Jewish World Review July 15, 2003 / 15 Tamuz, 5763
How I became an 'unconscious fascist'
By Fiamma Nirenstein
When I went back to Italy, some of my fellow students stared at me as somebody new, an enemy, a wicked person who would soon become an imperialist. My life was about to change. I didn't yet know that, because I simply thought that Israel rightly won a war after having been assaulted with an incredible number of harassments. But I soon noticed that I had lost the innocence of the good Jew, of the very special Jewish friend, their Jew: I was now connected with the Jews of the State of Israel, and slowly I was put out of the dodecaphonic, psychoanalytic, Bob Dylan, Woody Allen, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Philip Roth, Freud shtetl, the coterie that sanctified my Judaism in left wing eyes.
I have tried for a long time to bring back that sanctification, and they tried to give it back to me, because we desperately needed each other, the left and the Jews. But today's anti Semitism has overwhelmed any good intention.
Throughout the years, even people that, like me, who had signed petitions asking the IDF to withdraw from Lebanon, became an "unconscious fascist" as a reader of mine wrote me in a letter filled with insults. In one book it was simply written that I was "a passionate woman that fell in love with Israel, confusing Jerusalem with Florence." One Palestinian told me that if I see things so differently from the majority, this plainly means that my brain doesn't work too well. Also, I've been called a cruel and insensitive human rights denier who doesn't care about Palestinian children's lives. A very famous Israeli writer told me on the phone a couple of months ago: "You really have become a right-winger." What? Right winger? Me? An old feminist human rights activist, even a communist when I was young? Only because I described the Arab-Israeli conflict as accurately as I could and because sometimes I identified with a country continuously attacked by terror, I became a right-winger? In the contemporary world, the world of human rights, when you call a person a right-winger, this is the first step toward his or her delegitimization.
The Left blessed the Jews as the victim "par excellence," always a great partner in the struggle for the rights of the weak against the wicked. In return for being coddled, published, filmed, considered artists, intellectuals and moral judges, Jews, even during the Soviet anti-Semitic persecutions, gave the Left moral support and invited it to cry with them at Holocaust memorials. Today the game is clearly over. The left has proved itself the real cradle of contemporary anti-Semitism.
When I speak about anti-Semitism, I'm not speaking of legitimate criticism of the State of Israel. I am speaking of pure anti-Semitism: Criminalization, stereotypes, specific and generic lies which have fluctuated between lies about the Jews (conspiring, blood thirsty, dominating the world) to lies about Israel (conspiring, ruthlessly violent) starting most widely since the beginning of the second Intifada in September 2000, and becoming more and more ferocious since Operation Chomat Magen ("Defensive Shield"), when the IDF reentered Palestinian cities in response to terrorism.
The basic idea of anti-Semitism, today as always, is that Jews have a perverted soul that makes them unfit, as a morally inferior people, to be regular members of the human family. Today, this Untermensch ideology has shifted to the Jewish state: A separate, unequal, basically evil stranger whose national existence is slowly but surely emptied and deprived of justification. Israel, as the classic evil Jew, according to contemporary anti-Semitism, doesn't have a birthright, but exists with its "original sin" perpetrated against the Palestinians. Israel's heroic history has become a history of arrogance.
Nowadays, its narrative focuses much more on Deir Yassin massacre than on the creation and defense of Kibbutz Degania; it focuses more and more the suffering of the Palestinian refugees than on the surprise of seeing five armies in 1948 denying Israel's right to exist just after being established by the United Nations; much more on the Jewish underground resistance organizations, the Lechi and the Irgun, than on the heroic battle along the way to Jerusalem. The caricature of the evil Jew is transformed to the caricature of the evil state. And now the traditional hook-nosed Jew bears a gun and kills Arab children with pleasure.
On the front pages of European newspapers Sharon munches Palestinian children and little Jesuses in cradles are threatened by Israeli soldiers. This new anti-Semitism has materialized in unprecedented physical violence towards Jewish persons and symbols, coming from organizations officially devoted to human rights. Its peak occurred at the United Nations summit in Durban when anti-Semitism officially became the banner of the new secular religion of human rights, and Israel and Jews became its official enemy.
Jews, and the international community in general, have been caught unaware, and have failed to denounce the new trend of anti-Semitism. Nobody is scandalized when Israel is accused daily, without explanation, of excessive violence, of atrocities, of cruelty. Everybody is tormented about the necessity of painful attacks against terrorist nests, often located among families and children. Still, every country has the right to defend itself. Only the Jews in history have been denied the right of self-defense, and so it is today.
