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EDITORIAL BOARD

The Road to Tehran
Polite society helped pave the way for Iran's Holocaust conference.

BY BRET STEPHENS
Saturday, December 16, 2006 12:01 a.m. EST

"Not acceptable," says Ban Ki Moon, new Secretary-General of the United Nations. "Repulsive," say the editors of Britain's Guardian newspaper. "An insult . . . to the memory of millions of Jews," says Hillary Rodham Clinton. Global polite society is in an uproar over the Holocaust conference organized this week in Tehran under the auspices of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Moral denunciation is what reasonable people do--what they must do--when a regime that avows the future extermination of six million Jews in Israel denies the past extermination of six million Jews in Europe. But let's be frank: Global polite society has been blazing its own merry trail toward this occasion for decades.

The Australian Financial Review is not the Journal of Historical Review, the Holocaust-denying "scholarly" vehicle of some of the Tehran conferees. But in 2002 the AFR thought it fit to print the following by Joseph Wakim, at one point the country's multicultural affairs commissioner: "Sharon's war is not a war," he wrote. "Genocide would be a more accurate description." In Ireland Tom McGurk, a columnist in the very mainstream Sunday Business Post, noted that "the scenes at Jenin last week looked uncannily like the attack on the Warsaw Jewish ghetto in 1944." Jose Saramago, Portugal's Nobel Laureate in Literature, observed after a visit to Ramallah that the Israeli incursion into the city "is a crime that may be compared to Auschwitz."

Never mind that the total number of Jews "dealt with" in the Warsaw ghetto, according to Nazi commandant Jürgen Stroop, was 56,065, whereas the number of Palestinians killed in Jenin was no more than 60. Never mind that at the time Mr. Saramago visited Ramallah a total of about 1,500 Palestinians had been killed in the Intifada, whereas Jews were murdered at Auschwitz at a rate of about 2,000 a day. Let's concede that, for the sake of moral truth, strained comparisons may still serve useful rhetorical purposes. (Jews and Israelis also often make inapt Holocaust and Nazi comparisons.) Let's concede, too, that the comments cited above amount to criticisms of Israeli policy, nothing more.

Yet once a country's policies are deemed Nazi-like, it necessarily follows that its leaders are Nazi-like and--if it's a popularly elected government--so are at least a plurality of its people. "As the dogma of intolerant, belligerent, self-righteous, God-fearing irridentists . . . [Zionism] is well adapted to its locality," wrote Tony Judt, head of New York University's Remarque Institute, in the New York Review of Books. Ian Buruma of Bard College derided Israel's "right-wing government supported by poor Oriental Jews and hard-nosed Russians." And from British MP Gerald Kaufman, this: "If the United States is keen to invade countries that disrupt international standards of order, should not Israel, for example, be considered as a candidate?"

As it happens, Messrs. Judt, Buruma and Kaufman are all Jewish. So let's also concede that it is not anti-Semitic to oppose Zionism. After all, among the Tehran conferees were rabbis from the ultra-orthodox Neturei Karta movement, who, like Mr. Ahmadinejad, actively call for the elimination of the state of Israel.

Yet simply because opposition to Zionism ideologically or Israel politically isn't necessarily anti-Semitic, it doesn't therefore follow that being anti-Zionist or anti-Israel are morally acceptable positions. There are more than six million Israelis who presumably wish to live in a sovereign country called Israel. Are their wishes irrelevant? Are their national rights conditional on their behavior--or rather, perceptions of their behavior--and if so, should such conditionality apply to all countries? It also should be obvious that simply because opposition to Zionism does not automatically make one guilty of anti-Semitism, neither does it automatically acquit one of it.

Such nuances, however, seem to go unnoticed by some of Israel's more elevated critics. Michel Rocard said in 2004 that the creation of the Jewish state was a historic mistake, and that Israel was "an entity that continues to pose a threat to its neighbors until today." Mr. Rocard is the former Prime Minister of France, an "entity" that itself posed a threat to its neighbors for the better part of its history.

Alternatively, Professors Stephen Walt of Harvard and John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, whose paper on "The Israel Lobby" is now being turned into a book, have complained that "anyone who criticises Israel's actions or argues that pro-Israel groups have significant influence over US Middle Eastern policy . . . stands a good chance of being labeled an anti-semite." Maybe. But earlier this week, former Klansman David Duke took the opportunity to tell CNN that he does not hate Jews but merely opposes Israel and Israel's influence in U.S. politics. He even cited Messrs. Walt and Mearsheimer in his defense. Would they exonerate him of being an anti-Semite?

In fact, anti-Zionism has become for many anti-Semites a cloak of political convenience. But anti-Zionism has also become an ideological vehicle for an anti-Semitism that increasingly feels no need for disguise. In January 2002, the New Statesman magazine had a cover story on "The Kosher Conspiracy." For art, they had a gold Star of David pointed like a blade at the Union Jack. This wasn't anti-Zionism. It was anti-Zionism matured into unflinching anti-Semitism. And it was featured on the cover of Britain's premiere magazine of "progressive" thought.

The scholar Gregory Stanton has observed that genocides happen in eight stages, beginning with classification, symbolization and dehumanization, and ending in extermination and denial. What has happened in Tehran--denial--may seem to have turned that order on its head. It hasn't. The road to Tehran is a well-traveled one, and among those who denounce it now are some who have already walked some part of it.

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