On Identifying Antisemitism When It’s Right in Front of You
We’ve all heard of the duck test: “If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.” But there is a problem applying this analogy to other situations: someone who has never seen a duck will not be able to recognize one as such when he sees it.
That is the heart of the problem on campus today.
American Jewish college students typically arrive on their campuses without any background information on the old slanders that have been used to justify hatred and violence against our people for generations, so we should not be surprised that they cannot identify even grossly antisemitic statements and behaviors as such when they are couched in the genteel language of human rights and criticism of Israel.
Indeed, Jews in America since the Holocaust have enjoyed a level of acceptance perhaps unprecedented in our long history of exile. Antipathy to Jews and Judaism, once advocated by European academics and American journals (such as Henry Ford’s The Dearborn Independent), was roundly and correctly discredited as bigoted and racist; it became something that the enlightened class could no longer espouse in public. Moreover, the young Jews of today perhaps learn about the Holocaust but rarely learn about the long history of antisemitism, its common tropes and stereotypes, and how these manifest themselves in different forms throughout different cultures and eras.
In short, these Jews grew up never having seen a duck. It is little wonder, then, that they cannot recognize one when they see it.
The best response, I believe, is not simply to try to explain why certain movements, such as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, are antisemitic. The problem is that any explanation can be obscured by appealing words on the other side about social justice and human rights.
We need to show how these movements just are new forms of the old antisemitism — by showing them the old antisemitism.
Let us consider one example. By now, every armchair scholar of Israel is familiar with the story of Mohammed al-Dura, caught with his father in the crossfire when Palestinian Arabs fired upon an Israeli military post protecting a Jewish community, in 2000. Every other army is forgiven collateral damage, especially when it fires only in self-defense. Al-Dura, father and son, consciously proceeded into an active gun battle that their cab driver refused to enter. Repeated analyses from neutral sources showed that the filmed gunfire could not have come from the Israeli post. And all of the preceding is true even without the assertion (some raise) that the entire episode was staged for the cameras: France 2 omitted the final seconds of video, in which Mohammed appears to move his arm and head, while Jamal al-Dura, the father, falsely claimed scars on his limbs were from IDF gunfire, until his doctor revealed that they actually resulted from surgical care received in an Israeli hospital.
Out of context, on its own, it is a single event, another casualty of war, perhaps disputed in its details. But by placing it into historical context, by examining the annals of Jewish history, we can better understand the tale of Mohammed al-Dura and just why it captured public attention.
In 1144 CE, a boy named William was found dead in the woods near Norwich, England. A monk came to town several years later, and picked up on rumors that the boy had been killed by members of the Jewish community. Friar Thomas of Monmouth claimed that the Jews had a prophecy that they would regain control of the Land of Israel if they sacrificed a Christian child annually, and promoted the beatification of William as a holy martyr of Jewish ritual murder. Towards the end of the century, riots against Jews traveled from Norwich through Stamford and Lincoln up the coast of England, culminating with the massacre of the Jews of York in 1190.
In the 15th Century, this story repeated itself when two-year-old Simon of Trent, Germany was found dead. His father alleged that he had been kidnapped and murdered by Jews. Simon was beatified by the Roman Catholic church, and Jews were burned at the stake. In Zverki, Poland, this tale was replicated yet again in the 17th Century, when Gabriel of Bialystok was found dead in a field shortly before Passover. Gabriel is still considered a saint in the Eastern and Russian Orthodox Churches; a cinematic promotion of this blood libel was broadcast by Belorussian state television in 1997.
These stories evidence a distinct pattern. Jews (and only Jews) are accused without evidence of murder of the innocent, especially a child, for nefarious purposes – whether a holiday ritual or to regain control of the Land of Israel (and not, as some erroneously believe, only to make matzah for Passover). The deceased is declared a holy martyr.
His “murder” is then used to justify barbarity against Jews.
Once put within the context of Jewish history, there is not one trait of the classic blood libel that the al-Dura story fails to meet. Despite the evidence of – at most – collateral damage by soldiers defending their own lives, the official Arab narrative is that Israelis deliberately murdered al-Dura. The New York Times described the image of father and son as having “the iconic power of a battle flag” – as indeed it has, for it has inspired many enemies into open war against Jews and all who defend Jewish lives. Al-Dura was declared a holy martyr, and immediately used to justify atrocities against Jews around the globe. Not only was the lynching of two Israeli soldiers in Ramallah later that year called “revenge” for this mythological murder, but the al-Dura image was in the background at the beheading of Daniel Pearl, an American Jew.
That particular species of duck has quacked repeatedly in recent years.
When Hamas intentionally fires from civilian homes and schools, Israel and not Hamas is blamed for “murdering” the resulting casualties when it returns fire. When Israeli soldiers defend themselves against 16-year-old female terrorists armed with knives, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of Iran (among other great humanitarians) uses their deaths to condemn “child-killing Zionists” – and to justify his own country’s call for genocide.
While necessary, it is insufficient to point out, as Colonel Richard Kemp of England put it, that “the IDF does more to safeguard the rights of civilians in a combat zone than any army in the history of warfare.”
It must be stated clearly and forcefully that claims about Israel’s barbarity have their source in a millennium of slander against Jews, used consistently as a pretext for antisemitic barbarism.
When put into historical context, the lies that animate anti-Israel movements such as BDS are found consistently to rest upon recurring slanders as old as the Bible itself. The inane comparison to South African Apartheid recycles the myth of Jewish superiority. Ancient Greeks said the Jews possessed too much money and power. Accusations of divided loyalty echo claims leveled by Pharoah himself against Moses and his tribe.
It should be no surprise, then, to learn that those most familiar with the history of antisemitism are essentially unanimous in identifying the modern “anti-Israel” movement as simply the latest edition of the same tired hatred.
This historical information must be placed in the hands of Jewish students on campuses across the United States. They must have the knowledge with which to pierce the facade of “social justice” and “human rights” erected by BDS advocates, and expose the repugnant hatred that lurks behind it. Information about Israel’s history as a beleaguered state, its moral rectitude and right to self-defense are, while essential, simply not enough, for all can and have been misappropriated and used to justify terror and bloodshed against the Jewish people. Unlike all of these things, the history of antisemitism is undeniable as objective reality, impossible to invert and use against the Jews themselves.
We can and must build a program involving displays, brochures and fact sheets that follow antisemitism from ancient times up to the present. Backed with a comprehensive website presenting this information in detail, the honest seeker will quickly discern the facts and see old hatred of Jews lying behind the latest modern façade.
Anti-Israel organizations can only flourish in a vacuum of knowledge, among students who cannot recognize a duck. When it rises to spread its ugly wings yet again, only those armed with the training of past history are best able to shoot it down.
Rabbi Yaakov Menken is the Director of Project Genesis – Torah.org, and the co-Editor of Cross-Currents.com, an Orthodox on-line journal.