My young friend, Max, is having a rough week. “This morning, my worst fears became reality,” he wrote on Wednesday. “Freedom of speech has been blocked at our school.” Last year, I exchanged e-mails with Max, who belongs to a group called Jewish Youth Against the Occupation, i.e., of the West Bank and Gaza. When we met by chance, I asked where he was in his studies — MA? PhD? “I’m in Grade 11,” he said.

This week they planned to screen Jenin, Jenin, a film by an Arab Israeli named Mohammed Bakri on Israel’s invasion of that camp and whether a “massacre” occurred. A discussion would follow.

But the Canadian Jewish Congress weighed in on behalf of parents concerned about anti-Semitic implications. It said the film could lead to violence, and then the school would have violated the Safe Schools Act. Max says his principal is working hard to resolve the impasse but the film is on hold and debate on the Mideast has once again been suffused and diverted by the spectre of anti-Semitism.

The core of modern anti-Semitism, wrote Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism 52 years ago, was not the ancient charge that Jews killed Christ; nor was it mere scapegoating. The core was a new claim: That a secret Jewish conspiracy ruled the world. Such paranoid fantasies only take hold if they have “an intimate relationship with the truth they distort,” she wrote. The truth distorted was that there had indeed once been a small number of powerful Jewish bankers, scattered through Europe, who raised funds for various states in a highly apolitical manner.

But as a whole, societies and individual lives deteriorated in the early 20th century, masses of people were bewildered and dismayed, and open to claims by unscrupulous leaders that behind the upheavals lay the plot of a powerful, secretive, close-knit group: the Jews. A forgery like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion fed such fabrications. No one living post-9/11 should be surprised at the way grand conspiracy theories take root, with a bit of “evidence,” in baffling times. Perhaps it’s comforting to think that it all makes some kind of sense.

The strength of the Zionist movement was that it did not waste time arguing with such inanities. It simply accepted the result — virulent anti-Semitism — as an implacable reality, then proposed a radical solution: Remove Jews from those toxic national environments and place them in their own state, where they would no longer be exposed to the dangerous claptrap. That others — Arabs — already lived in the proposed new land gave some Zionists pause, but under the impact of the climax of European anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, the project succeeded. Israel was created.

So there is vast irony in the “new anti-Semitism,” especially as found in Arab and Muslim communities, which concerns Jewish leaders in cases like Max’s film. I won’t call this new anti-Semitism a result of the Zionist solution to the “old” version, but it is related to the rise of Israel in a familiar way. It is indeed true that Israel is supported by Jews elsewhere, and by a U.S government that includes officials with names like Wolfowitz and Perle, who often act according to their backgrounds and what they see as their interests. That is normal behaviour. It does not mean a secret global cabal of all Jews runs the world.

But it provides enough “evidence” to revitalize the fiction of a Jewish conspiracy, using Arabic reprints of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and manipulation of this new version of the old fantasy by corrupt leaders to disarm and divert their demoralized populations. The solution itself abetted a recreation of the problem. That is not what a Jewish state was supposed to do.

Add to this another irony: the creation by some Israel supporters of a kind of mirror distortion — that behind all criticism of Israel is an anti-Semitic conspiracy. This, too, twists a reality: There are critics of Israel, some more radical than others, and there are anti-Semites who criticize Israel. But it is false and unscrupulous to portray all or most critics as anti-Semitic, even when you add, “in their effect if not their intent,” as Harvard president Lawrence Summers did; or to fear-monger that “anti-Semitism has emerged as a powerful force” in the debate on the Canadian left, as three left-wing Jewish Canadians wrote in The Globe and Mail last year.

What a morass. What a shame that debate on the Mideast must involve anti-Semitism at all, and can’t focus solely on justice for the parties involved. That would be the case in any comparable example of a conflict over land, occupation, etc. Those are hard enough to solve without bringing in something as unruly as anti-Semitism.

Poor Max, whose idealism (which is both youthful and Jewish) gets thrust into this grinder. The whole topic doesn’t leave you feeling awfully hopeful about the human race’s ability to find its way non-disastrously through troubled times.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.