Principal themes in contemporary Antisemitic discourse

The perception and portrayal of Jews has varied over the millennia. Christian and Islamic sources have provided an abundance of negative stereotypes that have become so deeply ingrained into the culture of some societies that they are not even recognised as expressions of prejudice. In addition, views from the more secular modern period including the Enlightenment, pseudo-scientific theories on race and Nazi ideology, and responses to the modern Jewish state of Israel, have produced their own variants of age-old prejudices. Despite such disparate sources, many of the negative views about Jews have remained essentially unchanged over the centuries and millennia.

By studying the annual ECAJ Antisemitism Report for each of the four years from 2013 to 2016 (all of which I authored), a clear image appears of the contemporary major ideas and themes hostile to Jews which are expressed in Australian society and on online Australian-based sites. The popularity of these antisemitic themes are, however, not restricted to Australia.

The principal themes are:

  • Jews as Christ-killers;
  • Jews as bloodthirsty – the Blood Libel;
  • the Jewish lobby as inordinately powerful and illegitimate;
  • Jews/Zionists as controlling banks, media, and politicians; and,
  • Jews/Zionists as Nazis.

Some of these themes originate from theological anti-Judaism, and have been revitalised through new wording. This is despite the increasing secularism of the 20th and 21st centuries, at least in the West; and despite the Holocaust, in which six million Jewish men, women and children were hunted down and murdered simply because they were Jews, as part of a plan to eliminate Jews from the world. Other discourse, which is dressed up as ordinary political criticism, is also often accompanied by or includes older anti-Jewish motifs. Each of these themes is discussed below.

1. Jews as Christ-killers

The theme of Jews as “Christ-killers” includes not only the charge of deicide, but also the concomitant claims that Jews are a rejected and a cursed people, no longer chosen by God, and that Judaism has been superseded and is no longer relevant.

The charge of deicide originated 1700 years ago and is viewed as a way to shift the blame for Jesus’ death from the Romans to the Jews in order to avoid Roman imperial wrath, and to attract Roman converts to the new religion, Christianity. The idea that as “Christ-killers” the Jews were both intrinsically evil and absolutely powerful, and not only willing, but also able, to kill the Christian deity, took hold and developed deep roots in the psyche of European Christians. Although the idea of collective Jewish responsibility for deicide was repudiated by the Roman Catholic Church in 1965 (as was the idea that the Jews are “rejected or accursed by God”), the idea of Jews as “Christ-killers” continues to be expressed.

This theme is expressed more commonly in social media rather than openly in mainstream Australian society. However, there have been incidents in which church sermons or school lessons have asserted Jewish culpability for the death of Jesus. Even a prominent sportsperson stated the charge as a matter of fact on Twitter in 2015: “Jesus wanted to help people but was killed by his own people” and “The Jews were the people who took him to the Romans and forced them to give the order because they couldn’t.” The sportsperson subsequently apologised for his tweets.

Some examples of this theme were expressed online in 2016 and include: “Jesus. […] He was the one they Crucified because he threw the money lenders out of the Temple.”; “You lot learned nothing from WW2. Not surprising really… God sent you Jesus & you killed him, then he sent Mohammad but still you shunned the true message of God.”; “What an insult to think God Almighty would ‘choose’ child murdering zionists as His chosen ones over the billions of pious law abiding human beings He has created throughout time.”; “Satans chosen people”; “Disgusting! And they call themselves “THE CHOSEN PEOPLE” ..Hahahahahahah…!!! The vomit of the world”; and “Zionism murdered our Lord Jesus Christ”.

It seems that if one wants to show how evil the Jews supposedly are, one invokes the charge of deicide – that the Jews killed Jesus. It is the easiest way to thoroughly condemn Jews, because the accusation is widely ingrained in western and Muslim culture and apparently requires no explanation. It tells people that the Jews are innately evil, and the audience is invited to infer, depending on the context, that Jews do not deserve a fair go, even today.

