As we begin a new year, one might ask what antisemitism could look like as we move through the decade of the 2020s. Who are the major purveyors of antisemitism today, what are their motivations, and what is causing an increase in antisemitism in Western societies so many decades after the Holocaust? To answer these questions, we must look back on the last several years.
The year 2018 saw a significant increase in antisemitic incidents and a 13% rise in antisemitic violence globally. In France, there was a 74% increase in antisemitic incidents (from 311 to 541), including the torture and murder of an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor named Mireille Knoll. Germany reported a 10-year record high of 1,646 antisemitic acts in 2018, in which 43 people were wounded. In the UK, 1,652 antisemitic incidents were recorded with 123 classified as violent (the total number is a 16% increase from the previous year). Canada reported that 2018 was the third consecutive year in which record numbers were reached: 2,041 antisemitic incidents (including 1,809 acts of harassment; 221 acts of vandalism; and 11 violent acts). And, of course, the murder of 11 Jews (and wounding of six more) at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on October 27, 2018 was the deadliest act of antisemitic violence in American history. In 2018, the United States had a total of 1,879 incidents (including 1,066 acts of harassment; 774 acts of vandalism; and 39 violent acts). The numbers for Canada, the UK, the US, and Germany were all in the same range—between 1,600 and 2,041 incidents—and the trend was toward harassment as the dominant mode of attack. The vast majority of these incidents of harassment and threatening behavior occurred online via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and by email. The American Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism found that at least 4.2 million antisemitic tweets were shared and re-shared in English on Twitter in 2017 by an estimated three million Twitter accounts. In 2016, Monika Schwarz-Friesel documented a tripling of antisemitic content in comments on the internet and in letters to editors in Germany since 2006.
All of the countries mentioned saw increases in 2019 over 2018 and one expects the same will be true for 2020 when the numbers are released this year. Violent physical attacks on Jews have apparently plummeted during the lockdowns of this past year as no Jews were killed in antisemitic attacks in 2020. Hostility and harassment online however have increased and some of the most violent rhetoric has moved to the darknet, which is impossible to monitor or control. To summarize: the number of antisemitic incidents continues to increase in these Western societies and in 2019 the US, Canada, Germany, and the UK recorded the highest number of antisemitic incidents in their history of record-keeping. What explains this rise in antisemitism? Since 2000, there has in fact been an escalating rhetorical assault on Jews, Judaism, and the Jewish state in parts of all Western societies, especially on university campuses and in some circles of people engaged in so-called “progressive” politics. The internet and social media, along with the ubiquitous use of cell phones, have made possible 24-7 instantaneous communication across the globe and these new electronic vehicles enable the viral circulation of antisemitism and anti-Israel hostility to an unprecedented degree.
At this point in time, there is scholarly agreement that there are three main sources of antisemitic violence in the Western world today: the far-right, the far-left, and from within the Muslim community. A 2017 Norwegian study of antisemitic violence in Europe between 2005 and 2015 concluded that in France, the UK, Germany, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, “individuals with backgrounds from Muslim countries stand out among perpetrators of antisemitic violence in Western Europe.” Only in Russia—where the lowest level of violence against Jews was recorded during that ten-year period—were far-right skinheads and Neo-Nazis identified as the main perpetrators of antisemitic violence. In general, far-right antisemitism is more familiar to the authorities and to the public in Western societies and therefore it is relatively easy to recognize and to condemn. In some areas of Europe, there is a reluctance to treat Muslim hostility, and even violence, against Jews in the same stark terms. There is often a contradictory standard on how to define antisemitism when the perpetrator is Muslim because it is falsely assumed by European authorities that his grievances against Zionism and the state of Israel justify violence against Jews, unlike far-right antisemites who are perceived to make false charges against Jews and have no legitimate grievances against them.
