Passing over antisemitism

14 Sep 2010 by CST

Bret Stephens, in the Wall Street Journal, asks why there has been no action taken against EU Commissioner Karel de Gucht for his comments about Jewish power and irrationality:

Mr. De Gucht's target was Jews, the objects of his opprobrium their malign political influence and crippled mental reflexes. If this isn't anti-Semitism, the term has no meaning.

But perhaps it no longer does, at least in Europe. "I regret that the comments that I made have been interpreted in a sense I did not intend," Mr. De Gucht said, by way of non-apology. "I did not mean in any possible way to cause offense or stigmatize the Jewish community. I want to make clear that anti-Semitism has no place in today's world."

The comment admits of two interpretations: (1) that it is insincere, and therefore an act of political expediency; (2) that it is sincere, and Mr. De Gucht thinks that casually bad-mouthing Jews doesn't quite reach the threshold of "anti-Semitism"—defined, as the saying has it, as hating Jews more than is strictly necessary.

I suspect the latter interpretation, which has an old European pedigree, is closer to the mark. But whatever Mr. De Gucht's motives, the more interesting phenomenon has been the European non-reaction. "No comment," says a spokesman for German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. "Our position on anti-Semitism is very clear but we have no comments on other people's statements," says a spokesman for Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini. "High Representative [Catherine] Ashton is confident [De Gucht] didn't mean any offense, and that he apologized," says a spokeswoman for the EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. "He made personal comments for which he expressed his personal regret and there is no further comment to make," says a spokesman for the European Commission.

Stephens goes on to explain this by arguing that Europe "is pervasively antisemitic", which is not an assessment I share. But he is right to point out that this is just another example of antisemitism being glossed over or ignored.

We have written before on this blog about the inability of many commentators to recognise antisemitism as a relevant factor in analysing the behaviour of, say Hezbollah or Hamas. There was another example in the BBC's coverage of the Taliban's efforts to obstruct upcoming elections in Afghanistan. In their online report and video, a Taliban commander is reported as saying:

Elections aren't possible here. Last year, during the presidential race, a few people came by helicopter and stuffed the ballot boxes. Today, the district is under the total control of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. No candidate, election worker or voter can enter.

But  on Radio 4's PM programme yesterday, the commander's comments were broadcast in full:

Elections aren't possible here. Last year, during the presidential race, a few people came by helicopter and stuffed the ballot boxes. Today, the district is under the total control of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. No candidate, election worker or voter can enter. We the mujihadeen of the Emirate will defend every step of Ghazni province. Jews and their slaves will not step, therefore, onto our land.

I don't know why this last sentence, about the "Jews and their slaves", was cut from the other two versions of the BBC report: perhaps it was just for reasons of space, or editorial flow. Whatever the reason, it gives the impression that this comment is rather trivial, a rhetorical flourish which can be discarded without losing anything from our understanding of the Taliban's actions or motivations.

I hope this is not the case, because I think it is a comment that reveals a great deal. There is, famously, only one remaining Jew in Afghanistan, and there has not been a functioning Jewish community in the country during the entire time of the Taliban's existence. The foreign forces in Afghanistan are part of a NATO operation fighting under UN authority, neither of which are bodies run or strongly influenced by Jews or by Israel. The idea that the opposition to the Taliban is actually controlled by Jews is absurd: the only way to understand the commander's remark is through the idea of a global Jewish conspiracy, in which NATO, the UN, the American or even Afghan governments are "Jews", and everyone working for them are "their slaves". This would not be a surprise, because the Taliban is an Islamist extremist organisation, and Islamist organisations and individuals have a long record - both historical and contemporary -  of antisemitism, including conspiracy theories. It is always tempting to omit absurd ideas from political analysis or reportage, precisely because they are so absurd, but sometimes the irrationality of a movement like the Taliban is the whole point.


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