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by Robin Roenker

Anti-Semitism is often called the “world’s oldest hatred.” The threat of anti-Semitic attacks against Jewish communities still looms large today.

The American Jewish Committee, a Jewish advocacy organization founded in 1906, released a survey in October 2021 that revealed one in four Jewish citizens in the U.S. reported experiencing anti-Jewish hatred in the preceding 12 months—either online or in-person.

Attacks on Jewish communities reached an all-time high in 2019, according to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a group founded in 1913 to fight prejudice against Jewish people. ADL documented more than 2,100 incidents across the United States in 2019—more than any year since 1979, when the organization began tracking such events. In 2020, anti-Jewish attacks remained at a historically high level, with the ADL citing more than 2,000 incidents of harassment, assault, or vandalism against Jewish people and places across the nation—in addition to dozens of high-profile attacks on Jewish communities in other countries around the world.

The U.S. State Department defines anti-Semitism as “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews.” The definition makes clear that expressions of anti-Semitism can be directed toward “individuals and/or their property, community institutions and religious facilities.”

For example, in the fall of 2021, several incidents of anti-Semitism were reported in Texas, including a fire at a synagogue in Austin, as well as vandalism at the local high school, which had been spray painted with swastikas, an icon of the Nazis. In addition, in San Antonio, a banner was displayed on an overpass that contained a link to an anti-Semitic group. In January 2022, a gunman took four congregants hostage at a synagogue in Colleyville, TX. After an 11-hour standoff with police, the synagogue’s rabbi threw a chair as a distraction and the four were able to escape, while police shot their captor.

What is considered the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in U.S. history happened on October 27, 2018. An armed gunman entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, where several Jewish people had gathered to worship. He shouted, “All Jews must die!” before shooting and killing 11 people and wounding six others.

All of these events stand as part of an alarming trend of anti-Jewish threats across the country in recent years. In U.S. towns both large and small, Jewish citizens have been harassed and physically attacked simply for being Jewish.

What is anti-Semitism?

Put simply, “anti-Semitism is anti-Jewish prejudice. It involves negative beliefs and feelings about Jewish people, just because they are Jewish,” explains Paola Tartakoff, a professor of history and Jewish studies at Rutgers University.

The word anti-Semitism was coined in 1879 by a German political party that was hostile to Jews. The word has at its root the term “Semite,” which refers to groups of people who speak a Semitic language, including Hebrew—the language of Judaism.

While anti-Semitism as a term originated in the nineteenth century, anti-Jewish sentiment has existed for centuries. Even before the rise of Christianity, anti-Jewish prejudice could be found within ancient Greek and Roman cultures. Anti-Judaism became intertwined with the rise of Christianity, however, partly because certain interpretations of the Christian Bible’s New Testament seemed to blame Jews for Jesus’s crucifixion.

“Judaism becomes the negative foil against which Christianity defines itself in the New Testament, and the negative stereotypes of Jews that are enshrined in those texts, which get reread year after year for generations, create habits of thought in listeners who often don’t know any actual Jews,” Professor Tartakoff says. “Negative views of Jews become a reflex.”

By the Middle Ages, Jewish people in many communities were forced to wear a badge to identify themselves, to live only in certain areas, and to hold only certain jobs.

“We get this idea within early Western Christianity that Jews should be allowed to survive, but not thrive,” says Pamela Nadell, director of the Jewish Studies Program at American University and author of the book America’s Jewish Women: A History from Colonial Times to Today.

Of course, these same tactics were amplified—to horrifying consequences—centuries later when the Nazis came to power in Germany during World War II. Under Adolph Hitler’s regime, six million Jews were murdered between 1933 and 1945 in Europe and North Africa. Known as the Holocaust, a Greek word meaning “sacrifice by fire,” this terrible time in Jewish history stemmed from the Nazi’s false view of Jews as an “inferior” race that they believed needed to be exterminated. In addition to the six million Jews, according to the United States Holocaust Museum, the Nazis killed millions of non-Jews as well, including people with disabilities, Soviet civilians and prisoners of war, Jehovah’s Witnesses and homosexuals, all of whom they deemed inferior.

