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On Antisemitism

December 27, 2015 – Warsaw

The appalling rise of violent antisemitism in Europe in this century is by now a well-established fact. We also know its main features: it largely draws on well-springs of hatred in the Muslim communities, including both citizens and migrants, which derives in turn from their mainly religious reading of the Arab-Israeli conflict. This partially explains the lopsided distribution of antisemitic incidents in the west of the continent, where after WWII traditional antisemitism had been largely delegitimized. This is where the post-WWII growth of Muslim communities has been the highest, while the concomitant decline of Jewish communities has been relatively slower. Condemnations of this religious hatred from within the Muslim communities have been relatively rare and usually qualified with reservations which rendered them largely meaningless.

On the other hand, this new antisemitism is by far not limited to Muslims alone, even if its violent consequences usually are. Condemnations of Israel as fundamentally evil, and not only wrong e.g. in its occupation policies are by now commonplace among left-wing militants, and increasingly among liberals. As this phenomenon intensifies in the younger generations, it is logical to expect that it will become even more pervasive with the passage of time.

Needless to say, much of the anger felt by Arabs, and by Muslims in general, at Israeli policies, is very comprehensible and amply justified. Nor does one need to be an Arab or a Muslim oneself to consider certain of those policies to be morally indefensible and politically suicidal; witness their continued criticism both inside Israel and in the diaspora. Yet it should also be needless to say that this criticism and anger justify neither the condemnation of Israel as such, by qualifying it as criminal or denying its right to exist, nor conflating its state policies with the Jewish people, nor legitimizing the use of violence against either of the two. And yet increasingly this caveat is increasingly ignored or seen as hypocritical, its real objective allegedly being to delegitimize criticism of the Jewish state.

The one red line which the new antisemitism still appears reluctant to cross is conflation with the old antisemitism, of the European, Christian nationalist, right-wing variety. In the new antisemitism Jews are evil, for they are intrinsically Israeli; in the old one, Israel is evil, for it is intrinsically Jewish. This differentiation should not be dismissed as just a witticism: it identifies strategies of countering antisemitism to adopt or to avoid. The old antisemitism still survives, mainly in the eastern part of the continent. It very rarely expresses itself through violence, mainly due to the relative dearth of Jewish targets there after the Shoah. On the other hand, due to its failed post-WWII delegitimization there, it expresses itself relatively freely in the public sphere, a freedom its Western counterparts could only dream of. And yet much of the rhetoric traditionally directed against Jews, and which in the West has become delegitimized in that context, can be again publically used there again, but only if it targets Muslims, not Jews.

Much of the current Islamophobic propaganda is old antisemitic propaganda barely rehashed. Muslims are seen as barbaric, Asian, endowed with a different mentality, sexually corrupt, followers of an ancient and cruel religious tribal code incompatible with Christian teaching, fanatic, prone to revenge and murder. They have no culture to speak of or if they do it is evil, they are bent on conquest and world domination, and will employ any ideology that will suit that nefarious purpose. They refuse to assimilate and are unable to in any case. They just do not belong and should go home. Or else.

In the West, in fact, Muslims have largely replaced Jews as the principal hate object. Consequently, Jews have in that world-view been, within the context of the struggle against an alleged Muslim invasion, elevated to the status of honorary Aryans. Israel, in particular, is being mentally cleansed of its hostility-provoking association with Jews (1) and become seen instead as the West’s outlying bastion and defender. This operation has made it possible for the formerly antisemitic extreme right to search for an alliance with Jews, which e.g. the French National Front attempts to achieve, and the Dutch and Austrian extreme right parties have already largely forged.

It is hardly surprising that beleaguered and by now largely friendless communities, such as the Jews of Western Europe, have responded positively to such overtures, especially as they target the growingly hostile, and growing, Muslim communities there. Yet it seems evident that such a rapprochement would not only be morally unacceptable, but politically suicidal. The only thing of value Jews could give the extreme-right is a certificate of non-antisemitism. Once given, it could not be credibly withdrawn, and the Jews would be of no more use.

