How Anti-Semitism Became a Social Movement

Anyone can join—even Jews.

A protester displays a burning Israeli flag during a demonstration in Paris on July 26, 2014. AP Photo/Benjamin Girette.

A protester displays a burning Israeli flag during a demonstration in Paris on July 26, 2014. AP Photo/Benjamin Girette.

Oct. 20 2014
About the author

Ben Cohen, a New York-based writer, has contributed essays on anti-Semitism and related issues to Mosaic and other publications.

“Anti-Semitism was born in modern societies because the Jew did not assimilate himself,” wrote the French-Jewish thinker Bernard Lazare in 1894, a few months after the arrest of Captain Alfred Dreyfus on charges of treason. “But,” Lazare continued, “when anti-Semitism ascertained that the Jew was not assimilated,” it reacted in two conflicting directions, simultaneously “reproach[ing] him for it and . . . [taking] all necessary measures to prevent his assimilation in the future.”

This pattern, which Lazare presciently identified as the “fundamental and everlasting contradiction” of anti-Semitism, and which we would call a “Catch-22,” seems to me to lie at the root of the existential dilemma of contemporary French Jews. And not of them alone. At stake here, as Robert Wistrich observes in his masterly essay in Mosaic, is much more than the fate of a single minority community. In the “beginning of the end of French Jewry,” Wistrich writes, we may also be witnessing the “slow death” of the French republican ideal—the collapse, as he put it in his 2010 magnum opus A Lethal Obsession, “of any consensual national project or unifying social bond, let alone commonly shared ideals.”

And France is hardly the only nation affected. This past summer, raw hatred of Jews rose to dramatic heights in Great Britain, the Netherlands, Germany (where mobs urged “gassing the Jews”), and elsewhere.  When it comes to anti-Semitism, a post-war, post-Holocaust consensus is breaking down all over Western Europe—right alongside the concurrent breakdown of the EU’s promised ideal of a transcontinental, inter-communal political identity. Such an identity might indeed have permitted European Jews to escape Lazare’s “everlasting contradiction”: rejected for being Jewish, lambasted for remaining Jewish. But it may be too late.


Still, however consistent with the past may be the motifs of modern anti-Semitism, it has not been easy to pinpoint the motive force behind its present resurgence. It is not enough to say, as many do, that the main culprit, in France or elsewhere, is “the left,” or “nationalist extremism,” or “the Muslims,” or “the Internet,” or some combination of these. That is to confuse the multiple, overlapping expressions of a problem with the problem itself. I would suggest a different point of departure, one that appreciates the radically new situation of Western Jews themselves at this moment in their history.To see this, it would help to take a preliminary step backward.

In the 19th century and well into the 20th, the Jewish experience of modern anti-Semitism in Europe was defined by three factors: first, discriminatory legislation; second, a marked tendency toward mass violence, either sanctioned or colluded in by the state and local authorities; and third, the fact that Jewish communities were dependent for their security on the states in which they lived.

The last time a set of grand Europeans ideals—the ideals encapsulated in Enlightenment rationalism and the emancipation of Europe’s Jews—broke down, all three of these factors came into play: anti-Semitic legislation, violence, the withdrawal of civic rights and protection. Worse, by the 20th century, anti-Semitism became intimately bound up with the ideological imperatives of totalitarian and revolutionary regimes. Both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, the two states that did more to advance anti-Semitism than any of their European peers, converted mob vilification of the Jews into government policy, shaped on a grand scale and implemented from on high.

Things are very different today. To begin with, the vast majority of European Jews enjoy full civil and political rights and are not subject to anti-Semitic legislation. True, this status is not universal. There are smaller Jewish communities—in Hungary, Turkey, and elsewhere—where anti-Semitic sentiments are stoked or encouraged by governments and political leaders. And there are regimes that manipulate the charge of anti-Semitism for their own political ends, the most pertinent example being Russia under Vladmir Putin. But these are exceptions.

As for mass violence, except for sporadic outbursts (like this past summer in France), it, too, is no longer a fixture of contemporary Jewish existence—which is precisely why it is so traumatizing when it occurs. It is certainly not condoned or encouraged by the authorities.

Most significantly of all, there is a Jewish state that not only is reassuringly capable of protecting the Jews who live there but also provides sanctuary to Jews elsewhere who face threats to their security.

As a result, European Jews today are more protected than perhaps at any time since the French Revolution. Though some of the symbols and slogans of the past have come back to haunt the contemporary scene—witness the revival of both the Nazi image of the Jew as alien predator and the Soviet image of the Jew as conniving tribalist—in no European society today does government initiate or engineer the persecution of its Jewish communities. Many governments, in fact, have designed and strengthened legislation with precisely the opposite goal, pursuing it with a zeal that Americans, accustomed to strong constitutional protections for free speech, might well find disquieting.

Thus, in several countries, denial or even distortion of the Holocaust is illegal. (Among the eight convictions of Dieudonné M’bala M’bala handed down so far by French courts is a hefty 2008 fine for having referred to Holocaust commemorations as “memorial pornography.”)  General hate speech about Jews can likewise place an offender on the wrong side of the law; British police are currently investigating a flurry of anti-Semitic messages on Twitter in response to a soccer team’s Rosh Hashanah greeting to its Jewish supporters.