Anti-Semitism today

Anti-Semitism fuels numerous physical attacks every year—including the 2019 targeted murders of shoppers at a kosher deli in Jersey City—putting Jewish citizens on alert across the country. Swastikas are often graffitied on Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues in an especially hateful sign of ongoing anti-Jewish bigotry and intimidation.

In addition to outright attacks on Jewish communities, anti-Jewish sentiment is also at work in more subtle ways such as negative stereotypes about Jewish people that can be found in books, movies, television or on social media. Known as anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic tropes, these generalizations often depict Jews as being rich and power-hungry, for example. Other historic Jewish stereotypes suggest they are somehow untrustworthy or disloyal or even murderous and bloodthirsty. (See sidebar for more on anti-Semitic tropes.)

“Anti-Semitism can be manifested in words, visual images, and deeds. Examples of anti-Semitic words include utterances that all Jews are wealthy, inherently stingy, or unpatriotic,” explains Liora Halperin, a professor of history and Jewish studies at the University of Washington. For example, she says, you might hear someone say a person is particularly good at spotting a bargain because they are Jewish.

Online or in certain media, you may see references to so-called Jewish conspiracy theories, which suggest that Jewish people “possess hidden powers that they use to promote their own collective agenda,” Professor Halperin adds. This can show up in social media memes or threads that suggest Jewish people somehow “control governments with a ‘hidden hand’ that they also use to control banks or the mainstream media,” she says.

Recently, some online conspiracy theories have even blamed Jewish people for the COVID-19 pandemic, along with Asian Americans because the virus originated in China. Other modern anti-Semitic tropes suggest that the Holocaust did not actually happen, or that its devastation has somehow been exaggerated.

The problem with these generalizations is that—as with any generalization of a group—they are misguided and based on bigotry rather than truth.

“The different manifestations of this multifaceted [anti-Jewish] hatred often tell us a lot about the anxieties and fears of the people who are expressing the hate rather than anything about actual Jews themselves,” says Professor Tartakoff.

Fighting anti-Semitism

Anti-Jewish sentiment has ebbed and flowed across American history, and “we are in one of those moments where anti-Semitism is, once again, spiking in American life,” says Nadell.

Everyone can be a voice against anti-Jewish bigotry by speaking up if they see someone being bullied simply for being Jewish, Professor Tartakoff says. If you aren’t able to speak up in the moment, she says, consider pulling the person doing the bullying aside later, if you feel safe doing so.

“Say something like, ‘This is what I heard. What did you mean by that?’” Professor Tartakoff suggests. “Sometimes, people could be repeating something they’ve heard, and they don’t even realize that it has an anti-Semitic connotation or meaning. You can take time to try to educate them, without being condescending or critical.”

That’s what happened recently with actor/comedian Whoopi Goldberg, who said in her role as host of The View that the Holocaust was not about race but man’s inhumanity to man. She immediately received criticism for her comments.

As Adam Serwer, a writer for The Atlantic, pointed out in his column, “The Nazi Holocaust in Europe and slavery and Jim Crow in the United State are outgrowths of the same ideology—the belief that human beings can be delineated into categories that share immutable biological traits distinguishing them from one another and determining their potential behavior…They are branches of the same tree, the biological fiction of race.”

Yair Rosenberg, who also writes for The Atlantic and is a frequent commentator on anti-Semitism, wrote in his column that Goldberg’s confusion was understandable because Jews as a race and a religion don’t fit into neat categories or boxes.

“Judaism predates Western categories. It’s not quite a religion, because one can be Jewish regardless of observance or specific belief,” Rosenberg writes. “But it’s also not quite a race, because people can convert in. It’s not merely a culture or an ethnicity, because that leaves out all the religious components.”

Rosenberg contends that Judaism is a mixture of all these things, and that’s where the confusion sets in.

Goldberg took to Twitter to apologize for her comments, saying: “On today’s show, I said the Holocaust ‘is not about race, but about man’s inhumanity to man.’ I should have said it is about both. As Jonathan Greenblatt from the Anti-Defamation League shared, ‘The Holocaust was about the Nazi’s systemic annihilation of the Jewish people—who they deemed to be an inferior race.’ I stand corrected.”

Despite her apology, Goldberg was suspended from the show for two weeks. Greenblatt, who is the national director for ADL said in an interview on CNN that he worried about judging Goldberg unfairly in today’s “cancel culture.”

