The New Antisemitism

Feb 27, 2024 | History, Voices

Why won’t antisemitism die, or at least die down? In the months following Hamas’ attack on Israel on Oct. 7, 2023, antisemitic incidents increased substantially. The Anti-Defamation League, which keeps track, says they tripled in the U.S. over the previous year, although its criteria also changed to include anti-Zionism. But from 2019 to 2022, the amount of people with highly antisemitic attitudes in the U.S. had nearly doubled, the ADL found. In Europe, Human Rights Watch warned in 2019 of an “alarming” rise in antisemitism, prompting the European Union to adopt a strategic plan for fighting it two years later.

No one can say definitively why the pre–Gaza War surge happened when it did. The salience of groups like the neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017 probably played a role, as did the influence of figures like the troubled rapper turned designer Kanye West. Historically, antisemitism has been a side effect of populism, which traffics in us-vs.-them stereotypes. Social media allows antisemitic influencers to recruit and communicate directly to followers, getting around the filtering bottleneck of the legacy media. The murder of 11 worshipers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018, by a shooter enraged at Jewish groups providing aid to immigrants, was the painful lowlight of this era.

It can be hard to think clearly and reason calmly about antisemitism. For 15 million Jews around the world, its resilience engenders fear, pain, sadness, frustration, and intergenerational trauma going back to the Holocaust and beyond. The superficial sense of security that many Jews feel on a daily basis in the contemporary world turns out to be paper-thin. Jews know enough of their own familial stories to realize that in historical terms, such moments of safety have often been fleeting, followed by renewed persecution. Sitting in my office in leafy Cambridge, Mass., a proud citizen of the freest country in the world, in which Jews have been safer than in any other country in history, I am not free of emotion on the topic. Nor could I be.

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The problem with blaming religion is that antisemitism today is no longer driven primarily by Christianity. Although antisemitism can still be found among Christians, in the U.S. and around the world, most contemporary believing Christians are not antisemites. The old theological condemnation of the Jews for killing Christ has been repudiated by nearly every Christian denomination.

Nor does antisemitism among Muslims primarily reflect the classical Islamic claims made against the Jews, such as the accusation that the Jews (and Christians) distorted Scripture, resulting in discrepancies between the Bible and the Koran. Jews in Muslim lands mostly fared better than in Christian Europe. Until the 20th century, those Jews occupied a complex, second-class status, protected alongside Christians as “people of the book” and also simultaneously subject to special taxes and social subordination. The tropes of modern Europe’s antisemitism—of Jews’ power and avarice—mostly came to the Middle East late, through Nazi influence. Even the prevalence of antisemitism among Islamist groups like Hamas isn’t primarily driven by religion. Rather, it is part of their politically motivated effort to turn a struggle between two national groups for the same piece of land into a holy war.

It emerges that far from being an unchanging set of ideas derived from ancient faiths, antisemitism is actually a shape-shifting, protean, creative force. Antisemitism has managed to reinvent itself multiple times throughout history, each time keeping some of the old tropes around, while simultaneously creating new ones adapted to present circumstances.

In each iteration, antisemitism reflects the ideological preoccupations of the moment. In antisemitic discourse, Jews are always made to exemplify what a given group of people considers to be the worst feature of the social order in which they live.

A crucial reason why is surely that Jews were the most salient minority group living among Christians for the bulk of European history—and Europe was the heartland of historical antisemitism. The practice of projecting immediate social fears and hatreds onto Jews grew from the human need to treat some nearby group of people as the Other. (Muslims and Asians eventually also became subject to projection and fantasy, a practice dubbed Orientalism by the literary scholar Edward Said.) Once Jews had become the go-to targets for exemplifying societal ills, the habit stuck.

In this way, crucially, antisemitism is not and has never been about actual Jews so much as antisemites’ imagination of them. Because antisemitic ideology isn’t accountable to real-life facts, its content can be altered and changed as a society’s worries and moral judgments shift. Antisemitism’s capacity to keep its familiar character while also channeling new fears is what confers its stunning capacity to reinvent itself.

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The core of this new antisemitism lies in the idea that Jews are not a historically oppressed people seeking self-preservation but instead oppressors: imperialists, colonialists, and even white supremacists. This view preserves vestiges of the trope that Jews exercise vast power. It creatively updates that narrative to contemporary circumstances and current cultural preoccupations with the nature of power and injustice.

Concerns about power and justice are, in themselves, perfectly legitimate, much like past concerns about the effects of unfettered capitalism on working people—or for that matter, condemnations of elitism. So it is important to distinguish carefully between critiques of power that deserve serious consideration and the antisemitic ways in which those critiques may be deployed.

That caution is especially important because Israel, the first Jewish state to exist in two millennia, plays a central role in the narrative of the new antisemitism. Israel is not an imaginary conspiracy but a real country with real citizens, a real history, a real military, and real political and social problems that concern relations between Jews and Palestinians. It is not inherently antisemitic to criticize Israel. Its power, like any national power, may be subject to legitimate, fair criticism.

It is also essential not to tar all critics of Israel with the brush of antisemitism, especially in wartime, when Israel, like any other war-waging power, is properly subject to the strictures of international humanitarian law. To deploy the charge of antisemitism for political reasons is morally wrong, undermining the horror of antisemitism itself. It is also likely to backfire, convincing critics of Israel that they are being unfairly silenced.

