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Erasing Antisemitism from the Narrative

Data by police agencies, Jewish community organisations, and others throughout the western world show that antisemitism is on the rise, and is thriving. It takes many forms, including verbal abuse and physical assault on the streets, attacks upon synagogues, the promotion of genocidal anti-Jewish ideologies, hostage taking and murder.

Yet, there are those who are in denial about the persistence and impact of antisemitism, effectively erasing or minimising its existence. Their narrative is usually along the lines that if ever antisemitism did exist, it ended in 1945 with the defeat of Nazi Germany.

The erasure of antisemitism occurs, consciously or unconsciously, in parts of the mainstream media, party politics, universities, and the discourse of certain public figures. This is not a fringe phenomenon perpetrated by extremists of the Nazi jackboot variety, the kind who happily acknowledge and publicise their antisemitism. Airbrushing antisemitism out of the picture occurs in more subtle ways.

Six examples from media, politics, university, and elsewhere, all in Australia, will suffice as illustrations.

  1. Mainstream Media: Erasure of Nazi antisemitism

A Channel 9 News segment in Queensland focused on the neo-Nazi group, National Socialist Network (NSN). The program was advertised on 23 March 2021, and aired the next night. In advertising the program, on both dates, the promotions on Twitter stated that NSN “Want to see the downfall of women, immigration, Islam, and the LGBTQ+ community” and that NSN are “anti-women, anti-immigration, anti-gay and anti-Islam”.

There was no mention of Jews or antisemitism. As if by magic, the Channel 9 blurb erased Jews as the most fundamental target of Nazism. Any basic reading of the history and ideology of National Socialism (Nazism), and of neo-Nazi groups, such as NSN, shows that Jews are the main object of Nazi hatred. At the core of Nazi ideology is the belief in an eternal race struggle between ‘the Aryan’ and ‘the Jew’, and that the Jews must be exterminated so the Aryans can take their ‘rightful place’ in the world. In enacting this ideology, Nazi Germany hunted down, rounded up, and killed 6 million European Jews including 1.5 million Jewish children. The Nazis also persecuted and incarcerated homosexuals and Roma; whereas there was no persecution of women or Muslims – in fact, the Nazis allied themselves with certain Muslims, including the notorious Palestinian Arab leader, Haj Amin al-Husseini.

National Socialist Network seeks to replicate the basics of Nazi Germany in Australia, including the elimination of all Jews. By omitting, and erasing, any mention of NSN’s hatred of Jews, Channel 9 effectively treated NSN’s gross antisemitism as inconsequential, and thus became complicit in it.

  1. Mainstream Media: Erasure of Jews from the attack in Mumbai

Another example was a piece by the ABC in 2015 which listed the names of the targets of the terrorist attack in Mumbai in 2008. ABC correspondent Stephanie March said that the attack occurred “… when militants from Pakistan crossed the border and attacked hotels, a café, and a railway station in Mumbai in 2008, killing 164 people.”

One venue that was omitted from that list of targets was the Jewish centre in Mumbai, Nariman House, which was taken over by the terrorists and endured a three-day siege. Seven Jews were mutilated and murdered by the Pakistani “militants”, simply because they were Jews, including the rabbi and his pregnant wife. These horrors did not rate a mention by the ABC presenter. The fact that Jews were targeted and murdered was erased from the story.

  1. At University: Erasure of antisemitism from anti-Nazi motion

At the National Union of Students (NUS) National Conference held in December 2017, two Socialist Alternative members moved and seconded a motion titled “ETHNO 11.7: We stand against the Antipodean Resistance” condemning the neo-Nazi group Antipodean Resistance.

The lengthy motion named the targets of Antipodean Resistance as being LGBTI, Muslim, and Chinese. It stated that Antipodean Resistance had engaged in: “demonising LGBTI people throughout the equal marriage postal vote”, “put up posters demonising Muslims”, “plastered posters which told Chinese international students that they would be deported” and “put up posters linking homosexuality to pedophilia”.

