The Suicidal Passion
Redacted from an in-depth article
By the brilliant Ruth Wisse
The Weekly Standard, NOV 21, 2011
Arab leaders do not yet acknowledge that they sealed the doom of their societies in 1948 when they organized their politics against the Jewish state rather than toward the improvement of their countries. Like a great many autocrats, dictators, tyrants, and anti-liberal rulers before them, the founders of the Arab League in 1945 found it convenient to mobilize against the Jews and against the competitive way of life they represent. Whereas Europeans were jolted by revelations of what came to be known as the Holocaust into awareness of the ruin anti-Semitism had wrought, Arab leaders saw in the Jews the same political opportunities that had enticed Germany. Anti-Semitism was the European ideology most eagerly imported and adapted to the Middle East.
Anti-Semitism, or the organization of politics against the Jews, is at once the most protean and the most misunderstood force in modern politics. Because it works through misdirection, most people associate it with Jews who are its target, rather than with anti-Semites who are its perpetrators. What is anti-Semitism?
… I prefer to distinguish anti-Semitism from mere intolerance. … Anti-Semitism is a political instrument—a strategy, an ideology, sometimes a movement that organizes politics against the Jews. … Wilhelm Marr, who founded the League of Anti-Semites in 1879, distinguished his political movement from the religiously based anti-Jewish animosities that had preceded it. Marr preached,“The Jews are unstoppable!” We have among us a flexible, tenacious, intelligent, foreign tribe that knows how to bring abstract reality into play in many ways. Not individual Jews, but the Jewish spirit and Jewish consciousness have overpowered the world.
Marr’s ingenious idea was to cast liberal democracy as an imperialist Jewish plot. While others welcomed liberal democracy’s promise of liberty, equality, and fraternity, he opposed it by attributing its attendant evils to “Jewry,” which “corrupted all society with its views.” He accused the Jews of driving out any kind of idealism, of gaining the upper hand in commerce, infiltrating government, ruling the theater, etc., and leaving other Germans only the hard manual labor that Jews had always despised. These same arguments were soon advanced in Russia in more paranoid style through the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a fabrication that pretended to record the machinations of Jews plotting to take over the world.
The kernel of truth that allowed for Marr’s paranoid analysis was that Jews were highly competitive in all areas—except national politics. Their civilization was founded on a contractual agreement with God that required their obedience to divinely inspired law in return for divine protection. The Jewish way of life that was based on this premise encouraged individual and collective responsibility and promised eventual return to their promised land. Meanwhile Jews turned the disadvantages of “exile” into strategies of adaptation. Wherever they were offered enough freedom to compete on more or less equal terms, Jews did well enough to lend credibility to inflated images of their “power.”
But since collective Jewry lacked and never sought precisely the kind of political reach with which they were credited, the disparity between image and reality made them an ideal target for those who really did want to flex their power. Thus, at a pivotal stage in the process we call modernization, anti-Semitism became the catchall for a politics of grievance and blame.
Anti-Semitism releases aggression against a familiar target and offers a simple explanation for complex and occasionally intractable problems (Unemployed? Jews have your jobs. Destitute? Rothschilds have your money. Losing confidence in your country? Jews control your press, the arts, the courts, education, medicine , etc). It uses negative campaigning that provokes no response in kind. Since Jews seek acceptance from those who agitate against them, they have no incentive to wage the kind of countercampaign that we see between rival political parties.
Anti-Semitism drew its demonic images from religious sources, further magnifying suspicion of an already suspect people. And it united otherwise antagonistic or even warring constituencies. Marx singled out the Jews as the evil embodiment of capitalism. Internationalists identified Jewish separatism as the chief impediment to their universal ideals. Nationalists targeted Jews as corrupting aliens. Conservative Christians and, later, Muslims continued to see them as challengers of their faith. Atheists and secularists condemned their retrograde religion. Racial theorists called them agents of impurity. An equal-opportunity instrument of blame, anti-Semitism had as one of its chief advantages the ability to unite political forces that had nothing else in common.