This strange double standard was on prominent display in the British Labour Party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn from 2015 to 2019. Party members said that much of the hostility toward Jews in the party was directed toward Zionism and was thus understandable given the actions of Israel. These same people denied that there was a problem with antisemitism in the party arguing that Labour members were anti-racist by definition. A 2019 YouGov poll of 1,185 Labour Party members found that two-thirds of the party did not believe Labour had a “serious” antisemitism problem, while a majority either blamed Jeremy Corbyn’s political opponents or the mainstream media for the accusations it faced. Only 23 per cent of those surveyed agreed that the party had a “serious” antisemitism problem among its membership. The problem, according to some party members, is Israel and Zionism, which is itself a supposedly racist ideology and one that not all Jews support. Corbyn attracted and integrated many new members into the Labour Party from the far-left, people who share his support for the Irish Republican movement, the Iranian regime, Hamas, Hezbollah, and the UK’s Palestine Solidarity Campaign, an organization that promotes the right of return for Palestinians and Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) against Israel. Under his leadership, there were hundreds of official complaints made by Jews to the Labour Party and many of their upsetting experiences feature classic antisemitic stereotypes and accusations about Jewish conspiracies and evil financial and political machinations in direct relation to Israel and Zionism. We will have to wait and see what developments occur under the party’s new leadership.
Countries have their own unique histories and varied political spectrums as well as their own particular immigration patterns often related to their imperial past. So, for example, Germany and Austria are primarily concerned about neo-Nazi and far-right organized activity against Jews, Muslims, and immigrants, exemplified by the October 2019 murder of two people outside a synagogue in Halle, while France is forced to contend with high profile violent crimes, including those linked to international terrorism, perpetrated by French Muslims against French Jews. Two of the most shocking and heinous crimes include the torture and murder of two older women, Mireille Knoll and Sarah Halimi—both in their own homes in Paris. On March 23, 2018, Mrs. Knoll, a disabled 85-year-old Holocaust survivor, was stabbed eleven times and set on fire in her Paris apartment by two twenty-something Muslim assailants, one of whom was her neighbour. On April 4, 2017, Sarah Halimi, a 65-year-old retired physician, was beaten for one hour and thrown to her death out of her third story apartment window. The perpetrator was her 27-year-old neighbor, an immigrant from Mali, who was reciting verses from the Quran and shouting “God is great” in Arabic during the murder, according to neighbors who locked themselves in a bedroom to get away from him. He told police that he had killed the demon referring to Mrs. Halimi. This same man had called Mrs. Halimi’s daughter a “dirty Jewess” two years prior to the murder.
The suspect in this case claimed insanity and was hospitalized. In a move that shocked many people, the French prosecutor ruled out antisemitism as a factor in the murder. This led to protests in the press and one street demonstration. The aggravated element of a hate crime was finally added to the indictment months after the murder. For years now, the courts have argued over whether or not the accused is fit to stand trial. In July 2019, a judge gave a preliminary ruling that said the perpetrator was probably not criminally responsible for his actions because he smoked marijuana before the crime. Kobili Traore supposedly smoked up to 15 joints a day. All three psychiatrists concluded that he does not suffer from mental illness, but two of the doctors believe that his psychosis was induced by marijuana and therefore he is not criminally responsible for his actions. The judge also dismissed the “aggravating circumstance of the antisemitic character” of the murder. Lawyers for several Jewish organizations appealed the decision. In December 2019, the Paris Court of Appeal announced that Traore would not stand trial as he was not criminally responsible for his actions. By contrast, Paris prosecutors have finally announced that the two men who robbed and murdered Mireille Knoll in 2018 will stand trial for her murder and have acknowledged that antisemitism was an aggravating factor in the crime. This was confirmed by the court in November 2020 after the accused appealed to have antisemitism removed as a factor in the crime.
