The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
The Task of the Jews

What to do about the new anti-Semitism.

Published on September 1, 2008

Leo Strauss wrote in the preface to the American edition of his Spinoza’s Critique of Religion (1965) that “it is not quite day and not quite night, either.” In doing so, Strauss was up to his old esoteric tricks, for that phrase, a reference to the coming of the Messiah, is taken from the Passover service. Strauss seemed to be suggesting that Jews had as many reasons to be afraid as they had reasons to hope. That, I think, remains true today: There are reasons for fear as well as reasons for hope, the latter defining the tasks incumbent upon the Jewish people of this new century.

I am almost as old now as the State of Israel, and I sense that not in the past sixty years has there been a time when Israel has been so alone, vulnerable and threatened as it is today. Israel has always had enemies, of course. But as I have watched Hamas firing rockets at Sderot and now at Ashkelon, from a territory Israel has not occupied for two years, I think of Hizballah: During the summer of 2006 it amassed missiles at Israel’s northern border at a time when Lebanon itself no longer had any territorial dispute with Israel (save the ambiguous, minute and artificial Shebaa Farms affair). In other words, here we have two adversaries of Israel, Hamas and Hizballah, who no longer have claims that are intelligible within the classical logic of political conflict. Today, at least, the demands of the Palestinians may be seen as exaggerated and unrealistic, but at least there are demands. Hamas and Hizballah demand nothing from Israel, except that it be annihilated. Their actions are not based on strategy but on a brutal and naked hatred, one that no negotiation or concession can slake.

When facing its enemies since the consolidation of independence in 1948–49, Israel has always been able to rely on its indisputable military superiority. Israelis and their well-wishers often worried of course, knowing, as Thucydides paraphrased Pericles, that “no one is ever so strong that he can be sure he is the strongest.” We were nervous on the narrowing road past Latrun up to Jerusalem before the Six Day War, yes, but we also knew that security is less about kilometers than intelligence—and that in terms of intelligence, the Jewish State would be unbeatable for a long time.

Today, however, one detail changes everything: That these enemies-to-the-death of Israel are tied to a state in pursuit of a technological leap that could nullify the strategic superiority of the Israeli Defense Forces. No one knows exactly what Iran is doing in its nuclear projects. What we do know is that the regime wants a nuclear weapon, and that its President, at least, wants it for the clear, repeatedly declared purpose of getting rid of what he calls, depending on his mood, an “imposture”, a “criminal regime”, a “dirty black germ” or a “wild animal” unleashed by the West in order to destroy the Muslim world. If Lenin was soviets-plus-electricity, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the bomb-plus-eschatology.

But even Iran’s cynics do not reason according to traditional lines of discussion about the balance of terror or the risks of a second strike. Thus Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Chairman of the Assembly of Experts and the Expediency Council, said in December 2001, on Jerusalem Day, that an Israeli retaliatory strike would not really be a problem since it would only destroy a small part of the Muslim world, whereas Israel would have been preemptively annihilated.

The New Anti-Semitism

So, you may ask, what’s new? Yes, Israel has always had a problem with its legitimacy. Ever since I was old enough to reflect, Israel has been the only nation in the world that has always had to remind us not only of its existence but also that it is just and legitimate that it should exist. Certain French thinkers found this situation bizarre. Michel Foucault, for example, called the famous UN resolution that equated Zionism with racism “ignominious.” Jean-Paul Sartre made it a point to refuse all honors and prizes, even the Nobel Prize, except for just one: an honorary doctorate from Hebrew University in Jerusalem, which he accepted with great pride. I recall Benny Lévy, the leader of the French Maoists of that time, on the day in 1972 when Black September massacred Israeli athletes in Munich; he told me that now he finally understood how old poisons get smuggled in under the banner of the new romantic radicalisms of the day. He decided to dissolve his organization.

These men and many others in France and in Europe could be likened to barriers against the inane and the insane. They made sure a certain type of idealist didn’t go overboard. Those barriers—what’s left of them—are being systematically breached in Europe today. The majority of Europeans, when asked to designate the country representing the greatest threat to peace in this world—asked to choose from a list of countries that includes North Korea, Iran, the United States under Bush, Russia at war in Chechnya, the Iraq of Saddam Hussein, among others—decided that none was more dangerous than this small, democratic country called Israel.