The honorary Aryan status the extreme right is willing to bestow on the Jews, on the other hand, can be withdrawn at any moment, and so can the protection it affords. The shift of the target of antisemitic rhetoric from Jews to Muslims is purely functional and can be reversed. Indeed, it is much easier to imagine an alliance between the extreme right and at least a section of the militant Islamists: they share an authoritarian world-view, with a strong religious foundation. They do not seem to agree which religion should dominate, but on that a truce could probably be declared.

We have therefore in Western Europe a paradoxical situation regarding the politics of antisemitism. Much of the left seems lost to the struggle against the new, Israel-centered form of the scourge, as it has ideologically largely endorsed it. It still is eager, on the other hand, to condemn the old form, the more so as that gives it the anti-antisemitic credentials it needs to be free to engage in Israel-bashing. There seems not much to be gained in engaging with it.

Liberals have become more and more reluctant to take a stand. They fear such a stand will be distorted, by allies or by critics, to mean an endorsement of either Israeli policies or of anti-Islamic attitudes, given that Israel is the target of the new antisemitism, and Muslims are among those most actively spreading it. Liberals of course endorse neither, but the amount of footnotes and caveats to publicly expressed positions they would need to adopt makes the whole affair extremely problematic to them. They do of course need to be engaged, but it is obvious they will be reluctant and refuse to be pressured.

The right, as we have seen, is eager to express support, but in all probability the trade-off is not acceptable. This leaves Jewish communities and organizations, as well as the dwindling number of non-Jewish NGOs that still want to engage in the struggle against antisemitism, with apparently very limited and rather poor options. It is possible, however, that the range of options is actually larger, and that new allies can be found.

1. It is not about the Jews

Much has been made, in the US in particular, of the allegation that the current situation of Jews in Europe largely resembles the 30s of the past century. Jews then, however, were the singled-out principal target of extremist violence, tacitly supported by substantial segments of the general population, and often by the state itself, through the passing and implementation of antisemitic legislation. That violence itself was to turn out to having been only a mild prelude to the genocide which would soon follow. It is clear that only the “target of extremist violence” part of this description is in fact applicable to the present-day situation, but even that analogy is misleading because of the difference in context.

Interwar violence was directed at Jews because extremists believed they are the source of all evil – and in that the extremists were representative of a much wider current of opinion. Present-day violence is directed at Jews by Muslim radicals who find similar support within the Muslim community – but that community itself is largely marginalized, ostracized and occasionally itself victim of violence from society at large. These discriminatory attitudes are more widespread than opposition to them, making anti-Muslim feelings possibly as representative today as antisemitic ones were in the interwar period. Thus, while Jews are targeted now, and they were targeted in the 30s, the perpetrators not only are not representative of society at large and of the state, but are themselves objects of discrimination in certain aspects similar to that the Jews has then experienced. Furthermore, Jews today are not a marginalized minority, but a fully integrated part of society at large, while their attackers clearly are not. The analogy with the 30s, though (very) partially correct, is wholly misleading. In the interwar period, however, Jews were targeted not only for who they were, but also for who they were thought to be, i.e. part of an alleged international subversive movement geared at world domination. Among others, capitalism, international finance, women’s rights, modern literature and the Bolshevik revolution were variously seen as tools of that supposed Jewish conspiracy, a viewpoint best expressed in “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” which then became a best-seller. It is extremely worrying, therefore, that today Jews are often targeted as part of an alleged wider plot, “Zionist” this time, of which the State of Israel is seen to be the driving force, and various other elements, such as international finance again, the US government, the LGBT movement (2) are seen as parts of. Just as antisemites in the 30s justified their violence against Jews in Europe as vengeance for crimes committed by Bolsheviks in Russia, today they quote real or alleged Israeli crimes.

Even though the connection between the Jewish diaspora and Israel, as opposed to that between it and Bolshevism, does in fact exist, blaming (or praising) one for the other is clearly not legitimate. In that perspective, the enduring popularity of “The Protocols”, still massively distributed in the Arab world from which Europe’s Muslim minorities largely originate, and not at all debunked in East Central Europe (3), remains worrying.