Why is the war on terrorism often looked upon as a strategic problem that the world still must solve (look at the US war against Afghanistan and Iraq) and Israel is treated like a guilty defendant for fighting it? Is it not anti-Semitism, when you act as if Jews must die quietly? Why is Israel officially accused by the human rights commission in Geneva of violating human rights, while, China, Libya, Sudan, have never ever been accused? Why has Israel been denied a fixed place in regional groups in the UN while Syria sits in the Security Council? Why can everybody join a war against Iraq except Israel, despite the fact that Saddam has always threatened Israel with complete destruction? When sovereign states and organizations threaten death to Israel, why does nobody raise the question at the UN? Has Italy been threatened by France or Spain like those Iranian leaders who openly say that they will destroy Israel with an atomic bomb? And what is said when a large part of the world newspapers, TV, radio and school textbooks recommend kicking the Jews out of Israel and killing them all over the world using terrorist bombers? The international community doesn't consider this a problem. Israel is an "unterstate", denied the basic rights of every other state, to exist in honor and peace. The Jewish state is not equal.
Like the mythical Medusa, this new Anti-Semitism has a face that petrifies anyone who looks at it. People don't want to admit it, don't even want to name it because doing so reveals both the identity of its perpetrators and its object. Even Jews don't want to call an anti-Semite by his name, fearing disruption of old alliances. Because the left has a precise idea of what a Jew must be, when Jews don't match its prescription, they ask: How do you dare being different from the Jew I ordered you to be? Fighting against terrorism? Electing Sharon? Are you crazy? And here the answer of Jews and Israelis is the same. We are still very shy, very concerned about your affection. So, instead of requesting that Israel become an equal nation and that Jews become equal citizens in the world, we prefer standing with you shoulder to shoulder, even when you have come out with hundreds, thousands of anti-Semitic statements. We prefer to stand with you at Holocaust memorials cursing old anti-Semitism while you accuse Israel, and therefore the Jews, of being racist killers.
Let's take a well known example: A famous Italian journalist, the former director of Corriere Della Sera, was named president of RAI, which is a very important job. RAI is an empire that shapes Italian public opinion and manages billions of dollars. The nominee's last name, Mieli, is Jewish.
Mieli is a widely appreciated journalist and historian who enjoys enormous and well deserved prestige. When he was appointed, the same night, the walls of RAI headquarters were filled with graffiti.
RAI means Radio Televisione Italiana - Italian Radio and Television. The graffiti authors wrote the word raus (get out!) over it. They drew a Star of David over the A of the word RAI, and transformed the acronym to "Radio Televisione Israeliana" - Israeli Radio and Television. The phrase is a perfect cross-section of what we are talking about: Raus and the use of the star of David are the classic signs of traditional anti-Semitic contempt and hate, and the words Radio Televisione Israeliana, putting Israel in the center of the picture, is a clear indication of how Israel is the focus of the left winged anti-Semitic hate today.
Surprisingly, or perhaps predictably, such a blatant expression of anti-Semitism caused very little reaction from both the Italian authorities and the Italian Jewish community. The aggression and threat to such a famous intellectual, gave rise to weak exclamations in a subdued tone, and was treated like a minor issue in a debate centered on more relevant ones, such as the management of RAI and it's political meaning.
Another meaningful episode: a group of Professors at Ca Foscari University, the prestigious Venetian institution, signed a petition calling for a boycott of Israeli professors and researchers. The content of the document is totally irrelevant, but the reaction it provoked among the Jewish community is very interesting.
One prominent Venetian Jew, when asked for his opinion, said: "They're making a serious mistake. Those professors don't realize that they are reinforcing Sharon's policy with their boycott."
Such an absurd reaction is the clear proof of the failure, within the Jewish world, to understand this totally new type of anti-Semitism that focuses on the State of Israel. Another document, this time a letter by a group of professors at the University of Bologna "to their Jewish friends", was published with a very large number of signatures.
Here is an excerpt: "We have always considered the Jewish people an intelligent and sensitive one because they have been selected (that's right, selected!) by the suffering of persecution and humiliation. We have school friends and some Jewish students whom we have helped and educated, taking them to high academic levels, and today many of them teach in Israeli universities. We are writing because we feel that our love and appreciation for you is being transformed into a burning rage… we think that many people, also outside the university, feel the same. You have to realize that what was done to you in the past, you are now doing to the Palestinians… if you continue on this path, hatred for you will grow throughout the world".