At the same time, Israel’s history and current situation confound categories that are so often used today to make moral judgments—categories like imperialism, colonialism, and white supremacy. And because people’s ideas about Israel typically draw on older, pre-Israel ideas about Jews, criticism of Israel can borrow, often unconsciously, from older antisemitic myths.

To understand the complicated, subtle character of the new antisemitism, notice that the concept of imperialism was developed to describe European powers that conquered, controlled, and exploited vast territories in the Global South and East. The theory of settler-colonial white supremacy was developed as a critical account of countries like Australia and the U.S., in which, according to the theory, the colonialists’ aim was to displace the local population, not to extract value from its labor. The application of these categories to Israel is a secondary development.

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The upshot is that while a well-meaning person, free of antisemitism, could describe Israel as colonialist, the narrative of Israel as a settler-colonial oppressor on par with or worse than the U.S., Canada, and Australia is fundamentally misleading. Those who advance it run the risk of perpetuating antisemitism by condemning the Jewish state despite its basic differences from these other global examples—most important, Israel’s status as the only homeland for a historically oppressed people who have nowhere else to call their own.

To emphasize the narrative of Jews as oppressors, the new antisemitism must also somehow sidestep not only two millennia of Jewish oppression, but also the Holocaust, the largest organized, institutionalized murder of any ethnic group in human history. On the right, antisemites either deny the Holocaust ever happened or claim its scope has been overstated. On the left, one line is that Jews are weaponizing the Holocaust to legitimize the oppression of Palestinians.

During the Gaza War, some have argued that Israel, having suffered the trauma of the Holocaust, is now itself perpetrating a genocide against the Palestinian people. Like other criticisms of Israel, the accusation of genocide isn’t inherently antisemitic. Yet the genocide charge is especially prone to veering into antisemitism because the Holocaust is the archetypal example of the crime of genocide. Genocide was recognized as a crime by the international community after the Holocaust. Accusing Israel of genocide can function, intentionally or otherwise, as a way of erasing the memory of the Holocaust and transforming Jews from victims into oppressors.

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Notwithstanding these serious concerns, Israel’s efforts to defend itself against Hamas, even if found to involve killing disproportionate number of civilians, do not turn Israel into a genocidal actor comparable to the Nazis or the Hutu regime in Rwanda. The genocide charge depends on intent. And Israel, as a state, is not fighting the Gaza War with the intent to destroy the Palestinian people.

Israel’s stated war aims are to hold Hamas accountable for the Oct. 7 attack on Israel and to get back its citizens who are still being held captive. These aims are lawful in themselves.

The means Israel has used are subject to legitimate criticism for killing too many civilians as collateral damage. But Israel’s military campaign has been conducted pursuant to Israel’s interpretation of the international laws of war. There is no single, definitive international-law answer to the question of how much collateral damage renders a strike disproportionate to its concrete military objective. Israel’s approach resembles campaigns fought by the U.S. and its coalition partners in Iraq in Afghanistan, and by the international coalition in the battle against ISIS for control of Mosul. Even if the numbers of civilian deaths from the air seem to be higher, it is important to recognize that Israel is also confronting miles of tunnels intentionally connected to civilian facilities by Hamas.

To be clear: as a matter of human worth, a child who dies at the hands of a genocidal murderer is no different from one who dies as collateral damage in a lawful attack. The child is equally innocent, and the parents’ sorrow equally profound. As a matter of international law, however, the difference is decisive. During the Hamas attack, terrorists intentionally murdered children and raped women. Its charter calls for the destruction of the Jewish state. Yet the accusation of genocide is being made against Israel.

These relevant facts matter for putting the genocide charge into the context of potential antisemitism. Neither South Africa nor other states have brought a genocide case against China for its conduct in Tibet or Xinjiang, or against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. There is something specifically noteworthy about leveling the charge at the Jewish state—something intertwined with the new narrative of the Jews as archetypal oppressors rather than archetypal victims. Call it the genocide sleight of hand: if the Jews are depicted as genocidal—if Israel becomes the very archetype of a genocidal state—then Jews are much less likely to be conceived as a historically oppressed people engaged in self-defense.

The new narrative of Jews as oppressors is, in the end, far too close for comfort to the antisemitic tradition of singling out Jews as uniquely deserving of condemnation and punishment, whether in its old religious form or its Nazi iteration. Like those earlier forms of antisemitism, the new kind is not ultimately about the Jews, but about the human impulse to point the finger at someone who can be made to carry the weight of our social ills. Oppression is real. Power can be exercised without justice. Israel should not be immune from criticism when it acts wrongfully. Yet the horrific history and undefeated resilience of antisemitism mean that modes of rhetorical attack on Israel and on Jews should be subject to careful scrutiny.

Just because antisemitism is a cyclical, recurring phenomenon does not mean that it is inevitable nor that it cannot be ameliorated. Like any form of irrational hate, antisemitism can in principle be overcome. The best way to start climbing out of the abyss of antisemitism is to self-examine our impulses, our stories about power and injustice, and our beliefs.

Noah Feldman, a professor at Harvard Law School, is the author of the new book To Be a Jew Today: A New Guide to God, Israel, and the Jewish People


View this Time Magazine Op-Ed