Some Notes on Antisemitism Today in the USA

Antisemitism is an animus based on a negative portrait of the Jew as an extraordinarily malevolent and powerful being.

The Jew is depicted as extraordinarily malign and influential. Antisemitism also often involves a threat of action. The negative portrait is linked to a program involving policy or action targeting the Jew. Such actions include marking off for special invidious treatment or discrimination, proscribing, excluding, subordinating, expelling, ghettoizing, removing, or, at the extreme, exterminating.

Antisemitism lives in history and changes in history. It is malleable. It rises and falls in intensity, alters in its negative idea of the Jew, and transforms as a program.   Another way of saying this is that antisemitism is not something eternal and unchanging.  Rather it exists in history and has a complex and changing history of its own which is worthy of study and understanding.  Today there is a new antisemitism in the United States on the hard left and also a newly revitalizing old antisemitism on the marginal right. Both are present on the American campus.

I.

At its core, antisemitism everywhere rests on a belief that the world would be improved if there were no Jews or if Jews and Jewish influence were circumscribed.  For the antisemite, Jews are the devil’s people, a brood of swine and vipers, a people barred from grace, the untrue Israel now superseded by a newer and truer Israel.  Or Jews are an economic threat and a danger to public well-being, a selfish and conniving people, who manipulates currencies, spreads plagues and sickness, poisons wells, and – in insult to God’s loving mercy — seeks a pound of flesh.  Or Jews are a racial enemy and a danger, a people who masquerade behind a mask of acculturation, taking on the accents and look and language of host nations, but always remaining alien; it is in their blood or genetic heritage that Jews are subversive and worrisome, a political or cultural threat, or a bacillus.   Jews are part of an international conspiracy to control and dominate the world.

The structure of antisemitic belief is always the same: Manichean, binary, deeply accusatory, and demonizing. Jews killed the Lord, Jews manipulate wealth and money, Jews are revolutionaries and financial wizards, Jews invade the cracks and crevices of the national body, Jews are shape shifters who infest and corrupt. Jews exert unseen global influence and power. Jews are different, but they wear a human visage so they are difficult to identify and control.

In the present day, most observers agree, there has arisen a new form of antisemitism, one identified by many observers as “the new antisemitism.”  This antisemitism contains new content distinguishing it from the old and has a presence on the hard left and in some progressive quarters.  But the new antisemitism also includes old content that is repurposed to serve and elaborate the new.  What distinguishes this new antisemitism?  That which the pariah Jew was thought to be in classical or modern racial antisemitism, Israel or the Jewish state is thought to be today. The Jewish state is the collective Jew or the sovereign Jew.  Other nations are celebrated for achieving national self-determination; the Jewish state is not celebrated.   Rather, Israel is thought of as extraordinarily evil, a threat to world order, a violator of human rights, a state unlike any other.  If the new state would be eliminated, the antisemite believes, the world or at least the Middle East would be improved, justice would be at hand, human rights would thrive.

There is also today a resurgent antisemitism on the right different from the new antisemitism.  Its roots are older with links back to 20th century racial antisemitism. Its premise is that “white identity” is under attack in the United States, and Jews are part of the issue.  As posters placed all over the University of Minnesota campus screamed recently, “White Man, Are You Sick and Tired of the Jews Destroying our Country through Mass Immigration and Degeneracy?”  The trigger causes are immigration and refugees – Mexican immigration and Muslim refugees – as well as the multifold displacements and anxieties accompanying globalism and economic change, but Jews are viewed in these marginal precincts as setting such things in motion and as standing against the goal of a white ethno-state.  Most of these kinds of antisemitism do not consider Jews as white.  They are viewed as having their own identity and it is not white/European.  One white nationalist Greg Johnson writes that he opposes the Jewish diaspora in the U.S. and would rather see the Jews in Israel, where they can learn there to be “a normal nation.”

II.

During the modern era amidst the Enlightenment, Jews were reproached for having invented the superstition of one God.  It was also taken for granted they were immoral beings and debates about the emancipation of the Jews centered on whether they could be transformed.  Later, socialists and anti-capitalists understood the Jews as high and low financial conspirators, conspiring to diminish the tall and the noble, and harm the small and the humble. Then, amidst the Romantic era, Jews were reconceived again in a view shaped by modern science and pseudo-science, reinvented as racial beings.  Jews were what they were not as a community of faith but rather due to their unalterable biological heritage. Assimilation threatened Europe because, behind the mask of cultural and social sameness, the Jew continued deeply alien. The word antisemitism was born to label this new Jew hatred, and an older animus was now recast by the dominant new conception and the accompanying discourse. Contemporary right antisemitism takes off from these old and troubling premises.

