Anti-Semitism: Why and Why Now?

  • December 29, 2012
Remarks By Abraham H. Foxman
National Director
Anti-Defamation League
ADL National Commission Meeting
New York, NY, November 1, 2007

You have just heard a very important presentation by John Marttila on our 2007 Survey of American Attitudes Toward Jews. But it is just the tip of the iceberg. The survey yielded much information and we will be releasing additional data in the weeks to come.

But now let's ask broader questions about anti-Semitism: Why is it so enduring and lethal? How is it different from other forms of hatred? Answers to these questions tell us a lot about what is going on today. Anti-Semitism shares characteristics of other forms of prejudice –stereotyping, discrimination, generalizing about the whole from the few.

A unique quality of anti-Semitism is the notion that, with Jews, the reality is not what it seems – Jews may seem normal but are secretive, part of a cabal, all-powerful, or poisonous.

Some examples in history include the black plague, of Jews "poisoning the wells," and the blood libel – Jews killing Christian children for their blood.

The "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" told of a secret conspiracy of Jews to take over the world. And in the run-up to the Holocaust, Goebbels suggested that Germans needed to defend themselves against the "poisonous Jew."

The consequences of this thinking are that Jews can be blamed at any time for problems in society when political leaders don't want to face the difficult realities – Mahatir in Malaysia, for example, blamed international Jewish currency dealers.

This makes anti-Semitism so lethal – the idea of the powerful, dangerous Jew -- and so enduring. We cannot be complacent because leaders can always conjure it up as the true explanation of the problems that exist.

The impact of these ideas are with us today, not as a history lesson but as a current event. There are 9/11 conspiracy theories about Jews, the big lie of Holocaust denial, and these have manifested themselves throughout the Arab world. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, among others, has suggested that Jews control sources of information and created the so-called "fantasy" of the Holocaust to win support for Israel.

The greatest threat to the Jewish people and closest thing to dangers of the 1930s and 1940's is a potent cocktail consisting of the ideology of hate from an Iran with a potential nuclear weapon. This is an existential threat to Israel from an irrational regime that must be taken with the utmost seriousness. But it is not only in the Arab and Islamic world.

Europe also manifests the problem in the form of the old and the new anti-Semitism: ADL polls show that a large number of Europeans believe Jews are not loyal to their home countries and have too much power, much greater than here in America. The new anti-Semitism is manifested through an anti-Zionism that is not about legitimate criticism of Israel.

Rather it is about going overboard by demonizing Israel, comparing Israelis to Nazis, calling it an illegitimate state, and those are just some of the charges. Even those that are not obvious manifestations of anti-Semitism but one-sided criticism of Israel, like boycotts, divestments, and charges of apartheid, all create a climate making anti-Semitism more likely.

In America, reflecting the anxiety here after 9/11 and with the war in Iraq, we have seen the most significant mainstreaming of conspiracy theories about Jews since Charles Lindbergh before World War II.

It is no accident that professors Mearsheimer and Walt, President Jimmy Carter and Congressman Jim Moran have launched their assaults now.

This is a ripe moment when people are uncertain and anxious about events and wonder why they are happening.

Along come simplistic answers: Jews are to blame – for war in Iraq, for terrorists attacking America, for the rise of extremism in the Middle East, for the failure of America to solve the problems, and for stifling open discussion on the issues.

Unfortunately, not enough good people are standing up to these canards. But former Secretary of State George Shultz --as he does in the foreword to my book, The Deadliest Lies, -- Ambassador Dennis Ross, and Ambassador Ned Walker all say: Mearsheimer and Walt present a picture of American policymaking that bears no resemblance to how it actually is made.

And we now have the data from our survey to back them up. When we asked the American people if "American Jews control U.S. Middle East policy—61 percent said no; when asked about the influence American Jews have on U.S. policy – a majority of 55 percent said it was just the right amount of influence. Mearsheimer and Walt charge the pro-Israel lobby -- of which ADL is a proudly a part-- of undue influence on U.S. foreign policy.

The American people overwhelming reject that. Only 4 percent of those we surveyed believed that to be true, while 25 percent say the Saudi oil lobby has too much influence; 24 percent the Pharmaceutical Association of America; 11 percent the National Rifle Association and 8 percent the tobacco industry.

Americans also totally reject the argument that neo-conservative Jews or pro-Israel Jews were the driving force behind the Bush Administration's decision to invade Iraq -- only 8 percent of those we surveyed believe that to be so. We should be encouraged that, in our poll, the American people reject these assaults.

Yet I am very concerned that the role of the Israel lobby a la Mearsheimer-Walt and President Carter will be taught in universities and have resonance among influentials. Their thesis will surely emerge again as the debate about what to do about Iran heats up. That is why I wrote my book, and that is why we have much work to do.

Given the entire picture, it is clear to me, as I am sure it is to you, that we cannot afford to be complacent about anti-Semitism generally and surely not about the mainstreaming of these conspiracy theories. Today we are in a great struggle of free societies vs. Totalitarian ideology.

In the past we fought Nazism and communism. Today it is Islamic extremism. All these totalitarianisms are characterized by threats to free world and threats to the Jewish people. We must understand the threat to both. For in standing up for Jewish people, we are standing up for freedom.