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On the strangeness of contemporary antisemitism

Can we agree on one thing? That contemporary antisemitism is profoundly strange. 

It seems that antisemitism is everywhere these days. Violent attacks on Jews in Copenhagen and Paris come on top of surveys and monitoring exercises that suggest that antisemitic incidents and attitudes may be on the rise in Europe.

Yet it is perhaps more accurate to say that discourse about antisemitism is everywhere these days. The question of what antisemitism is, how it can be measured, what causes it and how to address it, are all heavily contested. This is a highly emotive debate in which, on the one hand, some argue that antisemitism is routinely disguised, excused, or denied, and on the other hand, others argue that antisemitism is exaggerated or used cynically for political ends.

In this essay I do not intend to take a position on who is right in specific controversies about antisemitism. Rather, I want to focus on why the antisemitism debate is so heated and there is so little unanimity.

My contention is that the antisemitism debate is so problematic because the strangeness of contemporary antisemitism is such that existing conceptual frameworks are barely able to cope. One can view the debate as a succession of more or less desperate attempts to ‘fit’ antisemitism into narratives that would explain it – narratives that are often inadequate to the task. It is only when we begin to recognize the strangeness of contemporary antisemitism that there is any hope of understanding or responding to it.

My starting point is to recognise both the long shadow that the Holocaust casts over antisemitism today and the profound social changes that have occurred globally since then. On the one hand, the Holocaust over-determines the meaning of what antisemitism is, acting as the paradigmatic antisemitic event to which all others are implicitly or explicitly compared (when in fact there is a case for arguing that the Holocaust was exceptional for the colossal scale and systematic nature of the genocide). On the other hand, the position of Jews has changed radically since 1945, particularly given the establishment of the state of Israel and the social mobility and liberation from overt discrimination of Jews in most western countries.

By ‘strange’, I mean the following:

  1. A confusing and unsettling disjuncture, between Jews’ comparatively recent experience of genocide and the comparative success that followed it. This makes contemporary antisemitism a bewildering mixture of the familiar and the alien. 
  2. A lack of fit between contemporary antisemitism and the narratives and concepts used to explain it.
  3. The frequent ironies and paradoxes that are thrown up by contemporary antisemitism.

In what follows, I will outline some of the strange aspects of contemporary antisemitism. I do so not with the aim of ‘resolving’ them and making the strange explicable, but as a way of highlighting the difficulties they represent. It may be that, in the short term at least, the most appropriate response to antisemitism might be one that accepts the discomfort that its strangeness generates.

Strange definitions

Antisemitism has always been a terrible and fundamentally inaccurate term. Not only was it coined by the self-defined antisemite Wilhelm Marr in the late nineteenth century, its simplistic definition of Jews as a ‘semitic’ people is unsustainable. Insofar as a semitic people can even be said to exist, both now and in the past, Jews would only be one part of it. In any case, the question of whether all contemporary Jews do in fact descend from the Middle East is highly unclear.

On top of these issues, what ‘anti’ actually means is also obscure. An opposition to the physical existence of all Jews all the time? An opposition to certain ‘Jewish’ characteristics? An opposition to certain things Jews do and believe? And which Jews anyway?

But if antisemitism was always a strange and unsatisfactory concept, it has been rendered even stranger and more inadequate in recent decades. In a world in which the cruder forms of racialised thinking that would define Jews as semites has been marginalized – even by many of those who are sometimes identified as antisemites - to persist with the term seems even more foolish. The situation is compounded by the existence of antisemitism in the Middle East, among ‘semitic’ peoples themselves, which is technically rendered impossible by the term.

Yet it appears we are stuck with the term. Alternatives such as ‘Judeophobia’ and ‘Jew-hatred’ have not caught on and are unlikely to in the future. So a multi-faceted and highly contested issue continues to be funneled through a concept that is ever more inadequate to the task. This is perhaps understandable – popular concepts are usually slow to die – but it certainly has strange effects.

Strange parallels

The sheer extremity of the violence to which Jews have been subjected to throughout history, renders contemporary antisemitism strange. It is hard to think of antisemitism without thinking of the Holocaust, the Crusades, the Inquisition, blood libels and pogroms. The problem is that putting all manifestations of hostility to Jews under the category of antisemitism renders its contemporary, and less bloody, forms somehow less consequential. Compare the Holocaust to, for example, an unpleasant remark about the ‘Jewish lobby’ by a politician with no other history of hostility to Jews, and you risk trivializing both: the Holocaust becomes no more than an aggregation of unpleasant remarks or the unpleasant remark becomes irrelevantly small.

