Last month, Israel’s alternate prime minister Yair Lapid gave a speech on anti-Semitism, which he described as a species of the “family” that includes any persecution of people “not for what they’ve done, but for what they are, for how they were born.” His comments provoked a sharp response from his main political rival, Benjamin Netanyahu, who accused him of minimizing anti-Semitism and denying its uniqueness—sparking much argument in the Israeli press. To Haviv Rettig Gur, this controversy reflects a broader one that goes back to the origins of Zionism itself:
[Early] Zionists acknowledged anti-Semitism’s strange power but argued it was caused by the [unusual] condition of the Jews within the societies in which they lived. Normalize the Jews and you’ll end, or at least “normalize,” anti-Semitism, transforming it from a unique, society-mobilizing hatred to mere banal prejudice. Jewish nationhood and self-reliance would end the world’s obsession with the Jew.
In hindsight, it might astonish us that Zionism could ever have believed the solution lay in changing the Jew. Anti-Semitism, then and now, was simply too useful to be abandoned just because the Jews of the eastern hemisphere had reorganized themselves into a nation-state.
It’s no great leap to notice the parallel between [neo-Nazis’] argument that Jews, through some secret political order, are the cause of America’s troubles, and the claims by some progressives amid the racial reckoning now rocking American society that Israel, in some equally hidden political order, is responsible for those racial ills.
In this sense, Gur concludes, there is something “apparently unique” about the hatred of Jews, namely:
the role Jews are forced to play in the political imaginations of non-Jews as the incarnation of, and explanation for, their deepest fears and most vexing social ills. It is not the idea that Israel is doing wrong, but the idea that Israel, in some deep order of global affairs, is what is wrong with the world.