The letter is an excellent summary of all the characteristics of the new anti-Semitism. There is the pre-Zionist definition of the Jewish people as one that suffers, has to suffer by nature, a people bound to bear the worst persecutions without even lifting a finger, and is, therefore, worthy of compassion and solidarity.
And there is the well established, democratic, military powerful, and economically prospering state of Israel, which is the antithesis of this stereotype. The "new Jew" that tries not to suffer, and that, above all, can and wants to defend himself, immediately loses all his charm in the eyes of the Left.
But it was different before the map of Middle East was painted in red by the Cold War and Israel was declared the long hand of American Imperialism. The rising new born Israel, until the 1967 war, was built on an ideology that allowed and even obliged the left to be proud of the Jews and the Jews to be proud of the Left, even when Israelis were fighting and winning hard wars.
The Jews that survived Nazi-fascist persecution, the persecution of the Right, created a socialist state inspired by the values of the Left, work and collectivism, and by doing so, again sanctified the Left as the shelter of the victims.
In exchange for this, the Jews were granted legitimization. But in fact, the Jews were enormously important for the Left. The people of Israel were a living accusation of the anti-Semitism that marked the Holocaust, the Nazi-Fascist anti-Semitism; and now they were building collective farms and an omnipotent trade union! To some degree, this absolved Stalinist anti-Semitism, or gave it a much smaller importance than it really had. The Jews became indispensable for the left: look at the passionate and paternalistic tone of the Bologna professors, as they seem to plead: "Come back, our dear Jews. Be ours again. Let us curse Israel together and than take a trip together to the Holocaust memorials".
But the contradiction has become even ontologically unbearable: How can you cry with the survivors for Jews killed by Nazis when the living Jews are accused to be Nazi themselves? Somebody on a European radio program said that after the diffusion of the images of Muhammed al Dura, Europe could finally forget the famous picture of the boy in the Warsaw ghetto with his hands raised. The meaning of this statement, often repeated in other forms, is obliteration of the Holocaust through the overlapping of Israel and Nazism, namely racism, genocide, ruthless elimination of civilians, women and children, an utterly unwarranted eruption of cruelty and the most brutal instincts. It means pretending to believe blindly, without investigation, the Palestinian version of a highly disputed episode and of many, many others; it means taking for granted the "atrocities" that the Palestinian spokespersons always talk about, and ignoring every proof or fact that doesn't serve this position.
Well, people can, and always did, take for granted the prejudices about Jews; everyone is free to think whatever he wants. But we, the Jews, must reserve our moral right to hold such people accountable: in our eyes, they will plainly be anti-Semites. We will have to say to them: when you lie or use prejudices and stereotypes about Israel and the Jews, you are an anti-Semite, and I'll fight you.
As a journalist, I must mention the significant contribution of the mass media to this new anti-Semitism. Since the beginning of the Intifada, freedom fighter journalists, grown in the Guevara and Fedayeen campus, have given the Israeli-Palestinian conflict one of the most biased coverage in the history of journalism. Here are the main problems that lead to distorted reporting of the Intifada:
1) Lack of historic depth in attributing responsibility for its outbreak. In other words, failure to repeat the story of the Israeli offer of a Palestinian state and of Arafat's refusal which, in essence, is a refusal to accept Israel as a Jewish state, and which continues the almost 70 year old Arab rejection of partition of the land of Israel between Arabs and Jews as recommended by the British in 1936, decided by the UN in 1947 and always accepted by the Jewish representatives.
2) Failure, right from the very first clashes at the check points, to assign responsibility for the first deaths to the fact that, unlike in the first Intifada, in the second the IDF faced armed fighters hiding in the midst of the unarmed crowd.
3) Failure to recognize the enormous influence of the cultural pressure on the Palestinians from the systematic education in Palestinian schools and mass media, vilifying Jews and Israelis and idealizing terrorist acts of murder and mayhem.
4) Describing the death of Palestinian children without identifying the circumstances in which they occurred. The equating of civilian losses of Israelis with those of the Palestinian, as if terrorism and war against it were the same thing, and as if intentional killing was the same as a deplored consequence of a difficult and new type fight.
5) Using Palestinian sources to certify events, as if Palestinian sources were the most reliable. I am thinking of Jenin, of the unconfirmed reports that passed to printed pages or TV screens as absolute truth. In contrast, Israeli sources, which are very often reliable, are seen as subservient, prejudiced and unworthy of attention, despite the country's aggressive free and open journalism, and the equally determined criticism of government policies by opposition parties, conscience objectors, commentators and journalists.
