The Return of High-Minded Anti-Semitism

February 23, 2024 | Dara Horn
About the author: Dara Horn is the author of five novels, most recently Eternal Life.

By now I’m rarely surprised when I read reports of anti-Semitism at American universities, yet this recent essay by Dara Horn led me to think that the problem is even more severe than I had thought. Horn looks beyond the confines of the campuses as well, but her focus is on the question of why hatred of Jews seems triumphant among the country’s brightest and best educated. The problem, she notes, is nothing new—nor is the phenomenon of anti-Jewish violence leading to heightened accusations against Jews. (Subscription required.)

Around 38 CE, after rioters in Alexandria destroyed hundreds of Jewish homes and burned Jews a live, the Jewish Alexandrian intellectual Philo and the non-Jewish Alexandrian intellectual Apion both sailed to Rome for a “debate” before Emperor Caligula about whether Jews deserved citizenship. Apion believed that Jews held an annual ritual in which they kidnapped a non-Jew, fattened him up, and ate him. Caligula delayed Philo’s rebuttal for five months, and then listened to him only while consulting with designers on palace decor. Alexandrian Jews lost their citizenship rights, though it took until 66 CE for 50,000 more of them to be slaughtered.

But now things should be different since, as Horn observes, “many public and private institutions have invested enormously in recent years in attempts to defang bigotry.” Instead, “diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives have proved no match for anti-Semitism, for a clear reason: the durable idea of anti-Semitism as justice.” And durable it is, as Horn recounts.

On my travels around the country in recent months to discuss my work on Jews in non-Jewish societies, I met many Jewish college and high-school students who seem to have accepted the casual denigration of Jews as normal. They are growing up with it.

In Minneapolis, a woman who works in communications for a Jewish organization told me how “Free Palestine” had, even before October 7, become a kind of verbal swastika—not because of its meaning, but because of how it is deployed. . . . Trolls tag any post with Jewish content—including material unrelated to Israel—with #FreePalestine, summoning more freedom fighters to the noble cause of verbally abusing teenagers who dare to post pictures of challah. This verbal vandalism made the jump to real life, the woman explained, and harassers now routinely scrawl it on Jewish communal buildings, shout it at their Jewish schoolmates, and scream it out of car windows at anyone wearing a kippah.

It is remarkable how little any of this has to do with anything going on in the Middle East. This harassment isn’t coming from an antiwar plea, or a consciousness-raising effort about Israeli policies, or a campaign for Palestinian independence, through those pretenses now serve as flimsy excuses.

And that brings Horn, a member of Harvard’s anti-Semitism advisory committee, back to the subject of the university presidents’ now-infamous congressional testimony:

[For Harvard], the only morally tenable position would have been to admit failure, to reveal the problem was not all in Jews’ heads; that there truly was an anti-Semitic environment at these incubators of American leadership; that these universities, along with far too many other pockets of the country, had reverted, slowly and then all at once, into what they had been a century earlier: safe spaces for high-minded Jew hatred—not in spite of their aspiration that education should lead to a better world, but because of it.

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