After Gaza: what’s behind 21st-century anti-Semitism?

Anti-Israel sentiment is morphing into anti-Jewish sentiment, as more and more people project their disdain for the modern world on to ‘the Jew’.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics

First, a health warning. For some time now it has been difficult to have a grown-up discussion about anti-Semitism. In post-Second World War Europe, this issue, perhaps more than any other, has provoked powerful memories and emotions. The debate about what constitutes anti-Semitism, and where it is being expressed, can be a moral minefield, and it can impact both positively and negatively on European attitudes towards Jewish people. As a result, there are frequently controversies about whether or not a certain statement or act is anti-Semitic.

For example, in early January an appeals court in Cologne, Germany, ruled that Henryk Broder, a German-Jewish journalist, could describe the statements made by a fellow Jew, Evelyn Hecht-Galinski, as anti-Semitic. ‘Even German courts are beginning to understand that it is not enough to be Jewish in order not to be anti-Semitic’, boasted Broder (1). This court case highlighted another difficulty in understanding the nature of anti-Semitism today. In recent times, how Jews are perceived has become closely bound up with the issue of Israel. So Broder had denounced the Jewess Hecht-Galinski as anti-Semitic because she had equated Israel’s policies with those of Nazi Germany. As far as Hecht-Galinski was concerned, Broder’s claim that her criticism of Israel in such a fashion was ‘anti-Semitic’ represented defamation against her character.

Disputes such as this one should remind us that there is a powerful subjective and interpretative element to how we characterise another individual’s words and behaviour – and these acts of interpretation can be influenced by unstated cultural and political assumptions. Today, there are at least four important trends that complicate our understanding of how anti-Semitism works.

First of all, contemporary Western culture continually encourages groups that perceive themselves as victims to inflate the wrongs perpetuated against them. As a result, we are always being told that racism is more prevalent than ever before, or that homophobia and Islamophobia are rising, or that sexual discrimination is more powerful than in the past. It is unthinkable today for advocacy groups to concede that prejudice and discrimination against their members have decreased, and that the status of their community or people has improved. Such groups are acutely sensitive to how they are represented in the media, and to the language in which they are discussed and described. And this identity-based sensitivity is shared by Jewish organisations, too, which in recent decades have often been all-too-willing to interpret what are in fact confused and ambiguous references to their people as expressions of anti-Semitism.

Consequently, the charge that a certain statement is ‘anti-Semitic’ should not be accepted at face value. Statements and acts need to be analysed and interpreted in the context in which they were made or carried out. It is particularly important to resist the temptation to characterise speech or behaviour as anti-Semitic by second-guessing its real meaning. An objective assessment demands analysis of what was actually said, rather than speculation about its ‘true’ or ‘hidden’ meaning. Just as we already have the irrational concept of ‘unwitting racism’ in the UK, we may soon end up with charges of ‘unwitting anti-Semitism’ being made against those individuals judged by other people’s interpretive wits to be anti-Semitic.

The second complication is that, in recent decades, the defenders of Zionism have developed the unfortunate habit of labelling criticisms of Israel as a form of anti-Semitism. The aim of these rhetorical attacks is to devalue the moral standing of Israel’s critics, and thus avoid having to deal with their often difficult, persuasive arguments. The cumulative impact of this very defensive response to criticism of Israel is to undermine the moral weight of charges of anti-Semitism. Those who are anti-Zionist are often able to accuse Israeli politicians and their supporters of ‘hiding behind’ the charge of anti-Semitism. Worse still, the pro-Israel movement’s propagandistic association of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism has encouraged others to erode the conceptual distinction between Zionism and Jews.

The third complication comes with the sanctification of the Holocaust. In Europe, the Holocaust has in recent years been institutionalised as a moral absolute. In education, culture and public life, the Holocaust has been turned into a marker of evil. Many countries in the European Union have instituted laws against Holocaust denial. Sanctifying the Holocaust in this way has allowed European officialdom to claim moral authority on matters of good and evil, right and wrong, in relation to the present and the past.