In March there was a Muslim-sponsored campaign to boycott the two Book Fairs in Turin and Paris, where Israeli literature was honored, and this boycott drew wide support in Europe. The European supporters of this campaign had nothing to say, three or four years ago, when the guest of honor at the French Book Fair was first Chinese literature, then Russian. The very word Zionism is now becoming, from nearly one end of the planet to the other, an insult, a synonym for infamy. Remember the enormity that took place in 2001 just a few days before September 11: a conference in Durban, South Africa, where the NGOs of the world assembled to discuss poverty, racism, hunger and slavery. There they decided that only one country was guilty of and responsible for all these evils: an archetypal criminal country, which of course was Israel.

So there is now a new anti-Semitism, but this should not surprise us. Anti-Semitism lacks a fixed shape that recurs through time; rather, it is like a virus that mutates to fit the characteristics of the host. When Europe was Christian, anti-Semitism took the form, “I don’t hate the Jews as such, I only hate them because they killed Jesus Christ.” Then when the Enlightenment began, the trope became, “I don’t hate the Jews as such, but I resent them, not for murdering Christ, but for, in effect, inventing him.” With the rise of socialism, it became most galvanizing to say, “I don’t hate the Jews as such, but I hate those who are the major stakeholders and enablers of this new system of plutocratic global capitalism. If many happen to be Jews, this is their fault, not mine.” At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, when the life sciences came into being and scientific racism followed in their wake, the line changed yet again: “I don’t hate the Jews because of their religion or even their economic role, but their race is heterogeneous and can only corrupt other, superior races.”

Today, of course, none of these mutations work, all their predicates having been discredited. So the virus has mutated again, this time entering the age of the pure-political, the ideological. The new sales pitch of anti-Semitism has three simple, but formidable elements. First, the Jews, at least insofar as they do not publicly denounce Israel, deserve to be hated because they support a detestable state that is leading the world to catastrophe. Second, they deserve to be hated because, in order to legitimize their despicable state they have invented the crudest and most immoral of frauds—if not the Holocaust itself, then at least the myth of its “singularity.” And third, they deserve to be hated because, in inundating us with the memories of their dead, real or imaginary, they overshadow the real victims, the real “Jews” of today, the Palestinians.


Put anti-Zionism, Holocaust denial and “victim competition” into heads of the simpleminded or the uninformed, and add to it the residue of those who sympathized with the Nazi state, and you get an explosive cocktail of hatred and violence. You will have, you do have, a firestorm of souls spreading from one end of the world to the other. You will have, you do have, the idea that it is moral, normal and just to hate the Jewish people.

When I say “from nearly one end of the world to the other”, I do not mean to be vague: I include Europe, the Muslim world, and entire regions of Asia. But I also include the United States. Let’s consider those three themes again, in reverse order.

“Victim competition”: It is heard in the black community. It is a theme that has prevailed since the publication of The Secret Relationship (1991), a book published under the collective signature of the Nation of Islam, which casts the Jews as those most responsible for the era of slavery. In France we have the comedian Dieudonné; in the United States you have Louis Farrakhan. Alas, these themes circulate widely in African-American studies departments of American universities.

Holocaust denial: Yes, France has the questionable privilege of having published books denying the Holocaust, but America has the Institute for Historical Review in Newport Beach, California, which is the database, library and mecca for the Holocaust revisionists the world over. This institute was responsible in part for the infamous Holocaust conference a year ago in Tehran, and also in part for the one held in 2001 in Beirut—and yes, it is an American institution.

As for anti-Zionism—in the form of the denunciation of Israel as military aggressor, supposedly driving the region and the world toward certain conflagration—this warped delusion is now championed by one of America’s noblest and most decent citizens: former President Jimmy Carter, author of Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid (2006), a piece of abject propaganda assimilating Zionism to racism. It is to be found, too, among the many American intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals who, following Noam Chomsky, campaign in the universities for a policy of “divestment”, compared to which European support for boycotting book fairs is a pathetic bit of light entertainment. Finally, we have the strange, dark and deranged best seller by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (2007). This is a book so terrible that I am not sure it would have even found a French publisher, but it has sold well and won a certain respect in the United States. Why would no French publisher bother? Because in France we already know this theory and rhetoric only too well. It is the theory of the Jewish warmonger; it is the rhetoric of Louis-Ferdinand Céline at his most fevered anti-Semitic worst. It is the kind of proposition that is considered a felony in France today.

For a Counteroffensive

The new political anti-Semitism is in Europe, the Muslim world, much of Asia, and even in the New World. So what should we do? We should mount a generalized counteroffensive.

