New antisemitism presents new challenges

Antisemitism has been around for hundreds of years. But the rise of populism, along with social media, presents new challenges for those trying to fight what is called the “new antisemitism.”

June 19, 2019 16:31
Youth attend the annual March of the Living at the former Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz

Youth attend the annual March of the Living at the former Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz on May 2, 201. (photo credit: KASPER PEMPEL/REUTERS)


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The German Parliament recently passed a strongly worded resolution calling the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) “antisemitic,” and the same week three fires were intentionally set at two Chabad houses in Massachusetts. It was a reminder that as much as governments can try to legislate against antisemitism, it seems to be on the increase in both Europe and the US.

Antisemitism has been around for hundreds of years. But the rise of populism, along with social media, presents new challenges for those trying to fight what is called the “new antisemitism.”

“The new antisemitism is the old antisemitism repackaged, revitalized and supercharged by social media,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean and director of Global Social Action Agenda of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a leading Jewish human rights organization with over 400,000 family members. “The hat is still there, but it is a different wrapping for a different generation.”

March of the Living at the former Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz on May 2, 2019 (Credit: KASPER PEMPEL/REUTERS)

Cooper, who has been working in the field since the 1970s, used to visit refuseniks in the former Soviet Union. He said the government used to try to make a distinction between antisemitism, which was actually illegal, and anti-Zionism.

“They would say, ‘We don’t hate Jews, we hate Zionists,’” Cooper recalled. “I’ve been at this for 42 years and not much is new, but it is amazing how the old tropes find new meaning and new power in different audiences for different cultures.”

In the past year alone, there have been two shootings in synagogues: in October, a gunman killed 11 people in the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh after posting antisemitic comments, and in April, a gunman opened fire in Poway, California, while shouting antisemitic slurs, killing one woman.

In Europe, experts say antisemitism is rising almost everywhere – French officials said antisemitic incidents had increased by 74 percent, while in Germany officials reported an increase of 60 percent.

Sharon Nazarian, senior vice president of International Affairs of the Anti-Defamation League, says that antisemitism today is coming from both the right and left.

“There is an amalgamation of historic classic antisemitism from extreme right-wing groups and white supremacist groups, with a new antisemitism coming from extreme left-wing parties personified in Jeremy Corbyn of the (UK) Labour party,” she said. “A third force has been there historically but is manifesting itself in new and powerful ways, and that is Islamist antisemitism in Europe connected with violent acts of terrorism.”

She called the three forces together a “perfect storm.”

Most Jewish scholars of antisemitism say that BDS is a form of antisemitism.

While BDS says that it is aimed at ending Israel’s “occupation” of the West Bank and Gaza Strip through an economic boycott, most say it has morphed into a rejection of Israel’s right to exist.

Cooper says that at the World Conference on Racism in Durban, South Africa, in 2001, former Canadian Justice Minister and Attorney-General Irwin Cotler launched the “three D’s” of “double standards, demonization and delegitimization of Israel” (based on Natan Sharansky’s original model.)

He said that if any of those three were found in criticism of Israel, it could be defined as antisemitic.

“BDS is definitely antisemitic,” Rabbi Cooper said. “It is not designed in any way to help Palestinians but only to hurt Israel.”

Rabbi Abraham Cooper associate dean and director (Credit: Courtesy)

Nazarian has a slightly different take on BDS.

“The original people behind the idea and the origins are antisemitic,” she said. “But not every person who supports BDS is antisemitic, and it would be wrong for us to have a blanket labeling of every person who supports it as antisemitic.”

For example, she said, many young people on college campuses in the US see BDS as a valid form of civil disobedience.

In some ways BDS has failed. Despite calls for a boycott of this month’s Eurovision contest in Tel Aviv, all of the performing groups came to Israel. With the exception of Iceland’s decision to display a Palestinian flag, BDS failed to keep people away.

On campuses, efforts to boycott Israeli academics or cultural offerings have also failed. Yet, says Nazarian, BDS has succeeded in making many Jewish college students wary of expressing support for Israel, or being open about their Jewish identity for fear of being ostracized by BDS supporters.

Both Cooper and Nazarian agree that social media has enabled antisemitism to spread much further and faster than before. That, along with the mass movement of people for economic and other reasons, has led to an increase of xenophobia and antisemitism.

The solution, many agree, is education. Shmuel Rosenman, international chairman of the March of the Living, which has brought almost 300,000 young people to former concentration camps in Poland, says that as the survivors of the Holocaust are dying, the memory of the Holocaust is fading.

A recent study in the US found that 45% of the younger generation has never heard the word “Auschwitz,” or has ever read the story of a Shoah survivor.

He says Holocaust education is one of the best ways to fight antisemitism.

“The world is moving to the right all the time, and many people do not have patience for someone who is not from the same group,” he said in an interview. “It’s easy to blame Jews and others for this.”

Sharon Nazarian Senior Vice President, International Affairs for the Anti-Defamation League. (Credit: Courtesy)

He said that government declarations such as the one from Germany do little to counter antisemitic attitudes. Instead, education about the Shoah and antisemitism is needed, especially before college, where antisemitic sentiments are on the rise.

“When pre-college youth, both Jews and non-Jews alike, witness the absolute horror of antisemitism first hand, we see that it makes them more committed to fight all forms of hatred,” Rosenman said. “We are not teaching history. We are transferring the stories of bitterness, hatred and antisemitism from the survivor to the next generation. We do not teach hatred but that you must do justice.”

The number of non-Jews joining the March of the Living continues to grow as well. This year almost 5,000 non-Jews from Poland, Germany, Austria and even Japan joined the march in Poland and then visit Israel.

The participants learn not only the history of antisemitism before the Holocaust, but also that antisemitism is still alive today.

“After the March of the Living they come to Israel and reach a deeper understanding of the significance of their Jewish roots,” says Rosenman. “After they complete their journey, they have a toolbox to understand what causes antisemitism and how to combat it, especially using social media.”

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