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Selling anti-Semitism

Al-Ahram Weekly – 10 October 2002

Hardly a day passes in Israel without another lengthy feature in the Hebrew press documenting the rapid reemergence of anti-Semitism in Europe, with France and Britain invariably singled out as the worst culprits. For many months Israel’s liberal daily newspaper Haaretz has included a special compilation of reports on the “New Anti-Semitism” on its website.

Some commentators have pointed out that Israel’s current preoccupation with anti-Semitism dangerously conflates two separate, and very different, trends: the first a harsher ideological climate in Europe towards Israel’s military assault on the Palestinians; and the second a wave of attacks on synagogues and Jews, often committed by Muslim youths angry at what they see as Western indifference to this assault.

The blurring of one, legitimate criticism of Israeli actions, with the other, illegitimate retaliation against Jews, serves a useful purpose for Israel. It makes it difficult, at times nigh impossible, to give voice to the daily suffering of millions of Palestinians under occupation without invoking the label “anti-Semite” from a muscular Zionist lobby in Europe and the United States.

But is this the only benefit to Israel? The diet of “new anti-Semitism” stories is not offered only for the consumption of Israel’s wavering Western allies; it is also being fed to a more easily swayed audience: European and American Jewry.

Endless talk about the ugly return of anti-Semitism is a powerful warning to the diaspora that the assumption that Jews now inhabit a safe environment in the West is mistaken. Europe in particular, it is implied, has barely moved on from the days of the Dreyfus affair in late nineteenth-century France, when the army all too readily convicted an officer of treason because he was Jewish.

No one stands to gain more from reviving the idea of the need for a Jewish homeland — the “insurance policy for Jews” argument — than Israel. It both stifles criticism from Jews unhappy with Israel’s behaviour towards the Palestinians and, more importantly, it fuels the fears that drive Jewish migration.

Among Israelis it goes unquestioned that Jewish immigration, known as “aliyah”, is still supremely important if Israel is to remain an ethnic Jewish state.

The consensus says that the Palestinians, aware that they cannot defeat the state militarily, are quietly trying to swamp it with Arab babies in a demographic “battle of wombs”.

So prevalent is this view that a former air force commander, Eitan Ben Eliahu, went unchallenged recently in a national television debate when he commented: “We have to step up immigration immediately and in some way also thin out the number of Arabs here.” He was simply restating arguments expressed with disturbing regularity in the Israeli government, including from within Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Likud Party.

Last month the government even reestablished the Demography Council, disbanded several years ago after complaints it was a racist institution, to find ways to promote increased fertility among Jewish women. Israel, however, will be hard-pushed to win the numbers battle: the birth rate among the country’s large Arab minority is several times that of the Jewish majority. Another tactic is required.

Sharon implicitly conceded this point early in his premiership when he called for one million Jews to migrate to Israel under the Law of Return. The problem is that the remaining Jewish communities outside Israel are by and large successful and comfortably integrated into their host countries. There is unlikely to be another exodus on the scale of the one from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

Which leaves Israel with a product it desperately needs to sell (aliyah) that few Jews want to buy. The “new anti- Semitism” is Israel’s marketing strategy at its most aggressive.

But more worrying is evidence that, in the absence of “Jew hatred”, Israel may be encouraging a climate of anti- Semitism to make its case to the diaspora more convincing.

Take, for example, the collapse of the Argentinian economy late last year. Israel immediately pulled out its cheque book and publicly declared that it wanted to help members of that country’s large Jewish community rebuild their lives. But the money was not made available to them in Argentina; the $20,000 cheques could only be collected by Jews arriving to settle in Israel.

This offer of a “Get out of jail free” card from the Israeli government was loudly trumpeted in the Argentinian and international media. Within weeks the Hebrew press was running its first stories of a rise in anti-Semitic attacks on Jews in Argentina. No connection was made between the two events.

This would not be the first time Israel has recklessly played with the fortunes of the Jewish community in Argentina. Raanan Rein, a history professor at Tel Aviv University, reveals in his new book “Argentina, Israel and the Jews” (only in Hebrew) that in a private press conference in 1960 Prime Minister David Ben Gurion welcomed the possibility that Israel’s kidnapping of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, in violation of an extradition agreement with Buenos Aires, would fuel hatred. “If there is anti-Semitism,” he told a journalist, “they [Argentina’s Jews] can immigrate to Israel.”

Rein says of Israel’s attitude towards Argentinian Jews: “Israel comes to the aid only of those who are prepared to immigrate to it. In effect, Israel chooses between Jews — those who are prepared to immigrate receive full assistance, and those who want to remain in Argentina are abandoned.”

Rein concludes that Israel is not motivated by the best interests of Jews in the diaspora but by its own selfish concerns, including its obsession with demographics. The “new anti-Semitism”, whether real or imagined, is the only sales pitch Israel has that still works.

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