The theme of Jews as Christ-killers, as rejected, cursed, and their faith superseded, is also applied to Israel, as the nation-state of the Jewish people in their ancestral homeland. It is used in support of arguments that Israel has no right to exist, and seeks to justify the destruction of Israel as being ordained from above. This line of thinking says the Jewish people remain eternally rejected and cursed, and it emanates from some Christian and Muslim sources.

2. Jews as bloodthirsty – the Blood Libel

The Blood Libel originated in Europe during the Middle Ages, and referred to the false accusation that, for religious rituals and purposes, Jews kidnapped and murdered a Christian, often a child, in order to drink his blood. This libel was especially popular during Easter when Christians were commemorating the death of Jesus, whose crucifixion was blamed on the Jews. For many centuries, the Blood Libel was the primary means for inciting hatred against Jews, and it often resulted in massacres, sometimes of entire Jewish communities. In 1840 the Blood Libel idea was brought to the Arab and Islamic worlds and was adopted by them when “the Jews” were falsely accused of killing a Catholic friar in Damascus, and “confessions” from local Jews were extracted under extreme torture. The friar’s tomb still bears an inscription that he was “murdered by the Jews”. The Blood Libel myth remained a popular idea well into the 20th century in Europe and it remains a potent idea to this day, especially in the Islamic world.

The Blood Libel conveys the false messages that: Jews are bloodthirsty; Jews are vile creatures; Jews are against humankind; Jews are innately murderous; Jews are evil; Jews are to be fought against. The theme also encompasses the ideas that the Jews foment wars and revolutions, massacres and terrorism, diseases and plagues, and even manipulate earthquakes and tsunamis, and other events, in order to result in the deaths of non-Jews on a massive scale.

Even in mainstream, contemporary Australia, a particularly egregious example of the Blood Libel was seen in the Le Lievre cartoon published in the Sydney Morning Herald in July 2014. It portrayed a classical negative stereotype of a Jew, complete with hook nose, religious head covering and Star of David. The character was shown operating a TV-type remote control as a detonator to blow up civilians in Gaza, with as little regard for human life as one would have in dispatching virtual enemies in a computer game. After some delay and detailed representations to the editor explaining the antisemitic elements of the cartoon, the newspaper published an apology.

The ABC TV Four Corners program “Stone Cold Justice”  which aired in February 2014 had a segment which included un-investigated and unsubstantiated allegations that Jewish soldiers “crucify” Palestinian boys, a melding of the Blood Libel and Christ-killer themes. This interpretation is amply borne out by the grossly antisemitic comments that were posted on the Four Corners Facebook page in response to the program. It was only when these comments were exposed in other media that the ABC took action to remove them, some after a few days, and many only after five weeks.

The idea of Jews as murderers and morally corrupt was invoked by Sheikh Ismail Al-Wahwah, spokesperson for the Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, at a public rally in Sydney in July 2014 where he stated: “The Jews… are the slayers of the prophets” and claimed that the Jews are a “hidden evil” from which the world must be freed. Al-Wahwah further stated that “The Jews are the most evil creatures of Allah. Moral corruption is linked to the Jews” and blamed the Jews for prostitution, usury, gambling, killing, and for corrupting the world through media “art, cinema, and corrupt films, and with sex trade, drug trade, and moral depravity.”

The Blood Libel theme is commonly used in reference to Israeli Jews, who are portrayed as collectively guilty of a range of bloody and vile crimes. They are generically accused of deliberately killing Palestinians, especially targeting children, taking delight in blood lust, and committing genocide against the Palestinian Arabs. As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks succinctly noted, Israel “is regularly accused of the five crimes against human rights: racism, apartheid, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and attempted genocide. This is the blood libel of our time.”

At anti-Israel rallies, placards commonly bear Blood Libel type messages. They accuse Jews and Israel of deliberately targeting and killing children in a ritual of blood lust, and of committing genocide. Images on placards and props of babies are often spattered with red paint to portray the alleged bloodthirstiness of Israelis as a nation. A cartoon image of a Jew, with stereotypical hooked nose and claws, about to eat a gentile child was inserted into a video of an anti-Israel Al-Quds Day rally in Melbourne in 2012.

