French President Nicolas Sarkozy, during his recent visit to Washington, stated in widely reported remarks that the resurgence of anti-Semitic propaganda and associated violence around the world should not be minimized or explained away, but attacked head-on.
Sarkozy recalled being aghast to hear a Gaullist minister dismissing recent anti-Semitic violence in France with the throwaway line, "Yes, there are synagogues burning, but there are also cars burning."
Fighting anti-Semitism, said Sarkozy, involves agreement on what constitutes it: "We cannot fight against what is denied. Unless you agree on a diagnosis, you cannot find the remedy."
Unfortunately, during the past six years, agreement on what counts as anti-Semitism has not proved easy to achieve. Since Sept. 11, 2001, a large body of opinion in Europe and America -- mainly, but not exclusively, in the universities, the media and the arts -- has been talking as if the existence of Israel represented the sole cause of conflict between Islamists and the West.
Such talk has two great attractions. On the one hand, it appeals to those who in any conflict between an "us" and a "them" tend to take the side of "them." Israel is both a Western-style democracy, profoundly liberal in its laws, economy and institutions, and the chief ally of the United States in the region. Representing Israel as the sole cause of the conflict offers a way of exonerating "them."
By seeing the conflict as primarily "our" fault, the fault becomes that of the West, the fault of America.
But the attraction of blaming Israel does not end there. It offers -- at the very moment when its promoters feel themselves most burdened by the guilt of the West toward "the Other" -- a way of freeing them from that very guilt. They simply load it on to the shoulders of a second "Other" -- namely, the Jews.
The Jews, after all, are the immemorially chosen for scapegoat status, if not by God then by Western culture. Equally, they are an "Other" far less terrifying than the "Other" we confront at the ruins of the twin towers. We need not worry that they will respond to gratuitous defamation with riots or explosions in public places. They never have and never will. But their main advantage is that by blaming them, we regain the ability to believe in our own purity of heart and motive.
This kind of talk has been increasingly heard since 9/11. It is worrying when it comes from the extreme right. Coming, as it tends to do at present, from large sections of the self-styled liberal elite, it is terrifying, not merely to Jews but to democrats and anti-fascists of all religions and shades of opinion.
Plenty of Jews, and others, have protested against the current climate of demonization not merely of Israel, but also of the large majority of Jews and others who support Israel.
But furious denial is the usual response to any suggestion that there is anything anti-Semitic either about grotesquely hyperbolic defamation of Israel ("a Nazi state," "the apartheid wall"), or about attacks on the "Israel lobby" that patently revive and reanimate the hoary myth of Jewish conspiracy.
Denial is buttressed by the claim that these accusations of anti-Semitism are themselves evidence of a Jewish conspiracy to silence critics of Israel and close down debate on the Middle East. That charge, of course, reanimates another traditional anti-Semitic theme -- that of the Jew who whines about his sufferings less because he is really injured than because he hopes to draw some hidden advantage from complaining.
That, however, is beside the point. The point, as ever in the diagnosis of prejudice, concerns not disrespect but truth. How, in reality, could accusations of anti-Semitism hope to stem the tide of defamation now running so strongly, let alone "close down debate"?
What factual basis, if any, supports accusations that Israel is a "Nazi state" or that Israelis are planning -- or executing -- a Nazi-style genocide against Palestinians?
Anti-Semitism, just like any other form of prejudice, cannot breathe the air of truth. It thrives on luridly colored falsehood. That is where we need to begin the diagnosis for which French President Sarkozy has issued such a timely call.
Bernard Harrison is the author of Israel, Anti-Semitism and Free Speech, published by the American Jewish Committee.