Today, in the main, the language of racial antisemitism no longer works so well, as war and Holocaust as well as the broad sweep of decolonization have operated to delegitimize the racialist view.  So Jew hatred today, especially on the left, moves in accord with a newer system of concepts and justification – an antisemitism more suitable to a post-Holocaust, post-national, and post imperialist age.  According to the French philosopher, Bernard Henri Levy, the new antisemitism targets the Jew in new ways: Jews are thought to be detestable because they are inseparable from a detestable state, the Jewish state, and because they utilize their suffering in the Holocaust for advantage. The new antisemitism constructs Zionism as a racial ideology in an antiracist age and as a settler colonial movement in a post-imperial age.  Supporters of Israel are evil, because Israel is evil – racist, imperial, colonial – and they support it.  They are also detestable because they allegedly use the Holocaust, seen as imaginary or exaggerated, for present profit and advantage.  In the new antisemitism, the Holocaust is inverted so it becomes not something the Nazis did to the Jews but something Jews use to beat and stifle others.

Such orientations are often woven or blended together, combined in braided or overlapping fashion, so that they work mutually to actively influence each other. The new antisemitism depicts Israel as diabolical and its supporters as linked in a conspiracy of support. Israel is also accused of using the memory of Jewish dead as justification for contemporary racist and genocidal actions.  Exaggerated anti-Zionism, Holocaust inversion and denial, and over-the-top efforts to pin the Nazi label are all parts of a program to delegitimize Israel, depict it as a criminal state, and cast its supporters as modern pariahs.  I heard one professor in a public setting blame the killings in France at the Hyper Cacher on the victims themselves: after all they were presumed to be supporters of Israel and therefore fair game to be targeted.

III.

Some scholars, like Henry-Levy think anti-Zionism functions basically as a direct mask for antisemitism. They are the same. Speaking at a New York City gathering at the 92nd Street Y this year, Henri-Levy said “Anti-Zionism is the new dressing for the old passion of antisemitism.”  He is not alone in believing this.  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks also calls anti-Zionism “the antisemitism of our time.”  He says, “Antisemitism means denying the right of Jews to exist collectively as Jews with the same rights as everyone else.”

The late Robert Wistrich understood that antisemitism and anti-Zionism had separate and independent origins but thought the two phenomena in recent years had converged.  In an essay in 2004, Wistrich argued that “anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are two distinct ideologies that over time (especially since 1948) have tended to converge, generally without undergoing a full merger.”   Moreover, Wistrich insisted “Anti-Zionism has become the most dangerous and effective form of anti- Semitism in our time, through its systematic delegitimization, defamation, and demonization of Israel.”  Anti-Zionism was not a priori antisemitic, but repeated calls to dismantle the Jewish state, the mobilization of classic themes like the Jewish lobby and the Jewish/Zionist world conspiracy, and constant demonization had led distinct ideologies to overlap.   To Wistrich, anti-Zionism, was infecting Europe with “an old-new version of anti-Semitism in which Jews are rapacious, bloodsucking colonialists.” In this view, the Jews are rootless imperial invaders, conquerors aiming to cleanse the land of its inhabitants; they are modern Crusaders without legitimate rights, alien to the region.

Most compelling and persuasive to this writer is the view of yet other scholars like Alan Johnson, who see and trace the development of an antisemitic anti-Zionism as a distinctive tendency on the hard left in England and America.  For Johnson, “Antisemitic anti-Zionism bends the meaning of Israel and Zionism out of shape until both become fit receptacles for the tropes, images and ideas of classical antisemitism.   In short, that which the demonological Jew once was, demonological Israel now is: uniquely malevolent, full of blood lust, all-controlling, the hidden hand, tricksy, always acting in bad faith, the obstacle to a better, purer, more spiritual world, uniquely deserving of punishment, and so on.”

Johnson describes three components of antisemitic anti-Zionism:  a program, a discourse, and the movement embodying it. The program of antisemitic anti-Zionism is not two states for two peoples, but the abolition of Israel entirely.  It is not Palestine alongside Israel; it is Palestine instead of Israel.  The discourse is a demonizing one, with its own system of concepts: ‘Zionism is racism’; Israel is a ‘settler-colonialist state,’ Israel ‘ethnically cleansed’ the ‘indigenous’ people, built an ‘apartheid state’, and is now carrying out an ‘incremental genocide’ against the Palestinians.  The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement embodies and energizes such antisemitic anti-Zionism, standing not for peace but for the abolition of Israel.

Johnson suggests, in a clarifying move that, to grasp the relationship between antisemitism and anti-Zionism today, we should imagine them as two circles.  Looked at from above, those who think that they have converged or merged would expect to see a single circle; those who think they bear no relation and are separate would continue to see two circles.  Johnson emphasizes that the two circles, however, overlap, there is a describable area of intersection we can call antisemitic anti-Zionism, and the area has recurring and identifiable features.  What are such features?

IV.

When anti-Zionism crosses a line, it becomes an antisemitic form of anti-Zionism, involving itself in group libel and stigmatization and linking back to an age old hatred. What are illustrative examples?

