3 Things People Don't Realize About Antisemitism
Some fresh perspectives on the centuries-old scourge of Jew hatred.
Future of Jewish is the ultimate newsletter by and for people passionate about Judaism and Israel. Subscribe to better understand and become smarter about the Jewish world.
Please consider supporting our mission to help everyone better understand and become smarter about the Jewish world. A gift of any amount helps keep our platform free and zero-advertising for all.
Surely you’ve heard and seen the skyrocketing levels of antisemitism plaguing our world — across college campuses, at airports, and in some of our favorite cities — against the backdrop of the Israel-Hamas war.
It is incredibly sad, and what’s even sadder is that it is incredibly unsurprising.
The first thing that many people don’t realize about antisemitism (more recently called “Jew hate”) is that not all antisemitism is created equal. In fact, there are three major strains of antisemitism, each in varying forms and severities, and thus each requiring unique responses.
In Europe, antisemitism is often a response to alienation and particularly high where unemployment runs rampant. For example, roughly half of all Spaniards and Greeks express unfavorable opinions about Jews. And antisemitic violence is fueled by young Islamic men and even women, who are immigrants and refugees (or the children of them) with little respect and no real socioeconomic upward mobility.
Across the Arab world, antisemitism is used as some crazed, abstract system for making sense of a world gone wrong. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, doesn’t just oppose Israel. He has called it the “sinister, unclean rabid dog of the region” and he’s said Israeli leaders “look like beasts and cannot be called human.”
“This sort of antisemitism thrives where there aren’t that many Jews,” according to famed U.S. columnist David Brooks. “The Jew is not a person but an idea, a unique carrier of transcendent evil: a pollution, a stain, a dark force responsible for the failures of others, the unconscious shame and primeval urges they feel in themselves, and everything that needs explaining. This is a form of derangement, a flight from reality even in otherwise sophisticated people.”
Finally, in the United States, which is home to the second-largest population of Jews, the problem is the number of people who can’t fathom what antisemitism is, or who think Jews are being paranoid or excessively victimizing themselves.
Others in the U.S. think antisemitism is just another form of racism or bigotry. Hence why we see some Jewish organizations mistakenly partnering with other organizations designed to fight different types of hatred.
But antisemitism is not just another form of racism or bigotry. Heck, what other group is the word “clever” used as an insult? And who else is purported to amass control of media and finance, tremendous wealth, and covert manipulation of the world’s governments?
This isn’t to say that antisemitism hasn’t contained racist aspects. From the Sentencia of 15th-century Spain, to the Nazi and Fascist race laws of the 1930s, to keeping Jews out of redlined neighborhoods and suburban country clubs in the United States, Jew hate has often expressed itself in clearly racist terms.
But antisemitism is a much broader and more varied bigotry than racial or ethnic prejudice. While all prejudices stem from an “us”-versus-“them” mindset, antisemitism emerges from feelings of superiority, contempt, fear, envy, and even inferiority, according to Bret Stephens, the editor-in-chief of Sapir.1
“The racist and ethnic bigot thinks the objects of his bigotry are deservedly beneath him,” Stephens said. “The antisemite thinks the object of his bigotry is undeservedly above him.”
This matters because Jew-haters consider themselves the underdogs, no matter how much power they possess, and the victimized party, no matter how much damage they inflict. The antisemite, as historian Deborah Lipstadt observed, almost always believes they are punching up; that their prejudice and cruelty is an act of courage and defiance.2
“For all the horrific cruelties of racism, it generally seeks subjugation, not elimination,” Stephens said. “It’s the religious dimension of antisemitism that so frequently leads antisemites to seek a ‘solution’ to their Jewish problem through mass expulsions or genocide.”
Another antisemitic argument is that Jews are imposters and swindlers. Imposters for claiming to be German, American, Canadian, Argentinian, Mexican, Australian, and so on — when we are actually “Semitic.” And swindlers for using all of our powerful tricks to deprive others of their entitlements.
“Anti-Zionists make the same claim about Jewish Israelis: that they are imposters for claiming an indigenous connection to the Land of Israel when really, they are latter-day European colonialists, and swindlers for trying to take from Palestinians what, supposedly, is rightfully theirs,” Stephens said.
“This is why anti-Zionism (never to be mistaken for criticism of Israeli government policy) is a modern-day version of antisemitism,” he added. “It is an attempt to organize politically and ideologically against Jews by employing the same false charges.”
The second thing that many people don’t realize about antisemitism is that more or better Holocaust education is perceived as the surefire cure to this ill. It’s most definitely important that people know — and know a remarkable amount — about the Holocaust.
But teaching about the Wannsee Conference or Kristallnacht is probably not going to change the hearts and minds of people whose antisemitism is connected to conspiracies about Jewish power and influence, or to propaganda featuring Israeli Jews with guns lording over Palestinians, or to faulty presumptions that most Jews are white and therefore perpetrators of white supremacy.
