Anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism

Article for the Cape Times
by AnnMarie Wolpe
November 2003

Some years ago, whilst relatively newly returned to South Africa, I had a huge row with a colleague of mine. She was working on racism and defined it as something whites inflicted on blacks. Whites by, virtue of their colour, had absolute power. Perhaps somewhat naively I said "And what is anti-Semitism"? "Oh that", she said somewhat dismissively, "is prejudice". I exploded. Could the Holocaust be termed prejudice? And she said yes because it was white on white. Clearly there was no basis for argument or discussion.

It's not that anti-Semitism has dominated my life. Far from it. As a secular Jew I have been concerned with issues such as racism, injustice, apartheid, and male violence. But increasingly what constitutes anti-Semitism and what it means to be Jewish has become a thought provoking issue. I used to think anti-Semitism was a straightforward matter but clearly this is not the case. It could be defined, as Milton Shain has written, "unprovoked and irrational hostility towards Jews". With the Middle East chaos it has assumed a far more dangerous element than sheer hostility.

Anti-Semitism it not a linear issue involving dislike and hostility; it is not something that can be dismissed as prejudice. It is highly complex with an historical dimension that has changed with changing circumstance over the millennia. And more recently the nature and form of it has been altered with the creation of the State of Israel.

Its history is fascinating and has been interpreted in a number of ways. In pre-Christian days it could be seen as the "dislike of the unlike". Even when Jews were subordinated they maintained their customs and rituals creating this "unlikeness", a point that Primo Levi regarded as one of the prime factors for anti-Semitism. In ancient days anti-Semitism took the form of negative stereotyping and even violence towards Jews. Yet it was also mixed with tolerance and even admiration. With the rapid rise of Christianity there was a "period of sustained hostility", with acts of violence that "never escalated beyond control".

Early mediaeval days saw a relative period of security for the Jews, only to be broken by the Crusades and the Black Plague. The Crusaders enabled a systematic persecution of the Jews which was exacerbated by the Inquisition. Jews were accused of murdering Christian babies and using their blood for "sacrificial reasons". It is well known that the Jews were thought to have caused the Black Plague through a poisoning of the wells! By the late 15th Century Jews were expelled from Spain and Portugal, in spite of - or perhaps because of -having attained substantial economic and even social prominence".

With the rise of Islam attitudes towards the Jews underwent a change in the Near East. There were a number of contradictions with both rights and certain exclusions such as from government service, special taxes, bans on carrying arms and so on. But in practice Jews "found themselves in a relatively comfortable position, and yet at the same time marginalised".

It might have been anticipated that modernisation and secularisation would have eroded anti-Semitism in the 19th Century. But a new virulent form of "race" hatred targeted recently emancipated Jews in Western Europe. According to Milton Shain
"Capitalism and socialism were both seen as arms of modernity -marshalled by Jews… The Jew as a symbol of modernity personified all that was evil in a harsh and industrial age".

Although not widely recognised, the twentieth Century was witness to widespread acts of discrimination against Jews throughout Europe. Anti-Semitic attitudes were not confined to Germany and certainly filtered in to the New World. What is fully acknowledged, although at times bizarrely refuted, are the acts of brutality by the Nazis and the horrendous death camps. It was the abhorrence of the Holocaust that had a marked effect on levels of anti-Semitism following World War II. But this period of toleration was short lived. The creation of the Israeli State generated conditions for a re-invigoration of anti-Semitism.

This now involves anti-Zionism and it is precisely this conjuncture that will be discussed by Milton Shain and Jonathan Zapiro at the next Harold Wolpe Forum Meeting. Milton Shain has argued that anti-Semitism can not be equated simplistically with hostility towards Israel. The situation is a political one of a conflictual nature linked to Arab nationalism and a conflict over land. In addition, the rhetoric and motif of Islamist extensionism often apes the worst of mediaeval Christian anti-Semitism. Shain grimly points out, and quotes examples of, extremist groups' appropriation of a "world Jewish conspiracy" theory in "what they consider to be a holy war against Satanist Zionism". The examples that Shain gives in his book "Anti-Semitism" makes for chilling reading. His final words are far from encouraging. He sees history as having constructed the Jew in which the "historical imagination has found expression in revilement and persecution". Let us hope that his pessimism can be reversed by changes in beliefs and political actions.

The meeting will take place at IDASA, 6 Spin Street, Tuesday 18th November @ 6 for 6.30 p.m. Telephone 021686-9312 for information.

Dr AnnMarie Wolpe is a Trustee of the Harold Wolpe Memorial Trust