Australia/Israel Review

Essay: Breeding Ground

Feb 1, 2006 | Ted Lapkin

The strange mythology of antisemitism

By Ted Lapkin

There is little doubt that the hard-core 21st century Left has cast its political lot with those who are agitating for Israel’s disappearance from the map. Yet many Leftists wish to eat their anti-Zionist cake while still retaining their claim to moral virtue. The assertion that anti-Israel antipathy is separate from antisemitism constitutes a convenient means to deflect accusations that Judeophobia might lie at anti-Zionism’s core.

This campaign to confer moral respectability upon the cause of Israel’s eradication has lent an added level of sophistication to the conventional anti-Zionist narrative. The apologists for this ideology erect the outer-ramparts that buttress and protect the inner-keep of the anti-Zionist polemic itself.

This twin-layered defence ensures that a simple refutation of the central anti-Zionist thesis does not fully address its moral malignancy. In order to carry the day against anti-Zionism, it is necessary to storm both its conceptual barbican and bastion alike. Rebuttals limited merely to the factual errors and non-sequiturs that plague anti-Zionism imply that this ideology should still enjoy the virtues of intellectual respectability, regardless of its imperfections.

But the advocates of anti-Zionism deserve no such collegial presumptions of moral decency. There is nothing ethical about a worldview that would deny Jews the same rights of self-definition and self-determination that are routinely afforded to others. Anti-Zionism is a new form of antisemitism, pure and simple.  

Mission Deniable

Brian Klug: anti-Zionist mission

At the vanguard of this anti-Zionist cohort is an Oxford University research fellow in philosophy named Brian Klug. Klug is clearly a man on a mission. And the object of his quest is readily apparent from a glance at his essays on the question of Israel and the Jews. ‘No, anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism,’ blared the headline of an opinion piece by Klug that appeared in the 3 December 2003 edition of the Left-leaning British Guardian broadsheet newspaper. And two months later, the Leftist magazine The Nation ran one of his review articles under an equally self-explanatory title: ‘The Myth of the New anti-Semitism.’

It is Klug’s contention that anti-Zionism is a morally legitimate ideology that should be well within the bounds of mainstream political discourse. And in order to validate his creed, he seeks to invalidate the proposition that there might be anything anti-Jewish about de-Judaisation of the Jewish state.

Brian Klug argues that the equation of anti-Zionism with antisemitism is invalid because there is no natural connection between the Jewish state and Jewish people:

To argue that hostility to Israel and hostility to Jews are one and the same thing is to conflate the Jewish state with the Jewish people. In fact, Israel is one thing, Jewry another. Accordingly, anti-Zionism is one thing, anti-Semitism another. They are separate.

But with reports of antisemitic incidents pouring in from all quadrants, Klug is far too clever to naysay the undeniable reality of rampant European Judeophobia. He concedes: “there is certainly reason to be concerned about a climate of hostility to Jews, including vicious attacks.” But Brian Klug’s concern manifests itself in a rather curious manner. He gives short shrift to the argument that there might be anything novel about this eruption of anti-Jewish violence, denying “that there is an outbreak of anti-Semitism of a new kind.”

Indeed, the thrust of Klug’s oeuvre attempts to minimise the threat of antisemitism where he can, and to rationalise Jew-hatred where deflation simply won’t wash. And when all else fails, the moral culpability for this epidemic of antisemitic words and deeds is to be apportioned to the Jews themselves rather than to the Judeophobic perpetrators of those actions.

Thus Klug bends over backwards to comprehend the “context” that motivates today’s Jew-baiters and synagogue-burners. But he adopts a far less conciliatory stance towards the Jews themselves. In the best ‘blame the victim’ tradition, the Jews are offered a stark choice: sell Israel down the river, or bear the violent consequences.

