Reflections on Global Anti-Semitism: Its Implications and its Impact
Throughout modern history anti-Semitism has been understood to represent a persistent threat to the welfare and security of the Jewish people. The current and more pronounced forms of global anti-Jewish behavior represent a different political phenomenon, presenting in turn a new challenge to the Jewish people and the larger society. Within recent weeks, one can identify from the events in France, Denmark, Belgium, and elsewhere elements of this alarming new form of political assault on Jews and the State of Israel. Intimidation and fear are the desired political outcomes on the part of those who seek create this trauma of hate. Many of these recent anti-Semitic manifestations are being carried out by a series of “lone rangers,” individuals seeking to add their imprint to this unsettling environment of hate.
Creating an Ideology:
Anti-Semitism must be seen as a specific ideology of belief about Jews and Judaism as well as a prescription for a particular form of behavior or action, directed against the Jewish people. Those who embrace this age-old form of political practice have extracted specific elements of anti-Judaism from the pages of history or from the current social rhetoric about Jews and Israel. Religious teachings, pagan rituals, medieval images and stories, viral messages, and historic myths comprise the body of thought and practice related to how Jews would be portrayed across time and place.
In the current context, anti-Israel themes and negative Jewish messages are extracted from the Middle East and joined together with traditionally-based anti-Semitic practices that are deeply rooted in the fabric of European history and culture. It is an ideology of hate that has been reconstructed to meet the needs and conditions of its purveyors. By all measure the current heightened levels of anti-Semitism represent troubling signs of how the images and lessons of the Holocaust have been redeployed to serve the needs of Israel’s opponents. If Hitler employed in the 1930’s an organized assault that directly identified and attacked “the Jews,” their European and Arab inheritors in this new century have cleverly devised a new and amended language, anti-Israelism, introducing code words and phrases designed to meet their political objectives. If the anti-Semitism of the past was most frequently localized to a particular place and time, then today there is a form of collective or global association, as all Jews are to be seen as the embodiment or extension of the State of Israel. The term “Zionist” is no longer simply a code word referencing Israel or its citizens but has been transferred onto the body politic of the Jewish people.
Framing a New Political Model of Anti-Semitism:
Following the 1967 Six Day War, the idea of integrating traditional modes of anti-Jewish messages with an assault on Zionism would be introduced, as we are reminded of the infamous 1976 UN Resolution declaring “Zionism as Racism.” This political device has allowed Israel’s critics and the enemies of the Jewish people to import the Nazi label onto the Israelis. By charging that the State of Israel is the embodiment of Nazism, the enemies of the Jewish people are effectively able to identify Israel with the very same characteristics that were applied to the Jewish people’s former executioners. Thus, the “new Nazis” are seen in the context of the State of Israel, which is charged with committing acts of genocide against the Palestinian people, emulating the practices of their former oppressors.
By making such an application of history, these modern enemies of the Jewish people are able to affirm that the prior Nazi actions taken against Jews can be justified. In supporting these historic claims and in providing their own case against Jews and Zionism, these modern anti-Semites endeavor to dehumanize the Jewish people as a problematic social group and to label their nation-state experiment as an international pariah. By constructing such an argument, the current opponents of Jews in general and Israel in particular are endeavoring in the process to neutralize and discount Nazi atrocities as actions not without merit.
West vs. East:
In this new scenario, introduced from outside of the European arena, Jews and their fellow travelers are being depicted through a different lens. They are understood to symbolize the embodiment of the corrupted character of Western civilization, its values and traditions, its politics and its beliefs. The assault on Judaism represents ultimately a significantly broader threat to the Judeo-Christian tradition and its Western roots. The message being offered by terrorists and their compatriots within the Islamic world suggests that the particular attack on the Jewish enterprise is far more universal, namely that all who ascribe to Western values and are seen as part of the same political, cultural and social order, are to be labeled as appropriate political targets. Indeed, Western society can not segregate itself from its Jewish imprint.
Further, one can argue that if Christianity served to regulate and define a significant portion of the Jewish experience covering the past 2000 years, then it is likely that we are experiencing a fundamental shift in this latest assault against Jews. In the 21st century, Islam is seeking to replace Christianity as the primary negotiator on the status of the Jewish condition, with its own prescription concerning the future of Judaism and Jews. As Muslims play an increasingly larger and more significant role within the public discourse, especially within Europe, correspondingly their political clout is being elevated and the messages of political hate against Israel and the Jewish people are being advanced by terror and intimidation as a warning signal to the Western world.
