More than 70 years after the murder of six million Jews in the Shoah, we are witnessing a variety of efforts to legitimize antisemitism once again.
The latest reminder of this came from the Prime Minister of Malaysia, Mahathir Mohammed, an open antisemite, who said recently: “Anti-Semitism is a term that is invented to prevent people from criticizing the Jews for doing wrong things.”
Other manifestations of this appear on both the right and the left.
On the left, it is Israel that is the excuse for antisemitism, framed as “we are not anti-Jewish, just critical of Israeli behavior and policies.”
Of course, criticism of Israel is not necessarily illegitimate or antisemitic. Indeed, it is absurd to suggest that any criticism of Israel is antisemitism.
On the other hand, it is equally absurd to suggest, as some on the left do, that criticism of Israel can never be antisemitism. Denying alone the Jewish people’s right to a state in its historic homeland is clearly not mere criticism, but Jew-hatred. Blaming the Israeli-Palestinian conflict simply on Israel, or blaming Israel for all the problems in the Middle East and beyond, is antisemitism. Applying old fashioned blood libels to the Jewish state or comparing Israel to Nazis is not simple criticism, but an effort to make antisemitism appear to be legitimate.
And one can see how these kinds of extreme charges against the Jewish state can easily devolve into more blatant, classical forms of antisemitism, as seen in expressions by some in Britain’s Labour party.
From the right, at a time of populist expansion, we find some old and new forms of legitimizing antisemitism.
Claims of excessive Jewish power in politics and finance continue to have vibrancy, as the ADL’s global survey of antisemitism has demonstrated. Polling citizens in 101 countries, we found strong percentages in a number of countries who believed that Jews control international finance and business.
Our poll also showed the continued relevance of the theme of Jews seeking to take over the world, which was embodied in the infamous forgery The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.
When asked at a 1935 Bern, Switzerland trial why he was distributing the Protocols when it was proved to be a fraud, a defendant said: “It doesn’t matter what witnesses say. I know from everyday experience that Jews are trying to take over the world.” In other words, antisemitism is a legitimate response to excessive Jewish power and influence.
Holocaust denial is also part of this phenomenon. Fascism and the extreme right in Europe have tried for decades to cast doubt upon the Shoah. Holocaust denial or diminution was a conscious effort to re-legitimize fascism. If the Holocaust never really happened, then why not consider far right and fascist parties as legitimate participants in government?
It is no accident that we are witnessing this surge of re-legitimizing antisemitism now. It is a product of several factors, starting with the reality that as the Holocaust becomes a more distant event and survivors pass away, the sense of shame about antisemitism that surfaced with the first pictures of Auschwitz is weakening and disappearing. While antisemitism didn’t simply disappear after the Holocaust, that sense of shame as to what the deeply embedded hatred of Jews had led to acted as an inhibitor of antisemitic behavior and expressions.
Together with this are the constant bombardments against the good name of the Jewish state, which create an environment for attacks, physical and otherwise, on Jews and Jewish communities. When the Jews of France are asking whether they have a future in their country, they are truly wondering whether lethal antisemitism has become legitimate once again.
The history of antisemitism in Western civilization is a sorry one; it is based on fantasies about Jews that bear no relationship to reality. Today, fortunately, Jews are not powerless as they were during the Shoah. Therefore, some element of criticism of Jewish behavior is understandable. But the realm of fantasy about Jews remains broad, strong, and dangerous — whether it comes from the right in classical form, or from the left in its assault on the Jewish state.
The task for all of us is first to identify the reality and danger of these fantasies. There is no reason to be complacent about the threat of antisemitism in today’s world, as groups both on the right and the left try to re-legitimize the oldest hatred.
We need voices on both the left and the right to remind one and all of what unfettered antisemitism led to in the 1930s and ’40s. If “Never Again” is to have true meaning, we must stop these efforts now, before the danger moves from the theoretical to the real.