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Jew-hatred Across the Political Divide

By Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt

My remit at the U.S. Department of State is to monitor and combat anti-Semitism and it is in that capacity that I come here tonight. At the same time, I am well aware – as we all are — of the conflagration currently underway in the Middle East. The pain, suffering, and trauma are real and ongoing. I, together with many – I would hope most, if not all —people in this audience mourn the death of all who have died or been killed in this fight. I pay particular attention to the death of children and grieve over all of them, irrespective of who they are, Israeli or Palestinian.

Anti-Semitism is a prejudice and shares the characteristics of other prejudices. Firstly, it is irrational, as are all prejudices. The etymology of the word makes that clear: pre-judge, i.e., don’t confuse me with the facts, I have made up my mind. I may know nothing about you – other than your race, religion, or sexual orientation. Yet, based on that, I determine your worthiness, character, morals. In short, by virtue of your particular identity, I know who and what you are.

Secondly, it treats the group as a fixed whole. The prejudiced person attributes the bad characteristics of a particular member of the group to the entire group. If a member of the group does something that the prejudiced person finds unacceptable, he or she will declare: “Oh, you see the XYZs are like that.” The actions of one become the actions of all.

And conversely, should the person in question not act in a manner supposedly “typical” of her group, the prejudiced person, opines, “Oh, she’s one of the good ones, she’s not like the rest.”

However, anti-Semitism also has unique characteristics, ones that distinguish it from other prejudices and, consequently, make it more difficult to combat.

First, there is its age-old nature. Some historians call it the “oldest prejudice,” and, in many respects, they are correct. No other prejudice has both such ancient and consistent histories. The antisemitic charges are so old and so consistently baked into Western culture that many people accept them as fact, e.g., “Jews are like that.”

Secondly, unlike most other prejudices, anti-Semitism is ubiquitous, coming from all ends of the political spectrum. It is not a hatred that is limited to one particular place, orientation, or political outlook. It can emanate from anyone and anywhere: those on the right, those on the left, those in the middle and from Christians, Muslims, atheists, and, of course, Jews. More about that later.

Thirdly, unlike other prejudices, anti-Semitism is a conspiracy myth. Conspiracy serves as the prism through which the antisemite’s view of the Jew is refracted. It is the cornerstone of anti-Semitism. The antisemites, convinced that Jews use their wealth, power, and smarts to wreak havoc on the non-Jewish world, find the Jewish hand in any deleterious event in history.

The antisemite begins convinced that Jews have engaged in a conspiracy and seeks to determine the precise nature of that conspiracy. If something happens in society that I oppose for some reason, the Jews must be behind it.

But sometimes it works in reverse. The conspiracist, seeking an explanation for some bad turn of events – whether it be COVID, political wrongdoings, or financial mishaps, looks for a group or an entity with the power, wealth, and malicious qualities capable of engineering this particular conspiracy. Who would be evil enough to wish to wreck such havoc on society? This, of course, is the prototypical antisemitic stereotype. There is only one group with that power and evil inclinations. In contrast to those who begin by looking for bad things Jews have done, these conspiracists may not begin with the Jews, but that is where they end up. Because after all, they reason, Jews are like that.

Finally, there is the phenomenon of “punching up” and “punching down.” Most prejudices posit that the reviled group is “lesser than” the rest of society. This is particularly true for racial or ethnic prejudices. For example, the racist opines: should people of color move into our neighborhood, “there goes the neighborhood.” If their children go to our children’s schools, “there go the schools.” The prejudiced person, in this case, the racist, reviles the person of color as being of lesser value than themselves. They punch down in order to keep them down.

The antisemite “punches down” – saying that, “Jews are dirty, Jews are revolting, Jews spread disease.” But he also “punches up.” Jews, the antisemite is convinced, are richer than, more powerful than, and more able to control matters than “the rest” of us. They revile the Jews, but they also fear them and the evil they can cause to the “rest” of society. (Remember the Jew is “other,” never an intrinsic part of the society. And it is this fear of the Jews’ putative ability to control society and cause harm to the non-Jewish world, that determines for the antisemite that the Jew must be fought assiduously. They must be stopped by any means necessary.

Anti-Semitism is not confined to the fringes of society. It is not a relic of the past, but a present-day reality that manifests itself in insidious ways, permeating all corners of our world. I noted earlier its ubiquity. Anti-Semitism rears its head across the political spectrum. It can be found among the far-right extremists who peddle age-old tropes of Jewish conspiracies and racial superiority, to the far-left activists some of whom may rely on anti-Semitism to express their political views or cloak their anti-Semitism in political arguments. We also see it among radical extremist Islamists who share these conspiratorial views as they engage in antisemitic imagery, rhetoric, and action.

