A prolific journalist, media commentator, documentary producer, former Member of the Italian Parliament, and revered figure in Italy’s Jewish community (“she is our fiamma – our flame!” one Italian Jew told me years ago), Fiamma Nirenstein relocated to Israel nine years ago, where she currently serves as a senior fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. She’s also written several books, the latest of which, Jewish Lives Matter: Human Rights and Anti-Semitism, has now been translated into English. Even if you don’t need to be told that anti-Semitism is evil, and even if you’ve read any number of works on the subject, you’d be wrong to take a pass on this one: Nirenstein is a brilliant, deeply informed student of Jew-hatred, and her new book – translated excellently from the Italian by Amy Rosenthal – is an elegant, passionate, and energetic distillation of her knowledge and wisdom, offering more than a few insights that, to me at least, are fresh and valuable.
For example, Nirenstein notes savvily that the kind of leftist professors who reflexively profess sympathy for peoples like New Zealand’s Maori, Australia’s aborigines, Canada’s First Nations, and Native Americans in the U.S. – routinely reminding the white residents of those countries that they’re living on stolen land and beginning every lecture at an academic conference by mentioning that the event in question is taking place on land once occupied by the Iroquois or Aranda or Tutchone tribe – are the very same people who hate Israel the most, even though you’d think that if they prized consistency they’d cheer the return, in 1947, of the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah – which in the intervening centuries had been conquered in turn by (among others) the Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Crusaders, and Turks – to the descendants of their original inhabitants. As Nirenstein puts it, which tribal group could be a more archetypal example of “aboriginal people who returned home” than the Jews?
There are other ironies. Among the planet’s leading engines of anti-Semitism are institutions that were established for the express purpose of combating it. Nirenstein focuses especially on the European Union – which, she observes, funds Palestinian textbooks, year in and year out, that are packed with anti-Semitism – and on the U.N. Human Rights Council, which “has dedicated roughly half its resolutions for the entire globe to condemning Israel,” and whose Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Terrority was founded to monitor Israel because it’s “a criminal state” that represents a “perennial danger…to the Palestinians.” Then there are such NGOs as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, whose reports consistently exaggerate Israel’s offenses while deep-sixing Palestinian atrocities. A whole book, of course, could be devoted to the many other human-rights groups that choose not only to single Israel out for criticism but also to lie about its actions. The head of the German-based Anne Frank Center, for instance, has been reasonably accused of blaming Jews for anti-Semitism, and Oslo’s Center for Studies of the Holocaust and Religious Minorities, created in 2001 with government funds as part of the official restitution to Norwegian Jews deprived of property during World War II, now actively disseminates anti-Semitic and pro-Islamic propaganda.
Yet another irony. Within living memory, European Jews were oppressed, tyrannized, and ultimately sent to death camps, where some six million of them perished, for no other reason than that they were perceived by their tormentors as members of an inferior race or even a lesser species. Today, however, when progressive ideology demonizes caucasians and views Western civilization as blighted by something called “white supremacism,” Jews have been re-categorized as white, or even as “super-white,” and Israel has been cast as the leading edge of white imperialist oppression – an arrow aimed at the heart of the non-white world, with Europe and North America in the second and third rank behind it. By the same illogic, Palestinians have become “identified with blacks as an oppressed minority,” so that Americans who know nothing whatsoever about the history of the Jews and Palestinians understand their conflict by extrapolating from the entirely different history of whites and blacks in the U.S. Needless to say, the notion of Jews as “super-white” would have astonished the Jews who were victimized by Hitler’s racial laws and, as Nirenstein points out, would surely baffle the many Jews of the present day who hail from places like Ethiopia and Yemen. Similarly, the leftists who revile Jews and revere the “Palestinians” don’t seem to realize that the Jews were themselves the original Palestinians, having been given that name by the Romans two millennia ago, and that the label “has nothing to do with the Arabs who call themselves Palestinians today.”
Everything changes, but anti-Semitism persists. It’s a shape-shifter, constantly altering itself to suit the times. After George Floyd’s death, somebody created a mural of Floyd “wearing a keffiyeh in front of the Palestinian flag” – thus handily equating the supposedly systematic abuse of Arabs by Israel with the supposedly systematic abuse of black Americans by white cops. The now widely held view of Israel as an apartheid state – an insult to the black people who suffered under actual apartheid in South Africa – is belied by the fact that Muslims enjoy more rights in Israel than in many European countries (to say nothing of their rights in the most of the Islamic world). And the claim that Israel has for decades been committing a Nazi-like genocide against the Palestinian Arabs is simply outrageous, given that “a Palestinian population of 700,000 in 1948 has grown to around six million today.” Nirenstein reminds us of the 1967 statement by Martin Luther King, Jr., that “Anti-Zionism is inherently anti-Semitic, and ever will be so.” By way, moreover, of indicating the depths of absurdity to which anti-Semitism can sink, she cites a condemnation of Israel issued last year by none other than Kim Jong-un for “turning the Gaza strip into a huge human slaughterhouse and place of massacring people.”
Nirenstein does a powerful job of underscoring the contrast between Israel and its Arab enemies. On the one side is a terrorist group, Hamas, that “deliberately places Palestinian children in harm’s way,” using them as human shields; on the other side are the Israel Defense Forces, who take great pains not to harm those children. We’re talking about a conflict between “tribal” warriors who oppress women, murder gays, and despise infidels, and a technologically advanced democracy that actively promotes “equality between the sexes, religions, and ethnic groups.” Palestinians commit the most savage crimes against Israel, only to “send their loved ones to be treated in Israeli hospitals” – where they know they’ll receive excellent care. Israel, acting like “a child who wants to be loved,” sacrifices its own interests out of an “excess of passion for peace” even as the Palestinians reject the most advantageous peace proposals, because their real objective isn’t peace but the destruction of Israel. Israel gave Gaza “productive infrastructures, including the beautiful greenhouses that grew strawberries, cherry tomatoes, and carnations,” but when Hamas took over, it destroyed everything, underscoring the fact that these people don’t want a productive economy and a prosperous society – they want weapons, ammunition, and dead Jews. And yet the international left continues to see the Palestinians through rose-colored glasses. Why? Because, Nirenstein writes, “[t]hey are sacred, an idealized people rather than a reality, a way to affirm Israel’s unworthiness and, therefore, that of the Jews.” Precisely.
This is a short book – just over 100 pages long. But Thomas Paine’s Common Sense contained only 47 pages, and it sparked a revolution. Like Paine’s book, Nirenstein’s is an intense, urgent, and noble cri de coeur, a product of a fierce and fearless intelligence that brings original insights together with points that may not be new but that have never, perhaps, been so well expressed. Is there anything left to say about anti-Semitism? Yes, there is – and it’s all in this book, which you should put into the hands of everyone you know who ignorantly parrots the left’s anti-Semitic line. If Nirenstein doesn’t wise them up, I doubt anyone ever will.