The history of antisemitism is largely the history of fantasies about the Jewish people, which led to and justified hatred, discrimination, isolation and murder. Things were attributed to Jews that had nothing to do with reality.
All of this reached its climax in the emergence of the fraudulent document The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, which claimed to be the discovery of the secret plans of Jewish leaders to take over the world.
Millions of people, when exposed to the Protocols, believed it to be real because for centuries various forms of conspiracies of Jewish control and power had been believed despite the reality of a largely disempowered and persecuted people. For so many, this document merely confirmed long-held views about Jews.
Decades later, when a modern Jewish state came into existence, Zionist leaders and supporters hoped that these fantasies about Jews would disappear, but more significantly they believed that this statehood would finally provide the persecuted and marginalized Jewish people with the power to protect themselves in the face of Jew hatred.
Having this new power to defend Jews, however, added a layer of complexity into the assessment of antisemitism. Having real power generated a significant element of responsibility for the Jewish state and with it the recognition that criticism of Jewish power, in this case of the Jewish state’s power, was no longer automatically based on fantasies but could indeed be based on legitimate criticism of the misuse of power.
And so came the discussions about when criticisms of Israel were legitimate and when they were antisemitism. Some such expressions were obviously antisemitic, such as the recycling of old conspiracy theories such as false accusations of Israelis using the blood of Palestinian children. Similarly other forms of demonizing the Jewish state and concluding from that that there should be no Israel are also in the antisemitic category.
And then there was the Hamas massacre on Simchat Torah. What is so striking in the almost three months since the massacre is the extent to which so many tried to rationalize what happened on October 7 as a legitimate reaction to Israeli policy.
It is safe to say that this was by far the most egregious manifestation of antisemitism ever directed at the Jewish state. Let’s be clear: What Hamas perpetrated on that day had nothing to do with one’s views on the wisdom or morality of Israeli policies or behavior.
It had only to do with antisemitic fantasies that have historically targeted the Jewish people and ultimately led to the Holocaust: Jews are evil. Jews are conspiratorial. Jews are subhuman. All of which we have seen in the Hamas charter, literature and rhetoric for decades, and which shaped and motivated the brutality, murder, rapes, mutilations and kidnappings perpetrated by the Hamas terrorists on that terrible day. This was a clear manifestation not of the complexity of the era of Zionist power and distinctions between criticism and hate, but of base, old-fashioned Jew hatred now directed at the Jewish state and its inhabitants.
In that context, rhetoric at a large number of demonstrations that have now surfaced in the US and elsewhere in support of the Palestinians is shameless and antisemitic in justifying and defending the mass murder of Jewish civilians. Signs such as “By Any Means Necessary,” and “Resistance is not Terrorism” and “Zionism is a cancer”” are not about the complexity of Israeli-Palestinian issues, but about the reversal to old-fashioned, classical antisemitism. Terrorism against Jewish men, women and children can be justified and even considered necessary because “Zionists” are a poisonous disease, and their power represents a danger to the world. Sound familiar?
To be clear, one can advocate for the Palestinians – and criticize Israeli actions – without engaging in rhetoric that echoes and elevates age-old anti-Jewish tropes and conspiracies. We need to call out those who justify this egregious Jew hatred that was the foundation of October 7 and not allow it to be legitimized.
At the same time, we also should make clear that we support the need for a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian issue in which both peoples can live in peace and security. That understandably seems far off now, but it is the right thing to do and one that will reinforce the message that what has happened these past few days is the moral opposite over that which we aspire to achieve.