It should go without saying that antisemitism, like all forms of racism, cannot be fought unless people recognise it, understand it and are prepared to challenge it.
There have been a few examples recently of the failure to do this in mainstream circles. The complete lack of response, for instance, to Michele Renouf’s anti-Jewish outburst in the House of Lords last month, as highlighted on this blog on Wednesday. The allegation on the BBC that up to a million Jews worldwide form a support network for Mossad, which passed without challenge. Nick Clegg’s refusal to withdraw the Liberal Democrat whip from Baroness Tonge or force her to end her association with Palestine Telegraph, despite that website’s repeated promotion of vicious and open antisemitism. So much for ‘zero tolerance': all too often, antisemitism is tolerated or just ignored, probably because it is not recognised or understood.
Bertram Wolfe, an expert on Communism and the USSR who died in 1977, wrote an obscure little book in 1965 entitled, Strange Communists I Have Known, with fascinating personal profiles and anecdotes about his experiences.
In “The Strange Case of Litvinov’s Diary,” Wolfe recounts a marvelous little scholarly mystery. Shortly after the death of former Soviet Foreign Minister Maxim Litvinov in 1951, a manuscript purporting to be his secret diary surfaced. A prestigious British publisher asked Professor E.H. Carr, the famous historian, to examine it for authenticity. Carr strongly endorsed it as genuine, even offering to write the preface about its historical importance.
A well-known American publisher gave Wolfe the same task. Wolfe found dozens of flaws showing the manuscript was an obvious forgery. Moreover, by comparing it to things written earlier by the former Soviet diplomat who supplied the manuscript, Wolfe even proved that this man was the forger. If you read the details you can see that Wolfe’s case is air-tight.
But what interests me (and you) most is Wolfe’s first reason for finding the manuscript phony:
“The opening pages…began with the first of a series of visits from a rabbi…who comes to Litvinov as one Jew to another to complain [that Soviet authorities] had looted two synagogues and arrested the rabbi of Kiev….Litvinov promises to intervene, though he knows that Stalin `doesn’t like me to interfere in questions concerning the Jewish religion.’”
Indeed, the “diary” claimed, when Litvinov had previously tried to help imprisoned Jews, Stalin threatened to try him before a high Communist party committee. But, Litvinov supposedly wrote, “I couldn’t help smiling at the threat” because the committee’s head Soltz “is the son of the rabbi of Vilna.”
Wolfe was flabbergasted. He explains: “Thus, the opening passage presented Litvinov” as a loyal Jew, “ready to defend any and every Jew against his government and his party.” The same characteristics absurdly and falsely, are attributed to the committee’s head, Soltz, a “fanatical” Communist.
But, Wolfe writes, “Litvinov and Soltz had rejected their Jewish heritage in their youth. Their Jewish origin tended to make them more rather than less hostile toward religious and anti-Communist Jews.” Yet Litvinov, Soltz, and other Soviet Communist leaders of Jewish background are portrayed throughout the diary as pro-Jewish and even pro-Zionist.
Wolfe concludes, referring to the manuscript: “I realized I was dealing with something I have frequently met [a supposed revelation of]: the ‘international Jewish conspiracy,’ the myth of Jewish solidarity overriding all political and other differences.”
Wolfe warned the British publisher, which ignored him and published it, and the American publisher, which rejected the manuscript.
Carr was a fine scholar and no antisemite. Yet he had missed entirely Wolfe’s opening point, something Wolfe was more sensitive about being Jewish himself, though also a former Communist who had a great deal in common with Litvinov and Soltz. In contrast, the British scholar and publisher didn’t comprehend the book’s antisemitic message, didn’t see how the claims made about Jews proved it to be a forgery, or didn’t care.
The contemporary point here is this: Despite decades of documentation and explanation about antisemitism, a large proportion of the Western intelligentsia doesn’t understand it. For them, Jews—at least those who aren’t almost totally assimilated intellectuals either indifferent or hostile to their backgrounds—are incomprehensible. They don’t subscribe to traditional antisemitic—that is, medieval Christian and Nazi–stereotypes but are blind to their permutations.
In other words, they don’t know antisemitism when they see it–or even practice it–unless it is in the crudest historical forms which they understand better since they were right-wing. What they don’t comprehend are the themes. If two American academics speak of pervasive behind-the-scenes Jewish influence using ridiculous sources, they can proclaim their innocence of antisemitism. If a former president uses traditional antisemitic themes but just changes the target from “Jews” to “Israelis,” or others use the word “Zionist” instead of “Jew” but employ all the old stereotypes they are baffled when someone tries to explain this point.
This Carr-style response thus manifests itself in two ways. The more obvious is the mere substitution of the word “Israeli” or “Zionist” for Jewish, that is not just being critical of Israel but doing so in ways that mirror the old categories of antisemitism: seeking world domination; having massive power behind the scenes to twist countries’ governments against their own national interests; dominating the media; being evil in nature or having evil intentions; murdering little children for organs (instead of the traditional blood); hating non-Jews and holding their lives to be cheap; and so on and so on.
Second, beyond all the specifics, Jews (or Israelis or Zionists) are seen as some strange form of life to whom the usual rules don’t apply. You simply don’t need the same level of evidence; the same standard of right and wrong; the same level of balance when dealing with this group.