The problem with the 30s analogy, however, is not only that it completely misreads – and therefore vastly overestimates – the current threat to the safety of Jews in Europe. Even more importantly, it considers Jews the main victims of European hostility, while in fact the Muslims are. While physical violence against Jews certainly should not be belittled (in France, where Muslims outnumber Jews at least 10 to 1, there are still more acts of physical violence – mainly committed by Muslims - against Jewish persons and institutions than against Muslim ones), political hostility is almost exclusively directed against the Muslim community.

No programmatically antisemitic political parties exist beyond the lunatic fringe in the West, and very few in the East of the continent, while in France, Holland, Austria and now Scandinavia parties directed against (essentially Muslim) immigration are now part of the political mainstream, while in Hungary and now Poland they are actually in power. There are no attempts to regulate synagogues – but in Switzerland a referendum has made building minarets illegal. Breaking with a long European tradition, nobody wants to ban the Talmud any more, but the Freedom Party in Holland (10+% of the vote) wants to ban the Quran. The Islamic veil, but no Jewish garb, is illegal in several European countries. And even recent attempts to ban ritual slaughter and circumcision were at least directed as much against Muslim versions of such practices than against Jewish ones.

Violence in Europe against Jews is primarily Muslim, carried out by a radical minority, but seemingly tolerated, or even approved, by large segments of the community. But European hostility is directed against Muslims, not Jews, using the language of antisemitism while simultaneously recognizing Jews as part of the “white” European majority. In the eyes of Muslim radicals, European Jews are a legitimate target both as part of “world Zionism” and as part of the European majority. While the former is the source of ideological justification of violence, it is the everyday experience of the hostility of the latter is the sociological source of the hatred itself.

In other words, European Jews are targeted mainly for what they are perceived to be, principally by Muslims who themselves are targeted by who they are.

2. Yes, it is about Israel

While attacks on European Jews are essentially committed by Muslim immigrants or their descendants, the attack on Israel itself has a much broader ecumenical base. The Jewish State’s impact on the world is seen by 50% of the Europeans as negative, at par with North Korea, and almost equal to Pakistan and Iran, of 22 countries this monitored (4). From 50 to 64% of Europeans considered different Israeli policies towards the Palestinians as “illegal” (5). The policies of no other country generate such strong public reactions. This trend is also evidenced by votes in the UN General Assembly: from 20 to 25% of all resolutions passed target Israel, and constitute 75% of all condemnatory resolutions. The growing BDS movement is a natural outgrowth of such feelings, clearly manifested on both civil society and state levels. The recent EU directives, banning providing EU funds to any Israeli entity active in the occupied territories, and making marking products originating from these territories as either “Israeli settlement” or “Palestinian” produce, are yet another indication. Israel is clearly under attack.

Yet attacks on a country’s policies very seldom constitute a human rights issue: rather, human rights organizations themselves routinely criticize certain policies of different countries which they see as illegal. Exceptions, such as e.g. supporting the territorial integrity of Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression, are rare and do not usually generate a consensus. Critics will reasonably argue that states are powerful enough to defend their rights without NGO support, while such support might be abusively interpreted as endorsement of other policies, which might themselves deserve criticism. Furthermore, given the fact that there is plenty to criticize in Israeli policies, both in the occupied territories and within Israel proper, any support given to Israel could undermine that criticism, and therefore be counterproductive.

Yet the two key statements: that Israel is being singled out internationally for increasingly unfair criticism, and that human rights NGOs have no business defending it, do not point towards a contradiction in their policies. HR NGOs should not engage in the defense of Israel, or any other country – but they have every reason to be critical of the criteria used in the condemnation, the nature of the condemnation, and the consequences it entails.

It should be an issue of growing public concern that international, and specifically UN criticism of Israel is so grotesquely lopsided. It is hard to believe that three fourths of the world’s evil is concentrated in this one small country, especially as all the policies it is accused of undertaking are also conducted, on a greater scale, by other countries, which are either not criticized for them, or criticized much less. The result is a simultaneous demonization of Israel and a subversion of the credibility of the UN – neither a goal HR NGOs should tolerate, let alone strive for. The usual counter-argument: that more is expected of Israel, as it is a Western-style democracy, clearly entails bad faith, as all countries should be equal under the law, and expecting more or less of any clearly subverts that principle.