For example, we should stop being complicit, even tacitly, in the de-legitimizing of Israel. In particular, we should put a stop to one argument that lately has been deployed like a giant club, intimidating even Israel’s friends into speechlessness. This is the argument that whispers, “Why make the Arabs pay for a crime they did not commit; why give Israel to the Jews as reparation for the Holocaust, since it was a European crime?”

It is time for two powerful counter-arguments. First of all, the Holocaust is hardly the sole justification for the legitimacy of the State of Israel. Second, it is simply not true to call the Holocaust a purely European crime, to say that the Arab world had no part in it. As Paul Berman showed in Terror and Liberalism (2003), there was an Arab component in Nazism. From the Muslim Brotherhood of Hassan al-Banna to the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Haj Muhammad Amin al-Husseini, the Nazi ideology’s saturation of the Arab-Muslim world is an indelible fact. Klaus-Michael Mallman and Martin Cuppers, two eminent German researchers, have demonstrated in Crescent Moon and Swastika (2006) that the anti-Semitism of the Arab leaders of the Nazi era was true anti-Semitism, nourished by an extreme hatred, not merely the simple anti-Anglo-Saxon impulse that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” to which it is generally ascribed. They tell the previously unknown story of the SS Einsatz Gruppe Egypt, led by Obersturmbannführer Walter Rauff, the man who invented the gassing trucks at the beginning of the Final Solution. He was based in Athens in the rear guard of Rommel’s army, and his mission, had General Montgomery not stopped Rommel in November 1942, was to head straight to Palestine to exterminate the 500,000 Jews of the Yishuv. In my most recent book, Left in Dark Times (2008), I show the terrible theoretical, political and genealogical coherence of Islamofascism, which consists of Nasserism, pan-Arab nationalism, the first Palestinian national ideology and today the ideologies of Hamas and Hizballah. Recognizing this, penetrating to the heart of the reasoning process of those who have never wanted to recognize Israel, that is our first task.

Second, we must unmask this neo-anti-Semitism and respond to it before it is too late. There comes a time in the progress of the anti-Semitic viral delirium when it is no longer possible to discuss anything, but we aren’t there yet as far as most patients are concerned. That is because the three elements of the new anti-Semitism have yet to merge in the minds of the vulnerable. There is still time to examine, one by one, the three pillars of this structure and to deconstruct them.

First we must deconstruct negationism. It’s the easiest to handle, but it is also easy to screw up. For example, French President Nicolas Sarkozy had a beautiful idea, bejeweled with noble intentions, but expressed in an absurd proposition: to have French elementary students individually “adopt” a deported Jewish child.

Then we must deconstruct anti-Zionism, the Nazification of Israel. This is not quite as easy. Nonetheless, it is not so complicated to demonstrate that this despised country is the only one in the region whose smallest military screw-up becomes front page news, whose Supreme Court can debate for days whether or not to destroy a part of the security wall that is unjustly encircling a Palestinian olive tree. Neither should it be difficult to remember that during the Sabra and Shatila massacre in 1982, for example, when hundreds of Muslims were murdered by Lebanese Christian Phalangists, 500,000 Israelis demonstrated in the streets (proportionally their numbers in the United States would be twenty million people!), demanding that an investigative commission evaluate Israel’s moral responsibility for the tragedy. I repeat moral responsibility, since it was established that the concrete, material responsibility belonged to the Christian militias adjunct to Ariel Sharon’s army.

The third proposition, the most perverse, and which troubles even Jewish consciences, is this: “If we worry too much about the dead, we will lose sight of the living. It is fine to talk about the sweet doomed Jewish child in the Warsaw ghetto, but what about the children in Gaza dying every day because of the ‘mistakes’ of the Israeli army?” We can and must respond to this argument, too.

When one looks closely at the most vehement advocates of the Palestinian cause, one sees that they have been in the main either executioners and kamikazes or those who have lauded them. Those making such claims have deliberately caused many opportunities for advancing peace to be missed, with a suicide bomb here, a massacre of children in a pizzeria there. Most genuine advocates for the Palestinian cause, the ones who seem really interested in seeing a Palestinian state established next to Israel, are Israelis themselves. The Jewish state hosts the only relevant society in which a significant segment of public opinion, now arguably a majority, wants to endow Palestinians with political sovereignty—a state that even the PLO under Yasir Arafat could have had for the asking, but preferred to avoid for the sake of the “revolution.”