  • When, as part of a systematic ideological discourse, anti-Zionism continuously treats the state of Israel as a caricature of extreme evil, and, in service of this Manichean idea, offers cartoon versions of Zionism as inherently racist and colonialist, removed from history, this is antisemitic anti-Zionism. The claim is polemical, and derides based on who, not what, Zionism and Israel are – they are of the Jews.
  • When adherents of anti-Zionism insist that, even though all other nations enjoy a right to self-determination and sovereignty, Jews may not enjoy and are not similarly eligible, this too is antisemitic anti-Zionism. When anti-Zionists refuse to understand self-determination and sovereignty for Jews like that for others as potentially progressive, this too is antisemitic anti-Zionism.
  • When anti-Zionism absorbs into discussion of the Jewish state mystical claims or classical tropes about Jewish evil and power and attributes claims made about Jews as part of the long history of antisemitism to the Jewish collective today, this too is antisemitic anti-Zionism. This kind of discussion depicts Jews as an all-powerful hidden force that manipulates states and economies and whispers in the ears of state leaders in pursuit of world control.
  • When anti-Zionism absorbs into its standard discourse representations, images, and depictions of the physical Jew clearly derived from the long history of antisemitism, this is antisemitic anti-Zionism. Such representations picture the Jew as an insect, a hook-nosed devilish figure, a figure with horns, a figure akin to the devil, ugly and grasping.
  • When anti-Zionists raise questions about the fitness for student office of students of Jewish background or affiliated with Jewish community institutions, because they will allegedly not be able to act objectively for other students or on resolutions about Israel/Palestine, this is also antisemitic anti-Zionism. This is the antisemitic claim that Jews are a corporate group, standing apart, self-absorbed, and that Jewish individuals always put the Jewish group first.
  • When anti-Zionists accuse those who point out or worry aloud about antisemitism of raising the issue in bad faith to silence anti-Zionism, this too is antisemitic anti-Zionism. Rather than explore the facts, pro and con, in a sensitive and shared effort at mutual understanding, the anti-Zionists accuse those charging antisemitism as engaging in a swindle or a lie, that is, as acting in bad faith.
  • When anti-Zionist students march through campus yelling “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be Free,” or scream “Intifada, Intifada, we support the Intifada,” they are of course exercising the privilege of free speech, but it should be clear that the content they are saying is that Israel should cease to exist, and we support the killing of Israelis. This too is antisemitic anti-Zionism.
  • Finally, when anti-Zionists argue that European or American Jews far removed from Israel or Palestine, are fair game for violent attack as part of the broad anti-colonial “resistance,” because, after all, Israel acts in the name of all Jews to oppress the Palestinians and all Jews are supporters of and allies of Israel. The presumption is that there is no such thing as individual Jews, citizens of disparate nations, people who think for themselves; there are only members of the Jewish collective.  All are implicated; all are responsible.  All the Jews are guilty.

V.

Now, with the post-election surge of right antisemitism in the U.S., many Jews – especially on campus – may feel themselves caught between both a new 21st century antisemitism of the hard left and one of the right, hearkening back to the last century.   Currents of thought resembling white supremacist perspectives circulate today reaching even to back desks in the White House, help orient the current regime against globalism and the current liberal international order, and have thus far already played havoc in specific issue areas — on immigration and refugees, relations with European allies in NATO, and in a strangely de-Judaized view of Holocaust remembrance.  Older themes familiar in American history – Henry Ford-type claims about international Jewish power, Coughlinite themes about Jews and finance, and Charles Lindbergh-type demands to put America First reappear in new guises.  Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, an alternative history of the 1940s appears prescient in 2017. More seriously worrisome, there are numerous open threats– death threats targeting Jewish reporters, ads circulating international finance memes, significant vandalism targeting Jewish property and cemeteries, and several waves of bomb scares targeting key Jewish institutions where members of Jewish communities and their children congregate.

The weight of antisemitic currents influencing campus life and shaping Jewish experiences continues largely to come from the BDS movement and its constituent organizations and from their ongoing campus campaigns to delegitimize Israel as well as their determination to see Jewish students as privileged “whites” without minority experience or sensibilities attuned to the oppressed.  Such people stereotype Jews and are unable to see them other than through their own limited, binary imaginations. The antisemitism that rears its head now also on the right, which sees Jews mainly as nonwhites, comes mostly from off campus and through social media, but the Anti-Defamation League reports white supremacist groups are pushing to recruit college students and are plastering campuses with their message.  Such groups as Identity Evropea and American Vanguard are engaged in “an unprecedented outreach effort to attract and recruit students on American college campuses.”  As American Jewish historian Jonathan Sarna observed in mid-November:  “I don’t know anybody who is looking at this in a serious way who says nothing has changed… American Jews assumed that antisemitism had largely been overcome,” he said. “And then, all of a sudden, unexpectedly, antisemitism … came roaring back.”

About the Author
Kenneth Waltzer is former director of Jewish Studies at Michigan State University and a progressive opponent of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. He a historian of the Holocaust completing a book on the rescue of children and youths at Buchenwald. He directed the Academic Engagement Network 2015-2019.
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