The New Antisemitism

17 minute read
Feldman, the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard University, is the author of To Be a Jew Today: A New Guide to God, Israel, and the Jewish People

Why won’t antisemitism die, or at least die down? In the months following Hamas’ attack on Israel on Oct. 7, 2023, antisemitic incidents increased substantially. The Anti-Defamation League, which keeps track, says they tripled in the U.S. over the previous year, although its criteria also changed to include anti-Zionism. But from 2019 to 2022, the amount of people with highly antisemitic attitudes in the U.S. had nearly doubled, the ADL found. In Europe, Human Rights Watch warned in 2019 of an “alarming” rise in antisemitism, prompting the European Union to adopt a strategic plan for fighting it two years later.

No one can say definitively why the pre–Gaza War surge happened when it did. The salience of groups like the neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017 probably played a role, as did the influence of figures like the troubled rapper turned designer Kanye West. Historically, antisemitism has been a side effect of populism, which traffics in us-vs.-them stereotypes. Social media allows antisemitic influencers to recruit and communicate directly to followers, getting around the filtering bottleneck of the legacy media. The murder of 11 worshipers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018, by a shooter enraged at Jewish groups providing aid to immigrants, was the painful lowlight of this era.

The New Antisemitism Time Magazine cover
Illustration by Getty Images

It can be hard to think clearly and reason calmly about antisemitism. For 15 million Jews around the world, its resilience engenders fear, pain, sadness, frustration, and intergenerational trauma going back to the Holocaust and beyond. The superficial sense of security that many Jews feel on a daily basis in the contemporary world turns out to be paper-thin. Jews know enough of their own familial stories to realize that in historical terms, such moments of safety have often been fleeting, followed by renewed persecution. Sitting in my office in leafy Cambridge, Mass., a proud citizen of the freest country in the world, in which Jews have been safer than in any other country in history, I am not free of emotion on the topic. Nor could I be.

For many non-Jews, antisemitism matters deeply too. People everywhere who believe that all humans are created equal know that the presence of antisemitism in a society has often been the forerunner of other visceral, irrational hatreds, from racism to homophobia to Islamophobia. Worse, the persistence of antisemitism stands as a stubborn counterargument to Martin Luther King Jr.’s hopeful faith that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice.

In the past, antisemites, whether medieval Crusaders or 20th century Nazis, were often proud of their views. Today, thankfully, almost no one wants to be accused of antisemitism.

That’s a marker of human progress. It also means that the whole subject of antisemitism needs to be approached with charity and sensitivity. People who harbor no conscious negative ideas about Jews may unknowingly hold views that resonate with historical antisemitism.

Jews aren’t exempt from this, and so, neither am I. In a world roiled by polarizing debate, my aim is to encourage introspection—to get you to ask, as I ask myself, whether your feelings and beliefs would be the same if seen through the lens of the history and context of antisemitism. I come not to accuse anyone of antisemitism, but to explore the topic in a way that deepens our understanding of where it comes from, and where it’s going.

Far-right Polish MP Extinguishes Hanukkah Candle In Parliament
WARSAW, 2023: A far-right Polish lawmaker, left, after using a fire extinguisher on Hanukkah candles in parliament.Andrzej Iwanczuk—NurPhoto/Getty Images

The easiest way to explain why antisemitism is still with us is to blame religion. Scholars agree that what we call antisemitism today has its historical origins in a strain of anti-Jewish thought that grew out of early Christianity. The Gospels describe the Jews as complicit in the Roman crucifixion of Jesus. Paul’s theology was read to depict the Jews as having been replaced or superseded as God’s special favorites by the community of Christian believers. By failing to become Christians, Jews implicitly challenged the narrative of inevitable Christian triumph. For well over a thousand years, Jews in Christian Europe were subject to systemic, institutionalized oppression. Historical antisemitism took the form of discrimination, expulsion, and massacre.

The problem with blaming religion is that antisemitism today is no longer driven primarily by Christianity. Although antisemitism can still be found among Christians, in the U.S. and around the world, most contemporary believing Christians are not antisemites. The old theological condemnation of the Jews for killing Christ has been repudiated by nearly every Christian denomination.

Nor does antisemitism among Muslims primarily reflect the classical Islamic claims made against the Jews, such as the accusation that the Jews (and Christians) distorted Scripture, resulting in discrepancies between the Bible and the Koran. Jews in Muslim lands mostly fared better than in Christian Europe. Until the 20th century, those Jews occupied a complex, second-class status, protected alongside Christians as “people of the book” and also simultaneously subject to special taxes and social subordination. The tropes of modern Europe’s antisemitism—of Jews’ power and avarice—mostly came to the Middle East late, through Nazi influence. Even the prevalence of antisemitism among Islamist groups like Hamas isn’t primarily driven by religion. Rather, it is part of their politically motivated effort to turn a struggle between two national groups for the same piece of land into a holy war.

