The world was anti-Semitic in 1944, when Ben Hecht wrote A Guide for the Bedevilled. The majority of educated, civilized, and rational people believed that the Jews in some fashion had brought their own problems upon themselves. Hecht began fighting anti-Semitism after an unsettling exchange with a New York hostess, who explained to him that Jews had to acknowledge their own responsibility in the matter of their persecution. This polite Gentile lady explained:
The Jews complain. They suffer dreadfully, and they accuse. But they never stop to explain or to reason or to figure the thing out and tell the world what they, and only they, know…They are–how shall I put it–collaborative victims, a thing they refuse to see…The Germans are not a race of killers, fiends, of a special and different sort of sub-humans.
Not that she approved of Nazi genocide, to be sure; she may not have known the extent of the butchery, but she knew that dreadful things were happening to Europe’s Jews. But she thought that the Germans must have had some kind of provocation to hate the Jews so deeply. Why else would the Germans hate Jews so much?
When did the old anti-Semitism return? For half a century the horror of a million Jewish children murdered by the Nazis stopped the mouths of the anti-Semites, but that memory has worn off. What Hecht’s interlocutor believed in 1944, most liberals believe today, not to mention the vast majority of Europeans. Yes, the Arabs hate Jews, and express this hatred in a barbaric way, they will allow, but that is because Israel has provoked the hatred.
Tripwires that once seemed taboo are being crossed every day. One was triggered in the new action film “Triple 9,” which portrays a gang of ruthless Russian mafia killers operating under the cover of a kosher meat business. There are some violent Jewish criminals, but I have not been able to find a single example of an observant Jew among them. The filmmakers have invented a stereotype that has no instantiation in the real world.
Anti-Semitic caricatures used to be off limits. When Dickens created the far less offensive character of Fagin in Oliver Twist, he atoned by inventing the saintly Jewish figure of Rina in Our Mutual Friend. One finds unflattering portrayal of Jews here and there in English fiction (including some despicable poems by T.S. Eliot) but nothing like this filth. It’s become acceptable to hate Jews.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu touched another tripwire this week by nominating mass-murderer Marwan Barghouti for the Nobel Peace Prize, an act hailed by the Arab press. “Barghouti is currently serving five life sentences in an Israeli prison for his role in leading terrorist activities during the first and second intifadas that included dozens of suicide bombings against Israeli civilians. He is a former leader of the Tanzim, a militant faction of the Fatah party currently headed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, that took credit for many of the murders during the bloody Second Initfada in the early 2000’s. In 2014, he called for the launch of a third intifada,” the Jewish Press reported.
It is one thing to excuse Arab terrorism against Israeli civilians–the Left has done that throughout–and it is quite another to propose to reward murderers with the world’s most respected humanitarian honor. The world of enlightened opinion has no tears for the half million dead Syrian civilians, the tens of thousands of Kurds murdered by Turkish security services, or the countless dead in the Iraqi civil war now unfolding between ISIS and Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias. But it cries a river for suicide bombers who murder Israelis, because the Israelis in some way were asking for it.
On most university campuses the majority of young brainwash victims take it for granted that Israeli nastiness is the source of the endemic Jew-hatred in the Muslim world. That mindse prevails from Berkeley to the Vatican Secretariat. A billion and half people cry from the bottom of their hearts: For us to live, they must die, or at least be driven from their homeland. The wretchedness and despair of this great mass of humanity, a tiny fraction of which has turned up on Europe’s doorstep, is too great to ignore. Surely the Jews must in some way be responsible. It is enough to turn some liberal Jews into functional anti-Semites.
This is not a new thought. Before and during the Second World War it was the conventional wisdom. Authors whom I abhor like Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot said it openly. An author whom I love, J.R.R. Tolkien, said it allegorically: in The Hobbit, the Dwarves (whom he explicitly identified with the Jews) bring the calamity of Smaug upon themselves through their own obsession with gold in their miner’s kingdom at the Lonely Mountain. Tolkien was not an anti-Semite, not at least in the canonical definition (someone who hates Jews more than is absolutely necessary). On the contrary, he was something of a philo-Semite (he famously rebuked a German publisher who asked him to prove his Aryan heritage with the thought that he was sorry that he had no descent from “that talented people,” the Jews). But he wrote in a period when everyone knew that the Jews were in some measure responsible for their own troubles.
Tolkien, to be sure, compensated for his earlier ambivalent portrayal of the Dwarves/Jews in The Hobbit by portraying an Elven-Dwarvish friendship in The Fellowship of the Ring, deservedly the most beloved English-language novel of the 20th century. He was a man of his times who at length rose above his times. Those who did not rise above their times included G.K. Chesterton, who conjectured that there must be some truth to the medieval allegation that the Jews made Passover matzoh from the blood of Christians, and Hilaire Belloc, who wrote a book entitled “The Jews” calling for the “elimination” or “segregation” of “the alien.”
Islam, as Bernard Lewis wrote in his seminal essay “The Roots of Muslim Rage,” “has given dignity to drab and impoverished lives.” What is that dignity? It is the consoling belief that despite the humiliation of the Muslims during the past two centuries, the Umma still possesses God’s revelation and divine favor. The Christian West, from the White House to the Vatican to the Elysee Palace to the Kanzleramt, sustains this conviction by its courtship of Muslim good will. There is one great cognitive dissonance in the mix, and that is the transformation of the Jews from a despised, dependent and vulnerable minority to a Middle Eastern superpower. The return of the Jews to Zion threatens the belief that Islam is the seal of prophecy: how could God favor the Jews, who perverted the original revelation that Mohammed restored? That is why the Temple Mount remains a radioactive issue on the Muslim street. Merely by being there, Israel offers an existential challenge to Muslim identity. Conservative Muslim regimes, to be sure, may make a temporary accommodation with Israel when it is in their interest to do so; apocalyptic regimes like Iran’s never will.
Muslim civilization is crumbling, as I warned in my 2011 book “How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam is Dying, Too).” The human cost of this crumbling will be horrific, ranking among the worst humanitarian disasters in human history, and a disaster that we will watch in real time in high-definition video. The West is sickened by the spectacle and indifferent to its causes; if the Jews madden the Muslims, enlightened opinion thinks, let them go away.
Ich, ich dulde dass du rasest, Du, Du duldest dass ich atme, wrote Heinrich Heine of the relationship between Gentiles and Jews in 19th century Europe: I tolerate your rage, and you tolerate my breathing. Things have changed. The crime of the Jews today is to breathe, and especially to breathe the air of their own country. As the body count rises, enlightened opinion once again will blame the Jews for breathing. Muslims will continue to engineer humanitarian disasters (as in the last Gaza War) to solicit Western sympathy, and European governments will attempt to placate their growing Muslim populations by blaming Israel.
The difference between today and the 1930s, to be sure, is that Jews are armed rather than defenseless. I am weary of excusing myself for breathing. Let them hate us as long as they fear us.