One of the most striking features of the discussion of Jew hatred is how often a new form of anti-Semitism is identified. There has been a discussion about a proclaimed ‘new anti-Semitism’ every decade since the 1960s if not earlier.
To be sure the word ‘new’ in this context can mean different things. For some it is simply a new face for what they see as the oldest hatred. For a few others something more fundamental is at work. For the latter the drivers of anti-Semitism can be different from in the past.
This is one of the trickiest topics to get to grapple with in relation to this difficult subject. Yet grasping it means developing a deeper understanding of anti-Semitism than is generally apparent. Here I will concentrate on what some of the most notable authories have argued. These are tentative observations. This is not a comprehensive study.
In broad terms the general progression of the arguent is as follows. At least as far back as the 1970s, and arguably since the 1960s, some have argued that anti-Zionism is the new form of anti-Semitism. By the early 2000s the argument that Islam or Islamism (there is often an insufficient distinction made between them) was responsible for an increasing amount of anti-Semitism. Then in the last few years a discussion of woke anti-Semitism has begun to emerge. That is some authorities have started to link identity politics with anti-Semitism.
Perhaps a good place to start is an article by Seymour Martin Lipset (1922-2006), a political scientist and prominent public intellectual, on ‘the socialism of fools’ published in the New York Times in 1971. It argued that: “Various New Left activists in different countries, American black militant groups, Arab ‘socialist’ spokesmen, and East European Communist governments have moved on from anti-Zionist to anti-Jewish and fully anti-Semitic statements and acts.”
Lipset went on to make clear he thought it was fine in principle to criticises Israeli policy or worldwide Jewish support for Israel. The problem arose: “when one draws on the age-old hostility to Jews to strengthen a political position, when one gives credence to the charge of a worldwide Jewish plot to rule, when one attacks those with whom one has political and economic differences as Jews, when one implies that Jews are guilty of some primal evil, then one is guilty of anti Semitism.”
Lipset did not use the term ‘new anti-Semitism’ in his article but he was describing a situation in which new poltical movements had gained traction. This included what was then called the ‘new left’ which largely consisted of those who had moved away from Stalinism but still identified as leftists. Often they were preoccupied with such questions as rights for blacks, gays and women, opposition to the Vietnam war and concerns about environmentalism.
The following year Abba Eban (1915-2002) – a combination of Israeli politician, diplomat and academic – also laid into the new left. He argued explicitly that “anti-Zionism is neo-anti-Semitism". In his view he said the “the New Left advocates negativism, nihilism, anarchic revolt and contempt for human legacy” which he saw as inimical to the Jewish tradition.
By the 1980s the new left had disappeared from public view but there was still a discussion of the new anti-Semitism. For example, it was the subject of the final chapter of the 1986 study on Semites and Anti-Semites by Bernard Lewis (1916-2018) (This work was the subject of a recent post on this website). A version of the chapter was also published as an article in the New York Review.
Lewis was mainly focused on the Arab world and to some extent the Soviet Union but he did also touch on the western left. Like the earlier writers mentioned he was keen to emphasies that he did not think that criticism of Israel in itself was anti-Semitism. He also accepted that the Palestnians had legitimate grievances. But he also argued that anti-Zionism often spilt over into anti-Semitism. For example, he condemned Arab spokesmen who: “not content with denounincing the misdeeds of Israelis, attribute these misdeeds to innate Jewish racial characteristics discernible throughout history”. He went on to argue that they often: “accuse the Jewish people as a whole of practising such monstrous crimes as ritual murder and of seeking through secret conspiracies to attain world domination”.
The 9/11 al-Qaeda terrorist attack on New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon on in September 2001 also marked an important turning point in the discussion of anti-Semitism. It raised the question of Islamism and its relationship to anti-Semitism. It also came at a time when the Muslim population in Europe was growing rapidly.
It is not surprising that France was a centre for this debate. It had western Europe’s largest Jewish population and probably its largest Muslim population too. It also has a constitutional commitment to laïcité – usually translated as secularism – which made it particularly sensitive to discussions involving religion. It was in this context that Pierre-Andre Taguieff (1946- ), a French philosopher specialising in racism, had a book published on the La Nouvelle Judéophobie (The New Judeophobia) in 2002. An English language version was published as Rising from the Muck: The New Anti-Semitism in Europe in 2004. It reportedly argues that: “The new wave of anti-Semitism spreading around the world… is based on a polemical and fanciful amalgam of Jews, Israelis, and "Zionists" as representatives of an evil power. In the eyes of the new anti-Jews, the world's ills can be explained by Israel's existence. The chief accusation, purveyed especially by international Islamic circles and the heirs to Third Worldism, is that "Zionism," far from being a respectable nationalism like that of the Palestinians, is actually a form of colonialism, imperialism, and racism.” (full disclosure: I have not yet had a chance to read the book myself).
The most recent development is the emergence of woke anti-Semitism. That is essentially a new form of anti-Semitism informed by such ideas as ‘white privilege’ and identity politics. The first full-length study of this subject (at least as far as I know), by David Bernstein, has just been published. I have just written a review of this book which should be published soon so I will not explore this topic here.
So far I have focused on the discussion of anti-Semitism in the period following the second world war but there are of course important historical ones too. In particular the one between the old religious anti-Semitism – which in Europe meant Christian hostility towards the Jews – and what is sometimes called modern anti-Semitism.
Christian anti-Semitism was based both on religious rivalry, which Jews being very much the minority religion, as well as hostility to Jews in their distinct role as financial intermediaries. It embodied such ideas of Jews as child-killers as well as blaming Jews for the bubonic plague.
In central and western Europe modern anti-Semitism emerged in the late nineteenth century. That was, paradoxically, at the same time that Jews were being emancipated (the first emancipation edict was in France in 1791 in the aftermath of the French revolution). That is Jews were being given full legal rights and the ability to participate in mainstream society. This viewpoint conceived of Jews in racial rather than religious terms. Ultimately it turned out to be exterminationist in nature. A key text of this genre was Wilhelm Marr’s (1819-1904) Der Weg zum Siege des Germanenthums über das Judenthum (The Way to Victory of Germanism over Judaism) in 1879. Another classic of this odious genre was The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (1903), a notorious tsarist forgery (although it in turn drew on earlier texts).
This sketch is clearly far from comprehensive. For example, it does not cover Islamism specifically although I have that discussed that in many previous posts. Nor does it examine the condition of Jews in Muslim lands.
A final point worth noting is that there are those who argue that the concept of anti-Semitism is not the best way to understand Jew hatred. The most notable is probably David Nirenberg (1964- ) who argues it is better conceived as Anti-Judaism. This is a topic I have also discussed in a previous post.
Developing a complete understanding of contemporary anti-Semitism means grappling with all these tricky distinctions.
PS: This review of three books in The Tel Aviv Review of Books gives a sharply contrasting account of the new anti-Semitism to mine. It argues, among other things, that the power of contemporary anti-Semitism is greatly exaggerated. It also brands critics of anti-Semitism such as Hannah Arendt and John Paul-Sartre as anti-Semities themselves. The authors of two of the books reviewed are associate with Jewish Voice for Peace - a "woke" American Jewish organisation that supports the anti-Israel BDS movement.