Thursday, October 29, 2009

What George Orwell Can Teach Us About Contemporary Antisemitism

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By Barry Rubin

In 1945, George Orwell wrote a long article entitled “Antisemitism in Britain.” Like many other English writers, in his younger years Orwell had himself been an antisemite. In his novel on Burma, written in the 1920s, for example, he had written that the only ones who had profited from the British Empire had been Jews and Scotsmen, another group he disliked.

It is interesting to note that in his article for the Contemporary Jewish Record he doesn’t mention his own past antisemitism. Later, though, he regretted this and became a firm opponent of antisemitism, an issue he wrote about regularly in World War Two.

England was a strange mix of tolerance and intolerance in earlier years. Orwell wrote that all the Jews he knew when he was younger “were people who were ashamed of being Jews, or at any rate preferred not to talk about their ancestry.” While “The Jew who grew up in Whitechapel [a working class area] took it for granted that he would be assaulted” or at least insulted if he entered any Christian area. He notes also though, that things considered formerly acceptable in literature and elsewhere were no longer so.

Orwell noted that anti-Semitism had been driven underground by the war and that the authorities and media went out of their way to avoid offending Jews in order to establish their credentials as not being antisemites. He recounts how, for example, a man he knew as an antisemite and former fascist was eager to attend a ceremony in a synagogue on behalf of the Jews being persecuted in Poland.

Two-thirds of a century later, Orwell’s article has some interesting things to tell us in an era when antisemitism is reviving throughout the world. Sometimes, the word “Zionist” or “Israeli” is substituted for the word “Jew.” But the tip-off is that the accusations continue to be basically the same ones: allegedly hating and deliberately oppressing non-Jews, greed, conspiracy, mysterious power, irrational behavior, and the goal of world conquest.

The first point Orwell’s article reminds us of is that no Jew really has a good sense of the extent of antisemitism at any given place or time. This is so simply because anti-Semitic attitudes and remarks will or won’t be expressed mainly behind his back. My personal experience bears this out: overwhelmingly, the main expressions of antisemitism I experienced personally did not come from direct expressions but from words I overheard accidentally in nearby conversations or things non-Jewish friends told me about.

In this context, Orwell begins the article with seven cases of antisemitic thinking he witnessed personally during World War Two, coming from a wide variety of classes and educational levels of English people. They include: a desire to avoid Jews, Jews getting extra goods as merchants under rationing, Jews getting extra goods as customers, Jews as pushy and selfish, Jews as cowardly and greedy or as lazy and intellectual.

A second thread relevant to today in common among these anecdotes is that Jews are mainly responsible for their own sufferings. This ploy neatly ensures not only that mistreatment doesn’t matter but that it actually counts as proof of the Jews’ own misdeeds.

Another theme is the need of antisemitism to camouflage itself. Notes Orwell, “Above a certain intellectual level people are ashamed of being antisemitic and are careful to draw a distinction between `antisemitism’ and `disliking Jews.’” Today the same role is played by the effort to make a distinction between the systematic hatred and slander of Israel and its supporters, and antisemitism. There always has to be some rationale for why it is an acceptable slur or hatred.

Here, too, Orwell pointed out that this hatred is not easily combated. “To attempt to counter them with facts and statistics is useless.” He views antisemitism as an emotional choice not shaped by rationality. Of course, there might be more hope affecting those who are not so determined in their views.

Of special note is the coinciding of antisemitism with an era of history where a wider conflict focuses on an anti-Jewish aspect. He writes that World War Two “has encouraged the growth of antisemitism and even, in the eyes of many ordinary people, given some justification for it” because it can be portrayed as “a Jewish war.”

Today, too, there is a war that frightens many in the West that can be called a “Jewish war,” in that if it were not for Israel’s existence one might believe there wouldn’t be international terrorism or a threat from radical Islamism.

Conspiracy theories are also a mainstay of antisemitism. In 1942, for example, when a near-by bomb frightened people into a stampede near a London shelter and more than 100 people were killed, the rumor quickly spread that “the Jews were responsible.”

One thing that has changed generally is that in Orwell’s day most antisemitism was from the right--though he cites antisemitic statements from a Communist fellow traveler and a Labour party leader, too--in reaction to the perceived leftism of Jews:

“Antisemitism,” Orwell wrote, “is rationalized by saying that the Jew is a person who spreads disaffection and weakens national morale….There is some superficial justification for this….The disaffected intelligentsia inevitably included a large number of Jews. With some plausibility it can be said that the Jews are the enemies of our native culture and our national morale.”

Today, while this kind of thing still exists, the main thrust (certainly publicly) of antisemitism comes from the left. It is incontrovertible that antisemitism in the United Kingdom today is higher than at any point since World War Two began. Jews are targeted because of being allegedly too conservative, too religious, too nationalistic. If antisemitism isn’t now acceptable in much of British life it certainly is close, albeit with at times the word “Zionist” merely being substituted for “Jew.”

In a lot of English Jewish behavior and in American Jewish intellectual circles there is an obvious undercurrent of fear lest they be thought not sufficiently “progressive” and thus become or be seen as part of the old enemy on the right, either collectively or individually.

To assess this factor, in watching conservatives today I applied a test. How do they deal with the fact that so many Jews were on the left, among their greatest enemies? Would they again resort to antisemitic explanations?

To my relief, with few exceptions, they’ve largely adopted a different explanation: that the leftist Jews were not embodying the Jews true nature but were acting against their own people’s real interests. If they were traitors to anything, it was not to America or Britain but to their own people.

Antisemitism is still seen as a shameful thing and thus it must be disguised by rationalizations, which today focus on Israel and those who support it. At the same time, though, it draws on all the traditional images and themes and is much more common than is thought.

Orwell reminds us that things haven’t changed all that much. But perhaps it would be correct to say that they seemed to have changed for a long period after the fall of the Third Reich but that this era has proven merely temporary.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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