Misreading Anti-Semitism: Rethinking Jewish Strategies and Assumptions
By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.
Whether it is the recent anti-Israel platform of Black Lives Matter, the statements of key members of the British Labor Party directed against the State of Israel, the attack on French Jewish individuals and institutions by Muslims, or the rise of the Alt Right within the United States, anti-Semitism remains a threat to Jews across the world. Rather than understanding this threat as being in decline, it appears to be on the ascendency. Why is this the case? Many of the assumptions and “treatments” associated with the historical fight to remove anti-Jewish practices and ideas are today coming into question:
1. There existed an historical assumption that anti-Semitism would disappear. This thesis, constructed in the aftermath of the Shoah, suggested that in the most enlightened cultures, the scourge of anti-Jewish behavior would diminish. As a result of higher educational achievement within a society or as the socio-economic condition improved, the levels of anti-Semitic hate would correspondingly decline. This hypothesis has proven to be at best only partially valid. A world without anti-Semitism is a non-starter. No society can escape the invariable effect of anti-social behavior, resulting in specific and targeted threats to Jewish security.
2. The early Zionists contended that once a Jewish State would be established, threats against Jews would dissipate, as Jews would be seen as a part of a “normal” civilization, operating among the nations. This notion served as one of the cornerstones in the debate around the experiment in state building. In reality, anti-Israelism has emerged as a new form of anti-Semitism!
3. Historically, Jews believed that they would need to challenge those who threatened their security and well-being, by marshaling public opinion to marginalize and reject prejudicial actions and messages. The 21st century has confirmed however a different scenario that Jews do not require “real enemies” in order to be victims of anti-Semitic behavior or social rejection. Social media has confirmed that a group does not in fact require actual threats in order to confront made-up or artificial challenges to their welfare and security! Anti-Semitism and hate thrive on the internet. Today, anti-Semites can literally hide behind such social messaging.
4. At a time when many Jews describe themselves as global citizens and where international trade and communications seem to dominate much of their world, a different political reality exists for other citizens who reject internationalism and the global mindset and in its place seek very parochial borders and national definitions as a way of defining their lives and their identity. Today, one finds an array of “hidden haters” who have generally avoided significant public attention. As it was seen as not being “politically correct” to bash Jews or other minority communities, many of these individuals and groups remained below the radar. Their silence has now come to an end, as one can identify an array of alternative voices of hate in the United States and elsewhere, including Alt-Right and other social expressions that seek to articulate what’s wrong with this nation. Donald Trump’s candidacy has given license to some of these expressions involving immigrant bashing and religious intolerance. There appears to be a return to nativism, a dangerous threat to minorities in general, and to Jews in particular.
5. Jews would understand the march of history as producing a set of progressive insights and actions, thereby not only improving their religious and political condition but enabling other groups as well to benefit. As such Jews would embrace social change and often be identified with these movements and its leadership as part of growing Western political ideas. Yet, for Islamic religious fanatics Western civilization is seen as an orchestrated effort by the Judeo-Christian elites to conquer, control and minimize their world. Judaism and the Jewish people are seen as the embodiment of everything that is corrupt and threatening to the Muslim enterprise. One need only unpack how ISIS is employing anti-Jewish rhetoric and political organizing in an effort to roll back religious tolerance in favor of the liquidation of Jews and Judaism, and ultimately Western ideas and culture.
What remains evident is that for each progressive action, a counter-action is generated, often created to marginalize the prior progressive steps and at times is employed specifically against Jews and their interests.
6. Specific social groups need to create “enemies” whether real or imagined. Throughout time Jews and Judaism have been viewed as primary threats or impediments to the general welfare of Western culture. Part of their goal is to rewrite history, marginalizing Jews and challenging their claims on historical facts. In modern times, conspiracy theories and the misrepresentation of historical events have resulted in the creation of new forms of political hate and anti-Semitic practice, i.e. holocaust deniers.
7. Within some Asian societies, Japan, South Korea and China in particular, in which there have been only a marginal Jewish presence or contact, a type of mystical image of “the Jew” has been allowed to form. These negative or problematic chacterizations have often contained stereotypes, perspectives of Jews as being rich, crafty, and powerful. Yet contrary to Western notions, such values and attributes are celebrated and admired within Eastern cultures. Today, it is possible to “invent” Jews in order to create images and stories about them, fictionalizing their power and influence. You now longer need “Jews” to be actually present in order to demonize them or define their characteristics.
8. In contemporary times political causes and movements totally removed from issues dealing with Jews, Judaism and Israel have found it convenient to incorporate attacks directed against Jewish interests. The motivation for such assaults is often seen as a form of class warfare, where Jews are perceived to be given economic or political advantages denied to other minorities. Jews are seen as a political threat to the advancement and standing of other ethnic and social groups.
9. The imposition of terms and definitions that once described the Nazis and their assault on Jews is being employed today by anti-Jewish forces, and more directly by anti-Israel groups, in order to define Israel and the conduct of Jews introducing Nazi-like terminology. Give to one’s enemy the very definitions that once described their primary oppressor.
10. There has been a miscalculation of how societies perform; this misjudgment of history, human behavior and political and religious practice has served to be devastating to Jewish security and interests. Following the Second World War and the Shoah, the Jewish community came to believe that autocratic and fascist regimes were the primary basis for creating and growing anti-Semitism and that Jewish policy would henceforth oppose such regimes and challenge such leaders. Studies specifically identifying the characteristics of an “authoritarian personality” would be undertaken, following the demise of Hitler as a way to extract what the nation-state system needed to understand by political extremism.
While indeed some authoritarian regimes and their leaders can and do introduce anti-Semitism as a political tool, as demonstrated by the Islamic Republic of Iran, today however one can identify all different ideological streams of politics employing anti-Jewish and anti-Israel rhetoric and practice.
There has been a fundamental historical misreading and assessment of the growth and presence of anti-Semitism on the world stage. The community’s theoretical principles devised in the fight against Jewish hate appear not to be applicable or accurate. This major miscalculation of the factors and trends contributing to the presence of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiment in the world may have left the Jewish community unprepared and only partially equipped to manage these emerging fires of hate.
Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles. His writings can be found on www.thewindreport.com