Countering Antisemitism and the message of hate

A conversation with Professor John J. Farmer Jr.

John Farmer
“When we see antisemitism start to take hold and spread,” says Professor John J. Farmer Jr, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics of Rutgers University and the Miller Center for Community Protection and Resilience, “it’s a good indication that civilization itself is about to crumble.” On Monday, November 9th, the eighty-second anniversary of Kristallnacht, the ‘Night of the Broken Glass,’ March of the Living, in collaboration with the Miller Center at Rutgers and the Jewish Community of Frankfort, will launch “Let There Be Light,” a global virtual campaign to preserve the memory of Kristallnacht. The campaign calls on individuals, institutions, and houses of worship to keep their lights on during the night of November 9th as a symbol of mutual cooperation and the joint struggle against antisemitism, racism, hatred, and intolerance.
As part of the virtual Kristallnacht initiative, people from all over the world will be able to add their voices to the campaign. Individuals of all religions and backgrounds are invited to write personal messages of hope in their own words at the campaign website.
The Miller Center works towards the protection of vulnerable populations and has assisted a wide range of communities, ranging from the Muslim community in Brussels, Belgium to the Jewish community in Whitefish, Montana in the struggle against hatred. Farmer says that it is difficult to fathom what motivates people to extremism. Nevertheless, he says, “it is explainable when you have a hatred of the other, and there is a process of demonization that occurs. As the original Diaspora community, Jews have experienced that dynamic to a greater extent than anyone else.” Antisemitism has the unique aspect of being much older than other forms of hatred, he notes. He added that hatred of other groups reflects the immaturity of our civilization in rejecting the ‘other’ and it not knowing how to assimilate the ‘other’ without hatred developing. While diasporas of other ethnicities and religions have experienced the same dynamic, Farmer says that the lineage of that hatred doesn’t exist for most of the others. “Certainly, the extent to which the Jewish community has suffered has far exceeded that of any other group over time.”
“To some extent,” says Farmer, “the sources of antisemitism have been constant through history, such as resentment of the other.” When one adds all the factors caused by the pandemic, he notes, including economic stress, lockdown, feelings of  isolated, paranoia, suspicion of the outsider, and populist demagogues who thrive on people’s insecurities, there is a potential cocktail for antisemitism. 
The denial of the Holocaust as a historical event, says Farmer, cannot be compared to the broader trend of erasing history occurring nowadays, with the shattering of historical symbols in the United States. “It stands apart,” he says.  Farmer mentions that the US Army filmed the concentration camps after they were liberated because they realized that their existence might be denied someday. “It was almost a precursor so that it couldn’t be denied. There is an appeal and an audience for history-denying theories. Holocaust denial is a precursor that you can stare facts in the face and deny them. It’s astonishing to me.”
Farmer says that antisemitism needs to be thwarted by counter-messaging on social media, “calling it out and saying what is very important.” Ultimately, he says, it is a cultural issue as much as it is a governmental one. Today, government messages are frequently dismissed as propaganda. “It is up to secular universities like Rutgers, or non-partisan institutions to take the lead and call it out as it occurs, and alert law enforcement to the potential of violence that accompanies this kind of extremism.” Farmer says that the Miller Institute will soon be releasing a report about antisemitism in social media and its ties to extremist groups. “It is fascinating that the left and right-wing extremist groups have very little in common, but one of the things that they seem to have in common is a stream of antisemitism.”
The Miller Center at Rutgers is a partner in the global interfaith campaign of the March of the Living against racism and hatred, and Farmer is an enthusiastic supporter of the March. “The March of the Living is essential to raising public awareness of the consequences of ignoring hate as it arises. I went on the March, and it was one of the transformative experiences of my life. On the one hand, the tragedy of Auschwitz and Birkenau is staring you in the face. On the other hand, one can’t suppress the positive energy of marching with 20,000 young people. It’s a dual vision of tragedy and hope that it brings to today’s discussion. There is a potential for tragedy but also energy and hope, and optimism. I think it is an indispensable ingredient in solving the problem.”