Responding to Anti-Semitism: Revisiting Old Assumptions, Understanding the New Threats

Brussels, Belgium – July 26, 2012: Stained Glass depicting the legend of Jews stealing sacramental bread, in the Cathedral of Brussels, Belgium. This antisemitic legend dates back to 1370. Photo via Shutterstock.

By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

For more than one hundred years, the American Jewish community was managing its war against anti-Semitism employing a set of accepted community relations tactics. In this article, we are examining ten of the core assumptions that defined the community’s understanding of anti-Semitic behavior with the intent on pushing back against these now out of date value propositions.

  • Anti-Semitism is driven by the un-educated and uninformed. For most of the past one hundred years, the community relations establishment held to the position that in order to “defeat” anti-Semitism, educational initiatives would need to be employed to offset misunderstandings and prejudicial judgments about Jews and Judaism. Indeed, for decades our national agencies launched a series of informational programs designed to dispel myths that were fostered about Jews. Today, however, the new reality suggests that well-educated individuals who know very well their case against the Jews are driving major public efforts to advance contemporary anti-Semitism.
  • In the early decades of the 20th century, the model of Jewish organizing was constructed around the proposition that other like-minded communities will want to coalesce with Jews when opposing hate-based activities. This assumption was based on the common plight of prejudice endured by minority constituencies. Today, there are significantly different and individualized approaches employed by groups in responding to hate-directed attacks. There appears to be no longer a shared strategy for opposing prejudice.
  • Social elites are the essential civic glue necessary to build public support in opposition to anti-Semitism. For decades, the Jewish “defense” strategy was directed toward mobilizing these elites as a wedge in condemning anti-Semitic rhetoric and behavior. As societies have radically changed, these leadership elites no longer carry the same credibility or leverage that they once held, minimizing their impact on social behaviors.
  • The motivation for minority political organizing was based on the collective proposition that these groups endured a shared sense of powerlessness. In this current environment these “traditional” minority communities are no longer necessarily seen as marginalized or without power. As Jews, for example, became “white folks” or were seen by some as part of the established order; their case for victimhood was diminished, just as their enemies now defined them as outside the boundaries of an oppressed peoples. For that matter, the Jewish community in the 21st century is seen by many as “powerful”. Indeed, some have described the contemporary position of Jews in America as the new “WASPS” (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants).
  • At one point Israel was seen as vulnerable, making its case more appealing to potential allies. Today, Israel has become the lynchpin for the new anti-Semitism. The enemies of the Jewish State, for example, have craftily employed Nazi symbols and terms, applying these images to Israel’s conduct. The Jewish community has held to the principle that the Nazi experience in history ought to be treated as unique to a particular ideology and political culture. Jews would contend that any cross-reference to Nazism is inappropriate and has no comparative basis. This thesis has been rejected by those opposed to Israel’s policies and actions.
  • For much of Western history, Jews needed to encounter Christian theological anti-Judaism. Over the course of the 20th century, Christian-Jewish encounters would significantly alter the negative historic patterns associated with Christian religious views on Jews and Judaism. In the Western experience, Jews never formally had to deal with Islam. This is no longer the reality. As Islam has become an integral part of Western political culture and as Muslim influence has expanded, Jews are bereft of a strategy in managing Jewish-Muslim connections on a broad scale, similar to how the community relations field engaged the Christian world.
  • In modern times, anti-Semitism has metastasized to encompass anti-Israelism and other manifestations of political and religious hate. Rather than containing anti-Judaism as a religious expression, the community has actually experienced an explosion in the forms and varieties of anti-Jewish sentiment. In the past the national defense agencies “treated” all varieties of anti-Semitism through the same lens; this proposition no longer has merit.
  • Some Jews operated on the proposition that history is linear, implying that past injustices and prejudices will give way over time to a more enlightened understanding of the human condition. Under this notion, anti-Semitic behavior and other forms of social hatred will dissipate as individuals are exposed to the shared story of all peoples. Sadly, history has not cooperated with this notion.
  • The promise of 20th century nationalism and the founding of the Zionist Movement held out the mistaken assumption that creating a “nation-state” for the Jewish people would forever end anti-Semitism, as Jews would be perceived as having their own national identity, thereby removing the seeds of anti-Jewish rhetoric and behavior, as Jews would be seen “like other peoples”.
  • The policy of “isolation” that defined Jewish practice toward anti-Semitism for much of the 20th Century no longer works. Historically, Jewish institutions opted to embrace the strategy of systematically “isolating” bigots and anti-Semites. Today, with the presence of social media and other vehicles of communication, it is no longer possible to separate out such voices of hate.

If anti-Semitism was at one time seen as either being generated by the “right” or from the “left”, today there is a simultaneous assault on Jewish interests by groups on both edges of the political spectrum, further challenging the communal order.

As anti-Semitism reasserts its presence on the political stage, these new threats present significant and different challenges to the Jewish community relations enterprise. The traditional policy assumptions are now being tested. The historic practice of “containment” is no longer a viable strategy, but neither are the existing organizing principles. As new threats emerge and old ones are revived, the Jewish communal system will require a different framework for political and religious engagement in managing these wars against the Jews.

Steven Windmueller Ph. D. on behalf of the Wind Group, Consulting for the Jewish Future. Dr. Windmueller’s collection of articles can be found on his website: