What Frederic Raphael Gets Right — And Wrong — About Anti-Semitism

“Anti-Semitism,” by Frederic Raphael (Biteback Publishing: pp.155, $14.95)

In order to understand anti-Semitism — a dangerous word, for understanding can be a slippery slope towards justification for what is, in essence, a pathology or form of psychosis — Frederic Raphael has in his new polemic, Anti-Semitism, decided that one must go back to the beginning.

“Anti-Semitism,” by Frederic Raphael (Biteback Publishing: pp.155, $14.95)

The influence of Christianity on Western thought has waned since the Enlightenment — a grip whose loosening was accelerated by the Second World War — yet Raphael makes it clear that modern anti-Semitism has a religious root: “the systematic debasement of ‘the Jews’ in Christian mythology.” It can be found in Matthew 27:25: “Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children.” The New Testament gives the impression that, collectively, the Jews of Jerusalem goaded and pressured Pontius Pilate into doing something he was awfully reluctant to do: put Jesus of Nazareth to death.

Another irritant for Christians has been that their entire religion owes its existence to Judaism. “The fact that Christianity and, to a lesser degree, Islam rely on the primordial books of the Jews generated a schizophrenia that at once concedes and seeks to efface the primary of Judaism,” Raphael, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Darling and Eyes Wide Shut as well as numerous volumes of history and memoir, argues. Finally, and connected to the charge of deicide, there is the Jewish rejection of a radical rabbi from the Galilee as the Messiah and Son of God:

Their refusal to bow down to the image of Jesus Christ made them the terrestrial, if landless, representatives of the Devil. …Jews were suffered to survive, in dark corners of the earth, only to provide proof, by their heaven-sent degradation, that Christianity was the one true faith.

It is out of Christian abhorrence, then, that Jews became and remained for two thousand years a symbol in the consciousness of Europe — the collective other in the Western imagination. This is not an original thought, of course — but it is always worth restating this point nonetheless. Armed with this knowledge, Raphael warms to this theme and, instead of arguing that modern race-and-blood anti-Semitism and Christian Jew-hatred are distinct phenomena, he presses home that the one would not be possible without the other.

“No humbug has been more eagerly circulated than the notion that the Nazi program” towards the Jews “owed more to the Enlightenment than to Christianity.” What Raphael argues is that Christian Jew-hatred not only made the ground fertile for anti-Semitism — the politicized othering of Jews being the idea that enabled peoples of two different branches of Christianity to be unified under the umbrella of German nationhood, for instance — but “there is clear continuity between the Christian abhorrence of Jews and the political movement, backed by a Christian population of both Lutherans and Roman Catholics, for Jewish elimination.”

Certainly, Raphael is right to observe — as Christopher Hitchens did in his anti-religious tome, God Is Not Great — that fascist movements were born earliest and flourished most quickly and enthusiastically in European Catholic countries: Italy, Spain, Austria, Hungary, and of course the Bavarian part of Germany. Even in the absence of active collaboration, the widespread passive acquiescence to the Holocaust amongst the gentiles of Europe during the Second World War had religious foundations, namely hundreds of years of Catholic and Orthodox Jew-hatred. “Anti-Semitism was a pious aspect of the socially organized sadism of the whole Tsarist Empire,” Raphael observes.

The limitation of Raphael’s case is that while Christian Jew-hatred can be described as having provided the underpinnings of nineteenth- and twentieth-century anti-Semitism, its form and personality is a product of the sweep of modern European history. The Enlightenment, the emancipation of European Jewry, the Industrial Revolution, the development of Darwinian theory, and the emergence of liberalism, nationalism, and Marxism as political forces all created the conditions out of which anti-Semitism emerged as a reactionary and, in the end, deadly force. It is medieval in origin, but anti-Semitism considers Jews not a religious enemy but an economic, political, social problem, as well as a threat to national and racial integrity. Anti-Semitism is, then, a modern incarnation of an old hatred.

Raphael proves to be only a sporadically engaging guide through the contours of European anti-Semitism. He has a tendency to show his learnedness as a peacock displays its feathers, the text littered with names, anecdotes, and French turns-of-phrase like so much colored plumage. Troublingly, there are signs of haste and carelessness in his prose. He repeats a particularly disgusting quote from Caryl Churchill’s Jew-baiting play Seven Jewish Children — in part, “Tell her I wouldn’t care if we wiped them out… Tell her we’re chosen people” — unnecessarily. Similarly, he writes more than once that Günter Grass was a moral hypocrite due to his wartime service. The idea had registered upon the first reading.

