By Ben Cohen/JNS.org
“That February, in Sarcelles, flaming objects were thrown into the Tiferet Israel School, destroying the building. In April, at Garges-les-Gonesse, firebombs were hurled at the synagogue. From Nice to Marseille, anti-Semitic mail was delivered. In the offices of CRIF, located in the Fifth Arrondissement several blocks from the popular food market on the Rue Mouffetard, an envelope arrived filled with white powder and a message: ‘The biological war against the Jewish lobby has begun.’”
Those words could have been written this week. In fact, they come from an excellent piece by Marie Brenner on the subject of anti-Semitism in France, published by Vanity Fair in 2003.
I revisited Brenner’s article after several readers asked me whether, a fortnight into the latest Israeli defensive operation in Gaza, “we”—as in diaspora Jews and the state of Israel—are now in a new, and much deadlier, situation. Part of the trigger for this question is the realization that within the confines of liberal and left-wing opinion, historically a political home for Jews, contempt for Jewish fears of anti-Semitism and detestation of Israel as a state is becoming the norm.
It’s true that with each war, our predicament appears to get worse. If you go all the way back to 1956, when Israel joined an Anglo-French military attack on Nasser’s Egypt, the outpouring of anti-war sentiment in western circles did not lead to the demonization of Zionism. In both 1967 and 1973, Israel’s wars for survival generated a great deal of support among progressive Europeans and Americans.
But by 1982, when Israel was at war with the PLO in Lebanon, that had changed. The image of Israel as a brutal aggressor, and as the inheritor of Hitler’s legacy, a favorite theme of Soviet propaganda, started to win traction. Then as now, the extremes of left and right came together to confront “the Zionist State.” Going through my archive of literature on anti-Semitism, I came across the headline “anti-Zionists of the world unite and fight!” That could easily have appeared in a left-wing newspaper, but the source, in fact, was Nationalism Today, a neo-Nazi rag published by Britain’s National Front, in a comment on the Lebanon war.
Moreover, in the years preceding the war in Lebanon, we witnessed the enthusiasm with which young leftists outside the Middle East embraced Palestinian terrorism—spurred by such abominations as the claim that “Zionism is racism,” enshrined in a later-rescinded U.N. resolution of 1975.
There was the Japanese Red Army attack on Ben Gurion (then Lod) Airport in 1972, in which 26 civilians were murdered. There was the hijacking, in 1976, of an Air France jet carried out by young Germans from the Red Army Fraction terrorist group—once they landed in Uganda, then under the heel of the dictator Idi Amin, these same young Germans turned into Nazis, separating the Jewish from the non-Jewish passengers. There was the abominable 1982 bombing of Jo Goldenberg’s, a kosher restaurant in Paris, as a “retaliation” for Israel’s operation in Lebanon. Six people were killed in that attack, which one magazine noted was “the heaviest toll suffered by Jews in France since World War II.”
So, as the French might say, is this a case of “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose?” (“The more things change, the more they stay the same.”) Are we seeing another spike of anti-Semitism and Israel-hatred that will die down once a cease-fire deal is reached in Gaza?
To begin with, those hatreds don’t just simply disappear in times of quiet. They percolate below the surface, occasionally arising in the form of an atrocity like the murders of three children and a rabbi at a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012. And when Palestinians intensify rocket attacks on Israel, so does the opprobrium against Jews and Israel intensify and multiply, as we’ve seen these past few weeks.
But there are two aspects of the current situation which suggest that circumstances are changing—and not for the better. First, a stalemate in Gaza—which I define as Hamas remaining in power, because Israel, despite all the accusations of war crimes, is reluctant to deploy overwhelming military force to defeat the terror group—will keep alive the notion that Jews and Israel are at the center of the world’s ills. Secondly, mob violence against Jews in Europe is now a real and pertinent threat. From Berlin to The Hague to Paris, many of those attacking communal institutions and chanting “Death to the Jews!” are likely to continue these attacks after a cease-fire. A significant number might even head to the Middle East, to join the same jihadi organizations that were behind both the Toulouse attack and the recent gun assault on the Jewish museum in Brussels.
All that said, I don’t foresee an apocalypse anytime soon. But if we want to emerge from this current round of conflict with confidence, we as a community will need to conduct a thorough audit of the impact of Operation Protective Edge inside and outside the Middle East. And that means not shying away from the necessary conclusions—most obviously, the importance of communal self-defense.
Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for JNS.org and a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Commentary, Haaretz, and other publications. His book, “Some Of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014), is now available through Amazon.