In the world according to Klug, the only legitimate status for Jews is as a minority community within a predominantly gentile society. He expresses perfunctory empathy for individual Jewish victims of antisemitism, but can summon up no support for the only real collective solution to antisemitic persecution: a sovereign Jewish state. The Oxford philosopher adores assimilated Jews who live as minorities in the Diaspora, but he abhors self-sufficient Jews who know how to make Merkava tanks and can deploy heavy armour in their own defence. And Klug attempts to validate his political allegiances by minimising the substance and scope of the Leftist antagonism towards Jewish communal interests. Rather than fighting against the Judeophobia that permeates the progressive movement, Klug instead serves as a paladin of anti-Zionism who defends the indefensible through sophistry and denial.

Muddying the Waters

But for Brian Klug’s polemic to have any logical coherence, he must narrowly define antisemitism as a mono-dimensional phenomenon. Thus he argues that “an anti-Semite sees Jews this way: they are an alien presence, a parasite that preys on humanity and seeks to dominate the world.” Of course, feverish theories of Judaic conspiracy have certainly been a staple of antisemitic mythology since the days of Tacitus. But history has demonstrated that there is more to Judeophobia than simple parables of shady behind-the-scenes political machinations.

And while Klug declares that this form of anti-Jewish bigotry should be rejected by the fair-minded, his denunciations to that effect are distinctly perfunctory in tone. When it becomes tactically unavoidable, he throws a bone to the Zionists by admitting that when tales of malevolent Judaic power are “projected on to Israel because it is a Jewish state, then anti-Zionism is anti-Semitic.” Klug even acknowledges that: “anti-Jewish slogans and graphics have appeared on marches opposing the invasion of Iraq.” But the philosopher then systematically proceeds to gut those factual concessions of any real weight. The application of double standards to the Jewish state might be “foul,” argues Klug, but it is not antisemitic because “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a bitter political struggle.”  

Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Denunciation of Evil

Yet even if one accepts Brian Klug’s restrictive definition of antisemitism, the selectivity of his outrage makes his denunciations of Judeophobia ring hollow. We hear no expressions of impassioned outrage over the wave of anti-Jewish rhetoric and violence that has erupted throughout Europe.

Thus I was unable to find any denunciation by Klug of noted British poet Tom Paulin’s call for the murder of “Brooklyn-born” Jewish inhabitants of West Bank and Gaza: “they should be shot dead. I think they are Nazis, racists and I feel nothing but hatred for them.” Paulin also expressed his support for attacks against Israeli civilians on the grounds that they “boost [Palestinian] morale.”

The poet’s comments attained widespread notoriety during a public controversy that erupted after Paulin was invited to deliver a lecture at Harvard University. Such radical sentiments proved far too rich for Harvard’s blood, and the versemaker’s invitation was subsequently rescinded. Yet despite Brian Klug’s interest in establishing a distinction between ‘legitimate’ hostility to Israel and ‘illegitimate’ antisemitism, he is mute on the subject of Tom Paulin.

And Klug was similarly quiescent when other high profile manifestations of Leftist antisemitism have surfaced to public view in his home country. Mum was the word when London social icon Lady Powell was reputed to have expressed her detestation of Jews on the grounds that “everything that was happening to them was their own fault.” And there is no record of him chastising the flagship journal of the British Left when the New Statesman ran a cover story in January 2002 entitled ‘A Kosher Conspiracy?’

This issue of the magazine so overflowed with antisemitic themes and imagery that it was difficult to decide which of them was more invidiously offensive. Was it the obnoxious picture of a golden Star of David piercing a Union Jack that graced the New Statesman’s cover? Or was it the article by Dennis Sewell arguing that the British media are subject to a systematic campaign of intimidation by an underhanded Jewish lobby?

Journalist Jonathan Freedland is a British Jew who, like Brian Klug, inclines Leftwards in political terms. But despite the columnist’s partisan proclivities, he did not hesitate to vituperate the New Statesman harshly over its editorial decision to run that invidious story. “The cover would not have looked out of place in Der Sturmer,” declared Freedland. “It was an image replete with almost classic antisemitism: rich Jews dominating their besieged host country.” And when Labour MP Tam Dalyell accused Prime Minister Tony Blair in early 2003 of “being unduly influenced by a cabal of Jewish advisors,” Freeland once again leaped into the fray. The columnist was sufficiently appalled by Dalyell’s comment that he devoted an entire opinion piece in the Guardian to decry this “racist slur.”