6) Manipulation of the order in which the news are given and of the news itself. The headlines give the number of Palestinians killed or wounded in most articles, at least in Europe, before describing the gunfights and their causes, and linger on the age and family stories of the terrorists. The purposes of the IDF actions, such as capturing terrorists, destroying arms factories or hiding places and bases for attacks against Israel, are rarely mentioned. On the contrary, Israel's operations are often described as completely uncalled for, bizarre, wicked and useless.
7) Manipulation of language, taking advantage of the great confusion about the definition of "terrorism" and "terrorist". This too is an old issue, connected to the concept of freedom fighter, so dear to my generation.
A few days ago, at a checkpoint, I was doing some interviews. It soon became clear to me that the use of the word "terrorist" sounded to each one of my Palestinian interlocutors a capital political and semantic sin. The press has learned this very well: the occupation is the cause of everything, terrorism is called resistance and does not exist per se. Terrorists who kill women and children are called militants, or fighters. An act of terrorism is often "a fire clash", even when only babies and old men are shot inside their cars on a highway. It is also interesting to note that a young shahid is a cause of deep pride for the Palestinian struggle, but if you ask how a child of twelve can be sent to die and why young children are indoctrinated to do such acts, the answer is: "come on, a child can't be a terrorist. How can you call a 12 year old boy a terrorist?"
This is perhaps the most crucial point: Given the fact that there is a ferocious debate on the definition of terrorism, it is widely accepted that terrorism is a way of fighting. This is a semantic and even substantial gift of the new anti-Semitism, where it is natural for a Jew to be dead. Namely, intentionally targeting civilians to cause fear and disrupt the morale of Israel is not a moral sin. It doesn't raise world indignation, and if it does, it hides in its folds some or much sympathy for the terrorist aggressor. What the European press fails to or doesn't want to understand is that Terror is a condemnable and forbidden way of fighting, regardless of the specific political goal it tries to achieve.
8) The media have promoted the extravagant concept that the settlers, including women and children are not real human beings.
They present settlers as pawns in a dangerous game they choose to play. Their deaths are almost natural and logical events. In a way, they asked for it.
On the other hand, when a Hamas commander is killed, even though, he obviously "asked for it", an ethical, philosophical debate arises, on the perfidy of extra-judicial death sentences.
This would certainly be a licit debate, were it not for the grotesque double standard on which worldwide press bases it.
9) Not to go overlooked is that censorship and corruption within the PA and the physical elimination of its political enemies is hardly ever covered.
The points listed above all point in one direction: Durban.
Here, the human rights movements that we will later find on the streets demonstrating against the war in Iraq chose Israel as their primary target and enemy. This choice constitutes a great success for Palestinian propaganda, but also a very serious signal of weakness from the movements themselves. The ideologically and politically cornered Left chose to adopt as universal a very controversial and sectorial struggle, marked heavily by terrorism. A Left incapable of confronting the capitalist globalization system, decided to appoint the state of Israel as its main target. In a word, the Left decided to make Israel pay for what they think America should pay. Isn't this real cowardice?
In addition , there is the issue of how the UN and its outrageous policy has helped this process, and how Europe has coddled it because of its ancient sense of guilt towards Israel and its hate for the US, Israel's friend and ally. This matter alone deserves an entire book.
Denouncing this new human rights anti-Semitism is psychologically a terribly arduous task for Israel and for Diaspora Jews.
It is even more difficult because between the Jews and the Left there is a divorce that the latter does not want. The Left wants to continue being considered the paladin of good Jews. It pretends to continue mourning the Jews killed in the Holocaust, crying together with the Jews shoulder to shoulder. And it does so because this gives it the moral authorization to go a second later and speak of the "atrocities" of Israel. After writing about the "atrocities" of Israel, the good European leftist will talk to you with vivacity about the fascinating shtetl culture and the sweetness of Moroccan Jewish dishes.
Until we break the silence, we, the Jews, give them the authorization to deny us the right to a nation of our own, and to defense of its people from unprecedented anti-Semitism.
Just as it curses Israel, the Left of human rights, of pacifism, of protest against death penalty or war or racial and gender discrimination, also praises suicide terrorists and the caricatures of Sharon worthy of Der Sturmer. And none of its people will ever sit as a human shield in an Israeli coffee house or in a Jerusalem bus.
