Sorry, they don’t all hate us

By Anshel Pfeffer, August 8, 2008

Are we becoming too sensitive about what we call ‘antisemitism'?

The death of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn this week elicited the expected media reactions: accounts of his struggle, his literary prowess, his exile and his outspoken views. Most of them also mentioned in some way his alleged antisemitism. From the more serious obituaries and material written about him in the past, especially the two New Yorker profiles by David Remnick, it is clear there is little substance to these charges. There is no evidence of antisemitism in his personal life, nor did he ever condone anti-Jewish sentiments. He was a deeply religious Russian patriot, focused on Russian suffering, and he did not spare the many Jews who were part of the Communist hierarchy from blame for the nation's tragedy.

This was enough though for some self-appointed watchdog to flag him decades ago as a Jew-hater. His sin was not mentioning the Jews in the Soviet concentration camps in his earlier books; also, many of the less positive characters - the camp commanders and prisoners who managed to wangle comfortable jobs - had Jewish names. The stain remained on him until his death.

Allow me now a sharp departure to the knitting circles of London. The Anti-Defamation League "expressed outrage" last week at a book of knitting patterns by Rachael Matthews, for making dolls of famous dictators, including one of "Knitler".

"It shows a profound failure by Ms Matthews to understand the horror of Hitler's Nazi machine," said National Director Abe Foxman in the press release.

Now the ADL is not some crackpot outfit. It is widely regarded as one of the most influential Jewish organisations in the US, with an open door to many of the world's leaders. But recently, it seems obsessed with things like "Hitler Wine" in Italy and Nazi-themed hotel rooms in the Philippines.

The ADL is the most successful branch of an entire industry devoted to detecting, collecting and collating every suspected appearance of antisemitism and Shoah-mockery around the globe. Much of what these organisations and research centres do is of value. But at the same time, it is hard to escape the feeling that their eagerness to let no manifestation of the oldest hatred evade their grasp, and perhaps the need to justify their existence, makes them veer into the realms of knee-jerkery and overkill.

Some of the more honest researchers will agree that it is hard to say whether many of the cases listed in annual reports on antisemitic incidents are just that, or instead random acts of crime in which a Jew just happens to be the target.

So woe betide a local politician who accuses a Jewish developer of rapaciousness or the comic who targets a barb at the piles of kitsch that are passed off as Holocaust commemoration. Jews give millions each year to perpetuate the anti-antisemitism industry, but are they not doing us a disservice?

Antisemitism is alive and well, shared by Christian fundamentalists (some of them supporters of Israel) and Jihadists, the blood libel is making a reappearance (if it ever went away) in the badlands of Russia, and severe criticism of Israel sometimes (but not always) "gives credence to antisemitic canards", to borrow a favourite phrase of Mr Foxman's.

But scattering fire in frivolous directions is creating a constant devaluation of the entire threat. While not doing much to counter Judeophobia, it is giving the chosen people a bad name as nuisances.

A nation that saw a third of its people slaughtered only 63 years ago by the Germans, goes the argument, and is now facing an Iranian regime that seems to be envisaging something similar, surely has the right to be hypersensitive. But taking umbrage at any non-Jew who dares to mention the Holocaust in anything but sombre tones is ridiculous when Shoah-comedy is so big in Israel and its politicians constantly exploit Auschwitz comparisons as part of their daily discourse.

Accusing the Jews of murdering Christ or poisoning wells is very non-PC nowadays, but it would be much harder to argue against someone claiming we've lost our sense of humour.

Last updated: 12:56pm, August 7 2008