July 22, 2024
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From Blood Libel to the Placard Strategy: Einat Wilf Shows How One Lie Has Global Consequences

How did Zionism, the Jewish state and the Magen David—the symbol enshrined on the flag of Israel itself—become associated with evil? Make no mistake, this has become the case not only on the streets of Gaza, Tehran, Beirut and to lesser, but certainly no less troubling, extents in Paris, London, Cambridge (both of them), Los Angeles and even New York City. Evil has been conflated with Zionism by global bodies like the International Criminal Court and the United Nations in recent months.


Einat Wilf, PhD, a former member of the Israeli Knesset from the Labor Party and a frequent writer, speaker and thought leader on antisemitism, spoke to Jewish community leaders—many from synagogues and beneficiary agencies such as Jewish day schools—last week at a breakfast in Paramus, hosted by the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, where she addressed those very questions. 


Wilf, a frequent speaker to non-Jewish guests and dignitaries who visit Israel, often speaks to Jewish communities outside Israel on the topic of anti-Zionism, enabling people to understand and address the unique propaganda that it engenders. She received a BA from Harvard, an MBA from INSEAD in France, and earned a PhD in political science from the University of Cambridge.


The Jewish Federation’s community engagement director, Ilana Sperling, said that it was her hope that listeners would benefit from Wilf’s substantive analysis on the history and deeper meaning behind the current delegitimization of Israel. “Her passion, eloquence, insight and commitment to Israel and Zionism [are] a source of inspiration, especially during these troubled times.”


The Original Blood Libel


Wilf explained that the current crisis and the global paroxysm of antisemitism that occurred following the grotesque Hamas attack on October 7 can trace its roots back to the original blood libel, that Jews were falsely accused of murdering Christians and using their blood as part of religious rituals. This was a situation where Jews knew for a fact that it was wrong, that it was an outright lie. 


“Because Jews knew that the vast majority of people could then believe in a lie, then it would be possible for the entire world to believe a lie but they would still know the truth,” said Wilf.


While knowing the truth may be noble, it doesn’t help us today as the hate engendered by this one lie has spread and multiplied and transformed in a unique way; or as Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, zt”l, explained, Jew hate is a “shape-shifting virus.” 


The lies about Jews-as-evil spread, and no matter how many people spent time refuting specific claims, nothing ever beats the power of that one great lie. It calls forth the quote by Jonathan Swift that “falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it,” and the quote, sometimes erroneously attributed to Winston Churchill, that “a lie can get halfway around the world before the truth puts its shoes on.” 


As the Jews were expelled from nation to nation after that initial blood libel, it can be said that things never end well for the Jews, or for the societies that sought to scapegoat all its evils onto the Jews. However, cracks in Jewish belief itself can be traced to medieval Europe, where the Jews were privy to what was being said about their “evil nature,” and that seemed to create a general agreement. “And when there’s ’general agreement’ about something, it begins to instill doubt. If Jews were constantly exposed to this agreement about their evil nature, they would begin to believe these ideas and think it is part of their very identity,” said Wilf. 


One hundred and twenty years ago all these libels were codified into a book, known today as the fraudulent Protocols of the Elder of Zion. About this, Wilf said: “Books are respectability, academia. You could get PhDs in anti-Zionism. People began to quote each other and cross reference. There is now an impenetrable web of respectability around anti-Zionism.”


That is why, Wilf explained, Jews are often at the forefront of organizations that are anti-Zionist. “The doubt creeps in. Well, maybe we are that bad. Maybe we are committing evil. Maybe the idea that the Jews should be sovereign is a bad idea,” she said. 


Einat Wilf (Courtesy of Laura Freeman for JFNNJ)

The Placard Strategy and the Need to Eradicate ’Evil’


As the Soviet Union rose from the ashes of Tsarist Russia, the government was officially against antisemitism, but began to build anti-Zionism as an effective replacement. 


The Soviet Union employed the strategy of “general agreement” to great effect. The first seeds of “Zionism is racism” were brought to the U.N. in 1975 by the Soviet Union and Muslim nations. 


“The U.N. was united already with the idea that racism is bad. They brought a resolution that Zionism equals racism, therefore Zionism is bad. This is known as the placard strategy. It’s so simple; it’s built for nursery schools. Zionism/Israel/Magen David with an ’equals’ sign to racism, colonialism, evil,” explained Wilf. 


The endpoint of the placard strategy is a sign that has been seen at Gaza protest rallies during this past winter and spring. “’Keep the world clean,’ with a picture of the star of David in a trash can,” said Wilf. 


The message couldn’t be clearer. Take out the trash. 


