Described as the world’s oldest disease, anti-Semitism is increasing along with COVID-19.
“We are at a critical moment in our history – rightfully fighting for racial justice – so it is extremely unfortunate, especially as anti-Semitism is rising in America, that celebrities are elevating the voices of those who, while fighting anti-Black racism, are also promoting anti-Semitism,” Holly Huffnagle, newly appointed US director for Combating Anti-Semitism at the American Jewish Committee (AJC), told The Media Line.
Huffnagle stressed that all forms of anti-Semitism are dangerous and that hostility toward Jews can be found across the ideological spectrum, from the radical left to the far right.
Deborah Lipstadt, a Holocaust historian at Atlanta’s Emory University, agreed.
“We’re seeing a perfect storm of anti-Semitism right now,” Lipstadt told The Media Line. “We’re seeing it on the right and we’re seeing it on the left.
“We are seeing it because there is a certain nationalism that has arisen. We’re seeing it also because of views on the left, often disguised as views on Israel, that are anti-Semitic in their essence,” she said.
Types of Anti-Semitic Incidents Vary
Social media is the latest battleground for anti-Semitism. The most recent examples include Madonna sharing a video of Farrakhan to her more than 15 million Instagram followers and Twitter locking the accounts of users displaying the Star of David, a symbol of Judaism, in their profile pictures.
There are also more traditional forms of anti-Semitism. Last Saturday, about 30 neo-Nazis held a protest at a park in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, while wearing armbands and carrying flags emblazed with the swastika. Police quickly broke up their demonstration, saying they didn’t have a permit.
During the protests against the killing in May of George Floyd, a synagogue in the Fairfax district of Los Angeles was vandalized with graffiti reading “F**k Israel” and “Free Palestine.”
What is the Definition of Anti-Semitism?
The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism is the most widely recognized definition of anti-Semitism and has been adopted by more than 30 countries so far.
The definition’s main clause defines anti-Semitism as “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews.”
According to the IHRA definition, contemporary examples of anti-Semitism include Holocaust denial and the delegitimization of Israel. The definition also allows for criticism of Israel in the way that any other country might be criticized.
Fiamma Nirenstein, a fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, told The Media Line that the IHRA definition is important because it incorporates the “3 d’s” of Soviet refusenik and Israeli politician Natan Sharansky – delegitimization of Israel, demonization of Israel and subjecting Israel to double standards.
“There is a difference between legitimate criticism and anti-Semitism. Legitimate criticism is not only admissible but necessary in a democracy,” Nirenstein said.
Anti-Semitism Is on The Rise in the US, Europe and Globally
The number of anti-Semitic incidents last year was the highest in the United States since tracking began in 1979, according to the Anti-Defamation League’s annual audit. More than 2,100 incidents were reported – a 12% increase over 2018. The number of assaults jumped 56% during the same period.
The polling aligns with the data. A landmark survey of US Jews in 2019 by the global Jewish advocacy group AJC found that 88% said that anti-Semitism is a problem in the US and 84% said that anti-Semitism has increased in the US.
Anti-Semitism is also increasing worldwide. There was an 18% increase in violent anti-Semitic incidents globally in 2019 over the previous year, the highest rise since 2014, according to the annual report on hate crimes from Tel Aviv University’s Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry and the Moshe Kantor Database for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism and Racism. In a recent webinar, the Kantor Center’s Dina Porat said that anti-Semitism was increasing before the coronavirus crisis but that the pandemic has acted as an accelerant.
Research by the Vienna-based European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights shows an increase in anti-Semitism in the EU bloc. According to data compiled last year for 2008 to 2018, certain member states have experienced a rise in anti-Semitic incidents. For example, France saw anti-Semitic acts increase 74% in 2018 compared with 2017.
An AJC Paris survey conducted in 2019 found that 73% of the French public and 72% of French Jews consider anti-Semitism a problem in their country. The survey found that 70% of French Jews reported experiencing at least one anti-Semitic incident.
Stefanie Schüler-Springorum, a German historian and head of the Berlin-based Center for Anti-Semitism Research, told The Media Line that the rise in ethno-nationalism in Europe over the past 30 years has opened the door to increased anti-Semitism.
