Antisemitism is bigotry, prejudice, and/or discrimination of Jews based on religion, culture, and/or ethnicity.
Antisemitism is sneaky and notoriously hard to catch. It moves through conspiracy theories and euphemisms. Most importantly, antisemitism presents differently than all other forms of bigotry. While other forms of bigotry (e.g. racism, homophobia, etc.) generally see their victims as “inferior” in some way, antisemitism positions Jews as both inferior *and* “superior,” powerful, conniving evil wrongdoers. For this reason, historically, Jews have become a scapegoat for virtually any and all ills to befall society, from the Black Plague to even 9/11.
It’s really imperative to understand that nothing can survive for 3000 years without shifting and adapting to the world around it. Antisemitism is no exception. It will transform and mutate as many times as it needs to to survive.
There are many things to understand about antisemitism, but among the most important, I believe, is understanding that antisemitism assigns whatever qualities and traits are least desirable in any given society to Jews. In other words, societies project what they despise the most about themselves or others onto the Jewish People.
COMMUNISTS OR CAPITALISTS?
There is perhaps no greater example that antisemitism is a bigotry or projection than the fact that historically societies have blamed Jews on the ills of both capitalism and communism.
In the Middle Ages, Jews were forbidden from working most professions. However, Christians were not permitted to work with money, so Jews became moneylenders and tax collectors. This then led to pervasive stereotypes of Jews as wealthy, greedy, and money-hungry.
The Soviet Union, for example, associated Jews with capitalism and imperialism.
Meanwhile, of course, those hostile to communism, too, blame the Jews. The antisemitic conspiracy theory of Jewish Bolshevism alleges that Jews were responsible for the Russian Revolution of 1917. A related conspiracy, the Jewish Communism conspiracy, claims that Jews dominate communist movements around the world (ironically, Jews are also blamed for the ills of capitalism). The latter conspiracy is also related to the white supremacist “Zionist Occupation Government” conspiracy. In the anti-communist McCarthyist purges of the 1950s, Jews were disproportionately targeted.
A TALE OF TWO POSTERS
NAZIS OR BRITISH IMPERIALISTS?
While there is fair and legitimate criticism of Zionism, just as there is fair and legitimate criticism of all other political movements, antisemites have long projected the things that they hate onto the Zionist movement. That’s why “Israel” or “Zionists” are frequently blamed for things that have absolutely nothing to do with Israel or Palestine, such as police brutality in the United States or the spread of COVID. This projection is nothing new.
Wilhelm Marr, the notorious German antisemite who coined the word “antisemitism,” wrote that the First Zionist Congress in 1897 was “a foul Jewish swindle.”
With the rise of Nazism in the 1930s, the Germans associated Zionism with “British imperialism” and “other alleged vices of the Jews.” Hitler himself despised Zionism, unsurprisingly viewing it as a continuation of a broader Jewish conspiracy of world domination.
On the other hand, while the Nazis accused Zionists of “British imperialism,” the British in Palestine were busy accusing Zionists of “Nazism.”
In March of 1945 — about two months before the Nazis even surrendered — the High Commissioner of Palestine, Lord Gort, told the Colonial Secretary in London that “the establishment of any Jewish State in Palestine…will almost inevitably mean the rebirth of National Socialism [i.e. Nazism] in some guise.”
Sir John Bagot Glubb, who later became the British Commander of the Jordanian Arab Legion during the 1948 war, wrote in a 1946 memorandum to the British government that the “new Jews” (i.e. Jewish refugees) had copied Nazi techniques and adopted Hitler’s master race theory. Unsurprisingly, Glubb was a virulent antisemite who considered Jews “unlikeable, aggressive, stiff-necked, vengeful, and imbued with the idea of [being] a superior race.”
“BACKWARDS” NATIVES OR COLONIZERS?
You are, of course, probably familiar with the claim that Israeli Jews are foreign, European colonizers in Palestine. The accusation is rather new, dating back to the twentieth century and gaining traction in the 1960s, as a wave of former European colonies gained independence. For 2000 years prior, however, Jews were seen as backwards, “Oriental” natives.
In other words: when colonialism was considered good, Jews were backwards natives. Now that colonialism is considered bad, Jews are colonizers.
