The virus of antisemitism

Today’s conspiracy myths are fueling antisemitism on a global scale and with even more fervor.

76 years ago today, the concentration camp of Auschwitz was liberated by the Red Army. It has become an outshining allegory for the incredible horror Jewish people (and people labelled as such) had to endure — among other oppressed groups in a global context — where Germany and most of its allies were trying to eradicate every trace of Jewish culture from the planet.

During this time, the rest of the world largely turned its back on Jewish refugees and neglected the immediate dangers that they faced. In the aftermath of this act of genocide, the long forethought state of Israel was realised in 1948 as an unquestionable necessary safe space for all Jewish people. A state fostered by progressive and socialist ideals during its first decades of existence.

A momentary sentimental identification with Holocaust victims is not enough

Days of memorial, such as today, are a symbol to commemorate past events and bring to our mind how they relate to the contemporary moment. Nevertheless, it won’t be more than just a symbolic moment if our grief is limited to a plain ritual. We need to address the increasing antisemitism in all its current forms every day. The latest portrayal of vicious Shoah references at the attempted coup in Washington with an insurrectionist wearing clothes saying “Camp Auschwitz – Work brings Freedom” shocked people around the world.

These contemporary incidents are a stark reminder of what was always there and what Jews have to endure on a daily basis. It still needs to be pointed out that next to the inherent thread to Jewish people Antisemitism is also a danger to every other individual. Hate driven by antisemitic conspiracy ideologies, such as those circling around Donald Trump or the Coronavirus pandemic, integrate every alleged enemy into a distorted and delusional worldview. Common boogeymen are minorities, political opponents, actors of the liberal civil society, the media landscape, science, medicine or the economy. In a broader sense antisemitism must be understood as a toxic mindset of how to perceive reality. It is a simplistic, dualistic worldview of ‘diabolic interconnections between everything and everyone, where mysterious groups control and manipulate the common innocent individual‘.

The critical difference between a conspiracy myth and a critical theory is that the myth cannot hold up against fact-based science nor investigative standards. Therefore, it’s an inconsistent belief system often compared to something like a collective schizophrenia where every glimpse of confirmation gets adopted, while every discrepancy gets repelled. At the same time other commentators, such as Jean-Paul Sartre or Hannah Arendt, argued that a large fraction of antisemites are well aware of their fragile and incoherent world view but choose to subscribe to the baseless doctrine as it serves their interests. Although expressions of antisemitism have been reshaped over different stages of history and locational contexts, the core convictions remain the same.

In a world where first-hand knowledge about the Holocaust fades as the remaining eye witnesses grow fewer in numbers, Holocaust deniers target memorial sites, ignorant individuals taking funny selfies at Holocaust memorials or just recently taking sledge rides within the concentration camp of Buchenwald. In light of this, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) is an association dedicated to the very meaning of “Never Again” by strengthening education, research and remembrance. To push the agenda, the IHRA released a simple yet pragmatic working definition of Antisemitism:

“Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

It is one of the most elaborate approaches so far to address this complex phenomenon. While many NGOs, foundations and states have officially adopted this definition as a first step to conquer Antisemitism, some protagonists of civil society and the academic field —  including Jewish and non-Jewish voices — oppose this definition, arguing that it could be instrumentalised and used to discredit any criticism on Israeli politics and domestic policy.

The boiling point which echoes the deeply divided left

If not avoided by common phrases like “it’s a very sensitive topic” the discourse about Jewish life almost inevitably ends up in the tedious hot seat, with discussions falling into the false dichotomy of ‘pro’ or ‘against’ Israel. It seems like an immediate reflex by many people to bring up criticism of the Israeli government in the context of Jewish life, as if those two are invariably the same thing. Being put on the spot to justify or explain the actions of Israeli policies and to come up with solutions on complex situations is a situation Jewish people know just too well.

Neuralgic trigger words, such as apartheid, Hamas, Nakba or BDS are being fired in an cathartic act of dramaturgical self-affirmation. A more open, nuanced and differentiated debate that seeks to engage with complexity seems rare and almost impossible. But often the frantic fixation on criticising Israeli governmental action, representing a comparatively small country on the world stage, reveals more about the commentator than about the addressee. While in Germany, for example the word “Israel critical” or “Israel hostile” has been officially added to the German dictionary, there is no “Turkey critical”, no “China critical” nor a “Russia hostile” to be found. Antisemitism disguised as so-called Israel critique frequently seems like a common strategy to avoid being labeled as such.

The current government of Israel is indeed patriarchal, and the political spectrum has shifted further and further to the far right over the last decades. Despite strong protests opposing the leading party Likud, the Israeli left, green and progressive movements seem marginal and shattered. Yet the existence of the state of Israel cannot be negotiable and all its citizens need to have the right of self-determination. Rather than fall into fundamental rejection DiEM25 would be well advised to tie bonds and join forces with the progressive, environmental and human rights movements of Israel or parties such as Meretz.

DiEM25 needs to step up and take a strong stance against any form of Antisemitism and be an inclusive safespace for Jewish people, which unfortunately doesn’t seem to be the norm amongst anti-capitalist circles. As a pan-European movement incorporating diverse contexts, DiEM25 needs to find a common understanding of Antisemitism. Adopting an appropriate working definition like the one provided by the IHRA is a first step. As a range of academics — such as parts of the Berlin based Center for Research on Antisemitism — opposing this very definition are preparing to release their own version which apparently will consider concerns mentioned, we will see where the debate will bring us. If it will build a metaphorical bridge between the deeply divided left, time will tell.

The analyses of an antisemitic mindset teaches us a variety of things. One is to break open dualistic perceptions. In this regard, DiEM25 needs to consider their actions wisely, taking a critically nuanced approach. Previous populist comments and biased positions on complex situations by some of DiEM25s prominent figures will divide the movement and exclude Jewish people from supporting the important cause of the movement. Breaking stereotypes on all fronts and acknowledging the immense diversity of Israel and Jewish culture is an important lesson. The philosopher and rabbi Jonathan Sacks who just passed away two months ago once pointed out that:

“Anti-Semitism is not a unitary phenomenon, a coherent belief or ideology. Jews have been hated because they were rich and because they were poor; because they were capitalists and because they were communists; because they believed in tradition and because they were rootless cosmopolitans; because they kept to themselves and because they penetrated everywhere. Antisemitism is not a belief but a virus. The human body has an immensely sophisticated immune system which develops defenses against viruses. It is penetrated, however, because viruses mutate. Antisemitism mutates.”

He further concludes that Antisemitism is never solely hate restricted to Jews. It is an overarching deep hostility against the diversity of humanity itself. It must be our duty to protect this diversity!

Photo Sources: Alexandra Tsuneta on Medium and Slgkgc on Flickr

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect DiEM25’s official policies or positions.

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