Regrettably, the elevation of the Holocaust in this way does little to help people make sense of that terrible event. Instead, many Europeans experience the politicisation of the Holocaust as a bureaucratic project, something that is distant from their lives. One disturbing outcome of the politicisation of the Holocaust is that it can become more difficult to know what people genuinely think about Jews; after all, in circumstances where the official version of the Holocaust cannot be questioned, and where you can even be punished for doing so, people are unlikely to state baldly ‘I don’t like Jews’ or to express other overt anti-Semitic sentiments. Nevertheless, officialdom’s manipulation of the memory of the Holocaust as a way of gaining moral authority has had the predictable effect of breeding cynicism towards this terrible event. Some Europeans feel that ‘too much’ is made of the Holocaust these days, but they rarely state such opinions openly.

The fourth complication poses the greatest problem. Because in contemporary Europe there are many and various obstacles to the expression of anti-Semitic sentiments in their traditional form, prejudice towards Jews is now likely to be expressed indirectly, through other issues. Although criticism of Israel can and should be conceptually distinguished from prejudice towards Jewish people, in recent years there has been a significant erosion of the distinction between these two phenomena. As a result, some people have embraced the anti-Israeli cause as a way of making a statement about their attitude towards Jews. As a sociologist, I am well aware of the danger of attributing a sentiment to a statement that is not explicitly stated – which is why this discussion needs to be handled with care, and why such interpretative statements about today’s anti-Israeli/anti-Semitic outlook need to be clearly justified.

New expressions of anti-Semitism

There is considerable evidence that in recent years anti-Semitism has acquired greater visibility and force in Europe. Over the past decade, and especially since the eruption of the conflict in Gaza, anti-Israeli sentiments have often mutated into anti-Jewish ones. Recent events indicate that in Europe the traditional distinction between anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish sentiment has become confusing and blurred.

So recently, during a demonstration against Israel’s actions in Gaza, the Dutch Socialist Party MP Harry Van Bommel called for a new intifada against Israel. Of course he has every right to express this political viewpoint. However, he became an accomplice of anti-Semites when he chose to do nothing upon hearing chants of ‘Hamas, Hamas, all Jews to the gas’ and similar anti-Jewish slogans. Many people who should know better now keep quiet when they hear slogans like ‘Kill the Jews’ or ‘Jews to the oven’ on anti-Israel demonstrations. At a recent protest in London, such chants provoked little reaction from individuals who otherwise regard themselves as progressive anti-racists – and nor did they appear to be embarrassed by the sight of a man dressed as a racist Jewish caricature, wearing a ‘Jew mask’ with a crooked nose while pretending to eat bloodied babies.

Increasingly, protesters are targeting Jews for being Jews. They have agitated for the boycott and even harassment of certain shops, and in practice this has translated into boycotting and harassing Jewish-owned shops, such as Marks & Spencer (some of whose stores have been barricaded by anti-Israel protesters) and Starbucks (a number of whose coffee shops have been attacked in London and elsewhere). Giancarlo Desiderati, spokesman for the trade union Flaica-Cub, has explicitly called for a boycott of Jewish businesses in Rome. A leaflet issued by his union informed Romans that anything they purchase in Jewish-owned shops will be ‘tainted by blood’.

Here, there is an almost effortless conceptual leap from criticising Israel to targeting Jews. Desiderati pointed out that his organisation had already called for a boycott of Israeli goods before taking the logical next step of demanding a boycott of Jewish shops. He said that his union was drawing up a list of Jewish shops, ‘though it might be better to publish a list of streets in which a majority of the shops are Jewish and ask people to avoid those streets when shopping’ (2).

Anti-Semitism in Europe is not simply a rhetorical pastime of Islamists or pro-Palestinian protesters. In Britain, Jewish schoolchildren have been castigated for belonging to a people with ‘blood on their hands’. Their elders sometimes face intimidation and regularly report being subjected to verbal abuse. What is most disturbing about these developments is the reluctance of European society to acknowledge and confront acts of anti-Semitism. Take the riots that broke out in Paris on 3 January. If you relied upon mainstream media reports, you would never have known that groups of youngsters were shouting ‘death to the Jews’ while throwing stones at the police. In this instance, expressions of anti-Semitism were not even properly reported, much less confronted and challenged in public debate.