Read More: When Jews are Threatened, Why Can’t Americans Condemn Antisemitism?

It emerges that far from being an unchanging set of ideas derived from ancient faiths, antisemitism is actually a shape-shifting, protean, creative force. Antisemitism has managed to reinvent itself multiple times throughout history, each time keeping some of the old tropes around, while simultaneously creating new ones adapted to present circumstances.

In each iteration, antisemitism reflects the ideological preoccupations of the moment. In antisemitic discourse, Jews are always made to exemplify what a given group of people considers to be the worst feature of the social order in which they live.

A crucial reason why is surely that Jews were the most salient minority group living among Christians for the bulk of European history—and Europe was the heartland of historical antisemitism. The practice of projecting immediate social fears and hatreds onto Jews grew from the human need to treat some nearby group of people as the Other. (Muslims and Asians eventually also became subject to projection and fantasy, a practice dubbed Orientalism by the literary scholar Edward Said.) Once Jews had become the go-to targets for exemplifying societal ills, the habit stuck.

In this way, crucially, antisemitism is not and has never been about actual Jews so much as antisemites’ imagination of them. Because antisemitic ideology isn’t accountable to real-life facts, its content can be altered and changed as a society’s worries and moral judgments shift. Antisemitism’s capacity to keep its familiar character while also channeling new fears is what confers its stunning capacity to reinvent itself.

A memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue
PITTSBURGH, 2018: A memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue.Cathal McNaughton—Reuters

The first major reinvention of antisemitism took place as the Enlightenment gradually reduced the role of religion as the main source of Europeans’ attitudes and beliefs. Nineteenth century antisemitism preserved the old belief that the Jews were unique, having once been God’s chosen people and then uniquely punished for rejecting Christ. But it transformed this uniqueness to match the concerns of contemporary society.

Preoccupied with economic and social upheaval, antisemites depicted Jews as both uniquely capitalist and uniquely communist. Concerned about an unstable global power balance, antisemites claimed that Jews secretly controlled the world. Entranced by the pseudoscience of race that flourished after Darwin, antisemites declared that Jews were racially inferior. The obvious contradictions—that far from running the world, most Jews were impoverished, or that capitalism and communism were warring ideologies—did not deter antisemites. They ignored the illogic, or fell back on conspiracy theory, like the myth that Jewish capitalists and Jewish communists were secretly in cahoots. Ultimately, in different ways, both Nazism and Marxism identified Jews as an enemy deserving liquidation. The virulent antisemitism that fueled the Holocaust was thus partly a descendant of Christian antisemitism and also the product of modern conditions.

Today, racial pseudoscience is an embarrassment and the struggle between capitalism and communism has become passé. Antielitist populism can still draw on old canards about Jewish power, and those still resonate with certain audiences, especially on the far right. But the most perniciously creative current in contemporary antisemitic thought is more likely to come from the left.

Instead of disappearing among people who would condemn neo-Nazis, antisemitism is morphing again, right now, before our very eyes.

The core of this new antisemitism lies in the idea that Jews are not a historically oppressed people seeking self-preservation but instead oppressors: imperialists, colonialists, and even white supremacists. This view preserves vestiges of the trope that Jews exercise vast power. It creatively updates that narrative to contemporary circumstances and current cultural preoccupations with the nature of power and injustice.

Concerns about power and justice are, in themselves, perfectly legitimate, much like past concerns about the effects of unfettered capitalism on working people—or for that matter, condemnations of elitism. So it is important to distinguish carefully between critiques of power that deserve serious consideration and the antisemitic ways in which those critiques may be deployed.

That caution is especially important because Israel, the first Jewish state to exist in two millennia, plays a central role in the narrative of the new antisemitism. Israel is not an imaginary conspiracy but a real country with real citizens, a real history, a real military, and real political and social problems that concern relations between Jews and Palestinians. It is not inherently antisemitic to criticize Israel. Its power, like any national power, may be subject to legitimate, fair criticism.

Swastika Clean Up off Union Station in Washington D.C.
WASHINGTON, D.C., 2022: Workers clean swastikas off the exterior of Union Station. Tom Williams—CQ-Roll Call, Inc/Getty Images

It is also essential not to tar all critics of Israel with the brush of antisemitism, especially in wartime, when Israel, like any other war-waging power, is properly subject to the strictures of international humanitarian law. To deploy the charge of antisemitism for political reasons is morally wrong, undermining the horror of antisemitism itself. It is also likely to backfire, convincing critics of Israel that they are being unfairly silenced.