However, the motion made no mention of Jews as targets of Antipodean Resistance, indeed one of their principal targets, along with homosexuals. Antipodean Resistance posters have called to “Legalise the execution of Jews”, accused Jews of poisoning Australian society, and of being the hidden hand behind non-white immigration into Australia. These posters have been produced since December 2016 and were often placed at universities. Antipodean Resistance propaganda primarily and overwhelmingly targeted Jews and LGBT people; some posters also targeted people of east Asian (Chinese) and Indigenous background, but not Muslims.

The motion pledged to oppose racism, the far right and Antipodean Resistance. Yet, if Socialist Alternative cannot or will not name Jews as targets of neo-Nazis, then any Socialist Alternative claim to oppose racism is hollow, and shows Socialist Alternative’s own racist bias against Jews. By erasing antisemitism, they are not only being dishonest and biased, but also betraying the same mindset as Nazis – that Jews can never be worthy of sympathy or solidarity.

  1. In Politics: Erasure of all forms of antisemitism, except one

A variant of the erasure of Jews and antisemitism is the attempt to redefine them both in a way that is subservient to a preconceived political or ideological agenda, but bears no relationship to reality. This occurs most commonly when those who wish to attack right-wing extremists do so by naming and condemning right-wing antisemitism, while omitting all reference to antisemitism from other sources, such as left-wing, anti-Zionist, or Muslim extremists.

A case in point is the “Greens Statement on Fighting Antisemitism” published in November 2021. According to the Greens there is only one source of antisemitism, that of “far-right extremist politics and neo-Nazi activity”. All other sources of antisemitism are erased from their statement, as antisemitism from these other sources does not fit, and indeed falsifies, the Greens simplistic ‘goodies and baddies’ worldview.

Despite its title, ‘Fighting Antisemitism’ does not suggest a plan of action tailored to combat antisemitism as a phenomenon in its own right. Instead, it is grouped together with “all forms of racism”, a subtle way of minimising and downplaying its significance.

Worse still, the Greens’ Statement attacks one of the most effective tools against antisemitism that has been developed in recent years, namely the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism. This definition has been overwhelmingly accepted and promoted by Jewish community organisations around the world, including those engaged in countering antisemitism, and has been adopted by the UN, governments, universities and many others.

In summary, the Greens’ Statement undermines the fight against antisemitism in three ways: by naming only one form of antisemitism and erasing the other forms, by opposing the IHRA working definition of antisemitism, and by subsuming the problem of antisemitism into a general anti-racism package.

If the Greens had not erased all forms of antisemitism, except the far-right variant, in their ‘Statement on Fighting Antisemitism’, they would have been able to acknowledge the immense value of the IHRA working definition, and embrace the reality that antisemitism, while a form of racism, is also a unique hatred with a long, intense, and genocidal history.

  1. By prominent people: Erasure of antisemitism by replacing it with something else

Others have erased antisemitism by claiming, falsely, that it has been superseded by other, worse forms of bigotry, thus implying that antisemitism no longer matters.

A case in point are comments made by Julian Burnside, QC, a former Greens election candidate. In 2014 and 2015, Burnside repeatedly stated that: “Islamophobia is the new antisemitism”. At that time, Jews were subject to a much higher rate of attack than were Muslims; for example, in the USA, a Jew is six times more likely to be attacked than a Muslim, and in Britain, four times more likely.

More recently, in an interview on The Big Smoke, published on 29 August 2021, in reference to Australian government policy on human rights and asylum seekers (many of whom are Muslim) over the last 20 years, Burnside stated:

  • “Consider how the public at large have been induced to fear and hate Muslims. Consider the parallels with antisemitism in Germany in the 1920s to the 1940s.”

