Anti-Semitism Today: What it is and what it isn’t

Today it was swastikas on tombstones on the Jewish cemetery of Westhoffen (Alsace). On Yom Kippur, an attack on the synagogue in Halle, which left two people dead. (Zeit Online reported that police treat the attack as an isolated incident.) Last year: Squirrel Hill. In May 2019, Reuters reported a dramatic rise in anti-Semitic incidents worldwide, led by Western democracies, including the United States. The conclusion, drawn by the Tel Aviv University Kantor Center for Contemporary Jewry, is that anti-Semitism is no longer the domain of the “triangle” of the far left, the far right, and radical Islam, but that it has gone “mainstream.”

It is emotionally difficult for me to think, let alone write, about anti-Semitism. It is not something I can do dispassionately, which is the reason why I rarely touch on it in my academic work or teach it. Call it trans-generational PTSD. The way I get upset when I see defaced Jewish tombstones is different from the way I get upset when I read about the US Department of Agriculture planning to deprive 750,000 needy Americans of access to food stamps, or hearing about Rohingya  children in Bangladeshi refugee campus without access to formal education. I feel we can do something about food stamps (elect more sensible and compassionate representatives) and Rohingya children (draw attention to their plight and give to aid organizations). Anti-Semitism, on the other hand, seems to be intractable and beyond remedy.

But that’s not quite true either. For our own peace of mind, and also for the sake of our relationship with our neighbors, fellow-citizens, and friends, let us pause and think for a moment. Part of what makes us feel helpless and depressed about the rise of anti-Semitism is exactly the impression, fed by media and information centers, such as those cited above, that anti-Semitism is a natural phenomenon, something that comes and goes in “waves” that “rises” like hurricans or tsunamis. The proper response to natural catastrophes is to brace oneself, to weather the storm, or to evacuate. The rhetorical analogy with natural phenomena makes anti-Semitism seem inevitable.

We need to consider the sources of these statistics and their potential interest in exaggerating the threat. Much like meteorological data used in the mass media, where unseasonal snowfalls appear like the advent of snowmaggedon, and much for the same reason, institutes and organizations tracking anti-Semitic incidents are understandably interested in having something to report. Anti-Semitism is “sexy” because it hurts emotionally; not only Jews, but all decent people are upset when they hear about such incidents. All members of civilized societies feel bad when told of their failure to curb anti-Semitism. This is not to say it does not exist and that it is not entrenched.

What is anti-Semitism? It is hard to say because it seems amorphous. Some see it as an outgrowth of Christian anti-Judaism, but ancient Greek and Roman sources show elements of anti-Jewish rhetoric that precede the rise of Christianity. The intellectually most lazy blame it on the Jews. Why do they  insist on their difference? What makes them so special? The traditional answer to this type of resentment was Jewish humor. This no longer works. The mid-20th-century European genocide of the Jews has made it impossible to laugh it all off.

There is also the well-known phenomenon of anti-Semitism without Jews. Anti-Jewish resentment may be kept alive by a reaction to being called on one’s anti-Jewish resentment. After all, anti-Semitic is the one thing decent people can agree on not wanting to be, which makes those who express anti-Jewish sentiments look bad. Today, two generations after the destruction of European Jewry, people who never fully repressed their anti-Jewish sentiments are more willing to voice their resentments openly. This is how we arrive at the present moment. Liberals are surprised at the resurgence of sentiments they thought no longer existed because they had been successfully tabooed.

A further complexity. Many statistics of anti-Semitic incidents lump together anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist events. This equation is justified to the extent that both types of events are traumatic for Jews. But they are not therefore the same. In fact, part of the trauma arises from the confusion sown by well-meaning people upset about the “mainstreaming” of anti-Semitism, esp. in democratic societies, who don’t distinguish between these two phenomena. I admit that they are sometimes indistinguishable. There obtains a certain anti-Israel hysteria among western liberals that can look a lot like anti-Semitism. Many liberals feel that Israel is – or should be – an extension of western liberalism and should behave accordingly. When Israel misbehaves by those standards, many western liberals are disappointed. On one side, there is a disappointed love. On the defensive side, there is the charge that the disenchanted liberals measure Israel by unrealistic standards. Passionate criticism does not make critics of Israel or Israeli politics into anti-Semites or self-hating Jews. Those of us critical of Israel must ask ourselves whether our intense attention to Israeli transgression does not play into the hands of genuine adversaries of Israel. But I don’t think that we do Israel and the defense of its right to exist a favor if we equate every expression of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism.

Is BDS a form of anti-Semitism? The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement is a form of political speech promoted by Palestinians and supported by their supporters abroad. BDS is a powerful weapon that can hit Israel where it hurts, which is the Israeli economy. But is it anti-Semitic? Not necessarily. Many people, Jews and non-Jews, support BDS as a form of international pressure brought to bear on Israel to return to the negotiating table. It is a means compatible with the political end of the establishment of a viable Palestinian state that can thrive in peace and co-existence with Israel. Yes, all anti-Israel rhetoric hurts those of us who love Israel. But as long as it is political speech aimed at a just and equitable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is not the same as anti-Semitism. Advocacy on behalf of Palestinian rights is not always or inevitably anti-Semitic.

There is a lot of confusion everywhere, some of which is stoked by people who want us to be confused. Emotions run high, which can be exploited by those who want us to act emotionally rather than thoughtfully. And sometimes well-meaning influencers and thought leaders make mistakes. Sometimes people say hurtful things. But there are remedies.  Demonization, in either direction, is not one of them.

Postscript: On Wednesday, December 10, 2019, the White House published an Executive Order on Combating Anti-Semitism

There have been many comments on this in the media. If you are interested in my take, read this follow-up piece to the above blog post, published as a POV in BUToday.

2 Comments

Judy Kroll posted on December 25, 2019 at 10:51 pm

We live in an age in which we hoped that antisemitism would dissipate, where the world would take a step back and realize that words and actions have consequences, sometimes genocidal ones. But Europe and the United States are grappling with increasing levels of antisemitism, and one feature in particular caught Wiesel’s attention.
“What’s notable about the strain of antisemitism at the moment is that it is being masked as anti-Zionism and it is being embraced by the Left – and in America that is tragic. We are talking about causes where the Jewish people have been so closely aligned.
“Take the Black Lives Matter movement. It is incomprehensible to me that they have incorporated language from Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. Where is the connection? It is disappointing. If you look at the history of the NAACP, US Jews were there from the beginning. That BDS is being swept into BLM saddens and disappoints me.”
The BLM movement began in 2013, after the acquittal of George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, who shot and killed African-American teen Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida. But its progression to becoming a more significant actor on the national stage followed the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014. At the same time, the BDS movement’s response to Operation Protective Edge drew the attention of the Black Lives Matter leadership, and it was at this point that two seemingly disparate issues converged into a fight, as the leadership of the movements’ saw it, against oppression.
Talking about the BLM and BDS movements brought the conversation to college campuses, where standing up as a proud Jew has become more challenging.
From Elisha Weisel

Judy Kroll posted on January 15, 2020 at 9:56 am

Is the BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) campaign against Israel anti-Semitic?
ADL believes that the founding goals of the BDS movement and many of the strategies used by BDS campaigns are anti-Semitic. While there are people who support BDS but are not anti-Semitic, the campaign is founded on a rejection of Israel’s very existence as a Jewish state. It denies the Jewish people the right to self-determination – a right universally afforded to other groups. In ADL’s view, this differs from legitimate criticism of Israel and is anti-Semitic.

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