But these unambiguous expressions of Jew-hatred fail to generate a sense of passion in Brian Klug’s writing that is in comparable to his wrath against Zionism. Expressions of milquetoast condemnation against anti-Jewish words and deeds are the best that he can muster. In fact, when the Oxford philosopher finally bestirred himself to foray on to the opinion pages of Britain’s quality press, it was to condone this sort of antisemitic sentiment rather than condemn it. Seen within the larger context of Klug’s writing, these isolated admissions that antisemitism might exist on the Left are simply throwaway lines designed to insulate him from charges of partisan bias.

While Klug’s sparse expressions of censure against Judeophobia seem grudging, cursory and devoid of zeal, his incessant denunciations of Israel are invested with the ardour of a true believer. It is obvious that he husbands his real umbrage for the Zionists who are stirring up all this trouble in the first place. The Oxford philosopher’s polemical barbs are almost exclusively directed against Israel and its purported sins. The Jewish state, he maintains, “has become a genuine source of danger and a source of shameful embarrassment to Jews who choose to live outside its borders.”

Brian Klug vouchsafes a pro forma repudiation of violence against non-Israeli Jews in the diaspora, characterising it as “repugnant”. But Klug then rushes to rob this condemnation of any substance by placing the true onus of responsibility for such anti-Jewish hostility squarely on the shoulders of – you guessed it – Israel. And as for the hardcore extremists who combine political antagonism towards Israel with boorish hatred towards Jews; they rate nary a mention at all.

This silence transpires despite the fact that Klug’s home turf of Great Britain abounds with high profile expressions of anti-Jewish bigotry that qualify as antisemitism, even by his stringent taxonomy. Brian Klug’s tonguelessness is all the more remarkable in light of his general outspokenness. Perhaps he sees no reason to comment because he considers Paulin’s incitement to murder, Dalyell’s invocation of antisemitic stereotypes and Lady Powell’s unreconstructed ethnic animus to be within the realm of respectable public discourse.  

Soft Pedalling the Past to Extenuate the Present

But Brian Klug pushes the sophistic envelope to the brink when he contends that the perpetrators of anti-Jewish violence in Europe aren’t really bigots at all. The equation of assaults on non-Israeli Jewish institutions with antisemitism, he informs us, is “misconceived.” He elaborates on his line of thought by contending that this “misconception goes to the heart of the complex situation in which Jews find themselves today.”

The real problem, according to Klug, is that Israel presents itself as “’the Jewish collective,’ the sovereign state of the Jewish people as a whole.” The philosopher admits, “Jews have good reason to be concerned about the growing hostility toward them.” But while the desecration of European synagogues might be deplorable, this violence must be understood as a natural reaction to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. From this perspective, if the Jews want to claim ethnic solidarity with Israel, then they must expect to reap the whirlwind of the pernicious Zionist wind they have sown. “It is one thing to oppose Israel or Zionism on the basis of an anti-Semitic fantasy;” writes Klug, “[but] quite another to do so on the basis of reality. The latter is not anti-Semitism.”

But his attempt to establish a theoretical distinction that is meaningless outside the ivory towers of the academy means that Klug is parsing how many antisemites can dance on the head of a pin. The speciousness of his notional dichotomy is belied by the reality of contemporary political discourse. Within the hurly burly of punditry and protest politics that constitute the front lines of the culture wars, anti-Israel sentiment has become inextricably interwoven with blatant antisemitism, even as Brian Klug defines that term.

Yet Brian Klug persists in his quest to find a “context within to make sense” of the antisemitic violence that is sweeping through Europe. We are enjoined to understand the root causes of anti-Jewish sentiment, which Klug avers is attributable to Israel’s oppressive policies. Thus Paris synagogue-burners are portrayed in a mitigating light because “evidence suggests that the perpetrators of the anti-Jewish attacks in France were motivated by political outrage, not bigotry.”

