January 31, 2008
American Anti-Semitism, New and Old
— Sarah Imhoff
The idea of a "new anti-Semitism" has ignited scholarly controversy in the United States for almost a decade now; many sources, a Nation article among them, call it a myth, while one book's subtitle calls it "The Current Crisis." If the original kind of anti-Semitism was a brand of racism that discriminated against Jews as individual people, the "new" anti-Semitism is characterized mainly by anti-Zionism and prejudice against Jews as a collective people. In a gross oversimplification, some explain that the target of the "old" anti-Semitism was the individual Jew, while the target of the new anti-Semitism is Israel. But while much of the American Jewish scholarly community is discussing whether and when anti-Israel discourse is anti-Semitic, and whether or not this anti-Semitism is "new," much of what everyone recognizes as anti-Semitism—without any qualifying age-adjectives—continues to occur unabated in the US.
Several recent and public anti-Semitic episodes demonstrate this strong continuation of the characteristics and motivations of the original sense of the word "anti-Semitism." For instance, anti-Semites continue to base their hatred on race and lineage and to use symbols, such as the swastika, to call attention to the Jew as a member of a biological group, and not a supporter of Israel. In November a clinical psychology professor at Columbia University's Teachers College discovered a large swastika spray-painted on her office door. Two times in the weeks before, she had received anti-Semitic flyers in her mailbox. Just before that, on October 10, a black professor at the college found a noose by her door. Almost all of the news coverage that mentioned the swastika also mentioned the noose, creating a parallel. Although Americans rarely characterize anti-Semitism as a species of racism, these events at Columbia and their subsequent news coverage indicate a distinctive racial component. Indeed, the swastika itself is a sign of racial categories. Hitler wanted to exterminate those with Jewish blood; he found cultural and religious categories irrelevant. The very fact that the symbol of the swastika still holds so much cultural power suggests that those race- or lineage-based categories still have powerful sway over our thinking.
Likewise, other contemporary events hardly fall into the category of
a "new anti-Semitism" when they recapitulate the millennia-old
trope of blaming Jews for the death of Jesus. In December ten young adults
assaulted three New York subway riders because of their "Happy Hanukkah"
exclamations. First the attackers hurled anti-Semitic slurs, and one reportedly
remarked: "Oh, Hanukkah. That's the day that the Jews killed Jesus."
Physical assault followed. (The silver lining to the story, however, is
that a Muslim student from Bangladesh came to the defense of the three
Along with continuing racial hatred and blame for Jesus' death, stereotypes of the Shylock-type Jew, money-obsessed and controlling, still have robust support in the United States. In November, before the two events described above, the Anti-Defamation League published its new poll on American anti-Semitism, concluding from its results that of 2,000 Americans randomly selected for the telephone poll, fifteen percent were "unquestionably anti-Semitic." This number has been almost unchanged since 2002, along with the contents of the poll, which asked respondents to agree or disagree with some stereotypical accusations leveled against Jews. In addition to reconfirming the "killers of Christ" prejudice (twenty-seven percent agreed), the most anti-Semitic respondents sang another familiar tune: "Jews wield too much power in the business world," "Jews have too much power in the US today," and "Jews have too much control and influence on Wall Street" were the statements most likely to elicit agreement (sixty-seven to eighty-four percent).
These results indicate the extent to which the very language of "old" and "new" is problematic. Such stark oppositions often function under the implicit assumption that the "new" somehow supercedes or replaces the "old," or that the "old" no longer occupies the place it once did (think of the contested history of Christian responses to the relationship between the "Old" and "New" Testaments). However, as recent events and the ADL poll demonstrate, the "old" anti-Semitism refuses to show signs of growing old at all, but seems to retain the same vigor it had several decades ago. Perhaps contemporary scholars should consider the possibility that by drawing attention to the "new" forms of anti-Semitism, they paradoxically allow the other, more deeply ingrained forms to abide. Instead of being categorized—misleadingly—as "old" or "new," all forms of anti-Semitism should be named and addressed as equally dangerous to the worth and dignity of human life.
References: You can see the complete results of the Anti-Defamation League's poll at http://www.adl.org/PresRele/ASUS_12/5159_12.htm.
Sarah Imhoff is a PhD candidate in the History of Judaism at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
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