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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Is There a New Antisemitism?

recap

On February 18, Gasson was filled to the brim as faculty, community members, and several dozen undergraduate and graduate students filed in to hear James Bernauer, S.J., Susannah Heschel, and Mark Silk discuss the pressing question of whether there is a new anti-Semitism proliferating in the United States. 

The question was, and is, an important one, as several recent instances of violence against Jews have rendered the American public fearful and concerned about this seemingly drastic spike in anti-Semitic sentiment. Mark Massa, S.J., the evening’s moderator, began directly: “Is there a new anti-Semitism?”, he asked the three scholars. 

The panelists seemed to reach a consensus that the anti-Semitism we are seeing today is new, in some ways, but also a continuation of a prior anti-Semitism, in other ways. To illustrate this point, Heschel explained that throughout history, we see bumps in anti-Semitism any time society undergoes a major cultural or political shift. Much of the anti-Semitism today, she argued, is because we are in the one of those shifts. But, she says, what’s new today is the virulence and the intensity attached to this hatred of Jews. Anti-Semitism has become more widespread, accessible, and attached to the person--not the behavior. Whereas in earlier times, anti-Semitic feeling often manifested itself as an opposition to a certain behavior of Jewish people, today it comes as a threat to the very life of the person. On a more positive note, Heschel insisted that, among other new elements, there is now broad solidarity with victims and outrage regarding anti-Semitism. 

Mark Silk added that, as is the case today, anti-Semitism has historically come from both the right and the left, referring to age-old and simultaneous accusations of Jews as communists and as capitalists. But, he argued, the two-sided anti-Semitism of today has new “twists”--the right-wing chants, “Jews will not replace us,” tying the economic success of Jews to immigrant influxes, while the left-wing weaponizes Israel. 

James Bernauer segmented anti-Semitism into two “silos”, claiming one to be old and the other to be new, but insisting that today’s anti-Semitism is a combination of both. The first he explains as “post-Holocaust” anti-Semitism, in which Jews are viewed as powerful, as conspiratory, and as having control over the economy. The second--“post-Israel” anti-Semitism--has reduced Jews from the “moral pedestal” from which they once stood in the public’s eye. Bernauer explained that Jewish involvement with the Civil Rights Movement, among other social justice movements, had once granted them a moral reverence, but linkage between today’s Jews and Israel’s politics has stripped the Jewish population of that prestige. 

Going off of Bernauer’s point, Massa asked the panel to discuss the role Israeli politics has played in modern anti-Semitism. Silk noted how Israel being viewed as a powerful force, plus concerns about Palestinian rights, has produced anxiety among the Jewish community. The right to the land of Israel is in the core of Jewish doctrine, so calling that into question has the potential to encroach on anti-Semitism, he explained. 

Bernauer explained how some zealous, theologically-based views regarding Israeli politics have also contributed to the “backslide” of Jews from atop the so-called moral-hierarchy, which he feels has contributed greatly to anti-Semitism, particularly among the left. 

Heschel added that, despite the creation of Israel being a decision made by the United Nations, its existence is so often weaponized in anti-Semitic arguments, taken far beyond a dislike of Israeli policy or its government. 

The three panelists agreed that the prevalence of gun-use in anti-Semitic violence is cause for concern and action, and has contributed to the public’s perception of the severity of anti-Semitism. Silk pointed out some interesting statistics, revealing that while anti-Semitic acts have not risen much, the public is under the impression that it has. In other words, frequency has not increased, but public attention has. Gun violence has much to do with this trend. Heschel added, “On the right, anti-Semitism comes with guns. On the left, it comes with words. But both are dangerous”. 

This segwayed into the age-old debate surrounding the classification of anti-Semitism. Is it a form of racism? A religious prejudice? The answer is a difficult one. Silk insisted on a religious origin, but Bernauer cited anti-Semitic tropes stemming both from doctrine and from fantasy. Heschel insisted that Jews cannot be placed into any one category, making anti-Semitism a beast of entirely its own nature. She explained that in anti-Semitic arguments, Jews are seen with power, which is a markedly different aspect from typical prejudice or marginalization which, instead, strips the victim of power. 

At this point, the panel opened up to the audience. Questions addressed matters such as the contributions of “infamous” Jews to anti-Semitic sentiment, the effect of the declining number of holocaust survivors, and how college campuses can better address instances of anti-Semitism among students and faculty.