Last but hardly least, folks could anticipate the acquisition of Jewish property, goods, or positions as a tangible by-product of Jewish expulsion or annihilation. The prospect of acquiring Jewish property and possessions was something Nazism offered to all the countries it conquered. Similarly, when Arabs draw their map of “Palestine” to include all of Israel, they especially have their eye on the bounty that Israelis have created as a result of their open, democratic ways.
Rather than compete with the Jews, anti-Semitism tries to have it both ways—organizing political resistance to the liberal democracy that profits the Jews, and doing so confident that it can exploit the weakness of those who value individual life too highly to squander it on defensive war. The Jews of Europe, who had never developed independent means of self-defense, never had a chance against their destroyers. Modern Israel is the current test case.
The United Nations was created in the wake of the Second World War to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind; to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small; to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained; to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.
In commitment to these ideals, in 1947 the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution for the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab zones that midwifed the birth of Israel half a year later. The Jews were already poised to reclaim their sovereignty after two millennia, but this vote granted them the international sanction to do so within the same decade that had witnessed their greatest national defeat.
Many Arab countries were just then similarly emerging from the loosening grip of European powers. The Arab League was founded in 1945, the same year as the United Nations, its six original members—Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Transjordan, Syria—soon joined by Yemen, and then by 15 others. The league’s stated goal was to create pan-Arab unity by promoting closer relations between member states. But rather than emulate Israel by settling Palestinian Arabs in their allotted land (possibly in federation with Jordan, which was already largely Palestinian Arab), the Arab League dedicated itself to preventing the existence of a Jewish state. Its first major action was the war against Israel in 1948, and opposition to Israel has remained its indispensable unifier ever since.
Despite their vast expanses of land, natural resources, financial capacities, and so forth, Arab League members created an Arab refugee time bomb to justify their “resistance” to what the U.N. had wrought. Had the U.N. lived up to its charter, it would have expelled the Arab belligerents who had warred against the re-birth of the Jewish State from membership or placed them on probation for contravening its terms.
…And opposition to Israel shored up pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism by flaunting contempt for the liberal democratic culture of the West that Israel embodied. … The perpetual Arab war against Israel worked like a charm. In 1949, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) was established as a temporary measure to help resettle a relatively small group of displaced persons in a century notorious for its many millions of refugees. Only in this single case was a refugee agency made permanent. … The Arab League used the U.N. agency to evade its responsibilities for fellow Arabs, and to foster an Arab protostate that would replace the Jewish one in time.
… The United Nations provides an unprecedented stage for accusing Jews in full view of the world, thereby obscuring or reducing scrutiny of the worst actors on the planet. This year, hundreds of delegates and guests enjoyed U.N. hospitality and displayed their hatred of liberal democracy—aka Israel—with the assurance that they would suffer no political cost.
Anti-Semitism’s strategy of inversion—holding Jews responsible for the aggression against them—obscures the domestic repression that is always practiced in its name. Jews are the ostensible but not ultimate casualties of the organization of politics against them. Yasser Arafat used opposition to Israel as the vehicle for a corrupt and vicious dictatorship that could otherwise not have garnered billions of dollars of support. Saudi Arabia expended billions of dollars in mobilizing war against Israel to shore up its image of protecting Islam while sustaining a bigoted and sexist sheikhdom. Recent uprisings against dictatorships in Arab countries demonstrate their woeful unpreparedness for creative self-government, the direct consequence of diverting political energies to keep those dictatorships in power.
No one can know what is unfolding in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and other countries of the Arab League. There is one critical variable that holds the key to their political future: Will their leaders resort to the political instrument that brought about their decline? Will Egypt abrogate or weaken its treaty with Israel, or develop a culture of human rights? Will Turkey join the competition over who stands strongest against Israel and suffer the fate of its rivals? Arab leaders sealed the doom of their societies when they organized politics against the Jewish state. Only new and would-be leaders have the power to undo the failure they reaped.
Ruth R. Wisse, the author most recently of Jews and Power, is Martin Peretz professor of Yiddish literature and professor of comparative literature at Harvard.
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