Thinking About the Weaponization of Antisemitism

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first published on substack July 4, 2023

Denunciations of antisemitism must be credibly nested within opposition to white nationalism, racism and Islamophobia. If we do not distinguish between valid critiques of the policies of the Israeli state and antisemitism, we are allowing rightwing forces to weaponize antisemitism, suppressing freedom of speech and open debate, and making the term “antisemite” meaningless at a time when it is critical to identify and oppose it.

It is also important to remember that the people who lived in Historic Palestine for centuries cannot be expected to peacefully relinquish land they understood was theirs. From the start their opposition was defined by Zionists as Jew-hatred when in actuality that opposition is better understood as hostility towards settler colonialism and its mass expulsions, injuries and death that continue to today.

The Jewish need for safety (which we deserve like all other people) can only sustainably be built through an alliance with global forces that support human and civil rights for all and are united in the struggles against racism, police brutality, colonialism, ecological disasters, and the growing militarism and intolerance that is endangering this entire beloved planet.   

So how did we get here?

The definition of classic antisemitism, which stems from the ancient Christian belief that Jews are to be blamed for the killing of Christ, involves the hatred and demeaning of all Jews or Jewish institutions solely because they are Jewish.  The first accusations of deicide occurred in the second century and this was added to a blood libel that alleged that Jews murdered non-Jews, especially Christian children, in order to obtain blood for their Passover and other rituals. In the Middle Ages, legal and economic restrictions were placed on Jews, pushing them into occupations deemed morally repugnant, such as money collectors and money lenders. This led to many negative stereotypes of Jews as usurers, middlemen, and “economic parasites”. Fueled by antisemitism, Jewish communities were repeatedly attacked and murdered by pogroms in Eastern Europe and Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries. In 1903, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was published in Russia and provided false “documentation” for a baseless Jewish conspiracy to dominate the world by manipulating the world economy and the media. 

In 1920 the auto magnate, Henry Ford, published a series of articles in his newspaper, The Dearborn Independent, which was based on the Protocols. His series was included in a book titled The International Jew which was translated into at least 16 languages and praised by prominent Nazis such as Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels. In the 1930s and 1940s in the US there was significant support for the growing Nazi movement in Germany, one of the most well-known promoters was Charles Lindbergh. The America First Committee, which included a wide spectrum of political ideologies dedicated to keeping the US out of the war, included supporters who were virulently antisemitic. Minnesota Senator Ernest Lundeen worked with an undercover German agent, George Sylvester Viereck, to spread antisemitic, pro-Hitler propaganda and some 24 members of the US congress were supportive of his work. Various strands of antisemitic thought and behavior have been woven throughout US history and politics. The US public has not been immune to these forces, from the growth of far-right conspiracy groups like the Ku Klux Klan to the more recent Boogaloo Boys, Proud Boys, and Oath Keepers, and the rise in attacks against Jewish institutions, hate crimes, and online expressions of bigotry. Antisemitic incidents and speech are increasing in the US and worldwide as well as inching into the parlance of acceptable mainstream thought. 

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, Jews in the US were subject to quotas and restrictions in many aspects of their lives such as immigration, education, housing restrictions, and work opportunities.  When my own father became an organic chemist in the 1940s, he broke boundaries as that field was not open to Jews. In the 1950s, at a town meeting where I grew up, the townsfolk accused Jews who were leaving inner city ghettos and moving into leafy rural suburbs, of “destroying Christmas.”  When my family moved to a neighborhood in a Boston suburb in the mid-1960s, we realized that we were the first Jewish family, and that there had been a covenant forbidding sales to people like us. There was also a nearby country club that was not open to Jewish people. The elite women’s college I attended in 1966 had a history of turning away Jewish students and professors and the college president in the late 1800s openly talked about favoring “our own good Anglo-Saxon stock.” The hospital where I did my residency training was founded in 1916 because Jewish doctors could not get admitting privileges in major Boston hospitals.

Modern anti-Semitism, however, is also intrinsically linked to the alt-right, white supremacy and neo-Nazism, with a hatred of Jews, women, black and brown people, Muslims, immigrants, LGBTQI;  anyone not part of the vision of an Aryan nation of armed, white, heterosexual men. Thus we see the bizarre phenomenon of neo-Nazis disparaging Jews while expressing admiration for and fetishizing Israel, a good place to sequester these undesirable people and at the same time, an admirable example of a powerful, well-armed state, grounded in ethnic purity, eager to do battle with Muslims and Iran.