It is far from clear whether every form, contemporary and historical, of hostility to Jews, are all connected to each other. It is far from clear whether there is a ‘continuum’ that starts at unpleasant remarks and that ends at the gates of Auschwitz. By lumping everything together it not only becomes difficult to understand forms of antisemitism on their own terms. Yet the reverse is also problematic - creating hierarchies of ‘seriousness’ in antisemitism could blunt the possibility of effective action against ‘lesser’ manifestations.

The strange parallels between contemporary and historical antisemitism create an oddly hallucinatory effect: the present becomes both impossibly remote from the past and uncomfortably close. The vehemence with which parallels are made and unmade in the antisemitism debate reflects the desire to ‘fix’ this constantly shifting backdrop into something less strange.

Strange denials

The Holocaust should have been the antisemite’s finest hour. Here, at last, there was the will and imagination to be done with the Jewish problem forever! It was not completely successful, but the 6 million dead was an extraordinary testament to the power of Jew-hatred.

But who celebrates the Holocaust today? In fact, who celebrated it at the time? Not only was the genocide never publicly acknowledged (although it was widely known privately), but those who continue the Nazi tradition of Jew-hatred have almost all denied that the Holocaust ever happened.

The Holocaust represents both the triumph of antisemitism and its discrediting. There was something about it that was too extreme, too violent, too disturbing; it could not be fully embraced. Further, modern antisemitism often relies on a fantasy of Jewish omnipotence which could not be sustained in the face of 6 million murdered. Better, then, to uphold myths of Jewry’s Satanic power through a fantasy that they could fabricate evidence for a genocide, somehow hiding millions of supposedly dead Jews in the process.

The strangeness of Holocaust denial is part of a wider strangeness, a wider denial. It isn’t just that neo-Nazis and some Islamic militants deny the Holocaust, but that antisemitism is generally denied by most of those accused of it. This is, of course, particularly the case for those pro-Palestinian activists on the left who have a history of anti-racist and even anti-Nazi activism. But even some of those who are otherwise unabashed in expressing hatred to Jews may try and escape accusations of antisemitism: even Holocaust-denying Islamic fundamentalists often try to avoid the strongest forms of genocidal rhetoric in favour of a discourse that provides for the theoretical continuance of some kind of Jewish people in some kind of form. Denials of antisemitism, or at the very least denials of implication in extreme forms of antisemitism, extend from the most ambiguous cases of Jew-hatred to the most clear-cut. What results is a politics of antisemitism that is a constant play of accusations and counter-accusations, an incessant war over definition and judgement. Sincerity becomes a battleground as both accusers and accused are told they are acting in bad faith.

That is not to say that denials of antisemitism are ipso facto evidence for antisemitism. Nor, conversely, that all accusations of antisemitism are necessarily made in good faith. The play of accusation and denial is such that, much of the time, antisemitism disappears into a fog of controversy that is impossible to penetrate for those who are not directly involved. It is precisely this uncertainty that feeds the vehemence of accuser and accused, as both try to find clarity where none exists. The alternative to uncertainty is, too often, an ineffable strangeness.

Strange antisemites

One of the consequences of the prevalence of denials of antisemitism, is a growing disconnect between antisemitism and antisemite. Calling someone an antisemite appears to suggest a consistent identity based on a convinced and thoroughgoing Jew-hatred. In the absence, except on the fringes, of those to whom this identity can be easily applied, accusations of antisemitism increasingly avoid such ascription. There is much more traction in identifying antisemitic discourse and practice than in identifying antisemitic individuals.

What this can lead to though is a bewildering situation in which antisemitism can be produced ‘by accident’ or against the expressed convictions of the person accused. Antisemitsm can become entirely de-personalised at the same time as it is often felt, for those accused of it, very personally.

Again, this disconnect between antisemitism and antisemite contributes to the strange, chimeric quality of contemporary antisemitism debates. Who is being accused? Of what? And what would it take to not be antisemitic? These are questions to which accusers and accused may struggle to articulate clear answers.

