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Bistro antisemitism: from Bierkeller to Soiree.


Examining the birth of modern antisemitism in Germany following the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, the Swedish historian Hugo Valentin identified perhaps the central theme of anti-Jewish agitation in the fin-de-siecle period. "As the Jews were scattered over the whole world, they were regarded as an 'International,' " Valentin explained, "and therefore as enemies of the national State."

Valentin published his book Antisemitism in 1935--the same year that the Nazi regime confirmed the inferior civil status of the un-German, alien Jewish minority through the Nuremburg Laws. Were Valentin writing today, it is likely that his assessment would be radically revised, for the crime of the Jews in the post-Holocaust era is notinternationalism, but tribalism. Rather than diluting the national character of the societies in which they live, Jews are regarded by their adversaries as guilty of subverting the lofty goals of international peace and justice through the aggressive pursuit of their own national project. Hence, one might say that antisemitism today is no longer a form of racism so much as it is a form of anti-racism or anticolonialism.

How has this transformation come about? To answer this question, we need to understand that while antisemitism is, for Jews, a murderous type of prejudice that shares common characteristics with other racisms, for antisemites themselves it is primarily a means for explaining the world. This disparity in perception is important: too often, contemporary debates concerning the charge of antisemitism revolve around whether the individual so accused is personally ill disposed toward Jews. Invariably, such individuals respond with an indignant denial. Even Rudolf Hoess, the notorious commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp, declared in his memoir that, on a personal level, he didn't dislike Jews; his fealty to the anti-Semitic worldview, grounded on what he saw as its scientifically rigorous explanatory power, stemmed from his judgment that Jews as a collective were the "enemy" of the resurgent German nation.

Comprehended in this way, antisemitism is a theory--clumsy and bigoted, but a theory nonetheless--of the decisive influence of Jewish power in the world, along with a set of normative prescriptions for combating it. The very term "antisemite" was coined not as a descriptor for a troubling social trend, but as the positive organizing principle of a novel, emancipatory political movement.

As a result, the successful communication of antisemitic discourse has always depended upon the absence of a corresponding moral rancor. While the Jews and their allies regard antisemites as propelled by hatred, antisemites regard themselves as a fraternity bound by a message of universalist love. "This book is above all a book for friends, a book that is written for those who love us," wrote Edouard Drumont, one of the founders of France's Ligue Antisemitique, and an especially shrill voice behind the false allegations of treason against Alfred Dreyfus, in Le Testament d'un antisemite.


Gilad Atzmon, an Israeli-born antisemitic agitator who has abandoned both his Jewish identity and his Israeli nationality, has expressed himself in a similarly vainglorious manner: "When you talk about humanity, you talk about a universal system of values promoting love for one another." Rather than being anti-moral, therefore, the moral sensibility of anti-Semitism resides in its presentation of the Jews or Jewishness as a collective barrier to a society founded upon love. What seems at first glance to be a material battle is really a spiritual one.

It is at this juncture that we can better appreciate a rare modification in the nature of antisemitism in our own time. I say rare, because, as a framework for interpretation, antisemitism naturally resists innovation. Anything that smacks of complexity goes against its inner logic; it is precisely why Charles Maurras, another French antisemite, took great delight in hawking a worldview that "enables everything to be arranged, smoothed over and simplified."

The modification rests upon a distinction between what I call bierkeller and bistro antisemitism. Bierkeller antisemitism--named for the beer halls frequented by the German Nazis--employs such means as violence, verbal abuse, commercial harassment, and the pursuit of anti-Jewish legal measures. Certainly, the first and second generations of modern anti-Semitic publicists and intellectuals had no qualms about such types of thuggery. Since the Second World War, though, this mode of antisemitism has waned sharply, along with the tendency to use the word antisemite as a positive means of political identification. Most of Gilad Atzmon's establishment sympathizers, like the University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer, who warmly endorsed Atzmon's most recent book, would probably shrink from crudely physical expressions of antisemitism, such as having Jews sit in separate subway cars or forcing them to wear a badge of shame.

