Understanding Antisemitism

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What are Jews?
What are “Semites”?

Jews are a people, descendants of a tribe, comprising a global cultural community and a religion. These multiple identities are expressed through a shared history, a collective heritage, cultural practices, values and a belief system, and a mutual sense of peoplehood with a direct connection to the shared homeland of Israel.

Jews are occasionally referred to as a “Semitic” people. The term “Semite” refers to a specific geographical region, the Levant (now termed the Mediterranean region), with shared linguistic roots. Other Semitic peoples in this region included: Arabs, Phoenicians, Akkadians, etc. When the term ‘antisemitism’ is used, it is used specifically in reference to Jews, not to these other identified communities.


What is

Antisemitism is the hatred of Jews, Judaism, and can include hatred of the Jewish State. Antisemitism exists in many forms, from stereotyping to scapegoating to violence or even the desired erasure of the Jewish people. It targets Jews, individually and collectively, and has adapted over time to falsely link Jews to whatever the societal ills of the era may be.

How have these
hateful behaviors
been manifested

The first manifestation of antisemitism is Judeophobia, which is hatred toward the religion of Judaism and its adherents. Judeophobia has its roots during the Biblical period, the emergence of Christianity, and throughout the Middle Ages. Jews were “othered” because of their differing beliefs and blamed for society’s challenges throughout Christian Europe. Jews were targeted by monarchs, the Catholic Church, and mob-like behaviors from the everyday person in Europe. The theological roots of Jew hatred have their origins during this period. It was not until the Second Vatican Council of Nostra Aetate in 1965 that the Church acknowledged its role in perpetuating Jew hatred and recognizing that Jews ought not to be held accountable for the deicide charge, the idea that Jews were responsible for killing Jesus.

There was also prejudice towards Jews in the Muslim world, though not to the same degree as in Europe. Jews did have to wear a yellow Star of David to signify they were non-Muslim; they paid a special tax - the jizya; synagogues could not be taller than mosques; non-Muslims could not ride horses but rather donkeys to demonstrate their subordinate position within society. Within radical Islamism there is an understanding that non-Muslims must be conquered, and under the rule of Islam, this can be enacted through holy war - jihad.

In the 18th century, Judeophobia took a new turn: hatred of the Jewish people. The term ‘antisemitism’ was developed by Wilhelm Marr, a German, to target Jews as a distinct ‘race’ of people. The creation of the pseudo-science of eugenics was developed at this time to deprive Jews of civil rights by highlighting them as a subordinate race as compared to Aryans. The term ‘antisemitismus’ was coined by Marr to replace the German phrase, ‘Juden Hass,’ Jew hatred, which sounded too crass.

The most egregious example of modern antisemitism on a grand scale was the Holocaust, the systematic mass murder of over six million Jews under the German Third Reich between 1939-1945. The Third Reich’s policies were built on a system that espoused antisemitism and propagated it throughout their territorial conquests as part of Naziism’s political platform. Nazi beliefs were predicated on traditional antisemitic tropes, including such ideas that Jews seek to both dominate and destroy society, and the accusation of dual loyalty, that Jews have allegiance to one another and their collective identity and cannot be loyal citizens to the countries in which they reside. These ideas have been used against Jews to scapegoat them for societal challenges and social ills.

Anti-Zionist rhetoric, language, and behaviors have manifested themselves through political and social movements seeking to delegitimize the Jewish movement for liberation and self-determination. Beginning in the Russian empire and throughout the Soviet Union, the term ‘Jew’ was replaced with ‘Zionist’ or ‘Zionism.’ Now not only Jews were feared, but also Zionists. The impact of this shift in language had long-term consequences as it was ultimately adopted by the United Nations with the passing of UN Resolution 3379, ‘Zionism is Racism’ in 1975. While the resolution was repealed in the 1990s, it had already caused enormous, long-lasting damage.

Israel, unlike other nation-states, is subject to overt hostility by world institutions, the mainstream media, social media, political discourse, religious communities, educational environments, social justice movements, and ideological positions. This hostility often reveals itself through direct threats calling for the destruction of the state or the eradication of Israel’s Jewish character. Oftentimes there are inaccurate characterizations of Israel’s power, which harken back to antisemitic tropes about ‘Jewish dominance’ in society. Belief systems that hold Israel to a different standard of behavior than other democratic states typically have their origins in conscious or unconscious antisemitism.

What is

Throughout Jewish history, Jews have held a special connection to the land of Israel. Jews have always had a presence in this territory and a longing to connect to this land even after periods of forced exile and dispersion due to conquests and persecution of the Jewish communities living in the region.

In the modern period of the 19th century, as empires declined and nationalist movements emerged, Zionism as a movement surfaced. There are multiple forms of Zionism: political, cultural, religious, socialist, and more. The political formulation of Zionism is the collective liberation movement for Jewish self-determination. Zionism emerged in the 19th century as a response to both antisemitism and assimilation. Political Zionism is the actualization of Jews building a Jewish nation-state in the Land of Israel. The State of Israel was established in 1948, the border of which remains in dispute. Historically, anti-Zionism was a political expression within Jewish communal discourse in the 19th and 20th centuries. Not all Jews are Zionists.

However, anti-Zionism, in its current manifestation, suggests that Jews have no right to self-determination and the Jewish state should cease to exist. Often, anti-Zionism is motivated by antisemitism. Anti-Zionism can be cloaked under the guise of political language and human rights rhetoric. It is important to note that anti-Zionism is not the act of criticizing Israeli policy and actions. Rather anti-Zionism is usually rooted in the fundamental question, ‘Does Israel have a right to exist?’ When anti-Zionism flourishes, it can cultivate a climate that breeds hostility toward the State of Israel and the Israeli people. Calling for Israel’s destruction is a form of hatred toward the collective Jewish people. Using anti-Israel sentiments to justify the hatred of Jews writ large or projecting prejudices against Jews to demonize the State of Israel are both forms of antisemitism.

Is antisemitism a
tool of the
political right or
the political left?

Jew hatred exists on the hard right and the hard left. It manifests in different ways within these political camps but is present within both political positions. On the hard right, Jews are the ‘other’ as they can never be white. There is a fear that Jews will replace the white majority and pose a threat to the white community. Xenophobia is a contributing factor to the fear that exists among the hard right, and the conception of the Jew as the non-native, the foreigner, poses a threat to the majority within society.

On the hard left, Jews are deemed to be part of white, privileged communities. Jews are perceived as holding power and benefiting from white supremacy. Jews, and Israel, are labeled as colonialists, imperialists that seek to harm the dark-skinned native Palestinians. In this ideological position, Jews are often conceived of as an extension of Israeli behaviors and thereby held accountable for Israel’s actions.

In some progressive movements, Jews are denied entrance if they identify as Jewish or align with Zionism; there is an expectation that Jews will erase their particularism in order to be accepted by the universal.

Why does

Jew hatred persists in the 21st century as it is founded on elements of hate and envy. These traits are inherently part of human nature. Therefore, Jew hatred as a phenomenon, will not dissolve or be eradicated. However, Jew hatred can be ameliorated and mitigated. We can build greater sensitivity through education about Jew hatred. Jew hatred must be made socially unacceptable in the same way other forms of hate are socially unacceptable in the 21st century.

Just like racism is not solely a problem for Black or Brown people, homophobia is not solely a problem for the LGBTQ+ community, and Islamophobia is not solely a problem for the Muslim community, Jew hatred is not solely a problem for the Jewish community.

Bridges between communities must be built in order to strengthen human connections, build the muscle of compassion and empathy, and learn about the differences in our communities while acknowledging our shared humanity.

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