Still, this new anti-Semitism has a peculiar characteristic: It allows conversion. This kind of anti-Semitism, unlike Nazi anti-Semitism, is more like the older theological anti-Semitism, for it gives the Jews the option to renounce the devil (Israel, or sometimes Sharon). Whoever declares a sense of revulsion towards Israel's conduct, is allowed to set foot again in the civil society, the one of common sense, civilized conversation, groups of good people full of good will that fight for human rights.
If we want to obtain something, if we decide that it is about time to fight, we must renounce "liberal" imposters. We have to know how to say that the free press is a failure when it lies, and that it does lie. We have to say that all human rights are violated when a people is denied the right of self defense, and that right is denied of Israel. Human rights are also violated when a nation is subjected to systematic defamation and made a legitimate target for terrorists. We have to stop what we have accepted since the day the State was born, namely, that Israel be viewed as a different state in the international community.
Another very important point is that of all the parameters of anti-Semitism now used, one is the confusion between "Israeli" and "Jew". Supposedly, it is wrong to insinuate that the Jews act in the interests of the state of Israel and not their own state. The more a country confuses the two terms, the more anti-Semitic it is considered, and therefore one would imagine that the Jews combat this prejudice.
This is a serious conceptual error. Since the state of Israel, and along with it Jews, have been made the objects of the worst kind of prejudice, Jews everywhere should consider their being identified with Israel a virtue and honor.
They should assert that identification with pride.
If Israel is, and it is indeed, the focal point of anti-Semitic attacks, our attention must be concentrated there. We must measure the moral character of the person we are speaking to on that basis: if you lie about Israel, if you cover it with bias, you are an anti-Semite. If you're prejudiced against Israel, then, you're against the Jews.
This doesn't mean criticizing Israel and its policies is forbidden. However, very little of what we hear about Israel has to do with lucid criticism. Prejudice and bias, not Sharon's personality is the major reason for criticism. The self-defined critics are not the pious interlocutors for the Jews that they pretend to be. So we must tell them: from now on you cannot use the human rights passport for free; you cannot use false stereotypes. You must demonstrate what you assert: that the army ruthlessly storms poor Arab villages that have nothing to do with terrorism; that it shoots children on purpose; that it kills journalists with pleasure. You cannot? You called Jenin a slaughter? Then you are an anti-Semite, just like the old anti-Semites you pretend to hate. You have to convince me that you are not an anti-Semite, now that we know that you do not condemn terrorism, that you have never said a word against the contemporary caricatures of hooked-nosed Jews with a bag of dollars in one hand and a machine gun in the other.
Israel is in shock over the new anti-Semitism. All the theories that claimed classic anti-Semitism would abate with the creation of the state of Israel and that, in the long run, it would be extinguished have been destroyed. Furthermore, Israel has actually become the sum of all the evil, the proof that the protocols and the blood libels were right. The Palestinians are turned into Jesus, crucified; the war in Iraq or in Afghanistan waged by the US is part of the Jewish plan of domination. Jews all over the world are threatened, beaten, even killed to pay the price of Israel's existence.
Israel and the Jews have today only one certainty: now that Jews have their own means of defense, a new Holocaust is no longer possible. Still we have to pass from the idea of our possible physical elimination, to that of possible moral elimination. The only way to face this threat is to fight fearlessly, on our own terrain, using all the historic and ethical weapons that Israel possesses. No shame, no fear and no sense of guilt.
Israel has the chance to prove itself for what it really is: the outpost of the fight against terrorism and the defense of democracy. That is no small thing. But, we the Jews pose as victims and hide from this chance because using it puts us in conflict with our ancient sponsors and their legitimization. We have to realize that legitimization is really in our own hands and we never used it.
The watchword of the Jews should be "Jewish pride," in the sense of pride in our history and national identity, wherever we are.
Jewish pride means that we have to claim the unique identity of the Jewish people and its right to exist. We must act as though it has never been acknowledged, because today, once again, it no longer is. In defending this identity we have to be, as Hillel Halkin says, as tough as can be and as liberal as no one else is.
No left and no right. We won't give the Left the power to decide where we stand. We will decide our alliances by ourselves according to the actual position of our potential partners.
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JWR contributor Fiamma Nirenstein is the Jerusalem correspondent for the leading Italian newspaper, La Stampa, as well as for the Italian magazine, Panorama. Her work has appeared in many prestigious magazines and newspapers, including Commentary and The New York Sun. An author of several books about the Arab Israeli conflict, she teaches history of the Middle East at the LUISS University in Rome, as a visiting professor. This article was first delivered as a speech at the YIVO Institute in New York City. Comment by clicking here.
© 2003, Fiamma Nirenstein
© 2003, Fiamma Nirenstein