Antisemitism redefined

By Bill Simons 

It is a wonderful photo, capturing the exuberance and promise of young women. Their evident confidence announces a readiness to embark on life’s adventures. Possessed of expressive brown eyes and a Mona Lisa smile, Jannat, situated in the forefront, aspires to teach media at a university. That will not happen, however. Israeli arms killed Jannat Iyad Abu Zbeada, age 21. Her photo appears above the fold on page 1 of a recent edition of The New York Times. Photos and cameo bios of other Palestinian civilians killed in the Israel-Gaza War, amongst them women and children, follow. The headline above the photo essay announced: “Lives Ended in Gaza: Since the war started, more than 30,000 people have been killed during Israel’s bombardment and invasion. Here are some of their stories.” None of these Times casualty profiles feature Jews. Heartwrenching articles, photographs and videos documenting Palestinian civilian causalities have become a staple of diverse media as attention to Israeli losses and security has dwindled. And that explains, certainly not in full, but in part, the resurgent and redefined antisemitism apparent in America and the larger world. 

At its most basic, the following defines antisemitism: prejudice and/or bigotry directed toward Jews. However, the reasons for and attributes of antisemitism have evolved and metastasized over time and place, peaking in murderous assaults and retreating to the periphery during times of tolerance. For centuries, Jews were “the other” in a Christian Europe that recorded the souls of believers and long held Jews complicit in the crucifixion of Jesus. Moreover, Jews continued to refuse conversion. Subject to riots, restrictions and removal, Jews experienced numerous calamities: forced ghettoization, national expulsions, bloody massacres, Crusaders who found convenient targets close to home, brutal torture, the Inquisition, pogroms and May Laws. 

As the stranger without a nation, Jews provided a convenient target against which to levy a multitude of canards and accusations, amongst them: unleashing lethal epidemics, ritual murder of Christian children, Shylock usury, sexual degeneracy and treason of the Dreyfus genre. The latter shibboleth moored the paradoxical belief that the stateless “International Jew” was both a money prince and Bolshevik at the center of a covert multinational conspiracy to control the wealth and governance of the world. Then came the central tragedy of Jewish history, the Shoah, the organized Nazi genocide aimed at exterminating all Jews. Antisemitism did not disappear after the defeat Hitler in World War II and the 1948 rebirth of Israel, but it increasingly took on the qualities of a fringe anachronism. 

Unfortunately, antisemitism is resurgent as a Time magazine cover story reports. In “The New Antisemitism: How an Ancient Hatred Has Reinvented Itself in the Modern World,” Harvard Law School Professor Noah Feldman makes several salient points. After a period of relative latency, antisemitism is on the rise, a process that began before the Israel-Hamas War, but accelerated significantly due to the conflict. While resonances of the traditional tropes of antisemitism still fester, the new antisemitism centers on fundamentally different assumptions about the relationship of Jews to Western civilization. Moreover, while the far right still poses a danger, traditional allies on the left form the core of the new antisemitism. 

Portents of the resurgent antisemitism presaged the Israel-Hamas War. On October 27, 2018, Robert Bowers slaughtered 11 Jews at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. At Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, TX, only the courage and decisive action of Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker allowed Jewish hostages to escape a gun-wielding captor on January 15, 2022, following 11 hours in captivity. During this interval, a shooting at a kosher supermarket in Jersey City left three dead, and an invader stormed a Chasidic rabbi’s house in Monsey, NY, stabbing five Jews. Hate crimes against New York City Jews escalated, particularly against Orthodox and Chasidic Jews, identifiable by their religious apparel. All of this preceded October 7, 2023. Much of it harkened back to the old antisemitism, augmented by the faux tribalism of white nationalism. New social media reinvigorated conspiratorial paranoia. Meanwhile, institutions of higher learning and academic disciplinary organizations debated adoption of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions resolutions against Israel, providing a portal to a new antisemitism. 

It was the Israel-Hamas War that opened the floodgates to the new antisemitism. The main currents of the old antisemitism were rooted in depictions of Jews as alien outlanders, subversive to the government and threatening to the dominant culture and religion. By contrast, the new antisemitism views the Jews as an exemplar of all that is wrong with Western civilization. With the emergence of Wokeism, Cancel Culture and Virtue Signaling, the underside of Western culture – imperialism, colonization, subjugation of indigenous people, militarism, intolerance toward minorities – has challenged traditional renditions of history, culture and society, sometimes supplanting empiricism and analysis with ideology and accusation. The new antisemitism emphasizes that Zionism, no longer the aspiration of a wandering people, bears responsibility for the modern state of Israel. 

And the new antisemitism accuses Israel and its enablers amongst Diaspora Jews of seizing territory from the Palestinians, herding them into a sliver of untenable land and now waging genocide against them. On the far left, asserts Feldman, “[O]ne line is that Jews are weaponizing the Holocaust to legitimize the oppression of Palestinians.” Given that a remnant of those who survived the Shoah and took up arms against it still live, labeling Jews as perpetrators of genocide strains credulity. Hamas is committed to the destruction of Israel and the Jewish people. Israel fights to destroy the leadership of Hamas terrorists and to free hostages. 

Not only does the content of the new antisemitism differ from the old, but so do the practitioners. Constituencies once allied with Jews in liberal causes constitute the nucleus of the new antisemitism, encompassing segments of Civil Rights, Progressive Democratic, feminist, labor and academic institutions. In some instances, victimized groups identify with Hamas because they perceive it as representing a fellow victimized group, giving scant attention to southern Israeli women who suffered rape, butchery and murder or to Hamas’ commitment to continue those terror tactics. Nor do the new antisemites comprehend the ideological, economic and ethnic division amongst Jews both in Israel and in the Diaspora. 

At the end of the Israel-Gaza War, a just and lasting peace requires compassion and reform. After an initial period of multinational policing and dismantling of Hamas influence, a second state should emerge, a Palestinian nation to include Gaza and the West Bank. A Marshall Plan to rebuild and provide better lives for Palestinians is needed. And Israel needs to resolve its divisive internal conflicts by rejecting the coercive policies of its far right. Through judicial and political processes, Israel must hold Benjamin Netanyahu and his accomplices accountable.

This is a dangerous passage for Jews. As the Robert Kraft ad played during the Academy Awards broadcast noted, approximately 900 synagogues were subject to bomb threats last year. Responding to The Times of Israel, Abraham Foxman, director emeritus of the Anti-Defamation League, asserted, “[H]ope, determination, continuum… that’s all part of the secret of our survival.” Make no mistake: the old and new antisemitism will encounter a Jewish majority fiercely committed to our survival as people and to the survival of the Jewish state of Israel. Never again is now.