Nitzan Hamburg

Antisemitism as a Symptom of Societal Illness

Illustrative: A hand-drawn swastika is seen on the front of Union Station near the Capitol in Washington, January 28, 2022. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

In medical terminology, an infectious disease is defined as an illness caused by pathogens capable of infecting a healthy individual. By this definition, hatred is a infectious disease, as it fulfills all the required criteria.

A skilled politician, a master manipulator, knows the darkest impulses of their constituents. They will exploit their fears and prejudices, turning them against a particular group in society, labeling them as evil traitors, and igniting a burning hatred against them. With their virtuosic demagoguery, they will inflame their electorate, sometimes to the point of losing control themselves, unleashing a malevolent force that can consume all in its path. They will basically take human herd behavior to the extreme. These politicians are like the super-spreaders of a contagious disease.

Like any contagious infectious disease, hatred is not the exclusive property of one side of the political spectrum. Don’t be mistaken – it festers on the right and the left, within a society and between different societies. And when does it spread most effectively? When the immune system of a given society becomes weak enough, when the antibodies of reason and historical memory are compromised.

One of the most hated societies since time immemorial is the Jews. Antisemitism, or “Miso-Judaism” as I prefer to call it, is a chronic disease, particularly stubborn, and one that undergoes mutations at any given moment, developing new variants that spread among the public like a malignant cancer. Some carriers of antisemitism are asymptomatic, unaware that they are even infected. But the majority develop characteristic and easily diagnosable symptoms such as: an obsessive fixation on Jews, demonizing them, fabricating blood libels against them, and in the most severe cases – casting them as “enemies of all humanity” (hostis humani generis).

In the late and metastatic stages of antisemitism, its carriers may deteriorate to the point of oppressing and persecuting Jews, excluding us from society, engaging in physical violence against us, and even committing the ultimate atrocity: genocide. But a real one. The memory of the Holocaust, that great antisemitic plague that raged through Germany and Europe in the 1930s and 40s, is still fresh in our collective consciousness. The antisemitic zombies of that era attempted to eradicate the Jewish people from the face of the earth once and for all, a chilling reminder of the depths of depravity to which uncontrolled antisemitism can sink. The old-fashioned antisemitism mutated into today’s neo-antisemitism variants such as anti-Zionism and anti-Israelism.

An antisemitic sign at a pro-Palestinian protest of NYU students and others in Manhattan’s Washington Square Park on October 25, 2023. (Screen capture/X)

But antisemitism is no ordinary hatred. Its unique malevolence lies in its scapegoating function. The antisemite projects all of their own failings, all of society’s ills, onto the Jewish people. In the fevered imagination of the antisemite, if the Jews did not exist, they would have to be invented.

The rise of populist movements, the spread of social media algorithms that make us angry, the grow of Gen Z’s hyper-individualism, and the erosion of trust in traditional institutions have all contributed to a climate where ancient hatreds can thrive. This weakening of our collective defenses against bigotry has created a fertile ground for antisemitism to resurface and spread, like an opportunistic infection in a body with a suppressed immune system. This condition often involves the scapegoating of minority groups, with Jews being a common target.

And now, in our present moment, we are witnessing a resurgence of this age-old hatred. From the streets of European cities to the halls of academia in America, antisemitism is once again rearing its ugly head and baring its fangs. Jewish students are harassed on their college campuses, Jewish businesses are targeted for boycotts, and Jewish people are assaulted on the streets. The warning signs are clear, and the threat is real.

The fight against antisemitism is not a Jewish fight – it’s a human fight. Antisemitism is just a symptom of a much deeper disease. Fighting antisemitism is like taking painkillers – it might dull the ache, but it won’t cure the underlying illness. We need to confront the forces that are tearing our society apart – the polarization, the tribalism, the erosion of empathy and common decency. We need to rebuild our immune system.

About the Author
Nitzan Hamburg is a writer, Hebrew lover and medical student.
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