Strange victims

The disconnect between antisemitism and antisemite is related to a similar disconnect between antisemitism and Jew. Antisemitism is supposed to be, after all, a hatred of Jews. The problem is that there are many different kinds of Jew and hating them all is not as simple a matter as one might think. Even the Nazis had to work hard over time to create a situation in which Germans could abandon even those individual Jews to whom they might have felt sympathetic. In any case, the Nazis were in many ways exceptional as most antisemitism throughout history has been contingent on local factors, targeting local Jews without the desire or ability to destroy every Jew (albeit the fact that discourses surrounding such local antisemitism may well have had universalistic elements).

Today, even as the geographic and cultural diversity of Jewry has diminished through genocide, globalization and emigration to Israel, the differences between Jews are more apparent than ever. Mass media and the internet mean that disagreements among Jews are not only visible to all, they also draw on and are in their turn manipulated by non-Jewish actors. Such is the case with antisemitism. Beyond the Holocaust and other such catastrophic cases, there is no more unanimity among Jews as to what constitutes antisemitism than there is among non-Jews. Jews experience antisemitism differently from each other; their tolerance for and sensitivity to certain kinds of discourse and practice varies widely.

What this diversity means is that those accused of antisemitism can bolster their denials through mobilizing particular kinds of Jews (who may or not be considered Jews by other Jews) in their defence. The converse is true too, as other kinds of Jews can mobilise non-Jewish opinion to support their own accusations of antisemitism. The situation is further complicated when accusations of antisemitism are rebutted with the defence that the accused is Jewish or has Jewish origins - in fact, sometimes it is only the accusation of antisemitism that reveals or revives Jewish identity.

The category of ‘victim’ is therefore an unstable one in the case of contemporary antisemitism. This leads to a strange situation in which the connection of antisemitism to Jews is rendered highly unclear.

Strange power

The Holocaust was the apotheosis of a particular power dynamic in which Jews existed entirely at the mercy of their ‘host’ society. While Jews did have agency in post enlightenment pre-Nazi Germany and Austro-Hungary – as politicians, intellectuals and as a largely prosperous bourgeoisie – from 1933 this agency was swiftly removed from them. This ultimate powerlessness, in which Diaspora Jews have only a provisional and reversible control over their destiny as individuals and as a collective, is of course the justification for Zionism and the modern state of Israel. The establishment of the state in 1948 and its rapid development into a regional superpower, considerably complicated Jews’ relationship to power and – crucially – antisemitism’s relationship to power.

If antisemitism is understood simply as the embodiment of power itself (rather than something that may or may not lead to the excercise of power), then antisemitism today should be, if not impossible, then certainly unlikely. Jews have their own powerful state, the support of powerful elements within western democracies at least, and in most of the countries in which they live they are largely (although by no means exclusively) middle class and well integrated into the power structures of their host societies. In contrast, those against whom accusations of antisemitism are frequently made include Islamic minorities with higher levels of deprivation, who are themselves sometimes discriminated against and often lack powerful supporters in their host societies. For this reason, those sections of the left who are most strongly invested in an intrinsic connection between antisemitism (and other racisms) and powerlessness, sometimes either dismiss antisemitism as trivial, as marginal or simply do not see it at all.

At the same time, those who make accusations of antisemitism are often implicitly wedded to equally simplistic equations between antisemitism and powerlessness. The power and agency available to Jews is downplayed and the powerfulness of Islam and of the political left is magnified. Israel muddies the waters still further. It is never entirely clear whether Israel exists to negate antisemitism – through negating the powerlessness of exile - or to provide a refuge from it. There is a quandary for contemporary Zionism here: if Israel exists to negate antisemitism then it has failed, but if Israel exists to give Jews agency power then that agency must be denied if the continuing existence of antisemitism is to be explained.

Debates over contemporary antisemitism therefore nurture strangely simplistic views of power, in which Jews are either afforded no power or total power. The opposite alternative – to disconnect antisemitism from questions of power completely – is equally problematic. The kind of conception of power that could cope with the strange nature of contemporary antisemitism – power as opaque, contradictory, contested, multivalent – remains elusive, at least outside the rarified confines of sociological theory.