This resurgence of anti-Jewish violence; Klug assures us, “would not be spreading within Muslim communities in Europe were it not for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” He declares antisemitism to be merely “a secondary formation, a by product of aspirations and grievances that have nothing to do with a priori prejudice against Jews.”

But when hecklers disrupted a concert attended by President Jacques Chirac in January 2004, they did not accuse Jewish singer Shirel of complicity in Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. Instead she was assailed by the basest of ethnic epithets: “Filthy Jew,” and “Death to the Jews!” And as a matter of fact, violent Judeophobia has a long and ubiquitous tradition throughout the Arab world. From Mosul to Marrakech, Jews were being slaughtered and synagogues were being burned long before the first glint of Zionist fervour appeared in Theodore Herzl’s eyes.

Historian Bat Ye’or has documented how the institution of ‘dhimmitude’ brought about the eradication of countless Jewish communities throughout the Middle East during the aftermath of the Muslim conquest. And things did not improve with time. Eminent Middle East historian Bernard Lewis identified the latter 18th and entire 19th centuries as “the lowest point in the existence of the Jews in the Muslim lands.”

Lewis quotes Englishman Charles McFarlane’s observations during a trip to Istanbul in 1828 that the Jews were:

the last and most degraded of the Turkish Rayahs, loaded with the concurrent and utter contempt of Frank, Turk and Armenian.

And in 1839 the British Vice-Consul in Jerusalem observed:

Still, the Jew in Jerusalem is not estimated in value much above a dog – and scarcely a day passes that I do not hear of some act of Tyranny and oppression against a Jew.

Records of correspondence culled from the archives of the Alliance Israelite Universelle also tell a chilling tale of the violent repression that was the lot of North African Jews during the latter 19th century. “A few of the many hundreds of documents which vividly illustrate the wretched condition of the common [Jewish] folk have been selected at random,” wrote journalist David Littman. One letter recounts how the regional governor of the Moroccan town of Entifa ordered the crucifixion of an elderly Jewish man in the year 1880. Another dispatch informs us of how, in 1884 and again in 1885, the Jews in the Moroccan town of Demnat were repeatedly victimised by pogroms in which Jewish shops were looted, Jewish women were raped and an 80 year-old rabbi was beaten to death. These two incidents are emblematic of the many other instances of Arab antisemitism described in Littman’s article, which itself represents a mere fraction of the narratives retained in the Alliance archives.

It is noteworthy that these anti-Jewish incidents, all documented by unimpeachable primary sources and confirmed by eminent scholars, occurred well in advance of the First Zionist Congress in 1897. Long before the Zionist pioneers of the ‘First Aliya’ arrived in Ottoman Palestine during the 1880s, Jewish communities from the Maghreb to Iran suffered from pervasive oppression at the hands of their Arab and Muslim neighbours.

But what if the Jewish state of Israel were hypothetically replaced by a Christian state of “Christiania?” By means of a “simple thought experiment” (remember, he is a philosophy professor) Klug attempts to prove that Arab animus towards Israel has nothing to with the Jewish state’s Jewishness. The source of regional tension stems from the fact that Israel is seen as a “European interloper” and as a “non-Arab and non-Muslim entity,” declares Klug. “Would the animosity felt towards Christiania be qualitatively different from, or significantly less than, the hostility now directed at Israel? I think not,” he definitively answers. “In and of itself, it [Arab detestation of Israel] is not anti-Semitic.”

This hypothetical is adduced by Klug to complement his thesis that things were pretty good for the Jews of the Levant before that pesky Ben Gurion muddied the regional waters. Presumably if the Zionist presence could only be eliminated, things in the Middle East could return to their natural state of idyllic inter-ethnic amity.

