What is anti-Semitism and why is it finding a new voice around the world?

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Clothing giant Adidas recently announced that it would be cut all ties with Kanye West, now known as Ye, following a series of disturbing comments from the rapper. Over the past few years, Ye’s behavior has become increasingly erratic, causing him to lose lucrative partnerships with brands like Balenciaga and Gap. However, for Adidas, the breaking point was a series of tweets from Ye widely considered anti-Semitic.

Although there has been a lot of backlash in response to Ye’s comments, many point out that he is not the only public figure who appears to be biased against Jews. While anti-Semitism has existed for centuries, after the Holocaust many governments enacted laws restricting the practice in public forums. Now with the rise from the right in Europe, escalating ethnic tensions in the Middle East and the growing anonymity provided by social media platforms, anti-Semitism is again a pressing concern.

What is anti-Semitism?

Obviously, anti-Semitism refers to any form of prejudice against the Jewish people. However, the term itself is a misnomer because Semitic denotes a linguistic group and not a race. Although antisemitism can linguistically be used to describe prejudice against speakers of Semitic languages ​​(including Arabs and Ethiopians), in practical terms it is commonly used specifically to refer to Jews.

According to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, an intergovernmental organization established in 1998, the following should be used as a working definition of anti-Semitism:

“Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which can be expressed in hatred towards Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed at Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, at Jewish community institutions and religious establishments.

Michael Berenbaum, a professor and rabbi who is the former project director of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, expands on this definition, citing five distinct categories of anti-Semitism, namely racial, religious, social, economic and political.

Racial anti-Semitism, most often associated with the Nazis, stems from the belief that Jews are a distinct and inferior race with inherent genetic traits. This form usually manifests as the belief that the Jews must be completely exterminated.

Religious anti-Semitism has its roots in the early days of Christianity and is accompanied by the idea that Jews should be converted to other religions.

Social anti-Semitism is a form of exclusion of Jews from social situations. An example of this practice was reported in an article by The New York Times of 1959 which asserted that Jews in America were systematically excluded from golf and sports clubs.

Economic anti-Semitism, the most prevalent among prejudices, posits that Jews have a disproportionate degree of control over global and national financial institutions, and that their hold over these institutions should be reduced.

Finally, political anti-Semitism is the attempt to keep Jews out of power. It is often confused with anti-Zionism, a movement that denies the Jewish right to a national homeland. As the Jewish Virtual Library notes, anti-Semitism is often masked behind a facade of criticism of Israel. However, it is also important to differentiate legitimate criticism of the actions of the Israeli state from accusations of prejudice against Jews.

Jews from Auschwitz arrived in German-occupied Poland around May 1944. Jews were sent here either to work or to the gas chamber. The photograph is part of the collection known as the Auschwitz Album. (Source: Auschwitz Album, Yad Vashem)

History of anti-Semitism

Modern anti-Semitism exists in the context of historical prejudice against Jews by Christians. According to Christian doctrine, the Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus and therefore deserved to be punished. Added to this belief was the fear that early Christian converts would continue to conform to Jewish practices, confusing the two religions over time.

According to some historians, the Adversus Judaeos (arguments against the Jews) tradition was established in AD 140 when the Christian apologist Justin Martyr engaged in a debate with Trypho the Jew. According to his own report of the conversation, he told Trypho, “you must understand that (the gifts of favor from God) once among your nation have been transferred to us.”

This argument was very popular among Catholic leaders at the time and continued to be relevant for centuries. As American historian David Nirenberg explains, “Anti-Judaism was a tool that could be usefully deployed against almost any problem, a weapon that could be deployed on almost any front.”

From Protestant reformer Martin Luther in 1543 to French philosopher Edmund Burke in 1790, social and political leaders have scapegoated Jews for many societal ills. In the beginning, middle, and end of history, Jews were systematically driven from lands, including EnglandYemen, Brazil, Portugal, Spain, Hungary and Egypt.

During the 1870s, this political and religious anti-Semitism was coupled with racial anti-Semitism, largely due to the work of Charles Darwin. Interpreting Darwin’s theory of evolution to mean that race was inherent and unchangeable, anti-Semites argued that Jews were genetically inferior on the evolutionary scale. This argument has also been used to justify discrimination against colonial subjects and black people in America.

