Anti-Semitism in the 21st Century

Taboo no longer?

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A major development in today's anti-Semitism in Europe is its prevalence in the non-communist left. Europe's right-wingers have long used anti-Semitism as a political rallying cry. European communists, taking their cue from the former Soviet Union, also railed against Jews and Judaism as counter-revolutionary elements.

But the current surge in anti-Semitism has seen major artists, intellectuals, and politicians of the left also engaged. Among them have been Portuguese novelist José Saramago, winner of the Nobel Prize, who compared Israel to Nazi Germany; Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis, who called Jews the root of all the world's evil; and Daniel Bernard, the French ambassador to Britain, who was overheard in an unguarded moment at a dinner party calling Israel "a shitty little country" that was bringing the world to the brink of World War III.


To be fair, legitimate criticism of Israel's actions vis-à-vis the Palestinians cannot all be labeled anti-Semitism, as some would have it. Complicating this is the fact that the Magen David [Star of David] is a symbol for both Judaism and Israel, which gives license to political cartoonists, for example, to depict the Star of David in work claiming to be critical only of Israel's actions and not of Jews more broadly. Israel's claim to be a homeland for global Jewry provides its enemies with additional reason--disingenuous as it may be--to claim that virtually all Jews give aid and comfort to the Jewish state.

Anti-Semitism, then, may be said at times to be in the eye of the beholder. Yet when Israel alone is singled out from among the family of nations as an illegitimate state, when Jewish nationhood is belittled as a modern political claim despite its 3,000-year-long history, and when United Nations officials allow an international conference on racism to focus almost entirely on the Jewish state, as happened in Durban, South Africa, just weeks before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, it is no surprise that Jews believe they are facing unabashed anti-Semitism rather than legitimate political disagreement.

"Let's be realistic," David A. Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, wrote in mid-2003. "Given its longevity, anti-Semitism in one form or another is likely to outlive us all. That seems like a safe, if unfortunate, bet. No Jonas Salk has yet come along with an immunization protocol to eradicate forever the anti-Semitic virus, nor is any major breakthrough likely in the foreseeable future."

At the same time, Harris continued, "the Jewish community looks radically different than it did, say, 60 or 70 years ago" when anti-Semitism in Europe erupted into the Holocaust.

"Today, there is an Israel; then, there was not. Today, there are sophisticated, savvy, and well-connected Jewish institutions; then, Jewish institutions were much less confident and sure-footed. Collectively, we have the capacity to track trends in anti-Semitism, exchange information on a timely basis with other interested parties, reach centers of power, build alliances within and across borders, and consider the best mix of diplomatic, political, legal, and other strategies for countering troubling developments."

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Ira Rifkin

Ira Rifkin is a national correspondent for Religion News Service based in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Spiritual Perspectives on Globalization: Making Sense of Economic and Cultural Upheaval.