Dr. Rachel Fish

Scholar Warrior


FAQs: Understanding Jew-Hatred

What are Jews? What are “Semites?” 

Jews are a people, descendants of a tribe, comprising a global cultural community and a religion. Jews are an ethno-religious group. These multiple identities are expressed through a shared history, a shared heritage, cultural practices, values and a belief system, and a collective sense of peoplehood with a direct connection to a shared homeland: the Land of Israel. 

Jews are occasionally referred to as a “Semitic” people. The term “Semite” refers to a specific geographical region, the Levant now termed the Mediterranean region, with shared linguistic roots. Other Semitic peoples in this region included:  Arabs, Phoenicians, Akkadians, etc.  When the term ‘antisemitism’ is used, it is used specifically in reference to Jews, not to these other identified communities.

What is antisemitism?

Antisemitism is a millenia-old hatred targeting the Jewish religion, the Jewish people, and, most recently, hatred toward the existence of the Jewish state, Israel. Antisemitism is a conspiracy theory- it has the ability to morph and transform in order to remain relevant. As a conspiracy theory Jews are perceived as the scourge of the earth and simultaneously the puppet masters controlling all aspects of society. Jews are perceived as having outsized influence- controlling politics, the media, even the weather. Antisemitism is a structural form of hatred that impacts individual Jews and the collective identity of the Jewish people and the Jewish state. 

How have these hateful behaviors been manifested throughout history?

The first manifestation of antisemitism is Judeophobia, which is hatred toward the religion of Judaism and its adherents. Judeophobia has its roots during the Biblical period, the emergence of Christianity, and throughout the Middle Ages. Jews were “othered” because of their differing beliefs and blamed for society’s challenges throughout Christian Europe. Jews were targeted by monarchs, the Catholic Church, and mob-like behaviors from the everyday person in Europe. The theological roots of Jew-hatred have its origins during this period. It was not until the Second Vatican Council of Nostra Aetate in 1965 that the Church acknowledged its role in perpetuating Jew-hatred and recognizing that Jews ought not be held accountable for the deicide charge, the idea that Jews were responsible for killing Jesus.

There was also prejudice towards Jews in the Muslim world but not to the same degree as in Europe. Jews did have to wear a yellow Star of David to signify they were non-Muslim; they paid a special tax- the jizya; synagogues could not be taller than mosques; non-Muslims could not ride horses but rather donkeys to demonstrate their subordinate position within society. Within radical Islamism there is an understanding that non-Muslims must be conquered and under the rule of Islam and this can be enacted through holy war- jihad.   

In the 18th century, Judeophobia took a new turn: hatred of the Jewish people. The term ‘antisemitism’ was developed by Wilhelm Marr, a German, to target Jews as a distinct “race” of people. The creation of the pseudo-science of eugenics was developed at this time to deprive Jews of civil rights by highlighting them as a subordinate race as compared to Aryans. The term ‘antisemitumus’ was coined by Marr to replace the German phrase, ‘Juden Hass,’ or Jew-hatred, which sounded too crass.

The most egregious example of modern antisemitism on a grand scale was the Holocaust, the systematic mass murder of over six million Jews under the German Third Reich between 1939-1945. The Third Reich’s policies were built on a system that espoused antisemitism and propagated it throughout their territorial conquests as part of Naziism’s political platform. Nazi beliefs were predicated on traditional antisemitic tropes, including such ideas that Jews seek to both dominate and destroy society, and the accusation of dual loyalty, that Jews have allegiance to one another and their collective identity and cannot be loyal citizens to the countries in which they reside. These ideas have been used against Jews to scapegoat them for challenges and social ills within the host societies.

Anti-Zionist rhetoric, language, and behaviors have manifested themselves through political and social movements seeking to delegitimize the Jewish movement for liberation and self-determination. Beginning in the Russian empire and throughout the Soviet Union, the term Jew was replaced with Zionists or Zionism. Now not only Jews were feared but also Zionists. The impact of this shift in language had long-term consequences as it was ultimately absorbed by the United Nations with the passing of UN Resolution 3379, “Zionism is Racism” in 1975.  The resolution was repealed in the 1990s but the lie had caused enormous damage. 

