November 3, 2023 | Reading Time: 7 minutes
‘The right to defend and the act of revenge are different things. Civilization depends on the first. It’s threatened by the second’
An interview with the author of The New Hate and The Politics of Fear.
Since Oct. 7, and the onset of the Israel-Hamas war, reports of antisemitic threats and attacks have soared across Europe and America, where most of the world’s Jews live outside Israel. In France, there have been 719 antisemitic acts and 389 arrests, according to USA Today. In Germany, there have been 202 antisemitic acts every week, a 240 percent increase.
The Anti-Defamation League said that it has recorded more than 310 antisemitic acts in the United States between Oct. 7 and Oct. 23. “Of those,” USA Today reported, “190 were directly linked to the war between Israel and Hamas, the group said. Overall, acts of harassment, vandalism and assault in the US are up by 388 percent over last year.”
Islamophobia appears to be rising in tandem. Palestine Legal, an advocacy defending the constitutional rights of “people in the US who speak out for Palestinian freedom,” has been tracking the trend. In an Oct. 24 Twitter thread, the group reported that “across the US, people advocating for Palestinian rights are facing a wave of McCarthyite backlash targeting their livelihoods and careers. In the last two weeks, Palestine Legal has responded to over 260 such incidents.”
“Is the antisemitism of the left as disgusting as the antisemitism of the right? Of course,” says Arthur Goldwag. “Is it as dangerous? I would say yes, but not because I think ‘the left’ as a whole is out to defame or harm Jews, but because leftists who do Jew-bait hurt the left.”
“We have spoken to people being fired from their jobs for sharing social media posts or signing statements that support Palestinian human rights,” Palestine Legal’s thread went on to say. “We have written to universities, including Harvard, demanding that they protect students being severely doxxed and harassed by anti-Palestinian vigilante groups … We’ve spoken to professors who are being questioned, whose classes are being canceled and are being locked out of their emails for supporting Palestinian rights or who have faced calls for removal.”
To put this in perspective, I talked to Arthur Goldwag, author of The New Hate: Fear and Loathing on the Populist Right. Published in 2012, that book predicted what the GOP would become after Barack Obama’s presidency. I think it also captured what American politics became after terrorists flew jetliners in the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.
Arthur (who is a subscriber to this humble newsletter!) is also author of The Politics of Fear: The Peculiar Persistence of American Paranoia, a followup to The New Hate. It’s due out early next year. I started our interview by asking whether today’s backlash against Arabs and Muslims is as bad as the one that terrorized them after Sept. 11.
AG: I would have said no if I hadn’t read recently Susan Faludi’s The Terror Dream: Myth and Misogyny in an Insecure America, which was revelatory. Back then, I was in a bubble in lefty Brooklyn and had a corporate job; I wasn’t online 24/7 and we didn’t have cable TV. I didn’t experience the insane cognitive dissonance directly and since I’m not Muslim, I didn’t experience the backlash either. But it was there.
Television pundits were insisting on America’s fundamental innocence and vulnerability. Some claimed that women had forsworn feminism for George Bush’s and first responders’ rugged manliness. Meanwhile, the police were spying on American Muslims and rounding up immigrants, and the government was torturing people overseas.
I’m still in Brooklyn and the circles I move in are very Palestinian solidarity-minded. I don’t know anyone who isn’t upset at the carnage in Israel, but they are upset about the bombing in Gaza too.
I’m horrified but not baffled by it. There’s a lot of history. I think more of that context is getting acknowledged in the news now than then – there are more reporters and commentators providing it in the mainstream media. But people are shocked and angry, too.
Most here don’t know the first thing about Israel and Palestine. Some are taking advantage of the horror to erase the Palestinian side of the story. As the death toll in Gaza rises, I suspect the mood might shift. I get the hysteria and the anger – I even sympathize with some of it.
But the right to defend and the act of revenge are different things. Civilization depends on the first. It’s threatened by the second.
JS: I suspect a lot of non-Jewish Americans who have no links to American Jews don’t appreciate the dangers presented by American antisemitism. Drawing from your forthcoming book, can you explain why this deeply-rooted force has no visible end? Case in point this.
AG: I would start by saying that what innocent Jews in Israel just experienced is not something that can happen to Jewish people in the United States. The historical analogy for what happened there on October 7 is not pogroms or the Holocaust, which were enacted against powerless Jewish minorities, often by the state itself or with the state’s approval. A better but still inexact analogy would be the anti-colonial violence in Algeria or India, or the ethnic violence in Rwanda or Serbia.
Jews make up a little over 2 percent of the US. We are a minority, although we are far from powerless. We have been targets for antisemitic hatred. Some of it was Christian successionism (the Jews killed Jesus and Christians now have the covenantal relationship with God); some of it is cultural (Jews are greedy and vulgar and should be prevented from joining nice clubs); some of it is racial (Jews are a lesser race themselves and they weaponize minorities to attack host nations).
