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Author sees growing anti-Semitism


Some people believe there is a resurgence of anti-Semitism in the United States, evidenced most recently by the verbal attacks on Jews by black nationalists of the Nation of Islam.

It has raised alarm both within and outside the Jewish community and, according to some, introduces a dangerous divisiveness into our political system.

Benjamin Ginsberg, director of the Washington Center for the Study of American Government, recently published a book, "The Fatal Embrace: Jews and the State," which offers some answers to the questions this development raises.

The book reinforces the conviction that anti-Semitism is on the rise. It examines the social contract between Jews and the established authorities in countries -- and especially in the United States. It shows, among other things, how the relationship between Jews and blacks fits within that context.

Dr. Ginsberg is the David Bernstein Professor of Political Science at the Johns Hopkins University and the son of Holocaust survivors.

Q: What do you mean by the comment in your book, "Jews are now fair game?"

A: During the 1950s anti-Semitism was really ruled out of order in American political discussion. Anyone making use of anti-Semitic rhetoric was labeled an extremist and banished to the margins of political life.

This was really a change in the United States, because up until the early '50s politicians commonly made use of anti-Semitic rhetoric.

This came to an end in the late '50s and early '60s, when an alliance was formed in the U.S. consisting of Jews, African-Americans, liberal Protestants. This was the civil rights alliance that became so important in the U.S. It forced anti-Semitism off the agenda.

In the '70s and '80s this began to break down, in part because of conflicts betweens Jews and African-Americans. A number of African-American politicians found anti-Semitism to be politically useful. What might be called "insurgent forces," mainly younger African-American politicians, sometimes used anti-Semitic rhetoric as a weapon against the black establishment.

This may seem peculiar, but it was precisely because Jews and African-Americans had been closely allied in the civil rights movement that establishment figures in the African-American political community could be attacked for being in some cases financially dependent upon Jews, or for administrative and legal support.

Q: Is anti-Semitism evident today only among African-Americans?

A: No. Blacks put anti-Semitism back on the agenda, made it permissible, when they started using anti-Semitic rhetoric and nothing happened, nobody reacted. Then others started as well. Forces on the political right, the most notable being Patrick Buchanan. Buchanan in his '92 presidential campaign flirted with anti-Semitism, especially in his remark about the gulf war being a war planned and fought for Jews.

Q: Do you expect it to get worse?

A: Yes. I would expect it would now that it has been shown that you can do it and get away with it.

Q: What do you mean by the phrase contained in the title of your book, "The Fatal Embrace?"

A: Historically, Jews and governments often developed close relationships. In particular, ambitious rulers often looked to the Jews as a source of administrative talent, financial acumen and sometimes military talent. The Jews for their part have looked to governments for protection and opportunity. This is the embrace of the state, a mutual accommodation between Jews and governments. This embrace can become fatal to the Jews if forces opposed to the government use its relationship to the Jews as a weapon against it.

One example of this was the Weimar Republic in Germany. The Nazis attacked it as the "Republic of the Jews." Another example is in the United States. The same effort was made by enemies of the New Deal who called it the "Jew Deal."

Q: Then do you believe that the old civil rights alliance of the 1950s and 1960s between Jews and blacks in this country has come to an end?

A: No. It's been undermined, but it hasn't completely disappeared. A realignment is occurring. It used to be that Jews were the senior partners and African-Americans the junior partners. To some extent what's going on is that African-Americans are trying to change the relationship.

Q: Do you think the enactment of "hate laws," which seek to prevent people from publicly verbally attacking groups on the basis of their race or religion, are acceptable strategies against anti-Semitism?

A: No, I'm very suspicious of hate laws. They're very easily circumvented by speakers and politicians. Witness Germany, which has hate laws but which don't seem to have an effect. Also, it is dangerous when you put the government in the business of regulating expression.

Q: What do you think is the reason for the public preoccupation in the past year with the Jewish experience during World War II? Is it simply the result of the opening of the Holocaust museum in Washington? The power of Steven Spielberg's movie "Schindler's List?" Or is there something else at work?

A: There is something else at work here. You have to look primarily at the American Jewish community to understand why the Holocaust museum was opened, why "Schindler's List" was made.

The American Jewish community is engaged in a great deal of self-searching during this period. On one hand, Jews worry about what they perceive as rising anti-Semitism around them. At the same time, Jews are concerned with rising assimilation: Jews are disappearing through marriage, through conversion and by leaving the community. This is the American paradox: You can have simultaneously anti-Semitism and assimilation. Thus, all this -- the museum, the film -- are signs of the American Jewish community trying to reassert its identity.

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