Furthermore, that argument is used solely to explain to Israel and its supporters why is the country being targeted; never is it explicated to explain to other countries that should be why is it they are not. If the caveat “We do not criticize you, for you are neither Western-style nor a democracy, and therefore we expect less of you” would be routinely used when addressing countries which deserve criticism no less than Israel does, it would go a long way to expose the hypocritical nature of the argument. And in any case, most of the countries which make use of this argument are not “Western-style democracies themselves”, which makes its use somewhat moot.

Particularly revealing in that respect are the double standards used when addressing the issue of Israeli occupation. Putting aside the legal issue of whether one can apply the term to the military control of a territory which had no sovereign (the legal recognition of Palestine as a state happened decades after the military action took place, and the territories’ previous military control by Transjordan was just as much of an occupation), it is striking that no analogous condemnations occur in the cases of other contemporary occupations, such as Western Sahara, northern Cyprus, Nagorno-Karabakh, Kashmir and Tibet are cases in point. The EU’s refusal to engage in similar policies towards these occupations as the ones it engages in regarding the West Bank is particularly egregious.

It seems clear that the singling out of Israel is unjustifiable and undermines the credibility of international criticism of human rights and international law violations. This should be a matter of concern even if the actual criticism of Israel is justified, as it arguably often is.

But often does not mean always. Accusations of conducting “apartheid policies” and making analogies with Nazi Germany are obviously, but not accidentally misplaced. They serve the purpose of placing Israel in an evil category of its own, retroactively justifying double standards used against it, demonizing it further – and concurrently watering-down the real evils of both the South African and the Nazi regimes. The world’s only Jewish state is the only one to be so tarred, the unavoidable consequence being that not only Israel, but the Jews themselves are seen as intrinsically evil. This in turn gives credence to even the wildest accusations based on this association. Recent student demonstrations in New York, in which “Zionists” were accused of being responsible for high tuition costs, is but a case in point (6).

In sum, the singling out of Israel for legitimate and illegitimate criticism subverts international criteria, distorts the record of other, incomparably more evil regimes, and fuels bias. These are reasons enough to campaign for HR NGOs to take a stand on this issue.

3. Muslim allies are needed

Needless to say, any campaign against antisemitism or Israel-bashing run by Jewish organizations or by individual Jews runs the risk of being accused of aiming at the protection of particular interests. There is actually no harm in doing that, of course, as long as those interests are not contrary to the common good. The current double crisis: of the wave of Islamophobia generated by the refugee emergency, and of deepening bias against Israel as a result of the turn to the right in that country, is a clear opportunity for acting both in the particular and the general interest.

Jews and Jewish communities in Europe and North America have consistently taken a position against Islamophobia and for refugee rights, even if tinged with apprehension about the impact of the influx of large numbers of Muslims on the security of Jewish communities in Europe. Israel has refused to take in Arab refugees, but it is already host, if not a very welcoming one, to a large population of African refugees (7). Furthermore, Israeli teams are engaged in refugee relief on the coast of Greece.

Wars raging currently in the Middle East clearly indicate that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is by far not the most important regional crisis there, let alone the source of other crises. However, the unwarranted excessive concentration on it, and the specificities of that attention, have diverted attention from other, by far more serious issues. The wars in Syria do not generate the kind of public outrage the wars in Gaza did, even if they attract much more international diplomatic effort, due to the involvement of superpowers. Incidentally, they are also a much more direct threat to world peace, as the recent downing of a Russian jet by NATO member Turkey has just shown. The Saudi-led war in Yemen has barely registered in public opinion. All this is extremely detrimental to the populations affected, as well as to the chances of pacific resolution.

