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Toronto, April 24, 2000

Slaying the ghosts of Jewry's past

By John Lloyd

In 1988, a handful of professional anti-Semites gathered in Toronto to protect one of their own. Ernst Zundel, then Canada's most prolific and active distributor of anti-Semitic literature, was on trial for "instigating social and religious intolerance." The main publication behind the indictment, and Mr. Zundel's best selling title was Did Six Million Really Die?, by British fascist writer Richard Harwood.

Among Mr. Zundel's supporters was British scholar David Irving, who had already built for himself a large reputation among fascist and anti-Semitic groups for his admiration for Hitler, his view that the Fuhrer knew nothing of the Holocaust and his insistence that the Allies were more to blame for the war and its slaughter than were the Nazis. In the course of the Toronto trial -- influenced by evidence from Fred Leuchter, an American self-styled expert in execution methods who claimed from a cursory examination of the ovens at Auschwitz and other camps that they could not have been used for extermination -- Mr. Irving moved from denying that Hitler knew of the Holocaust to a denial that it happened at all.

Thus, in his 50s, Mr. Irving began the most radical period of his life. He became increasingly certain that he was confronting a vast conspiracy against the truth; he was, over the next 12 years, to use any platform he could find to proclaim the baselessness of the Holocaust "myth." So much did he believe this himself that he became convinced that a British court would find that he was a serious scholar who had made an important contribution to historical research.

He had himself initiated what proved to be his humiliation. He sued author Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin, the publisher of her book Denying the Holocaust, for libelling him as an anti-Semite. Earlier this month, he secured the opposite of what he desired -- a judgment from Judge Charles Gray, ruling in Britain's High Court, that he had "persistently and deliberately manipulated historical evidence," that the criticisms of him in Prof. Lipstadt's book "were almost invariably well-founded" and that he is "a racist who associates with right-wing extremists who promote neo-Nazism."

Mr. Irving is in some ways the "best" of the anti-Semites. He has produced good scholarly work on the last war; in the course of the trial, Donald Cameron Watt, the former professor of International Relations at London University wrote that "no book of his has ever failed to come up with new evidence." The fact that Mr. Irving, on his own instigation, should be so damned would seem to mark some kind of closure; a judgment that the most scholarly and dedicated of the hideous crew of Nazi sympathizers should be found, in the end, to be himself hideous.

But it will not be a closure. It may even be that the lopping off of the reputation Mr. Irving sought to defend will, in a perverse way, make the plant stronger. Anti-Semitism answers a real psychological need, which has, if anything, appeared to increase in the modern world. It is the need to create of the Jews -- both those in the Diaspora and in the state of Israel -- a monstrous power which spans the globe and can manipulate governments, financial institutions and media corporations to do their bidding, trampling on the truth all the while.

This is not new. The image of the Jew as a world conspirator goes back to the last century, and connects with still older myths of the Jew as well-poisoner and child-slayer. But it has taken a new twist in the globalized world; for in that world, the speed, complexity and pressures for constant change that globalization brings mean that the environment is genuinely bewildering for most people at least some of the time. If a plausible reason for this complexity can be given -- that it is the work of a group who wish to further their power -- then further converts can be gained.

THERE has been a radical inversion of 19th- and early 20th-century anti-Semitism, when Jews were regarded as fair game for everything ranging from disdain to pogroms -- and, ultimately, genocide -- by the dominant groups in the countries in which they lived. Now, they are promoted as the exploiters and the repressors; not victims, but the creators of victims.

In the literature of the anti-Semites, the use of the words "liberty" and "freedom" about themselves and their organizations is constant, as they represent themselves as strugglers for truth. Ernst Zundel's Toronto publishing house was called "Samisdat," the Russian word applied to the underground publishing of material banned by the Communist regime. It is a sign of a mindset of radical victimhood, of men who see themselves as struggling to set their (Aryan) people free from the Semitic yoke. The prominence of Jews in business, the media, and public life provide the base for the fantasy; if there are so many, and so powerful, surely there must be a plot? It is the reasoning of a fascist mind, which can conceive of no other order than that of the endless search for power, and its ruthless use.

Today's anti-Semites, especially those in Europe, feed off behaviour by the state of Israel itself. For the past half century, Israel has existed as a state that has extended full citizenship only to Jews, and denied aspects of it to the Palestinian Arabs in its midst. It is the only example of a modern and democratic state that is confessional rather than civic: a state which founds itself on the need for a homeland for a suffering and abused people. The Holocaust has been a large element in justifying its existence, both to itself and to the world. It now faces a challenge, from within, to move from a religious and communal base to a civic one.

Last month, the Israeli Supreme Court took a very important decision. It ruled that the Qa'adan family, Israeli Arabs, could buy a plot of land in the middle-class Jewish settlement of Katzir, near Haifa. They had lived in the Arab town of Bakar-el-Gharbbiyeh, which -- like all Arab settlements in Israel -- has a much lower living standard, worse amenities and less well-endowed schools than the Israeli Jewish areas. The Qa'adans wanted a future for their children that included a good education; hence their attempt to move. When they tried to buy land (almost all the land in Israel is controlled by either the Jewish Agency or the Jewish National Fund), they were denied. And so they went to the court. After five years of court deliberation, they won.

The Qa'adan case is a landmark. Supreme Court Judge Aharon Barak ruled, "The Jewish character of the state does not permit Israel to discriminate between its citizens. In Israel, Jews and non-Jews are citizens with equal rights and responsibilities." These words, a platitude in most Western states, are revolutionary in Israel. Salai Meridor, chairman of the Jewish Agency, fulminated that the ruling was undermining his organization's raison d'être, to "protect the interests of the Jewish people." Yossi Beilin, the Justice Minister, on the other hand, called for the Agency's dissolution.

In the contrast between the two responses lies the struggle of the Israeli state to achieve a civic and liberal identity. It will be a long struggle: Israel sees itself -- with reason -- as a state besieged, a view which has been strengthened this year by the failure of talks with Syria. It has yet to reach a stable settlement with the Palestinians; and much of the rest of the Arab world is unreconciled to Israel.

But in the present Labor government of Ehud Barak there is an understanding that the state can no longer justify itself on the old basis. The great sufferings of the past, of which the Holocaust is by far the greatest, can no longer be used as moral exculpation for the petty tyrannies of the Israeli state, nor can the Zionist cause take precedence over the demands of equal access to justice. A modern state has certain obligations that take precedence over all others, because they revolve around the need to extend equality of treatment to all to whom the state extends citizenship.

Israel's need is to supersede its Zionist destiny by transforming it from an ethnic and religious cause into a democratic one. This action would deprive the anti-Semites of part of their platform -- that part which feeds its monstrous vision with observation of the real breaches of human rights committed by the Israeli state. In doing this, Israel begins to slay the ghosts of Jewry's most tragic century.

John Lloyd is a journalist based in London.


April 24, 2000
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