Probably the saddest example of this accommodation to anti-Semitism comes from Denmark. Historically, Denmark has been one of the most enlightened societies in Europe. During the Second World War, it stood out as a country were the Nazis could find virtually nobody willing to collaborate with their anti-Jewish policies. It is sad, therefore, to read reports today about Danish school administrators who recommend that Jewish children should not enrol in their schools. It began last week, when Olav Nielsen, headmaster of Humlehave School in Odense, publicly stated that he would ‘refuse to accept the wishes of Jewish parents’ who wanted to place children at his school, because it might create tension amongst the Muslim children. Other headmasters echoed his refusal to school the children of Jews, claiming that they were putting children’s safety first. Whatever their intentions, these pedagogues were sending the powerful message that, in the interests of ‘health and safety’, the ghettoisation of Jewish children can be an acceptable and even sensible idea.

Anti-Semitism on the left

One reason why anti-Semitism has become more visible and forceful is because Muslim youth who protest against Israel are relatively uninfluenced by European cosmopolitan ethics that criminalise overt expressions of anti-Jewish sentiment. They are therefore less inhibited than other protesters from explicitly attacking – verbally and sometimes physically – Jews for being Jews. In their outlook, Israel is Jewish and therefore all Jews are legitimate targets for their anger. Their reluctance to make a distinction between Jewish people and Israel has been a source of consternation for some liberal-minded Muslims. A recent letter signed by a group of prominent British Muslims condemned the Gaza-related spate of attacks on Jews and synagogues, arguing that ‘British Jews should not be held responsible for the actions of the Israeli government’ (3). Such statements, however, which publicly acknowledge the problem of conflating Jews with Israeli government action, are rare these days.

One consequence of the rise of overt anti-Semitism amongst some Muslim youth is that it has given permission to others to express more traditional forms of European anti-Semitism. Old anti-Semitic themes about Jews having too much power and influence have become widespread in recent years. However, the most striking development has been the absorption of anti-Semitic sentiments by Europeans who politically identify themselves as left wing.

To be sure, the distinction between left and right has become less and less clear in recent years (4). But it is worth noting that, historically, anti-Semitism in Europe was predominantly linked with right-wing, nationalist movements. And a significant section of the European left played a key role in trying to counter prejudice towards Jews.

Although anti-Semitism continues to exist within sections of the right and far right, over the past decade it has also gained support amongst the left. A study titled Unfavourable Views of Jews And Muslims on the Increase in Europe, published in September 2007, found that 34 per cent of respondents who identified themselves as being on the political right and 28 per cent of those who said they were on the left had a generally unfavourable view of Jews. Those who were least likely to harbour such prejudices – 26 per cent – identified themselves as being in the ‘political centre’ (5). The survey, carried out in the spring of 2007, some time before the recent outburst of conflict in Gaza, suggests that negative attitudes towards Jews predate Israel’s latest military venture.

Those who are active in left-wing politics are unlikely to hold coherent anti-Jewish prejudices. Nonetheless, one disturbing development in recent years has been the reluctance of left-wing anti-Israel protesters to challenge explicit manifestations of anti-Semitism. This accommodation to prejudice is often motivated by moral cowardice. Others try to justify their failure to challenge anti-Semitism by arguing that criticising the prejudices held by some Muslim youth will only let Israel off the hook. Some suggest that Israel’s behaviour relieves Europeans of any moral obligation to empathise with Jews or Jewish sensibilities. Such an outlook was unambiguously expressed by the Italian trade unionist Desiderati, who said that ‘for 50 years we have been concerned for the Jews because of what they suffered in the Holocaust, but now it is time be concerned for the Palestinians, who are the Jews of today’ (6).