His research is also sloppy. Raphael recounts an anecdote about Father Patrick Desbois — the French Roman Catholic priest who has dedicated his life to locating mass graves of Holocaust victims in eastern Europe — purported to have occurred in 1925, twenty years before the end of the Holocaust and thirty years prior to Desbois’ birth. He asserts that the four boys who died playing on the beach in Gaza in the summer of 2014 were killed “when a Hamas rocket, which was being projected from nearby, misfired,” as opposed to an Israeli shelling exercise gone hideously, tragically wrong.

There’s more. The former MP Tam Dalyell said of Tony Blair, not George W. Bush as Raphael states, that a ‘Jewish cabal’ who influenced his policies on the Middle East surrounded him. Rudyard Kipling accused T.E. Lawrence as opposed to D.H. Lawrence of being “pro-Yid.” Raphael writes that “no Jew is allowed to set foot” in Saudi Arabia, which is almost if not quite true — their visa regulations make it very difficult but not quite impossible. He mistakes the novelist Arthur Koestler for the playwright Arthur Schnitzler. The number of Jews massacred by their Polish neighbors in the village of Jedwabne during the Holocaust was 1,600, not 16,000.

Where there is carelessness and sloppiness, there is also laziness. Raphael can allow himself to be overcome by the devils of his nature. Sometimes his targets are warranted, as when he calls out Hannah Arendt for implying that “Jews somehow acquiesced in their fate,” thus conforming “to the long tradition that has always found reasons for the Jews themselves to be responsible for their misfortunes. On other occasions, Raphael would have been well advised to place his weapon back upon the mantelpiece, particularly when it comes to his misdirected broadsides against the media.

“The sole licensed target for unguarded malice in the world’s media is the state of Israel,” he writes. “It is the pious hope of most television networks (especially the BBC), The Guardian and other agencies of virtue that the world’s great and incorrigible troublemakers will soon be taught a conclusive lesson. Israel has become the Judas state.” Whether or not The Guardian has an anti-Israel bias in its reporting of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not really a matter of dispute — I know it has one because I can read. That The Guardian wishes for ‘the Zionists’ as a stand-in for Jews to be ‘taught a conclusive lesson’ is an altogether different assertion with far darker overtones — and one an author with a degree of self-awareness and commonsense really shouldn’t be making.

Raphael also has an unfortunate tendency to bring up Islam in contexts where it doesn’t quite belong. He writes in a footnote that Muslims in France have “unusually large families and pose what some regard as a demographic threat.” Of the condition of Muslims in France, Raphael says, “Their frustration may well have encouraged fantasies of an Arab hegemony of the kind that was aborted at the Battle of Tours in 732 CE, when the Moorish invaders of Europe were driven back beyond the Pyrenees.” ‘May well have’ is doing a lot of work in that sentence, as a substitute for actual sociological research. He adds later that “many French-born Muslims now constitute the French ‘Palestinians,’ mais il faut pas le dire” — but don’t say it, he writes in French, even though he just did. One rather wishes he hadn’t.

More than these numerous factual inaccuracies and erroneous statements, Raphael’s polemic is undermined by its conclusion. “‘Anti-Zionism’ is the latest mutation of the malice that furnishes opportunities for ideological ruthlessness,” he writes. “The ‘new’ anti-Semitism emits a very old smell. The sins of the Jews have become Israeli crimes and are no less damnable.” If anti-Semitism is the child of religious Jew-hatred, then anti-Semitism gave birth to anti-Zionism.

Raphael has confused himself a little here. He is correct to assert that anti-Jewish feeling can express itself today as anti-Zionism, that “the new unapologetic Jews became pariahs of a slightly different stripe.” Raphael cites excellent examples of how Israel is isolated and singled out for unfair treatment. For example, many United Nations member-states are “post-colonial fabrications with boundaries arbitrarily allotted by their quondam European conquerors,” yet it is only Israel that has, for whatever reason, no right to exist. Raphael also shows that the language used to discuss Israel echoes that of older versions of Jew-hatred. “Israel is forever being accused of ethnic cleansing and of being the sole reason why Palestinian ‘refugees’ are still herded (what else?) into ‘camps’.”