At the same time, Israel’s history and current situation confound categories that are so often used today to make moral judgments—categories like imperialism, colonialism, and white supremacy. And because people’s ideas about Israel typically draw on older, pre-Israel ideas about Jews, criticism of Israel can borrow, often unconsciously, from older antisemitic myths.

To understand the complicated, subtle character of the new antisemitism, notice that the concept of imperialism was developed to describe European powers that conquered, controlled, and exploited vast territories in the Global South and East. The theory of settler-colonial white supremacy was developed as a critical account of countries like Australia and the U.S., in which, according to the theory, the colonialists’ aim was to displace the local population, not to extract value from its labor. The application of these categories to Israel is a secondary development.

These borrowed categories do not fit Israel’s specificity very well. Israel is a regional Middle Eastern power with a tiny footprint, not a global or continental empire designed to extract resources and labor. It was brought into existence by a 1947 United Nations resolution that would have created two states side by side, one Jewish and one Palestinian. Its purpose, as conceived by the U.N.’s member countries, was to house displaced Jews after 6 million were killed in the Holocaust.

The Palestinian catastrophe, or nakba, of 1948 was that when the Arab invasion of Israel failed to destroy the nascent Jewish state, many Palestinians who had fled or been forced out of their homes by Israeli troops were unable to return. Those Palestinians became permanent refugees in neighboring countries. Instead of ending up in an independent Palestine as proposed by the U.N., those who had stayed in their homes found themselves living either in Israel or under Egyptian and Jordanian rule. Then, in the 1967 war, the West Bank and Gaza were conquered by Israel. Palestinians in those places came under what Israel itself defines as an occupation. They have lived in that precarious legal status ever since despite the 1993–2001 peace process.

Notwithstanding undeniable Jewish prejudice and discrimination against Arabs in Israel, the paradigm of white supremacy also does not correspond easily to the Jews. Around half of Israel’s Jewish citizens descend from European Jews, as do most American Jews. But those Jews were not considered racially white in Europe, which is one reason they had to emigrate or be killed. Roughly half of Israel’s Jews descend from Mizrahi, (literally, Eastern) origins. They are not ethnically European in any sense, much less racially “white.” A meaningful number of Israeli Jews are of Ethiopian origin, and the small community of Black Hebrew Israelites in Israel are ethnically African American.

SS troops bring a group of captured Jewish people, including women and young children, to a railway-station collection point for deportation to the Nazi death camps.
WARSAW, 1943: SS troops bring a group of captured Jewish people, including women and young children, to a railway-station collection point for deportation to the Nazi death camps; in the background, police and soldiers can be seen watching the Warsaw Ghetto burn.National Archives

Read More: Europe's Jews Are Resisting a Rising Tide of Anti-Semitism

Whether early Zionist settlers should be conceived as colonialists is a hotly disputed question. Were they stateless, oppressed people seeking refuge in their ancient homeland, where some Jews had always lived? That is certainly how they saw themselves. Or were early Zionists agents of the very European states they were seeking to flee, aiming to buy as much territory in Palestine as they could to create their own state? That is the view of critics, who emphasize the 1917 Balfour Declaration, in which Britain, still very much an empire, announced that it looked “with favor” on the creation of a national Jewish home in Palestine.

The upshot is that while a well-meaning person, free of antisemitism, could describe Israel as colonialist, the narrative of Israel as a settler-colonial oppressor on par with or worse than the U.S., Canada, and Australia is fundamentally misleading. Those who advance it run the risk of perpetuating antisemitism by condemning the Jewish state despite its basic differences from these other global examples—most important, Israel’s status as the only homeland for a historically oppressed people who have nowhere else to call their own.

To emphasize the narrative of Jews as oppressors, the new antisemitism must also somehow sidestep not only two millennia of Jewish oppression, but also the Holocaust, the largest organized, institutionalized murder of any ethnic group in human history. On the right, antisemites either deny the Holocaust ever happened or claim its scope has been overstated. On the left, one line is that Jews are weaponizing the Holocaust to legitimize the oppression of Palestinians.

During the Gaza War, some have argued that Israel, having suffered the trauma of the Holocaust, is now itself perpetrating a genocide against the Palestinian people. Like other criticisms of Israel, the accusation of genocide isn’t inherently antisemitic. Yet the genocide charge is especially prone to veering into antisemitism because the Holocaust is the archetypal example of the crime of genocide. Genocide was recognized as a crime by the international community after the Holocaust. Accusing Israel of genocide can function, intentionally or otherwise, as a way of erasing the memory of the Holocaust and transforming Jews from victims into oppressors.

