Global Matters: The incurable cancer of anti-Semitism
TEL AVIV, Israel — Sitting on the balcony of my hotel, enjoying a lovely view of the Mediterranean Ocean, it's easy to forget that the nation of Israel is not only targeted by its political adversaries, but is inhabited by a people whose houses of worship – even in the United States – remain under threat from all manner of extremists.
As was widely reported last week, the FBI, through skillful investigation and infiltration, averted a terror plot to destroy New York City's Riverdale Synagogue. Within days came reports – as yet unpublished in American media – from Brazil of a thwarted attack on two synagogues in the southern city of Porto Alegre.
And in the first week of May, lest we think that buildings are the targets, a Jewish student at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, Johanna Justin-Jinnich, was murdered, allegedly by a jilted lover who sought not only to do away with Justin-Jinnich, but who, according to various writings found by police, sought also to perpetrate a "Jewish Columbine," a reference to the 1999 killing spree at a Colorado high school.
It's fashionable to characterize acts of anti-Semitism, be they graffiti, attacks on synagogues, organized boycotts in the halls of academe, even acts of terror, as reactions to Israel's policies. Surely, though "no one condones violence," one ought to be able to oppose a policy without being accused of bigotry.
And surely one should.
But, just as surely, it is the persistent existential threat that explains the feeling of vulnerability that courses through Israelis, and indeed many Jews. It is the unrelenting current of anti-Semitism that all too frequently bubbles to the surface that preoccupies the collective consciousness of the Jewish people.
History is replete with hideous examples of both societal anti-Semitism and individual denigration. From the "blood libel" against Jews, to the explosive canard that Jews were responsible for the killing of Jesus, to the Spanish inquisition and expulsion of the Jews; from the Holocaust of Europe to the restricted social clubs and limited access to colleges and universities, all of which took place long before there was a modern state of Israel to boycott or oppose, Jews around the world have become habituated to a corrosive sense of unease, or worse.
And so it is that when the one nation in the world – Israel, where a Jew is not at some level of his consciousness an outsider – is repeatedly fixed in the cross-hairs of apocalyptic rhetoric, Jews everywhere feel the heat.
Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has made a name for himself both as a Holocaust denier and for his inflammatory rhetoric that Israel should be "wiped off the map." For most of us in the West, it has been easy to brush off his remarks as the rants of an eccentric and perhaps politically weak despot.
But just last week, Iran test-fired a new and sophisticated missile capable of reaching not only Europe but the heart of Israel. Couple this technical advance with Iran's desire to develop a nuclear program and with Ahmadinejad's rhetoric and you have an entire nation on alert.
What's more, Israelis, and many Jews elsewhere, worry that President Obama's outreach to the Muslim world, and in particular to Iran, signals not merely a new openness but a weakening in American support for Israel. The Israelis with whom I've spoken have a clear appreciation for the president's intelligence, and they do understand his strategy; but they are concerned that the new American policy does not grasp the daily and increasing threat to Israel.
None of us outside of the most rarefied security circles knows how seriously to take the cartoon-like threats made by Iran's president. Israel, however, seems disinclined to take any chances. The CEO of a defense firm here told me that he understands why the president is doing what he's doing, and he hopes he succeeds.
The same executive told me, however, that in the end, Israel simply can't abide Iran's possessing nuclear weapons. Period.
Most likely, diplomacy and back-channel communications, together with military deterrence, will reduce tensions to a manageable level.
But for Israel, and for Jews everywhere, the constant disquiet and the prospect of attack that manifests itself in everything from missile tests to thwarted synagogue bombings preoccupies, threatens and frightens in a thousand little ways.
Perhaps my taxi driver summed it up best. Don't forget us, he said.
Support for Israel is not merely support for a nation or a plot of land. It is support for a people, a culture and a civilization that dates back more than 5,000 years.
Forget Israel? Never.