Burnside’s analogy is fallacious. While Muslims have undoubtedly faced discrimination and hostility since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the US, they have not been stripped collectively of their rights as citizens, their jobs and their businesses. Nor have they been forced to wear humiliating identifying insignia, imprisoned in ghettoes, subjected to mass shootings, or transported in packed cattle cars to purpose-built extermination camps.

In addition, Burnside’s analogy erases contemporary antisemitism. If he sought only to highlight anti-Muslim sentiment, he had no need to mention antisemitism a century ago. Burnside’s erroneous claims do justice to neither antisemitism nor to Islamophobia. There are many ways to protest against anti-Muslim prejudice without making spurious comparisons with Nazi antisemitism, which in effect minimise the Holocaust and antisemitism in general.

  1. By political activists: Erasure of antisemitism by false analogy

Antisemitism has also been erased through the use of false analogies. One example is found in the writings of Jeff Sparrow, a political activist, and founder of Socialist Alternative. In his book, Fascists Among Us: Online Hate and the Christchurch Massacre, published in 2019, Sparrow, in seeking to describe the seriousness of anti-Muslim bigotry does so by erroneously comparing it to antisemitism. Sparrow writes (on pages 31-32):

  • “Prior to 9/11, Islamophobia remained a relatively minor current in the West. The War on Terror changed that, normalising a discourse that replicated, almost exactly, the key tropes of pre-war anti-Semitism. Islamophobic bigots linked all Muslims to jihad, precisely as anti-Semites had held all Jews accountable for Bolshevism. … Almost every aspect of early-twentieth-century anti-Semitism repeated itself in twenty-first-century Islamophobia, often with substantial institutional support.”

This claim is demonstrably false, and erases the realities of early twentieth century antisemitism. During the first two decades of the 20th century, in Europe and other western countries, Jews were still often denied civil rights, were legally discriminated against, and at times murdered with impunity. In pogroms in Russia and Ukraine between 50,000 and 200,000 Jews were massacred. In contrast, Muslims in the first two decades of the 21st century, in Europe and other western countries, retained civil rights and have not been massacred, except for one horrific incident in Christchurch perpetrated by a single individual who has been imprisoned for life without parole.

In addition, the claim that anti-Muslim bigotry today is comparable to anti-Jewish bigotry a century ago has the unstated implication that anti-Jewish bigotry no longer exists in the 21st century, but has been superseded by anti-Muslim bigotry. Again, if one wishes to focus on anti-Muslim bigotry, one does not need to belittle or erase contemporary or past antisemitism, as a polemical tool.

Sparrow’s analogy also lacks historical context. While he acknowledges that Islamophobia was “a relatively minor current” prior to 9/11, he provides no background to early twentieth century antisemitism, treating it as though it came out of nowhere. It ignores the fact that Jews had been discriminated against, demonised, ostracised, segregated, persecuted and massacred over the previous 1800 years, with hatred of Jews becoming ingrained into western culture. There is no parallel with regard to Muslims.

Conclusion

When antisemitism is erased from the narrative in the mainstream media, in party politics, in universities, and elsewhere, and by public figures and commentators, the net effect is the desensitisation of society to antisemitism.

This leads to a fantasy understanding of our society and world through which laws, social conventions and information can cease to be grounded in reality. These are the conditions in which Jews can be persecuted and attacked with impunity. The same is true for any other group similarly erased from the public narrative. This undermines our democratic way of life, our rights and responsibilities as citizens, our social cohesiveness as a nation, and our fight against all hatreds and bigotries.

Antisemitism did not end in 1945, instead, it went underground, only to re-emerge when the opportunities arose and the political and ideological atmosphere was conducive. Its continuing spread is aided and abetted by those who refuse to condemn it or to act against it, and also by those who erase antisemitism from their narrative or minimise or relativise it. As history has shown time and again, societies in which antisemitism is not acknowledged, and not opposed, set themselves on a path to devastation.

About the Author
Julie Nathan is the Research Director at the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, the peak representative body of the Australian Jewish community, and is the author of the annual ECAJ Report on Antisemitism in Australia.
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