Off the Shelf: Antisemitism and lies

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

An Anti-Defamation League audit noted that “antisemitic incidents reached an all-time high in the United States in 2021, with a total of 2,717 incidents of assault, harassment and vandalism reported to ADL (the Anti-Defamation League).” (To see the report, click here.) That makes two recent books important reading for those interested in learning about antisemitism: “Looking for an Enemy: 8 Essays on Antisemitism” edited by Jo Glanville (W. W. Norton and Company) for adults and “Big Lies: From Socrates to Social Media” by Mark Kurlansky and illustrated by Eric Zelz (Tilbury House Publishers), which is aimed at those aged 13-18.

In her introduction to “Looking for an Enemy,” Glanville notes that antisemitism is increasing across the world. She believes that “the far right remains a bigger threat to Jews than the left, that the roots of contemporary antisemitism run deep and long pre-date the Holocaust and the foundation of Israel, and that each country has its own complex relationship with Jews, shaping an often inadequate response to antisemitism.” The essays she offers focus on what’s occurring in different countries, which helps expand readers’ understanding of the nature of antisemitism.

Natasha Lehrer looks at the history of Jews in France in “France’s Model Minority.” She notes that the country has difficulty acknowledging antisemitism and racism because, after the French revolution, all racial, ethnic and religious differences were supposed to be erased from a person’s identity. That means the state does not collect information based on its citizens’ religious and ethnic identities, which allows it to ignore the religion and ethnic origins of citizens targeted for attack. Lehrer also notes that, even when a movement initially has no connection to antisemitism – for example, the Gilet Jaunes (Yellow Vests) movement originally protested the increase of cost for gasoline – it often begins to target Jews when the movement grows. 

Other essays focus on different countries relationship to antisemitism:

  • In “Looking for an Enemy,” Daniel Trilling shows how fascism is increasing in Great Britain. He believes the fascist groups are looking to purify their communities of anyone not white or Christian. Although these groups may not begin as antisemitic, antisemitism becomes part of their program as their memberships grows and further radicalizes.
  • In “The Ashes Are Still Warm,” Olga Grjasnow notes how the German government pretends that antisemitic murders are done solely by lone gunmen, rather than acknowledging these men are usually part of a larger group. She believes the government does not take the acts as seriously as it should, nor does it try to stop the groups’ propaganda.
  • In “Jews Behaving Badly,” Philip Spencer writes about the increase in antisemitism in the British left, noting how Jews are always blamed for these attacks, as if they were caused by something the Jewish population has done. According to Spencer, while the right tends to believe Jews should have never been allowed to assimilate, the left blames Jews for not assimilating and becoming something other than Jewish.
  • In “Family Stories,” Mikotaj Grynberg offers a personal look at antisemitism in Poland and shows why his parents didn’t leave the country, even when discriminated against. (A review of Grynberg’s excellent collection of short stories “I’d Like to Say Sorry, But There’s No One to Say Sorry to: Stories” can be found here.)

Glanville’s “Afterward: An Interview with David Nirenberg” is a superb ending to the collection. Nirenberg is a historian who, after 9/11, heard two men on the New York City subway agree that the attack was the fault of the Jews. What make this particularly interesting is that the men gave two different reasons. Nirenberg is quoted as saying,” One of them said it was because the Jews had turned New York into a symbol of greed and that was why everyone hated New York. The other’s argument was that they had killed Christ: that was why everyone hated them, and targeted New York because of its Jews.” Nirenberg believes that non-Jews see Jews as a challenge to Western culture and that, when society is stressed for whatever reason, it finds a way to blame its problems on Jews. While this may not be the complete answer, these essays offer readers a way to appreciate the challenges Jews face when fighting antisemitism. 

While “Looking for an Enemy” is aimed at adults, “Big Lies” is an easy-to-read work for the younger generation that looks to teach teens to be skeptical of writers’ claims, even those Kurlansky himself offers. The work features essays in a variety of different font styles to keep readers’ interest and some very funny cartoons. Although the whole work is not Jewish-themed, it does include material that targets Jews, including “The Protocols of Zion,” QAnon and blood libels. Kurlansky notes that “whenever haters hate, Jews are targets. Whenever there is a rise in bigotry, including this moment in history, there is a clear rise in antisemitism. Antisemitism is the model for bigotry.” 

Part of “Big Lies” mirrors “Looking for an Enemy” in showing antisemitic acts that have occurred in the U.S. and Europe. For example, Kurlansky also talks about how the French revolution was unsuccessful in ridding France of antisemitism. He explains the Dreyfus affair, when a Jewish officer of the French army’s general staff was wrongly accused of passing information to the Germans in 1894. Even though Dreyfus was eventually acquitted of all charges, there are still those who continue to insist on his guilt. Kurlansky also shows how QAnon developed in the U.S. and the many Jewish conspiracies it insists are real. In addition, “Big Lies” talks about false claims that have been made over several centuries, including some the United States government told during World War II. 

Kurlansky offers ways for his readers to test whether a claim is true or false, including using reliable fact-checking websites, searching for the original source of the statement, verifying that source (if it can be found) and checking reputable sources to see if they agree. He notes it’s best to visit real news sites, even if they disagree with each other. That can help determine whether the statements are based on fact or opinion.

Adults can also benefit from reading “Big Lies,” whether for their own edification or to discuss it with their tweens/teens. The book is an excellent way to begin some very important conversations.