Anti-Semitism, Old and New
This past week, I had the privilege of participating in the first-ever UN General Assembly forum on global anti-Semitism, which, as it happened, took place at a critical historical moment: the eve of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the most brutal extermination camp of the 20th century – and site of horrors too terrible to be believed, but not too terrible to have happened.
Of the 1.3 million people who died at Auschwitz, 1.1 million were Jews. Let there be no mistake about it: Jews died at Auschwitz because of anti-Semitism, but anti-Semitism did not die. And, tragically, as we have learned only too well, while it begins with Jews, it doesn’t end with Jews. In France and elsewhere, Jews are the canary in the mineshaft of evil.
The underlying thesis of my remarks at the UN was this: We are witnessing a new, sophisticated, global, virulent, and even lethal anti-Semitism, reminiscent of the atmospherics of the 1930s, and without parallel or precedent since the end of the Second World War.
This new anti-Jewishness overlaps with classical anti-Semitism but is distinguishable from it. It found early juridical, and even institutional, expression in the United Nations’ “Zionism is Racism” resolution – which, as the late U.S. Senator Daniel Moynihan said, “gave the abomination of anti-Semitism the appearance of international legal sanction” – but has gone dramatically beyond it. This new anti-Semitism almost needs a new vocabulary to define it; however, it can best be identified from an anti-discrimination, equality rights, and international law perspective.
In a word, classical or traditional anti-Semitism is the discrimination against, denial of, or assault upon, the rights of Jews as people to live as equal members of whatever society they inhabit. The new anti-Semitism involves the discrimination against, denial of, or assault upon, the right of the Jewish people to live as an equal member of the family of nations – or to live at all – with Israel emerging as the targeted collective Jew among the nations.
Observing the complex intersections between old and new anti-Semitism, and the impact of the new on the old, Per Ahlmark, Deputy Prime Minister of Sweden, pithily and presciently concluded some 15 years ago: “Compared to most previous anti-Jewish outbreaks, this [new anti-Semitism] is often less directed against individual Jews. It primarily targets the collective Jews, the State of Israel. And then such attacks start a chain reaction of assaults on individual Jews and Jewish institutions … In the past, the most dangerous anti-Semites were those who wanted to make the world Judenrein, free of Jews. Today, the most dangerous anti-Semites might be those who want to make the world Judenstaatrein, ‘free of a Jewish state.'”
What has been called a pandemic of anti-Semitism is underpinned by four indicators.
The first indicator of the new anti-Semitism – and the most lethal manifestation of it – is what may be called genocidal anti-Semitism. This is not a term that I would use lightly or easily. I am referring here to the Genocide Convention’s prohibition against the direct and public incitement to genocide. Simply put, if anti-Semitism is the most enduring of hatreds, and genocide is the most horrific of crimes, then the convergence of the genocidal intent embodied in anti-Semitic ideology is the most toxic of combinations.
This genocidal anti-Semitism can be seen, for instance, in the state-sanctioned incitement to genocide of Khamenei’s Iran, a characterization I use to distinguish it from the people and public of Iran, who are otherwise the targets of Khamenei’s massive domestic repression.
It can be seen, as well, in the charters of such terrorist movements as Hamas and Hezbollah. Indeed, the Hamas charter not only calls for the destruction of Israel and the killing of Jews, wherever they may be, but also for the perpetration of acts of terror in furtherance of that objective. What is less well known – if known at all – is that the Hamas charter is replete with anti-Semitic tropes, including the notion that the Jews were responsible for the French revolution, the First World War, the Second World War, the League of Nations, the United Nations, and that no war has broken out anywhere without Jewish fingerprints on it.
Genocidal anti-Semitism can also be found in the religious fatwas, or execution writs, where genocidal calls in mosques and media are held out as religious obligations, where Jews and Judaism are characterized as perfidious enemies of Islam, and where Israel becomes, as it were, the Salman Rushdie of the nations.
Moreover, hate-filled demonstrations in Europe this past summer and since were replete with genocidal chants of “Jews, Jews to the gas,” accompanied by the firebombing of synagogues, attacks on Jewish community centres, and assaults on Jewishly identifiable people and places, all of which caused the President of Germany’s Central Council of Jews to remark:
“These are the worst times since the Nazi era. On the street, you heard things like, ‘the Jews should be gassed, the Jews should be burned.'”
Eight synagogues were firebombed in France in July alone, and there were attacks and threats to other French Jewish institutions long before the recent terrorist killing of four Jews in a kosher supermarket. Indeed, one suspects that had it not been for the terrorist assault on Charlie Hebdo two days earlier, the attack on the supermarket might have gone as unacknowledged as the ongoing threats and assaults in France these past years.
In short, Israel is the only state in the world and the Jewish people are the only people in the world today who are the objects of standing threats by governmental, terrorist, and radical religious groups, while in a cruel inversion of the Holocaust, Israel and Jews are themselves accused of genocide.
This brings me to the second indicator of the new anti-Semitism: the globalizing indictment of Israel and the Jewish people as the embodiment of all evil, including racism, imperialism, colonialism, ethnic cleansing, apartheid, and even Nazism. And this serves as a validator for the third indicator, political anti-Semitism: the denial of fundamental rights to the Jewish people, and only to the Jewish people.
In other words, if genocidal anti-Semitism is a public call for or incitement to the destruction of Israel – and Israel and the Jewish people are the embodiment of all evil, warranting the assaults upon them – then political anti-Semitism is the denial of Israel’s right to exist to begin with, the denial of its legitimacy, or the denial of the Jewish people’s right to self-determination, if not even their denial as a people.
As Martin Luther King put it, political anti-Semitism constitues the “denial to the Jews of the same right, the right to self-determination, that we accord to African nations and to all other peoples of the globe.”
Which brings me to the fourth and final manifestation of anti-Semitism, and one that ought to be of particular concern to the United Nations: the laundering or masking of anti-Semitism under universal public values. This includes the laundering of Jew hatred under the protective cover of the UN, the authority of international law, the culture of human rights, and the struggle against racism.
The laundering of anti-Semitism under the protective cover of the United Nations found dramatic expression this past December, when the UN General Assembly – in yet another annual discriminatory ritual – adopted 20 resolutions of condemnation against Israel, and only four resolutions against the rest of the world combined.
This laundering of anti-Semitism under universal public values erodes the integrity of the UN, diminishes the authority of international law, corrupts the culture of human rights, and shames the real struggle against real racism.
As such, it has dramatic consequences not only for Jews but for everyone. Once again, and as always, it may begin with Jews, but it does not end there.
Irwin Cotler is a Member of the Canadian Parliament, former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, and emeritus Professor of Law at McGill University in Montreal.