Start Worrying

12.12.13

When ‘Israel First’ Means Condoning Old-School Anti-Semitism

MILAN, ITALY—“Anti-Semitism in the ancient form” should no longer be the primary concern for Jews across the world, the outgoing chairwoman of the International Council of Jewish Parliamentarians Fiamma Nirenstein told the Jerusalem Post earlier this week. Rather than worrying about the hatred of Jews, she suggests we focus on the hatred against Israel instead.

Now, I see one big problem with this “Israel first” attitude. To put it bluntly: it often leads to making everything else a secondary—that is, expendable—issue.

This, unfortunately, includes topics that should be at the very heart of Jewish interests, such as the freedom to practice other religions in predominantly Christian countries—and, of course, “Anti-Semitism in the ancient form.”

The sad truth is that at some point old-school Anti-Semitism has begun to be perceived as tolerable even among Jewish circles—and all in the name of the “Israel first” philosophy. This is especially true in Italy, where offensive comments about Jews are often downplayed, as long as they come from self-described “friends of Israel” (more often than not, this means right-wingers).

Take Ms. Nirenstein's case, for example. A recent immigrant to Israel, she has served as a member of the Italian Parliament with Silvio Berlusconi's Freedom People Party. Moreover, she is well known in Italy as one of the most prominent pro-Berlusconi journalists. Both facts have been interestingly omitted by the Jerusalem Post.

Berlusconi has often been caught expressing disturbing views on Jewish history. He has recently compared his experience of being convicted for tax fraud to the persecution of Jews under Nazism. He apologized a few days later, at a dinner table with the head of Rome's Jewish community. On several occasions Berlusconi has praised Benito Mussolini, whose regime contributed to the slaughter of 7,000 Italian Jews by the Nazis; he even had the chutzpah to do so while speaking at a ceremony commemorating Holocaust victims.

All these facts have been reported not only in the Italian but also in the international media. What is less known outside of Italy, perhaps, is that Berlusconi's party has often sided with, and in some cases even included, right-wing extremists who have done little to conceal their anti-Semitic views.

Believe it or not, a politician of the Freedom People Party has openly used the word “Jew” as an insult—not in a private conversation, but in an official speech at the Parliament.

I hope you have some yarmulkes ready,” senator Giuseppe Ciarrapico told a former fellow FPP parliamentarian who had announced the formation of a more moderate conservative party in 2010. What he meant was that wearing a kippah, i.e. being Jewish, was per se an indication of untrustworthiness. There's some twisted humor in this story: the victim of his insult, Gianfranco Fini, wasn't even Jewish. Indeed Fini used to be an activist of a neo-Fascist group, in his youth years...just like Ciarrapico himself.

Ms. Nirenstein, who was a fellow FPP parliamentarian of Ciarrapico's at the time, described the incident as “intolerable” at first. But she has since been quoted saying that “Ciarrapico is always better than D'Alema,” in reference to Massimo D'Alema, a high-profile member of the left-leaning Democratic Party whose pro-Palestinian opinions are well known.

Honestly, I doubt that quote is correct—it seems a very media un-savvy thing to say that openly. Yet I worry there's a growing perception among conservative Jews that the so-called “new anti-Semitism,” i.e. the opposition to the State of Israel, constitutes a more severe offense than the traditional, old-school anti-Semitism, i.e. the hatred of Jews regardless of Israel.

Ms. Nirenstein has argued herself, in an often-quoted 2003 article, that “the Left is the new cradle of anti-Semitism,” because of its criticism of the State of Israel.

This is a very dangerous way of thinking, for several reasons.

First, as has often been noted, accusing people of anti-Semitism because of their criticism of Israel is intellectually disingenuous and may even prove counter-productive. While an anti-Semitism-fueled opposition to the State of Israel certainly exists, any sane person should agree that Israel is subject to public scrutiny just like all other nations in the world.

The thing is, there's more to this story. Especially in countries like Italy, where actual old-school anti-Semitic views are still relatively widespread.

According to a recent poll, about 10 percent of Italians believe that “you really can't trust Jews” and that “Jews aren't really Italians” (in case you were wondering, Italy had a Jewish community before it even had a Christian presence). Based on my personal experience and anecdotal evidence from friends and acquaintances, anti-Semitic insults are not very common, but not unheard of either.

What worries me, though, is that a growing sector of the Italian Jewish public has come to condone a certain degree of this traditional anti-Semitism, because they feel they should save their energies—and their own self-respect, I might add—for the defense of Israel.

I wonder, moreover, if this is a problem of Italian Jewry alone, or if other small, heavily pro-Israel communities across Europe are facing the same challenge.

The problem with the “Israel first” and “new anti-Semitism” approach is not so much that it makes of the State of Israel a priority and of the criticism of Israel an offense. The real danger lies in the implication that the freedom and dignity of Jews in the diaspora is somewhat of an expendable asset. That if anti-Semitism is taking new forms, then its old forms should be accepted, to a certain extent.

Seriously, I worry.

Maybe, when Jewish leaders start telling you shouldn't worry about anti-Semitism, you should start worrying, too.