“In the Jewish faith we have a concept called ‘teshuva’ and ‘teshuva’ means redemption,” Greenblatt said. “It means all of us have the power to admit when we do wrong and commit to doing better.”

Discussion Questions

  1. In the article, Professor Tartakoff says that anti-Jewish hatred tells us “a lot about the anxieties and fears of the people who are expressing the hate rather than anything about actual Jews themselves.” What do you think she means by that? Explain your answer.
  2. How does it make you feel to hear about the increase in hate crimes against Jewish people? What do you think leaders and people in the community can do about these attacks?
  3. Do you agree with Jonathan Greenblatt from ADL that we should not judge Whoopi Goldberg unfairly and instead offer her “teshuva” or redemption? Why or why not?

Glossary Words

bigotry — intolerance of those of different races or religions.
ideology — principles or a way of thinking that is characteristic of a political system.
immutable — not changeable.
trope – an overused theme or device; a cliché.

Dispelling Anti-Semitic Tropes

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) conducts a survey every year to determine Americans’ attitudes toward Jewish people. Over the past 25 years, ADL’s research reveals that “between 11 and 14 percent of Americans harbor intensely anti-Semitic attitudes.” According to its 2020 survey, 61% of respondents still believe in at least one anti-Semitic trope. These tropes are also sometimes called “canards,” which is characterized as a baseless rumor. There are many anti-Semitic tropes or canards that have been repeated and perpetuated over time, with some overlapping others.

In order to dispel these myths, it is helpful to know where they came from and how they have continued to thrive even in modern times. Below are just a few of these tropes.

Domination and Control

According to advocates, the Domination and Control trope is the one most commonly used and believed in today’s society. For example, the gunman in Colleyville, TX (see main story) targeted a synagogue because he believed that the Jews had the power to free a convicted terrorist serving an 86-year sentence in New York City, whom he wanted released.

This particular trope dates back to the Middle Ages and has adapted over the years. It was reinforced in 1903 with the publication of an anti-Semitic text, titled “The Protocols of the Meetings of the Learned Elders of Zion,” which falsely claimed to be minutes from a meeting of Jewish leaders where plans for global domination were discussed. Adolph Hitler used the lies in this document to spread hatred for the Jewish people by blaming them for economic hardships experienced by Germans. It was even used as a teaching tool in German schools to reinforce hatred of the Jews. This conspiracy theory is still prevalent today with repeated false accusations that Jews control the world financial system and the media, including the press, and the music and film industries. ADL’s 2020 survey revealed that 15% of respondents believe that Jews have too much power in the business world and 17% think “the movie and television industries are pretty much run by Jews.”

Wealth and Greed

The Wealth and Greed trope goes hand-in-hand with the Domination and Control trope. This one dates back to Medieval Times when Christians thought of money lending as a sin. Money lending was one of the few occupations that rulers allowed to Jews at that time. The Wealth and Greed trope has been perpetuated in literature and the arts for centuries. For example, Shakespeare’s character of Shylock, the money lender in the Merchant of Venice, is probably the most famous example of the stereotypical greedy Jew, helping to perpetuate the myth.

Those who push this trope often point to Judas, who betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver, as an example of Jewish greed even though all the disciples and Jesus himself were Jewish. The trope became so normalized that in the 1930s the Oxford English Dictionary contained a definition for the word “Jew” that stated, “to cheat.” The false narrative of the wealthy Jew was included in much of the Nazi propaganda, cementing anti-Jewish sentiment among the Germans, which led to the atrocities of the Holocaust. The trope still endures today. The ADL survey revealed that 10% of Americans agreed with the statement: “Jews are more willing than others to use shady practices to get what they want.”

Deicide

Deicide is the act of killing a divine being. According to the ADL survey, 27% of Americans still believe that the Jews killed Jesus, committing deicide. Believers of this trope see Jesus’ trial as a conflict between Jews and Christians, even though Christianity wasn’t founded until after Jesus’ death. Hitler used the trope of the Jew as “Christ Killer” to win the support of the German people in exterminating the Jews. The Vatican disavowed the deicide trope in the 1960s, saying that the Jewish people must not be held responsible for Jesus’ death, yet the canard still persists today. —Jodi L. Miller

This article originally appeared in the winter 2022 issue of Respect, the NJSBF’s diversity newsletter.