In the United States, there is renewed concern about far-right white supremacist activity. On October 27, 2018, 46-year-old Robert Gregory Bowers walked into the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and opened fire murdering 11 Jews and wounding six more. On April 27, 2019, a 19-year-old man shot up a Chabad synagogue north of San Diego killing one woman and injuring three other people, including an eight-year-old girl. Both of these men targeted Jews for specific reasons and announced this in online chat rooms. They stated that Jews are engaged in a conspiracy to destroy America and, in particular, its Christian European foundations. Their views reflect contemporary conspiracy theories circulating in Western societies (and throughout Eastern Europe) about a specific plan to use refugees and immigrants to replace the established Christian European majority, known as “The Great Replacement.” These theories point to billionaire-activist George Soros and his funding of his Open Society Foundations that bankroll thousands of grants to left-wing organizations in over 120 countries including those promoting amnesty for illegal immigrants. These conspiracy theories operate in the US by pointing to sections of the Democratic Party and their support for open border policies, attacks on the US border patrol, and calls to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The prominent public role played by individual Jews in the Democratic Party, and the media and entertainment industries that support the Democratic Party, is used to substantiate these accusations against the Jewish collectivity.
In today’s United States anything and everything is fodder for politics and accusations of antisemitism are used by both political parties to attack the other. It has become commonplace to blame President Trump for antisemitism in America. Those partisans eager to blame the US President for the synagogue attacks had to be disappointed when John Timothy Earnest, the young man who attacked the Poway synagogue, called Donald Trump a “Zionist Jew-loving traitor.” Antisemitism exists on all sides of the political spectrum; it is a complex and varied phenomenon, and no one individual is responsible for it. Having said that, it is also true that Donald Trump flirted with far-right political support during his campaign for president and is now accused of helping to embolden white supremacists to become more active in public life after having been relegated to the fringes of American society for several decades. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have also been criticized for ignoring the antisemitism surrounding them in the Democratic Party, including that of their own members of Congress, and for refusing to condemn Louis Farrakhan, Linda Sarsour and other leaders of the Women’s March, the Black Lives Matter platform, Antifa, Jacob Blake, Sr., and the list goes on. During the recent election cycle, both Trump and Biden played politics in a country divided down the middle and were careful not to alienate voters on the far-right (white nationalists) and far-left (“Antifa is an idea not an organization”) fringes of their parties, respectively. One of the most unfortunate results of the persistent false media coverage of President Trump’s response to the statue demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 11 and 12, 2017 in a long scrum with reporters was that most Americans, including far-right racist fanatics, falsely believe that Trump called neo-Nazis and white supremacists “good people” when in fact he clearly condemned them (see Politico.com for the entire transcript: https://www.politico.com/story/2017/08/15/full-text-trump-comments-white-supremacists-alt-left-transcript-241662). Ironically, the media’s dishonest reporting and the ad nauseum parroting of this false and defamatory charge by just about everyone (including academics who might be the one group expected to examine the original transcript) is what may have actually emboldened the far-right.
Unfortunately, the United States will likely face more violent antisemitic attacks with the return of an administration whose left wing is geared toward open border policies. As long as American politicians refuse to permanently solve the very real (humanitarian, economic, and security) crisis at the southern border in a bi-partisan manner, American Jews will be vulnerable to conspiracy theorists on the far-right who attribute illegal immigration and all of its problems to Jews and their perceived influence on the Democratic Party. This is what the “Unite the Right” demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia, meant when they were chanting “Jews will not replace us” in August 2017—the “Great Replacement” theory.
The combined political, legal, and media assault of the last four years on the Trump presidency by those supporting the former Obama administration and now the new Biden administration has been labeled a “Jew-coup” by some on the far-right and others in conservative circles. The United States of America is anything but united today. How American political, social, economic, and so-called racial divisions will play out in the coming years especially under the duress of the COVID-19 crisis and under the pressure of Antifa riots and Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests and riots, is unclear. However, it is possible that Jews could be impacted if they are blamed and then scapegoated for the loss of the Trump presidency and for the ongoing campaign of political vengeance and vilification directed against the former president and his family.
