At a recent dinner party on a Toronto terrace, as the light ebbed and dessert was served, a guest congratulated those assembled on getting through an entire evening without uttering the “T-word.” And thus, with a phrase, he-who-must-not-be-named hovered among us.
Not literally, of course. And not the nefarious Dark Lord of the Harry Potter series. But in the wake of Charlottesville, Va., it was impossible to get through a social gathering without bringing into the conversation a different leader, one who traffics not in the dark magical arts, but in the dark side of politics and power.
And just as we could not get through a dinner party without talking about the frightening rise of overt racism in America, and the president who opened the floodgates to it, I found myself unable to complete the column I first set out to write, about new trends in Israeli cinema. Instead, my thoughts turn to the dark and misbegotten alliances forged by political expedience and the shifting civic climate.
‘we need to adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward a populist movement that targets not only our communities, but demonizes and vilifies others by race, gender, ethnicity’
One effect of the legacy of the Holocaust and the aftermath of the Nazi genocide was that open expressions of anti-Semitism in North America gradually became unacceptable. Quota systems that limited the acceptance of Jews into elite universities and professional schools disappeared. Restrictive barriers were shattered, whether in businesses, country clubs or neighbourhoods. Because of its association with the horrors of Nazism, anti-Semitism seemed shameful and began to fade from the public arena. The civil rights movement gained strength and racism, more broadly, began to lose ground.
When I began my career as a professor of modern literature at an American university, I used to tell my students that they were the first generation that would know anti-Semitism as a historical phenomenon, rather than a contemporary experience. I was wrong.
Now, home-grown American racism is back. Some “very fine people,” it seems, march through American cities, chanting neo-Nazi slogans and longing for an imagined national “greatness” that is all white and free of Jews. They take succor from the lukewarm condemnation of the president they helped to elect and his moral relativism that refuses to denounce white supremacism by name. The president has made a devil’s bargain with groups defined by hatred and fear that constitute his “base.”
Like many Jews, chastened by our own history, I believe we need to adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward a populist movement that targets not only our communities, but that demonizes and vilifies others by race, gender and ethnicity. We should not make our own devil’s pact with power. And like many, both on this continent and in Israel, I was disappointed by the belated and tepid response from Israeli leadership to the events in Charlottesville.
Coming from a prime minister who famously invited the Jews of France to abandon their homes and move to Israel to escape French anti-Semitism, the reluctance to call out the travesty of the response of the American president was deafening. It struck me as another Faustian bargain. While it may seem to create political capital in the short run, the close association of the Israeli prime minister with the current American president can only backfire on Israel in the long run.
One can hope that the emboldened voices of racism unleashed under the current U.S administration can be subdued, restrained and even re-educated. But that does not seem likely, at least not in the short term.
So we need to be alert, vigilant and vocal. In his 1947 novel, The Plague, French novelist Albert Camus writes about a fierce epidemic that swept an Algerian port city as a metaphor for recurrent evil – for dark forces that we must fight, even if we cannot defeat them.
So soon after the defeat of Nazism, Camus reminded us that such battles “assuredly would have to be done again in the never-ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts.” And, indeed, here we are.