Western ‘Colonialism,’ Israel, and Anti-Semitism

In a recent piece at Chronicles, Paul Gottfried criticized the argument made by conservatives that the hysteria directed against Israel by the left is just another eruption of “traditional anti-Semitism.” Gottfried correctly diagnosed the motivation of the left as principally driven not by anti-Semitism, but by anti-white (or anti-Western) sentiment, which sees Israel as embodying “Western colonialism.”

In reality, both the terms “Western colonialism” and “traditional anti-Semitism” are misleading, or misapplied, or even just empty.

The rage against “colonialism” does not, for example, explain the left’s animus against Scandinavians (once admired for their peaceable welfare states) and Eastern Europeans, neither of whom participated in colonialism (with the exception of the Russians, who had the annoying habit of colonizing both whites and nonwhite Asians.) “Colonialism” itself is a more than slippery substitute for “imperialism,” a term with much clearer definition. It blurs or erases the difference between imperial rule in Asia and Africa, and the process that produced the nations of the Americas, Australia, and New Zealand, so that the latter can be damned along with the empires now dead for more than half a century.

That damnation has become ever fiercer, very likely precisely because the post-imperial course of much of Asia and Africa has often been disastrous. To be sure, few useful generalizations can be made about the states involved, except to say that former British colonies, on average, are better-off than others. Some places have done very well: Malaysia and Singapore. Others have made but uneven progress: India and Kenya. Still others—Burma, Somalia, the Congo—have been horrible. Some, like Ceylon (“Sri Lanka”) started out well, went off the rails for a time, and recovered. A few have done the opposite. That some former colonies might have been cut loose too quickly, and a modest timetable and period of preparation might have been better than the policy of overnight independence that was followed in Africa is an idea many cannot entertain; though some people responsible for that—notably British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan—showed an uneasy conscience when defending it in their memoirs.

Another trick is to assimilate the Middle East proper to the stereotype of empire. That region came under Western control only with the defeat of Turkey in World War I and as a series of League of Nations mandates. It was expected to become independent in no great length of time. The bleatings of Arabs and Iraniansand Israelis, for that matter—about imperialism are hard to take seriously, particularly since most Arabs and Iranians were so stupid that they imagined the Axis would “liberate” them.

The famed Middle East expert Elie Kedourie argued that the “mandates” would have fared better had they become for a time outright imperial possessions, because the local governments formed under them were dominated either by ex-Turkish officials, local Arab potentates, or the Arab allies, promoted by T. E. Lawrence, who were outsiders to the people under their control. Few were fit leaders for places like Iraq and Syria.

Israel can only shoehorned into a condemnation of “colonialism” with great difficulty; not that outright lying about history is particularly difficult for the far left. Consider that only half the Israeli population is derived from people chased out of the Muslim Middle East. “Race,” or color, can only be dragged in by ignoring the obvious point that both Arabs and Jews—except for the few Ethiopian Jews—have historically been perceived as white.

The category of “traditional anti-Semitism” is yet another suspicious formulation, which has been a handy substitute for thinking for many liberal and left-wing Jews, and for that matter non-Jews, defending Israel. (I will not deal here with the mentality of the far-left ideologues among Jews who effectively support the destruction of Israel.) The pro-Israeli left liberals and leftists among Jews—like Senator Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Representatives Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Jamie Raskin (D-Md.)—are, however, often close to psychotic in their own way, evade confronting the real issues of today by accusing the “right,” or  Christianity, of harboring throughout the ages  some protean yet basically consistent bias of anti-Semitism. Certainly it is quite likely that some have, in fact, been influenced by some traditional resentments and anti-Semitic images of Jews as exploiters. The train to Stupidville can be boarded at many stops. But a simple continuation of—or even the category of—“traditional anti-Semitism” is itself shaky, or at least inadequate.

Explaining anti-Semitism in the West as a simple product of Christianity, magically transmitted to the East, has always been an absurd oversimplification. The Jewish religion was not exactly popular in the ancient world before Christianity existed. Monotheism, and hostility to such features of Greek culture like pederasty and nude athletics, were not appreciated. Hostility to Jews among Christians has been so inconsistent—varying wildly over time, between different sects and nationalities—that it is difficult to argue that it is an inevitable and basic attitude.

It may be said that there is an inherent tension between Christians and Jews because Jesus was Jewish, claimed to be the Jewish Messiah (although very different from the traditional Jewish view of what the Messiah was supposed to be) but was rejected by the Jews as just another of many false Messiahs (the last appeared in the 18th century.) The problem with this is that the Jewish rejection of Jesus  does not seem to enrage most Christians, most of the time. Indeed, many Christians have recognized the kinship of the two religions and their shared basic ethical standards. And, in practice, Christians largely left Jews alone for long periods of history, including the first half of the Middle Ages and much of early modern times. The worst eruptions of violence against Jews seem to have begun among the secular elements of society, not among the clergy.

The real and most consistent element of hostility toward Jews has been socioeconomic; the usual position of the Jews in Christendom, and parts of the Muslim world, as the classic “middleman minority” —a group, differing from the majority population in culture, religion, language, or appearance that plays the role of a middle class in relatively backward societies where the rest of the people are peasants, aristocrats, and clerics. Many immigrant groups other than Jews—Chinese, Indians, and Muslims in Christian Ethiopia—have also played this role in many places through history. But Jews, because of their high literacy rates, long residence in towns and cities, and probably other reasons as well, have been particularly suited to it. The position of a middleman minority can be unpleasant from the start—or not—but it can get very unpleasant indeed when societies develop, and competition develops with a “native” or majority group middle class. That led to the expulsion of Jews from Western Europe and, much later, to hostility in Eastern Europe, where they had earlier been given refuge, and even welcomed. For special local reasons, the middleman position also complicated things in Germany.

There is, to be sure, a religious element in hostility to Jews—but one rather different from the one discussed above, one widely ignored, though it was pointed out by Eva Reichmann and others in the last century—one more logical in a way. Jews have often been hated, not because they were not Christians, but for being the originators of the “Judeo-Christian” tradition, in fact for creating Christianity. They were the available target for hostility to Christianity and its associated morality, a hostility too unpopular or indeed dangerous to openly avow. As Hitler once charmingly put it, Christianity was “Jewish filth and priestly twaddle.” This sort of thinking is apparent in the thinking of both the Nazis and the contemporary far left, one thing they have in common.

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