Recently, I was made aware of a 2009 ZNet article entitled “Jews Are Not an Equity-Seeking Group — How Myths about Anti-Semitism Distort Human Rights in Our Schools and Universities,” by Jason Kunin – a left-wing Canadian-Jewish blogger.

Analytically, Kunin has a point: there is a difference between prejudice and oppression, and happily, Jews suffer little oppression today as compared with decades ago. But he completely discounts prejudice as the seedbed for oppression, when masses of people are effectively propagandized to give their prejudice full rein. This is what happened in Nazi Germany where antisemitism was actually less prevalent than in Eastern Europe; the Holocaust was most devastating in Eastern Europe where antisemitism was an especially popular prejudice.

Kunin also has no regard for the way in which the genocidal oppression of the Nazi era, followed by the mass expulsion of Jews from most of the Muslim Middle East, haunt Jews to this day. The fact that extreme Islamist forces explicitly target Jews–as illustrated in the premeditated killings of Lubavich emissaries during the attack on Mumbai in 2008 and the murder of the journalist Daniel Pearl (a “Zionist Jew”) decapitated in Pakistan in 2002–is a kind of oppression. For the most part, it’s not healthy for Jews to advertise their Jewishness in Muslim countries.

The “New Antisemitism” is a flawed concept, but there is some truth to the argument that Israel today is so demonized that it is the focus of a hatred akin to antisemitism. In this connection, it may be useful to return to Isaiah Berlin’s whimsical but insightful definition of antisemitism as “hating Jews more than is absolutely necessary”; generally speaking, all countries and all people sometimes do things we may hate, but this becomes a pathological prejudice when a line is crossed and these hateful things are exaggerated or over-generalized. Such is the case in how the extreme left views Israel.

And Kunin completely ignores the fact that Jews are a tiny part of the world’s population and a relatively small minority group everywhere but in Israel. Of the world’s more than seven billion people–of whom about two billion are Christian, over 1.2 billion are Muslim, about one billion are Hindu and well over a billion are Buddhist–Jews at perhaps 17 million (not yet equal to the pre-Holocaust total of 18 million) remain particularly vulnerable to persecution. I delivered a paper on this at the memorable 2004 conference, “Facing A Challenge Within,” in Oakland, CA, on antisemitism within the left.

There are many countries in the world where it’s unwise to advertise one’s Jewishness, but there are few places where Jewish communities remain oppressed. Iran is arguably one such place, and arguably not; although not generally persecuted there, they must carefully guard themselves against being accused of “Zionism.”

Still, Jews are more secure today in North America, in Europe and in Israel than in past centuries. Of course, the European Holocaust remains a living memory, and the vibrant and ancient Jewish communities of the Arab world have virtually all been lost; most of their progeny have found refuge in Israel and in the West.

Violent anti-Semitism has reemerged to some degree in Western Europe during the years of the post-Camp David Intifada, beginning in the fall of 2000. I don’t want to exaggerate this reality; Jews are not on the verge of extinction. But we are now living in an era where the ubiquitous presence and graphic power of the electronic media in instantaneously distributing imagery and information on Palestinian suffering at the hands of Israeli soldiers and settlers, or in disseminating out-sized theories of Jewish power, combine with preexisting prejudices to threaten Jews anew. This is but one more compelling reason for a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

There is an age-old pattern of tyrannical regimes using the Jews as scapegoats to defer unrest or to fan and exploit this ingrained bigotry to safeguard their hold on power (Michael Lerner is one of many who has written on this phenomenon). This was obviously true of Nazi Germany and European fascist regimes in its orbit. This was true of Czarist Russia; this was true of Stalin’s Soviet Union and neighboring countries that fell under Soviet domination (with antisemitism being disguised as attacks on “rootless Cosmopolitans” or “Zionists”). It has also been true of Arab regimes, which have long blamed their failings on Israel and Zionism.

Today the problem is basically not anti-Jewish oppression, but rather the potential for this happening again as Israel and the Jewish people are viewed by manipulated masses as unique sources of evil that need to be defeated or eradicated. There is no easy remedy, but as I’ve mentioned, peacefully resolving the conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors would be the best antidote to this condition.

Jews remain a vulnerable minority group, but not powerless and not (for the most part) oppressed. This is a complicated reality that defies a simplistic analysis of oppressor versus oppressed.


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