Kenneth Jacobson

When it Comes to Hatred of Jews, the End of Shame

Often referred to as the oldest hatred, antisemitism traces back to the pre-Christian era. This enduring animosity escalated thereafter, becoming deeply embedded in Western life for millennia.

Reaching its nadir in the murder of six million Jews by the Nazis, the shame of the images from Auschwitz and other concentration camps began a period of delegitimizing antisemitism. It was no longer easy for blatant antisemites to express their hatred in public. 

 Here in the United States, famous individuals like Henry Ford, Father Charles Coughlin and Charles Lindbergh could circulate the most brutal form of antisemitism and still be adored by millions before the war. After the war, that generally wasn’t the case. Moreover, there were serious efforts over the years to reverse the culture that had generated the antisemitic impulse for centuries. This included Holocaust education, major changes in the Catholic Church, and political leaders denouncing public expressions of Jew hatred. And so grew the belief that, unlike in previous centuries, antisemitism was no longer legitimized in society.  

Still, there were those who expressed Jew hatred, but felt a need to camouflage their views. They made it appear as though they were merely criticizing what they considered abhorrent Israeli policies.  

While criticism of Israel was, of course, legitimate, too often these views represented what came to be known as the new antisemitism: disguising Jew hatred in a post-Holocaust world under the guise of anti-Zionism. In fact, it was the demonization and delegitimization of the Jewish state which made it clear that these positions were not mere criticism of Israel, but antisemitism in a new form. Still, because of the general atmosphere in the post-Holocaust world, the impact of the new antisemitism was somewhat limited.  

Which brings us to current events.  

I would argue that we are at a watershed moment where, for the first time in decades, open and blatant antisemitism, unencumbered by camouflages, has surfaced and is widely spreading.  

This has manifested itself in several ways:  

First, in the reaction after October 7, the worst massacre of Jews since the Holocaust and the worst terror attack since 9/11. The widespread victim blaming and willingness to support Hamas’s atrocities committed against Israeli men, women, and children, represented by the phrase “by any means necessary,” became mainstream. This trend is reminiscent of past pogroms against Jewish communities, where residents of the attacked communities hailed the violence and blamed the Jews. Such outward delight about the slaughter of Jews had not been seen for decades. 

Second, in the protests on campuses and elsewhere. In environments where the slightest microaggression against other minorities generates swift, unequivocal condemnation and action, the intimidation and harassment of Jewish students is rationalized and even defended. Too many Jewish students are experiencing fear and exclusion, often encouraged by faculty, which exacerbates the situation. At the same time, anti-Israel protests have abandoned any pretense of solely criticizing Israel. The most recent examples include the abhorrent protests outside the Nova Music Festival Exhibition in New York City and the vandalizing of Brooklyn Museum directors’ homes with Hamas symbols.  

Third, in the increasing use of classic antisemitic expressions and tropes toward the Jewish state. They have existed for years, but the sheer quantity of them indicates a new era with implications for Jews everywhere. Anti-Zionist activists claim that Israel is genocidal after the true genocidal party, Hamas, committed its atrocities. They claim that Israel is a racist and apartheid state, while it is the only true democratic entity in the region and does more to protect minority rights, including Arabs and other minority communities, than any other country in the region. They claim that Israel is a baby killer, reminding us of the centuries-old blood libel charges. There is legitimate criticism of the way Israel has conducted this defensive war, but the clear implication that Israel deliberately targets children is outrageous and reminiscent of past conspiracy theories. This demonization of the Jewish state has roots in classic antisemitism.   

What is now clear is that the oldest hatred had never disappeared, it was just hidden by the shame of the Holocaust for decades. Now, as that shame has evaporated and, most importantly, events of October 7 seemed to reveal a new Jewish vulnerability, antisemitism has been legitimized in the mainstream once again. History tells us that when that happens, it is not only bad for the Jews but bespeaks ill for the society at-large.  

The fight against this mainstreaming of antisemitism must therefore be one that engages political leaders and individual citizens. This effort is not only crucial for victory but also for the health of democracy itself.

About the Author
Kenneth Jacobson is Deputy National Director of the Anti-Defamation League.