By Andrew Sullivan, October 20, 2002
A student-written article in the Yale Daily News last week, the paper for the
elite American university, was typical fare. It was a piece by a precocious
first-year student criticizing what he regards as the anti-Semitism tolerated at
The response, however, was far from typical. He’d touched a nerve. In
the comments section, posted online next to the article, a torrent of anger was
unleashed. Here’s one respondent’s comments: “I recently attended a forum
focusing on the Israeli/Palestinian issue. Both sides made very valid points but
there was a moment of heated exchange when the pro-Israel side initiated the
‘anti-semite’ slur and completely ended it for me. I am sick and tired of Jewish
people always smearing those that merely disagree with their views as ‘evil’. I
never thought I’d say this but a lot of what the so-called ‘white supremacists’
are saying are proving to be more accurate than I feel comfortable admitting.”
Sympathy for the arguments of “so-called white supremacists”? At Yale? The
comment was not anonymous. Now there’s always scope for nut-cases venting
on the web. But the tenor of the discussion on a Yale website was certainly
Then there was the recent “Not In Our Name” rally in Central Park,
demonstrating against a potential war against Iraq. Many of the speeches to the
crowd of around 10,000 were full of classic anti-war boilerplate.
Some of them, given that the demo was organized by such extremist
groups as the International Action Center, were predictably more outlandish,
demanding no action whatever against Iraq and condemning the U.S. for
everything from Robert Mugabe to global warming. (One of IAC’s officials has
written that “no one in the world…has a worse human rights record than the
But around the edges of the rally, copies of the “Protocols of the Elders of
Zion,” the classic forged document of nineteenth-century anti-Semitism, were
According to a report in the New York Sun, this peddling of anti-Semitic tripe
was not entirely accidental. One protestor told the Sun, “There are interest
groups who want Israel to dominate Palestine. If Bush goes with them and is
too critical, he might lose support – the international financiers have their
hooks in everything.”
Ah, those international financiers. Remember them?
Then there was this comment from another self-described “peace activist”:
“Bush is more Israeli than the Israelis themselves. He is a puppet of the Zionists
control the media, the government and the economy. The Jews’ book
‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ explains how they control the world and
how they make people fight against each other.”
America’s anti-war movement, still puny and struggling, is showing signs of
being hijacked by one of the oldest and darkest prejudices there is.
Perhaps it was inevitable. The conflict against Islamo-fascism obviously circles
back and back to the question of Israel.
Fanatical anti-Semitism, as bad or even worse than Hitler’s, is now a cultural
norm across much of the Arab Middle East and beyond. It’s the acrid glue that
unites Saddam, Arafat, al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Iran and the Saudis. They all hate
the Jews and want to see them destroyed.
And if you’re campaigning against a war against that axis, you’re bound
to attract some people who share these prejudices. That is not to say that the
large majority of anti-war campaigners are anti-Semitic. Of course they’re not.
But it is to say that this strain of anti-Semitism, hovering around the edges of
that movement, is a worrying and dangerous sign.
In American history, it’s also not new. One of the major strains in anti-war
sentiment in the 1930s in America was anti-Semitism.
The America Firsters saw war as something that would only enrich the
“international financiers” who controlled the banks and arms industry. European
Jews — and their American counterparts — were trying to snare the U.S. into a
European conflict it would do best to avoid.
No surprise then that, alongside the far left, the far right in America is also now
a part of the anti-war movement. Patrick Buchanan’s new magazine, The
American Conservative, is full of such anti-war bromides. Buchanan has long
flirted with anti-Semitism, and it must surely somewhat embarrass the
“progressives” fighting a war against Iraq that he is now, as his forefathers
were in the 1930s, their ally.
The biggest faultline around this issue, however, is now on America’s
campuses. Earlier this year, a movement sprung up calling for universities to
withdraw any investments in Israel, just as they once did in South Africa. A
petition, begun at M.I.T. and Harvard, attracted hundreds of signatures from
faculty, students and alumni. Similar initiatives were pursued at 40 other
colleges. It was answered by another M.I.T./Harvard petition opposing
divestment, which has garnered many more signatures.
The controversy was further stoked by Harvard president Larry
Summers’ statement last month. He claimed that “serious and thoughtful people
are advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect if not their
intent,” in reference to the petition. “Where anti-Semitism and views that are
profoundly anti-Israeli have traditionally been the primary preserve of poorly
educated right-wing populists,” he went on, “profoundly anti-Israel views are
increasingly finding support in progressive intellectual communities.”