“Keeping our focus on finding new and better approaches, rather than assuming the usual answers like Holocaust education and hate crime prosecutions will suffice, the better we’ll be able to control antisemitism in the decades to come,” said Kenneth Stern, director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate.3
Early Zionists were motivated by the alarming rise of violent antisemitism. In their quest to rescue the Jews of pre-Holocaust Europe, Zionists aimed for much more than just physically protecting Jews. Rather, the goal was to change the relationship between Jews and Gentiles — by changing Jews themselves.
“Zionism was never just a political project, but a cultural one — to create a new type of Jew,” according to Mishael Zion of the Shalom Hartman Institute.4
This objective was based on a robust, critical analysis of how Jews had lived in their 2,000 years of exile, and the effects this had on the Jewish character. Frankly, it made us soft, quiet, shy, reserved.
The “New Jew” is exactly the opposite: outwardly, brashly, stubbornly, optimistically, and even obnoxiously proud to be Jewish. You see, when someone is deeply proud to be Jewish, and constantly surrounded by prideful reinforcements, their Jewishness becomes unshakeable. And intoxicating.
Plus, pride comes with a compounding effect. The more prideful you are, the more you engage with your pride, and the more prideful you become.
But being prideful is not a trait; it’s a lifestyle. This is why Israeli Jews are the original “New Jews.” They are empowered to live Judaism and Jewishly every day, by virtue of living in a Jewish state.
Even so, the “New Jew” mentality is not just reserved for Israeli Jews. Thanks to modern technology’s global scale, Jews from across the world can be empowered to “live their best Jewish lives” every single day. And we should invite our non-Jewish family and friends to take part in our pride alongside us, the same way that “outsiders” immerse themselves in other cultures.
What if, instead of fighting antisemitism directly, we invested far more time and resources in empowering Jews across the world — and, by extension, our non-Jewish family and friends — to “live their best Jewish lives,” and to provide daily reinforcements for this Jewish pride to grow and prosper? In Hebrew, this strategy is called hafuch al hafuch (הפוך על הפוך), literally meaning “the opposite on the opposite.”
When we strengthen Jewish empowerment, we will strengthen our Jewish identity, which will strengthen our image in the world. This, in turn, will greatly diminish the effects and anguish of antisemitism.
Lastly, the third thing that many people don’t realize about antisemitism is that “fighting antisemitism” incidentally creates more antisemitism.
“There have been those who have tried to solve the problem by cutting the weed off at ground level. This has left the roots intact, enabling them to grow back. This is why antisemitism is still a problem today. It is why historical attempts to defeat it have failed,” according to Ben Freeman, author of the book, Jewish Pride.
While Jewish organizations do great work across local, national, and international endeavors, they haven’t proven to be effective in combatting antisemitism — for the simple reason that antisemitism itself and funding geared toward “the fight against antisemitism” are both at all-time highs.
“Groups fighting antisemitism sponsor educational campaigns and do a lot of consciousness-raising,” David Brooks said. “I doubt these things do anything to reduce active antisemitism.”
In 2021, a Tel Aviv University report found a record-high number of reports of antisemitic activity throughout the world, much of it tied to the bloody conflict between Israel and Palestinian terror groups in the Gaza Strip that year, as well as the coronavirus pandemic.
The annual report called for major introspection as decades of efforts to curb antisemitism following the Holocaust appear to be coming up short.
“Something just isn’t working,” said Uriya Shavit, one of the report’s authors. “In recent years, the fight against antisemitism has enjoyed extensive resources worldwide, and yet, despite many important programs and initiatives, the number of antisemitic incidents, including violent assaults, is rapidly escalating.”5
The report’s authors didn’t hold back, writing in a statement, “It’s time to admit: The struggle is failing.”
In 2022, nearly 40 U.S. college presidents, including some from campuses that have seen high-profile anti-Israel or antisemitic activity, gathered at the Center for Jewish History in New York City to share best practices and discuss how best to create a safe environment for Jewish students.
Adam Lehman, the CEO of Hillel International — which organized this U.S. college presidents “meetup” — called on schools to educate students about Jewish identity and antisemitism, and to explicitly include Jews in their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) policies, which generally address topics like racial identity, gender, and sexual orientation.
Ironically, it might not be in the best interest of Hillel International to effectively fight antisemitism; the head of fundraising for a major U.S. university affiliate of the organization told me that when she fundraises for a Jewish culture event, very few donors come forward with a check for the organization. But when she fundraises for an antisemitism-related event, she noted, donors line up with checks in their hands.
“Oftentimes Jewish leadership, and Jewish visionaries, and Jewish moral courage, does not come from people that have the name president or CEO by their name,” according to Bari Weiss, author of the book, How to Fight Anti-Semitism. “It comes from people often at the fringes of Jewish life … and so I think that is the very important thing for all of us to think about in our own life.”6
“Three Falsehoods About Antisemitism—and One Truth.” Sapir.
“Three Falsehoods About Antisemitism—and One Truth.” Sapir.
“How to Fight Anti-Semitism.” My Jewish Learning.
“Old Jew, New Jew, Israeli Jew: A Fresh Look at the Jews of Zion.” Shalom Hartman Institute.
“Tel Aviv U reports record-high global antisemitism, linked to COVID and Gaza.” The Times of Israel.
“The Mainstreaming of Antisemitism: How Should We Respond?” AJC.