What Raphael misses is that the development of anti-Semitism into the new anti-Semitism is not as simple as he makes it sound, that “the new anti-Semitism sprang, as anti-Israelism, from the horse’s nose.” Anti-Zionism is not the new anti-Semitism in toto but one integral part of this three-headed beast, the other parts being the denial or minimization of the Holocaust and a competition among victims. To comprehend the noxious new anti-Semitism, one must acknowledge and grapple with the idea that it is made up of three interwoven strands, forming a twisted hatred that is, at its heart, a denial of Jewish victimhood.

By far the weakest aspect of his conclusions about the new anti-Semitism, though, is his analysis of the role it plays in modern European politics. What Raphael sees is a disunited Europe rife with political confusions. In such circumstances, Europe is in dire need of a scapegoat to unite it — and that scapegoat remains Jewish. “The need for a wicked scapegoat, of small actual power and with little murderous purpose, accompanies the long guilt about the Holocaust and coalesces in the notion…that the Jews, like Israel, are more trouble than they are worth”:

The conduct of the state of Israel has been welcomed, and its ‘racism’ exaggerated, because it furnishes a retroactive sentiment that ‘we’ (Europeans) need not feel bad about Auschwitz, nor about the lack of zeal with which Nazi murderers and their confederates were pursued by those who, with the onset of the Cold War in 1945, had better things to do, not least recruiting ex-Nazis to operate against USSR.

Since the end of the Second World War, Raphael asserts that Europe has experienced “decades of false-consciousness, in which illusions of common culture, common purposes, common values, even, have been fostered into a grandiose attempt to make European history begin again after the Shoah”:

The only trouble, some might say, is that an inconvenient number of Jews survived what ‘we’ arranged in order to consign the bad old Europe to the oubliette. Here’s the scarcely buried sub-text: whatever may be said about the folly or otherwise of her policies, Israel now stands as an irritant, an unapologetic assertion that the Jews will not do what’s best for them and, oh, ‘us’, and … go quietly. The European need is for the myth to be redeemed: let them — the Jews — do something typically unforgiveable, especially kill children, and we will then be let off history’s hook because the Holocaust will become retrospectively justified and, of course, the fault of ‘the Jews’.

Few would counter Raphael’s assertion that European countries could have done a better job in prosecuting Nazi war criminals and undertaking the process of coming to terms with the Holocaust in the immediate aftermath of the war. But, while it is true that 1945 did act as something of a Stunde Null in European history — the level of chaos and destruction the Second World War wrought meant it could hardly not have — the postwar political order built upon the ashes and dust of war and genocide operates in precisely the opposite way to how Raphael luridly imagines.

For one, the institutions created in the aftermath of the Second World War — the Council of Europe, the European Court of Human Rights, and what would become the European Union — exist precisely in order to prevent another war of imperialism and mass devastation on the European mainland, and therefore, another genocide. (They haven’t always succeeded, of course. See under: Bosnia-Herzegovina.) Essential to this has been the protection of human life, proscription of torture, and freedom of thought, conscience, and religion as enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights, and the integration of Holocaust remembrance and education into European identity and citizenship.

“In 1933, the new leader of Germany announced himself as the foremost enemy of Jewish existence; today, Germany’s leader is among the world’s chief defenders of Jews,” Jeffrey Goldberg noted in The Atlantic last year. In the wake of the terror attack on the Hyper Cacher market, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls come forth as an “ardent defender of Europe’s Jews,” arguing that “the French idea itself depends on the crushing of anti-Semitism.” This is as far removed as one could be from the prewar state of Europe, when anti-Semitism was integral to the ideological programs of many states.

The current dispute concerning the labeling of settlement products aside, the European Union and European countries individually continue to cooperate closely with Israel militarily, scientifically, and culturally, from the German supply of Dolphin-class submarines to the Israeli navy, the negotiation and implementation of the Horizon 2020 agreement between Israel and the EU, to economic cooperation concerning energy between Israel, Greece, and Cyprus. Israel is “an important partner for the EU to address societal challenges of common concern, such as ageing, food safety, environment protection or cleaner energy,” then-European Commission’s President José Manuel Barroso said in 2014.

When Raphael speaks of Europe, it is unclear exactly to whom he is referring, for the postwar European order, far from being anti-Semitic, has become committed to the safety of European Jews and cooperation with Israel. As with so much of Raphael’s polemic, his conclusions on the newer manifestations of the oldest hatred would benefit from a little more patience, a little more diligence, and — dare I say it — a little more understanding.

Like what you read? Give Liam Hoare a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.