Around the time of the Russian Revolution, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forged document created in Russia that purported to prove that Jews had a long-term plan to destroy Christendom and replace it with a Davidic superstate, began circulating all over the world. Henry Ford was its biggest promoter in America; Adolf Hitler was a big promoter in Europe. Hamas, as I remember, explicitly cites it in its charter and it remains enormously influential in the Middle East.
Protocols of the Elders of Zion-style antisemitism is built on the foundation of anti-Catholic and anti-Masonic documents that preceded it – in fact it plagiarizes some of them directly. But it forms a full-blown philosophy and theory of history for the people who believe it.
Ford had a big following. In the 1930s, as the threat of a European war loomed again, isolationist America First congressmen read the Protocols into the Congressional Record. After World War II and the Holocaust, only extreme white supremacists continued to read it, but it has been revived on the conspiracist right, and by Maga as well, which doesn’t refer to it directly, but has adopted a lot of its tropes.
Then there is the threat to Jews in cities – Orthodox and Hasidic Jews who are bearded and fringed and hatted and otherwise immediately identifiable. There are numerous cases of random violence directed against them, many of them not by white supremacists but by African Americans, some of them members of religious groups like the Nation of Islam that regard Jews as Satanic; some just resentful of another urban minority that enjoys a modicum of white privilege.
And then there is anti-Zionism, which groups like the Anti-Defamation League conflate with antisemitism, but that isn’t necessarily antisemitic. Some anti-Zionists have made ghastly comments over the past weeks about how there are no innocent Jews and how Hamas is a legitimate liberation movement that expose them as Jew haters, which can be incredibly painful for Jewish sympathizers and allies.
I’m not immune to that pain, but I’m not worried about being targeted by Hamas over here. It could happen. Al Qaeda targeted New York and Washington, after all. I’m more worried about being killed by a gun nut, because there are mass shootings every day, and some of them are directed against minorities – Hispanics, Blacks, and, yes, Jews.
But what scares me the most aren’t the inflammatory words of cosplaying college radicals; it’s pronouncements by Putin- and Viktor Orban-friendly Republicans about Jewish billionaire George Soros and his plot to destroy world finance; and by evangelicals who are all about the Judeo-Christian tradition, but really just want Israel to build a new Temple so the End Times can get rolling. Now that we have a Christianist House speaker, I’m starting to worry that Jews may become a target of the government as well as of the varieties of antisemitism.
JS: How much is racism actually influencing Israel’s response to Oct. 7? It certainly did in America’s response to Sept 11. Are there parallels?
AG: Yes, but with big differences from what we have here. The US is colorblind in theory and law but not in practice – white backlash accounts for a lot of the energy and appeal of the revanchist right.
But while Israel claims to respect religious freedom, it was conceived and is governed explicitly as an ethnostate, the Jewish homeland. Blood – who your mother’s mother was – has a lot of bearing on not just your socioeconomic status but your legal identity and rights.
And then there is the fact that huge numbers of displaced Palestinians live in places that are either occupied by the Israeli military or under endless siege. Israel’s policy over the decades has been one of divide and conquer, pitting Palestinians against each other while Jewish facts on the ground are established on the West Bank.
At the same time Israeli Palestinians are receiving the benefits of a lot of social welfare and educational outreach. Hamas and Fatah are physically and philosophically divided. By design, there is neither a physical place nor a credible organization for an economically viable and politically sustainable independent state of Palestine.
At the same time – and as we just witnessed – many Palestinians hate Jews with a genocidal zeal. So yes, structural hatreds account for a lot. But if Jews are a tiny minority in the US and elsewhere, in Israel they are the state. So a lot of the analogies with the US break down.
JS: Do liberals have an “antisemitism crisis” or is this an instance of illiberals reaching for the margins to smear everyone to their left?
AG: The litmus test of antisemitism is ascribing negative behaviors, beliefs and characteristics of some Jews or Jewish-identified movements and causes as immutable attributes of an entire people.
Not to victim-blame, but because the state of Israel and its advocates so often claim to be speaking and acting on behalf of the entire Jewish people (remember when Donald Trump called Benjamin Netanyahu “your prime minister” in a speech to Republican Jews in Las Vegas?), some of Zionism’s defenders sometimes open themselves up to it.
So is the antisemitism of the left as disgusting as the antisemitism of the right? Of course. Is it as dangerous? I’d say yes, but not because I think “the left” as a whole is out to defame or harm Jews, but because leftists who do Jew-bait hurt the left. I see evidence of antisemitism in the pro-Russia right and left, too, and the anti-Ukraine right and left. But as an American, I still regard Christian nationalism and Donald Trump’s authoritarian populism as clearer and more present dangers.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.