On Wednesday, Pope Francis waded into the ongoing discussion about anti-Semitism. He told a Jewish audience, “To attack Jews is anti-Semitism, but an outright attack on the State of Israel is also anti-Semitism.”
What exactly is anti-Semitism? The term has been bandied about so often and in so many different contexts lately, we must consider whether we’re using it correctly. In an effort to understand that, I reached out to Kenneth L. Marcus, founder and president of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law (where my husband is an unpaid member of the Legal Advisory Board), which combats anti-Semitism on college campuses.
Marcus is also the author of a new book entitled, “The Definition of Anti-Semitism.” We recently spoke by phone about the term and its real-world applications.
Why do we need a book that defines anti-Semitism now?
I spend so much time in the trenches; there’s no end to work to be done on campuses around the country. There’s so much ignorance and confusion about the line between anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel. There needs to be some clarity. I wrote this to educate people in academia, policy makers, and the general public about what’s happening and where the line is between what’s anti-Semitism and what’s not.
What differentiates “the new anti-Semitism” from traditional anti-Semitism? Is it more dangerous?
Anti-Semitism is continually evolving. At one time, it was primarily religious prejudice. By the nineteenth century, it evolved to more of a racial hatred. Now we also have forms of anti-Semitism that relate more closely to the state of Israel. The new anti-Semitism provides a new guise for the older hatred. They’re equally dangerous; they’re both forms of racism or bigotry.
When was there a transition from one form to the other, and what prompted the change?
The new anti-Semitism can be traced back to the establishment to the state of Israel, but it became more prominent after the Six Day War in 1967. It became far more widespread after the onset of the Second Intifada. That significantly increased hostility toward Jews around the world. At the Durban I United Nations conference, this new anti-Semitism became much more deeply entrenched and pervasive. That was the moment the world took notice of the new anti-Semitism.
Walmart and Amazon are at the center of a social media storm for selling an Israeli soldier costume for kids this Halloween. What’s your take on that?
People could choose an [Israeli Defense Forces (IDF)] costume for all sorts of reasons. For example, some people see IDF soldiers as heroic figures who are courageously defending their people. They might view an IDF uniform in the same way that they would view a Superman or Batman costume—that is to say, it is a hero’s attire. On the other hand, it is clear that some people are viewing the IDF costumes in a very different light, i.e., as being more monstrous, like a vampire. This approach can descend quite quickly into blatant, explicit anti-Semitism.
Walmart is also being attacked for selling a “Fagin nose” to go with a sheik’s costume. What do you make of that?
There is nothing about the “Fagin nose” that isn’t anti-Semitic. The Fagin character was wholly based on anti-Semitic stereotypes. Calling it a “Fagin nose” just reinforces the stereotype. Applying it to a sheik’s costume, as opposed to an IDF soldier’s costume, doesn’t change this. What were they thinking?
Did President Obama trade in anti-Semitic canards while working to pass the Iran deal?
Obama and his administration didn’t help things with the language they used about the opposition to the Iran deal. I don’t see any intentional anti-Semitism in his remarks, but he fed into canards people tell about the “Israel lobby.” Given President Obama’s background in constitutional law, he should be more sensitive to coded forms of bias and the ways in which hostile environments are created by loose uses of coded language.
Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson recently landed in hot water by suggesting that the scope of the Holocaust would have been “greatly diminished” if European Jewry had been armed. Was Carson’s comment “dangerous,” as The Forward suggested? Was it anti-Semitic?
Carson’s comment has been interpreted in wildly different ways. I tend to give Dr. Carson the benefit of the doubt and think there was nothing anti-Semitic or dangerous in his intent. Those people who call him “dangerous” are more focused on their own views about gun control and the right to bear arms.
Has it become more socially acceptable to express anti-Semitic views in Europe and the United States? If so, how do you explain the change?
There’s no question that in polite circles, especially among political progressives in Europe and North America, people are finding it more acceptable to say certain things about Jews and the state of Israel than a generation ago. Anti-Israel ideology has often filled the void among progressives who can no longer command support for the old Marxist canards. It increasingly binds left-wing groups behind a common cause.