To deconstruct and combat the three elements of the new, ideological anti-Semitism, it is natural that the Jewish people need to create alliances. One is already forming in the United States with the Evangelical Christians, who for reasons of their own have made a sacred cause of defending and guaranteeing the survival of Israel. The Evangelicals are a special subset of the American people, among the most philo-Semitic in history. Another is forming in Europe, where the changes in anti-Semitism as I have described them—in other words, the disappearance of Catholic anti-Semitism—have made the Catholics the most solid allies of Jews in the fight against anti-Semitism. This has been the case officially since Vatican II, but the strong symbolic gestures made by Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have rendered this new alliance quite solid.

We should seek allies, too, within the Islamic world. We must be absolutely implacable with Islamofascism, but also recognize that Islam is not a single bloc. Today there is less a war between civilizations than a war within one civilization—within Islam itself, between the partisans of moderate Islam, who are open to human rights, democracy and Enlightenment principles, and the defenders of radical Islam. There have always been Palestinians who took the moderate side and who today seek an honorable peace with Israel. I have met many men and women in Pakistan, Algeria and elsewhere who aspire to democracy, including militants who, like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, fight for secularism and for the right to change religions. They are our allies, too, and we must do with them what Jews did by standing with Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., and others in the frontlines of the battle for civil rights; what Jews did by standing in the first rank with the dissidents of Central and Eastern Europe.

What can Jews give the dissidents of Islam today? The same thing we gave to yesterday’s dissidents: material help, courage and solidarity. Perhaps we have something else to help, too: a particular kind of understanding. Part of what undermines true Islam and feeds its fundamentalist distortions is an insistence on a certain relationship to scripture: a to-the-letter literalness that borders on idolatry. Jews, too, have been tempted by the sacralization of the letter; that is what the Karaite heresy was all about, a heresy that lasted for centuries. But the Jews also invented an antidote to this temptation: the Talmud. Whatever else it is, the Talmud embodies a certain way of approaching reading. Emmanual Levinas said it is a way to consider the biblical letter as “the folded wings of the spirit.” Here then is something we Jews may give to our Muslim friends: the formula to create a Muslim Talmud.

But there is yet another alliance begging to be formed. The Jewish people have another natural ally who, if we can accept and acknowledge its existence, would be even more important. Who is it? Some may be surprised to hear it named, but if you understand the Bible to be the first and greatest anti-myth in history—the only foundational narrative in which the godhead is not aligned with temporal power but with the human spirit, not with Pharaoh but with slaves—then you will understand.

The scandalous September 2001 conference in Durban tried to transform Israel into a fascist state responsible for all the evils of the world and put the formal imprimatur of the United Nations on that calumny. But there was another scandal at Durban that is hardly ever mentioned. The Roma, the Dalit Indians, the representatives of the indigenous peoples of Colombia and Costa Rica, the witnesses to the forgotten wars of Africa, the Chechens, the Tibetans, and so many other of the downcast underdogs of the world arrived in Durban full of hope and faith. They sought a world stage upon which they could speak of the wrongs done to them.

They left the conference without speaking a word. Once again they were forgotten, flushed away as noxious effluvia too trivial for the new lords of the “progressive” anti-Western ideology to take notice of. Alas, they were not Palestinians, whose great value for the new political anti-Semites of the world is that they oppose the power of Israel. What this means is that all these downtrodden people, whether from Burundi, Rwanda or Darfur, whether Dalit or Roma, are, as the forgotten ones of the new dominant ideological order, the objective allies of the Jewish people. They are in the same boat with the Jews because they are victims of the same sprawling lie.

This is why it makes me proud that several American Jews were in the forefront of the effort to help the Muslim side in the Bosnian war; that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is pleased that refugees from Darfur have found asylum in Israel; that Jews support Armenians who seek to gain recognition of the genocide of their people. It is the duty of Jews to stand together against all forms of negationism, to affirm the “solidarity of the shaken.” If Israel and the Jewish people realize that we have a duty to lead the protest of the nameless, those without voices or graves, something new will have been created: a grand alliance that will dissolve Jewish solitude in a universal union based on the essence of the Jewish message—that human beings are never instruments but always ends in themselves; that humanity, like God, is one; that life is unconditionally sacred.