Anti-Semitism must be taken seriously. It is a lethal hatred. There are many ways in which this failure to take it seriously are manifested. There are those who contend that Jews have no right to complain. It is impossible for them to be victims of prejudice because they are “white,” rich, and powerful. The person who makes this claim ignores the fact that they have relied on an antisemitic canard. Many – if not most – Jews are not “white.” Many are not wealthy. And even if they were both white and wealthy, does that make prejudicial hatred justifiable? Would anyone say that to the LGBTQI+ community, a segment of which is white and wealthy?

Another manifestation of the failure to take anti-Semitism seriously is the need many people – among them many Jews – feel to only mention it in tandem with an array of other hatreds, even when the act in question is an antisemitic one.

They condemn anti-Semitism, but only in the context of all other acts of prejudice. It is as if anti-Semitism does not belong to the true category of outrages and cannot, therefore, stand alone as something of real concern. I am not sure if they do this because they carry a sense of guilt over their supposed privilege or they feel that their fight against anti-Semitism is only legitimate if they also fight against other hatreds.

Other hatreds must, of course, be fought. No society has ever benefitted from hatred in its midst. But to fight a particular hatred – any hatred – it must be first called out for what it is.

One of the most striking aspects of anti-Semitism today is its ability to transcend traditional ideological boundaries. Simply put, anti-Semitism is a hatred that can be described as a horseshoe where the far-left and the far-right are closer to one another on the issue of anti-Semitism than they are to the center. In fact, recent studies have shown that a better predictor of anti-Semitism is not a right or left-wing perspective but a conspiratorial worldview and a penchant for authoritarian type of government. Rather than the right-left dichotomy, a more accurate predictor of antisemitic worldviews is the adherence to conspiratorial worldviews, anti-hierarchical aggression, and a preference for authoritarianism. This, of course, can describe someone at either end of the political spectrum. This might help us understand how people with conflicting views on a host of – if not all – other issues converge on anti-Semitism.

I am often asked, which do I think is worse, more lethal: anti-Semitism that emanates from the right or that from the left? I was asked that during my Senate confirmation hearing. I told the Senator who asked that I saw myself as an equal-opportunity fighter of anti-Semitism. I do not care where it comes from.

Had I not been in such an august setting as a Senate hearing room, I might have channeled the “Bard of Yiddish literature and humor,” Shalom Aleichem, and said that such a question is akin to asking would I rather be struck by cholera in Odessa or dysentery in Kyiv. Neither thank you.

In this regard, however, I have discerned an interesting – and disturbing – tendency among some of those who are concerned about the dangers of anti-Semitism. Their concerns are genuine, but their vision is distorted. Those who place themselves at the right end of the political spectrum see anti-Semitism on the left. And they see it clearly and accurately. Those on the left end of the spectrum see the threat of anti-Semitism on the right. And they see it clearly and accurately. What each of them fail to see is the anti-Semitism right next to them, that which is expressed by people with whom they share many other ideas, beliefs, and political stances. If you can only see it on the opposite side of the political transom, then I have to question whether your battle is with anti-Semitism or with your political opponents.

We have long been deeply aware of the dangers of right-wing anti-Semitism. I have spent the past five days in Germany, my third trip this past year, where there has long been a deep-seated awareness and concern about far-right anti-Semitism.

I served as an expert witness in the Charlottesville trial, when the organizers of the rally and march were sued by the family of the young woman who was killed during the march and those who had been physically injured. I read reams of emails, text exchanges, and other forms of communications by and between them. Their far-right and, in certain cases, Nazi-themed extremism was unquestionable. And I stressed that in my expert report for the court.

But we, who are of the university world – yes, I know I am now part of government but, after over three decades in academic life, you can take the woman out of the academy, but you cannot take the academy out of the woman – generally do not take anti-Semitism on the left as seriously as we must. And we have seen that starkly visible in recent weeks.

Let me state something, which should be a given and which the United States government has repeatedly affirmed: criticism of Israeli policies is NOT anti-Semitism.

But there are certain responses to Israel in general and to this current crisis in particular that are rooted in or emblematic of anti-Semitism. Let me focus on one phenomenon: denial. Holocaust denial took decades to gain traction. Today we are witnessing another form of denial, one that is clearly antisemitic in nature. Consider the rash of gender-based violence – an antiseptic term for rape, mutilation of genitalia, cutting off breasts and more – that occurred on October 7th in a variety of places in areas of Israel that were invaded by Hamas terrorists.

Sometimes the denial is less overt. I have been appalled by the abysmally slow response of international organizations, governments, and civil society – particularly from those on the left – to these horrific occurrences. Some groups initially hesitated or posted and then retracted or censored the information citing the need for further evidence in a situation where obtaining such documentation is inherently challenging. This reaction is in stark contrast to the global gender-based violence movement’s typical emphasis on the importance of listening to and believing survivors’ accounts.

When other groups have been subjected to gender-based violence, feminist leaders, women’s groups, and UN bodies, including independent experts, moved swiftly – in some cases within days – to speak out. Such was the case during the brutal crackdowns on Iranian girls and their protests, Yazidi women under the genocidal ISIS reign, or Nigerian girls at the hands of Boko Haram thugs. They did not wait two months or more to condemn these actions while they gathered necessary facts.

