Haaretz: Is antisemitism racism?

By Yair Lapid

The speech I gave before the Global Forum for Combating Antisemitism earlier this month in Jerusalem has provoked unusual uproar. As I see it, the furor is surfacing too late. Reports gauging hatred of the Jews in the world are unprecedented and horrifying. The year 2019 set a record for the number of hate crimes directed at Jews, and 2020 did not witness a drop in the figures, despite the coronavirus pandemic (which even generated a new blood libel, to the effect that the pandemic was being deliberately spread by the Jews). And it’s already clear that the data for 2021 will surpass those of the two previous years.

In Poland, legislation was approved that borders on Holocaust denial. In Muslim countries, blood libels against Jews are routinely purveyed. In Eastern and Central Europe, Jews are being attacked on the streets, cemeteries are being desecrated and synagogue windows are once again being smashed. In liberal circles in the United States and in Europe, the Jews – the most attacked people in history – are considered part of the “forces of oppression.”

In recent years, we have lost not only the sympathy of the world but also the sympathy of many of the world’s Jews. According to a poll published earlier this month (and commissioned by the Jewish Electorate Institute), 25 percent of American Jews think Israel is “an apartheid state” and 22 percent believe Israel is “committing genocide against the Palestinians.”

The previous Israeli government – under whose watch this collapse took place – did not manage to shape a coherent policy to address the fight against antisemitism. Over the past decade, official Israel repeatedly failed in its attempts to respond by using old tools in the face of this new and ugly wave. The world is no longer shocked that the Holocaust occurred, and there is an alarming erosion in the sense of guilt and global responsibility for the murder of the six million.

I see part of my job as Israel’s foreign minister – if not my main role – as addressing the need to find ways to deal with the crisis of modern antisemitism. We need to conduct a thorough discussion about the state of antisemitism and how to address it. Without that, there is no Israeli public diplomacy, there is no coherent Israeli story and there is no way to enlist the world’s support.

As the reactions to my speech have proved, any effort to approach such a discussion – cautious as it may be – touch on our most painful and sensitive places, including the memory of the Holocaust. Of course, that doesn’t at all justify the baseless argument that “the antisemites will use the speech against us.” Antisemites don’t need any argument to attack Jews. They will do so in any event, and we must not censor ourselves on such a critical subject.

The State of Israel is in need of a dramatic and fundamental change in direction in its fight against antisemitism, and it must acknowledge that in recent years, it has sustained abject failure in that battle. And a change in direction won’t take place without open debate on the issue.

The first question we must ask ourselves is what antisemitism is. Astonishingly, that question has never had a simple answer. Antisemitism is too ancient and too broad in scope to allow a uniform definition. How exactly would we link the hatred of Jews that led to pogroms in Alexandria in 38 C.E. and the hatred of Jews that led to a demonstration by young supporters of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement on the streets of Madrid?

In the absence of another definition, I accept the slightly cumbersome definition of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance that antisemitism is “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

I also support the IHRA’s explanation that disproportionate attention to Israel or efforts to apply a standard to Israel that is not applied to other countries constitutes antisemitism.

As noted, it’s a cumbersome definition, but my grandfather Bela Lampel – whom a Nazi soldier seized from his home and who ultimately died in the gas chamber at the Mauthausen concentration camp – would have understood it well and would have signed off on every word. On the other hand, I have chosen to focus the urgent discussion of how to deal with modern antisemitism on a narrower question: Is antisemitism a unique phenomenon or is it part of a broader phenomenon of racism and xenophobia?

There are two accepted responses to that question. The traditional one is that antisemitism is a unique case in the history of humanity. Defining it as racism misses the scope of the phenomenon and the historical continuity of its presence. Antisemites don’t hate Jews in the same way that Hutus hated and murdered Tutsis in Rwanda, or even the way the Nazis hated and killed the Roma or homosexuals.

(In my speech, I caused a misunderstanding to the effect that the motives for all these killings are identical, in my view. This column is an opportunity to rectify that: Clearly not all murderous hatreds are similar. What I intended to state was that there is a deep racist basis to any violent attack on other people just because they are outsiders, and that no one has an exclusive claim to pain).

Based on that outlook, the hatred of Jews is not only a murderous emotion but also an ideology with deep historic roots. It’s true that there is a racist basis to antisemitism, but it doesn’t involve a universal racism that has by chance targeted the members of a single people. It is a unique form of hatred that can only have one possible target: the Jews.

According to that view, the Holocaust – the most horrible event in the history of the nations – was no temporary outbreak of organized hatred but rather the unavoidable manifestation of an orderly ideology holding that Jews have no place in the world. The systematic extermination was made possible because it was carried out against Jews. It could not have been committed in such a way or on such a scale against another human group.

The fact that the Holocaust was an organized event proves that it could happen again. The effort to portray it as a one-time occurrence is mistaken and dangerous. If we don’t know how to defend ourselves (by ourselves – we cannot count on others), the attempt to annihilate us could repeat itself in the future. Even in our times, the new antisemites are not focusing on the State of Israel as a result of something we have done, but only because Israel constitutes the biggest concentration of Jews in the world.

Then there is the second point of view, holding that antisemitism is the supreme, monstrous embodiment of the racism that exists in the world, that it is no different from other racist monstrosities in substance, but rather only in its historic persistence and in the scope of horrors that it has caused. According to this view, antisemitism is not only a racist phenomenon. It is the largest and most absolute manifestation of racism in human history.