Jews need to be worthy of their own role in such an alliance, and this is not something that can be taken for granted. Yehuda Magnes once said that Judaism has not been given to men to allow them to fight anti-Semitism. What did he mean? He was trying to point out how pitiful our existence would be if we were like the states that take advantage of external adversity in order to avoid prior and more important questions of internal policy. The problem of anti-Semitism is above all the problem of the anti-Semites; the problem for Jews, and their only true problem, is how to live fully as Jews.

Here, at least, there is some good news. In my sixty years I have never seen Judaism as vibrant as it is today in the United States and in Europe, where Judaism has finally broken with its negative, pain-centric image—the Judaism laid out in Sartre’s 1946 Anti-Semite and Jew, as if Judaism always had been or could only be of that kind. Even in France we have never had so many houses of study, and so few inhibitions based on the old complexes about dual loyalties. As for Israel, some say that Zionism itself has been stifled there even if Judaism has not, that the spirit of the country has shrunken amid a new materialism and cynicism. It is not so. Two years ago I found myself in Israel during the war with Hizballah, and I saw with my own eyes the dignity and the courage of the people of northern Israel, living every day under threat of rocket fire. I spent time with soldiers who were obsessed with avoiding civilian casualties. Believe me: The spirit of Israel is far, very far, from having spoken its last word.

The spirit of Judaism even more so. Jews will deserve allies in the world if we live in ways that speak to the hearts of humanity. Rabbi Haim of Volozine, a favorite disciple of the Vilna Gaon, used to say that the world is a fragile, chaotic edifice that is continually in jeopardy of being undone, unmade, annihilated. Only good people, Jews and others, through their prayers and their deeds of compassion and moral strength, forestall the tides of destruction. Genuinely good people, Jews and allied others, will make Israel truly invincible. Then Israel will be truly a light unto the nations, even, perhaps, the herald of a new, universal Enlightenment.

Bronislaw Geremek, RIP (1932–2008)
Bronislaw Geremek, who died in a car crash in western Poland on July 13, was universally considered to be Poland’s outstanding international statesman and its best Foreign Minister since the recovery of independence. A true patriot, a superb speaker and a genuine intellectual, during the 1990s he gave the world confidence that the Solidarity movement was a genuine democratic rising, committed to a civil society based on respect for human rights. As Foreign Minister, he paved the way for Poland’s entry into NATO and the EU.
He was my friend, and we shared similar visions for Poland, for an enlarged Europe that someday would include Ukraine, and for a genuinely two-way Atlantic partnership.
He should have been Poland’s President—and in that role he would have represented Poland with open pride in both his own identity and in his nationality. Asked once on American television to comment on anti-Semitism in Poland, he calmly responded:  “I am a child of the Warsaw ghetto. My family perished in the Ghetto.  I am the Foreign Minister of the democratically chosen government of the now-free Poland. That speaks for itself.”
Zbigniew Brzezinski
Washington, DC
What’s in a Name?
I have just finished reading Dov Zakheim’s “What’s in a Name?” from your May/June 2008 issue. I found it to be one of the most astute assessments of where American strategy needs to go that I have seen, and I wish to add a few additional ideas.
As Zakheim noted, organization matters. One thing propelling American strategy on the route to war was the fact that the military was the organization best equipped to respond quickly after September 11. This became a self-fulfilling prophecy: The military does war, so if the military led the effort, it must be a war.
As we move beyond this, it must be clear that, in military parlance, the Department of Defense is the “supporting” organization and the “supported” ones are the Central Intelligence Agency, an expanded U.S. Agency for International Development and a resuscitated U.S. Information Agency. We should consider whether augmenting other agencies and capabilities would bring more results than would expanding the military.
In addition, the National Security Council needs the capability to undertake long-range strategic planning and to develop and test strategic concepts that tie together all elements of national power and all government agencies. To begin with, it needs a research institute—a “think tank”—like those in Defense, State and other agencies. The next National Security Advisor should be a powerful strategist, not simply a bureaucrat.
In any case, there is a lot of hard thinking to do. Zakheim’s essay will be an early landmark in what is certain to be a major debate.
Steven Metz
U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute
In “Here’s to You, Harry” (July/August 2008), Adam Garfinkle misidentified Caleb as the Israelite who leapt first into the Red Sea during the Exodus. It was, in fact, Nachshon who led the way.

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Bernard-Henri Lévy is a member of the AI editorial board. This essay is adapted from a speech on March 5, 2008, at the 92nd Street Y in New York City.