Within living memory of the Holocaust, after which the world said it would never happen again, antisemitism has returned.
But what is antisemitism and why should its return be cause for grave concern, not only for Jews but for all of us?
Historically, antisemitism has been hard to define, because it expresses itself in such contradictory ways. Before the Holocaust, Jews were hated because they were poor and because they were rich; because they were communists and because they were capitalists; because they kept to themselves and because they infiltrated everywhere; because they clung to ancient religious beliefs and because they were rootless cosmopolitans who believed nothing.
So what is antisemitism? Let’s be clear – not liking people because they’re different isn’t antisemitism. It’s xenophobia. Criticizing Israel isn’t antisemitism: it’s part of the democratic process, and Israel is a democracy.
Antisemitism is something much more dangerous – it means persecuting Jews and denying them the right to exist collectively as Jews with the same rights as everyone else.
It’s a prejudice that like a virus, has survived over time by mutating.
So in the Middle Ages, Jews were persecuted because of their religion.
In the 19th and 20th centuries they were reviled because of their race.
Today, Jews are attacked because of the existence of their nation state, Israel. Denying Israel’s right to exist is the new antisemitism.
And just as antisemitism has mutated, so has its legitimization. Each time, as the persecution descended into barbarity, the persecutors reached for the highest form of justification available.
In the Middle Ages, it was religion.
In post-Enlightenment Europe it was science: the so called scientific study of race.
Today it is human rights.
Whenever you hear human rights invoked to deny Israel’s right to exist, you are hearing the new antisemitism.
So, why has it returned? There are many reasons but one root cause is the cognitive failure called scapegoating.
When bad things happen to a group, its members can ask one of two questions: “What did we do wrong?” or “Who did this to us?” The entire fate of the group will depend on which it chooses.
If it asks, “What did we do wrong?” it has begun the process of healing the harm. If instead it asks, “Who did this to us?” it has defined itself as a victim. It will then seek a scapegoat to blame for all its problems.
Classically this has been the Jews, because for a thousand years they were the most conspicuous non-Christian minority in Europe and today because Israel is the most conspicuous non-Muslim country in the Middle East.
The argument is always the same. We are innocent; therefore they are guilty. Therefore if we are to be free, they – the Jews or the state of Israel – must be destroyed. That is how the great evils begin.
Why then should we all care about this? After all, if we’re not Jewish, what has it got to do with us?
The answer is that anti-Semitism is about the inability of a group to make space for difference.
And because we are all different, the hate that begins with Jews never ends with Jews.
It wasn’t Jews alone who suffered under Hitler. It wasn’t Jews alone who suffered under Stalin. It isn’t Jews alone who suffer under the radical Islamists and others who deny Israel’s right to exist.
Antisemitism is the world’s most reliable early warning sign of a major threat to freedom, humanity and the dignity of difference.
It matters to all of us.
Which is why we must fight it together.