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Global Anti-Semitism and the Erosion of Shame

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Some of my worst fears about a resurgence of anti-Semitism around the world seem to be coming true. I have been talking for some time about the unique dynamic of anti-Semitism as a phenomenon and the changing world environment, which together are likely to cause a resurgence of anti-Semitism going forward.

Anti-Semitism has characteristics like other forms of bigotry in terms of stereotyping, alienation from the other, and discrimination.

But what makes it different, and which goes a long way to explain anomalous things about anti-Semitism -- how long it has lasted, how it pops up in different places, the concept of anti-Semitism without Jews, the contradictory accusations against Jews, etc. -- is the core of the anti-Semitic idea: that Jews are not what they seem to be. The real Jew, according to the anti-Semite, is a hidden conspiratorialist, all-powerful and evil.

So any time there is a crisis in society, the Jew can be seized upon and blamed as the secret cause of society's suffering. And, of course, over the last decade the world has experienced a series of crises.

Islamic terror beginning with 9/11, the financial collapse of 2008, the multitude of economic and social crises in Europe and the Arab Spring's expectations and disappointments top the list. All these anxiety-provoking developments contributed to the growth of anti-Semitism.

But other factors play a role and are increasingly worrisome. There is the erosion of shame about anti-Semitism as the Holocaust becomes more remote in time and as survivors pass away. The too-easy analogizing of every bad thing that happens today to the Holocaust, which the Anti-Defamation League condemns whenever it surfaces, is just one manifestation of the loss of impact on attitudes that the Holocaust formerly had.

Pictures of Auschwitz after the war did not lead to the disappearance of anti-Semitism. They did, however, constrain manifestations of Jew hatred. That loss of embarrassment over time reduces those constraints.

Additionally, the ongoing critique of the state of Israel is a powerful corrosive factor. Not every criticism of Israel is illegitimate, and surely not anti-Semitic. But when condemnations of the Jewish state are so clearly biased, when Israel is singled out for punitive treatment, even when some of those engaging in these activities may not be motivated by anti-Semitism, it opens up the Pandora's Box of Jew hatred and makes it much more acceptable. We see this in the boycott and delegitimization movements against Israel, which lead to anti-Jewish activities, like isolating Jewish students on campus.

Finally, there is the perceived weakening of the U.S.'s role in the world. However true it is or is not, the perception alone is worrying because the long-time recognition of U.S. leadership in the world for 60 years has been a major element in the struggle against anti-Semitism.

What are some of the most dangerous elements of the resurgence of global anti-Semitism?

  • The entry of anti-Semitic parties into parliamentary bodies in Europe. Such parties have existed since the war but without the legitimacy they have now gained through electoral support. I refer first to Golden Dawn in Greece, the closest thing to a Nazi-fascist party of the '30s, which has 12 seats in parliament; the Jobbik party in Hungary, which has accumulated significant support; and a Ukrainian nationalist party that blames Jews for the nation's problems.
  • The physical and verbal threats against Jews that surface periodically in certain Western European countries. Examples are the terrorist attack in Toulouse; the violence against Jews and Jewish institutions in the UK and France during the last Gaza war; and the isolation of Jews in Malmo, Sweden propelled by anti-Israel activists.
  • The growing effort to delegitimize the state of Israel through boycotts and divestment campaigns by well-known cultural and scientific figures or by religious, business, or union institutions will inevitably lead to a deterioration of the Jewish condition in many countries. Here I cite the findings of ADL polls in Europe over the years, which indicate that a majority of Europeans believe that their Jewish citizens are more loyal to the state of Israel than to their own countries. So when Israel is deemed bad, so too often are the Jews.
  • In a Muslim world of schisms, civil wars, fanatical conflict between Sunnis and Shiites, the one thing they seem to agree on is that the most effective way to demonize ones foe is to label him a Zionist or a Jew. So while there is much discussion that Israel and Saudi Arabia may now have common interests in their opposition to Iran, the image of the Jew as the source of all evil remains potent as a motivating force in too much of the Islamic world.
  • Increasing manifestation of anti-Semitism in the sports and cultural fields. The controversy over the French comedian Dieudonne and his use of a Nazi-like gesture and the appearance of anti-Jewish cheers at soccer matches are but two examples.
  • The sustainability of conspiracy theories about Jews, whether it is denial of the Holocaust, or blaming Jews for the financial crisis.
  • Even in America, the shocking story of the New York town of Pine Bush reminds us not to be complacent. The depths of the story are still to be plumbed, but it appears to be a case of systemic anti-Semitism in which school officials may not have responded effectively. The U.S. attorney for the Southern district recently submitted a significant brief contending that the efforts of officials in the face of continuing anti-Semitic activity in Pine Bush were not sufficient.

We take this resurgence very seriously. The message of "Never Again," which has resonated in the post-war years speaks to the need for the American Jewish community, and particularly the Anti-Defamation League, to be there for Jews everywhere facing anti-Semitism.

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