Jewish Americans should be concerned about the recent verdict in the Italian libel case that involves parliamentarian Fiamma Nirenstein. In 2008, cartoonist Vauro Senesi published a caricature of Nirenstein that depicted the Jewish-Italian politician, in classic anti-Semitic fashion, as a hook-nosed monster wearing a Star of David together with fascist symbols. When journalist Giuseppe Caldarola accused Senesi of anti-Semitism, Senesi sued.
The defamation suit went badly for Caldarola. Judge Emanuela Attur fined him 25,000 euros (nearly $33,000) for supposedly libeling Senesi. In his recent opinion, Judge Attur announced that Senesi could not be accused of anti-Semitism in light of his “profound commitment to humanitarian causes” in Third World countries. This is an absurd non sequitur. In the 21st century, anti-Semitism is found as frequently among “humanitarians” as among white supremacists.
Consider, for example, recent revelations about Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung, a founder of the Peace Studies Movement, who turns out to be an avid reader of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. But what is more significant than the Italian judge’s willful ignorance is his determination that anti-Semites should be protected from those who properly identify them as such.
A few months ago, a similar controversy brewed in Washington, D.C. Several commentators publicly questioned blog comments by staff members of a major think tank, the Center for American Progress. The CAP staffers had questioned the loyalty of those American Jews who steadfastly support the State of Israel. In one example, CAP staff dubbed these Jews as “Israel firsters,” using language echoing historical accusations that Jews harbor “dual loyalty.”
This initial controversy was quickly eclipsed by another drama in which those who accused CAP of anti-Semitism were themselves accused of inappropriately invoking that label. Ironically, the only person to lose his position was the researcher who had brought CAP’s controversial comments to light. Josh Block, a research fellow at the Truman National Security Project, another think tank, was terminated for claiming that some of the CAP writings were anti-Semitic. As in the Nirenstein case, the only real punishment was inflicted on the person who spoke out against anti-Semitism, rather than on those who arguably gave voice to it.
Both controversies illustrate what might be called “second-stage” anti-Semitism. In her classic treatise on The Anatomy of Prejudices, psychologist Elisabeth Young-Bruehl explained that prejudice frequently proceeds in two stages. The first stage consists of slurs, attacks, or other acts of discrimination. The second stage consists of “rationalizations, self-serving descriptions, denials, commentaries, often ones designed to discredit the victims’ truthfulness or belittle their pain.” The culmination of second-stage prejudice consists of punishing whoever identified the prejudice in the first place.
Everyone professes to despise anti-Semitism nowadays, even though no one agrees what it means. This has been true since, as one wag put it, Hitler gave “anti-Semitism” a bad name. It can be seen, for example, in the self-deluded comments of Ilmar Reepalu, the mayor of Malmö, Sweden, who famously announced that “We accept neither anti-Semitism nor Zionism in Malmö.” What is interesting here is that even those who brazenly espouse anti-Semitic rhetoric nevertheless feel a compulsion to deny it, no matter how ridiculous their protestations may sound. (Mayor Reepalu also recently announced that “there have been no attacks against Jews, and if Jews want to leave for Israel that is not a concern for Malmö.”)
It is bad enough to deny anti-Semitism, just as some people still deny the Holocaust. It is worse to punish those who speak out against it. The dangers of this new trend are obvious. They can be seen frequently on college campuses, where both students and faculty are often afraid to speak out against brazen forms of anti-Semitism. Their fears are genuine. Those who challenge anti-Semitism often receive rougher treatment than those who commit it. The end of this road is clear. In the words of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, “Silence is an ally of hate.” Those who would silence allegations of anti-Semitism—whether in Italy or in the United States—should not be surprised when hate fills the silence that they encourage. In the face of this new challenge, those who speak out against bigotry need the community’s support more than ever.
The author is president of The Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law (www.brandeiscenter.com). He previously served as Staff Director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.