search
Alexandria Fanjoy Silver

The Jewish Enemy

One of the defining qualities of human civilization is need for a common enemy. It is against the ‘other’ that we define ourselves. Western civilization has always had one ‘other’ since time immemorial: the ‘Jew.’ The reason that the symbol of the ‘Jew’ has always been so convenient is because it is amorphous, shape-shifting, able to transform to fit whatever political need arises. This enduring hatred is a testament to the enduring power of the people. Despite thousands of years of change, the Jew remains — conveniently small in number, but assiduously present. In that way, one can understand modern anti-Zionism as merely yet another outgrowth and semiotic representative of a common enemy. Judaism has long defied understanding because of its inability to be categorized, being simultaneously a religion, culture, and nationality. But the ‘Jew’ is also a symbol around which many have been able to rally — often in opposition — as significant in semiotic value as it is in historical one. 

It was upon the Roman assumption of the mantle of Christianity that Jews became so initially “othered.” In the foundational texts of the Christians, the Jews are blamed for the killing of  Jesus — despite the fact that he was crucified, a Roman method of execution. It also in this development that the age-old tradition of the ‘Jew’ as symbol originated. The purpose of the ‘Jew’ in society, per Augustine, was to be a constant warning of the failure to accept Jesus Christ. Like Cain, they were to be physically marked, doomed to wander eternally without state or salvation. They became the standard-bearer for godlessness, for failure to adhere to the church and its tenets. As history evolved, so too did the use of this scapegoat. When people could not summon a rational reason for the Black Death, the ‘Jew’ became a well-poisoner. When Christians were whipped into a fit of peak during the Crusades and set loose on the infidels, Jews were massacred across Europe as convenient stand-ins for the Muslim conquerors of the Holy Land.

Even as the Church lost its hold on the levers of power, the traditional enemy remained. As Napoleon swept into Russia, the ‘Jew’ became associated with the modernity he was thought to stand for. The ‘Jew’ was seen as the wire-puller behind the scenes, even by the totalitarian leaders the Tsars themselves. When Alexander II was assassinated, his son Alexander III blamed the Jews. His son, Nicholas II, propagated the farcical document The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, wherein international Jewry was ‘exposed’ as responsible for the fates of all nations and all wars. When the Tsars fell and the Bolshevik Revolution happened, The ‘Jew’ became the ultimate symbol of this new Communist government in Russia and abroad — despite the fact that in the Soviet Union, anti-Jewish sentiment thrived. Indeed, when the murder of the Romanov children became public knowledge under Stalin, he blamed “foreign” (read: Jewish) elements for their deaths, sending executioner Yakov Yurovsky’s family to the Gulag. 

Western Europe was hardly better. In the 19th century, as Jews converted to Christianity and assimilated en masse, they were transformed into a new phantom: an enemy who could hide in plain sight, who would be virtually indistinguishable from Christian Europeans, and yet who would remain perfidious. It was now the “baptized Jew” who was the most threatening. It is these marginal perspectives that were brought into the mainstream by the Nazis, for whom the ‘Jew’ was the key enemy. This symbolic evil represented all manner of sins, from Communism to Capitalism, from Stalin to Churchill.

All of this is to demonstrate that the ‘Jew’ has always been there to personify whatever contemporary societies deemed most objectionable. When economic downturns happen, Jews are often blamed, being disproportionately associated with banks. This was as true in Germany during the Great Depression as it was in the market collapse of 2008. Antisemitism on the far-right remains relatively constant, often rooted in the obsession with whiteness. Jews are representative of fears of miscegenation and white replacement, and seem to remain the primary enemy. Increasingly, however, the politics surrounding the ‘Jew’ as representative of whiteness seems to be the magnet pulling both poles of the political spectrum together. This idea now contributes significantly to rising antisemitism on the left, in which the Jews and the State of Israel have come to represent the new enemy, white colonialist power structures. 