The most worrying dynamic in Europe today is not the explicit vitriol directed against Jews by radical Muslim groups or far-right parties, but the new culture of accommodation to anti-Semitism. We can see the emergence of a slightly embarrassed ‘see nothing, hear nothing’ attitude that shows far too much ‘understanding’ towards expressions of anti-Semitism. Typically, the response to anti-Jewish prejudice is to argue that it is not anti-Semitic, just anti-Israeli. Sometimes even politically correct adherents to the creeds of diversity and anti-racism manage to switch off when it comes to confronting anti-Jewish comments.

As a sociologist, I am a member of the online European-Sociologist discussion group. Recently, an anti-Israeli sociologist of Muslim extraction advised us to read an article by the Jewish radical author Naomi Klein. Another Muslim colleague responded by warning him against reading ‘clever Jewish authors’. He advised his co-religionist that ‘true believers should not trust these snakes’. To her credit, an American anti-Zionist sociologist objected to the depiction of Jewish authors as ‘snakes’. But European sociologists were far too busy poring over their latest training manual on diversity to express any objection to this prejudice expressed in a public academic forum. This sums up the accommodation of some so-called progressives to loathsome contemporary sentiments.

Does new anti-Semitism have anything to do with Jews?

The most interesting example of the rise of European anti-Semitism is Spain. Spain is the only European country where negative views of Jews (held by 46 per cent of respondents to a survey) appear to outweigh positive ones (37 per cent) (7). According to a recent study, there has been a dramatic increase in anti-Semitism in Spain over the past three years. Unfavourable views of Jews have more than doubled from 21 per cent in 2005 to 46 per cent in 2008 (8).

It is difficult to analyse fully this dramatic rise of anti-Semitic sentiment in Spain. It is possible, of course, that the survey failed to capture the real feelings and beliefs of its respondents, and thus might have overstated the prevalence of negative emotions. Moreover, someone who expresses a negative attitude towards Jews is not necessarily an anti-Semite: there is an important distinction to be made between negative stereotypes of a people and a feeling of hatred towards them. It is also likely that Spaniards, like young Muslims, are less inhibited from acknowledging their attitudes than respondents to surveys in other, perhaps more PC countries – and therefore the gap between Spaniards and other Europeans on the issue of Jews may be narrower than these recent figures suggest. However, other studies seem to have found a similar pattern of rising anti-Semitic feeling in Spain.

One survey, carried out by the Anti-Defamation League, found that 47 per cent of Spanish respondents stated ‘probably true’ to at least three out of four anti-Semitic stereotypes presented to them. More interesting still is a recent poll commissioned by the Spanish Ministry of Education: it found that more than 50 per cent of secondary school pupils would rather not sit next to a Jewish classmate (9).

Since Spain has a tiny Jewish population – fewer than 20,000 – it is unlikely that attitudes towards this minority are based on any experience of interacting with them. Rather, it appears that, in Spain, negative attitudes towards Jews are influenced by ideas that these people have no real loyalty to the countries they live in – in this instance, Spain – and also that they play a sometimes destructive international role. In Spain, anti-Semitism is linked to the prevailing mood of anti-Americanism. Many public figures blame Spain’s economic crisis on America’s influence over the global financial system. This outlook appears to be underpinned by a diffuse sense of frustration about our uncertain world, where invisible forces can come to be personified in the image of the caricatured Jew. This sentiment is inadvertently fostered by the Spanish Socialist government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, which is profoundly hostile to Israel, and by the Spanish media’s frequent reluctance to distinguish between Israel and Jewish people. Cartoons that are critical of Israel in Spanish newspapers and magazines sometimes depict medieval anti-Semitic caricatures. At a dinner party in late 2005, Zapatero let rip against Israel. He was overheard saying: ‘Es que a veces hasta se entiende que haya gente que puede justificar el holocausto.’ In English: ‘At times one can even understand that there might be people who could justify the Holocaust.’ (10)

Negative Spanish attitudes towards Jewish people have little to do with Jews themselves, or with any widespread support for the Palestinian people. Indeed, surveys indicate that negative attitudes towards Jews rarely translate into positive attitudes towards Muslims: 52 per cent of Spanish respondents indicated that they rate Muslims unfavourably, too (11). So although Zapatero and some of his Socialist colleagues sometimes walk around wearing Palestinian scarves, the public does not share their enthusiasm for this political cause. Rather, it is a sense of diffuse frustration, a feeling that we live in an uncertain and unpredictable world, which underpins people’s incoherent hostility towards those apparent beneficiaries of the global economy: caricatured Americans and Jews.

