Abraham H. Foxman is national director of the Anti-Defamation League.
At a time of the greatest resurgence of anti-Semitism since World War II, it is becoming increasingly difficult for many in the Jewish community to maintain a sense of balance and reasonableness. Exactly because the resurgence is taking place on the very continent where the murder of 6 million transpired, and because there are real current and future threats to Jews, a certain hysteria has surfaced.
Let’s step back a bit. The great tragedy of the Jewish people in the 1930s and 1940s was not only that a murderous party committed to the destruction of the Jewish people took over Germany and eventually most of Europe. It was also the fact that at that most perilous of times, Jews were powerless. They had no army, they had no significant political influence and they had no place to go.
Indeed, the history of anti-Semitism in Europe for 2,000 years, culminating in the great disaster of the Holocaust, was all about phantasmagoric fantasies about Jews. Blood-libel charges; scapegoating for the Black Plague; accusations of attempts to control society and the world, as reflected in the fraudulent conspiracy manifesto of “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion” — none of these assaults against the Jewish people bore any relationship to reality.
The old joke about the Jew who preferred the Nazi newspapers to the legitimate ones, because all the Nazis talked about were how powerful Jews were, spoke volumes. Jews never experienced a day of real power.
Thereafter came the main lesson for Jews from the Holocaust: We can’t afford to be powerless ever again.
And so things have changed. First, there is a Jewish state. It has a strong military that proves every day the wisdom of not being powerless. There would be no Israel today without the power of the Israel Defense Forces. There also would be no possibility of peace with the Arab world without the IDF. As was proved with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, only the realization that Israel cannot be destroyed opens the possibility of peace.
There is also the legitimate exercise of power by American Jews, noticeably limited in the 1930s, together with allies across the United States, which has helped safeguard the well-being of Israel and Jews around the world for decades.
The lessons have been learned. Even as the world becomes more dangerous for Jews, forces are working to mitigate those threats.
Still, sometimes Israelis and Jews act and speak as if we live in that old terrible era when the fantasists prevailed, accusing the Jews of having overwhelming and poisonous power.
As noted, real anti-Semites are out there — those who seek the destruction of the Jewish state, those who blame Israel and Jews for everything that is wrong in the world, those who employ terrorism against Jews and Israel.
As my 50-year tenure at the Anti-Defamation League draws to a close next week, it is troubling to see that Jews are victims once again. We must stand strong and expose the current form of anti-Semitism, which, in its own way, is potentially just as dangerous as the old form. But unlike in the past, we are not solely victims. We are players. And with that role comes a need for responsibility. With it comes a need to make real distinctions. With it comes a need to look at one’s own role and the impact it has.
Leon Wieseltier, writing recently in the Atlantic, put it well: “Even in a time of resurgent anti-Semitism, anti-Semitism cannot explain everything. . . . Israel’s fate is not entirely out of its hands.”
What share of what Israel does justifies criticism, and what share does not, are subject to interpretation and consideration. But part of the discussion must always be: What can Israel do, what does it need to do better, how can its actions have an impact, not on the haters who will always be there but on the many non-anti-Semites who are troubled by some of its policies?
The temptation to reject such thinking as blaming the victim should be resisted. We are not living in an age of fantasists, though plenty of fantasists are still around. We are proud that Jews have a modicum of power, and we should act accordingly.
The rejection of this approach undermines the ability to deal with the real anti-Semitism that exists.
And it prevents what is needed both in the community and in Israel: a serious conversation about not only how to combat our enemies but also what we need to do to make things better and to weaken the fertile environment in which the enemies of Israel plant their poisonous seeds.