But the non-existence of a ‘Christiania’ has not spared Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority the bitter fruits of repression inflicted by that nation’s Muslim majority population. Not only are Christians grossly under-represented in the ranks of the Egyptian establishment, but also the Coptic community is periodically victimised by pogroms and other forms of violence. After one particularly serious episode of unrest, the deputy director of Egypt’s al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies decried “the prevailing culture of frustration and oppression” amongst the Copts.

And the Islamic Republic of Iran has severely tyrannised its minority Bahai population, despite the absence of a sovereign ‘Bahaiia.’ The treatment of Jews in pre-Zionist times, and the Copts and Bahai today, demonstrates that an Islamic Middle East devoid of democratic values needs no particular provocation to oppress its indigenous minorities.

All of this pretty much puts paid to Brian Klug’s contention that Arab antipathy towards Jews is primarily a reaction to “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, especially the current crisis that began with the breakdown of the Oslo peace initiative and the outbreak of the second Intifada.” Even if the Jewish state were to suddenly disappear from the map, the denizens of the Middle East wouldn’t spontaneously beat their swords into ploughshares and break into a rousing rendition of ‘Kumbaya.’

In the mealy-mouthed tradition of apologists who ‘don’t condone, but understand’ terrorism and other assorted abominations, Klug stops just short of overt justifications of the unjustifiable. And even if I were to grant Klug’s thesis for the sake of argument, there remains no provocation that can justify the propagation of perfervid anti-Jewish conspiracy theories or the incitement to acts of physical brutality.  

To Be, Or Not To Be, That is the Question

But Brian Klug is nothing if not methodical. He recognises that the sentiments of ethnic identity can constitute a powerful conceptual foundation for aspirations of national self-determination. And in order to negate the latter, the former must first be voided. The practical manifestation of Jewish ethno-nationalism is; of course, the State of Israel. And with a bare minimum of ado he baldly asserts: “you do not have to be an anti-Semite to reject the belief that Jews constitute a separate nation in the modern sense of the word.”

While Klug provides little supporting evidence and even less reasoning as to why this should be so, there is definite method to his maddeningly ethereal polemic. Klug assails the concept of Jewish nationhood in order to buttress the pursuit of his ultimate objective: the demise of the Jewish state. Just as Turkey attempts to deny the validity of Kurdish ethnicity in an attempt to forestall the creation of an independent Kurdistan, Brian Klug applies the same strategy to the independent nation-state of the Jews.

Yet the idea of Jewish ethno-nationalism is not nearly as nugatory as Brian Klug would have us believe. In fact, to deny the concept of Jewish ethnic nationhood is to negate a principle that has been fundamental to the Jews’ conception of self for 3,000 years. Forged during the biblical period, honed during the Babylonian exile, and refined during the Talmudic period, this sense of distinctive Jewish peoplehood has been both profound and enduring.

Indeed, the evidence of an enduring sense of Jewish ethno-nationalism so pervades Jewish writing throughout the ages to the point where it simply overwhelms all contrary argument. Attempts to deny this self-evident truth are the equivalent of making a case that the earth is flat.

The Jews have adhered to their national sense of self in the face of the centrifugal forces of modern and Hellenistic assimilation, as well as the centripetal forces of persecution. Individual critics of Israel, some of them Jews, might think that Jewish particularism is anachronistic, immoral and unwise. But a group’s definition of self is determined by the broad consensus of its members, not by outsiders, nor by a numerically inconsequential minority of disaffected insiders. In the final equation, it is up to the Jewish people as a whole to determine for itself both who and what it is. And by word and deed over the past three millennia, the Jews have consistently and decisively demonstrated that this sense of Jewish ethnic nationhood is central to their collective consciousness.  

The Final Solution

Brian Klug’s prescription for Israel’s future is marred by the same intellectual dishonesty that taints his analysis of the Jewish past and present. He makes euphemistic mention of non-Zionist “alternatives” to Israel as a Jewish state, hinting that the best of these options would be the establishment of a “bi-national homeland for Palestinians and Jews.”

Of course such a program would, in short order, transform the predominantly Jewish state of Israel into yet another Middle East nation with an Arab majority population. Most Israeli Jews reject such prescriptions for a ‘one-state solution’ out of hand because they consider such plans tantamount to a demand for their national suicide.