On social media, some examples of the Blood Libel include the following comments: “BLOOD THIRSTY ZIONIST MOTHER FUCKERS JEWS”; “typical zionazi bloodsucking cockroach behaviour”; “Zionism is the root cause of all the bloodshed”; “The Israeli army thirst for blood is insatiable”; “killers, blood suckers”; “The jews started/supported/fueled almost every revolution in Europe. Without the Jews, WWI and WWII wouldn’t have happened. Now because of them WWIII is imminent. […] monsterously evil, coldhearted and bloodsucking maniacs they are. They are the monsters behind all corruption of mankind. […] Fuck the jews, Hitler war damn right about them.” A comment posted in 2016 on the Facebook page of a prominent anti-Israel activist stated that: “Zionist Jews are nothing but evil, cruel, blood-sucking, money-stealing, land-grabbing, apartheid-enforcing, baby-killing, porn-producing, murdering, thieving, lying, cheating, corrupting, evil occupiers.”

3. “Jewish lobby” as inordinately powerful and illegitimate

The idea of a powerful and sinister “Jewish lobby” buying or unduly influencing or underhandedly manipulating decisions and events has featured in both the mainstream of society and on the fringes. This has been the objective meaning of many statements by mainstream academics, clergy, journalists, politicians, and others, regardless of their subjective intentions.

During the controversy at the University of Sydney in March 2015, when protesters attempted to shut down a lecture by a pro-Israel speaker, the announcement of an inquiry into the events by the university administration led to a barrage of references by academics, students and others, in articles and comments about the supposed power of the “Israel lobby”. Without advancing a shred of evidence in support of their assertions, and without naming who they meant by “the Israel lobby”, one anti-Israel group claimed there was “intense pressure from the Israel lobby […] to sack” two academics involved in the protest. Another anti-Israel group urged the Vice-Chancellor not to become “the agent of the Israel lobby’s persecution”. One academic claimed that with a “snap [of] its fingers” by “the Israel lobby” the University had “jumped” to take action. The theme was repeated by several other academics and politicians.

In other contexts it has been suggested at various times by mainstream journalists, clerics and academics that Australia’s consistent support over the last 70 years for Israel’s right to exist in peace and security as the homeland of the Jewish people is due to the influence of “Jewish money”, sponsored trips to Israel, and fear of the alleged power of the “Zionist lobby” and the “Jewish lobby”.

Use of the term “Jewish lobby” is seen by many Jews as a smear and a form of vilification of the Jewish community. It is irrelevant whether the term used is ‘Jewish lobby’ or ‘Zionist lobby’ or ‘Israel lobby’. Objectively, the reference is a generic one to the Jewish community and its major organisations, which overwhelmingly support Israel’s right to exist as the national home of the Jewish people. In effect, these terms seek to place the Jewish community and its major organisations outside the normal fabric of society. The effect is to delegitimise Jewish concerns, and to portray the Jewish community’s involvement in public discourse and mainstream society as illegitimate, suspicious, subversive and sinister. This suggests that Jews are different to other citizens, ‘the other’. In effect, these terms play to dog-whistle racist politics with subconscious messaging reflecting antisemitic conspiracy theories.

The “Jewish lobby” idea does not reference any particular organisation or organisations or individuals per se, but conveys the belief that non-Jewish politicians, journalists, academics and others, only support the Jewish community and/or Israel solely or primarily because of pressure or money from shadowy, undefined “Jewish” sources. The corollary is the belief that without “Jewish” influence or “Jewish” money, people would not be supporting either the Jewish community or Israel.

4. Jews/Zionists as controlling banks, media, politicians

The next step from believing in a powerful “Jewish lobby” which manipulates or threatens or buys influence is that of believing that “the Jews” control, or are in the process of controlling, the banks, media and politicians – three major areas of power within most countries. In Australia, at least, such a view is not spoken openly within the mainstream, but remains on the fringes, of both the far right and far left.

