Nurit Siegal
writer on philosophy, politics, culture and parenting with an Orthodox Jewish twist

Anatomy of a Modern Antisemite

Eichmann being sentenced at his trial.

Balancing antisemitism with day-to-day life is no simple task. My inner dialogue as a writer on the subject and as a mother of three kids sounds unnerving these days. The twisted dystopian existence we’re living through has become entangled with the other quotidian thoughts that fill my head.

“Don’t forget to quote both Hamas charters in the article” I reminded myself just this Monday. “Show how they’ve modernized their language from murdering Jews to resisting Zionists. And for the love of all things holy, Nurit, just make plain pasta for dinner tonight. If you try to sneak vegetables into anything no one will eat it.”

Decisions about what to feed my children stand alongside the most vile and violent texts in my mind. I hate to think that it has begun to feel normal.

The banality of evil affects both victim and perpetrator, it seems. Any ordinary person can work for an antisemitic cause despite how unnatural it appears against the backdrop of their otherwise mundane lives. But for those of us who live in fear of antisemitism, we are forced to accept the horrific interjection of evil into our daily tasks and routines. Evil must become ordinary for us too. There is a certain numbness, a degree of disassociation one takes on in order to switch between helping your child study for a vocabulary test and listening to a feminist scholar deny sexual violence took place on October 7th. The more articulate the antisemite, the more dissociation required.

While the normalization of anti-Jewish prejudice is clear, do antisemites really conform to Hannah Arendt’s theory of banality to its full extent? Are they really just everyday people who fail to think for themselves? Despite making a career out of “thinking for herself”, Arendt proved to be entirely capable of regurgitating the antisemitic biases of her philosophical predecessors, accusing German Jews of provoking Protestant Germans’ hostility on account of their aloofness and wealth.[1]

Far from being non-thinkers, many antisemites seem to think quite a bit, and quite well. I have read, studied under, and personally known many intellectuals who have absorbed a meaningful degree of antisemitism despite having clocked in thousands of hours staring at a wall in thought. I should know how deeply they think, as I have spent thousands of hours myself trying to unravel their curated condemnations of Jews. Except it’s less about staring at a wall for me and more about knocking my head against it. Indeed, the most maddening part of antisemitism today is how sophisticated it can be. “Why are intelligent people falling for Hamas?” has become the question of the year. A neo-Nazi screaming on the street may be terrifying, but a scholar who can rework Mein Kampf into a social science classic— that’s trauma.

As it turns out, Arendt was right that antisemites fail to think, but she was wrong about what they fail to think about. Antisemitism is far from just a scientific question; a pursuit of facts and knowledge alone. It’s also a question of morality. We have no choice but to employ our own moral belief systems in order to define its parameters. When is it okay to condemn the actions of a Jewish individual, organization, or state? When does that condemnation become problematic? These are questions that require us to go beyond pure information and discern between “right” and “wrong”. And our judgment of right and wrong can be informed by many things— our religious beliefs, our values as a society, and our own cultural preferences and prejudices.

Despite being a deep thinker in other ways, Arendt reflected very little on where her sense of morality came from. Like many philosophers, she saw the moral truths she held dear to be self-evident; the pure manifestations of “natural law”. But those “truths” were precisely where her biases against Jews and Judaism were kept in the first place. What good is thinking if the secret worldview from which all of one’s thoughts and judgments spring forth is precisely where one’s antisemitism is embedded? If one’s morals are “self-evident” and, therefore, beyond critique, no amount of time spent staring at a wall will ever change the direction of one’s moral compass. Once it has landed on Jews as corrupt and oppressive — whether consciously or subconsciously — all of one’s energy and brilliance is spent making that judgment as intellectually seductive as possible.

Moral prejudices against Jews and Judaism have changed very little over the past 200 years. The way the judgments are framed, the rhetoric in which its wrapped— that is what has changed substantially. Antisemitic scholars have successfully adapted to society’s evolving political sensibilities over the years. Even a brutish organization like Hamas has come to accept the importance of “keeping up with the times”. No longer claiming the right to slaughter Jews on the basis of religion, they claim the right to slaughter Zionists on the basis of human rights.

Antisemitic organizations and scholars have long eliminated the racist and religious arguments of those who came before them. Once upon a time, Arab and Muslim scholars saw Jews the way most people did in the mid-19th to early 20th century— through the lens of national identity politics and race science.[2] It was the Semitic Jewish race’s attachment to their own nationhood and to their own homeland in the Levant that made them a thorn in the side of prominent politicians, from liberal-minded reformer, Muhammad Ruhi Al-Khalidi, to forefather of Islamic fundamentalism, Rashid Rida.[3] Both believed the Jewish race must subordinate themselves to the aspirations of the more superior Arab nation, or to Muslims, respectively. Even later on in 1946, just one year after the Holocaust, British-Lebanese historian, Albert Hourani, could still fantasize publicly about the “disappearance” of the Jews through their national dissolution, reminding them “assimilation is still possible for individuals, but not for the Jewish people as a whole.”

