The Rough Beast Returns

Anti-Semitism is back, taking the place of intelligent criticism of Israel and its policies. And if that wasn't bad enough, students are spreading the gibberish.

| Mon Jun. 17, 2002 2:00 AM EDT

The email sent out last month by Laurie Zoloth, director of Jewish Studies at San Francisco State University, was chilling on its face.

"I cannot fully express what it feels like to have to walk across campus daily, past maps of the Middle East that do not include Israel, past posters of cans of soup with labels on them of drops of blood and dead babies, labeled 'canned Palestinian children meat, slaughtered according to Jewish rites under American license,' past poster after poster calling out Zionism=racism, and Jews=Nazis," she wrote -- and the details only became more shattering from then on.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

I read Zoloth's words with horror but not, alas, complete amazement, Eleven years ago, during the Gulf War, across San Francisco Bay, the head of a student splinter group at Berkeley addressed a room full of faculty and students opposed to the war, spitting out venomously, "You Jews, I know your names, I know where you live."

The faculty and students in attendance sat stiffly and said nothing. Embarrassed? Frightened? Or worse -- thinking that it wasn't time to tackle this issue, that it was off the agenda, an inconvenience.

Far more recently, two students of mine at NYU wondered aloud whether it was actually true, as they had heard, that 4,000 Jews didn't show up for work at the World Trade Center on September 11. They clearly thought this astoundingly crazy charge was plausible enough to warrant careful investigation, but it didn't occur to them to look at the names of the dead.

Wicked anti-Semitism is back. The worst crackpot notions that circulate through the violent Middle East are also roaming around America, and if that wasn't bad enough, students are spreading the gibberish. Students! As if the bloc to which we have long looked for intelligent dissent has decided to junk any pretense of standards.

A student movement is not just a student movement. It's a student movement. Students, whether they are progressive or not, have the responsibility of knowing things, of thinking and discerning, of studying. A student movement should maintain the highest of standards, not ape the formulas of its elders or outdo them in virulence.

It should therefore trouble progressives everywhere that the students at San Francisco State are neither curious nor revolted by the anti-Semitic drivel they are regurgitating. The simple fact that a student movement -- even a small one -- has been reduced to reflecting the hatred spewed by others should profoundly trouble anyone whose moral principles aim higher than simple nationalism -- as should be the case for anyone on the left.

It isn't hard to discover the sources of the drivel being parroted by the students at San Francisco State. In the blood-soaked Middle East of Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon, in the increasingly polarized Europe of Jean-Marie le Pen raw anti-Semitism has increasingly taken the place of intelligent criticism of Israel and its policies.

Even as Laurie Zoloth's message flew around the world, even as several prominent European papers published scathing but warranted attacks on Israel's stonewalling of an inquiry into the Jenin fighting, the great Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago was describing Israel's invasion of Ramallah as "a crime comparable to Auschwitz."

In one of his long, lapping sentences, Saramago wrote in Madrid's El Pais (as translated by Paul Berman in The Forward, May 24):

"Intoxicated mentally by the messianic dream of a Greater Israel which will finally achieve the expansionist dreams of the most radical Zionism; contaminated by the monstrous and rooted 'certitude' that in this catastrophic and absurd world there exists a people chosen by God and that, consequently, all the actions of an obsessive, psychological and pathologically exclusivist racism are justified; educated and trained in the idea that any suffering that has been inflicted, or is being inflicted, or will be inflicted on everyone else, especially the Palestinians, will always be inferior to that which they themselves suffered in the Holocaust, the Jews endlessly scratch their own wound to keep it bleeding, to make it incurable, and they show it to the world as if it were a banner."

Note well: the deliciously deferred subject of this sentence is: "the Jews." Not the right-wing Jews, the militarist Israelis, but "the Jews." Suddenly the Jews are reduced to a single stick-figure (or shall we say hook-nosed?) caricature and we are plunged into the brainless, ruinous, abysmal iconography that should make every last reasonable person shudder.

The German socialist August Bebel once said that anti-Semitism was "the socialism of fools." What we witness now is the progressivism of fools. It is a recrudescence of everything that costs the left its moral edge. And, appallingly, it is this contemptible message the anti-Semitic students at San Francisco State chose to parrot.

We are not on the brink of "another Auschwitz," and to think so, in fact, falsifies the danger. The danger is clear and present, though not apocalyptic. It's no remote nightmare that synagogues are bombed, including the one on the Tunisian island of Djerba, famous for tolerance, an apparent al-Qaeda truck bomb attack. This happened. It is no remote nightmare that hundreds of Palestinian civilians died during Israeli incursions into the West Bank. This, too, happened. The nightmare is that the second is being allowed to excuse and justify the first.

Laurie Zoloth wrote: "Let me remind you that ours is arguably one of the Jewish Studies programs in the country most devoted to peace, justice and diversity since our inception."

But anti-Semitism doesn't care. Like every other lunacy that diminished human brains are capable of, anti-Semitism already knows what it hates.

This is no incidental issue, no negligible distraction. A Left that cares for the rights of humanity cannot cavalierly tolerate the systematic abuse of any people -- whatever you think of Israel's or any other country's foreign policy. Any student movement worthy of the name must face the ugly history that long made anti-Semitism the acceptable racism, face it and break from it.

If fighting it unremittingly is not a "progressive" cause, then what kind of progress does progressivism have in mind?