The recently released 2019 version of an ongoing Anti-Defamation League survey on global antisemitism, titled Global 100, contains predictable but still depressing confirmation of anecdotal evidence that antisemitism is growing, not receding, almost everywhere on the planet.
At a time of economic and social change and upheaval, people search for explanations and scapegoats. While so much can change, while we witness so many reversals and inversions, plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose. The unified theory of the root of the world’s problems, for so many across continents and centuries, remains some variation of blaming the Jewish people.
If we had a solution to the challenge of antisemitism, you would have heard it. It’s easy to cite failures, noting that whatever we’ve been doing obviously isn’t working. The approach commonly used to fight both antisemitism and anti-Zionism – “Look at the great things we contribute to the world! Please like us!” – is almost certainly barking up the wrong tree, given that antisemites and anti-Zionists are driven, to a large degree, precisely by an envy of Jewish and/or Israeli success and achievement. Bigots never have doubted that Jews are clever; that’s exactly what they hate.
But overt bigots are not really our greatest threat. The sensibilities highlighted in the Global 100 report are slightly more oblique, evincing a complex of presumptions about Jewish character, power, influence, intentions and untrustworthiness. It is not so much discrimination of the we-hate-Jews variety, but a (slightly) more subtle bias that is extrapolated to conclude this or that about Jewish people. And these biases are held, as the report illustrates alarmingly, not by a small fringe group of violent haters, but by large minorities – and, in some societies, large majorities – of ordinary people. These are people who, on a wide range of human affairs, behave rationally and humanely, but not when it comes to Jews.
It also deserves to be noted that the statistics on anti-Jewish bias are almost directly inversely proportionate to the presence of Jews in a society; that is, anti-Jewish sentiment is strongest in places where there are few or no Jews. Because, to a large extent, antisemitism is not about Jews at all, but is a projection of the fears, animosities or ignorance of the carrier.
The wild-eyed Jew-haters who occasionally emerge are comparatively few, although the damage they can wreak, of course, is enormous. Their ideas and their actions are condemned by all good people. The broader swath of ideas Global 100 identifies as indicative of antisemitism in a society are more instinctual and less overt. The people who carry them are probably inclined to deny any conscious negativity toward Jews and would recoil from being called antisemitic. In many cases, they might be amenable to self-assessing and unlearning these attitudes, if approached appropriately and educated.
This is the hopeful part. These alarming numbers may not represent entrenched antisemitic ideas that are growing and cannot be effectively challenged. The majority of people who harbour such ideas, in Canadian and other Western societies we know best, are probably receptive to reason. So, why have we not succeeded?
Our likeliest allies – indeed, the people and groups with which Jewish people have consistently marched, organized and made common cause for a century or more: progressives, anti-racism advocates, social activists – have lately turned against us, either openly or more quietly, because they have decided that Israel represents an embodiment of antithetical values and that Jews, by extension, are inclined to have some degree of association with Zionism and are, therefore, either unwelcome in these movements or required to repudiate Israel.
There are other complexities that go beyond Israel. Certainly the antisemitism that permeates the British Labour party and some other parts of the Western left goes far beyond anti-Zionism and often echoes the basest medieval bigotry.
Nonetheless, these movements and the individuals who comprise them should be engaged, not cast away and dismissed. In many cases, they are ignorant or have not thought deeply about these topics, or they have not been confronted about the problems in their worldview. Since they are, in theory, our natural allies, we should be investing more effort and goodwill in building bridges, not blowing them up.
Antisemitism is distinct in many ways, but it must be viewed alongside the panoply of prejudices and bigotries being contested by progressive people and others of goodwill. By giving up on our natural allies – even if some of them don’t seem like allies right now – we risk the longer-term dangers of isolation or, possibly worse, befriending people who really are not our natural allies.
On the global stage, look at how Israel’s lack of friends has driven its leaders and diplomats into the arms of fascist-adjacent governments in Hungary, Poland, Brazil and elsewhere. Abandoned by its natural allies in the liberal democracies, Israel has been embraced by – and has embraced – those who should be its natural enemies. This is the potential for Jews in North America and Europe if we fail to protect and fortify the alliances previous generations have built with trade unions, progressive political parties, anti-racism activists and the broader pluralist societies we inhabit.
In next week’s issue, we will look at some approaches that are bearing fruit and other ideas we could consider in response to the challenges in the world generally and those presented in the Global 100 report specifically.