This is all complicated by an erroneous definition dating back to 1974, (unfortunately embraced by the US State Department and mainstream Jewish institutions), of a “new antisemitism.” In 2016, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Committee on Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial tried to build an international consensus around a non-legally binding definition of antisemitism. They included many classic examples of antisemitism, such as:

  • Calling for, aiding, or justifying the killing or harming of Jews in the name of a radical ideology or an extremist view of religion.
  • Making mendacious, dehumanizing, demonizing, or stereotypical allegations about Jews as such or the power of Jews as collective — such as, especially but not exclusively, the myth about a world Jewish conspiracy or of Jews controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions.
  • Accusing Jews as a people of being responsible for real or imagined wrongdoing committed by a single Jewish person or group, or even for acts committed by non-Jews.
  • Denying the fact, scope, mechanisms (e.g. gas chambers) or intentionality of the genocide of the Jewish people at the hands of National Socialist Germany and its supporters and accomplices during World War II (the Holocaust).
  • Accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust.
  • Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations

They also expanded the definition to encompass a more controversial list, such as denying that the Jewish people have a right to self-determination, requiring of Israel behavior not demanded of other democratic nations, and comparing modern Israeli policy to that of the Nazis. While the IHRA working definition was meant to stimulate more discussion and analysis, this list is now used to muzzle dissent and to accuse people who question Israeli policies of Jew-hatred.

There is much critical debate on this topic. There is a difference between the right of self-determination (which people should have) and the assertion that Jews have a right to a state in Historic Palestine that supersedes the rights of the population that was living there when the state was created. There is sufficient evidence to conclude that many Israeli laws are inherently racist and oppressive to Palestinians. Moreover, why should critics of Israeli policy be required to name all other oppressive nations to show that they are being fair? Why is it not legitimate to question whether Israel is a democracy in the first place when Palestinians with Israeli citizenship do not have full political and civil rights, millions of Palestinians live under an oppressive, decades-long occupation, and diaspora Palestinians are forbidden to return to pre-’48 land and homes they clearly owned? Israeli Jews themselves have drawn comparisons with Israeli behavior and Nazi policy referencing, for example, shops in Hebron bolted shut and spray painted with “Kill the Arabs,” racist, and threatening comments toward Arabs, including threats of death and deportation, made by prominent politicians. 

The Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism was written in response to the disaster created by the IHRA definitions. The Declaration also has serious limitations in that it treats antisemitism as a unique case of bigotry that is constantly shifting and requiring new definitions, a special case where Jews once again are exceptional. It does not see antisemitism as a form of hatred much like other forms of racism. 

On the other hand, the Declaration is more nuanced than IHRA. 

So, for example, hostility to Israel could be an expression of an antisemitic animus, or it could be a reaction to a human rights violation, or it could be the emotion that a Palestinian person feels on account of their experience at the hands of the State. In short, judgment and sensitivity are needed in applying these guidelines to concrete situations. 

Their general guidelines state that it is racist and antisemitic to attach a character trait or a sweeping generalization to an entire population, ie., all Jews have grotesque, hooked noses or are stingy and untrustworthy. It is antisemitic to link Jews to forces of evil, such as conspiracies involving Jewish control of banks or the media. Antisemitism can be revealed in words, images and deeds, like spray painting swastikas on a synagogue. Antisemitism may manifest directly or indirectly, ie., Jews control the banks vs The Rothschilds (ie., wealthy rich Jews) control the world.  Any denial or minimization of the genocidal Nazi Holocaust is antisemitic. The declaration then reviews statements about Israel and Palestine and explores, in a more nuanced manner, what statements and actions are potentially antisemitic or not, with attention to context and freedom of speech. Importantly, the Declaration does not identify Zionism as an ethno-nationalistic political ideology that is inherently racist towards Palestinians.

It is critical that we remember that Israel is a state; the state should be distinguished from Jews as a people/culture/religious group, some of whom embrace Zionism and some of whom do not.  In a democratic society we have a right to criticize the oppressive behavior of a state, whether it be ours or Russia or Israel. Many religious leaders, academics, and activists are challenging the longstanding belief in Israeli exceptionalism and the uniqueness of Jewish suffering. 

My mother used to walk by a sign at a park in Brooklyn, New York that read: NO JEWS OR DOGS ALLOWED. That was antisemitism. The call of Palestinians and Jewish Americans aligned with progressives and a growing number of churches, mosques, and a smattering of synagogues, for an end to the Israeli occupation and siege of Palestinian territories and the racist policies of the Israeli government towards its Palestinian citizens, is not. 

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