Part of the problem was the element of surprise. Everyone was caught totally off guard by the wave of hostility that spread across Europe. Foxman argues that the ADL never let down its guard either in America or in Europe, but there was a complacency that had settled over Jews. Perhaps it was what some call the golden age of the nineties, when the Israelis and Palestinians, guided by the Oslo accords, appeared headed toward an agreement.
Whatever it was, Foxman says he regularly got into arguments with people telling him it was time for the ADL to close its doors. “ ‘Stop counting swastikas in bathrooms,’ ” he says people told him. “ ‘The threat is assimilation, not anti-Semitism. We should be spending the money on Jewish education.’ ”
The miasma of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism that has settled over much of the world had its genesis at the Camp David–Taba peace talks almost three and a half years ago. Never had the two sides been so close to making a deal on a two-state solution. The deal, which many on both sides never thought they would see, was there for the signing.
Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak offered Yasser Arafat and the Palestinians a state on 97 percent of the occupied territories with most of East Jerusalem as its capital. The offer included Palestinian sovereignty over the Temple Mount and $30 billion in compensation for the refugees. Short of removing the state of Israel from the Middle East entirely, the offer was everything the Palestinians had been asking for.
In an interview with reporter Elsa Walsh, Saudi Arabia’s Prince Bandar said he told Arafat that if he didn’t make the deal, it would be a “crime against the Palestinians.” Of course, Arafat not only didn’t make the deal, he walked out of the meeting, got on a plane, and left. No negotiating, no stalling, no attempts to massage the offer. Nothing. He never even made a counterproposal.
Initially, Arafat’s recalcitrance looked like not only a crime against the Palestinian people but a huge public-relations blunder as well. In the U.S., in Europe, and even behind closed doors in the Muslim world, people were quickly turning against him. Slowly, however, a revisionist movement began. A second story line, pushed by people like Clinton aide Robert Malley, emerged. This narrative, prominently promoted in a controversial front-page New York Times article, said the offer wasn’t all it appeared to be. And in any event, there were many reasons Arafat simply could not make the deal: It robbed him of his dignity as a Muslim man because peace was offered not won; it required signing an end-of-conflict clause, which meant the Palestinians would have to give up their dream of all the land.
In addition, the revisionists claimed, negotiations went too fast, Arafat was surprised by the offer, he needed more time, he needed more assurances of cover from the other Arab leaders, and on it went. As chief American negotiator Dennis Ross said, in the final analysis, Arafat couldn’t sign any agreement because “to end the conflict is to end himself.”
“Arafat may have believed the moment had come when he could break Israel,” says Leonard Fein. “And it’s not clear he was wrong. After he walked out at Camp David, he was offered a much better deal at Taba.”
Fein is shocked that after all that has happened since then, a third of Israelis say they approve of the Geneva Accords, the peace agreement worked out by Yossi Beilin and Yasser Abed Rabbo. Since neither man holds an official position, the deal, which appears to be even sweeter than the one offered by Ehud Barak at Taba, is theoretical.
“But if I were Arafat,” Fein says, “I’d be breaking out the champagne.”
Shockingly, after Arafat walked out of the negotiations three years ago, he was able to turn world opinion 180 degrees almost overnight by restarting the violence. He revved up the second intifada, and the savagery continues on both sides. But strategically it was a very clever move. He knew he could provoke the Israelis to overreact, and that’s exactly what happened.
Now there were horrific visuals of Israeli soldiers bulldozing houses, shooting at crowds, and generally manhandling and mistreating Palestinians, broadcast round the clock on television all over the Arab world. Prince Bandar said that even though he and Crown Prince Abdullah knew intellectually that the violence was Arafat’s fault, they couldn’t ignore the television images.
The American Jewish Committee’s David Harris was living in Europe at the time, and he remembers how the Palestinian narrative began to take hold. “A kind of quick collective amnesia set in among the Europeans, and at times I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience. The people I discussed the issue with largely dismissed, ignored, or relativized the Israeli side of the story.”
Harris believes that embracing the Palestinian story line enabled the Europeans to avoiding facing some difficult questions. Had it been a mistake to support Arafat all along? Why had they been funding Palestinian Authority institutions, including schools that continue to dehumanize Jews and continue to use textbooks and maps that picture a world with no Israel?
