Anti-Semitism finds new life against Israeli democracy
Gadi Luzzatto Voghera, director of the Center for Contemporary Jewish Documentation, reflects on the effects of the current war on a perennial evil: anti-Semitism.
Gadi, what does the Oct. 7 Hamas attack show us that we didn’t already know about Islamic terrorism?
The news is there. They are first and foremost operational news, i.e., Hamas – as well as the set of other jihadist organizations operating in Gaza – have demonstrated unexpected military efficiency, which at the same time has exposed serious flaws in Israeli defensive systems and strategic assessments. This is why the attack produced a very sensitive emotional situation in Israel, not least because it fell practically on the anniversary in the Yom Kippur war, in which, albeit in a completely different manner, the country had found itself unprepared. It is clear that Oct. 7 demonstrates that for years Hamas was thought of by Israeli politics and perhaps even Israeli society as an Islamist group operating at the local level, thus not particularly dangerous, to the extent that it could overlook any political solution to the Palestinian question, including even a form of economic and social coexistence. The issue was never addressed, Hamas took advantage of this underestimation, and today we find that it has become an important link in the chain of Islamist fundamentalism, which affects the entire West. It is as if the defeat of Daesh/Isis has convinced us that we have won the war against terrorism. Finally, this operation demonstrates an obvious historical novelty: the unprecedented alliance between Shiites and Sunnis, that is, between Iran and Hamas, whose boundaries I believe we have yet to understand.
For many, the Hamas attack can be compared to the Holocaust. And in your judgment?
Certainly the anti-Semitic hatred demonstrated by Hamas is comparable to the Nazi hatred of the Shoah. And certainly there is an Islamist brand of anti-Semitism, also widespread, that Hamas feeds on. But we know, however, that anti-Semitism was not born in the Shoah, but went through it and has continued to feed after it, following other rhetorics up to the present day. This is why I find the parallelism between the Shoah and the Hamas attack completely inappropriate and unjustified. Of course, this is a temptation that has its reasons, because the one suffered on October 7 is a massacre that is unprecedented in Israel’s history, and yet I believe that assimilating or comparing it to the Shoah is wrong, so much so that such a juxtaposition is rejected by all the research institutes that have been countering the distortion of the Holocaust in public discourse for decades. Hamas, apart from hating Jews and wanting to kill them, does not repurpose the Nazi apparatus, both in terms of the operation of its force and military organization, and with reference to the historical context in which it operates.
One topic that is heard a lot these days, as also adumbrated by the U.N. secretary, concerns Israel’s responsibility in all these years when the conflict has not had a political solution.
Certainly Israel has many responsibilities in the conflict with the Palestinians, including serious ones. After that, however, we should not neglect to evaluate other situations that lead to the result of such a harsh clash. Think, for example, of the education Palestinian youth receive from the time they are young, which leads them to feel a radical hatred of Jews — mind you: not Israelis — who become the enemy to be put down. At the same time, I frankly believe that the words of Guterres, but also of so many others in various institutions around the world, who tend to assign responsibility to Israel for what happened on October 7, are unacceptable. Israel is a small country with great internal contrasts, which has to manage the occupied territories and has always had a great difficulty in finding a reliable interlocutor in the Palestinian reality. I therefore believe that if there is a responsibility for the current situation, it should be identified not so much in Israel, but in the United Nations, and cascading into all the other instruments of the international community (I am thinking, for example, of the so-called quartet, now extended to include Italy), which had the responsibility of identifying a road map to find a solution, but who have either been inert or have experienced failure. Indeed, it is clear that giant interests operate and clash in the area where Israel is located, having to do with the United States, Europe, Russia, and the Arab world. It is these players who have the responsibility to find a satisfactory mediation for those directly concerned, but they have left all the responsibility to Israel, which in turn has racked up a series of dramatically inadequate leadership.
So what happens to the rhetoric of “Gaza open-air prison”?
I reject it, because in a prison you don’t build miles of secret tunnels from which thousands of rockets head for Israel. In a prison you do not occupy schools and hospitals, also funded by the European Union and the UN, to use them as missile bases. In a prison you do not leave the gates open to allow thousands of people every day to go to work in Israel. Gaza is not a prison, but a place where a crucial game for the Middle East and Israel is being played. To place the sole responsibility for the current situation on Israel is incorrect. Although, again, I believe Israel has its own responsibilities.
The major one is the way Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 was handled. It was thought that this was enough to be able to disengage in the Palestinian issue, which was a mistake. If Israel has the ambition to be a regional power, it cannot afford to leave more than two million Arabs on its borders without a perspective.
One thing that really strikes me is the reaction of our public opinion, which is always sensitive to the Israel-Palestinian conflict but not as much, for example, for the Kurds, the Syrians, the Iranians, the Yemenis. How do you explain this difference?
There are many reasons. I would start by saying that for the Western world Israel, in some way, is part of us. That is, it is, not only because Israel is perceived as a Western country, but also because its birth is believed to have occurred at the hands of Europeans, such as Jews fleeing Europe. Still keep in mind that a city like Jerusalem is fully part of the Western imagination, as that is where the monotheistic religions were born. Moreover, so much attention to the conflict cannot but also stem from the anti-Semitism with which we are surrounded: anti-Semitism exists in our societies and toward Israel has its natural outlet. Finally, so much sensitivity has another justification, this time in favor of Israel: the Jewish state would be the outpost of the West defending us against the Arab world. It seems to me, however, that in all this we suffer from a kind of optical illusion.
