Suzanne Fields
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Supermarkets in Norway are pasting stickers on Israeli products so customers can know where they come from and boycott them. No yellow armbands for Jews. Not yet. The French have published a translation of "Ravelstein," the American novel by Saul Bellow that depicts a cosmopolitan Jewish professor, elegantly described as a connoisseur of fine food, wine and clothes, and the "intellectual counterpart to Michael Jordan." The cover on the French version depicts a man with an ugly prominent nose, large ears, greasy hair and is an anti-Semitic caricature such as you might find in French and German cartoons of the '30s and '40s. Alexander Cockburn, an American left-wing columnist, who publishes a newsletter "Counterpunch," writes about the nasty stories against Jews "sloshing around the news." He doesn't endorse these stories, but he doesn't shoot them down, either. He's clever, all the while giving them a legitimacy more commonly found in the Arab press. One unsubstantiated story includes the slur that "the purveyor of anthrax may have been a former government scientist, Jewish, with a record of baiting a colleague of Arab origins." Another such story says that Israeli spies trailing Mohammed Atta knew 9/11 was going to happen "but did nothing about it." When asked if the stories were true, Cockburn delicately demurs. "I don't think I said they were true," he told The New Republic. "I don't know there's enough exterior evidence to determine whether they are true or not." There are more examples where these came from, with Jews targeted with smears and innuendo, ostensibly in reaction to the conflict between Israel and Palestine. They're reminiscent of the anti-Semitism flourishing before and during World War II in Europe. Prejudice toward the Jews is ancient stuff. Some people say that's what is meant by the term "the chosen people" - Jews are singled out as objects of hate. But the roots of anti-Semitism go deep and are nourished by different sources at different times. These roots draw on the vulnerabilities of those who need a scapegoat to explain their political-economic opinions, their poverty, their greed and perhaps more insidiously their indifference to the usual decencies. Such people rationalize their anti-Semitism in the name of giving information, reporting, or merely expressing sly attitudes such as "just kidding." Their subtext is obvious. The Norwegians, for example, say the stickers are not a formal "boycott" of Israeli products; they merely want to inform their customers who are pro-Palestinian where the products they sell are grown. Sort of like labeling for fat and calories. In the last decade, Norwegian stevedores have refused to unload Israeli farm products and a Norwegian "labor youth group" campaigned to bar Israeli singers from a song contest. One group, which calls itself "Boikott Israel," insists that it's not anti-Semitic, merely anti-occupation of Palestinian land. While many brave Norwegians joined the resistance and risked their lives to save Jews during World War II, the Nazis counted on many other Norwegians to help eliminate Norwegian Jews. "As far as possible, Norwegian police should be allowed to carry out the measures we want implemented," the Gestapo advised in 1940. Vidkun Quisling, the Norwegian prime minister from 1941 to 1945, was only too happy to oblige. When the Nazis confiscated Jewish property in 1942, they relied on the "well-mannered" Norwegian police to do the deeds. The prime minister and his devoted followers reveled in the loot, and Quisling's name became a synonym for "betrayer". An active neo-Nazi organization in Norway today has as its members descendants of the Waffen SS and Quisling's party. The Progress Party, an anti-immigration, anti-Semitic party, holds 25 of 160 seats in Parliament. It wants to ban circumcision (for health purposes, of course). The French are more subtle in their anti-Semitism and better at hiding it under the rubric of "legitimate" political positions and intellectual savvy. Gallimard, the French publisher of the Bellow novel, says the cover of "Ravelstein" is "humorous," and Jews are not the butt of the joke. When Christine Jordis, who was in charge of French publication, was asked if she would characterize the cover as exploiting Jewish stereotypes, she was shocked. Shocked! The next thing you know someone will accuse Stepin Fetchit of have exploited stereotypes of blacks. "If we had perceived it as anything of the kind," she told the New York Observer, "we would have chosen another cover." Perhaps she could have followed the example of the Norwegians and put labels on the cover of the novel: "Not Jewish humor." Then Alex Cockburn could report, merely report mind you, that Jews lack a sense of humor.
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Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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