On the grounds of sheer presumption alone, the citizens of any self-respecting sovereign country would reject such a foreign demand for their national dissolution. And for Israelis, this opposition is rendered more absolute by the self-evident dysfunction of the Arab society into which anti-Zionists desire the Jewish state to be subsumed. In light of the past and present Middle East reality, it is only possible to envisage Klug’s idyllic vision by gazing through the most utopian of prisms.

We have already described the endemic oppression that was the lot of Middle Eastern Jews before the advent of modern Zionism. We also noted the persecution and discrimination that continues to plague minority groups throughout the Arab world. These grounds alone would not bode well for the fate of a minority Jewish population living in Brian Klug’s envisioned majority Arab Palestinian state. And a broader perusal of regional realities reveals yet additional reasons to reject his quixotic prescription for Middle East comity.

The ubiquity of the political tyranny and socio-economic stagnation that afflict the Islamic Middle East was recounted in depressing detail by the UN’s landmark Arab Human Development Report – 2002. The Report found that “out of seven world regions, the Arab countries had the lowest freedom score in the late 1990s.” And the picture on the gender equity front isn’t any prettier. The Report revealed that Arab: “women also suffer from unequal citizenship and legal entitlements, often evident in voting rights and legal codes.”

This dearth of political liberty and gender equality has wrought disastrous social and economic consequences throughout the Islamic Middle East. Illiteracy rates throughout the Arab world are much higher than in poorer non-Arab nations. And despite access to one of the world’s richest concentrations of natural resources, the combined GDP of all 21 Arab countries was less than that of Spain.

The year 2005 was punctuated by encouraging signs that the Arab world might be in the throes of a long-overdue metamorphosis. We have seen reasonably free and fair elections take place in Iraq. And the people have thronged the streets of Beirut and Cairo to demand liberation from autocracy and tyranny. Yet a sober analysis of events in the Middle East would indicate that cautious optimism rather than euphoria is the watchword of the hour. As of this writing, these manifestations of a popular Arab democratic will remain incipient, tentative and vulnerable.

A mere two years before the ‘Beirut Spring,’ The Economist noted that Arab popular attention was focused primarily on customary concepts of ‘national liberation’ rather than concerns about individual liberty. The magazine found that appeals to Arab ethnic pride tended to trump calls for freedom and democracy. After a visit to Cairo some months later, author David Hirst made a similar observation in the pages of Britain’s Guardian: “the preoccupation with the two things that seem most fateful for the future – the Israeli-Palestinian struggle and US plans for a possible war against Iraq – is overwhelming.”

Thus the venerable Middle Eastern tradition in which autocrats deflect popular discontent through anti-Israel and anti-American vitriol remains alive and well. And while we hope that democratisation will take root throughout the Levant and Maghreb, the jury is still out on the ultimate success of what is a nascent phenomenon.

Despite tremendous adversity, the Israelis have managed to build a nation that combines the political values of liberty and with cutting edge technological sophistication. It would be absurd to think that Israelis could ever be peacefully induced to hitch their national wagon to the stalled locomotive that is Arab society.

Brian Klug proclaims that the Zionist enterprise has proved more of a burden than a boon for the safety of Israel’s Jewish population. And he questions whether a world without Israel might not benefit the security of Diaspora Jewry, as well.

But in essence, Klug is advocating the sacrifice of the Jewish state on the altar of a utopian pipedream. Only the inhabitants of political cloud-cuckoo-land could believe that it would be desirable to destroy the Middle East’s sole established democracy in order to create yet another failed Arab state.

The scenario so coveted by the anti-Zionist movement would serve as a monumental rebuff to the cause of human freedom. And a Palestinian ‘right of return’ to Tel Aviv and Haifa and the consequent destruction of the Zionist enterprise would also constitute a Jewish catastrophe of historic proportions.


This is an abridged version of an article that appeared in the December 2005 issue of Quadrant.



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