The why of rising antisemitism

An interesting question was raised in a post below, why are the Jews in particular picked on? Obviously other groups in society are also targeted, and our work covers many of them, Indigenous people, the LGBT community, Muslims, women, soldiers, the recently deceased, people with disabilities, etc. We can’t tell you the relative level of hate directed against these different groups online, hopefully we will be able to do this in a years time based on data from the Fight Against Hate reporting tool.

What we can say is that antisemitism is described as the “oldest hate” and, while the level of incidents rises and falls, some level of antisemitism seems to be a constant and at higher levels than one would expect. Facts which should mitigate against antisemitism include: the size of the Jewish community, the degree of integration of the Jewish community into society, and in Australia in particular, the role of prominent of Jews historically. Jews have been some of Australia’s leading figures. People like General Sir John Monash (Australia’s greatest general), Sir Isaac Isaacs (the 3rd Chief Justice of Australia and then the 1st Australian born Governor General of Australia), and Sir Zelman Cowen (Governor General of Australia). The Jewish community has been part of Australia since the First Fleet and has contributed significantly to the development of Australia.

It was suggested that there was a link between Israeli policies and rising antisemitism. If that is the case, it would suggest those campaigning against policies of the Israeli government are particularly responsible for mixing antisemitism with their campaigning. That theory may make sense for some of the recent rise in antisemitism globally, but it doesn’t explain the rise in far right antisemitism, and of political parties like Jobbik in Hungary, Golden Dawn in Greece, etc. Some of that does spill over to Australia, we have written about recruiting efforts in Australia by Golden Dawn, for example. Some of the rising antisemitism globally is coming from groups that are as anti-Muslim as they are antisemitic.

Another explanation for the global rise in antisemitism, in fact the oldest explanation, is scapegoating. Antisemitism has traditionally risen when the rulers / leaders of countries are in trouble. Attacking the Jews was a way to distract citizens from problems such as high unemployment, a lack of money in government coffers, or unpopular policies by rulers. The austerity measures in Europe, financial crises, the issues inside Russia (also leading to the Ukraine situation), and instability in various parts of the Middle East following the Arab Spring… all present the sort of climate which traditionally would lead to a promotion of antisemitism. Due to the internet some of the hate propaganda produced then circulates globally – where ever it is created.

But why are the Jews in particular targeted? While societies today typically have multiple ethnicity and multiple faiths, traditionally they were much more homogeneous. Historically the Jews were targeted because they were not part of the nation they lived in, they were quite literally outsiders, the “other” who could be blamed by those in power. We can see the same approach, for the same reason, being used to a target asylum seekers today. They are not citizens, they are the “other” who are in such a weak position they have few rights to object.

Historically this other was the Jews. The Jews stood out with their different customs, their distinctive dress, and living in their own communities isolated from the rest of society. They were often prohibited from living elsewhere – see e.g. the Pale of Settlement in Russia. They were often limited in the professions they could enter. A Christian prohibition on money lending meant this because a role Jews filled, and the easiest way for someone powerful to wipe out a debt was to incite a pogrom likely to kill the person to whom the money was owed. All these factors made Jews a target. It was only with the French revolution (1789-99) that Jews were permitted to become citizens. Even that didn’t halt the antisemitism, as was seen with the Dreyfus Affair which divided France (1894-1906).

The roots of antisemitism, however, are also deep and multiple. In addition to being the original “other”, there is a strand of Christian antisemitism that involves religious vilification with accusations such as blood libel and deicide. There is a stand of racist antisemitism which is push by neo-Nazis. There is a strand of conspiracy theory coming out of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, about Jewish control of the banks, governments, and the media. Then there is the new antisemitism which uses these old themes but in the context of Israel as the Jew among the nations.

Perhaps because Jews were the original “other”, at least in Western culture, they continue to be a key target. Perhaps the level of antisemitism is so high because it is really many different types of hate that come from many different directions – which add a multiplier effect. Perhaps the legacy of Nazism, which invested so much into promoting antisemitism, has something to do with antisemitism today.

One idea which was suggested, and which isn’t correct, is the the idea of “chosen people” being a grounds for antisemitism. The idea of chosen people does occur in the bible, but its meaning in Judaism is “chosen to fulfill the commandments”. The common Jewish joke is “why couldn’t he choose someone else for a chance?” The idea of “chosen people” connected with antisemitism is actually a form of Christian antisemitism whereby some Christianity believe the covenant with the Jews was terminated and passed on to them (this is known as replacement theology). The Jews are therefore persecuted for not accepting this and converting. Judaism does not have a concept of “Jews being saved” and “everyone else being damned”. That is entirely a Christian concept. It is only on the basis of this Christian idea that the argument about chosen people being a grounds for antisemitism makes any sense.