Now that the U.S. Congress includes Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, who traffic in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and are firmly opposed to the existence of Israel—their map of Palestine occupies all of Israel—an old problem has reemerged: How should Jews respond to self-declared enemies in a democracy?
The most common and damaging emotional temptation in such circumstances—exemplified by Yair Rosenberg in these pages—is a yearning for dialogue no matter what, no matter with whom, even if it legitimizes extremism. Another is to vent anger to no purpose.
The last time such absolute enemies emerged in democratic Western polities, in Britain and France in the 1930s, they were totally defeated. And there is every reason to believe that it can be done again, so long as we can avoid fear-driven pleading and the pretense of big-tent dialogue.
In Britain, the enemy was a peculiarly British form of political anti-Semitism, which, being British, was most dangerous in its least visible form. The British Union of Fascists that once staged a march through then solidly Jewish Whitechapel in London’s East End to attract press attention was an organization of losers certainly very visible in their black uniforms. They had no chance of winning a general election, not just because they were ultra-extremists but simply because under Britain’s “first past the post” electoral system not even the finest third party can hope for victory.
Their leader, however, was well-connected: Sir Oswald Mosley of Ancoats, 6th Baronet, a combat officer in the First World War and later a member of Parliament, was sufficiently top-drawer in British society to marry just short of royalty—his wife was the daughter of the 1st Earl Curzon of Kedleston, of towering eminence as viceroy of India and then foreign secretary. Even today there are British aristocrats who command wide social influence (not least the skillfully charitable 28-year-old current Duke of Westminster) but in the 1930s the aristocracy was still very much on top.
Mosley could count on much quiet support from anti-Semites in Parliament, as well as on the very loud support of Sidney Harmsworth aka Viscount Rothermere, whose anti-Jewish message was disseminated every day by the mass-market Daily Mail. Nor was this the anti-Semitism of middle-class golf clubs: Mosley had Hitler as his guest at his second marriage, and Harmsworth was proudly photographed with him after a cordial meeting.
The British were not likely to fall for Hitler. But Mosley, Harmsworth and their ilk could ride one strand of political anti-Semitism that was very powerful indeed: The suspicion that the Jews wanted war with Germany to help their fellow Jews. The last war against Germany had killed almost a million British soldiers, and those losses were still so recent that many families were still mourning their dead. Several million more survivors of the trenches were left with weak lungs from gas attacks, old wounds, or persistent nightmares that ruined their sleep.
The horrific prospect of another war with Germany greatly empowered the appeasers, who were determined to come to an understanding with Hitler, which would certainly mean accepting whatever he did to Germany’s Jews.
Given that the appeasers included the prime minister and his foreign secretary, the danger was very real. In 1938, Robert Vansittart, at the top of the Foreign Office, was dismissed as too anti-Hitler (his replacement, Alexander Cadogan, would later attempt to strangle Israel at birth with his minister Bevin, by imposing a total arms embargo on the Jews, the Arab armies having already been equipped).
British Jews were divided on Zionism but not on anti-Semitism. Nobody suggested any form of dialogue that would have legitimized their enemies, as any dialogue must. There was instead a very determined effort to support the friends of the Jews in British politics, starting with the Manchester-centered Liberal establishment. This effort was all the more relevant because Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, the head appeaser, came from its midst (he was not personally anti-Jewish, just antiwar). The Manchester Guardian was then the support and comfort of the Jews, as much as the Daily Mail was for their enemies.
Winston Churchill, then still the enfant terrible of British politics (he had changed parties, twice!), had a serious drinking problem, an equally serious money problem, and no prospect of ever being a minister again. But he too was supported. The Wall Street financier Bernard Baruch (who made a point of telling Jewish stories to Churchill) pitched in with timely stock-picking advice. Even Leslie Hore-Belisha, Chamberlain’s secretary of state for war but a Jew, unabashedly supported Churchill.
But long before Churchill became prime minister in 1940—because of the German victory in Norway, not because of the Jews—the struggle had been won. As Churchill himself had told Mosley, “anti-Semitism is a good starter [for a new entrant in politics] but a bad sticker”—it ruins you once the Jews react. In 1936, the Blackshirts had staged their march through Whitechapel, protected by the police that dealt harshly with Jewish and other rioters. By 1938, they would not have dared. In 1940, Churchill became prime minister.
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In France, the old strand of Catholic anti-Semitism that exploded in the Dreyfus affair was still alive in the 1930s and had added an extremist wing. Yet fin de siècle French anti-Semitism was increasingly being overshadowed by the new anti-anti-German anti-Semitism of First World War veterans. This tendency was exemplified by the ex-Communist Jacques Doriot, city mayor and member of Parliament, who founded a new party in 1936 to collaborate with Germany rather than fight it (he would lead thousands of his followers in fighting for Germany against the Russians, ending up in the 33rd Waffen Grenadier Division).
The opponents of anti-Semites old and new were the liberals of the Parti républicain and the socialists and communists who combined forces in the Front Populaire. Its leader was Léon Blum, a militant Jew ever since the Dreyfus affair. On 13 February 1936, Blum was dragged from his car and almost beaten to death by the Camelots du Roi, royalist ultra-extremists of the much larger Action Française.
What happened next was that the Action Française was outlawed and Blum became the first Jewish prime minister of France on June 4, 1936, losing office a year later in the permanent party turmoil of the times. He then became prime minister twice more: In June 1937, for several months, and again in March of 1938. When Blum lost power the third time it was to the Parti républicain, whose leaders Édouard Daladier and Paul Reynaud were firm opponents of anti-Semitism. Blum survived the war as a VIP prisoner in Buchenwald, where he was even allowed to marry his Jewish wife. He briefly became prime minister once more in 1948.
None of this stopped the German occupation under which 72,500 Jews lost their lives, but 75 percent of France’s Jews survived—a much higher rate than in most countries—not without the help of many sympathizers. What defeated the French anti-Semites who were very much on the march by 1935 was again, as in Britain, a quiet mobilization to isolate them socially as well as politically, and to support their local and national adversaries of all stripes, along with the refusal of any form of dialogue or compromise.
In the United States, that means supporting the Republican candidate in a race if the Democrat is anti-Israeli. Those who favor “dialogue” with the likes of Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar appear to be driven by the delusion that our enemies would not be so if only they knew us better, or stood in solidarity with them on issues of mutual concern. I have no doubt that one or both even received Jewish money for their election campaigns. Ilhan Omar was bizarrely featured as a fitting heroine for young American children in a brochure paid for and distributed by the ADL.
The good news is that we live in a democracy, and there is another election coming up soon enough. Let their opponents receive all proper encouragement and support, both local and national. When it comes to those who proclaim anti-Jewish hate, the American Jewish community needs to follow the examples set by British and French Jews when confronted with even greater threats: Stop dialoguing and start winning.
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