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Jewish World Review May 3, 2002/ 21 Iyar, 5762

Suzanne Fields

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A different kind of "what if?" | I collect books and stories about the Holocaust like certain Southerners read everything written about the Civil War. The Civil War buffs of my acquaintance replay battles and argue over "what ifs" with an astonishing confidence over how that war could have gone the other way.

What if Robert E. Lee hadn't been distracted by dysentery on the third day at Gettysburg? What if Stonewall Jackson hadn't been killed by one of his own men at Chancellorsville? What if the Gallant Pelham hadn't led a romantic but meaningless cavalry charge at Kelly's Ford (after which three young women in the neighborhood put on mourning).

Given the nature of the Holocaust, I ask a different kind of "what if?" What if the mentality that shaped the Holocaust returns from what we thought was the graveyard of evil? With every new wave of anti-Semitism since the demise of the Third Reich, a lot of Jews consider that question. But it has never seemed more pertinent than today.

When the French voters gave Jean Marie Le Pen enough votes to come in second for the presidency, they were voting for an unabashed anti-Semite who once ran a publishing house for Nazi music, and who described the gas chambers at Auschwitz and Buchenwald as merely "a detail" of history.

He did not make his surprising showing because he is an anti-Semite. Voter apathy, resentment of Muslim immigrants and a fear of crime contributed. But Le Pen's attitude toward the Jews was well known, and like the Germans who ultimately brought Hitler to power after reading "Mein Kampf" and listening to the Fuhrer's anti-Semitic rants, the French knew whom and what they were voting for.

France's anti-Jewish sentiments, however, are not only found in the fascist ideology of Le Pen and his followers. They proliferate on the left in France, too, where it is common to hear the Israeli's treatment of the Palestinians compared to the Nazi treatment of the Jews. You might call this "immoral equivalence." Christopher Caldwell, in the Weekly Standard, suggests that anti-Semitism of the left is more dangerous than that of the right because it filters down from the intellectual anti-globalist and anti-capitalist, pro-Third World ideologues flowering in the media and in the universities.

"We haven't had this level of anti-Semitism since World War II," Avi Beker, secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress, told a meeting of Jewish leaders in Brussels. "European governments cannot just shrug their shoulders and say it's all part of the Middle East problem. On many occasions when there is a deterioration in the social fabric, it starts with the Jews, especially here on this continent where there has been a history of anti-Semitism."

Nor is our country immune. The Yiddish Radio Project, a 10-week series on National Public Radio, fashioned as inspiring light-hearted memories, is drawing anti-Semitic mail in great numbers. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a convenient vehicle to vent hatred of the Jews. Henry Sapoznik, co-producer of the show, told the New York Times that the attacks on Yiddish programs, which were actually made 50 years ago, appeal to "nativist anti-Semitism." He compares the attackers to the anti-Semites who created and distributed "The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion," a Russian forgery that was passed around in the early 1900s purporting to detail a Jewish conspiracy to dominate the world.

In recent ABC Nightline coverage of a rally in Berkeley, a reporter took a certain pride in telling viewers that Nightline chose not to run the image of a young woman holding up a caricature of Ariel Sharon, wearing a swastika prominently displayed on his armband, giving the Hitler salute. He found it too offensive. Notes Ron Rosenbaum in the New York Observer, that kind of "cover up" prevents us from observing how much "anti-Israel protests have become anti-Semitic."

The resurgence of anti-Semitism accompanies controversy swirling around the Jewish Museum show in New York, which exhibits a number of angry and satirical images of Nazi evil created by a generation of artists born after the Holocaust.

One of the most controversial works in the show is an alteration of a famous photograph of emaciated Jews being liberated from Buchenwald, with a likeness of the artist, digitally inserted, holding a Diet Coke. Survivors of the Holocaust are offended by this photograph and critics condemn it as pseudo-art, but the image arouses the viewer to reflect on changing sensibilities toward Jews, showing how far away the Coca-Cola generation is from understanding the concentration camp - and the anti-Semitism that produced it.

There is no pause that refreshes, and here's one that depresses.

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© 2001, Suzanne Fields. TMS