protection’ and ‘illegal’ migrants.
Israel as a guarantee of existential security
At the same time as we construct this Victim identity, we provide a Solution, a fantasy, an Imaginary Israel that comes to the rescue. It is an Imaginary Israel, because the conditions of its birth and continuation, the dispossession and brutal occupation of the Palestinians, are denied. Again and again, the Zionist syllogism, Holocaust annihilation conquered by Israeli triumphalism, is presented as self-evident logic. The solution to our Holocaust nightmare is always given by Zionist ideology as Israel.
The Israeli Declaration of Independence encapsulates the logic:
The Holocaust committed against the People of Israel … again proved manifestly the necessity of a solution to the problem of the Jewish People, who lack a homeland and independence. The solution is the renewal of the Jewish State in Israel.
An old refugee friend of my family’s, upset at the positions I take over Israel, pulled up her sleeve, defiantly displaying the Auschwitz numbers branded on her arm. No other argument was needed to demonstrate why she would brook no criticism of Israel.
This logic is promulgated relentlessly in Jewish communal schools, media, temples and synagogues — The March of the Living programs where impressionable young people are taken through the darkness of the Nazi death camps to emerge into the light of Israel. They too are branded in Auschwitz, but deep in the psyche, with the pernicious equation, ‘Jewish Survival = Israel’.
I say ‘pernicious’, because it denies our personal and collective power and projects it on to Israel. It is an affirmation of Jewish powerlessness and the boundless malevolence and power of the goyim, in particular, Palestinians, and Arabs and Moslems. It makes it impossible to consider the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in a real way.
Denial of the real history of Israel
I interviewed Israeli writer Yitzhak Laor in Israel in the mid 1990s. He had written an article in Ha’aretz on the denial of the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians in 1948. He argued that Israelis who had participated in this had had their memories essentially repressed by the official Israeli version of the history of the War of Independence (The Nakba or Catastrophe for the Palestinians.) ‘The imperative was to deny that anything like this [the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians]happened.’ He added, insisting he was not making any comparisons ‘Maybe because of sensitivity to what happened to Jews … What I mean is that somehow in the memory stood something that was impossible’. He urged his readers to re-affirm and share their own memories. In response to his article, one reader, the General Manager of the Hapoalim Bank in Israel, rang Laor to thank him for his article and shared a memory of his own as an officer in the 1948 War:
He told me that, with his men, he was expelling Palestinian refugees from Mount Carmel. The Palestinians had to get out of the bus and walk several kilometres to the area occupied by the Jordanian Legion. He remembered a woman with a baby getting out of the bus. She had a can of oil, a big bundle of clothes and was confused about what to leave and what to take. The bank manager said he just looked on indifferently. Then behind him he heard a sob, there was crying behind him. He looked behind him and there were his soldiers and they were from Europe, refugees from Europe, and they were standing, weeping.
This demonstrates the very powerful connection between the fates of the Jews and that of the Palestinians that has been desperately denied by too many Jews.
Avigail Abarbanel, a former IDF Staff Sergeant and now a family therapist in Australia, wrote recently:
When an individual, a group, or an entire society live with a dark secret or are in denial about something important in their past, they cannot experience peace … Denying the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians in 1948, trying to not think about the consequences of the long years of brutal occupation, and just wishing for it all to go away is no more than a fantasy.
I noted earlier how Jewish responses to criticism of Israel are characterised by a desperate frenzy. How to account for this frenzy? I suggest that it has its basis in the psycho-social equation ‘Jewish survival’ = Israel. If in a strong inner psychic sense, one feels a totally powerless Victim and Israel is seen as the all-powerful Rescuer, all power to confront potential attacks has been effectively projected onto Israel. This leaves only a sense of naked terror, often unconscious, for those gripped by this belief. In this psychological condition, nothing may be said or be permitted to be said to challenge Israel because it might then lose its all-powerful capacity to induce a sense of security. I suggest that we can only understand Jewish silence in the face of Israeli atrocities at this deep, inner level.
Another element in denial is ethical. Many Jews so desperate to deny Israeli guilt (and their own) can challenge Australian treatment of indigenous Australians and of refugees without feeling traitors to Australia. On the contrary — they feel such protest activism springs from a commitment to Australia. This illustrates that for many Jews there is an unbridgeable chasm between what their conscience would dictate and their perceived security imperatives based on an Imaginary Israel. This is an unbearable conflict that is too often resolved by denial of the dictates of conscience.