Many believe that taking the Palestinian side after Arafat blew up the peace process even provided the Europeans a kind of expiation of their collective Holocaust guilt. According to this view, Israeli violence enabled the Europeans to say, “Look, you are an occupying, colonialist state engaging in war crimes. You no longer have the moral high ground.”
Finally, bashing the Israelis enabled the various governments to try to curry favor with their alienated Muslim populations. “The whole thing just kept spiraling,” Harris says. “And very quickly the story line was this: Israeli violence was unjustified, and therefore they were actually responsible for the Palestinian violence unleashed on them.”
The overarching question is, what to do now? What is the best strategy to deal with the groundswell of hate? Can things be turned around? Paraphrasing Jonathan Swift, Zuckerman says, “You cannot reason people out of what they have not been reasoned into.”
In the Muslim world, the traditional model used by Jewish organizations to fight anti-Semitism is useless. It requires working from the inside by finding sympathetic, like-minded leaders willing to form an alliance for the greater good.
“There are a few ecumenically minded Islamic leaders,” says Harris. “But they’re in the minority, and with only a very few exceptions they tend to be afraid of becoming too public. So without a critical mass of Muslim partners, the best we can do is blow the whistle, shine the spotlight, and urge Western governments to raise the issue.”
In Europe, there are, as bleak as the landscape appears, a few bright spots. French president Jacques Chirac did finally come to the U.S. in September to meet with the leadership of America’s Jewish community; four of his country’s most prominent Jews—David de Rothschild, Ady Steg, Simone Veil, and Roger Cukierman—came with him. Leaders here seem to have mixed emotions about this. I talked to Abe Foxman about the meeting several times, and in our first discussion, he focused on the positive. “He came because he got the message and he cares about what was being said here,” Foxman offered, adding, however, that Chirac waited until long after the national elections in France were over.
“He also came because he believes we have power and influence. It’s the same at the U.N. Even when they’re censuring Israel, leaders of most of the countries are eager to meet with us because they believe in the mythology. They believe the road to Washington is paved through the Jewish community.”
Later, however, Foxman said he was embarrassed for the Jewish leaders the French president brought with him. “It’s not the Middle Ages, where you parade your Jews around and say, ‘See how good everything is?’ ”
Nevertheless, at one of these meetings Roger Cukierman, who is the head of crif, the largest Jewish organization in France, raised a critical issue that most American Jews, at least, are loath to talk about. Cukierman said that the beginning of the anger toward Jews and the explosion of hate in France—which has both the largest Jewish and Muslim populations in Europe—can be pinpointed to September 2000, when Palestinian-Israeli violence restarted in earnest.
Surely it feeds on preexisting anti-Semitism, but there was, J. J. Goldberg says, a new catalyst. “I would argue that it’s not the same anti-Semitism that’s been going on for 2,000 years.”
When Palestinian violence began and Israel sent troops into the West Bank, justifiably or not, it was like putting a match to a dry field, and the fires have been burning out of control ever since.
And the harsh reality is this: Palestinian society is in tatters, the infrastructure has been wrecked, the economy essentially destroyed, and death for the cause has been romanticized as the highest value. But Palestinians are winning the war of perception, with the war played out on television screens across Europe and the Middle East. They are scoring regular world-opinion-changing victories in the media, successfully romanticizing suicide bombers as heroes.
It is possible even Ariel Sharon has begun to get the message. During a Cabinet meeting on November 30, Gideon Meir, deputy director general of the Foreign Ministry, gave a presentation to Sharon depicting the way Israel is portrayed in the foreign media. “I showed him examples of both distorted coverage and legitimate pictures of bad Israeli behavior,” Meir says, pointing out that the prime minister was appalled by both. “I would not say that everything is anti-Semitism, but these images go a long way towards inflaming hatred of the Jews.”
But of course it’s not just about the media coverage. “Anti-Semitism is being spread through those who teach Islam, and it’s metastasizing,” says Orthodox feminist Blu Greenberg. “It took Christianity 2,000 years to clean up its act and now it’s being taught again through a religious system. I’m frightened for my grandchildren.”
Most American Jewish leaders believe they are up against huge forces around the world and that ultimately they cannot fight this fight alone. “We have to make people understand that anti-Semitism is not a uniquely Jewish problem,” says Harris. “It’s a cancer which left unchecked infects and ultimately kills democratic societies,” he says. “That’s the message we have to get out.”