As in Spain, so elsewhere in Europe there is considerable evidence that anti-Jewish sentiment has been on the rise for some time, and that it is fuelled by cultural factors that have little to do with events in Gaza. Over the past two decades, and particularly since 2001, anti-Western feeling amongst European Muslims has often been expressed through the language of anti-Semitism. Denunciations of America are frequently accompanied by attacks on the alleged influence of the Jewish Lobby. Such attitudes are gaining momentum in our new century. For example, one survey carried out in 2002 suggested that 25 per cent of German respondents took the view that ‘Jewish influence’ on American politics was one important reason why the Bush administration invaded Iraq. The association of Jews with business, finance and the media has encouraged contemporary anti-consumerist and anti-modernist movements to regard the influence of ‘these people’ with grave concern. Is it any surprise, then, that last year there was an explosion of conspiracy theories on the internet that blamed Jewish bankers for the current financial crisis?

Competing for the authority of the Holocaust

The metamorphosis of anti-Israel feeling into anti-Jewish feeling has been paralleled by a growing tendency to detach the Holocaust from its historical context. Increasingly, the Holocaust is discussed not as a specific historic incident in which Jews were the victims, but as a recurring phenomenon – we now have many ‘holocausts’ – which crops up again and again in human history, from Auschwitz to Bosnia to Darfur. This not only disassociates the Holocaust from its Jewish victims; it also means that the Holocaust can be recycled as a moral condemnation of Israel itself, and of the people associated with Israel.

For some time, many critics of Israel have argued that its treatment of Palestinians is comparable to the behaviour of the Nazis towards the Jews. For example, a survey of Germans carried out in 2004 found that 68 per cent of respondents believed that Israel is pursuing a war of extermination against the Palestinians, and 51 per cent said that what Israel has done to the Palestinians is not, in principle, that different to what the Nazis did to the Jews (12).

Over the past five years, the rhetorical strategy of associating Israel with Hitler’s Final Solution has become more widespread. It is through Holocaust comparisons and imagery that the critics of Zionism increasingly make sense of the conflict in the Middle East. As a result, protesters against the current invasion of Gaza frequently portray Israel as a twenty-first century Nazi war machine. From this standpoint, the people of Gaza are facing a predicament similar to that experienced by the inhabitants of the Jewish Ghettos of 1930s and 1940s Europe. This point was forcefully made by the former mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, who said the Israelis ‘will continue to create a Warsaw Ghetto in the Middle East’.

Critics of Israel, some unconsciously, others consciously, try to turn the symbolic authority of the Holocaust against Israel. They frequently accuse the Israeli government of acting like Nazis. Respectable media outlets in the West now regularly claim that Israel is engaged in ‘ethnic cleansing’, ‘genocide’, ‘crimes against humanity’; some critics liken Theodor Herzl, the founding father of Zionism, to Adolf Hitler. Israeli or Jewish complicity with the Israeli government’s war crimes is said by some to be even more comprehensive than the complicity of the German people with the crimes of the Nazis. Some talk of the ‘Nazification’ of Israeli society, suggesting a role reversal, whereby Jews become the twenty-first century equivalent of their former oppressors.

