The Intellectual Culture of Anti-Semitism

The outrageous slaughter of members of the Jewish community at a synagogue in Pittsburgh exposes the harsh reality of anti-Semitism in the United States. When I worked at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2006 and 2007, I was most dismayed to discover how ongoing anti-Semitism is both in the United States and worldwide. At the time USHMM was the second most popular bomb threat call in Washington D.C. after the White House. One of the surest steps we could all take against genocidal and ethnic violence in the 21st century is to understand and oppose anti-Semitism.  The archetypal violence of the Nazis remains provocative because it was promoted by a highly educated society, one committed to the utility of science in social progress.  We tend to think the book burnings in the 1930s were primitive and beyond our refined considerations today, but censorship on the internet of ideological viewpoints is the same tragic refrain seen then with more advanced technologies.  We have a contemporary problem with anti-Semitism, and it has infused our intellectual culture in ways we need to be aware of and resist.

If you were to ask Americans what form of anti-religious hate crime is most prevalent in America, they would likely say anti-Muslim.  In reality anti-Jewish hate crimes have been the number one anti-religious hate crime in America for more than a decade.  The numbers of individual hate crimes against Jewish targets is greater than those for Christians and Muslims put together.  For the most recent year available (2016), there were almost 700 anti-Semitic hate crimes in the United States.  There were as a matter of perspective just over 300 anti-Muslim hate crimes reported.  The fact that we are not aware of this constitutes a deliberate intellectual distortion of the problems of human prejudice.

How have intellectuals become complicit in this cover up?  One major problem is the historic struggle of the war on terror.  One of the most salient rhetorical features of Islamic supremacist groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS is anti-Semitism.  Prior to his brutal beheading, Daniel Pearl was compelled to recite his Jewish lineage to his murderers.  The broad-based genocidal fantasy of killing all Jews is a standardized feature of radical Islamic supremacists around the world.  American intellectuals disfavored this rhetorical feature because it tended to valorize the United States as fighting a global force of evil similar to the Nazis in World War II.  President Bush and the State Department after the initiation of hostilities in 2001 required an annual report on global anti-Semitism because they understood that this was, and frankly remains, an important rallying cry for radical hate groups.  Opposition to this hate rhetoric should have no reciprocal relationship to hatred of Muslims.  Many Muslims actually worked to grant refuge to Jews during the reign of the Third Reich worldwide. 

American public figures also passively condone anti-Semitic rhetoric here in the United States.  Louis Farrakhan is certainly one of the most prominent advocates of dehumanizing Jews in the United States.  In public remarks in Chicago in February of this year, he said: 

“the powerful Jews are my enemy... White folks are going down. And Satan is going down. And Farrakhan, by God's grace, has pulled the cover off of that Satanic Jew and I'm here to say your time is up, your world is through.”  

This month, he sent out this Twitter message: “I'm not an anti-Semite. I'm anti-Termite.” Twitter has not banned Farrakhan.  Americans tend to disregard voices like these as eccentric, yet Farrakhan sat on a prominent public stage with a former American president for the funeral of Aretha Franklin.  Similarly, major Chicago minister Jeremiah Wright blamed Jews for damaging his relationship with President Obama. Ostensibly, license is granted to African-American male preachers who wield power in the war against racism.  Yet, the great civil rights leader, James Farmer Jr. made this astute observation about the necessary connection between Judaism and true civil rights advocacy in 1979:

“Though I am convinced that much of the problem is media created and self-fulfilling, it now threatens to further fragment the moment by wrecking a historical alliance between blacks and Jews. That must not be allowed to happen.  The scuttling of the alliance would not be in the interest of blacks.  It would not be in the interest of Jews.  It would only be in the interest of those who, like the Klan, wish pain upon black and Jews alike. In all my years in the civil rights movement no single white community contributed more in human and economic terms than the Jewish American community.”

The domestic problem of anti-Semitism and this latest act of anti-Semitic terror by Robert Bowers was presaged by his own rhetoric.  On social media Bowers explained his exasperation with the Trump administration:  “Trump is surrounded by kikes... things will stay the course.” It is therefore counterproductive to blame the President for this shooting.  The presence of Trump’s Jewish family members is utilized as a basis for hating President Trump in contemporary politics and lay at the heart of the shooter’s anti-Semitic fantasy. 

The problem has apparent international dimensions as well. In 2009, Honduran leader Manuel Zelaya was in a struggle for power.  He was expelled by the Honduran Supreme Court.  A prominent public supporter of Zelaya in the media went on the radio to argue publicly that the source of Honduras’ problems was “the Jews.”  He further wished that ‘Hitler had finished the job’ so we would not have these problems today.  For a decade, nearly 40% of all United Nations resolutions were passed in condemnation of one of its 193 members:  Israel.  The hyperbolic criticism of Israel versus silent complicity with anti-Palestinian authoritarians in the West Bank and Gaza is anti-Semitic.  Here again, many leaders of anti-Semitic propaganda on American college campuses abhor this distinction.  Hatred of the state of Israel as a Jewish state extends from academic conferences in Tehran to academic conferences held here in the United States.  Pretending that this insight constitutes censorship of criticism of Israel is disingenuous.  If Saudi Arabia’s slaughter of Jamal Khashoggi is a human rights violation, then the killing and intimidation of dissidents in the Gaza Strip is a profoundly imperative discussion common to ridding the world of the archaic yet virulent prejudice against Jews.   

One of the surest paths of ideological unity that Americans and the world can discover is a common cause against anti-Semitism. We must unite against anti-Semitism.  Attacking anti-Semitism in the U.S. and worldwide will diminish all forces of hate -- from the Ku Klux Klan to ISIS.  Almost every major supremacist organization chooses among its bullying targets, Jews.  Judaism played formative roles in the development and ongoing character of major religions such as Christianity and Islam.  No one should stand passive while the rhetoric encouraging the kind of killings unleashed in Pittsburgh take place.  The rhetorical signs were present prior to the atrocity. Noted Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel provides a compelling summary of our simple steps forward when describing our moral obligations for preventing another Holocaust: 

“What hurts the victim most is not the physical cruelty of the oppressor, but the silence of the bystander.”

Dr. Ben Voth is an associate professor of Corporate Communication and Public Affairs and director of debate at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.  He published three academic books touching on these topics:  The Rhetoric of Genocide:  Death as a Text, Social Fragmentation and the Decline of American Democracy and James Farmer Jr.:  The Great Debater.   

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