Genocide and Wisecracks
February 14, 2002
issue of Commentary magazine features a long essay titled
The Return of Anti-Semitism, by Hillel Halkin. The title contains a
curious word: return. Is Commentary implying that anti-Semitism
ever went away?
A frequent reader of the magazine would get
the impression that anti-Semitism is one of the pervading and abiding realities of
the world. Its in the air we breath, the water we drink, the language we
speak, our culture, our religion, our heritage. Christianity is anti-Semitic. So is
Islam. So are most of the countries of Europe. Many of the great writers of the
West have been accused of anti-Semitism, including Chaucer, Shakespeare,
Voltaire, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, G.K. Chesterton, T.S. Eliot, Orwell, and
And no wonder. Halkin doesnt define
anti-Semitism, but he finds it in every nook and corner. He counts genocide and
persecution against Jews as anti-Semitic, which is surely reasonable, but he also
counts a French diplomats private wisecrack about Israel. Even a justified
criticism of Israel, Halkin argues, can be anti-Semitic!
Anti-Semitism seems to be a pretty broad concept, even broader than the
concept of sin.
Halkin admits that the concept can be abused,
but he doesnt offer any helpful examples. Maybe he cant think of any.
One of his chief complaints is that Israel is
often judged by double standards. True enough, but it is also defended by double
standards. In fact, it is based on double standards: one set for Jews, another for
gentiles. Thats more or less the whole idea. This is a country that
denounces terrorism, then chooses leaders like Menachem Begin,
Yitzhak Shamir, and Ariel Sharon.
is a Soviet-style word, an all-purpose accusation, and naturally the Soviet Union
declared anti-Semitism a capital crime. Since it defies definition, it cant
be falsified or refuted. In this court, as in a Stalinist show trial, there are no
acquittals. Once youre accused, youre as good as convicted.
Thats why people in public life dread
the charge of anti-Semitism. It not only reflects Jewish, particularly Zionist,
power; it reflects the amazing self-absorption now prevalent among many Jews.
Everything is judged by the standard of organized Jewish interests, and whatever
impedes those interests even a passing remark becomes
So the chief purpose of the word is not to
deter great crimes against Jews it isnt likely to stop an Osama bin
Laden but to prevent even the most minor verbal offenses against Jewish
amour-propre. It conflates mere criticism with persecution. Many blacks,
feminists, and homosexuals try to use racism, sexism, and
homophobia to the same effect, but these words dont have nearly as
much power to frighten.
Israel is far from the worst state in the
Middle East, but we should be free to criticize it from the standpoints of morality
and American interests. To criticize is not necessarily to attack; properly
speaking, it means to measure, to put in proportion.
If Jews tend to be self-centered, well, so do
we all. The difference is that many Jews now expect everyone else to think in a
Jew-centered way, as if the Holocaust and Israel were the most important facts
of modern history. So to try to see these things in a different proportion is to
outrage a certain Jewish sensibility.
Its too bad. Not only are the taboos
unfair to gentiles; they deprive Jews of the honest criticism everyone needs. Wise
Jews dont want to be defined by anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, and Israel;
many of them realize that Zionism, which dreamed of ending the tragic history of
the Jews, may instead prove only one more tragic episode. Israel was supposed to
offer the Jewish Diaspora a safe haven; instead, Diaspora Jews now have to worry
about the safety of Israel itself. You can make a good case that Israel has defeated
the very purpose of Zionism.
What a change from the era of the Old
Testament! The ancient Hebrews had no concept of anti-Semitism; in fact they
were remarkably objective about themselves. They recorded their sins, the fierce
rebukes of their prophets, and the divine chastisements in their holy books! What a
contrast with the boasting, vanity, and self-glorification of most nations.
Even at their most self-centered, those Jews
retained a spirit that was uniquely God-centered. They remain a model for us all,
and for modern Israel.