We have heard from critics that the evidence shown – and I have seen some of the most graphic photographs – is not enough. “Show us the rapes,” was the cry of someone who viewed the movie showing the dead bodies and pictures of mutilated women. Did that same person demand that we see the rapes of women who came forth as part of the #MeToo movement?

Too many of those who make their mandate fighting gender-based violence have remained silent or only belatedly and reluctantly spoken out in the months since these barbaric attacks. We echo U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield’s sentiment: “Where is the universal condemnation? And where is the outrage?” Our stance is clear: the voices of all women must be heard and believed. Any woman’s experience of gender-based violence should not be sidelined or discredited.

It is wrong for anyone to remain silent in the face of such horrific gender-based violence. But for those who claim as their mandate human rights and protection of women, it is more than wrong. It is hypocrisy of the first order and calls into question their larger agenda. And it is antisemitic.

Why is this situation any different than when other women have faced similar violence? What accounts for the clear reticence to speak out? The only difference is that the perception was that these were Jewish – and somehow deserving – victims. I will note that some of the victims included non-Jewish women, but the vast majority were Jews.

The silence that followed was more than just concerning; it suggests a deeper issue of anti-Semitism that must be acknowledged and addressed. This reluctance to believe the accounts of Jewish women, a stark deviation from the global commitment to believing survivors and condemning such acts, mimics patterns of Holocaust denial, perpetuating a cycle of anti-Semitism by furthering the stereotype of Jews as untrustworthy. Such denial of Jewish women’s experiences is a significant anomaly and needs to be called out for what it is: a stark manifestation of deep-seated anti-Semitism.

Since October 7th we have repeatedly heard people claim that they are not engaging in anti-Semitism but in criticism of Israeli policy. And for some that may indeed be true.

But far too often, these protests have been antisemitic in nature or have veered into anti-Semitism, often in quite an overt fashion. In great measure, they have answered the tiresome debate about the difference between criticism of Israeli actions and anti-Semitism.

Such was the case:

  • When but a few days after Hamas’ horrific attacks, protestors who support them chant or carry signs in front of the Sydney Opera House: F*ck the Jews or Gas the Jews.
  • Or when synagogues in Montreal and Philadelphia are torched in support of Palestinians.
  • Or when Jews wearing kippot or Jewish stars or speaking Hebrew were verbally and physically harassed including here in London.
  • Or when Jewish restaurants are trashed.
  • Or when protestors target and obstruct access to hospitals in Canada and in New York, both of which bore the name Mt. Sinai.
  • Or when a Hamas murderer called his parents on October 7th to joyfully proclaim, “I just killed 10 Yahudim (Jews).”
  • Or when social media posts accuse IDF forces of harvesting organs from Palestinians – the revival of an age-old antisemitic canard and the transposition of the “blood libel” myth unto contemporary Jews.
  • Or when there are calls for “Globalizing the Intifada,” a call for attacking Jews worldwide. Globalize? Attack Jews everywhere?

These protesters who have done these things have made it clear: for them there is no difference between the hatred of Israel and its corollary ideology of Zionism and hatred of Jews.

Moreover, there is another phenomenon in many of these actions. Many of them, including here in the UK, took place in the immediate aftermath of October 7th, i.e., before Israel had even assessed the full extent of Hamas’ murderous attacks these protestors were condemning Israel and attacking Jews and Jewish targets.

That is naught but anti-Semitism.

Ultimately, governments and civil society must understand that anti-Semitism must be openly and vigorously fought as the U.S. government has done with its landmark, whole-of-society “National Strategy to Counter Anti-Semitism,” released this past May, which was widely endorsed and which, we believe, can serve as a model to other countries.

Let me close by putting anti-Semitism in a larger context. It is, what I call, the multi-layer approach to anti-Semitism. The first layer is the threat to the welfare of Jews and Jewish communities. Anti-Semitism must be fought for the sake of the welfare and wellbeing of your Jewish citizens. That alone would make the fight against anti-Semitism an important goal.

But there is another significant reason for any government to be concerned about the existence of Jew-hatred within its boundaries – irrespective of what segment of society it emanates from. Jew hatred, anti-Semitism, is a threat to the stability of all governments. History has shown that there is virtually no government, irrespective of its political orientation, that can thrive when it harbors deep-seated anti-Semitism in its midst. Anyone who buys into the conspiracy myth that is the foundation stone of anti-Semitism, has given up on democracy.

Thirdly, there is the threat anti-Semitism poses to malign influencers – bad actors – who wish to paint democratic states as failed states and who wish to depict democracies as failed systems. They cannot create a fire where none exists, but they can add fuel to preexisting fires.

If you treasure democracy, if you hate autocracy, then you can do no less than fight anti-Semitism.

Source: Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, “From Right to Left and In Between: Jew-hatred Across the Political Divide,” Remarks, Birkbeck, University of London, (February 21, 2024).