Bistro antisemitism, on the other hand, sits in a higher realm, providing what left-wing activists would call a safe space to critically assess the global impact of Jewish cabals from Washington to Jerusalem. Anyone who enters the bistro will encounter memes that are, by now, securely established. These include the depiction of the Palestinians as the victims of a Second Holocaust, the breaking of the silence imposed upon honest discussions of Jewish political and economic power, and the contention that Jewish government officials are more suspect than others because of a potential overriding loyalty to the State of Israel.

The prevalence of bistro antisemitism, which deals its blows through words rather than fists, is the clearest indicator of the Jewish failure to finally take ownership of the inner meaning of antisemitism. That said, one should not judge Jewish leaders and institutions too harshly, given that, for two or three decades after the Holocaust, the tendency to scorn and belittle Jewish perceptions of antisemitism was considerably less marked.

Take the plight of the Jewish communities in the Soviet Union. In the United States, those advocating on their behalf tirelessly and successfully argued that the ruling Communist Party's devotion to anti-zionism was a clumsy disguise for their state policy of antisemitism. Why else were Jews forbidden to emigrate? Why else were they barred from higher education and sensitive jobs? The uncompromising opposition of the Bolsheviks to Jewish self-organization found concrete expression in these policies, thereby providing an observable and credible basis for the charge of antisemitism.

But imagine, momentarily, that the Soviet regime had stopped short of concrete discrimination against its Jewish citizens. Imagine, furthermore, that Soviet antisemitic activities had been confined to spreading the propaganda of pamphleteers like Trofim Kichko--a clear precursor to Atzmon--who wrote, in Judaism and Zionism, of the connection between the Torah, the "morality of Judaism," and Israeli "aggression." Would Jewish advocates have made their case with such comparative ease?

In today's climate, the answer would have to be negative. Indeed, it's tempting to believe that, were he still alive, Kichko would be on a speaking tour of North American and European campuses. A veritable army of professors, commentators, and student activists would line up to shield this progressive intellectual from the smear of antisemitism--aided, no doubt, by self-consciously Jewish leftists.

Which brings us to what is arguably the most important feature of bistro antisemitism: its openness to individuals of Jewish origin. Again, there is a Soviet-era precedent for this. In a bid to rival both the Zionist Poale Zion and the non-zionist Bund for the support of Jewish workers, the Bolsheviks created the Yevsektia--the Jewish section of the party, which held its first Congress in 1918. Its dual aims, wrote Hugo Valentin, were "extirpating the Jewish petty tradesmen and combating the Jewish religion."

Put another way, Jews were charged with obliterating the conditions for a distinctive Jewish identity and existence in the new Soviet Union. And, of course, with Jews supporting, framing, and even implementing these policies, accusations of antisemitism directed at the Soviet authorities could simply be deflected.

The small cluster of disaffected Jewish intellectuals who in our own time have established their reputations either through full frontal assaults upon Israel, writers such as M. J. Rosenberg and Max Blumenthal, or more personal, agonized disavowals from writers such as Peter Beinart and Philip Weiss, can be described as the Yevsektia for a post- modern, democratic age. A distrust of "Jewish power" and a desire to expose its nefarious effects is the foundation of their public interventions as Jews.

Might the bistro and the bierkeller eventually cross paths? It is worth invoking Leon Wieseltier's recommendation that the "analysis of anti-Semitism must take place somewhere between indifference and hysteria." By dint of Israel's existence, empowered Jews are a reality, and therefore parallels with the 1930s can be misleading. Yet discourse does not take place in a vacuum. As the current threats facing Jewish communities in countries as varied as Turkey, Hungary, and Venezuela indicate, the old monster lurks behind the murmur of argument and debate. This may be the age of Jewish power, but--and herein lies the ultimate irony--the persistence of antisemitism elegantly displays its limits.


* Ben Cohen is a New York-based writer and commentator. This article is based on his essay "The Big Lie Returns," Commentary (February 2012). He can be contacted via
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Author:Cohen, Ben
Publication:Journal for the Study of Antisemitism
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EUGE
Date:Jun 1, 2012
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