As the news broke about the swastika vandalization of the Westmount Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, I thought, “yet another anti-Semitism attack.” Catching myself, I quickly wondered why that was my inital response — how had such a disdainful anti-Semitic event become normalized to me? Adam Scheier, the synagogue’s rabbi, unfortunately echoed my sentiment: “One is not surprised when another antisemitic attack happens against one of the beloved institutions in our community.” This normalization is attributed to the brute fact that the nature of anti-Semitism is blaringly in front of us. On February 2nd, a university Zoom lecture was hacked by an anonymous source who posted several antisemitic images in the Zoom chat. On January 6th, when domestic terrorists stormed the Capitol, pictures of an insurrectionist wearing a ‘Camp Auschwitz’ sweater made headlines. These events, not uniquely, serve as demonstrations of the pervasiveness of anti-Semitism today.
The dangers of these consistent acts of anti-Semitism contribute to fostering a climate in which these acts of hatred become tolerated and fester in the ideological confines of society. With Holocaust Remembrance Day recently passing in December, we must remind ourselves that the Holocaust did not begin with concentration camps and gas chambers. The systematic dehumanization of the Jews began with prejudicial acts and words, and the resurgence of overt anti-Semitism through the perpetuation of violent images and language is a phenomenon that undoubtely bears destructive consequences.
In 2019, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reported the highest number of incidents targeting the American Jewish community in decades. Despite Jews comprising less than 3% of the American population, they face a majority of reported religiously based hate crimes. While attacks on Jews in North America are reaching unprecedented levels, anti-Semitism is a tale as old as time. Anti-Semitism is coined as the world’s oldest hatred and form of racism. What distinguishes the re-emergence of outright anti-Semitism recently is the increasingly explicit nature of white supremacy in flaunting symbols and tropes of Nazism in such a dignified manner. Neo-Nazis had been hiding in the shadows for decades after facing international condemnation following the atrocities of the Holocaust, now they are not only resurfacing in broad daylight, but are met with increasing acceptance and tolerance. Through an investigation of why this acceptance is occurring, we can understand how certain conditions make possible current patterns of anti-Semitic violence.
Anti-Semitism: A Political Problem?
David Niernberg, the dean of the Divinity School at the University of Chicago proposes an explanation for why anti-Semitism is on the rise on both sides of the political spectrum. Niernberg explains that anti-Semitism is a system of thought that many people employ to reason with the challenges they face. In this manner, Jews continue to be scapegoated for the perils that people grapple with, whether that be economic distress or political polarization. Such manifestations are apparent in the portrayed duplicity of the Jewish identity: Jews are communists, but they are also capitalists; they dominate the world, but they are weak. These unfounded conspiracy theories, though contradictory, are fodder to the anti-Semitic cause.
Many have equated the rise of “Trumpism” and the emboldening of white supremacists as a causal explanation to the rise in anti-Semitism. Ninerberg warns against the tendency to conceptualize anti-Semitism as merely a political problem because this simplification limits our scope of understanding why it is possible for anti-Semitism to work across so many different parts of society and in a multitude of contexts. When we reduce the roots of anti-Semitic ideology to left-wing critique of Israel and right-wing white nationalism, we presuppose that anti-Semitism is a consequence of extremism. Conversely, the attitudes harboured by Americans towards Jews has not changed significantly over the past 25 years. Jonathan Greenblat, the CEO of the ADL, proposes that what has definitively changed is that more of those who habour anti-Semitic views are inspired to act on their hate. Trump’s reign in the White House tarnished societal norms of truth and accountability, fostering the perfect environment to fuel polarization, anger and hate. In a recent speech at the Holocaust Remembrance Service, UN Secretary-General António Guterres characterized the rise of neo-Nazi ideology in the context of a global attack on truth, where populist leaders are increasingly engaging in outright lies to justify their bigoted ideologies. He explained, “When truth dies, it is far easier to exploit real and imagined differences between groups, invent scapegoats, demonize innocent people and communities and break the social bonds that unite us all.” The truth, in the form of accurate portrayals of history and Jewish motives, must be leveraged to rise above the conspiracies that underpin anti-Semitism.
The Mantra of ‘Never Again’
‘Never Again’ means repeatedly telling the story of the Holocaust, but it also means the outright condemnation of overt and covert acts of anti-Semitism. Unfortunately, this requires an education of the truths of the Jewish experience, which many are woefully lacking. Two out of three young Americans are unaware of the fact that 6 million Jews perished during the Holocaust. The proliferation of untruthful narratives about Jews and other racial and religious groups on social media platforms is staggering. The suppression of fact-based analysis and, consequently, the tolerance and normalization of lies is horrifying. These phenomena, coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic, which has left millions jobless and hopeless, are bound to exacerbate deep-rooted injustices, including anti-Semitism, racism and xenophobia. As the foundation of anti-Semtism is predicated upon scapegoating Jews for society’s perils, COVID-19 in all its destruction will serve as a reason for this narrative to prevail. More than ever, it is vital that we understand the intricacies of anti-Semitism and tackle the reasons why it is on the rise.