While the media focuses almost exclusively on white supremacy it neglects other sources of antisemitism in the United States. The double standard that we see in Europe and the UK also exists in the US: people with Muslim backgrounds are either ignored or given a pass when they make antisemitic remarks or post antisemitic material online. Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar is one prominent example who felt quite comfortable tweeting “it’s all about the Benjamins baby” in February 2019 in response to a question asking why American leaders defend Israel. Before she was in office, in 2012, she tweeted “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel. #Gaza #Palestine #Israel.” Her colleague from Michigan, Rep. Rashida Tlaib made very strange comments about the Holocaust (“There’s, you know, there’s a kind of a calming feeling, I always tell folks, when I think of the Holocaust and the tragedy of the Holocaust, and the fact that it was my ancestors—Palestinians—who lost their land and some lost their lives, their livelihood, their human dignity, their existence, in many ways, had been wiped out . . . I mean, just all of it was in the name of trying to create a safe haven for Jews, post-the Holocaust, post-the tragedy and the horrific persecution of Jews across the world at that time”) and posted false material online accusing Israeli settlers of killing a Palestinian boy by throwing him down a well. In fact, the boy, Qais Abu Ramila, drowned accidentally in a reservoir of rainwater in eastern Jerusalem and Israeli first responders were unable to revive him.
Another significant stream of antisemitism in the US that is all but ignored by the media and the Democratic Party is that found in the African American community. Black antisemitism has a long history in the United States but in the last several years it has gained momentum with the harassment of Orthodox Jews in New York by members of the African American community and random murders of Orthodox Jews in New York and New Jersey by Black Hebrew Israelites. Of even wider cultural significance is the ongoing influence of Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, especially on a new generation of political activists (Women’s March organizer Tamika Mallory) and public figures (many hip-hop artists including Ice Cube and Nick Cannon, and sports figures like Desean Jackson) who, in turn, have their own influence on young people and the larger American culture. Despite Farrakhan’s truly toxic antisemitism (homophobia and misogyny as well), former President Bill Clinton sat on stage with him and shook his hand at Aretha Franklin’s 2018 funeral alongside Jesse Jackson. Farrakhan is obviously a respected leader in the African American community, and like Jeremiah Wright (the minister of Barack and Michelle Obama’s church in Chicago), he benefits from the American double standard that only recognizes white supremacist antisemitism and racism as a significant threat to society. Much more could be said on this subject but suffice to say that since both Muslims and Blacks are perceived to have real grievances against Jews and Israel, their hostility is not taken as seriously and is even excused, sometimes by Jews themselves, particularly those on the “progressive” Left.
Today, the internet is the most powerful vehicle for the transmission and dissemination of antisemitism across the planet. The anonymity of the web allows people to express honest feelings of hatred and to connect with others who share those sentiments, emboldening groups of people who had previously been isolated in their silence. In Europe, hatred for Jews, homosexuals, and Muslims have formed a new triad against which traditional ethno-nationalists feel the need to organize and defend themselves. In a classic antisemitic framework, Jews are sometimes depicted as orchestrating the migrant crisis in Europe and a supposed “homosexual agenda” to undermine traditional societies and to perpetrate a so-called “white genocide.” These ideas are similar to the Great Replacement Theory. Many far-right organizations in Eastern Europe, Western Europe, and North America are in contact with one another online and are building a cooperative network to build support for far-right parties and policies, especially in Europe. These individuals and their organizations coordinate memes and hashtags and use Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube together to drive support for parties like the Alternative for Germany (AfD).