But once the racial and religious inferiority of the Jews became an unacceptable reason to denounce a people’s right to national emancipation, what’s an antisemite to do?

Rewrite history, it seems. Claim that Jewish nationhood is a Zionist fabrication and that the Jews were never more than a religious group. As the Palestinian National Charter claimed in the 1960s, “Judaism, being a religion, is not an independent nationality. Nor do Jews constitute a single nation with an identity of its own; they are citizens of the states to which they belong.” Then create an entire field of study around the “pro-Jewish” history of Arab nationalist politics. Publish academic essays on how “racism against the Jews was never a problem until Zionism” as scholars like Ussama Makdisi and Orit Bashkin do so well. Pretend that the assimilation of Jews into Arab society wasn’t forced; that it didn’t come with any severe or violent political ultimatums. [4] Make sure never to allude to these imbalances of power and hierarchical context. Before you know it, the Jewish people are nothing but ancient history. Jews were either proud Arabs or proud Europeans who happened to be Jewish, in the strictly religious sense of the word. Until the Zionists brainwashed them, that is, with the invention of “the Jewish race”.

It’s quite the clever narrative. All racist epithets are gone, but the underlying message remains in tact: the Jews have no right to national emancipation.

Contrary to Arendt’s thesis, non-thinking people are precisely who you don’t want on the front lines of intellectual warfare. What you need is intelligent, critical thinkers who can find a way to preserve antisemitism in politics and scholarship without any antisemitic rhetoric at their disposal. A hundred years ago, there was no shame in telling Jews they must overcome their degenerate character by assimilating into the “model” races. Today, antisemites face a much greater challenge: convincing others that their anti-Jewish beliefs have “nothing to do with Jews or Judaism.”

That takes an intellectual alchemist.


[1] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 5-7. See also David Nirenberg, Anti-Judaism, for a critique of Arendt (and her use of Nazi economists’ “statistics” on Jews), as well as Kant and Hegel. Chapter nine thru the epilogue.

[2] Jonathan Marc Gribetz. Defining Neighbors: Religion, Race and the Early Zionist-Arab Encounter. 77. Prominent Nadha intellectual, Jama Al-Afghani was perhaps the most famous Arab scholar to engage with European forefather of race science, Ernst Renan. European political thought was fundamental to the Nadha (Arab Enlightenment), but it’s production of anti-Arab racism was vehemently criticized. European anti-Jewish racism was widely adopted by Nadha intellectuals, with the exception of racist claims regarding the “Semitic races” generally, which included both Jews and Arabs. Jews were often sympathized with in the face of anti-Jewish racism and violence in Europe, even though Arab and Muslim scholars regularly employed European antisemitic tropes themselves.

[3] See Gribetz, chapter 4 on Rashidi’s justification for the de-nationalization of the Jews vis-à-vis “Mendelssohn’s Theory”. For Rida, see 169-170. Rida understood the Jews’ longing for the messiah and restoration of sovereignty in their homeland to be misguided. Instead, the “promised one” was the Prophet Muhammad and the authority in Palestine would be Muslim. He also accuses the Jewish race of corruption, stealing, lying and “[directing] their intelligence and interests toward the accumulation of wealth”. He did not equate Islamic imperialism, however, with exploitation of others. He denied the legitimacy of Jewish self-sovereignty by juxtaposing the “selfishness” of the Jews with the “benevolence” of Muslim empires, accusing Jews of biting the hand that fed a hated people.

[4] Nurit Siegal, “The Academy, Zionism, and Mizrahi Jews”.
Jewish assimilation occurred within the context of severe political ultimatums in Western Europe as well, beginning well before the process was adapted into developing Arab nation-states. For a case study of England: Nurit Siegal, “The Origins of Modern Antisemitism: A Case Study of the Jews in England, 1880-1920.”

About the Author
Nurit is an artist and writer on philosophy, politics, culture and parenting with an Orthodox Jewish twist. She holds a Master's in Political Theory from the University of Chicago where she wrote her thesis on the origins of antisemitism in modern liberal politics, using fin de siècle England as a case study. She also holds a Bachelor's in Women's Studies from the University of Michigan.
Related Topics
Related Posts