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Lessons of history

Al-Ahram Weekly – 27 November 2003

Two items of news broke simultaneously this month. The first concerned an apology by a member of the German Parliament, Martin Hohmann, for remarks in which he suggested that Jewish communities in Europe shared a historic “guilt” with the Germans and other nations for the events of the 20th century, a comment which predictably provoked denunciations of Hohmann for being anti-Semitic.
 
The second report was of a survey of various publics in the European Union which showed that a convincing majority, 59 per cent, judged the actions of Israel to be the gravest threat to world peace, knocking more familiar bogeymen like North Korea, Afghanistan and Iran from the top slot.
 
In both cases, these news stories were cited by Zionist propagandists as evidence of a deep-seated anti-Semitism in Europe, proof that all Europeans — from the man and woman in the street to the political leadership — are susceptible to the disease of Jew hatred. This has been the thesis of leading American Jewish scholars such Daniel J Goldhagen.
 
This kind of argument, now promoted relentlessly by the Zionist lobby in the US and Israel, is becoming accepted wisdom there — as accepted as the fact that all Arabs and Muslims are anti-Semites because they oppose Israel’s occupation and brutalisation of the Palestinian people.
 
Hohmann’s comments and the wider “European view” of Israel, however, may not be quite the straightforward proof of an age-old hatred they appear. They may warn of a different lesson, one being drowned out by the Zionist lobby’s constant barracking.
 
I have no knowledge of MP Hohmann, so I will not defend his comments. His party, the conservative Christian Democrats, has a tradition of flirting with racist ideologies. But whatever his motives, his views reflect a reasonable interpretation of recent European history.
 
It should be possible to argue that the hatred of Jewish communities in Europe has historical, and therefore explicable, antecedents; it should be possible to make that statement without being automatically labelled an anti-Semite. The question is not whether the view should be expressed but why it is being expressed: what is the motivation of the speaker.
 
Two Jewish anti-Zionist academics, the late Israeli Israel Shahak and the American Norman Finkelstein, have both convincingly argued that the Holocaust did not emerge in a political and social vacuum.
 
A historical explanations of Jew hatred — the “It’s all in the genes of the Gentiles” argument — are really mischievious attempts to silence criticism of Israel. Such opinions spring from the same kind of nonsense “biological” determinism espoused by the true anti-Semites: those who believe Jews are inherently untrustworthy or evil.
 
There are in fact analysable roots to the rise of anti-Semitism in central and eastern Europe, a history many Zionists would rather we forgot or ignored.
 
When Zionists do concede historical explanations for European anti-Semitism it is usually tied to theories about traditional Christian hatred of Jews. Though doubtless an important factor in anti-Semitism over the centuries, it hardly offers a sufficient explanation for modern manifestations of racism: why did hatred of Jews plumb such depths in the middle of the 20th century, just as the authority of the Churches was weakening; and why is the much less secularised, more faith-based society of the United States so sensitive to claims of anti- Semitism and so resistant to criticism of Israel.
 
Israeli author A B Yehoshua is said to be working on a more intriguing explanation. Reportedly in a new book, he will suggest that Jewish society has antagonised other civilisations, presumably meaning Christians and Muslims, by offering two values that these civilisations have used as their organisational principles — monotheistic universalism and national particularism — and then subverting them both.
 
Jewish monotheism, Judaism, is far from universal (think of the Chosen People) and the Jewish nation, Israel, lacks both physical and psychological borders (think of the unyielding occupation and the Law of Return to Israel and Palestine by any Jew anywhere). In effect, the Jews and Israel are a symbolic wrecking ball of all that non-Jews hold dear.
 
Again, however, Yehoshua’s thesis fails the plausibility test. First, Islam, with its concept of the umma, has limited interest in national particularism but nonetheless Muslim fundamentalists are the most vehemently opposed to Israel and Zionist politics. And second, why if the theory is valid, would the United States — the very embodiment of modern Western values — so loyally support and defend Jews, and its public and government remain so enthusiastic about the Jewish state.
 
There is a simpler and more convincing explanation for modern anti-Semitism. The popular hatred of Jews derives largely from the long-standing use made of them to do the “dirty work” of Europe’s aristocracies. As a set of religiously, ethnically and physically isolated communities, European Jewry was traditionally vulnerable to being manipulated and exploited by local rulers.
 
In return for protection and the offer of limited privileges to these ghetto communities, kings and princes co-opted local rabbis and required ordinary Jews to serve in the most despised roles: as money- lenders, bailiffs and “heavies”. Most Europeans had dealings with Jews only when they were in trouble.
 
Inevitably, the public’s hatred was soon directed towards “the Jews” and away from the true guilty parties: Europe’s ruling classes.
 
It may be that Hohmann, in his clumsy way, was trying to make this point. However abhorrent the crimes of the Nazis, the seeds of their ideas found fertile ground among the wider public not because of biology or ideology but because of the concrete facts of European history. When a victim was needed, the Jews were the ideal scapegoat: a visible, distinctive and maligned minority. A similar minority in Europe, the Roma or Gypsies, suffered much the same fate at the hands of the Nazis.
 
To say this does not excuse or justify those crimes. Explaining the rise of Nazism is not the same as approving of it, whatever Zionist lobbyists may argue. But understanding the historical causes of anti-Semitism is vital if these mistakes are not to be repeated. And this is where the Zionists, and Israel, are making a huge mistake today.
 
For if we can explain the upsurge of “Jew hatred” in early 20th century Europe, we can also explain the rise of “Israel hatred” across much of the world in the early 21st century. The two hatreds spring from almost identical sources.
 
The reason why most Europeans believe Israel is the biggest threat to world peace — and the figures will be at least as high among the Arab and Muslim nations — is because today Israel is performing an almost identical role to that of European Jewry in previous centuries.
 
The Middle East’s dirty work is being done by Israel on behalf of our modern, global prince: the United States. Whether it is testing weapons in the field against Palestinians, selling arms to the most disreputable states on the planet, or arm- twisting and intimidating Arab neighbours to keep them in line, Israel is the regional strongman. It backs up its threats with an awesome arsenal of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. That is why it is so despised and feared.
 
Nonetheless, no one should be in any doubt about who is boss in this relationship. The Americans may need their trusted ally, and at times be more than indulgent of its excesses, but the US is in charge of the agenda. Its strategic and regional goals are the main ones being pursued.
 
The danger, if the Zionists would face up to it, is that the US — far from being a friend to Israel — is as much its enemy as were the European princes of old to their Jewish communities. The path which America has set Israel on has already, if the polls are to be believed, turned it into the world’s number one pariah state.
 
We know where European anti-Semitism led: to the gas chambers of the Nazi death camps. Today all of us have a responsibility to speak out and tell Israelis that the United States is not a true friend.

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