The cumulative impact of decoupling the Holocaust from its association with the Jewish experience is to encourage a cynical, questioning attitude towards Jewish victimhood; it inflames an interrogation of the status of Jews as the victims of the Nazi experience. There is evidence that the association of Jewishness with war crimes today is used to read history backwards, so that this people comes to bear responsibility for what happened during the Holocaust. According to one interesting study of anti-Semitism in Europe, prejudices are ‘projected backwards to justify behaviour towards Jews in past conflicts’. The study says that ‘in this context, anti-Semitic arguments today frequently serve the purpose of rejecting guilt and responsibility for the persecutions of the Jews [in the past]’ (13). This approach is most notable in societies that were deeply implicated in the persecution of Jews during the Second World War; according to various surveys, the idea that Jews were responsible for their own persecution was supported by 30 per cent of respondents in Russia, 27 per cent in the Ukraine, 35 per cent in Belarus, 31 per cent in Lithuania, and 17 per cent in Germany in 2004 (14).

Contemporary attitudes towards Jewish people are influenced by a continuous interaction between the present and the past. The attempt by the enemies of Israel to appropriate the symbolism of the Holocaust is underpinned by a realisation that this tragedy can be wielded to win significant moral authority. At the same time, the project of reinventing Israel as a latter-day Nazi war machine implicitly incites the rewriting of the past. Allegations of contemporary misdeeds carried out by Jews encourage scepticism about their past moral status as victims of the Nazi experience. So, paradoxically, while contemporary anti-Semitic attitudes have little to do with people’s interactions with real-life Jews, it rebounds on Jews, and fosters a culture of scepticism towards their role as the historic victims of Europe’s darkest hour.

Frank Furedi’s most recent book, Invitation To Terror: The Expanding Empire of The Unknown, is published by Continuum Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit Furedi’s website here.

The politics of anti-Zionism, by Brendan O’Neill

Creating their own private Gazas, by Nathalie Rothschild

Sanctions did not liberate South Africa, by Tim Black

Gaza is not Warsaw, by Nathalie Rothschild

There is no such thing as a ‘good lie’, by Tim Black

Who made Gaza into a bloody trap?, by Brendan O’Neill

The antithesis of anti-imperialism, by Brendan O’Neill

Whose war is it anyway?, by Brendan O’Neill

War without ends?, by Mick Hume

The first Twitterwar, by Nathalie Rothschild

‘We are all Gazans now’, by Tim Black

Read more at spiked issue: War in Gaza

(1) Jewish Israel critic labelled anti-Semite, Jerusalem Post, 6 January 2009

(2) Outrage over proposals to boycott Jewish shops, The Times, London, 8 January 2009

(3) Muslims urge end to anti-Semitism, BBC News, 16 January 2009

(4) On this point see chapter 3 of Frank Furedi’s The Politics of Fear: Beyond Left and Right, Continuum Press (London), 2006

(5) See The Pew Global Attitudes Project,’Unfavourable views of Jews and Muslims on the increase in Europe’, The Pew Research Center, 17 September 2008

(6) Outrage over proposals to boycott Jewish shops, The Times, London, 8 January 2009

(7) See The Pew Global Attitudes Project,’Unfavourable views of Jews and Muslims on the increase in Europe’, The Pew Research Center, 17 September 2008

(8) See The Pew Global Attitudes Project,’Unfavourable views of Jews and Muslims on the increase in Europe’, The Pew Research Center, 17 September 2008

(9) Exclusive: Antisemitism. Old or New?, European Forum on Antisemitism, 4 January 2009

(10) Anti-Semitism and Anti-Zionism: The Link, History News Network, 21 June 2006

(11) See The Pew Global Attitudes Project,’Unfavourable views of Jews and Muslims on the increase in Europe’, The Pew Research Center, 17 September 2008

(12) Xenophobia on the Continent, The National Interest, 30 0ctober 2008

(13) See ‘Anti-Semitic Attitudes in Europe: A Comparative Perspective’, by Werner Bergman, Journal of Social Issues, Vol.64, no.2, p.378, 2008.

(14) See ‘Anti-Semitic Attitudes in Europe: A Comparative Perspective’, by Werner Bergman, Journal of Social Issues, Vol.64, no.2, p.378, 2008.

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