Israel, unlike other nation-states, is subject to overt hostility in world institutions, the mainstream media, social media, political discourse, religious communities, educational environments, social justice movements, and ideological positions. This hostility often reveals itself through direct threats calling for the destruction of the state, or the eradication of Israel’s Jewish character. Often there are inaccurate characterizations of Israel’s power, which harken back to antisemitic tropes about “Jewish dominance” in society. When Israel is held to a different standard of behavior than other democratic states it is necessary to question the ultimate motive and agenda. 

What is anti-Zionism?

Throughout Jewish history, Jews have held a special connection to the land of Israel. Jews have always had a presence in this territory and a longing to connect to this land even after periods of forced exile and dispersion based upon conquests and persecution of the Jewish communities living in the region. 

In the modern period of the 19th century, as empires declined and nationalist movements emerged, Zionism as a movement surfaced. There are multiple forms of Zionism: political, cultural, religious, socialist, and more. The political formulation of Zionism is the collective liberation movement for Jewish self-determination. Zionism emerged in the 19th century as a response to both antisemitism and assimilation.  Political Zionism is the actualization of Jews building a Jewish nation-state in the Land of Israel. The State of Israel was established in 1948. The borders of Israel remain in dispute due to continued conflict. Historically, anti-Zionism was a political expression within Jewish communal discourse in the 19th and 20th centuries. Not all Jews are Zionists. 

However, anti-Zionism, in its current manifestation, suggests that Jews have no right to self-determination and the Jewish state ought to cease to exist. Often, anti-Zionism is motivated by antisemitism. Anti-Zionism can be cloaked under the guise of political language and human rights rhetoric. It is important to distinguish that anti-Zionism, in its present form, is not about criticizing Israeli policy and actions. Rather the starting point for anti-Zionism usually begins with asking the question, “Does Israel have a right to exist?” When anti-Zionism flourishes it can cultivate a climate that breeds hostility toward the State of Israel and the Israeli people. Calling for Israel’s destruction is a form of hatred toward the collective Jewish people. When the State of Israel and Israelis are collectively demonized, dehumanized, or held to a double standard, one must question the motivation and agenda. 

Is antisemitism a tool of the political right or the political left?

Jew-hatred exists on the hard right and the hard left. It manifests in different ways within these political camps but is present within both political positions. On the hard right, Jews are the ‘other’ as they can never be white. There is a fear that Jews will replace the white majority and pose a threat to the white community. Xenophobia is a contributing factor to the fear that exists among the hard right, and the conception of the Jew as the non-native, the foreigner, poses a threat to the majority within society. 

On the hard left Jews are deemed to be part of the white, privileged communities. Jews are perceived as holding power and benefiting from white supremacy. Jews, and Israel, are labeled as colonialists, imperialists that seek to harm the dark-skinned native Palestinians. In this ideological position, Jews are often conceived of as an extension of Israeli behaviors and thereby held accountable for Israel’s actions. 

In some progressive movements Jews are denied entrance if they identify Jewishly or with Zionism. There is an expectation that Jews will erase their particularism in order to be accepted by the universal. 

Why does antisemitism persist?

Jew-hatred persists in the 21st century as it is founded on elements of hate and envy. These traits are inherently part of human nature. Therefore, Jew-hatred, as a phenomena, will not dissolve or be eradicated. However, Jew-hatred can be ameliorated or mitigated. We can build greater sensitivity among various communities to educate about Jew-hatred. Jew-hatred must be made socially unacceptable, the way other forms of hate are socially unacceptable in the 21st century.

Just like racism is not solely a Black or Brown problem; and homophobia is not solely a problem for the LGBTQ+ community; and Islamophobia is not solely a problem for the Muslim community; Jew-hatred is not solely a problem for the Jewish community. 

Bridges between communities must be built in order to strengthen human connections, build the muscle of compassion and empathy, and learn about the differences in our communities while acknowledging the shared foundations we have throughout humanity. 

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