Not so long ago, it was decidedly taboo to speak badly about Jews. Today, from tenured professors at major universities to mobs trying to burn down synagogues in Paris, people openly speak and write — sometimes cautiously, sometimes not — about the presumed malevolent power of Jews. Sometimes they carefully denounce “Zionists,” but open Jew-hatred is now commonplace, and the Jew-haters are getting a hearing.
It’s important to understand how we get from there to here, from a near-universal taboo against anti-Jewish remarks to toleration of nasty anti-Jewish incitement. And there’s no one who has provided as good a guide to that grim journey than Ben Cohen. It’s in his recent book, Some of My Best Friends.
Dramatic changes of this sort don’t happen quickly. Cultural paradigms — embodied in standards of “good manners” — change slowly, and it has taken several generations for antisemitic language to slither back into permissible discourse. One of the many great things about Ben Cohen’s book, which is a collection of his essays over the past several years — is his keen eye for the little watersheds along the way. Bit by bit, small event after small event, we got there. Kudos to Mr. Cohen for noticing them and doing the hard and depressing work of chronicling them.
These little events range from British court decisions to parliamentary debates, to administrative decisions at major and minor universities. Mr. Cohen writes with admirable restraint about the now-forgotten case of Ronnie Fraser, “an unassuming lecturer in mathematics at one of London’s further educational colleges,” who brought a court case against advocates of an academic boycott against Israeli academics and their institutions. He lost his case, thereby, as Mr. Cohen says, “(leaving) the definition of what constitutes antisemitism to (often hostile) non-Jews.” He quotes Fraser in a very important post-verdict statement:
For the court to say that, as Jews, we do not have an attachment to Israel is disappointing, considering we have been yearning for Israel for 2000 years and it has been in our prayers all that time.
Mr. Cohen warned at the time (2012) that the British decision would create a dangerous precedent, to whit that whenever Jews say that antisemitism is a major component of anti-Zionism, they are arguing in bad faith.
Right he is. And right he was; just look at the distinguished profs at American universities (Harvard, Chicago, Brandeis…) whose antizionism-cum-antisemitism is rewarded with high prestige and salary.
Mr. Cohen understands the essence of antisemitism. It isn’t just hatred of Jews, it’s a vision of the whole world, at the center of which it puts the Jews. Each little step, from the campaign against the ritual slaughter of animals for kosher meat, to the efforts to ban circumcision (often crafted to ensure that Jews can’t do it, but Muslims can), gets them closer to their goal of eliminating the Jews from the world.
So we must fight each step.
And “we” isn’t just a Jewish subject. One of his finest essays, on Iran, is eloquently titled “First They Came For the Bahai’s…” and it contains a prescient warning to the Christians. Having failed to defend the Bahai’s, the Christians (whether in Iran or around the world) failed to defend their own:
The reaction of western church leaders to the brazen demonization of Christianity in Iran has been typically nervous…there is a clear reluctance to identify Iran’s strategy for what it is: the first stage of a campaign to eradicate Christianity from the country.
Here Mr Cohen somewhat understates the gravity of the situation, as the Islamist campaign against Christians isn’t at all limited to the boundaries of Persia, but is raging all over the place. Iraq, now largely an Iranian protectorate, seems to have eliminated all its Christians, and the new Caliphate is issuing ultimata to them.
You might think it paradoxical that a book about antisemitism should provide such clear guidance about Christian-hatred, but actually it’s entirely logical.
Another reason to make sure that Some of My Best Friends is one of your basic books.