By DANIEL TREIMAN|
Confronted by the rising tide of vitriol directed at Jews, Israel and the United States in the Muslim world, as well as in some circles in Europe, academics from around the world responded to the challenge in typical academic fashion: by convening a conference. Its result — like its title — was "Confusion."
Scholars from North American, Israeli and German universities converged on New York University this week for a two-day conference called "Confusion — Questioning Anti-Semitism, Anti-Americanism and Other Modes of Conspiracy." It featured sessions such as "A World Apart — On Globalization, Conspiracies and the Metaphor of the Jews?" and "Universal 'Evil' and the Modes of Victimhood — Holocaust, Colonialism and the Memory of Suffering."
The purpose of the conference, cosponsored by NYU's Center for European Studies and the Simon-Dubnow Institute for Jewish History and Culture at Leipzig University, was to "map the confusion that has built up over the past few years" surrounding antisemitism and anti-Americanism, said host Helmut Dubiel, who holds the NYU center's Max Weber Chair for German and European Studies.
Many participants found common ground in the almost de rigueur denunciations of the Bush administration and Sharon government — the Germans seemed somewhat less hostile to American government policy than their American counterparts, an irony that didn't go unremarked upon. But beyond such ritual critiques, much of the aptly named conference was dominated by confusion over efforts to define antisemitism and jargon-filled discussions about its resurgence around the world.
Jeffrey Herf, a University of Maryland historian, stood out at the conference by ascribing full responsibility for the current strife in the Middle East to the Palestinians. Speaking on a panel titled "Right or Wrong?: My Israel? The Jewish State and the State of Criticism," he assailed his fellow conference participants for engaging in "handwringing" in their efforts to draw distinctions between antisemitism and anti-Zionism. The more important question, he said, is "What are we going to do to fight Islamic fascism?"
"Today we did not talk a lot about what I think is the most important event of the last two years, the terrorist war that Yasser Arafat and Hamas and Hezbollah launched against the Jewish people," he said.
Herf was not alone, however, in drawing connections between historical European antisemitism and Islamic extremism's hatred of Jews. "It is as close to interwar fascism as anything we've experienced in our lives," said Moishe Postone, a University of Chicago historian. He warned that to view "the recent surge of classical modern antisemitism in the Arab world" as "simply a reflexive response to the United States and Israel" would be a reduction "akin to explaining Nazism simply as a reaction to Versailles," the peace treaty ending World War I.
And Gerda Lederer, a sociologist who teaches at New School University in New York, said of the current wave of antisemitism, "It does not take much imagination to see another specter of genocide on the horizon."
Meanwhile, there were disagreements over whether contemporary antisemitism is the result of, variously, Jews being the scapegoats for the dislocations of capitalism and "hypermodernity," European ideas of equality that frown on Jewish and Israeli exceptionalism or, as several suggested, the outcome of Israeli policies.
Nathan Glazer, the well-known Harvard University sociologist sometimes associated with neoconservatism, suggested that whereas historically antisemitism was rooted in "illusionary" beliefs about Jews, today's antisemitism is often a reaction to Israeli actions. And he said that such "hostility can be reduced and moderated by [Israel's] policies." He cautioned, however, that this doesn't mean that allegations such as those accusing Israel of responsibility for the September 11 attacks are "not pure illusion."
Glazer was joined in attributing antisemitism in large part to reactions to Israeli policies by two academics on the panel following his. Tony Judt, director of NYU's Remarque Institute, repeated some of his criticisms from his controversial May article in The New York Review of Books in which he wrote that Prime Minister Sharon was "about to set in motion a long cycle of death and decay across the region" and that Israelis "in their treatment of their Arab subjects... are on the road to nowhere." Moshe Zimmerman, a professor of German history at Hebrew University and self-described Zionist, answered Herf's charges of Islamic fascism by answering that there is also "Israeli fascism, Israeli terror and Israeli criminality."
For all the theorizing about antisemitism and impassioned critiques of American and Israeli policies, however, there was also a certain pessimism, stemming from an awareness of just how distant is the academic left from the levers of power, that the conference's deliberations would have any impact on the real world. Indeed, some looked enviously at the comparative influence of their intellectual counterparts on the right.
"There are intellectuals who have power," said Cooper Union historian Atina Grossman, "and they are not us."