For Jews, and for the many millions who sympathize with them, the revival of anti-Semitism should come as no surprise. The tombstones knocked over in Toronto cemeteries, the defacing of Jewish homes, are shocking but sadly familiar. Anti-Semitism never dies. It's a river of poison that runs beneath civilization, breaking through the surface at unpredictable moments.
This subject deserves to be considered in historical perspective. The good news is that recent incidents in various Western countries, dismaying though they are, don't parallel (as some fear) the organized, public anti-Semitism that led toward Hitler.
Current anti-Semitism in the West lacks government sponsorship, the help of big corporations, and the support of major public personalities. Just 80 years ago, anti-Semites included the greatest industrialist in the world, Henry Ford, who preached Jew-hatred through his own newspaper in Michigan, the Dearborn Independent. (It was as if Bill Gates were to turn into a dedicated anti-Jewish publicist in 2004.) Today, nobody in the West gets elected mayor of a major city on an anti-Semitic platform, as Karl Lueger did in Vienna from 1897 to 1910, and there are no big newspapers devoted to anti-Semitism, as there were in France and other European countries at the same time.
Anti-Semitism does make occasional appearances in the media of the West today, even in unlikely places such as the London Spectator; but for the most part it hides its face or masks itself as criticism of Israel. Anti-Zionism differs from anti-Semitism, as many readers like to remind me, though when it takes the form of cartoons about Ariel Sharon killing Christ, there's not much difference.
In Canada anti-Semitism becomes especially disturbing, and personally frightening to those it directly touches, when it suddenly takes the physical (if stealthy) form of desecrating cemeteries and smearing swastikas on houses. But for the most part, maligning the Jews has been banished to the spiritual sewers occupied by pathetic neo-fascist Zundelians, despicable but barely noticeable, who regularly issue e-mail bulletins and were reduced this week to speculating that the Jews staged the Toronto incidents ("petty acts of vandalism") to win sympathy and advance their status. This echoed a supporter of the Palestinians, Jose Bove, the French anti-globalist who became famous for leading an attack on a McDonald's. He declared in 2002 that Israel's secret service was behind the outrages against synagogues in France.
Meanwhile, ferocious anti-Semitism has become a reigning orthodoxy of the Muslim world, a favourite topic for everything from the sermons of imams to TV drama, such as the Egyptian series that turned the Protocols of the Elders of Zion into a soap opera and won the approval of President Hosni Mubarak.
Islamic anti-Semitism's origins may be murky, but the contemporary explanations for it are always less than honest. Supposedly, official Islam hates the Jews because Israel oppresses the Palestinians, particularly in the territories that fell into Israel's hands in 1967. But, as anyone can learn by studying a little history, Arab violence against Jews in Palestine (sanctioned by Muslim clergy) began at least 28 years before the establishment of the state of Israel; Arab attacks on Israel began long before the 1967 war. After Israel obeyed "world opinion" and made a solid peace offer in the 1990s, Yasir Arafat began his most murderous campaign.
He didn't want peace and justice, he wanted Israel to vanish.
Across the West, Israel's critics (including many Jews) still argue that if only Israel were more generous about the territories, if only it were more willing to make peace, if only it didn't insist on killing those who kill innocent Israelis, then tensions would disappear and anti-Semitism would stop spreading around the globe. Perhaps they would even argue that we might hear no more statements such as "The Jews rule the world," for which Mahathir Mohamad, the Prime Minister of Malaysia, was applauded at the Organization of the Islamic Conference last fall.
But the ugly if inexplicable truth is that every era reinvents anti-Semitism for its own purposes or to serve its own fantasies. In imagination, it reinvents the Jews as well. Once the Jews were to be despised because "they" caused the killing of Jesus. Centuries later, the Jews of Russia and eastern Europe were so poor that they could safely be described as vermin in richer and more powerful countries. When many of them gave up their vermin status and became professionals in Germany and elsewhere, they were resented for their success. They were the bankers who controlled the world but also the communists who destroyed freedom. They were clannish, keeping to themselves, or they were trying to push their way into places where they weren't wanted.
Anti-Semitism remains an essentially irrational malice. It can't be explained because it doesn't begin to understand itself. Nor can it be cured. I've known a few anti-Semites, but I believe I've never known an ex-anti-Semite.
The complications, contradictions and encrusted stupidities go on forever, never to be fully understood, always to be watched and worried over. In each generation, they baffle the mind, freeze the imagination and break the heart.