Other examples of anti-Semitism from this period include the 1890 Dreyfus Affair in France in which a Jewish army officer was falsely accused of treason, sparking a fierce debate over Jewish loyalty to their country of origin. . Additionally, between 1880 and 1910, 2.5 million Jews fled Russia to the United States after anti-Semitism became official government policy during the reign of the Tsars. This exodus was not unprecedented – until 1772 Jews were completely banned from living in the Russian Empire.

Controversially, there is also a theory known as positive anti-Semitism, which claims that in some cases Jews have benefited from the prejudices associated with them. In an article for the Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs, authors Yehuda Bauer, a historian, and Moshe Fox, a former Israeli diplomat, explain how this theory could be applied. They argue that the belief that Jews are influential or wealthy can lead to “positive anti-Semitism” because people then misinterpret their importance in world affairs.

The Balfour Declaration, the British government’s 1917 declaration of support for the creation of a Jewish state, is an example of the phenomenon. The Declaration, write Fox and Bauer, “was at least partly rooted in the anti-Semitic view that the Jews were a powerful group, the ‘positive’ conclusion being that they were worth luring to the British side.”

However, while there may be some basis to this theory, there is no doubt that the negatives of anti-Semitism far outweigh the positives. For many, the most famous historical stain for this purpose is represented by the Holocaust.

People arriving on the ramp at Auschwitz II-Birkenau, summer 1944. (Source: Auschwitz Album, Yad Vashem)

The notion of Jewish inferiority in Germany that led to the Holocaust dates back to the Völkisch movement in the late 19th century. Völkisch nationalists believed that the German race, defined very narrowly in this respect, held a natural supremacy over all other races. They viewed the Jews as an alien people, who belonged to a different Volk (or race) from the Germans, and who were to be blamed for undermining the German way of life.

In the early 1900s, several anti-Semitic parties sprang up in Germany, bolstered by Germany’s loss in World War I. This in turn catalyzed the rise of the Nazi Party and resulted in the deaths of over 6 million Jews by the end of World War II.

After witnessing the scale of this genocide, world leaders pledged to tackle the problem of anti-Semitism, their efforts immortalized by the somber vow “Never again”. Anti-Semitic thought was so weakened by the Nazis that even the Catholic Pope considered the practice a sin. Governments began to enact laws protecting the rights of Jews, and memorials and museums sprang up across the world documenting the horrors of the Holocaust.

However, as time passes and the survivors of the war slowly give way to a new generation, the dangers of anti-Semitism become less apparent. As Atlantic Magazine editor Jeffery Goldberg points out, what we see today is an ancient and deep-rooted hostility toward Jews as the events of World War II fade from our collective memory.

Current examples of anti-Semitism

From far-right protesters in the US, attacks on synagogues in Sweden, arson attacks on kosher restaurants in France and an increase in crimes against Jews in the UK, anti-Semitism is exploding around the world again .

According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), an annual audit of anti-Semitic incidents in the United States showed a 34% increase between 2020 and 2021. In Germany, the number of violent anti-Semitic attacks increased by more than 60% in 2018 compared to the previous year, while antisemitic acts in France that year increased by more than 70%. Reports from Australia and Canada reflect a similar trend.

In Eastern Europe, right-wing parties took control, rewriting Holocaust history and adopting Nazi slogans and programs. In Western Europe, anti-Semitism is widespread among left-wing political parties and within Muslim communities.

Worryingly, the problem seems to be exacerbated by social media. In a journal article titled A Quantitative Approach to Understanding Anti-Semitism Online, a set of authors searched hundreds of millions of comments on popular sites like 4Chan and Gab for mentions of Jews. They found that “racial and ethnic slurs are on the rise in fringe web communities,” normalizing anti-Semitic language and potentially fueling attacks on Jewish communities.

ADL polls also support the idea that anti-Semitic sentiments are on the rise. In a survey of 53,000 people in 101 countries, they found that 26% held anti-Semitic attitudes. While 49% of Muslims expressed such beliefs, which is worrying, the same is true for 24% of Christians and 19% of Hindus. Overall, only 54% of respondents were aware of the Holocaust, with this figure falling to 24% in sub-Saharan Africa and 38% in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

In the MENA region specifically, 74% of respondents held anti-Semitic views. In Asia, this figure drops to 22%, in Western Europe to 24%, in Eastern Europe to 34% and in the Americas to 19%. When asked why people felt this way, the majority of respondents (75%) said they hated Jews because of their behavior, while 74% said they thought Jews were more loyal to Israel than to their country of origin.

Among people familiar with all religions tested in the survey, more are unfavorable to Jews than to people of any other religion.

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