Wilf said this message is very attractive to young people, and young people particularly on college campuses see themselves as good and as seeking out good. “There’s no greater good in the world than the eradication of evil. There is a ’general agreement’ by which the eradication of evil is the greatest act of good … by any means necessary.


“This is the most ancient idea. Between this messy, dirty [world] and the clean world, stands the collective Jew. These are ancient and dangerous ideas. This environment has been prepared for decades, and that is why what is happening in colleges and universities matters. Colleges are modern forms of authority, like the church. It shapes minds, shapes narratives,” said Wilf. 


“It is not an error or a coincidence that blood libels have been most promoted and inserted in the places that enjoy the greatest prestige. If a university lends its academic prestige to the idea that Zionism is evil, that gives them permission to say that Israel is commmitting genocide and they were right all along,” because of the “general agreement” that genocide is the epitome of evil. 


What Should We Do? The Five S’s


“The mechanism of general agreement operates in the same way by assaulting Jews from every direction, and instills a sense of doubt. It’s very difficult not to succumb to those pressures. What we must do for the young generation is to help them steel themselves for that onslaught.” 


Wilf defined the following as the five S’s, her answer of what to do once one clarifies  the situation, correctly placed in the realm of historical reality:

1. See. Once you see it you can’t unsee it. Also, once you’ve spoken about the placard strategy you see it everywhere. These are not disparate and separate things. 

2. Steel against it. Understand that what is happening now is the modern form of blood libel. 

3. Study. Take this and use it to benefit the community. 


Here, Wilf took a break to explain something she called the Brandolini principle, based on an Italian programmer’s effort to understand misinformation distribution on the internet. “The idea is the amount of effort required to fight against bullsh** is at least at an order of magnitude greater than the effort to produce it. This is the Jewish condition. We are forced to expend tremendous energy to refute the most innane things. Sartre famously wanted to see the Jew with empty pockets. These are mistakes that many of us have made over the years, that we tried to respond to each individual accusation. We worked at refuting each claim rather than seeing the total picture and ignoring that there is already general agreement.” 


4. Struggle. Once we have seen it and steeled ourselves, we actually need to go to battle, because these ideas are dangerous. If you create a global mindset that Israel, Zionism and the star of David are evil, you are creating the infrastructure to justify every act of violence. This is one of the most dangerous ideas out there and it never ends well for the Jews. We have to create alliances of people who get it. One of the main ways to struggle is to show people that these ideas only ever lead in one direction. Allow people to see the entire picture.

5. Switch. Take the words that are dearest to us, such as Zionism, and give them back their original meaning. We have to recognize that the world has gone mad. We have real enemies truly devoted to our destruction. 


Finally, make sure to understand: “This is how it ends, and this leads to the collapse of societies,” Wilf said. “Anti-Zionism is a scapegoating mechanism of societies in crisis. The most effective way to struggle and to build alliances is not to challenge each and every accusation, but to allow allies to see the full picture, show them what’s at stake. Hopefully they care enough to show up.”


A Competing ‘Big Idea’ to Combat Anti-Zionism


The obvious question is how to develop a competing “big idea” that could fight anti-Zionism and prevent it from becoming the dominant ideology of the world. In this regard, Wilf said she’s been writing and speaking about an idea she calls “Arab Zionism.” 


She explained that both Arabs and Jews, as a people, each have a top priority. The Jews want a state in their historic homeland based on self-determination. The Arabs’ top priority is to “resist to the last the establishment of Jewish sovereignty in the region,” said Wilf.  


“The conflict ends in one of two ways: Either the Jews give up their top priority or the Arabs give up their top priority. So much of the effort that has been expended in the last century has been for the Jews to give up their top priority. Wars, terrorism, boycotts, international condemnations. So through a violent cataclysm or through exhaustion, the idea is to get the Jews to say it’s not worth it. To say, ‘We’re out of here.’


“Instead, we are trying to exhaust the Arabs.. Not for them to leave; they are 60 times our numbers; that’s not realistic. We are trying to exhaust them into finally accepting us. To finally let go of their priority of resisting the lasting Jewish state. 


“This is what I call Arab Zionism. It’s the Arab and Muslim idea that the existence of a Jewish state in the Jewish homeland is commensurate and compatible with an Arab and Muslim identity. 


“The Arab and Muslim conquests of the Levant, in the Middle East and North Africa have been very successful, so, ‘well done’ to them. As a result, as long as the Jews care about living in the land of Israel and being sovereign in the land of Israel, we are destined or damned to remain a puny, minute, ethnic religious national and linguistic minority in an overwhelmingly Muslim Middle East. This means that the only path to peace is one where the Arab and Muslim world look at the Jewish state no longer as a mark of shame to be excised but rather as a mark of honor, something they see as compatible with their own sense of being Arab or Muslim.”

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