This theme originated in a coherent form with the publication in 1903 of The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, a document that was entirely fabricated by the Russian secret police to try to deflect anti-Czarist sentiment. The Protocols purported to set out a secret plot by leaders of “international Jewry” to take control of and rule the world. In short, it claimed that Jews aimed to influence, infiltrate and take control of governments, the media, and the banks; Jews were supposedly plotting to undermine and corrupt religion, morality, culture and society. The Protocols have been cited repeatedly by those advocating violence or even genocide against the Jewish people. At the heart of The Protocols is the conspiracy theory.

Today, derogatory references to “the Jews” has generally been replaced by derogatory references to “the Zionists”. Yet the underlying object of the derogation is unchanged. Often a common identifier of this theme is a reference to “Rothschild”, the Jewish banking family, and more recently, to “Goldman Sachs”, an investment company established by two Jewish Americans in the nineteenth century. These brands are frequently referenced by antisemites as a code for “the Jews” or Jewish control.

Some examples of this theme include the following comments on social media in 2016: “History is a lie written by Jewish bankers and sold by their puppet politician who help sell the lies.”, “if you control the media like jews do anything goes”, “the Zionist controlled media”, “these filthy Goldman Sachs Zionist criminals”, “they have too much money in this world. If need be they can buy off anyone”, and “Our nation is now completely under the control of the International Invisible government of World Jewry.”

5. Jews/Zionists as Nazis

This theme accuses Jews/Zionists/Israelis of being the same as, or worse than, the Nazis who murdered six million Jews. It most often occurs in reference to the Israel-Arab conflict. The theme is one of Holocaust inversion, Holocaust minimisation, and often Holocaust denial.

This theme is not commonly expressed within the mainstream of society. However, it is commonly expressed by leftists and some extremist Muslims at anti-Israel rallies on their placards, and on social media. Its aim is to demonise the Jewish state of Israel and to legitimise hateful or violent acts against Israel and sometimes Jews by referring to Israelis as Nazis.

Comparing Israel to Nazi Germany, or Zionism to Nazism, or the Jewish Star of David to the Nazi swastika, as is common in anti-Israel discourse and protests, is recognised as antisemitic by virtue of it being a false analogy aimed at demonising Jews, and by minimising the evil of the deliberate and planned mass extermination of six million Jews by the Nazis, and sometimes, in turn retrospectively justifying the Holocaust against the Jewish people.

In effect, the comparison means: as Nazi Germany was destroyed, so too it is morally just to destroy Israel; if the Israelis and Zionists are so evil, then maybe Hitler had good grounds for committing genocide against the Jews; if Hitler had succeeded in wiping out the Jews, then there would be no Israel; and in retrospect, Hitler was doing the world a favour. These words impliedly justify acts of violence and murder against Jews in Israel and Jewish supporters of Israel.

The Nazi comparison places Jews as a group in the invidious role of being racist, evil and powerful. It denies that Jews are victims of racism. It has been used to justify the Nazi genocide against the Jews. It serves to place those who are hostile and opposed to Jews as being the victims of Jews, thereby framing their attacks on Jews as ‘only defending’ themselves against the ‘evil’ of the Jews.


The ideas in these five themes are irrational but powerful. There will always be people ready, for their own reasons, to spruik hatred against Jews. The extent of the influence of this hatred and prejudice can be gauged by a gradation of tests: firstly, whether any of these views have crossed over from the margins of society into the mainstream; secondly, whether people in the mainstream freely and openly give voice to such prejudice; thirdly, whether it has become part of ordinary acceptable discourse; and fourthly, whether such prejudice is acted upon through discrimination or violence against Jews. Each gradation marks a stepping stone where the antisemitism needs to be checked, countered and rebutted, to avoid a catastrophe.

Racism, whether overt or covert, subtle or obtuse, casual or violent, is never acceptable. History has shown that societies that tolerate and accept racism against Jews often become a society where all will be caught up in a conflagration that “begins with Jews but never ends with Jews”. All forms of racism, including antisemitism, are a threat not only to the people they target but ultimately to all of us.

Julie Nathan is the Research Officer for the Executive Council of Australian Jewry

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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