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What’s your antisemitic poison? Conference tackles Jew-hatred at home and abroad

By Orit Arfa

(JNS) Scholars on antisemitism from Europe and the United States gathered at the Berlin campus of Indiana University’s European branch on June 30 to discuss “A Transatlantic Wave of Antisemitism? Jew-Hatred in Europe and the United States.”

The conference was organized by Indiana University’s Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism and spearheaded by faculty member, Günther Jikeli, an expert on European Muslim antisemitism.

 “There is a rise in antisemitism in the United States coming from the right, from the left,” the German-born Rikeli told JNS. “It’s really hard to say what the biggest threat is in the United States; we see it here in Europe longer. The immediate threat depends on the country. The more east you get, it’s from the right, and the more west, it’s from young Muslims.”

Professor Alvin Rosenfeld, director of the Bloomington-based Institute and scholar of anti-Semitism, addressed the American sphere, focusing on the most recent deadly shootings at synagogues in Pittsburgh and Southern California.

“Jews in America no longer feel immune to antisemitism,” he said.

The synagogue perpetrators aligned themselves with white-supremacist groups. The shooter at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue proclaimed that Jews are the “enemy of white people.” In turn, he inspired the Chabad of Poway teenage gunman in California, who told police: “Jews are committing genocide on my people. I want to kill Jews.”

“Such activities are fed by several sources, including a small but passionate Christian identity movement that dates back to the 19th century and today is undergoing a revival in the populist and nativist right,” said Rosenfeld.

Such far-right extremists may be small in number, “but they do feel energized and feel they could step out of the shadows and proudly make their case to the American public.”

While aspiring politicians from such groups have failed to take office, Rosenfeld noted the unprecedented success of progressive left politicians, such as Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar and Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who express public support for BDS and the weakening of America’s traditionally strong ties to Israel.

In contrast to the far-right, pro-Palestinian and left-wing supporters of the BDS-movement are wary of being called antisemites, said Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, co-founder and director of the California-based Amcha Initiative, which tracks BDS activity on American campuses. One approach to battling them is to “urge campus officials to treat antisemitic expression and behavior as other bigotries, like racism and sexism,” she said.

America’s robust protection of free speech and academic freedom, however, poses a challenge in institutionalizing an equation of BDS and antisemitism, unlike in Germany, where the Parliament, back in May, approved a motion to brand BDS as an expression of antisemitism, in part due to Germany’s sensitivity to boycotts of Jews.

In the United Kingdom, the political, progressive left is epitomized by Jeremy Corbyn and the current Labour Party, once a home for British Jews. Philip Spencer, emeritus professor of Holocaust and genocide studies at Kingston University, and a former Labour Party member, said that under Corbyn, the party does not equate antisemitism with racism, which it reserves for black-white relations.

“It doesn’t accept now that the State of Israel was a necessity for Jews after the Holocaust because after the Holocaust is over, it’s finished. It won’t happen again.” Rather, the British left perceive Israel and Zionism a variation of fascism and racism.

“On the right, antisemitism is about the ‘mistake’ of giving Jews rights, emancipation. … Antisemitism on the left is about Jews failing the test of emancipation,” said Spencer.

Corbyn, he said, overtook Labour, along with his anti-imperialist, anti-American radical cohorts, in part due to members’ disillusionment with the party’s past failures and more permissive voting rules.

This brand of anti-imperialist Jew-hatred has also gripped an imbalanced French media, fueled by anti-Israel sentiment among France’s sizeable Muslim community, said Yana Grinshpun, professor at Sorbonne Nouvelle.

“Antisemitism in France is intrinsically linked to Israel and anti-Zionism,” she said, adding that in large parts of French society, Muslims have “substituted” Jews. “Islamophobia has replaced antisemitism in Europe, which ‘doesn’t exist anymore.’”

France has experienced the highest number of violent, fatal antisemitic attacks in Europe, perpetrated mostly by young Muslims who often couch their grievances against Jews as grievances against Israeli policies.

Whereas a left-leaning Western Europe embraces the “universalist” Jew, in Eastern Europe, Jews are embraced for their particularism and nationalism, often expressed through religious practice and Zionism, explained Janos Gado, editor of Szombat, a monthly Jewish newsmagazine based in Budapest.

The nationalist Hungarian government under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán fancies portraying Hungary as a champion of Israel and Hungarian Jewry—a safe haven from the anti-Israel left and antisemitic migrants. However, the same government seeks to minimize any Hungarian role in Nazi crimes.

“The memory of the Holocaust is important, but it’s not supposed to overshadow grievances of the Hungarian nation,” said Gado, adding that a similar sentiment applies to Poland, where the “Polish law” made it an offense to attribute crimes of the Holocaust to the Polish nation.

And while antisemitism may seem to come from sectors at odds with each other, Rosenfeld warned that antisemitism often trumps any other ideology. “There are certain alliances today that could have not been imagined readily long ago. One of these things that bring these people together are hatred of Jews and, most importantly, the Jewish state.”

CAP: British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn speaking at the #StopTrident rally at Trafalgar Square, Feb. 27, 2016. Credit: Garry Knight via Wikimedia Commons.

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