All of this happens purely as an inner subjective process, incredibly powerful. It blocks out reality in a very dangerous way. I suggest that it is exposing us collectively to heightened antisemitism.
The Israeli writer, Amos Oz, challenged Prime Minister Begin during the war on Lebanon. He detected in him a compulsion to continue the war against Hitler caused by the unhealed wound of the Holocaust:
There is not and never will be a cure for this open wound in our souls. Tens of thousands of dead Arabs will not heal that wound. But, Mr Begin, … Adolf Hitler … is dead and gone.
Again and again, Mr Begin, you reveal to the public eye a strange urge to resuscitate Hitler in order to kill him anew every day in the guise of terrorists … This … is the result of a melancholy of the soul that poets must express, but among statesmen, it is a hazard that is liable to lead them along a path of mortal danger.
The costs of continuing denial
The costs of this denial of reality are considerable, for the Palestinians, the Israelis and Diaspora Jews.
The constant defence of the indefensible actions of Israel by Jewish community leaders is wearing out the guilt of many Westerners in regard to the Holocaust. It is making antisemitism almost respectable. Antisemitism is never justified, anymore than politically-driven violence against civilians. However, it cannot be denied that the actions of Israel do have an impact.
Writing in the Australian Jewish News, Chemi Shalev says in regard to criticism of Israel:
In many cases, the more virulent criticism of Israel and its policies is nothing but thinly-veiled antisemitism. But this does not negate, perhaps it even accentuates, the need for Israel to consider the consequences of its actions on the welfare of world Jewry, since the two are more closely interconnected than ever before.
He asks, most unusually for a mainstream Jewish writer:
Is Israel still this safe haven, an ultimate protector of Jews around the world, or does it, concurrently, sometimes jeopardise their well-being as well.
Tony Judt argues that there is a link between hostility to Jews and events in the Middle East:
Assaults [against Jews and Jewish property]in working-class suburbs of big cities are typically driven by frustration and anger at the government of Israel. Jews and Jewish institutions are a convenient and vulnerable surrogate … Thanks to satellite television, anti-Jewish images and myths can now spread with ease across the youthful Arab diaspora.
I would add that social alienation and racism would be at least as powerful a factor in such violence. It enables young Arabs to deflect anger about their life situation on to Israel. Such anger might more realistically be addressed to local institutions and people of power. Jews are not alone in seeking to resolve their life situation in fantasy.
He argues that while it may seem ‘absurd’ that the policies of the Israeli government have provoked widespread anti-Jewish feelings, he says:
There is a certain tragic logic to it. Zionists have always insisted that there is no distinction between the Jewish people and the Jewish state … Israel is the state of all the Jews, not of all its citizens. Its leaders purport to speak for Jews everywhere. They can hardly be surprised when their own behaviour provokes a backlash against — Jews.
Healing the past, hope for the future
We need to apply the same ethical and human principles to Israel that so many Jews apply to other states that defy human rights, including Australia.
Tony Judt says that if we take seriously the problem of antisemitism, but reject the notion that strong criticism, even anti-Zionism is antisemitic, we need to:
learn to shed inhibitions and criticize Israel’s policies and actions just as [we]would those of any other established state … Once Germans, French and others can comfortably condemn Israel without an uneasy conscience … it will be possible to deal with the real problem. For indeed there is a problem [of antisemitism]. This is an arena in which legitimate [criticism of Israel]shades all too readily into familiar prejudices [antisemitism].
Jewish attachment to Israel is not in itself a problem, but I am saying the nature of that attachment must change. It must stop being based on fantasy and fear and find a genuine connection with the reality of Israel, our own humanity and that of the Palestinians. A child, growing to adulthood, must emerge from primary psychological attachment to a parent to stand on her own two feet. This process does not sever the relationship but transforms it. In a similar way, Jewish Diaspora attachment to Israel needs to evolve into a healthy independence free to be honest and straight-talking. If Diaspora communities adopted this approach, they might become a force for peace, justice and security for Palestinians and Jews.
If we allow ourselves and our consciences to be silenced by the fear of the charge of antisemitism, we in fact contribute to its growth. Our fears create what we most fear.
Sigmund Freud was once asked by a woman at a lecture, ‘Is a person responsible for his dreams?’ Freud replied, ‘Well, if the dreamer isn’t, who is?’ The nightmare is ours — all the efforts to project the nightmare on to the goyim, the Palestinians and all, merely prolong it. Living out the Holocaust nightmare as if it were real and present sure gives Hitler a posthumous victory.
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