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Anti-Semitism: An Ally in Sharon's Campaign

6 May 2002

I regularly receive angry e-mail messages accusing me of anti-Semitism in response to columns I've written condemning Israel's policies toward the Palestinians. In recent weeks, those accusations have become more vitriolic.

Being denounced as a bigot is never pleasant, but years of opinion writing has thickened my skin. What's more, I've learned to expect passion and hyperbole from Israel's zealous partisans.

But I've also found that Jews are among the most eloquent and insistent critics of Israel's policies. Thus, I've never been tempted to attribute Israel's barbaric behavior to any specific quality of Judaism.

Unfortunately, according to news accounts from Europe and other places, many opponents of Israel's policies are not making that distinction. For too many of them, Israeli oppression of the Palestinians is best explained by Israel's state religion.

Attributing odious behavior to Jewish people is a practice with an ancient European pedigree. We call it anti-Semitism but, since Arab Muslims also are Semites, isn't that term inaccurate? Wouldn't the term anti-Judaist (against those who believe in or practice Judaism) be more precise?

Whatever label one chooses for this attitude, it is a bias with deep roots and murderous consequences. The Nazi-inspired Holocaust fed on those ancestral hatreds and today, when I read of an upsurge of anti-Semitism, I truly understand the heightened anxiety of global Jewry.

The current spurt in anti-Jewish activity--desecrated gravestones, vandalized synagogues, firebombed businesses, etc.--prompted the European Union to issue an unprecedented declaration condemning anti-Semitism, racism and xenophobia.

While neo-Nazis and other far-right-wingers once were the major perpetrators of this activity, European authorities say that Muslim opponents of Israeli policies are behind many of the current incidents.

Islam offers no theological support for anti-Jewish biases and Muslims traditionally have accepted Jews as fellow believers. But religious hatred is attractive to younger Muslims whose only conception of Israel is that of an oppressive, colonial power.

Anti-Semitism also has a long pedigree in this country, although it has never been as virulent as in Europe. This nation's far-right still denounces Jews almost as ardently as it dehumanizes African-Americans. An early sense of shared victimization helped bind blacks and Jews together in many of this nation's social struggles.

I sometimes get supportive comments for my columns critical of Israel from these stateside anti-Semites; it's an embarrassing assent.

Their comments reaffirm for me the need to separate Israeli policies from the state religion.

But ironically, Israel's fiercest partisans are trying to blur those distinctions. A recent ad sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League declares "Anti-Zionism is showing its true colors as deep-rooted anti-Semitism."

By making this false parallel, the ADL and its fellow travelers are fueling the arguments of anti-Semites who can trace any Israeli policy to an innate Jewish trait.

This may be the intention of those right-wing Israelis represented by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. By casting the struggle in religious terms, Sharon transforms his military savagery into a heroic fight for Jewish survival.

For many Jewish people, Israel embodies the promise that they will never again fall victim to the ancient hatreds that almost wiped them out. And if Sharon is successful in conflating Israel's survival with his policies, more Jews will see it as a religious duty to support his right-wing excesses.

The fear of Israel's vulnerability is distorting the moral compass of many Jews who not only should know better, but who are needed to prepare the way for the compromises that the Jewish state must eventually make for sake of its long-term survival.

Jewish activists, normally attuned to any subtle human-rights abuse, are finding ways to excuse Israel's many violations of UN human-rights provisions.

There's also been too little outrage about Israel denying UN fact-finders access to the Jenin refugee camp.

Such inconsistency is puzzling until fear is added to the equation.

Many Jews insist their fears are warranted, and history, unfortunately, offers ample evidence. Yet Israel's need for security cannot justify flagrant abuses of Palestinians' human rights.

To permit such abuses is to open the door for any state to act on what it perceives as its own defense and wipe out any potential adversary it deems threatening.

That destructive example is the primary reason Israel's reckless actions in the occupied West Bank are subversive to the very principle of international law and order.

And a lot of Semites agree with that.

Salim Muwakkil
Published in the Chicago Tribune © 2002 Chicago Tribune

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