Strange violence

The recent Paris and Copenhagen killings exemplify the strange nature of contemporary antisemitic violence. The perpetrators were small groups of activists, who perpetrated their attacks without the support either of the state in which the attacks or occurred, or of any other state. At the same time, they were also supported both implicitly and in practical (although, as yet, unclear) terms by more amorphous organisations and movements. The question of what and whom the attackers represented, is still being debated. Such attacks raise the possibility that the most lethal forms of antisemitism may be perpetrated by highly unrepresentative or opaquely representative forces. At the same time, the response of many Jews to those attacks was to conflate the fear of such small groups with fear of a wider antisemitic trend.

Historically speaking, there are limited precedents for this situation. Pogroms and other lethal attacks on Jews were sometimes not sanctioned by the authorities in their host nations, but they were often unofficially tolerated or at the very least attracted the sympathies of an important faction of the majority population. A historical situation in which minority insurgents against a society attack Jews as both a proxy and as the apotheosis of that society, is hard to find.

Contemporary antisemitism therefore becomes strange as its violence is erratic and the ultimate sources of that violence are uncertain. Once again, the response to that strangeness is, too often, to either conflate exceptional antisemitic violence into a more consistent narrative or to dismiss it for its very exceptionality.

Strange causes

The project of tracing the ‘causes’ of antisemitism is both controversial and ubiquitous. Identifying causation is, for some, an often-threatening activity as it seemingly risks justifying antisemitism. This can lead, in its more extreme forms, to assigning causation to ineffable entities such as a virus-like ‘oldest hatred’. On the other hand, scholarship on antisemitism can be almost obsessive in seeking an ultimate cause for atrocities such as the Holocaust, or at least some kind of satisfying explanation of why it happened.

The modern state of Israel has made the issue of causation even more fraught. Again, it has never been clear whether Israel exists to negate or provide refuge from antisemitism. In any case, it is very difficult for Zionists – and most Jews do fall into that category, as well as many non-Jews – to contemplate the possibility that the state of Israel may have created antisemitism that would not have otherwise existed. This reluctance is understandable as it can come close to ‘blaming the victims’ but it also risks seeing antisemitism as an unvarying constant to which the existence or otherwise of Israel is irrelevant. Conversely, those who do point to Israel as a stimulus for antisemitism can neglect the ways in which opposition to Zionism and Israel can draw on older discourses and practices of antisemitism. It is in the interest of both Zionists and anti-Zionists to refuse to explore how their beliefs may be connected to practices of antisemitism.

A strange kind of consensus often prevails throughout this apparently polarising debate: explanation is conflated with justification; a victim can only be powerless; antisemitism is either eternal or ephemeral. Israel is thus either the blame-worthy powerful stimulator to an entirely conjunctural antisemitism, or it is the latest innocent object of an antisemitism that refuses to die.

What becomes difficult is a nuanced evaluation of the ways that Israel, Zionism and anti-Zionism embedded in a complex web of causation with antisemitism. Once more, the strangeness of contemporary antisemitism is elided by strategies of conflation and denial that assimilate it into narratives that are easier to mobilise politically easier to live with.

Strange days indeed…

The chasms that separate different positions in the antisemitism debate are thus, in part at least, a function of the threatening strangeness of contemporary antisemitism, and in their turn they create more strangeness. Consensus and agreement seems hard to envisage, at least for the moment. What might be possible though is broader recognition of the strangeness. People who cannot agree about antisemitism may be able to agree – perhaps with an edge of bitterness - that these are strange days indeed, and that to participate in the antisemitism debate is often involves simultaneously encountering, effacing and benefiting from that strangeness.

To recognize strangeness is to start to recognize that new thinking is required, that existing narratives are inadequate. Whatever the future of antisemitism might consist of, that future needs to be understood in ways that learn from the past but respond to the uniqueness of the present. At the moment though, the most productive approach to contemporary antisemitism is one that can appreciate its oddness, its ironies, its paradoxes – in a word, its strangeness.

About the author

Keith Kahn-Harris is a London-based sociologist and writer. He teaches at Birkbeck College, Leo Baeck College and is a Fellow of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research. His most recent book is ‘Uncivil War: The Israel Conflict in the Jewish Community’. His website is kahn-harris.org and he tweets on @KeithKahnHarris.


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