Machlokes / Controversy

Jewish World Review Feb. 28, 2002 / 16 Adar, 5762

Time for hipsters to do a reality-check

By Seth Gitell -- MESSAGE to Jewish hipsters: In case you haven't noticed, anti-Semitism is back.

I make this point in response to the remarkably wrong-headed accompanying essay by Michelle Goldberg on Jews in America, "The New Jew Is Who?" Goldberg, relying on quotes from Jennifer Bleyer, the bubble-headed editor of Heeb: The New Jew Review, and the existence of outward-focused Jewish groups, such as Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, to conclude that anti-Semitism as an issue relevant to Jews in America is dead.

"For a new generation of Jews, it no longer makes sense to define themselves by the hostility of the goyim," Golberg writes. Younger American Jews have largely grown up unscathed by prejudice."

It's not that there isn't a kernel of truth to what Goldberg writes. Of course, there is. Nobody who witnessed the vice-presidential candidacy of Senator Joseph Lieberman could argue otherwise. I myself, in fact, once wrote similarly. But that was before September 11 and before the United Nations Conference on Racism in Durban, South Africa - the nearest thing to a Hitlerite Munich rally in decades - that preceded it.

What Goldberg's piece lacks is adequate examination of the resurgence of anti-Semitism in the world, something that has been taken into account by other writers who have also opined on the subject since September 11, namely Jonathan Rosen in a November 4 New York Times Magazine essay and Hillel Halkin in Commentary.

Start with Rosen, the former culture editor of the Forward and therefore a former colleague of mine, as well as a rough contemporary of Goldberg's.

Rosen begins his essay in a similar spirit as Goldberg, noting the difference between the generation of his father, who fled Vienna before the Holocaust, and his own. "Living in New York, pursuing my writing life, I had the world forever all before me," wrote Rosen - a critic of the Holocaust Museum in Washington. "I felt it was an act of mental health to recognize that his world was not my world and that his fears were the product of an experience alien to me. I didn't want ancient European anti-Semitism enshrined on federal land."

Yet conditions changed for Rosen. First came the Durban conference, where participants gave out booklets that depicted caricatures of Jews - complete with fangs dripping blood - that would have fit right in with Der Stürmer, the popular Nazi propaganda rag.

Then, in the wake of September 11, Rosen awakened to the conspiracy theories raging through the Arab world, which postulated that Israel, not Al Qaeda, had destroyed the World Trade Center.

Goldberg does deign to mention these seminal facts in her essay, but barely recognizes their significance. Her only concession to the hard truth is a feeble quote from writer Lisa Schiffman noting that it will be hard to continue the "Jewish cultural renaissance "if " public opinion starts turning against Jews again. "No kidding. But that's exactly what's happening throughout the "civilized" world.

My generation had always been told had Europe did a marvelous job of ridding itself of the anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust. But recently, it's been backsliding. Whether it's due to economic considerations (Europe needs Arab oil), the desire to appease (Europe lacks a serious military presence), or demographically driven political pressures (the populations of France and Germany, for example, are increasingly Muslim), the political entity known as Europe has become more receptive to anti-Semitism.

That's where Halkin comes in. Halkin marshals a chilling array of evidence to demonstrate that anti-Semitism in Europe today is what trance music was a few years ago: hip. He quotes the comments of a "liberal member of the House of Lords" recounted in the London Spectator. "The Jews have been asking for it, and now, thank G-d, we can say what we think at last." Halkin lists the litany of Kristallnacht-style vandalism and defacements at European synagogues in recent months. And he details European nonchalance as anti-Jewish blood libels were reintroduced within the Arab world. Halkin acknowledges that in 1995 he agreed with the following assessment of anti-Semitism by Barry Rubin, a professor of Hebrew University, which stated "never before, at least since the time Christianity seized power over the Roman Empire, has anti-Semitism been less significant than at present." Halkin then observes "I doubt whether anyone would write those words today."

Michelle Goldberg did exactly that. Goldberg, of course, could have written the same piece disclaiming any of the recent instances of anti-Semitism as merely "anti-Israel" or "critical of the policies of Israel." She could have, in other words, taken a page from the likes of Noam Chomsky and retreated to the faulty distinction between an anti-Semite and someone who opposes the policies of Israel. And if she had, she would have been wrong.

Each day it becomes clear that the individuals blowing themselves up in Jerusalem shopping malls and Tel Aviv nightclubs are not doing so to add a few kilometers of land to the Palestinian Authority. The demands of the suicide bombers are maximal. Unmoved by the generous offer of Ehud Barak at Camp David last summer, they seek the land from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea - that is, all of pre-1967 Israel.

What would happen to the Israeli Jews who live on this land? Would they be evacuated to America? Would they be murdered? Surely any serious discussion of modern anti-Semitism must acknowledge that somehow the demands of those who chant "Kill the Jews," a common refrain in the Arab world, are in some way anti-Semitic.

Like Rosen and Halkin, I'd be happy if I never had to write a single word about anti-Semitism. It would be great if all that American Jews had to worry about was which type of synagogue to join or what environmental group to support. I have profound nostalgia for the days when goateed Jewish B-Boys told Goldberg's predecessors that they expressed their Jewishness through hip-hop. But that was before thugs began tossing Molotov cocktails through the windows of French synagogues.

To ignore evil only invites it.

JWR contributor Seth Gitell is the political writer of the Boston Phoenix and the former national editor of the Forward.Comment by clicking here.


© 2002, Seth Gitell<