What we can actually do about the internet is a difficult question. My colleague Monika Schwarz-Friesel has documented a massive upsurge of Jew-hatred on the internet and argues that there is now a “global Israelization of antisemitic discourse.” By which she means that traditional antisemitic stereotypes are projected onto Israel and that this discourse is now the most dominant manifestation of modern Jew-hatred. The lack of regulation and the popularity of controversial content make the internet the most welcoming location in the world for the growth of antisemitism. Technology companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter must regulate their content to weed out violent incitement, but at the same time they cannot be allowed to use legitimate concerns about incitement to censor individuals and political opinions they may not support—a shockingly un-American, cynical, and draconian violation of the First Amendment that is now underway in the United States.
My sense is that the brief period of respite during the 1990s when antisemitism was really in the process of disappearing from mainstream society in Canada, the United States, and the UK, is over. The post-Holocaust period is over and what is often termed public Holocaust education may very well be a spent force in due course, especially with the passing away of survivors, rescuers, and liberators. Even with all the public education about the Holocaust since the 1990s surveys show pretty dismal knowledge about even basic facts among members of the Western public. In January 2020, a poll found that 43% of Canadians knew how many Jews were killed in the Holocaust and 31% had no idea; a Pew survey found the same number for the US with 45% of Americans knowing how many Jews were killed in the Holocaust and 29% having no idea. Five percent of Europeans say they have never heard of the Holocaust, while 20% claim to know a great deal, according to a 2018 CNN poll. A survey by the Claims Conference found that 10% of American adults were not sure they had ever heard of the Holocaust, and that number rose to 20% among millennials. Half of all millennials could not name a single concentration camp, and 45% of American adults failed to do so. In complete opposition to the goals of Holocaust education, around one third of Europeans think Jews use the Holocaust to advance their own goals, that Israel uses the Holocaust to justify its actions, and that commemorating the Holocaust distracts from other atrocities, according to the same CNN poll.
At this point in time, we can say that Jews have lost ground in the fight against antisemitism. The decade of the 1990s was a period of optimism in which people felt that real progress was being made. Neo-Nazism and Holocaust denial were relegated to the extreme fringes of American and Canadian societies, there was greater knowledge about World War II, which was still a lived experience for most people, and there was growing public interest in the Holocaust. North America was increasingly diverse and secular, and public discrimination against minorities was rare and lacked majority support. The conflict in the Middle East was perceived as largely political and territorial and not infused with fundamentalist religiosity (on all sides) and antisemitism to the degree that it is today; there was no BDS movement; Israel Apartheid Week (IAW) did not exist on university campuses across North America; and there was no international war on terror. People thought that this moment in history was permanent, but they were wrong.
Today, there are many new cultural, political, and economic developments that are coalescing to make antisemitism an even greater potential problem for the future, such as: the impact of social media and the internet; changing immigration patterns; the problem of mass migration and negative reactions to it; the seemingly intractable conflict in the Middle East; serious deep political divisions in Western democracies; the increasing rejection of globalization and growing forms of nationalism in reaction to the failures of globalization and neoliberalism; the growing power and influence of an aggressive and expansionist Communist China (serious questions remain about the origins of the COVID-19 virus and whether or not it was weaponized by the CCP); the hostile activities of Russia, Iran, and North Korea; a massively over-valued US stock market; unprecedented levels of global government debt ($277 trillion or 365% of world GDP); ongoing concerns about the stability of the global financial system and the banking industry after the 2008 crisis; and, global economic uncertainty especially under mandatory COVID-19 lockdowns that are bankrupting small businesses, which constitute 97.9% of all Canadian businesses and employ 69.7% of the labour force, and constitute 99.9% of all American businesses, which employ 47.1% of the US workforce.
The COVID-19 crisis has put enormous strain on people, governments, and the world economy confirming what many have been saying about the need to take manufacturing and the entire supply chain out of the hands of the Chinese Communist Party and return it to the United States and other Western democracies. Of course, this kind of world crisis will attract antisemitic conspiracy theorists who charge that Israel or the Jews created this virus; however, in Western countries this lie will remain largely on the far-right fringe and among elements of the Muslim community as the vast majority of people know that this pandemic clearly came from China as have so many other viruses like SARS, MERS, and H1N1. I imagine the conspiracy theory about Israel creating the virus will have much more traction with the general public in the Middle East than in the West.