Its permanent core, which never changes, is xenophobia. It is not a worldview that finds expression in a violent form but quite the opposite. It’s violence masquerading as a worldview. The many people who participated in the Nazi death machine, including Poles, Lithuanians, Hungarians and Croatians, never read a word of Nazi theory. They acted out of dark hatred of the foreigner, not based on an organized worldview. As historian Benzion Netanyahu wrote: “The instinct of hatred was simply hardened into a doctrine….”

That doctrine frequently changes, because hatred of the Jews needs to be justified again every time. There is nothing that we have not been accused of – from the killing of Jesus to sexual harassment of Christian women, from controlling the global economy to ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians. In our time, it is accepted to differentiate between “red antisemitism” (of the radical left), “white antisemitism” (or the traditional antisemitism, of the right) and “green antisemitism” (Islamist antisemitism). But all of them are simply excuses.

The Jews are in fact different from other peoples – and there is no reason to pretend otherwise – but differences don’t justify hatred and certainly not an organized effort at mass extermination. Racism is not recognition of the fact that people are different from one another. Racism is the argument that this difference makes them inferior or that it legitimizes violence toward them.

As Jews, as members of the second and third generation after the Holocaust, as Israelis, we must not ignore the fact that in recent years, the world has lost patience with discussing the Holocaust (even giving rise to a new term: Shoah fatigue). That process has put us on the defensive.

Fear that this unique and traumatic part of our history will be blurred and ignored has caused us to demand more and more relief and concessions from the world instead of stepping up our own commitment to the war against racism. Of every kind. This is not the way to do it.

What is causing impatience is that the Holocaust has come to lack context. If it’s not part of the struggle against racism, nothing can be done about it other than to offer sympathy. There is a limit to the number of times and the number of years the world will continue to share in our sorrow. We must change our approach and make the Holocaust a global lesson regarding all manifestations of racism. If the memory of the Holocaust becomes the major engine in the war against global racism, it won’t lead to an erosion of awareness over the Jewish tragedy. Quite the contrary. It will highlight it and grant it moral power.

That is why I believe that there is actually no fundamental contradiction between the two perspectives. And furthermore, they complement one another: Antisemitism is indeed a unique phenomenon in human history, but it can only exist in a world in which racism has not been eradicated.

Antisemitism is not just racism, but it is also racism. Its existence in the world presents a danger to the world. As Elie Wiesel wrote: “Someone who hates one group will end up hating everyone – and, ultimately, hating himself or herself.”

The Jewish people did not emerge from the Holocaust with a single conclusion but with two. The first conclusion is that we must survive at any price. No one will come to save us. No one will fight our wars. We must live because life is the decisive response to hate. We must live by virtue of our own power in an independent country with a strong army that is not afraid of using force to defend itself and that does not apologize for its power. We are determined never again to be the victim.

The second conclusion is that we must be moral people, and more than anything, our morality is assessed when the situation is not moral – during wartime, during a time of confrontation.

It’s true that there is a tension between these two conclusions, but that tension is healthy, and one that substantially shapes our lives.

Too many among us are concerned that the battle against racism will commit us to a restrictive ethic of tolerance. As I see it, it’s not a limitation but an advantage. If antisemitism is racism, Israel needs to be at the forefront of the fight against racism. We need opposition to racism to be part of our policy in every field – military, diplomatic and civil.

The fight against racism needs to be part of our set of considerations in choosing our friends in the world, in the way in which we deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in how we relate to the minorities living among us. We also need to lower the level of hysteria in the face of criticism. Maybe every antisemite would oppose Israeli policy in the Gaza Strip, but not everyone who opposes Israeli policy in Gaza is an antisemite.

The distinct advantage of the combination of approaches is the capacity to enlist new partners. If we want the world to continue to deal actively with hatred of the Jews – and more than that, hatred of the Jews who live in Israel – we must emerge from our isolation. We must enlist the Western world to stand at our side, to give the battle against antisemitism a contemporary context – not by separating the memory of the Holocaust from all of the tragedies that racism has caused, but by actually putting it at the top of such a discussion.

We should be seen as relating to the Holocaust as a moral lesson, one on which we don’t have the right to loosen our grip for an instant. Only such an approach will permit us to enlist all those whom we have given up on in recent years: young people on American college campuses, the Western European political establishment, the liberal media, international organizations.

We must not give up on anyone. We must not throw up our hands when it comes to anyone. The facts (for the most part) are in our favor. Our enemies, most notably Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah, are murderous groups whose declared desire is to annihilate the Jews – as well as members of the LGBTQ community, Christians and moderate Muslims.

They hate women. They hate democracy and promote racist theories. Their natural partners are proponents of white supremacy and neo-Nazism around the world.

Instead of taking refuge in our historical uniqueness, we must utilize that uniqueness to enlist anyone who opposes the culture of blood and death promoted by the world’s racists. We must say to anyone who defines themselves as opponents of racism: You cannot be liberal if you are against the Jews and Israel. You cannot define yourself as a democrat if you align yourself with the darkest forces against democracy.

If antisemitism is racism, those who systematically act against the Jews and the State of Israel – are racist.

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