Free Speech and Antisemitism
RUTH R. WISSE
WSJ Dec. 29, 2016 6:22 p.m. ET
December began with the passage by the Senate of the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act and ended with President Obama’s betrayal of the Jewish state. In a reversal of policy, the U.S. failed to block a United Nations Security Council measure that is arguably the most prejudicial U.N. pronouncement since the 1975 resolution declaring that “Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination.” The president’s abstention aligns America with the malefactors against whom the Senate is trying to raise awareness.
Let us take this step by step. The Senate passed the triple-A act in response to the escalation of anti-Jewish hostility in America, especially on the fringes of politics and in institutions of higher learning. University administrators protested that the legislation would stifle “freedom of speech.” Treating anti-Semitism as a problem of free speech is like treating an outbreak of mumps as a problem of cosmetics. Responsible authorities are required to check injurious epidemics.
The Senate bill itself understates the problem by treating anti-Semitism under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin. Were anti-Semitism historically a matter of discrimination alone, it could not have generated the extermination of the Jews of Europe or the perpetual Arab war against Israel. Discrimination is merely one byproduct of anti-Semitism, which in modernity is a political strategy, ideology and movement forged in 19th-century Europe, adapted by 20th-century Arabs, and now spreading in our midst.
Decades after World War II, the U.S. established the Holocaust Memorial Museum presumably to warn against genocides like the mass murder of European Jewry. But the museum inadvertently subverted its purpose. The League for Anti-Semitism was founded in Germany in the 1870s to oppose liberal democracy, which it called a Jewish plot “to conquer Germany from within.” Tsarist Russia added “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and accused Jews of wanting to conquer the world. Nazism added the feature of Aryan supremacy. Nationalist movements adapted it to their specificities, and so did internationalist movements, which is why one of their leaders called anti-Semitism the “socialism of fools.”
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Protean anti-Semitism spans the political spectrum and blames Jews for whatever they are said to represent. Long before the Holocaust, anti-Semitism spawned its successor anti-Zionism. When the mufti of Jerusalem instigated massacres of the Jews of Palestine in 1929, the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin hailed them as harbingers of a Communist revolution, charging Palestinian Jews with imperialism and laying the groundwork for the Soviet-Arab alliance that later dominated the U.N. Thus was a form of politics designed in Europe and organized against Jews in their dispersion reorganized against Jews gathered in their homeland.
The Arab League’s war against Israel opposed the principle of coexistence. Arab leaders, having failed in their vow to push Israel into the sea, adopted the inverted tactics of anti-Semitism by accusing Israel of displacing the Palestinians. Much of the subsequent convulsion and violence in the Arab world can be traced to that original political sin of refusing coexistence.
Turning back to America, no one familiar with President Obama’s biography can be surprised by his acquiescence in the anti-Jewish politics of grievance and blame. Raised in, educated by, and exposed to the major forms of contemporary anti-Semitism, he would have been remarkable to have escaped its effects. He attended school in Indonesia where, according to Pew surveys, unfavorable views of the Jews are among the highest in the Muslim world.
This is the most obvious connection between his upbringing and his membership in the Chicago church of Jeremiah Wright, the pastor whose anti-Semitism he had to repudiate in order to win the White House. No less important than either of these influences were his college years at Columbia in the early 1980s—when Prof. Edward Said was sounding the pro-PLO drumbeat against Israel—and his association with the anti-Zionist hard left in Chicago.
In this respect the president is a faithful product of his education. His ruinous legacy underscores the importance of “Anti-Semitism Awareness,” whether or not passage of the Senate’s act will be enough to arrest it. The current administration has courted the favor of Israel’s pursuers in the hope of averting their enmity toward the U.S.
In so doing, it has licensed an anti-Israel assault on the part of some Americans beguiled by a similar fantasy and comforted by the knowledge that Israel, because it can least afford to relax its military defenses against their common enemies, serves as the West’s fighting front line. In like fashion, college administrators may be glad to have Jews absorb campus discontent that might otherwise be directed at them.
These dodges failed before and will fail again. The Jewish people has proven its ability to remain morally intact—some say exceptional—through several millennia. America’s exceptionalism is still being tested, and its submission to anti-Semitism is not a good sign. In failing to stand up to Israel’s and America’s common foes, President Obama has failed the country that elected him its leader.
Ms. Wisse, a former professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard, is the author of “Jews and Power” (Schocken, 2007).