In the 1700s, Prussian philosopher wrote of the Jews in Europe: “The Palestinians living among us have, for the most part, earned a not unfounded reputation for being cheaters, because of their spirit of usury since their exile…”
In 1899, Yusuf al-Khalidi, the Arab mayor of Jerusalem, wrote to the Chief Rabbi of France: “In theory, the Zionist idea is completely natural, fine and just. Who can challenge the rights of the Jews in Palestine? Good Lord, historically it is really your country.”
This, however, all changed with the wave of decolonization of the 1940s-1970s. The first person to charge Zionism with “settler colonialism” was a Syrian nationalist and member of the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party (i.e. effectively the Syrian Nazi Party) named Fayez Sayegh. In 1946, Sayegh wrote of the “danger of Zionism on civilization and the soul…the Jewish people believe they are the chosen people...to live in superiority and believing they are the essence of all progress and that other nations are only a mean to be used to their prosperity...this is the Jewish psyche: a sense of destiny, a sense of superiority...and enslaving the world for the goals of Jews.”
In 1965, Sayegh published a study titled “Zionist Colonialism in Palestine,” in which he compared Israel to the French colonization of Algeria, the Belgian colonization of Congo, the French colonization of Vietnam, and the treatment of Black People in the United States. This study was picked up by the western left and western intellectuals.
In the 1970s, anti-colonial movements spread throughout Africa, where the last nations still plagued by European colonialism fought for independence. The Soviet Union, interested in spreading its sphere of influence, as well as looking to secure the support of Africa in the United Nations, disseminated propaganda equating the plight of Palestinians to the plight of Indigenous Africans seeking sovereignty. For example, the Soviet Union ensured that Palestine was included in UN Resolution 3246, which was a resolution condemning Portuguese colonialism in Africa (needless to say, Palestine was/is neither a Portuguese colony nor in Africa).
This was, of course, a massive projection: the Soviet Union was an empire that destroyed a plethora of Indigenous peoples. In fact, the Russian treatment of Indigenous Siberians is often compared to the American treatment of Natives.
What’s very interesting to me, however, is that even while we are today accused of colonialism, the language used to describe Jewish traditions and culture still carries “backwards native” connotations. For example, describing Judaism, an ancient Indigenous practice, as “special Talmudic rituals to provoke Muslims” implies that our sacred practices (which, for what it’s worth, predate Islam by thousands of years) are retrograde and uncivilized.
GO BACK TO PALESTINE OR GET OUT OF PALESTINE?
“Jews: Immigrate to your land – in our land, we already know who you are” — Germany, 1935.
Jewish business defaced in Oslo, Norway, in 1942, stating: “Palestine calls. Jews are not tolerated in Norway.”
Today, of course, we hear “go back to Europe” (never mind the fact that over half of Israeli Jews are of Mizrahi and Sephardi descent, meaning that their families never stepped foot in Europe) and “get out of Palestine.”
A COUPLE OBSERVATIONS
The non-Jewish world has long understood the power of projecting whichever qualities are undesirable onto Jews (or Zionists, or Israel).
Võ Nguyên Giáp (1911-2013) was a Vietnamese general and communist politician who is largely regarded as one of the best military strategists in history. He was largely responsible for the defeat of the French and later the Americans in Vietnam. Frustrated by the lack of success of the Palestinian cause, Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat heeded the advice of Giáp: “…stop talking about annihilating Israel and instead turn your [Arafat’s] terror war into a struggle for [Indigenous] human rights.”
Similarly, Muhammed Yazid, an Algerian minister of information, told Arafat: “Wipe out the impression that in the struggle between the Palestinians and Zionists, the Zionist is the underdog. Now it is the Arab who is oppressed and victimized in his existence because he is not only facing the Zionists but also world imperialism.”
My second observation is one that I can’t exactly prove empirically in any way, so it’s just a personal opinion. I see so many well-meaning white leftists and progressives projecting their own white guilt (e.g. their guilt over the European legacy of colonialism) onto Jews. Whether consciously or unconsciously, they see the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict as a present opportunity to reverse course on the sins of their ancestors. They believe that they can’t change what their ancestors did in the Americas, for instance, but they believe that they can oppose present-day “colonialism” in Palestine. It’s rather rich, however, for people whose ancestors likely are guilty of the (recent!) genocide and ethnic cleansing of Jews to tell Jews where we can or can’t live.
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