The oldest hatred is in vogue again. Antisemitism in all its forms is back in fashion in the West – the rhetoric is truly frightening, and the audacity of those openly declaring their hatred of Jews is simply shocking.
Whether it is swastikas daubed on Jewish gravestones in France, far-left activists in the UK accusing Jewish MPs of being “fifth columnists” or the massacre of Jewish men and women at prayer in Pittsburgh, there can be little doubt as to the seriousness of the antisemitic hate that has infected the West once again.
But is there any underlying cause or common denominator that can explain the outbreak of this scourge of Western civilization?
Dina Porat – head of the Kantor Center for the Study of European Jewry at Tel Aviv University and chief historian for Yad Vashem – said that the rise of antisemitism in different countries and regions often has its own specific background and setting, but that there are nevertheless some common denominators.
In particular, she notes that economic and social crises in the UK, France, Holland and other Western European countries, and a sense that “democracies don’t control” their own countries has contributed to the rise of antisemitism.
Radicals and extremists from both sides of the political spectrum have latched on to the “yellow-jacket” economic protest movement, which has morphed into a protest movement against the socioeconomic condition of the working and middle class with a populist strain of anti-“elite” rhetoric and beliefs.
And France witnessed two horrifying antisemitic attacks recently, in which prominent Jewish philosopher Alain Finkielkraut was assailed by “yellow jacket” protesters who called him a “dirty-Zionist” and told him to “go back to Tel Aviv,” as well as the desecration of 96 Jewish gravestones with swastikas close to Strasbourg.
“The ‘yellow jackets’ is an expression of crisis with democracy; it started as nothing to do with Jews but as with many revolutions, it has developed antisemitic overtones,” said Porat.
She also noted that among the economic and social tumult, Jews are often erroneously perceived as being better off financially than the average citizen and possessing an internal solidarity which others do not, both of which cause resentment.
In the UK, opposition to immigration as well as resentment from regions of social and economic deprivation led to the vote to leave the EU in 2016, a decision that has left the country in political and social turmoil.
Antisemitism in the UK has hit record levels for three straight years in a row, while social media is rife with sickening allegations of Jewish control of the media, politics and the economy.
The advent to leadership of the Labour Party of Jeremy Corbyn, who has long straddled the boundary between anti-Zionism and antisemitism, has exacerbated the problem and led Jewish critics of Corbyn to be labeled traitors and agents of foreign powers, feeding further into the antisemitic zeitgeist.
Alvin Rosenfeld, a professor of Jewish studies at Indiana University and director of the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism at Indiana University, said that the recent bout of antisemitism was “part of raw cultural moment” being experienced in the West.
“We see in many countries a rise of populism, of nativism, illiberal movements of many kinds like in Poland, Hungary, France, Germany and the UK, which brings with it grave intolerance against people who are seen as being adversarial,” said Rosenfeld.
And once these various social ills set in, antisemitism is not long in following, he says.
“Once these energies get momentum, we have a social pathology and the return of antisemitism from the fringes that settles in that can turn very violent,” continues Rosenfeld.
Director and CEO of the Anti-Defamation League Jonathan Greenblatt notes that a severe spike in antisemitism in the US since 2016 is “absolutely correlated” to the election campaign and election victory of US President Donald Trump, who has used concerns over national and cultural identity and immigration to garner support.
“There is no doubt that these things are tightly related, there is no doubt that extremists feel emboldened because the president and other elected officials are sharing stereotypes, conspiracy theories about [Jewish financier George] Soros and about ‘globalists’ lifted from the pages of white supremacists and making their way to the talking point of elected officials from the West Wing down,” said Greenblatt.
“There’s no doubt that the environment in which [antisemitism] is being sustained is certainly to some degree catalyzed by and cultivated by the political rhetoric.”
Greenblatt notes specially, however, that the rise in antisemitic incidents in the US has not been confined to the far-right, and has also been a feature of the far-left, who he says “use the same tropes of conspiracy and influence."
This has certainly been witnessed of late in the comments of several new Democratic congresswomen, and other radical elements.
The causes, roots and origins of antisemitism are always difficult to pin down definitively, and the phenomenon is so ancient and varied as to make categorical assertions dangerous.
But the “cultural moment” of socioeconomic change and disorder in the West seems a good place to start in the search for the origins of the present day outbreak of the antisemitism virus.
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