What’s Going On With Antisemitism?

I’d never heard of, let alone read, Reviel Netz before his powerful essay appeared alongside mine in the Jewish Review of Books. It seems all the more remarkable, then, that despite our different backgrounds and disparate academic disciplines we intersected to a remarkable degree in our intellectual responses to October 7. If not on the afternoon of the terrible events, as in the case of Netz, then in the subsequent weeks in my own, we separately came to the realization that antisemitism did not adequately explain the knee jerk reaction of Israel condemnation witnessed on college campuses and in progressive protests across the US and beyond. The sheer horror of that day, the depth of which was immediately apparent—even if its gory details took many days and weeks to be fully revealed—should have evoked universal, unambiguous disgust and denunciation. Shamefully, it did not.

Certainly, genuine expressions of shock and sympathy were expressed in many quarters. No one who heard them can forget the remarks of President Biden just three days later: “You know, there are moments in this life—and I mean this literally—when the pure, unadulterated evil is unleashed on this world. The people of Israel lived through one such moment this weekend.” But, as we know, that is not how many leftist “bleeding hearts” reacted. And for me (and it seems for Netz, too), it was this sickening reaction of progressives and even many fellow liberals, venting their fury not on the perpetrators but on the victims—Israelis of all kinds—that stunned and sickened almost as much as the atrocities themselves. We both found ourselves asking a Jewish version of Marvin Gaye’s famous question: “what’s going on?”

Abraham Socher, in his thoughtful and probing response to our separate essays, notes that they were written in the shadow of “the day after.” Sometimes a shock clears the air of longstanding misconceptions, which is precisely what happened to me, and I think to Netz. We shed the illusion that this eruption of hate could be explained away as a mere excess of political zeal or humane concern for the Palestinian cause on the one hand, or antisemitism on the other. The anger, indeed hate, was not by and large directed at Jews but instead leveled indiscriminately at Israelis—or more to the point, at Israeliness itself. It was this reaction that I, and I think Netz, were trying to explain: Not the horrific actions of Hamas, but rather the subsequent rationalizing of them by much of the Western left.

I won’t rehash our arguments here (and Netz and I differ on important points of emphasis and analysis). But I do want to address Socher’s reservations about some of them. Perhaps it is a kind of scholasticism to seek to distinguish modern antisemitism from pre-modern Jew hatred, not to mention theological anti-Judaism. In any case, there’s an old and ongoing debate about whether all of the forms of animus historically directed at Jews really ought to be subsumed under one heading (whether it be called antisemitism or some other term is immaterial here). Socher cites several such distinctive forms of hostility—ancient, medieval, and modern—to argue that their heterogeneity is not really the key point. As he writes:

Once one reminds oneself that there have been many forms of antisemitism, which are related but far from identical, the distinction between it and anti-Israelism gets harder to make.  

This strikes me as, at best, debatable and possibly even a non-sequitur. Distinct phenomena that may bear some non-arbitrary relationship to one another do not necessarily make them parts of a whole, even for the sake of classificatory convenience. 

But terminological gymnastics obscure what is really at stake in the discussion. It is this: If we want to understand the phenomenon of anti-Israelism and combat it, the concept of antisemitism will offer little help. This is not just because it is patently absurd to label some advocates of anti-Israelism, including a Jewish Studies professor here or there, as antisemites. Rather, the conflation of the two “antis” is a category error of a more historically profound kind. The modern state of Israel is entirely different from any previous political manifestation in Jewish history, including biblical ones. It marks a greater rupture than either Jewish emancipation or secularization, although it incorporates both within itself. As such even the common tropes of traditional antisemitism—conspiracy, misanthropy, willful perversity—are, in the case of anti-Israelism, attributed not to an essentially powerless diasporic people but to an actual state with the capacity to act independently on the world stage as well as in the military arena. At times this makes the tropes all the more ferocious, but it also means that their target can and does defend itself in ways that Jews before never could.

This historical development is different and new to such an extent that it requires a fresh analytical framework. Antisemitism is simply not relevant to diagnosing the immediacy and uniqueness of this serious, indeed deadly, threat—the delegitimization of a country, its people, culture, history and its very existence. President Biden spoke powerfully when he insisted that “Were there no Israel, there wouldn’t be a Jew in the world who was safe.” But that misses the more immediate point: were there no armed and powerful Israel, no Israeli would be safe today.

It’s true, as Socher points out, that at times this threat certainly affects many diaspora Jews; it can and indeed has resulted in a kind of blowback against some. But the core animus is directed against Israel itself. Netz sees the reason for this as rooted in the state’s anomalous hybrid nature, combining both indigenous and settler components. I view it as an inversion and undermining of traditional Jewish stereotypes, one that inspires a disturbing perception of artificiality and inauthenticity. Here’s where we agree: Israel has come to be appear as a monstrosity in the eyes of much of the liberal public. A critic might protest, but its actions are in fact monstrous! A dispassionate defender will respond, compared to what and whom? Anti-Israelists are defined precisely by their refusal to answer this question by taking the measure of Israel as a whole, which is not a monstrous societal mixture but a normal one, unique as all societies are but also as heterogenous and diverse and complex as any other.

What Israel seeks above all else is normalization, and the overriding goal of anti-Israelists is to bring about its denormalization. The fact that Israel has a particular history, demographic, and set of laws and institutions specific to it is not a rationale for declaring it criminally abnormal. It is simply the law of nations that they all possess singular and idiosyncratic features as well as more typical ones. I don’t mean here to downplay Israel’s many serious problems, its injustices past and present, or its need for reforms of various kinds, but rather to suggest that its defects do not thereby make it inherently problematic.

If the argument is that Israel’s character as the expression of Jewish national self-determination is what makes opposition to it antisemitic, I would insist that the state’s Jewishness is today secondary to its Israeliness. Its citizenry, both Jewish and non-Jewish, has become much more diverse than during the era of its founding. When it was more stereotypically a Jewish state, more David than Goliath, more a refuge for Jews fleeing oppression than a launching point for zealous religious settlers, it was naturally less controversial than it is now. But the changes that characterize this transformation are far from only negative; on the contrary, Israel is its own peculiar—and fascinating—amalgamation with many admirable features that Americans might well envy. More to the point, such changes are the inevitable consequence of Israeliness taking on its own distinctive identity over decades, and if not severing its overt connections to the kinds of Jewishness that developed among Diaspora populations then at least gradually distancing itself. This drifting apart was implicit and even overt in the Zionist project from its inception. It certainly has a dark side, but even that must not be viewed in isolation or offer justification for Israel’s negation.

You don’t have to love Israel to defend its existence and hope for its improvement under conditions of peace and accommodation with Palestinians and all its neighbors. But for that to happen, those same parties must finally acknowledge its legitimacy, and not merely its provisional reality. And for that to happen, anti-Israelism must go the way of antisemitism, a charge no one but an imbecile or Nazi would willfully embrace.  


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Jacob Howland

Leon Kass hadn't really read the Bible until he found himself teaching Genesis to freshmen at the University of Chicago. Three decades later, he published his widely acclaimed The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis. Now he’s published his commentary on Exodus.