Rethinking the Fight Against Antisemitism

By every standard of measurement, the assumptions we made and the strategies we employed do not appear to have been effective in this battle to defeat hate.
February 28, 2024
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We appear to have lost the fight against Jewish hatred. Is this the time to reexamine how we as a community have performed in our fight against antisemitism? By every standard of measurement, the assumptions we made and the strategies we employed do not appear to have been effective in this battle to defeat hate. It is therefore essential for our communal leaders to review the tools and strategies we employed in responding to such threats.

For the past century, Jewish and non-Jewish institutions have expanded significant resources in the “fight” against antisemitism. While we note that there have been periods of “decreased” anti-Jewish expression and action, none of our concerted actions have succeeded in ending antisemitism. And today, we face the largest surge of anti-Jewish hate in American history.

We acknowledge that there are multiple types or forms of antisemitism, just as there has been a wide array of  responses in the fight to defeat or minimize Jew-hatred. Below is a listing of some of the key historical elements:

Each of these expressions of hate is derived from a set of events or experiences leading to their formation and articulation. We know that the origin of Jewish hatred is religiously framed. Throughout the Middle Ages various myths emerged concerning Jewish behaviors and practices, adding another dimension to the changing character of anti-Jewish behavior.

In the late 19th century, race would be used to introduce “antisemitism,” representing a “scientific” response to Jewish hatred.

At the outset of the 20th century, we saw the formation of political antisemitism, and with it came conspiratorial hate, as framed by “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” a falsified text that claimed to detail the Jewish plan for world domination.

Later, we encountered “denialism,” in which the Holocaust was cast into doubt by a post-Second World War effort to introduce a new form of Jewish rejectionism.  

In more recent times, we would see not only governments but also other actors targeting Zionism as “racism” and projecting Nazi imagery onto the state of Israel, with such slogans labeling Israel as “the new Nazis.”

Extremist politics, both right and left, have readily adopted an array of new charges against Jews.

Extremist politics, both right and left, have readily adopted an array of new charges against Jews. And most recently, with the rise of postmodernism has come a whole new vocabulary that joins race and politics in framing Jews and Israel as “whites,” “colonialists” and “occupiers.”

Responses to Antisemitism

There have been numerous theories and practices concerning how best to understand our strategies in dealing with anti-Judaism. Let us take a brief look at some of the responses to antisemitism by date, form and content.

The literature on this subject most likely exceeds any other involving Jewish content. We should note that as the incidents and scope of antisemitism accelerates, so too do the number of responses and associated publications.

The psychological impact of hate represents a basic human condition. Humanity, according to social scientists, requires the need to place its frustrations and anger onto the other. Distorted beliefs and fears about groups and what they represent trigger various forms of anti-social conduct.

Unpacking the Boundary Lines of Anti-Jewish Expression

Here we will examine a series of questions that require our collective response.

• What definitions of antisemitism should be employed? Today we have competing ways to define or describe antisemitic messages. Which of these definitions might receive universal acceptance? Would having a uniform statement make it easier to define and in turn act on these anti-Jewish expressions?

• Is criticism of Israel antisemitism? We require guidelines here in defining what constitutes hate-based, destructive attacks on the Jewish State.

• Can you be a critic of Zionism and not be antisemitic? How might we clarify the boundary lines?

• Is criticism of Judaism or for that matter of Jews necessarily antisemitic? Can we establish criteria to manage such an issue?

• Do we start with the issue of Jewish behavior, including how Israel conducts itself, in fighting antisemitism? Do Jews get a “pass” when criticizing their own, or ought we treat all expressions with the same intent?

How Do We Carry Forward This Fight?

Should we plan to ignore what some have defined as minimalist forms of hate, and focus only on the more challenging and threatening forms of antisemitism? The proportionality model that is implied by the ideas noted above runs counter to the maximalists who argue that any form or expression of anti-Jewishness requires a response.

Below are a series of strategies we may want to revisit in determining where we go from here.

• Ignore and Minimize: Develop a collective strategy of no reply and no acknowledgement. If we are finding that our existing approaches have not contained or diminished hate, then why not employ this model?

• Third Party Respondents: Allow non-Jews to wage this fight in defense of Jewish interests, as only third parties can make a difference. After all, this is all about who is telling the story!

• Litigious: Be Proactive in the courts. Employ a strategy of using the courts at every turn in defending Jews against hate.

• Revisit the First Amendment: Establishing harder consequences for hateful speech may terminate some or all the rhetoric we find on social media. But what about freedom of speech? Are Americans, are Jews, prepared to alter this proposition in the name of a hate-free environment?

• Coalitional Campaign: A collective of minority religious, racial and ethnic communities can more effectively wage war against hate. We must understand that hate is a big business and unless there are allies jointly engaging in this effort, we cannot win!

• Jewish Education as a Response: Preparing a generation of Jews who know their history would serve as the best defense against antisemitism. One key argument is that if only Jews knew more about their history, Israel and Zionism and the nature of antisemitism, they could be more proactive, creating a form of self-defense.

• Infiltrate-Undermine: As in the past, employ key operatives to penetrate organizations that are promulgating hate messaging and give them the resources to expose and to undermine such groups. Can we begin to shut down key access points and resources through such covert actions?

• Information Outreach: This formula requires a massive educational campaign, penetrating classrooms, churches, camps, organizations, and businesses with materials that inform especially younger actors about Israel, Jews and Judaism. Are we prepared to invest such resources, and in the end, will it make a difference?

Which of these strategies should we advance? Or is there a totally different response that may be required? In the end, we need to acknowledge that we may not be able to defeat hate but merely learn to deal with the realities and limits of human behavior.

Dr. Steven Windmueller is an Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Studies at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of HUC-JIR, Los Angeles. His writings can be found on his webpage, www.thewindreport.com.

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