During the beginning of the war in Iraq, I was asked to give a lecture in Paris on some of my very public statements against the war and especially my rejection of the concept of preemptive war, that is, the idea that it is okay for the United States to attack a country that has not attacked us or one of our allies.
I accepted the invitation and in preparation for this lecture, for several months before I left for France, I began reading LeMonde,a leading French newspaper, online.
I was simply staggered by the blatant anti-Semitism in the writings of many of the French critics of the war that I read in that newspaper. This is what many call the “new anti-Semitism” of the left, but it is also found on the far right and in radical Islam. It might be better termed “anti-Zionism” as it is a rejection of the very idea of a Jewish state.
But this “new anti-Semitism” draws on the old stereotypes of “Jewish conspiracies” and the crudest kind of racial stereotyping you can imagine. I confess I was naïve enough to have found this simply amazing in France, a country that has such a terrible 20th-century legacy of complicity with the Holocaust. So, of course, I said so when I got to Paris and this did not exactly endear me to the French who attended my lecture.
Yes, you can criticize the state of Israel for a particular action it has or has not undertaken. It is a nation-state among nation-states. As the Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr has taught me and taught many in his book Moral Man and Immoral Society, a nation-state is not an altruistic entity; the motives of a nation-state are guided by what is perceived by its leaders to be the protection of that state and its preservation from harm. This may cause conflict with other nations or parties when their interests do not coincide. So, the U.S. or Israel or France or any nation-state is not required to be innocent, nor should it be get a free pass on criticism of its actions by the world community.
The problem is, as I saw in the Paris newspaper, that the ugly history of anti-Semitism as a form of unreasoning, racist/ethnic prejudice lurks below the cultural surface. This is the case not only in Europe, of course, but also in many places around the world, including the United States. It is very easy for those who are prejudiced against Jews in general to use the criticism of Israel as a vehicle to give expression to hatred, plain and simple.
I try to name anti-Semitism when I see it, either the new kind or the old, because it is still a wound in the world consciousness. But I do not for that reason refrain from critique of Israel the nation-state when I disagree with its policies. I just try not to engage in such critique in an historical vacuum.