On Anti-Semitism, by Frederic Raphael

Anti-Semite_graffiti_Oslo_1941The first thing you find when you open Anti-Semitism is an Errata slip informing you that its author, Frederic Raphael, has mistaken D. H. Lawrence for T. E. Lawrence, Arthur Koestler for Arthur Schnitzler and the figure of 16,000 for 1,600 (the number of Jews killed in Jedwabne, Poland, in 1941). This is not a great start; one is entitled to expect a little more care, especially given the gravity of the subject and the brevity with which it is treated here. But none of these confusions, or all of them together, is a patch on the central confusion of this book, which is the equation of determined criticism of Israel with historical anti-Semitism. Energetic and engaging as this ‘provocation’ is, its intransigence on this very complicated matter seriously undermines its credibility.

This is regrettable because the book has much to recommend it. The story of Jew-hatred is as rich as it is long, and Raphael proves an intelligent guide through the various kinds of magical doctrine, conspiracy thinking and simple scapegoating associated with this strangest of intellectual phenomena. Anti-Semitism, he recognises, is a form of racism utterly unlike any other. (No one ever accuses Bangladeshis of trying to take over international finance, or Jamaicans of running Bolshevism.) The Protocols of the Elders of Zion – that Da Vinci Code for anti-Semites – is such an obvious hoax that it should be self-negating; and yet new and lurid editions of it continue to spill from Islamic presses. Raphael deals with these issues well and with occasional flashes of genuine insight. ‘If enough injustices are committed in the name of a cause,’ he suggests at one point, ‘it becomes unthinkable that it might not be true.’

Rejecting the argument that anti-Semitism owes as much to the Enlightenment as it does to Christianity, Raphael suggests that the Jews’ original crime was the historically unique one of deicide, which is to say the murder of God Himself. It is this that led to their reputation for treachery and furnished the world with a reliable scapegoat for everything from epidemics to economic catastrophe. From the death of Jesus to the Black Death, it is on the heads of the Jews that blame falls – a trend that reaches its apogee with the ‘stab in the back’ myth of post-First World War Germany and the ‘last crusade’ of Nazism (a subject so large, as Raphael notes, that its history has a history of its own).

All of this is perfectly sound. But Raphael runs into serious problems when he tries to expand the phenomenon of Jew-blaming to include criticism of modern Israel. For while it is undoubtedly true that the miasma of anti-Semitism surrounds much dark talk about the Israel ‘lobby’, and true too that many liberals and leftwingers are apt to downplay the anti-Semitism extant within the Muslim community for fear that they will sanction anti-Muslim prejudice, it is not true to say that Israel is ‘the sole licensed target for unguarded malice’ in the West. Disproportionate our emphasis on Israel may be, but this imbalance stems as much from a desire to highlight Western hypocrisy as it does from any loathing of ‘the Judas state’. As for Raphael’s suggestion that the images of Palestinian children injured or killed in the Gaza war were a modern version of the ‘blood libel’ according to which Jews used the blood of Christian children to make the matzo bread eaten at Passover – such a thought is unworthy of an intelligent author.

Though Raphael is right to say that anti-Semitism and ‘anti-Zionism’ cannot always be neatly separated and that criticism of modern Israel is not without its sinister elements, his determination to make these things identical is profoundly wrongheaded. Intended or not, its effect is to make Netanyahu’s crimes against the Palestinians into the expression of Jewish identity. Many are the Jews (not all of them ‘self-hating’) who would regard that proposition as evil.

Frederic Raphael, Anti-Semitism (in the Provocations series)
Biteback Publishing; $20; 155pp

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First published in the Sydney Morning Herald