She said that the data shows an increase in anti-Semitic attacks but surveys do not show a rise in anti-Semitic sentiment. But this has been misinterpreted, at least in Germany, she said, because surveys have shown that a small group of hardcore anti-Semites and another small group of “latent anti-Semites” are becoming more vocal.
“Even though there is no big change in the numbers [of those with] anti-Semitic attitudes, there is greater visibility and people will say things in public. If you go to one of the anti-corona demonstrations it is really amazing,” Schüler-Springorum said.
Eric Fusfield, director of legislative affairs and deputy director of the B’nai B’rith International Center for Human Rights and Public Policy, told The Media Line that American Jews are experiencing violent anti-Semitic attacks that were previously a European phenomenon.
“American Jews are coming to expect more and more the physical threat to their security and the need for a police presence in synagogue. This is something that was commonplace in Europe but it’s becoming more and more normal in the United States now,” Fusfield said.
COVID-19 Is Driving Anti-Semitism
A report last month from the Kantor Center at Tel Aviv University found that Jews and Israel are being blamed for the coronavirus outbreak and that centuries-old anti-Semitic themes are resurfacing.
“People are believing in all kinds of conspiracy theories as to how [the pandemic] happened and who is behind it,” Dr. Robert Rozett, senior historian at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, told The Media Line.
Rozett said that one of the major conspiracy theories circulating today is a return to a libel dating back to the Black Death of the 14th century when European Jewish communities were massacred after being accused of causing the outbreak by deliberately poisoning wells.
A Data-Driven Approach to Combating Anti-Semitism
California-based AMCHA Initiative has been using a data-driven approach to fighting anti-Semitism on US college and university campuses since launching its online anti-Semitism tracker in 2018 that compiles anti-Semitic incidents from 2015 to the present.
The nonprofit organization monitors approximately 450 higher education institutions for anti-Semitic activity, logging more than 3,500 anti-Semitic incidents on its database since 2015.
The organization’s annual report, released this month, found a more than 300% increase in campus activity challenging the IHRA’s working definition identifying anti-Zionism as a form of anti-Semitism.
Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, AMCHA’s director, co-founded the organization in 2011 with fellow academic Leila Beckwith. Rossman-Benjamin was at UC Santa Cruz and Beckwith was at UCLA in the early 2000s when they became concerned about an increase in anti-Semitism on their campuses.
“We realized that we needed to start to keep track of what was happening. Not just what we heard but to do active research about it. To try to compile [incidents] to see sort of the nature and scope of the problem of campus anti-Semitism in the US,” Rossman-Benjamin told The Media Line.
Other Potential Solutions to Anti-Semitism
The world marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp this past January where the Nazis murdered more than a million Jews and others. And yet, today, the world is experiencing a resurgence of anti-Semitism not seen since the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party.
Is there a vaccine for the virus of anti-Semitism?
For Nirenstein, the answer is in politics. The problem, in her view, is the language criminalizing the state of Israel, what she describes as “Israelophobia,” a combination of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.
“Institutions [such as the UN and EU] are very responsible for the growth of anti-Semitism because they build a backing to it,” Nirenstein said.
Lipstadt said that anti-Semitism should not be used as a political weapon to shield against legitimate criticism of certain Israeli policies.
“Be careful. Be strategic. Be tactical. This is a major moral problem, and we must fight it with all our strength. But we also must fight it smart. We have to fight it tactically with a scalpel, not with a bludgeon,” Lipstadt said.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean and director of Global Social Action Agenda for the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, told The Media Line that reaching out to other communities is important for countering anti-Semitism.
“We need to be able to find and work with allies who are going to help to defeat anti-Semitism,” Cooper said. “Jews can’t defeat anti-Semitism on their own. We need allies. And in the ever-changing world we live in, it is a huge challenge. But that is the challenge that stands before us.”
Cooper recalled Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal saying that when there is a strong democracy, it is good for the Jews, and when there is not, it is bad for the Jews.
Huffnagle said that AJC is working to strengthen democratic institutions in the effort to counter the rise in anti-Semitism.
“We are also focusing on ways to rebuild our democracy and democratic institutions,” Huffnagle said. “American Jews are safer and more secure in a stable America, and we must continue promoting democratic values for all Americans if we want to lower levels of anti-Semitism.”