“The bad days are back,” wrote Batya Ungar-Sargon in the Forward in December. “Orthodox Jews are living through a new age of pogroms. This week, as we celebrated the Festival of Lights, there were no fewer than 10 anti-Semitic attacks in the New York area alone.”
Anti-Semitism is occasionally called “the oldest hatred.” It thrums across continents and eras, finding new targets for old prejudices. But where, exactly, does it come from? Why is it such a hardy weed? And why does this era feel so thick with it?
Deborah Lipstadt, a professor of modern Jewish history and Holocaust studies at Emory University, is the author of Antisemitism: Here and Now. On this episode of The Ezra Klein Show, we discuss the earliest forms, tropes, and rationales for anti-Semitism and the cultural reasons for their persistence. Lipstadt explains the way right- and left-wing anti-Semitism differ and examines the charges of anti-Semitism levied against some modern politicians, like Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn. We talk about anti-Semitism in the age of social media and rising party polarization, and about the convergence and divergence of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism: What distinguishes a legitimate critique of Israel from an anti-Semitism slur towards it?
This episode airs on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It’s a reminder that the very worst days lie in living memory, in an age more similar to our own than we like to admit. To learn more, here’s a lightly edited transcript of part of my conversation with Lipstadt on The Ezra Klein Show.
Let me start with the basic question. The perception that many have is that anti-Semitism is on the rise in America on the rise globally. Is that true?
I can’t give you a definitive answer. But what I can tell you without doubt is that the anti-Semites feel more emboldened. They feel freer to take violent actions, to draw a swastika on the side of the building, or to knock the hat off of some of a Jewish person walking across the street. The moral guardrails which kept people from saying certain things and doing certain things have dropped down.
Something I’ve wondered about is the role social and international media plays in what seems like an increased prevalence of anti-Semitic sentiment. When there is an attack in New York, I know about it very quickly in California. And I know much more about the debate over anti-Semitism in the UK Labour Party than I probably would have 30 years ago. There is a way in which the globalization and digitization of media makes it easier to see something that perhaps was always there.
I agree the delivery system is much quicker. I think the other thing that’s happened is the concept of “lone wolf” has become an anachronism — it no longer applies. The murderer in Pittsburgh, the murderer in San Diego, and even the murderer in Christchurch, New Zealand, all were citing the same sources and the same modus operandi. They may never even be sitting on the same continent, much less the same room, but they share information and details and approaches. So that’s the other thing that’s happened.
Let’s take a step back. What is anti-Semitism? How do you define it?
I would say that anti-Semitism has a template with three elements: money and finance, intellect used maliciously and nefariously, and having [disproportionate] power in society. That all ties together into a conspiratorial notion of the Jew wanting to do evil — to use their financial ability and their cunning and their power against non-Jewish people.
It helps to contrast anti-Semitism with racism. The racist looks upon the person of color as lesser — as not being smart or capable. So the racist is punching down. The anti-Semite, who’s often the same person as the racist, punches up. They look at the Jew as someone to be feared, someone with the ability to do me harm or damage.
How did this worldview take hold? What are the roots of it?
Anti-Semitism is often called the longest or the oldest hatred for very good reason. I find the roots of anti-Semitism in the New Testament depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus. The way it’s told is that the Jews killed Jesus. Now, of course, Jesus was a Jew. But that’s a fact. And remember we’re sending facts aside.
The Jews killed Jesus. Why? Because he wanted to change to chase the money changers out of the temple. So they’ve got your finance. Now what did they do? They went to the Romans to say, “Crucify him.” And the Romans didn’t want to do it, but then the Jews pushed and managed to convince Rome, the greatest power in the universe at the time. And they went ahead and did it. There you have the template.
Over the millennia, this template was used by church leaders not only to differentiate Judaism from Christianity but to demonize the Jew. That’s where it has its roots, but it migrates. It migrates to Voltaire and Karl Marx and others and eventually to the Nazi party. That same template moves to different areas, to different places, to different outlooks. Today, you have anti-Semitism from the political right and the political left, and they both use the same template: money, power, intellect, cunning.