The More Things Change…


From Ancient Times to the Present Day
By Walter Laqueur
228 pages. Oxford University Press. $22.00.

As the end of his Harvard presidency neared in June 2006, Lawrence Summers met with a group of alumni (this writer among them), in Cambridge. Just before a Saturday morning Q&A session closed, one alumnus asked Summers to comment on the idea—gleaned from a politican-pundit—that it was Summers’ support for Israel that had cost him his job.

In response, Summers returned to one of the many controversies that will forever dot the timeline of his presidency: a September 2002 speech in which he had addressed a concern he “never thought [he] would become seriously worried about—the issue of anti-Semitism.” Among the signs indicating “an upturn in anti-Semitism globally” as well as “closer to home,” Summers had cited the call by some faculty “for the University to single out Israel among all nations as the lone country where it is inappropriate for any part of the university’s endowment to be invested.” Such actions, Summers had suggested, were “anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent.”

The outcry that followed this statement—what Walter Laqueur characterizes in the preface to his new book, The Changing Face of Anti-Semitism, as a “bitter attack” on Harvard’s president—points to the question underpinning the volume: What is the “new” anti-Semitism, and how does it differ from anti-Zionist or anti-Israeli sentiments and policies?

Dealing with this prickly question is one of this book’s chief tasks; another is setting it alongside a history of anti-Semitism’s “changing nature” over the centuries. Starting with ancient times, Laqueur follows anti-Judaism through its roots in theological difference to its decidedly more “racialist” character, to the Holocaust and more recent history, in many parts of the world. Thus, as it presents and repeatedly confronts the question of defining and interpreting contemporary anti-Semitism, the book also offers what is likely one of the most solid and readable histories of the subject to date. (You won’t find footnotes, but you will find a very good bibliography at the book’s end.)

And it’s difficult to think of many authors similarly qualified to write such a book. A prolific scholar and writer—the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington published a 66-page bibliography of his work twenty years ago—Laqueur directed for 30 years the Wiener Library in London. As he says, he may not have read every book or article published on anti-Semitism, but he has “read (sometimes not without an effort) and pondered very many of them. The present long essay is the summary of my thoughts on the subject.”

Indeed, although Laqueur also notes that the book “merely attempts to summarize research and debates that have been going on for decades,” The Changing Face of Anti-Semitism does far more than that. As the author himself admits, the book “also deals with the present character of antisemitism and its future prospects.” There’s a personal point of view here; we can discern Laqueur’s “own thoughts.” And often, they crystallize to this point: while the boundaries between them may be fuzzy or unclear, “In the light of history, the argument that anti-Zionism is different from antisemitism is not very convincing.”

Maybe I’m predisposed to agree with Laqueur—I’ll certainly allow for that possibility—but reading this book, it seems difficult not to agree with him and his reasoned, reasonable prose:

No one disputes that in the late Stalinist period anti-Zionism was merely a synonym for antisemitism. The same is true today for the extreme right which, for legal or political reasons, will opt for anti-Zionist rather than openly anti-Jewish slogans. It has been noted that in the Muslim and particularly the Arab world, the fine distinctions between Jews and Zionists hardly ever existed and are now less than ever in appearance.

But even leaving aside both history and the “situation in other parts of the world”; even stating “that criticism of Israel is not per se antisemitism is so obvious that it hardly needs repeating once again”; even limiting the discussion “to Western left-wing anti-Zionism” (a topic which receives quite a lot of attention in this book), “the issues are not clear cut”:

About half of all Jews now live in Israel. Is the argument that the state of Israel is the greatest danger to world peace and has no right to exist anti-Zionist, anti-Israeli, or antisemitic? If it is based on the assumption that nation-states in general have caused more harm than good and should be dismantled, such a proposition cannot be considered antisemitic. But few of those who insist on the liquidation of the state of Israel share the conviction that all nation-states should be done away with. They believe that other states, not being such a danger to world peace, do have the right to exist.

And what about the anti-Zionist focus on the dark side of Israeli policy (read: the conflict with the Palestinians)? Laqueur notes:

There is a great deal of evil in the world and millions have perished within the last decade or two as the result of civil wars, repression, racial and social persecution, and tribal conflicts, from Cambodia to much of Africa (Congo, Rwanda, and Darfur)…. In fact, it would be difficult to think of countries outside of Europe and North America that have been entirely free of such suffering; and even Europe has had such incidents on a massive scale, as in the Balkans. But there have been no protest demonstrations concerning the fate of the Dalets (Untouchables) in India even though there are more than 100 million of them. The fate of the Uighur in China, the Copts in Egypt, or the Bahai in Iran (to name but a few persecuted peoples) has not generated much indignation in the streets of Europe and America.

According to peace researchers, 25 million people were killed in internal conflicts since World War Two, of them, 8,000 in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which ranks forty-sixth in the list of victims. But Israel has been more often condemned by the United Nations and other international organizations than all other nations taken together.

For Laqueur, Palestinian suffering and “inflamed passions” might well explain Palestinian anger toward Zionism and Israel and even “Jews in general.” But it does not explain reactions of “people living thousands of miles away, who have never been to this part of the world, are not familiar with the circumstances of the conflict [….] If friends of the oppressed and humiliated were to protest in other cases of injustice, their case would be irrefutable. But if antiracialist protestations in defense of human rights are made selectively, the question arises why this should be the case.” There is “a specific aspect or dimension” at work here, Laqueur suggests. It’s not difficult to infer what that might be.

I think again of Lawrence Summers’ response to the question posed to him in early June. He told our group that he didn’t regret what he’d said back in September 2002; it needed to be said, and he’d say it again. But if Laqueur’s book can convince enough serious, thoughtful readers that the boundaries between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism in today’s world are not quite so clear as some like to maintain, perhaps he won’t have to.