There are people who say they’re not anti-Semitic, just anti-Israel. Is that a legitimate distinction?
It’s a legitimate distinction, but it certainly isn’t always the case. People may say that, but then their words and actions belie that. There is far more anti-Semitism among the anti-Israel movement than they’d admit. Some is unconscious, and some is simply lying. When people join anti-Israel extremism, they are making common cause with the worst kind of bigots.
Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters is active in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and most recently made news with his open letter urging Bon Jovi not to perform in Israel. Is Waters’ letter-writing campaign anti-Semitic?
Waters participates in a movement that’s anti-Semitic. Whether he himself is an anti-Semite is immaterial. Regardless of his mental state, he’s joining in a hate campaign that’s based on anti-Semitism. In some circles, the BDS movement has become one of the more fashionable ways to express that you’re a leftist. People feel pressure to join BDS, whether they believe in it or not.
If present trends continue, the current rifts within the Jewish community will widen considerably. There will remain a significant group of Jewish Americans who feel very close to Israel, but they will predominantly be members of the growing Orthodox communities. On the other hand, liberal Jewry is declining both in its size and in its connection to the Jewish state. One can envision a future in which Jewish-American connections to Israel are mostly based on Orthodox religious belief. At that point, the Roseanne Barrs and Howard Sterns of the world would appear to be relics of a vanished age.
Is there anyone who deserves recognition for effectively fighting anti-Semitism, in the United States or elsewhere?
[Former Canadian] Prime Minister Harper’s government has shown strong leadership on fighting anti-Semitism worldwide and deserves kudos for that.
Are there certain individuals or organizations you think are most effective at calling attention to anti-Semitism on social media? And if so, what makes them effective?
Andre Oboler’s Online Hate Prevention Institute, based in Melbourne, is doing a great job, and I am pleased to serve on its International Advisory Board. In the United States, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Anti-Defamation League, among others, have done good work.
How important is social media to fighting anti-Semitism in the larger world? How about on college campuses?
Social media is critical for reaching people nowadays, especially young people. We use Facebook, Twitter, and other such platforms as key components of our communications strategy. At the same time, there is no substitute for face-to-face interaction, which is why I spend so much time traveling from campus to campus.
What do you think of the Simon Asher character on “Quantico,” who was initially introduced as a gay, Jewish conservative? We just learned that Simon spent time in Gaza while working undercover for the IDF.
It’s an interesting show. I am not quite up to date on my DVR, so I have not yet seen this latest disclosure. One thing I like about the show is the notion that things aren’t always as they appear. I don’t know how this will play out with the Simon Asher character. My hope is that the writers won’t lazily lapse into stereotypes or canards about the Middle East.
Now for the lightning round. I’ll name some recent news items. You tell me whether the incident is anti-Semitic, tasteless, funny, forgettable, or something else altogether. Lena Dunham’s dog or Jewish boyfriend quiz for The New Yorker.
Forgettable. When will Lena Dunham’s 15 minutes be over?
Marco Rubio’s pre-Yom Kippur fundraiser at the home of a Dallas real estate investor who owns a signed copy of “Mein Kampf.”
Much ado about nothing.
On “The Mindy Project,” a pregnant Mindy remarked, “‘I kind of want to raise him [her baby] Jewish,” she says, “so he can get ahead in life.’”
Not funny, but not offensive either.
New “The Daily Show” host Trevor Noah’s tweets about Jews.
Ann Coulter’s tweet about “f*%king Jews” during the Republican debate?
Juvenile, but not as hateful when read in context.
Where can interested readers find your book?
While anti-Semitism is far worse in the Middle East and Europe, it’s unfortunate that we have a resurgent problem on U.S. campuses. It’s unacceptable, and people should speak out against it. If things are happening on any campus you’re affiliated with, speak out and let your voice be heard. Also let government officials know that firmer actions should be taken against anti-Semitism on American campuses.