Humanity in Action should be in the forefront of a campaign, directed at Muslim intellectuals and activists in Europe and North America, which would promote the following theses:

  • The current Islamophobia is a direct threat not only to Muslims, but to democrats in general. It is specifically a threat to Jews, as it revives and recycles antisemitic content. Support by many, probably most Jewish organizations for Muslim refugees in Europe and North America indicates the possibility of combining the interests of both.
  • The current violence by Muslim extremists against Jews in Europe is not only unacceptable per se, but also a direct threat to Muslim interests. It strengthens the image of alleged “Islamic bloodthirstiness”, thus fueling Islamophobia. It pushes Jewish communities into the arms of the Islamophobic right, giving it credibility and depriving Muslims of an ally. The justification given to acts of violence against Jews – that Jews and Israel are one – is not only false, but also strengthens Islamophobia by making Muslims responsible for any violence committed by Muslim governments or organizations.
  • The current overconcentration on Israel in the court of international opinion not only subverts the criteria used, which is detrimental to all those suffering from other oppression, but also denies those victims the recognition they need and deserve. Furthermore, unfair accusations undermine the credibility of the criticism, while strengthening anti-Jewish bias: both are detrimental to Muslim interests. While Israeli policies certainly justify ongoing criticism, it must be based on reasonable and comparative criteria.

Engaging in a discussion along the above theses should lead to the emergence of a formation of Muslim leaders willing to engage antisemitism and Israel-bashing not as a token gesture, but out of enlightened self-interest. For exactly the same reason, many Jewish activists currently engage Islamophobia and support legitimate criticism of Israel. There is no reason why these two groups could not then cooperate, in the particular interests of each, and for the common good simultaneously.

Response from Judith S. Goldstein to Konstanty Gebert

January 7, 2016 – New York

Dear Kosta:

I would like to add some thoughts to your incisive analysis of the multiple currents of anti-Semitism circulating in the Europe, the Middle East and America. You have unraveled so many of the intersecting forces. In summation you have suggested ways, by working with the Muslim communities, to reduce the reach and power of these destructive forces. These ideas are most important for the Humanity in Action community to support.

Might I suggest that in considering these issues and required actions that Humanity in Action also focus on the responsibilities and challenges of free and democratic societies. Combatting forces of xenophobia, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia is required in the ongoing commitments to democratic practices. Reducing tensions among diverse populations strengthens democratic ideals and practices.

Chancellor Merkel provides an outstanding example of this dual obligation. Through her strong leadership her government has welcomed political refugees within the framework of Germany’s post-war commitment to democracy and human rights values. Her policy is a critical test of commitment under duress—Germany’s critical test to adhere to ideals and practices that repudiate the totalitarian and racist Germany of the 1930s and 1940s. Merkel is posing the following challenges. Can Germany maintain its democratic promise within a truly diverse population? Can Germany bring its refugees into the democratic compact through education and integration into civic live? Can the refugees accept Germany’s basic and enduring support of the Israeli state? Can refugees, living in a new country, assume ownership of German history and culture that carries the burden of Holocaust remembrance? Can the conflict in the Middle East—in all of its dimensions which fundamentally go way beyond the Israeli/Palestinian issue—be addressed though democratic mechanisms and values?

Let me suggest that all these questions, although posed through the German example, broadly apply to all the countries where Humanity in Action has programs and Fellows. With thanks to you for providing the basis for helping us do the work.

Judith S. Goldstein
Founder and Executive Director
Humanity in Action


1. In public opinion polls in Poland, Israelis often rank higher on the sympathy scale than Jews, probably not because the term “Israeli” includes also Israeli Arabs. I will be providing Polish exemplifications for phenomena in East Central Europe the reader might be less familiar with.

2. In Poland, the extreme right sees the LGBT movement, alongside feminist, as a Jewish plot to subvert and weaken Christian society.

3. Poland’s defense minister Antoni Macierewicz had said in the past that while the authenticity of “The Protocols” is contested, the activities of “certain Jewish groups” give it credibility.

4. http://www.globescan.com/images/images/pressreleases/

5. http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:FGKfJmDt778J:https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/downloads/reports/european-public-perceptions-of-the-israel-palestine-conflict-memo.pdf+&cd=10&hl=pl&ct=clnk&gl=pl

6. http://www.tabletmag.com/scroll/195048/students-for-justice-in-palestine-blame-high-cuny-tuition-on-zionist-administration

7. According to World Bank data, Israel has taken in since 2006 some 50,000 refugees (for a population of 8,3 million), while e.g. Italy took in approximately 170,000 (for a population of 60.8 million): http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SM.POP.REFG

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Warsaw, Poland


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