It is, of course, logically possible for an oppressed group to become oppressors over time. Allegations of genocide have been brought against Israel by South Africa in the International Court of Justice (ICJ), charges Israel has wisely chosen to contest rather than ignore. The charges are based on the numbers of civilians killed, the tactics that led to the deaths, and statements by Israeli officials. This evidence is supposed to prove Israel intends to destroy the Palestinian people, in whole or in part, which is the legal definition of genocide.

The number of Palestinian dead, over 29,000 as of this writing, is heartbreaking. The rhetoric of some individual Israeli government officials cited by South Africa is particularly appalling, both in its dehumanizing character and in referring to Palestinians as Amalekites, a group whom the God of the Bible called on the ancient Israelites to “erase.” Retired Israeli Chief Justice Aharon Barak, who serves on the ICJ panel considering the genocide charges, joined a part of the court’s provisional measures that directed Israel to “take all measures within its power to prevent ... public incitement to commit genocide” in Gaza.

The U.S. government has itself condemned far-right members of Israel’s Cabinet who called for Gazans to be pushed into Egypt. The repugnant policy of ethnic cleansing urged by the extremists would violate international law, even if it would arguably not count as genocide under the legal meaning of the term. 

Protesters march through central London to Parliament Square at a demonstration against antisemitism.
LONDON, 2023: Protesters march through central London to Parliament Square at a demonstration against antisemitism, less than two months after the Hamas attacks of Oct. 7Krisztian Elek—SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

Notwithstanding these serious concerns, Israel’s efforts to defend itself against Hamas, even if found to involve killing disproportionate number of civilians, do not turn Israel into a genocidal actor comparable to the Nazis or the Hutu regime in Rwanda. The genocide charge depends on intent. And Israel, as a state, is not fighting the Gaza War with the intent to destroy the Palestinian people.

Israel’s stated war aims are to hold Hamas accountable for the Oct. 7 attack on Israel and to get back its citizens who are still being held captive. These aims are lawful in themselves.

The means Israel has used are subject to legitimate criticism for killing too many civilians as collateral damage. But Israel’s military campaign has been conducted pursuant to Israel’s interpretation of the international laws of war. There is no single, definitive international-law answer to the question of how much collateral damage renders a strike disproportionate to its concrete military objective. Israel’s approach resembles campaigns fought by the U.S. and its coalition partners in Iraq in Afghanistan, and by the international coalition in the battle against ISIS for control of Mosul. Even if the numbers of civilian deaths from the air seem to be higher, it is important to recognize that Israel is also confronting miles of tunnels intentionally connected to civilian facilities by Hamas.

To be clear: as a matter of human worth, a child who dies at the hands of a genocidal murderer is no different from one who dies as collateral damage in a lawful attack. The child is equally innocent, and the parents’ sorrow equally profound. As a matter of international law, however, the difference is decisive. During the Hamas attack, terrorists intentionally murdered children and raped women. Its charter calls for the destruction of the Jewish state. Yet the accusation of genocide is being made against Israel.

These relevant facts matter for putting the genocide charge into the context of potential antisemitism. Neither South Africa nor other states have brought a genocide case against China for its conduct in Tibet or Xinjiang, or against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. There is something specifically noteworthy about leveling the charge at the Jewish state—something intertwined with the new narrative of the Jews as archetypal oppressors rather than archetypal victims. Call it the genocide sleight of hand: if the Jews are depicted as genocidal—if Israel becomes the very archetype of a genocidal state—then Jews are much less likely to be conceived as a historically oppressed people engaged in self-defense.

The new narrative of Jews as oppressors is, in the end, far too close for comfort to the antisemitic tradition of singling out Jews as uniquely deserving of condemnation and punishment, whether in its old religious form or its Nazi iteration. Like those earlier forms of antisemitism, the new kind is not ultimately about the Jews, but about the human impulse to point the finger at someone who can be made to carry the weight of our social ills. Oppression is real. Power can be exercised without justice. Israel should not be immune from criticism when it acts wrongfully. Yet the horrific history and undefeated resilience of antisemitism mean that modes of rhetorical attack on Israel and on Jews should be subject to careful scrutiny.

Just because antisemitism is a cyclical, recurring phenomenon does not mean that it is inevitable nor that it cannot be ameliorated. Like any form of irrational hate, antisemitism can in principle be overcome. The best way to start climbing out of the abyss of antisemitism is to self-examine our impulses, our stories about power and injustice, and our beliefs.


Feldman, a professor at Harvard Law School, is the author of the new book To Be a Jew Today: A New Guide to God, Israel, and the Jewish People

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