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What’s behind the disturbing reemergence of anti-Semitism?

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Anti-Semitism is undergoing a worrisome resurgence. The shootings at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh last October is part of a broader pattern:

Add to these examples the stunning prominence of alleged anti-Semitism in the Labor Party in the United Kingdom, as well as the alleged anti-Semitic rhetoric on the fringe of the Democratic Party in our own halls of Congress. How can we account for this return of an ancient hatred in the centers of the modern West?

Over the centuries, the distinctive feature of Jew-hatred has been its flexibility in changing its shape and mounting varied, mutually contradictory attacks: Anti-Semites can accuse Jews of being simultaneously capitalists and communists, plutocrats and beggars, or disloyally internationalist while narrowly clannish. Whatever Jews do, the anti-Semite finds grounds to object.

Three aspects of our historical moment are contributing to the virulence of the wave of attacks on Jews and Judaism. 

First, anti-Semitism today is one expression of the crisis of globalism. Since the financial crisis of 2008, the headwinds against globalization have grown stronger, as evidenced by rejections of free trade on the right and the left and re-assertions of national sovereignty in many regions of the world.

As suspicion of international arrangements grows, the archaic imagery of Jews as agents of international conspiracies has reemerged. 

The point is not that anti-globalism is inherently anti-Semitic. On the contrary, in this context of a retreating globalization, a simplistic political language has been revived that blames Jews without understanding the complex social processes at stake. Anti-Semitism is the anti-globalism of fools.   

Second, reversing historical trends toward secularization in the modern world, we are today witnessing a significant revival of religion: Evangelicals and Pentecostals, Hindu Nationalism, Islamic neo-traditionalism, and Jewish orthodoxy as well.

Yet this new vibrancy of religion faces an anti-religious backlash. In the United States, one can recall the anti-Mormon prejudice deployed against Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, for example.

In Europe, Muslims face growing restrictions on their practices concerning the headscarf and halal meat. Today’s anti-Semitism is part of this picture: Hatred of Jews is, among other things, hatred of individuals identified by their religion.

Militant secularism can be deeply intolerant of all faith communities, harboring animosity toward anyone who is seen, to use the derogatory phrasing, as “clinging to religion.”

Third, there is a spillover from the conflict in the Middle East and the politics around Israel. This is not new, of course. What is new is that the Palestinian question has lost its former centrality in the Arab world.

It is worth noting that, in response to the Trump administration’s decision to move the American embassy to Jerusalem, the major protests did not take place in Cairo or Baghdad but in European capitals. Meanwhile on American college campuses, a campaign has been mounted to boycott Israel to undermine its legitimacy. 

This type of politics aimed at terminating the Jewish state, which would render half of the world’s Jews stateless, is reasonably described as anti-Semitic.

{mossecondads}There is an additional complexity in the United States. While American Jews, who are predominantly liberal voters, support the right of Israel to exist, they have been critical of Israeli policies.

In contrast, more robust support for Israel has deep roots in parts of the Christian Zionist community, especially among evangelicals.

Yet, while opponents of Israel protest in front of synagogues, they never demonstrate in front of churches that support Israel. This pattern of anti-Israel activism today reveals its anti-Semitism: its preference to attack Jews, even those who are critical of Israel, while overlooking Christians whose support of Israel may be even stronger. 

These three dimensions of anti-Semitism in relation to globalism, secularism and anti-Zionism indicate how the vilification of Jews today continues a long, polymorphous history.

It is wrong to attribute Jew-hatred to any single politician or political movement. Instead, we should avoid simplistic explanations for the complex challenges we face while remembering the importance of renouncing this and all other prejudices. 

Russell A. Berman is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and professor of the humanities at Stanford University.

Tags Anti-Zionism Antisemitism Criticism of the Israeli government Mitt Romney New antisemitism Politics Prejudices Racism Religious controversies Zionism

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