More people now think Israel is evil

Raul Hilberg’s famous phrase about antisemitism has morphed into a modern equivalent

July 01, 2021 15:48

In Claude Lanzmann’s epic documentary, Shoah, the late Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg succinctly captures the historical evolution of anti-Jewish hatred in a pithy three-part phrase: “You may not live among us as Jews; you may not live among us; you may not live.”

“You may not live among us as Jews” referred to forced conversions. Jews were coerced to give up their Judaism and convert to Christianity from as early as the 4th century.

“You may not live among us” referred to expulsions. Jews were expelled from numerous countries and territories, first from England in 1290, and most famously from Spain in 1492.

“You may not live” referred to extermination. In wartime Nazi-occupied Europe, options for Jews to change or leave no longer applied. The only solution to ‘the Jewish question’ was genocide.

When I first saw the film, I remember wondering what the next phase would be. How could one update the phrase for the C21st? Where might antisemitism go next?

I think the answer lies in its refocusing. Because much of the antisemitism we see around us today can be captured in a reformulation of Hilberg’s aphorism.

And I would phrase it thus: ‘The State of Israel may not live among us as a Jewish State; the State of Israel may not live among us; the State of Israel may not live.’

‘The State of Israel may not live among us as a Jewish state’ captures that form of hostility to Israel that argues that Israel must give up its fundamental Jewish essence to merit legitimacy. If it were to become a binational or multicultural country that gave no primacy to Jews or Jewishness, then it could be accepted among the nations of the world.

‘The State of Israel may not live among us’ encapsulates the numerous attempts to isolate Israel from normative, global society. We see it in the incessant delegitimisation Israel faces at the United Nations or in the campaigns to boycott it, divest from it or impose sanctions on it. All mark Israel as beyond the pale, unwelcome among the other, apparently morally superior nations of the world.

‘The State of Israel may not live’ is genocidal anti-Israelism. It’s the form of hatred found in Islamist extremism that simply wants Israel gone. It can be seen in Iranian Ayatollah Khamenei’s description of Israel as a “cancerous tumour” that “will be uprooted and destroyed” or in the Hamas belief, expressed in its charter, that Israel will exist “until Islam eliminates it”.

Historically, all three of Hilberg’s stages were justified by their adherents on moral grounds. The moral justification for conversion was to save Jewish souls. For expulsion, it was to protect Christian hegemony and restore financial control. For extermination, it was to protect the natural, biological purity of the Aryan race from the Jewish cancer that threatened it.

The same is true for their modern equivalents. The moral justification for eradicating Israel’s Jewish character is to save Israel from the unethical results of its supposed Jewish ethnocentrism.

The moral argument for isolating Israel is to protect so-called international standards of human rights. The moral claim for annihilation is that it would liberate Islamic land from a kind of Jewish desecration and evil.

Today, all three of these ideas about Israel exist simultaneously. And judging by how the most recent conflict in Gaza was reported in the media and discussed on social media, it looks like the first two, in particular, are becoming increasingly mainstream.

Israel is not entirely blameless in this — doing more to create equalities across Israeli society and ease the suffering of Palestinians would assuage some of the antipathy. But the parallels with the past are too evident to ignore. If Hilberg’s phrase can be reformulated as suggested — I think it can — reaction to the recent conflict suggests that mainstream rhetoric about Israel is heading in an increasingly ominous direction.

July 01, 2021 15:48

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