What Anti-Semitism Is

Woman stands at memorial outside Tree of Life synagogue after shooting there / Getty
October 31, 2018

Nearly everyone is an expert on anti-Semitism—what causes it, how it thrives, even how to combat it. At least that is the impression one gets when tracking reaction to the heinous shooting at Pittsburgh's Tree of Life synagogue on Saturday. Following the tragedy, it seems every pundit and journalist—and anyone with a social media account, for that matter—believes they have profound insight into anti-Semitism, civilization's oldest and most persistent virus. Yet so many of the seemingly authoritative takes of the last few days show a fundamental misunderstanding of what anti-Semitism actually is and what causes its tentacles to take hold of people and societies. The flawed, counterproductive reactions to the shooting are too many to count. But a few examples are especially instructive.

Journalist Julia Ioffe claimed that President Donald Trump and American Jews who supported his decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem are to blame for the attack. "I hope the embassy move over there, where you don't live, was worth it," she wrote on Twitter, before arguing on CNN that Trump "has radicalized so many more people than ISIS ever did."

New York magazine's Jonathan Chait also blamed Trump, writing that the president's "ideology is anti-Semitism without Jews." According to Chait, Trump's rhetoric about immigrants and "globalists" has inspired "the racist far right."

Even analysts such as Aaron David Miller, an expert on the Middle East, pointed the finger at Trump, as well as at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "The price many in the American Jewish community pay for supporting a preternaturally pro-Netanyahu President isn't worth the moral hazard and risks it now confronts," Miller wrote in a tweet that he appears to have deleted.

Franklin Foer, a staff writer for The Atlantic, argued that, after the synagogue attack, "any strategy for enhancing the security of American Jewry should involve shunning Trump's Jewish enablers. Their money should be refused, their presence in synagogues not welcome. They have placed their community in danger."

Peter Beinart, a senior columnist at the Forward, echoed those sentiments, asserting that Jews who ally with "Trumpism" are endangering "Jewish ethics" and "Jewish lives." He added that all Jews are "vulnerable" because many oppose Trump.

These arguments share two features. First, they try to explain, and even rationalize, the shooting in Pittsburgh by looking for a trigger, a source of inspiration that drove the killer over the edge. Second, they find Trump culpable.

Each commonality shows that too many pundits, those with a platform to shape the country's thinking about the tragedy in Pittsburgh, do not really understand anti-Semitism. To say why requires examining what anti-Semitism actually is.

Bernard Lewis, the late and preeminent historian of the Middle East, explained how "it is perfectly possible to hate and even to persecute Jews without necessarily being anti-Semitic." How? Because "hatred and persecution are a normal part of the human experience." Anti-Semitism has two special features, Lewis argued, that make it a distinct form of bigotry. First, "Jews are judged by a standard different from that applied to others." Second, and more importantly, is the "accusation of cosmic, satanic evil attributed to Jews," the likes of which cannot be found anywhere else.

There is another important point to note. As former British chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks has written:

[Anti-Semitism] is not a coherent set of beliefs but a set of contradictions. Before the Holocaust, Jews were hated because they were poor and because they were rich; because they were communists and because they were capitalists; because they kept to themselves and because they infiltrated everywhere; because they clung tenaciously to ancient religious beliefs and because they were rootless cosmopolitans who believed nothing.

Because anti-Semitism is not simply about hatred of Jews but an even more irrational belief that Jews are responsible for all the world's ills, and because anti-Semites apply their views in such absurd, contradictory ways, it is futile to try to explain or rationalize anti-Semitic crimes. Anyone who says, "This factor caused an anti-Semitic tragedy" does not understand the nature of anti-Semitism. They are either unable or unwilling to acknowledge that the world is a place in which irrational hate exists that can trigger devastating violence. Education and exposure to Jews can help combat anti-Semitism in certain situations, but the cold truth is that there is no cure for the virus. Anti-Semitism has existed for millennia and will never go away. Jews have always been, and continue to be, a scapegoat for the full spectrum of radicals—from Islamists, to far-right white supremacists, to far-left activists who blame Israel for any and all problems.

It is troubling that so many voices have politicized the Pittsburgh shooting, primarily by blaming Trump. Beyond demonstrating a misunderstanding of anti-Semitism, this argument omits key details. In reality, the suspected shooter, Robert Bowers, repeatedly castigated Trump. Bowers' social media activity makes unmistakably clear that he sees Trump as a stooge for his Jewish overlords—a pawn of the enemy in the anti-Semitic conspiratorial mind rather than a source of inspiration.

On the one hand, Trump is effectively a racist who inspires anti-Semites and other bigots, and on the other hand, he is a pro-Israel politician who has Jewish family members and is a lackey for international Jewry. Both statements cannot be true. Moreover, the surge in anti-Semitism around the world predates Trump's presidency. One can argue that anti-Semites associate Trump's criticisms of "globalists" and the media with Jews, even if that is not the president's intention, but numerous factors have contributed to the rise of anti-Semitism. This problem cannot be simplified to one person or one idea.

It is important to recognize that, by the criteria defined above, anti-Semitism has gone through three historical mutations. In the Middle Ages, hatred and persecution of Jews were based on their religion. In the 19th and 20th centuries, hatred and persecution of Jews were based on their race. Today, hatred and persecution of Jews is more often based on their nation-state, Israel. As Jonathan Sacks has argued, "anti-Zionism is the new anti-Semitism." With each new phase, anti-Semitism adapted to what became morally and intellectually acceptable—religious persecution fell out of fashion during the Enlightenment, and the same happened to racial persecution in the mid-20th century. Persecuting the Jewish state, however, is perfectly acceptable today, especially among cultural and political elites.

Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the U.K. Labour Party, and Linda Sarsour, an anti-Israel activist and national leader of the Women's March, were quick to declare their opposition to anti-Semitic violence after the attack in Pittsburgh. Yet few people have done more to spread anti-Semitism.

Because Israel now exists and the Zionist dream—for the Jewish people to reestablish their home in the land of Israel—has been realized, being a Zionist today means supporting the survival of Israel as a prosperous Jewish state. Consequently, being an anti-Zionist means, as described by British journalist Allister Heath, "reversing this, seeking to undermine Israel to such an extent that it ceases, for all intents and purposes, to exist in any recognizable form, with all of the calamitous implications that this implies for its Jewish citizens, given the hostility of most of its Arab neighbors." Corbyn, Sarsour, and their supporters are true anti-Zionists who view Zionism as a fundamentally racist idea. Only the Jews do not have the right to self-determination, apparently.

"Anti-Zionism of the sort propounded by the hard Left is racism of the worst kind: obsessed with delegitimizing the world's only Jewish country (and no other), in the full knowledge that its existence is what protects its people from persecution, misery, and even death," Heath wrote. "How is that not anti-Semitic?"

Israel's wellbeing is inexorably tied to the wellbeing of Jewish people around the world. There are many reasons why, but the most important one concerns the fundamental purpose of Israel: to protect the Jewish people, who suffered incalculable horrors during 2,000 years of forced exile. Israel protects Jews in two basic ways: by serving as a place of refuge, and by maintaining a standing military capable of defending the Jewish state. Corbyn, Sarsour, and other like-minded individuals see this notion as truly evil. If anti-Zionists have their way, the results will be no less horrific than Robert Bowers' fantasy world.