Summers’ argument was a simple one: why has Israel been singled out alone as
worthy of divestment? Supporters cite its continued occupation of the West
Bank. There’s no question that Israel’s policies in that regard are ripe for
criticism, and to equate criticism of that with anti-Semitism is absurd and
despicable. Similarly, it’s perfectly possible to argue against Israel’s domestic
policies without any hint of anti-Semitism.
But to argue that Israel is more deserving of sanction than any other regime on
earth right now is surely bizarre.
Israel is a democracy; it is multi-racial; Arab citizens of Israel proper can
vote and freely enter civil society; there is freedom of religion and a free press.
An openly gay man just won election to the Knesset. In any other Middle
Eastern country and the Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank, he’d be
in jail, executed or crushed under a pile of rocks.
There is simply no comparison with apartheid South Africa, where a tiny ethnic
minority denied the majority any vote at all.
Compared to China, a ruthless dictatorship which is now brutally
occupying Tibet, Israel is a model for democratic governance. And, unlike
China’s occupation of Tibet, Israel’s annexation of the West Bank was
undertaken as a defensive action against an Arab military attack.
Or compare it to any other country in the Middle East, from Syria’s satrapy in
Lebanon, to Mubarak’s police state, to Iraq’s barbaric autocracy or Iran’s
theocracy, and it’s a beacon of light.
To single Israel out for condemnation and divestment, while ignoring all these
others, is so self-evidently bizarre that it begs an obvious question. What are
these anti-Israel fanatics really obsessed about? Where are the divestment
campaigns for China or Zimbabwe?
The answer, I think, lies in the nature of part of today’s left. It is fueled above
all by resentment — resentment of the West’s success, resentment of the
freedom to trade, resentment of any person or country, like Israel or Britain or
the U.S., that has enriched itself by means of freedom and hard work.
Just look at Israel’s amazing achievements in comparison with its
neighbors: its vibrant civil society, its economic growth, its technological skill,
its agricultural miracle. When you think about all Israel has achieved, it is no
surprise that the resentful left despises it.
So, for obvious reasons, do Israel’s neighbors.
If they had wanted, the Arab states could have made peace with Israel
decades ago, and enriched themselves through trade and interaction. Instead,
rather than emulate the Jewish state, they spent decade after decade trying to
When they didn’t succeed, rather than seek reasons for their own
backwardness and failure, rather than engage in the difficult task of reform and
renewal, the Arab dictators and their pliant propaganda machines simply
resorted to the easy distractions of envy, hatred and obsession.
Al Qaeda is the most dangerous and nihilist manifestation of this response.
Hezbollah is a close second. But milder versions are everywhere.
And what do people who most want to avoid examining their own
failures do? They look for scapegoats. And the Jews are the perennial
scapegoat. Now that the Jewish people actually have a country to themselves,
the anger and hatred only intensifies.
This attitude isn’t restricted to the Middle East. In the West, parts of the left,
having capitulated to moral relativism and bouts of Western self-hatred, have
seized on Israel as another emblem of what they hate.
They’re happy to have Saddam get re-elected with 100 percent of a
terrified vote, happy to see him develop nerve gas and nuclear weapons to use
against his own population and others.
They’re happy to watch Syria’s rulers engage in regular massacres; or
the Saudis subject women to inhuman subjugation. This they barely mention.
After all, these countries form part of the “oppressed” developing world.
But Israel’s occasional crimes in self-defense? They march in the streets.
Telling, isn’t it?
Ask the average leftist today what he is for, and you will not get a particularly
eloquent response. Ask him what he is against, and the rhetorical floodgates
open. That tells you something.
Similarly, ask the average anti-war activist what she is for with regard to
Iraq, what exactly she thinks we should constructively do, and the stammering
and stuttering begins. Do we just leave Saddam alone? Do we send Jimmy
Carter to sign the kind of deal he made with North Korea eight years ago? Will
pressuring the Israelis remove the nerve gas and potential nukes Saddam has in
Will ceding the West Bank to people who cheered the destruction of the
World Trade Center help defang al Qaeda? They don’t say and don’t know. But
what they do know is what they are against: American power, Israeli human
rights abuses, British neo-imperialism, the “racist” war on Afghanistan, and on
and on. Get them started on their hatreds, and the words pour out. No wonder
some have started selling the ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ in Central Park.
This negativism matters. When you have a movement based on resentment,
when you have a political style that is as bitter as it is angry, when your
rhetoric focuses not on those who are murdering partiers in Bali or workers in
Manhattan, but on those democratic powers trying to defend and protect them,
then your fate is cast. A politics of resentment is a poisonous creature that
slowly embitters itself.
You should not be surprised if the most poisonous form of resentment
that the world has ever known springs up, unbidden, in your midst.