Oxford University released a survey of British public attitudes on COVID-19 at the end of May 2020. Presented with the statement “Jews have created the virus to collapse the economy for financial gain,” 5.3% of the interviewees “agreed a little,” 6.8% “agreed moderately,” 4.6% “agreed a lot,” and 2.4% “agreed completely,” while some 80.8% did not agree with it at all. So, only 7% of the British public are convinced that Jews created the virus for their own financial gain, which means that the vast majority (93%) are not. Interestingly, the numbers on supposed Muslim responsibility for the virus were almost identical: 80.1% of British respondents did not agree with the statement “Muslims are spreading the virus as an attack on Western values,” 5.9% of the interviewees “agreed a little,” 7% “agreed moderately,” 4.6% “agreed a lot,” and 2.4% “agreed completely.”
There are those who will take advantage of the opportunity presented by the COVID-19 crisis to find new avenues of harassment. The new phenomenon of “Zoom-bombing” has affected many Jewish organizations, including synagogues, during this crisis. Antisemites gain access to programs on Zoom and disrupt the event by harassing the speakers and transmitting antisemitic material and pornography to the participants. This adds yet another dimension to the security needs of Jewish organizations today and in the future. There are also those in the US who used the opportunity provided by mass protests over the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota on May 25, 2020 to vandalize synagogues. One imagines that this will no doubt continue during future Antifa riots and BLM unrest in the United States.
At the same time, however, one must also realize that people are recognizing that antisemitism is a problem and concern is growing in some circles. Scholars are engaged across the world on this issue. It is also important to recognize and appreciate the reactions to antisemitism on the part of the general public. When the Tree of Life synagogue was attacked in 2018, tens of thousands of Americans of all backgrounds gathered at vigils in communities across the country and did so even across the border in Canada. There were fundraisers held for the victims and survivors. People were horrified by this antisemitic mass murder.
In these days of hyper-partisan political polarization, we must remember what history has clearly taught us: a healthy society requires a strong moderate political centre with a majority of people ready to compromise in order to improve the lives of the governed. Extreme political divisions polarize society and encourage violence and hatred, which creates a toxic environment for everyone. Quite to the contrary of what antisemites believe, Jews do not control society or its major components. They do, however, suffer the consequences—political, social, economic—of the larger developments at work in the societies in which they live as a minority. Unfortunately, given the unpredictable, unstable, and dysfunctional nature of American society today—a reality created and fuelled by both Democrats and Republicans and their respective media-entertainment outlets (I, for one, see a near-total lack of professional news reportage and adherence to objective journalistic standards in the American marketplace)—antisemitism is sure to make itself felt in the United States in the next decade. At this Weimarian moment in American history, which may indeed turn out to be a serious inflection point, people on all sides of the political spectrum—politicians, media personalities, owners of media and tech companies, and citizens across the country—must stop fomenting America’s toxic partisan conflict and rebuild the centre of the political spectrum to create a new and united America based on pragmatic compromise and maybe even cooperation.
Dr. Catherine Chatterley is a historian of modern Europe, trained at the University of Chicago. She is Editor-in-Chief of Antisemitism Studies, published by Indiana University Press; Founding Director of the Canadian Institute for the Study of Antisemitism (CISA); and President and Chair of FAST Fighting Antisemitism Together.
For 16 years she taught history at the University of Manitoba and the University of Winnipeg. Among her publications is Disenchantment: George Steiner and the Meaning of Western Civilization after Auschwitz, published by Syracuse University Press in their celebrated Religion, Theology, and the Holocaust Series, edited by Steven T. Katz. Disenchantment was named a 2011 National Jewish Book Award Finalist in the category of Modern Jewish Thought and Experience.