With all the current economic and political problems, it is something of a curiosity that the Europeans – including the British – are again tussling over the Jews and their relationship to the larger society. It’s no secret that Europe’s old-fashioned anti-Semitism – hatred of the Jews – has found a new ally in the new radical political left. That explains, to some extent, why the British Labor Party, so long a bastion for U.K. Jewish voters, has just expelled two prominent members for their alleged anti-Jewish statements.
No one has ever given a completely adequate explanation of Western anti-Semitism. True enough, in a time of more radical fundamentalist Christian beliefs in the Catholic Church, particularly; there was the accusation that “the Jews killed the Christ”. Of course, what makes that accusation ridiculous for those who know the history of the Roman conquest of Biblical Palestine and the repeated Hebrew revolts against it, is the acceptance in Christianity of so much of the older religion. That “the Jews” like other social, ethnic or religious groups have their share of ignominy could never be contested but whether it merits the attention it gets is another issue altogether That is, why anti-Jewish prejudice and activity should be such a prominent part of European social history, even now that the great bulk of European Jewry has been annihilated by the Nazis, is again inexplicable..
“The Jewish question” as it used to be called in European politics, merges, of course, into the issues of Zionism. This is the catch-all name for all those various efforts and movements to return the Jews, or at least a significant portion of them, to a state of their own in its former historic hinterland. The subject, unfortunately, covers everything from those – Christian as well as Jew – who have propounded the idea from the late 19th century. Some antagonists saw it as an effort to expel the Jews from European society, others as a fulfillment of Biblical prophecy and/or the culmination of their faith which would bring a second coming of the Christ and usher in a period of heaven on earth. But in part as a result of the Holocaust, Zionism in the post-World War era took on a mantle of dynamic secular statehood which despite all odds and repeated efforts by its Arab Moslem neighbors has created a new independent and relatively successful state of the Jews in the Middle East.
But the existence of a functioning state has — if not aggravated — made the problems of Jew-hatred and its “solution” even more complex. It was inevitable, perhaps, that any state – much less a Jewish one created in the morass of the Middle East – would undertake policies to which some of its critics have taken strong objection. One aspect is that the Arabs of British Mandated Palestine between the two world wars took on their own identity – “the Palestinians” — and a nationalism which had never existed in an Arab or Moslem state in the area. It was also perhaps inevitable that as the Israeli state became stronger and assertive, a less cohesive if modernized Arab population in the same neighborhood would become a sympathetic underdog figure for Western idealists, particularly on the left.
This has, in turn, added to a powerful political debate over Israeli policies, and the difficulty of distinguishing its more virulent critics from the traditional anti-Semites with their Jew hatred. Why, the accusations and counter-accusations over these arguments given so many other issues, should take such a prominent place in current European politics is again something of a mystery. One explanation, of course, is that the growth of anti-Semitism in the contemporary period is as seen by many as a candle in the mineshaft. It is too often associated with those European political circles tempted, now once again, by authoritarianism and chauvinist dictatorship which dominated European politics in the 1930s and helped bring on World War II.
Whatever the failings of the Israeli state, it still constitutes the only country in the area which represents Western democratic values. It is no accident, as the Communists used to say, that Mideast Christians today are only safe from persecution and even annihilation in an Israel which while dedicated to the concept of “a Jewish state” preserves the rights of its significant Arab minority however much they are victims of their own incapacities and discrimination.
As the debate continues, it is important to try to cultivate the particulars. By not doing so, we again risk running into dangerous territory.