High Anxiety

How modernity feeds Arab anti-Semitism

by Bruce S. Thornton

Private Papers

There’s an Elvis Costello lyric that goes, “I used to be disgusted; now I try to be amused.” Before 9/11 that was pretty much my philosophy. Working in the university, I was daily treated to the postmodern mumbo-jumbo, multicultural noble-savage fantasies, and left-over leftist delusions that are all so transparently incoherent and severed from reality that disgust seemed a waste of energy. The detached amusement of an anthropologist studying some bizarre cargo-cult seemed more appropriate and was less stressful.

Then came 9/11, and the bloody truth of Richard Weaver’s dictum that “ideas have consequences” made amusement reprehensible. That disaster was the fruit of years of bad ideas, particularly the West’s institutionalized self-loathing that demonizes its own ideals and values and culture while idealizing those of the “other” no matter how dysfunctional. Our intellectuals, academics, and artists for decades had been telling the world that the West, particularly America, is the villain of history, its crimes of imperialism, colonialism, capitalism, resource depletion, and pollution responsible for all the world’s ills. Was it any wonder, then, that one of the West’s fiercest historical enemies, Islam, should take our self-flagellation seriously and conclude that we deserved to die for the crimes which we ourselves keep admitting we are guilty of?

And given that even after 9/11 those same bad ideas continue to addle our thinking and compromise our attempts to defend our civilization against a smart, committed enemy, disgust is the only legitimate reaction to the behavior generated by such stale received wisdom. Evidence of this cultural disease crams the daily media, but the West’s response to Israel’s sixty-year struggle against annihilation remains exhibit number one.

Israel has always been and remains the key to understanding the war against Islamic jihad. The creation, in the heart of the Muslim empire, of a modern Western state — for a people, moreover, long scorned as inferior dhimmi, spiritual renegades who had rejected the ultimate revelation of Allah and thus were legitimately deprived of their ancestral land — was merely the crowning insult marking Islam’s decline from its high tide at Vienna on September 11, 1683. The counter-attack against the West, then, the jihad to recover the lands bestowed upon Muslims by Allah, would start in earnest with the struggle against Israel. So in 1948 the Arab nations rejected the U.N.’s resolution creating Israel and a Palestinian Arab state — the U.N. being a Western institution utterly alien to the values and ideals of Islam in any case — and sent its armies to uproot and destroy the “Zionist entity.” That attempt failed, as did two more. At that point Muslim Arabs shifted the struggle to wearing down Israeli resolve with terrorism, at the same time that their propaganda exploited the spiritual, cultural, and intellectual corruption of the West.

Of the many bad ideas exploited by the jihadists — the Marxist-inspired demonization of imperialism and colonialism, the sentimental Third-Worldism that idealizes the non-Western “other,” the juvenile romance with revolutionary violence — moral relativism has been the most lethal. The failure to discriminate between the aggressor and the victim — to make a distinction between killing in order to obliterate a people, and killing in order to defend oneself against such an existential threat — has created the notion of the “cycle of violence,” the morally moronic notion that the violence of aggression and the violence of defense are indistinguishable, each a reflex responding mindlessly to the other.

Yet the “morality” is not quite as “equivalent” as it first appears, for beneath these condemnations of some abstract “cycle” lurks a concrete, severe judgment of Israel’s primal guilt. Even though Israel is as internationally legitimate as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, other nations created in the fallout of the Ottoman Empire’s demise, it alone is to blame for illegitimately “occupying” the lands of its ancestors, and so must be the first to exercise restraint, make concessions, and thus “break the cycle of violence.”

The latest example of this moral incoherence can be found in the title of ex-President Jimmie Carter’s book Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid. The use of “apartheid” to describe the measures Israel is forced to take to defend its citizens from being blown up by murderers is obscene. It recalls the U.N. resolution that condemned Zionism as racism and that was rescinded only because the U.S. threatened to withhold funds. Carter’s use of this word bespeaks either profound ignorance or an animus against Israel whose roots one can only speculate on. Carter’s harping on the “Israel lobby,” the latest model of that old “Elders of Zion” calumny in which nefarious Jews rule the world, suggests that Carter may harbor some unpleasant prejudices.

I don’t know if Carter and other such rabid critics of Israel are anti-Semites. But how else explain the relentless, irrational hatred of Israel, and the exacting standards by which Israel and Israel alone is judged? By some estimates, since World War II 25 million people have died in various conflicts. Eight thousand have resulted from the conflict between Israel and Palestinian Arabs, which ranks Israel forty-sixth on the list of lethal conflicts. (To put those 8000 in context, remember that Jordan killed many more Palestinians just during the “Black September” war of 1970.) Yet the U.N. has passed more resolutions condemning Israel than all the other forty-five combined. And let’s not forget that whatever violence Israel has used, or mistakes it has made, has resulted from its attempts to defend itself against much larger national armies and vicious terrorists driven by hatred to “wipe Israel from the map,” as the president of Iran has put it — with nary a peep from the U.N., by the way, which has been just as silent about the conclave of Holocaust deniers recently hosted by Iran.

The hatred of Israel, then, does not result from the universal principle that those states killing others or “occupying” their lands deserve condemnation by the international community. Even if Israel were “illegally occupying” the land of others — which it isn’t, by any just reading of history; and even if Israel didn’t kill Palestinians out of self-defense — which in nearly every case it does; in short, even if Israel were as guilty as its detractors claim, the intensity of its demonization would still be irrational, given the numerous other aggressors whose toll of victims and brutality of oppression dwarf even the worst caricature of Israel’s behavior.

Anti-Semitism of course isn’t the only explanation for the hatred of Israel. Anti-Americanism is another important factor. The appeasement of terrorists and petro-blackmailers also figures in some states’ behavior. National self-interest, as in France’s bid to increase its global stature by currying favor with Arab regimes, helps to explain the willingness to sell out Israel. Those idealizations mentioned earlier of dark-skinned “others” battling against “neo-colonialism” and “neo-imperialism” have transformed terrorist murderers into dashing “freedom-fighters.” Yet when you parse carefully criticisms of Israel like those made by Carter, old stereotypes of grasping Jews plotting to rule the world keep surfacing.

Here is where the West’s institutionalized self-hatred comes in. For modern anti-Semitism has little to do with medieval hatred of Christ-killers and well-poisoners, and everything to do with the anxieties and dislocations wrought by modern capitalism, industrialization, and urbanism. The Jew is hated because he is the embodiment of these forces, as well as the supposed beneficiary and master manipulator of them. Thus the Jew becomes the concrete emblem of modernity’s “creative destruction” whose costs are intolerable to some, not just to those left behind but also to those in the West who have benefited from the widespread affluence and freedom created by modern capitalism.

One of the biggest losers in the race to become modern has been the Muslim Arabs. So it is no surprise that these days the traditional Islamic disdain of the conquered dhimmi has been married to Western anti-Semitic fantasies of Jewish cabals pulling all the levers of modernity from international finance to the media. And these caricatures find willing allies among Westerners who hate their own culture as much as do radical Muslims, and who indulge, under cover of “anti-Zionism,” the same vicious stereotypes.

This supremely bad idea — that the modern West and its defining cultural cargo of free market capitalism, individualism, rationalism, and liberal democracy are the engines of global evil, and that Jews and Israel are the most dangerous embodiments of this evil — continues to fuel the jihadists rage and to weaken the West’s resolve. The stakes are too high for this suicidal notion to arouse in us anything but disgust.

Bruce Thornton is the author of Eros: The Myth of Ancient Greek Sexuality, writes for publications including The One Republic and The New Individualist, and currently teaches classics at California State University, Fresno.

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