Jews, Power, and the Western Civilization:
If historically Jews were seen as powerless, then in this current scenario, Jews are described as an influential and powerful polity, a people possessing a national state and having access to the centers of power across the Western world. One of the oldest canards concerning the secrets of the Jews, namely that they “control the world,” provides a justification to marginalize and attack their current political position. Jewish power is specifically seen as being employed in defense of a pariah nation and on behalf of Western interests. In this current environment, Jews are targeted by their enemies as a people of significant standing who need to be contained, neutralized, even destroyed, precisely because they have achieved a degree of political credibility, especially threatening to those without power and to those who hold a fundamentally different political agenda. In this context Jews are to be cursed whether they are seen as a victor or victim within history. The current war on the Jewish people must be understood as a precursor to the intended broader assault on the West.
The European Condition:
The “new Europe,” as envisioned in the aftermath of the post Second World War period, placed special emphasis on a regional model of economic and political integration that was precisely constructed to marginalize the imprint of nationalism and in turn the scourge of religious intolerance. The “Eurozone” was designed to forever close the door on a system that bred contempt for minorities or permitted the rise of extremist national ideologies. The missing link in framing this new European economic and political model was the failure to introduce a culture of pluralism, where ethnic and religious groups would be acknowledged and recognized for their constructive and distinctive roles within the society and in turn would be seen as essential contributors to this new integrated democratic framework. As a outcome of this failed model of community-building, one finds an amalgam of traditional forms of European anti-Semitism still embedded within that continent’s cultural heritage and indigenous national identities, supported now by the emergence of this more recently imported anti-Israelism. A reconstituted Europe would fail to create a different political scenario and in the process, Jews along with other minority communities, including Muslims, would be identified as that continent’s on-going social dilemma.
Contemporary Forms of anti-Semitic/anti-Israel Practice:
Various forms of social and political behavior accompany this global form of anti-Judaism, including harassment, physical violence, and vandalism. Anti-Semitism in the past was seen as a systematic attack on Jews. For the first time in history, anti-Semitic messages are being delivered even in the absence of Jews, as these new global forces have been able to introduce cyber hate, thereby supporting the illusion and mythology of Jewish power across the world.
This current wave or cycle of anti-Semitism/anti-Israelism incorporates a specific set of policy targets and strategies:
- Portraying the policies of the United States and the West as serving “Zionist” interests, benefiting the State of Israel and supporting Jewish “international goals”
- Defining Jews both as being defenders of Western concepts, and values and as undermining and even corrupting these very same Western traditions.
- Accusing Israel of “Nazi-like” practices and ideas while associating Israeli leaders with Hitler, while using terms such as genocide, ethnic cleansing, and war crimes to describe and document Israel’s behavior.
- Employing conspiracy theories as a way of linking Jews to larger, more sinister matters, from control of international business and banking to “Zionist” domination of U.S. foreign policy and beyond, for being responsible for 9/11.
To achieve their basic goals of isolating and stigmatizing Israel, the Jewish people, and Judaism, today’s actors and critics are employing specific tactics:
- Advancing boycotts, sanctions and disinvestment (BDS) campaigns directed at Israel and designed as well to isolate and delegitimize those who are identified as part of the “pro-Israel” community. Here one ought to be reminded that of laws and regulations invoked by the Nazis contained many of the same characteristics designed to intimate and isolate Jews.
- Introducing one-sided resolutions that are designed to single out Israel and its policies.
- Framing hate messages against Israel, Jews, and Judaism in the name of promoting international order, “truth”, and social responsibility.
- Justifying and even sanctioning physical attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions.
- Introducing in the international media and cyberspace misleading headlines, defamatory cartoons, and stories inaccurately portraying Israel and its policies.
- Promoting conspiracy theories about Jews and the State of Israel, while maintaining the mantra of Holocaust denial.
It is essential to identify the range of local and international voices that are employing today these new anti-Israel and anti-Semitic messages. Certainly traditional anti-Semitic institutions and groups worldwide have adopted many of the current core themes. Various Islamic factions have found these messages appealing to their assault on the West in general and with reference to the State of Israel in particular. In some settings, far-right political parties and extremist groups, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, have incorporated elements of these concepts into their propaganda campaigns. Of particular importance are organizations in the United States and beyond on the political left that have aligned with these ideas as part of their effort to promote the BDS campaign; to delegitimize Jews, their ideas and institutions; and to intimidate those non-Jews who support or embrace the pro-Israel message and the Zionist cause.
In the End:
Contemporary anti-Semitism is rooted in its traditional assault on the status of Jews. Today, it also represents a widening war encompassing the case against the very existence of a Jewish State and by extension Western civilization. Indeed, a new “war against the Jews” has been launched.
Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles.