‘Pogrom denial’

We equivocate, we agonize and we deny- but it is only by liberating ourselves from this mindset that we can face things as they are, and demand that others do the same.

LYON’S WRECKED synagogue after vandals smashed cars into it and set it ablaze in 2002. (photo credit: REUTERS)
LYON’S WRECKED synagogue after vandals smashed cars into it and set it ablaze in 2002.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Former Israeli ambassador to the US Michael Oren’s new memoir, Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide, has become a target for outraged criticism from across the political spectrum, with Oren’s detractors accusing him of everything from outright lying to fomenting conspiracy theories about US President Barack Obama’s conciliatory attitude toward political Islam.
Perhaps the most disturbing denunciation, however, has come from The Forward’s editor Jane Eisner, who slammed Oren’s alleged disconnect from American Jews, declaring, “Anti-Semitism is at historic lows and while it may have haunted Oren’s childhood, it is simply not a lived experience for most Jews today – especially younger Jews.”
To give Eisner the benefit of the doubt, she may be talking solely about the United States. For the moment, it is true, anti-Semitism in the US is far less powerful than elsewhere. But outside of the American bubble, her claim is, put simply, blatantly and demonstrably untrue.
Over the past 15 years we have witnessed steadily escalating anti-Semitic rhetoric and violence around the world, including in countries like France, Belgium, Canada, Australia and – to a lesser extent – the United States. In many ways, this wave of racism culminated last summer during the Gaza war. There were global anti-Israel demonstrations typified by genocidal anti-Semitic rhetoric and sometimes outright violence. There were mob attacks on a Jewish suburb of Paris and the Synagogue de la Roquette. And then there was the Hyper Cacher massacre. In the wake of the violence, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls went so far as to realistically contemplate the exodus of 100,000 French Jews, after which, he said, “France will no longer be France.” Following these and similar attacks elsewhere on the continent, many Jewish communities in Europe are currently operating under a de facto state of siege.
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Most American Jews – to the extent that they are aware of it – do appear to be confident that this wave of racism and violence will not touch them, but the disease has already spread to the new world, and it is getting worse. Ironically, it is mostly the “younger Jews” Eisner refers to who have been its targets. On many college campuses, Jewish students routinely complain of anti-Semitic incidents. The hate, violence and intimidation employed by anti-Israel groups like Students for Justice in Palestine have been well documented. Pro-Israel demonstrators have been the target of anti-Semitic rhetoric and threats in cities like Boston. And the victims have been met, for the most part, with the same institutional indifference as their European counterparts.
I am still relatively young, but I can also speak to my own “lived experience” of anti-Semitism. At various points I have been called a Nazi, a murderer, a fascist, a pig, been compared to Hitler, told that Gaza is like the Warsaw Ghetto, informed that Jews funded the Nazis, seen the hashtag #HitlerWasRight enjoy notable popularity on Twitter and witnessed my people being referred to as “satanic” on Facebook. I have heard my friend’s story of being intimidated by anti-Semitic thugs on the Paris metro. I have read pro-Israel demonstrators’ accounts of being defamed and assaulted for expressing their views. And I have edited articles by American college students terrified and dismayed by the rise of anti-Jewish racism on their campuses and its slow but apparently inexorable institutionalization.
Some have referred to all of this as the New Anti-Semitism.
I have called it the Global Pogrom. But whatever name one chooses, the thing is happening, whether doubtless well-meaning observers like Eisner care to acknowledge it or not. And I have a name for this failure of acknowledgment: Pogrom Denial.
Pogrom Denial tends to take two forms. First, it pretends that anti-Semitic violence simply didn’t happen.
This was the case in France, where some claimed – quite falsely, according to eyewitnesses – that the attack on the la Roquette synagogue was simply a street fight between Jewish and Arab extremists.
Second, and sometimes – in a bizarre act of cognitive dissonance – simultaneously, it blames the Jews themselves.
This was the case following the Hyper Cacher attack, when a BBC reporter told the daughter of a Holocaust survivor that the Palestinians have also suffered at “Jewish hands.”
It was also, one deeply regrets to say, the case when President Obama himself referred to the Hyper Cacher massacre as random, rather than what it was: an act of targeted racist violence no different from the attack on the Emanuel AME Church in South Carolina last month.
Ironically, the very book Eisner denounces contains among the most chilling examples of the same phenomenon.
In all the commentary on Oren’s memoirs no one has mentioned it, but the short passage fairly leaps from the page. After the Gaza war, Oren recounts, “Several American Jewish leaders told me that, in closed briefings, administration officials had cited Israel’s actions in Gaza as the reason for sharply rising anti-Semitism in Europe.” That an administration which, being led by an African-American, ought to be inherently anti-racist could engage in such rhetoric, such open denial of the second variety, does not so much boggle the mind as depress the spirit.
Nonetheless, such things must be faced, and Eisner’s refusal to face them is symptomatic of a much larger problem: many American Jews, perhaps the majority, have not or refuse to look beyond their privileged existence and acknowledge the suffering of their brothers and sisters outside the United States. Most of them have not had the “lived experience” of anti-Semitism. As a result, they find it difficult to conceive of its revival.
And perhaps, in turn, they suffer from one the most insidious effects of racism: to a certain degree, we internalize its poison. We wonder if perhaps there is something in what our enemies say. Perhaps it didn’t really happen.
Perhaps, if it did happen, it was our fault.
As a result, we equivocate, we agonize and we deny. But it is only by liberating ourselves from this mindset that we can face things as they are, and demand that others do the same.
The author is a writer and editor living in Tel Aviv.