First, the one whereby Israel would be born out of a colonial enterprise. Its birth does not follow a colonial logic at all. Certainly, Ben Gurion and the other Jews who declared the independence of the Jewish state were Europeans, like the Jewish emigrants of the late nineteenth century, but they never followed a logic of control and appropriation of others’ economic assets, as was the case with the great European powers. Moreover, it would be wrong today for anyone to regard Israel as a Western outpost in the Middle East. The Jewish population, 75 years after the establishment of the state, is completely part of those territories. That is, we should take note that from a geopolitical point of view Israel is a Middle Eastern country. Of course, in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem the glitter of wealth that we see in the West shines, but in many other areas of the country there is a deeply Middle Eastern air. The tastes, smells, languages and colors found in Israel are similar to those found throughout the surrounding area and belong to that world. The same should be said with regard to the political dynamics and leadership, which follows a local, we could say Levantine, logic that is very distant from the way we have in Europe.
But isn’t Israel then also in danger of diminishing the level of democracy within itself?
I believe that you can never draw a black-and-white picture. With respect to your remark, I reply that Israel is still a great democracy. It is so not only because of the way the state apparatuses function, because of the institutional balance between powers, albeit challenged by this government. Israel is a great democracy in the sense that it interprets freedom of speech and social freedom fully. Think of Gay Pride, which takes place every year in the cradle of monotheistic religions. Or think of the big anti-government demonstrations, the freedom of the press that is practiced in the country. Every morning I listen to Israeli army radio, and every morning I find a plurality of opinions there, including harsh criticism of the army leadership. Israeli journalism is another great expression of democracy just as we in the West understand it. On the other hand, however, Israel is also a democracy different from our usual standards: think of ethnic parties like that of the Russians, or the Arabs, which we in Italy could not even conceive of.
Speaking of politics, how do you view the position taken by the main Italian parties with regard to the conflict?
I see noticeable changes. Certainly on the right there is a strong, I would say comfortable, pro-Israel positioning. They use a rhetoric that sees Israel as the bulwark of the Western world, incurring those errors of perspective that I mentioned earlier. This is a position that not only pays off from an electoral point of view, but more importantly allows this majority to continue to accredit itself with the major Western chancelleries as a reliable partner. On the other hand, I see an important change in the Democratic Party. That is, it seems to me that the Pd was clearly affected by what happened on October 7, an event that left a mark on many people and made them understand the complexity of the game being played in the area. I hope that what happened made the leadership of that party understand how the reality in the Middle East is more complex than how it has been portrayed for years. Finally, as far as the 5-Star Movement is concerned, I would say that it is such a diverse world internally, and especially still lacking adequate political preparation on the subject, such that different orientations coexist.
How do you judge the way the mainstream and social media talk about the conflict?
It should be considered that there is a large part of the public that no longer relies on TV and newspapers to understand the world. Today, news of the war comes to us in real time through telegram, accompanied by pictures and sound. This poses a big problem, because the social channels are strongly targeted by the parties involved: the IDF [Israeli army, ed.], Hamas and other highly ideologized agencies. What scares me is the increasing tendency in the world of communication, especially TV, to return in prime time the same logic of the conflict that happens on the ground. I mean that many broadcasts tell us about the conflict by organizing for and against it clashing with each other, whereas the issue is much more complex. Fortunately, in some cases, it is still possible to find broadcasts that do information, that try to report the complexity of reality. This is mainly thanks to some correspondents (I am thinking, for example, of journalist Cecilia Sala), who work in the field, and who show a deep capacity for analysis.
What effect might this conflict have on anti-Semitism?
With a joke I would say: we should not fear that this conflict will increase anti-Semitism, because Italy has always lived with persistent anti-Semitism, which is very extensive at various levels. At the same time, I do not see a great change in the rhetoric used by anti-Semites before and after October 7. What scares me, if anything, is another phenomenon.
It scares me very much that in the world of education, already at the level of elementary school up to university, the teaching staff is often very Manichean sided, almost always in favor of the
Palestinians. That is, there is a tendency to reproduce in schools a rhetoric of strong hostility, which has an effect directly on students. This generates a climate of insecurity and even danger, for example for the thousands of Israeli students currently studying in our universities. In many practitioners there is a clear anti-Semitic attitude, partly caused by the fact that we tend to bring back to schools what we hear in homes: I am thinking of children whose parents come from Arab and/or African countries, in whose homes pro-Palestinian and anti-Jewish rhetoric prevails. This produces demonstrations such as those seen a few days ago in Milan, with slogans extolling the death of Jews, or in Bologna, where Jews were equated with Nazis. Perhaps it is precisely Italian Judaism that could teach us what risk in the long run we might face.
What are you referring to?
Today, Italy’s largest Jewish communities, the one in Rome and the one in Milan, are presided over by two people who, either directly or through family experience, have known a society [in Libya, ed.] in which people started throwing slogans against Jews and ended up attacking and killing them in real pogroms. I believe that our country must work right away to prevent the proliferation of these logics; I wonder if, until now, the institutions in charge of combating anti-Semitism have produced really effective counteractions.