A striking feature of the discussion of incidents in which Jews are killed is the frequent denial or at least downplaying of their Jewish identity. This applies both to recent events and further back in history. At the root of this flawed understanding is a failure to understand the deep-rooted character of anti-Semitism.
The reaction to the 7 October pogrom in southern Israel provides a textbook example of the de-Judaisation of the massacre. That is the claim by observers that they are concerned about all human beings, not just Jews, so they condemn all violence. At first sight this seems like a humanistic response but in my view it is anything but. It makes a serious error by failing to acknowledge that the victims were flesh and blood Jews rather than just human beings in the abstract.
Of course there are reactions that are on the face of it worse. Some deny the massacre outright while others excuse it by putting it into the “context” of a long-running conflict. There are even some anti-Israel activists who make the outlandish claim that the pogrom was largely self-inflicted. Sometimes different excuses are combined in desperate attempts to excuse the slaughter. But the focus of this article is on those who outwardly appear to be responding in a broad-minded, even noble, manner.
Mustafa Barghouti, a prominent Palestinian media voice, provided a typical example in his interview with Julia Hartley-Brew on Britain’s TalkTV. He tried several times to dodge the question of whether he would condemn the 7 October massacre. Eventually, under extreme pressure, he declared that “I am a person of non-violence, I never accept the killing of any child, Palestinian or Israeli”. He then went on to condemn the killing of 30 Israeli children on 7 October – although his “as they say” implied the report might not be true. Straight afterwards he went on to minimise its impact by saying that Israel had killed 12,000 Palestinian children in its bombardment. (Hartley-Brewer’s determined questioning in the interview has even prompted calls for her to resign and numerous complaints to Ofcom, Britain’s communications regulator).
On the face of it Barghouti’s position might appear a humanistic one. He is against the killing of everyone: not just Israelis but Palestinians too. It could be taken as an enlightened position.
But let’s take a hypothetical example to show why it is dubious. Say a black person was murdered on the streets of London. Of course there are many possible reasons why such a tragedy could occur. It could, for example, be a crime-related incident or part of a family feud. But let’s say in this case the killer was an armed member of a white supremacist organisation which openly advocated the murder of black people. Under such circumstances it is hard to imagine any reasonable politician refusing to condemn it as a racist attack. On the contrary, they would – quite rightly – declare their abhorrence at a racist murder. They would not refuse to describe it as racist and instead condemn it in general terms as part of man’s inhumanity to man. Yet the denial of the specific character of the victim is common reaction when Jews are slaughtered.
Yet this hypothetical example closely parallels what happened on 7 October. Hamas has openly stated, time and again, that its goal is to slaughter Jews. It then took the opportunity to kill as many as possible on one day. The fact that the vast majority of victims were Jews (some non-Jews did get caught in the cross-fire) was not incidental. It is completely in line with Islamist ideology.
In addition, Barghouti’s claim in the interview to be a person of non-violence was questionable at best. He is no Mahatma Gandhi. Barghouti may not engage in violence himself but he knows full well that Hamas is a terrorist organisation. If he really was a consistent pacifist he would condemn its actions along those lines. Yet he described the Islamist group as if it was a respectable political organisation.
Barghouti is far from alone in denying the Jewish identity of the victims of 7 October. The same approach also stretches back in history. As I have previously observed the same approach is widespread in the discussion of the Holocaust. Those who discuss it often make great play of the fact that other victims included, among others, Roma and Sinti (Gypsy) people.
Now while it is true that there were many non-Jewish victims of the Nazis, and this should certainly be acknowledged, there is something else going on here. There seems to be a concerted drive to downplay the reality of Jewish victimhood. This in turn reflects a failure to understand the centrality of anti-Semitism to the Nazi worldview.
The Nazis are a textbook example of how anti-Semitism, at least in its fully developed form, is far more than a prejudice. It is a warped way of seeing the world that puts what it sees as the malign power of the Jews at its centre. It condemns the modern world as somehow Jewish in character.
From this malevolent premise it follows that the only solution is to purge the world of Jews. That explains why the Nazis did not just kill Jews in the areas they occupied but they had plans to murder Jews elsewhere in Europe (including Britain and Ireland) as well as in the Middle East. This was a central feature of the Nazi world view.
What was true of the Nazis is true of the Islamist movement too. It is a totalitarian ideology that suits itself as locked in a battle against what is sees as the Satanic evil of world Jewry. Indeed, as Matthias Küntzel, a German historian, has shown, the genocidal view of the Nazis had a substantial influence of the Islamic world.
Yet even those who consider themselves humanistic have trouble coming to terms with this reality. This at the very least reflects a failure to understand the wide-ranging character of anti-Semitism. They tend to see it simply as a backward prejudice not that different from any others.
To truly understand the most regressive trends in the modern world it is necessary to acknowledge the specificity of Jewish victimhood. Anti-Semitic movements do not kill humans in the abstract but real flesh and blood Jews.
* Interesting to compare Hartley-Brewer’s clash with Barghouti to his interview with Stephen Sacker on the BBC Hard Talk programme (only available in Britain). Barghouti, a veteran political operator, was given a relatively soft ride despite the name of the BBC programme. In fact this is a common pattern in Barghouti’s countless television appearances.
The aftermath of the 7 October Hamas pogrom in Israel has made the rethinking of anti-Semitism a more urgent task than ever. Both the extent and character of anti-Semitism is changing. Tragically the open expression of anti-Semitic views is once again becoming respectable. It has also become clearer than ever that anti-Semitism is no longer largely confined to the far right. Woke anti-Semitism and Islamism have also become significant forces.
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