Academics dissect modern antisemitism

The Canadian Jewish News    May 24, 2012
By Andy Levy-Ajzenkopf

Catherine Chatterley [Sarina Rehal photo]

TORONTO — Traditional forms of Jew-hatred are fuelling the rhetoric of contemporary anti-Zionists, two scholars of modern antisemitism contend.

Presenting their theories at a May 15 seminar at Beth Tzedec Congregation titled “Anti-Zionism and Antisemitism: The Blurry Red Line?” professors Catherine Chatterley, director of the Canadian Institute for the Study of Antisemitism in Winnipeg, and David Hirsh, a lecturer in sociology at the University of London’s Goldsmiths’ College, discussed antisemitism’s origins and argued that the boycott movement against Israel and the emergence of “Israeli apartheid week” on North American campuses, for example, are new forms of classic antisemitism.

The event, attended by about 250 people, was organized by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) and UJA Federation of Greater Toronto. Father Raymond de Sousa, a National Post columnist and CIJA board member, moderated.

Chatterley talked about the historic evolution of antisemitism, noting how from medieval times to the 20th century, the caricature of “the Jew” – the payes-wearing, hook-nosed, money-laundering, conniving, in-league-with-the-Devil manipulator and controller of power – was a prominent image in European Christendom stemming from the “rancorous divorce between Judaism and Christianity.”

The image embedded itself in the Christian psyche.

“Jews were systematically excluded by Christians and then marginalized,” she said. “It was the theology of the Church during the high Middle Ages that helped develop antisemitism.”

Chatterley, who was raised a Lutheran, told The CJN she became interested in Jewish issues after hearing about the Holocaust as a child. “It was a shattering experience and became a lifelong passion to try to understand” antisemitism, she said.

She said older forms of antisemitism have been co-opted by anti-Zionists, but that it was the Nazis who exported this vision of Jews to the Arab world, and it was followed by Soviet anti-Zionist rhetoric during the Cold War.

Since then, most Arabs’ views of Jews and Israel have been laced with antisemitism, whereas before, Arab attitudes grew out of land disputes.

Chatterley said that classic European antisemitism “has been Islamicized and is now part of the culture on the ground” in the Arab world.

“For the first time in history, antisemitism has spread outside of Christian circles,” she said. “In 2012, no one wants to be an antisemite, but progressives… are blurring the lines. One wonders if the definition of antisemitism should be expanded to include new forms. ‘The Jew’ has unfortunately found a place in the Arab world.

“All antisemites see themselves as the victims of ‘the Jew.’ It is a concept we must fight against.”

In his talk, Hirsh spoke of his struggle and that of English Jewry to prevent England’s University and College Union (UCU), Britain’s largest trade union for academics and lecturers, from adopting an academic boycott of Israel.

He said UCU leaders refuse to listen to him and like-minded peers when they object to antisemitic guests the union invites to speak to its members.

Hirsh added that while many people think UCU is the de facto voice of mainstream intellectuals, it’s really the voice of a small number of activists that the intellectuals “couldn’t be bothered” to stop.

“You can take over a union with 100 activists. Once you do, it’s quite difficult to stop, unless you have 100 people willing to devote their lives to it, and we don’t,” he said, referring to pro-Israel academics in Britain.

Hirsh said that on the whole, his country is a good place for Jews to live, but in academic circles, there is “a problem in the chattering classes on the left.

“This is not insignificant, as we teach children and become journalists,” he said.

The antisemitic venom he’s heard from fellow professors and instructors at British universities in casual conversation has shocked him, he said.

Similarly, the widespread adoption of anti-Zionist positions by British academics – Chatterley said this is also happening in Canada – is worrisome, Hirsh said.

“Antisemites have always understood Jews to be the centre of evil in the world,” Hirsh said. “Anti-Zionists feel the same about Israel.”

The hardest part of fighting modern antisemitism is that it comes from people who say they oppose antisemitism, Hirsh said. “They don’t understand what they’re doing.”

Chatterley added: “There is a definite perspective in progressive circles, academic or not, that antisemitism is simply a form of racism, and because Jews are not largely excluded socially, economically or politically, the way they had been… that antisemitism really isn’t a problem.”

That’s why the world focuses on other injustices, such as native issues in Canada or people of colour or the Palestinians, she said.

The world feels it needs to deal with people who are “actually suffering,” and the perception is that Jews are not, Chatterley said.

“I think this is a widely accepted perspective, which is why there’s an enormous resentment when one mentions antisemitism. It’s seen as a red herring, because it’s not perceived as a problem today,” she said.

Asked whether the world might be seeing the start of a new cycle of antisemitism that could lead to the persecution of Jews the West, Chatterley said she believes it’s possible.

With antisemitism and anti-Zionism rising, it’s causing fear and consternation among Jews, and particularly among Jewish educators and academics, she said.

“They may not talk about this publicly, but I’ve had discussions with friends who study antisemitism, and the talk of the fear of a second Holocaust is very real, whether well founded or not,” she said.

“Jews have every right to be fearful as far as I’m concerned. Given the genocidal rhetoric coming out of Iran and its dismissal in academic circles, the fear is well founded.”

Hirsh said he’s wary of using the Holocaust to measure antisemitism, as he believes it was a unique occurrence.

“If we only ever look for the Holocaust, we’ll miss what’s happening [with antisemitism] right now,” he said.

Chatterley said her institute is trying to establish a degree in antisemitism studies, which would be the first of its kind in the world.


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