Islamophobia and the shifting face of anti-Semitism

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's call to European Jews -- abandon Europe and move to Israel -- is so deeply ahistorical it could have come from the magical world of fairy tales. I mean no disrespect to fairy tales; they're a profound, powerful realm. Perhaps I should say myth, to imply something more serious, but I'm thinking of the arbitrary, unchanging, inexplicable quality of fairy tales: things just happen and the figures involved are forced to accept and adjust.

In Netanyahu's world view, anti-Semitism is an eternal, inexplicable, malignant force. It never alters, it erupts capriciously. The only solution for its victims is escape to a place where there are only Jews, so there can be no anti-Semites. I don't deny the power of this mentality, but it doesn't fit reality.

Take the two recent cases on which Netanyahu issued his call: France and Denmark. I don't doubt they involved anti-Semitism, though each was twinned with attacks on what we consider free speech and the attackers would call anti-Islamism. That's already a historical alteration. But what's really distinct is the response. In France: a massive march led by national leaders, including Israel's. President François Hollande said, "Jews have their place in Europe and, in particular, in France." Germany's Angela Merkel said, "We are glad and thankful that there is Jewish life in Germany again." In the 1930s -- the era Netanyahu clearly has in mind -- national leaders often were anti-Semites, not those who denounced them.

The anti-Semites in these cases are young, disturbed, alienated individuals with criminal records. They're dangerous but it matters that anti-Semitism doesn't permeate all social levels, including the most privileged, as it did then. Like other foul impulses, it may never disappear. But it's now more comparable, in some ways, to racist attacks on the Paris Metro by English soccer thugs.

The Danish case is even more striking. During the Nazi occupation there, it was widely reported that the king wore a yellow star to protest Nazi plans to deport and kill Danish Jews, and his people followed. Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim said if every country in Europe had done that, there would have been no Holocaust. The report, it turns out, wasn't true, but the sentiment was. As a result, most Danish Jews were rescued by their countrymen; few died.

After last week's horror, Denmark's chief rabbi says he marched arm in arm with the country's chief Christian cleric and an imam. He was deeply moved, you could tell in his interviews about it. "Terror is not a reason to move to Israel," he said. Why would it be? Most people don't yearn for invulnerability -- that's a fantasy. They yearn for a sense of shared community and mutual support in the face of the ravages that inevitably occur in every lifetime.

I'd like to go a bit wider historically. Back in time to premodern anti-Semitism, which was based religiously on the Christian myth that "the Jews" killed Christ. This fed into modern secular versions with their economic, political (Elders of Zion) and racist theories. But they are essentially different varieties.

Also forward to what you could call the new anti-Semitism, which doesn't target Jews but Muslims -- given the Semitic roots of Islam. You can see the transmutation in France's National Front. Its founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, was a traditional anti-Jewish anti-Semite. When his daughter Marine took over in 2011, she acknowledged things had changed and denounced "every form of anti-Semitism," meaning toward Jews. It had simply become a loser in French political culture. She has however been unabashedly anti-Muslim, where votes are to be mined. The old man just doesn't get it so she's largely cut him adrift politically.

I hate to drag in Stephen Harper at this point, as so often, but we are where we are. His attack last week on a woman's right to wear a niqab while becoming a citizen was gratuitous (there are few cases) and pointless (the Supreme Court will certainly reject his appeal of a judge's decision). It feels like sheer political calculus. Faced with current voting indicators, he looks set on playing the anti-Muslim terror card, regardless of the human damage it does. He is in this respect, though not in others, the Marine Le Pen of Canada.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Jolanda Flubacher/World Economic Forum/flickr

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