To clarify, to be critical of Israeli policy or military actions is reasonable and acceptable. Issues arise in the demonization that is present in discussions about Israel and Jews that is noticeably lacking from other, similar conflicts. You would be hard-pressed to find celebrations on college campuses after the ISIS attacks in Paris, or celebratory rallies in Western cities after 9/11. The amount of ink spilled about the actions of the military coalition in Kabul, actual genocidal acts in Sudan, Yemen and Syria pale in comparison to the number of overwrought articles accusing Israel of all manner of sins. When Roe v. Wade was overturned, when George Floyd was murdered, when terror attacks happened around the world, university administrators felt no compunction in taking political or moral stances, but very few were willing to condemn the October 7th attack as morally repugnant in the days after, claiming that universities have no place to do so. While there is absolutely a power imbalance between the State of Israel and the Palestinians, at times the agency of Palestinian leadership is misrepresented thus, and Israel is blamed for the entirety of the Palestinian tragedy, despite there being many (albeit non-Jewish) actors who have played their parts. This is particularly true of Egypt, who created Gaza and participates in the joint blockade of the Strip, but who evades almost all off the blame and ire directed at Israel. The selective outrage felt over the Israel-Hamas war demonstrates that there is something more at its heart that engenders significant emotion, anger and, at times, violence.

In the last decade, DEI has come to influence most North American institutions in some capacity. Ultimately, DEI policies are focused on upending traditional forms of authority, whether represented by the patriarchy, white people, the West, or the police (among others) at various junctures. The reasons for this recent attention are myriad, from the election of Donald Trump to the murder of George Floyd. Jews have, by and large, have had little actual influence in the propagation of white supremacy, patriarchal control over women’s bodies and reproductive rights, or instances of police brutality. And yet, the State of Israel, and by extension Jews (or is it Jews, and by extension the State of Israel?), have come to be representative of this power in DEI-speak, the symbol of systemic barriers erected against the marginalized. The exact systems that oppressed Jews for hundreds of years. The current discourse that casts Jews in the role of white oppressor and colonial power is incorrect and harmful. The conspiracy of Jews as the wire-puller is alive and well in North America, and those who are censured for their blatant antisemitism often cry Jewish interference. And it is this spectre of Jewish power that leads to the newly socially acceptable version of antisemitism, anti-Zionism. 

The lasting power of the symbol of the ‘Jew’ is that in framing them as whatever new enemy is required has always kept this bigotry within the realm of acceptable discourse. Particularly in academia, history is reshaped and the dynamics of power reconsidered to fit the moral strictures of the day; those who grace our most hallowed halls concern themselves with contemporary philosophies, but often fail to understand how this new enemy is actually the oldest one. The symbolic understanding of the ‘Jew’ as anathema to the morality of the time may have gotten legs from Augustine but runs independent today. The ‘Jew,’ colonized and exiled for much of history, becomes the colonizer. The ‘Jew,’ once hunted and murdered by the Nazis, has become the Nazi. The ‘Jew,’ the most famous victim of genocide, has become a genocidiaire. Truth itself does not matter. Even the most educated people can fall prey to this, perhaps without even realizing it, because the othering of the ‘Jew’ in the name of identity, morality and virtue has been part of Western society’s genetic makeup since time immemorial. 

When considered in this context of the false binaries that underpin contemporary society’s re-litigation of the past, the Israel-Hamas war becomes something else entirely. This is not the merely story of a small nation that has been fighting an existential battle for 76 years being attacked by a terrorist organization and responding with force. It is not the story of a nation who is not perfect (what nation is?) that is forced to choose between protecting the lives of its own people versus caring for the lives of others’. It is not a war that is horrible in its scale, but undeniable in its need. It is not one arena in the war on terror. Instead, it is a semiotic representation of white supremacy, colonialism and power. When understood thus, Israel’s right to defend itself is obliterated, its right to exist negated. It matters little that Jews are small in number and that Israelis are drastically outnumbered in the Middle East and North Africa or that if we were as powerful as conspiracy theorists suggest, attacks against us would surely be less. The history of powerlessness and helplessness is irrelevant to this discussion (as is the fact that most Israelis come from the Middle East themselves). When understood through this semiotic framework, attacking the right of the State of Israel to exist is to participate in the ultimate virtue signalling; an odd virtue that too is fuelled by hate. Perhaps the words of Claudine Gay perversely ring true: when considering how the spectre of the Jewish enemy manifests itself, it depends on the context. 

About the Author
Dr. Alexandria Fanjoy Silver has a B.A. from Queen's University, an MA/ MA from Brandeis and a PhD from the University of Toronto (all in history and education). She lives in Toronto with her husband and three children, and works as a Jewish history teacher. She writes about Jewish food history on Substack @bitesizedhistory and talks about Israeli history on Insta @afanjoysilver.