Things Have Changed — But How?

Things have changed, historian Deborah Lipstadt and barrister Anthony Julius agreed during a Weiner Library-sponsored gathering in London in February.  The event was billed as ‘Antisemitism in Contemporary Europe: A Conversation.’  ‘Things have changed,’ Lipstadt emphasized but said it is wrong to think they have changed ‘so much.’  There is clearly an ‘intensification’ in antisemitism, Julius chimed in, which is ‘alarming,’ and there has also been an important ‘conceptual shift.’

A threat once understood as coming from the right – a perception that Lipstadt’s important defense against David Irving in their famous Holocaust denial trial inadvertently reinforced, Julius said – today comes from a ‘contaminated anti-Zionism’ on the left.  Such anti-Zionism has Stalinist Soviet bloc roots in the 1960s and 1970s, but has broadened and hardened into a rigid motif spanning much of the larger anti-imperialist left.  This anti-Zionism, bleeding over into antisemitism, seriously poisons the public square, generating and legitimizing familiar negative myths, like overreaching claims about Jewish power, control, privilege and influence.

In addition, this contaminated ideological thrust is accompanied by a new and quite lethal anti-Western fundamentalist Islamic anti-Semitism which finds home and legitimacy in Muslim sources and sometimes extends to sanctioning murder.  All this is ‘something in the process of emerging,’ Julius cautioned, so the ultimate social reality cannot yet be fully described.  But through it all, he speculated, runs a ‘deep-rooted ideological and theological animus against secularism, liberal democracy, and the modern’, for which Jews continue to stand.

Such discussions seemed to be frequent and helpful and to accumulate on both sides of the Atlantic in the month or two after the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher murders in Paris and the attacks in Copenhagen.  Unfortunately, those discussions have since dried up and the subject of European antisemitism has largely returned to the hands of academic specialists.  But such explorations, I believe, should be renewed and pushed ahead, permitting us better to comprehend the present moment.

For things have indeed changed.  The late Robert Wistrich, the eminent historian of antisemitism, who died on Tuesday when preparing to speak to the Italian Senate about rising European antisemitism, believed that we had entered a new era long before Paris and Copenhagen.  We need more not fewer discussions about what are the constituent forces developing and disseminating anti-Semitism today, filling it with both old and new content, and we need more exploration how those forces interact with one another.  We also need to probe more deeply the realities and fantasies which occasionally move some in the social order to mob violence and even murder.

In a recent long essay for the online journal Fathom, I have a go at answering these questions, seeking to bring together analysis of the new antisemitism with accompanying analysis of the shifting realities in Europe, especially in France, involving challenges to the liberal project, to leading elites, and to alleged privileged Jews.   I try to add to the literature on conceptual changes in antisemitism referred to in the Lipstadt-Julius dialogue by reviewing an additional literature on the power of a ‘global Islam’ in Muslim spaces in Europe, and its influence especially among marginal youths.  I also look at the paths to radicalism and jihad that some Muslim youths take at transitional moments in their lives.  Numerous excellent sociologists and anthropologists have been probing what goes on in such arenas, how youths think about their world and their situations, how they come to be influenced and by whom, and what paths lead them to dangerous ends.  Only by exploring a deepened social portrait, I believe, can we get beneath the surface of recent events and decide more than that ‘things have changed’.

If this is correct, then appropriate responses to the rising danger of contemporary antisemitism in Europe must be multiple and go beyond protecting Jewish community institutions and individuals through displays of armed force, increasing appropriations and stepping up state security surveillance of radicals who move across borders and in and out of Europe in the service of jihad, and intervening thoughtfully and selectively in institutions like prisons where marginal youth are recruited without serious opposition from pro-democratic forces in their communities.   Such responses must also be shaped by thinking through how we may in a larger sense reenergize the liberal project in Europe, teach more effectively about democracy and pluralism in the schools, highlight and communicate the relevance of the liberal project to all, and police the public forum for hate.  The article in Fathom appears here.  See what you think.

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.