For a phenomenon often dubbed “the world’s oldest hatred,” anti-Semitism is not well understood. From top Iranian officials who blame the Talmud for the international drug trade to British political activists who claim that the Mossad is stealing their shoes, anti-Jewish bigotry can be bewildering and bizarre. But given the prejudice’s longevity, virulence and recent resurgence in Europe and America — witness the waves of bomb threats against dozens of Jewish centers nationwide in the past month and the controversy over the Trump administration’s repeated refusal to include Jews in its Holocaust memorial statement — it’s well worth debunking common misconceptions that impede our ability to fight it.
In my time reporting on anti-Semitism, I’ve often encountered a certain well-meaning skepticism: Didn’t the Holocaust, with its shocking horrors, finally compel society to stamp out anti-Jewish bigotry? Sophisticated people don’t write this idea down, but it’s one I hear constantly in my reporting.
This is profoundly, depressingly wrong. According to the FBI, Jews in the United States are annually subject to the most hate crimes of any religious group, despite constituting only 2 percent of the American population. The picture is considerably darker in Europe, where Jews were the target of 51 percent of racist attacks in France in 2014, even as they made up less than 1 percent of that country’s population. In recent years, synagogues and Jewish schools and museums have been subject to terrorist attacks in France, Denmark and Belgium. A 2013 E.U. survey found that nearly 40 percent of European Jews fear to publicly identify as Jewish, including 60 percent of Swedish Jews. Non-Western examples abound as well. Populations of Jews in Arab lands, which once numbered nearly 1 million, have been reduced to only a few thousand, having been persecuted to the point of expulsion or flight in the past century.
These facts underscore a crucial point: It’s wrong to subsume anti-Semitism under Nazism, its worst manifestation, when the centuries-old prejudice usually takes less extreme or exterminationist forms. The end of American slavery did not mean the end of American racism; likewise, the end of Nazism as a dominant political force did not silence anti-Semitism.
This past election season, the ascendant alt-right, a band of reactionary white nationalists with a penchant for harassing Jewish journalists, filled Twitter with neo-Nazi memes, Photoshopped reporters into gas chambers and concentration camps, and chanted anti-Semitic slogans at political rallies. (My critical reporting on Trump made me the second-most-harassed Jewish journalist on Twitter, according to an Anti-Defamation League study.) One could be forgiven for assuming that such bigotry flows from one primary political source.
But anti-Semitic outbursts were taking place on the left at the same time. At liberal Oberlin College, a writing instructor named Joy Karega shared Facebook memes about Jewish control of the global economy and media, alongside posts asserting Israeli responsibility for the Islamic State and 9/11. Yet when school officials and others criticized her conduct, the student council dismissed it as a “witch-hunt.” In New York, despite a local outcry, the hip leftist hub Brooklyn Commons hosted Christopher Bollyn, a conspiracy theorist who argued that “Zionist Jews” were behind 9/11. During the Democratic primaries, Jewish candidate Bernie Sanders was confronted by a questioner who declared that “the Zionist Jews . . . run the Federal Reserve, they run Wall Street, they run every campaign.” Surveying this scene, TBS comedian Samantha Bee aired footage of an anti-Semite ranting at a Trump rally, then cracked, “To find anti-Semitism that rabid, you’d have to go to, well, any left-leaning American college campus.”
This bipartisan bigotry shouldn’t surprise. Anti-Semitism could never have attained its impressive influence without forging coalitions across ideological and religious lines. Hatred of Jews has long thrived on its ability to ensnare utterly opposite worldviews. Thus, the 2013 E.U. survey found that Italian and Swedish Jews perceived more anti-Semitic statements coming from the left, Hungarian Jews heard them overwhelmingly from Christians and the right, and French Jews reported abuse largely from Muslim extremists. It’s tempting to cast anti-Semitism as the sin of other people, but that’s usually a way to avoid confronting the problem within one’s own community.
The state of Israel often confounds the anti-Semitism conversation. Some assume that an attack on Israel and its policies must necessarily be an attack on Jews; evangelical leader Franklin Graham, for instance, dubbed criticism of Israeli settlers an assault on God’s “chosen people.” Others justify their attacks on Jews around the world by pointing to Israel, claiming to be anti-Zionist, not anti-Semitic. Much of this confusion stems from the conflation of all Jews with the state of Israel, its government and its policies.
Criticism of Israel, however, is not necessarily anti-Semitic. In fact, it is a popular pastime in Israel and among Jews across the globe. Objections to settlements, for instance, or even calls to boycott them are debatable political positions, not bigoted slurs. Dovish proponents of such views are no more promulgating anti-Jewish prejudice than those security hawks and religious nationalists who have opposed Israel’s land concessions for peace. Israel is a democracy — and can be held to account for its actions, just like any other country.
At the same time, criticism of the Jewish state can mask malice toward Jews. Some cases are obvious, such as when the organizers of a 2010 flotilla that aimed to breach Israel’s maritime blockade of Gaza subsequently denied the Holocaust and claimed that Israel was behind the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Similarly, those who accuse Israel of committing “Palestinian genocide,” when the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics records a four-fold population increase since Israel’s founding, are engaging in libel, not legitimate argument.
In other, less-blatant cases, Israel is subjected to criticism leveled at no non-Jewish country. Consider the United Nations, whose Human Rights Council has condemned Israel more often than all other countries combined, including Syria, North Korea, Iran and Russia. As President Barack Obama’s U.N. ambassador, Samantha Power, put it, “As long as Israel has been a member of this institution, Israel has been treated differently from other nations at the United Nations.” In October, one U.N. body even passed a resolution denying the Jewish connection to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site.
What these unfortunate approaches all share is that they treat the Jewish state in much the same way anti-Semites have historically treated Jews: singling them out for censure and implicating them in outlandish conspiracies.
Most bigotries debilitate their targets while empowering their disseminators, much like slavery and redlining enriched America’s white majority at the expense of its African American minority. Many successful societies have been built atop prejudices.
Anti-Semitism, however, is a unique case — and uniquely corrosive to those societies that embrace it. That’s because it often takes the form of a conspiracy theory about how the world works. By blaming real problems on imagined Jewish culprits, anti-Semitism prevents societies from rationally solving them. In one of the most famous examples, Nazi scientists shunned Einstein’s advances as “Jüdische Physik,” as opposed to “Deutsche Physik,” enfeebling their understanding.
As Bard College’s Walter Russell Mead has put it: “People who think ‘the Jews’ dominate business through hidden structures can’t build or long maintain a successful modern economy. People who think ‘the Jews’ dominate politics lose their ability to interpret political events, to diagnose social evils and to organize effectively for positive change. People who think ‘the Jews’ run the media and control the news lose the ability to grasp what is happening around them.” For this reason, Mead has warned, “Rabid anti-Semitism coupled with an addiction to implausible conspiracy theories is a very strong predictor of national doom.” This is one case where the hatred ultimately destroys the hater.