Old Demons, New Debates - Preface


Until recently, many Jews-and not only Jews-were confident that following the mass murder of European Jewry in the mid-twentieth century, the Western world had become inoculated against the toxin of anti-Semitism. Surely, they thought, anti-Semitism – now so closely identified with the ravings of Hitler and the slaughter that was the Shoah – could not easily rise again, at least as other than a crackpot movement identified with the mentally unstable. And if there was a time in the not too distant past when all too many Europeans seemed fixated on the Jews as the occult source of their problems, surely, most of us thought, such dismal days were behind us for good.

And yet, in many parts of Europe today, Jews feel newly vulnerable. Not only have we been receiving a disturbing series of reports of fire-bombings of synagogues, desecrations of Jewish cemeteries, and verbal and physical assaults on Jews because they are Jews, but the blaming of Jews for the world's problems has again begun to gain currency. And all this comes in a setting where the memory of the Shoah remains very much alive, etched in the very buildings that people walk by every day.

Of course, this new feeling of vulnerability comes in the context of the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But while events in the Middle East certainly help explain this vulnerability, they have also introduced an element that has made the Jews feel even more isolated. The vilification of the Jews now has political cover, at least on the left, that it did not have before. Crowds of French or Italian or British demonstrations for this or that cause are now commonly dotted with placards equating the Israelis with the Nazis.

Let me offer what I find a particularly chilling, although in its way absolutely typical, example: In 2002, the scholar Ruggero Taradel was asked to speak at one of Rome 's most prestigious public high schools, known for training the Italian elite. The occasion was Holocaust Remembrance Day. He brought with him a local survivor, and after Professor Taradel had given a historical overview of what had happened to Italy 's Jews during the war, the survivor spoke about her own experiences. Hundreds of students and their teachers were packed into the auditorium. When the time came for questions, a hand shot up from among the students. “I don't see why we should be spending our time here talking about the Holocaust when the Jews are doing to the Palestinians the same things that the Nazis did to them.” The assembled students greeted the remark with enthusiastic, prolonged applause, joined by their teachers. Professor Taradel and the Holocaust survivor began to try to respond in as reasonable a way as they could, but they were interrupted by angry shouts, and so the teacher in charge had to get up precipitously, thank them for coming, and call the assembly to a close. The two were rushed out of the hall to avoid further unpleasantness and were ushered into the principal's office. Making no mention of the scene that had just transpired, much less offering any apologies, the principal instead presented them with a volume recounting the school's history. Thereafter, the school abandoned the idea of marking Holocaust Remembrance Day.

In order to take stock of this situation and to try to trace its contours and measure its magnitude and path, the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research sponsored an international conference in May 2003. The ambitious event took place over four days, the hundreds of people coming to hear each session spilling out into an adjacent hall for remote viewing. They were not disappointed, as the thirty-five speakers included leading intellectuals from both Europe and the United States , and their talks-grim as their subject matter was sparkled with new insight.

It was the strong feeling of those who attended the conference that the subject's timeliness and the importance of what was said there made it desirable to prepare a book that could make these insights available to a much wider audience. I approached those among the thirty-five speakers whose remarks I thought most lent themselves to a publication of this sort and asked if they would be willing to transform what were in some cases intended only as relatively brief oral remarks into a fuller form. I also asked that the developments in the year following the conference be taken into account in the chapters they prepared for this book.

The result is what you have in your hands. Of these fifteen chapters, fourteen grew out of the presentations given at the YIVO conference. In February 2004, an essay on anti-Semitism by noted historian Omer Bartov appeared in the New Republic . It raised excellent and stimulating points not otherwise fully covered in our chapters; I was very pleased that Professor Bartov agreed to prepare a revised version of this piece for this volume. Bartov is thus the only author in this book who was not a speaker at the 2003 conference.

Some of these chapters take a broad view, focusing on such subjects as the ambiguous role of European intellectuals in the rise of anti -Semitism, the role of Israel and anti-Zionism in fueling anti-Semitism, and the thorny problem of distinguishing between legitimate criticism of Israeli government policy and the use of widespread European antipathy toward Israeli settlement policy as a cover for the spread of anti-Semitism. Some of our authors remain quite optimistic-most notably Nathan Glazer in his essay on why he believes U.S. “exceptionalism” extends to the inhospitality of U.S. soil to the growth of anti-Semitism, but also Konstanty Gebert, who argues that the Poles have not been given sufficient credit for the strides they have made in overcoming a history of anti-Semitism. Others, many others, strike a more pessimistic note. The book opens with Leon Wieseltier's lament that anti-Semitism should still be with us after all these years. Omer Bartov expresses his distress at the failure of intellectuals to take anti-Semites at their word and at the reluctance of European and American journalists to call attention to anti-Semitic motivations behind various violent acts, especially when these come from Muslims, a point also made by Robert S. Wistrich and others. Mark Lilla sees the Jews as caught in a no-win situation: Previously they were mocked, he tells us, for being a people who lacked their own nation-state; now they are mocked for having one and wanting to hold on to it. Fiamma Nirenstein, whose anger at the wave of anti-Semitism seeps clearly through her chapter, argues that “ Europe has always been ready to be anti-Semitic and anti-American but not to admit it.” Pierre Birnbaum's account of Jewish anguish in France today is chilling, telling us that French Jews feel they have recently embarked on an unwanted journey into a “fearful heart of darkness.” Indeed, increasing numbers of French Jews believe that France is no longer a comfortable place for Jews to live. Konstanty Gebert begins his chapter by telling of his own experience wearing a Jewish skullcap in Paris , where onlookers stood by while he was attacked for the “crime” of being a Jew. Nor does his experience appear to be unusual: France 's chief rabbi recently recommended that men avoid wearing their skullcaps in public, replacing them with more anonymous caps. Once again, it is dangerous to be identifiable as a Jew on the streets in parts of Europe.

I will resist the temptation to steal the thunder from the authors of the chapters that follow, for each tells a compelling story. Together, they paint an unsettling picture. For an understanding of the nature of anti-Semitism in Europe today and of just how serious it is, I don't think the reader can do better than to read them.

David I. Kertzer
March 2005