But this, of course, also highlights something truly disturbing: however zealously European governments may seek to legislate and educate against anti-Semitism, they have conspicuously failed to eliminate it. And the reason they cannot do so gets us closer to the heart of the matter. In its actual manifestation, today’s “post-modern” form of anti-Semitism not only thrives but wins approval within the very same democratic spaces that the reactionaries and totalitarians of yesteryear set out to eradicate.

In our century, anti-Semitism is no longer the preserve of a specific political party or state. Rather, it has broadened its appeal, in the process becoming less a political phenomenon than a social one—a social movement. In essence, what was vertical in the last century has become horizontal in this one.

The term “social movement” is a creature of the post-1968, New Left-dominated theoretical landscape. Very simply: although social movements may assume organizational form—think of Greenpeace, a product of concerns about the environment, or PETA, a product of concerns about the treatment of animals—their aim is less to create enduring political vehicles than to change popular sensibilities in the name of a greater social good. Thus, to identify oneself with a social movement is to adapt one’s beliefs and behavior in accordance with its vision. A core belief—that, say, we are ruining the environment for which we are all responsible—will then lead an individual to adopt certain behaviors, like shunning some foods in favor of others, or recycling renewable materials, or owning a Prius. Once the sum of these individual behaviors reaches a critical mass, attitudes that originally may have seemed counterintuitive or peculiar become established as wholly positive moral and social norms. In some cases, such norms may become a litmus test of candidacy for office, or be enshrined in court decisions or embodied in regulation.

What is the core belief of anti-Semitism as a social movement? In my view, it has two integrally related parts: opposition to Jewish national power abroad (i.e., Israel) and suspicion of Jewish loyalties at home (the sin of “communitarisme,” or “communalism,” cited by Wistrich in the French context, and essentially a fancier term for “clannishness”).  Out of this core belief, and the social movement that has gathered around it, there has emerged a standardized vocabulary and set of rhetorical tools.

Most familiar is the move to elevate the Palestinian cause—in reality, a local struggle between two peoples, not dissimilar from other national conflicts in the world today—into what might be called the ideology of “Palestinianism.” From this vantage point, the Palestinian Arabs have assumed the status of iconic, transcendental victims, rather as the Jews did for a brief period after World War II, and as Israel did until 1967. Moreover, the substitution of the one group for the other is hardly accidental. Those who kneel fervently before the altar of Palestinian victimhood can be relied on to traffic in the correlative themes of Israeli racism and brutality, casting the state of the Jews as a carbon copy of South Africa’s old apartheid regime, or as a legatee of the Nazis, or even (in the perverse Twitter hashtag #JSIL) as a Jewish version of the Islamic State gang raping, murdering, enslaving, and decapitating thousands of innocents in its rampage across Syria and northern Iraq.

In another, crucial inversion, those who detest the Jewish state, or the alleged “communalism” of European Jews, also go out of their way to repudiate the very term “anti-Semitism.” This they have re-defined as a device invented and exploited by the Jews themselves in order to censor frank discussion of the Zionist and Jewish present by invoking the sufferings of the Jewish past. “The word ‘anti-Semitic,’” write the French leftists Alain Badiou, Eric Hazan, and Ivan Segré, “is not only the most violent choice but also the one with the least bearing on the present reality.”

This makes a kind of perverted sense. What these left-wing intellectuals are struggling with is both the murderous history of anti-Semitism itself and the inescapable associations of the very word with a certified social evil. No wonder, then, that they must declare the term bears no relation to “present reality” and is altogether to be dissociated from, for instance, their own denunciations of Jews, which must instead be seen as serving the interests only of a certified social good.

Such contortions, however absurd they may (rightly) appear, perform a signal service in helping to define and justify anti-Semitism as a broad-based and idealistic social movement yoking together, in a common cause, the otherwise heterogeneous interests of leftists, neo-fascists, Islamists, and large numbers of liberals. Precisely because we are dealing with a social movement, moreover, there are no qualifications for membership in terms of education, social class, political affiliation, or ethnicity. (Anti-Israel Jews are welcome.) Nor is one required to pay membership dues, or hawk pamphlets, or participate in any of the taxing initiatives promoted by earlier generations of political activists.

Instead, the emphasis is on spectacle. Supporters of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement are prone to raiding supermarkets and forcibly removing Israeli goods from the shelves, filming themselves in the act and broadcasting their exploits on blogs, websites, and social-media platforms. Young people, especially, can make a statement by photographing themselves performing the quenelle, the inverted Nazi salute popularized by Dieudonné, and posting the image online.

It is through these and other practices, slowly but surely, that the once-taboo becomes normalized. And “normalization”—ironically, a word once associated with the aspirations of early Zionists to repair the defective condition of European Jewry—is precisely what anti-Semitism as a social movement seeks to achieve. The aim is to persuade the mass of Europeans to shun Israel reflexively, as they would once have shunned South Africa’s ruling white minority, and more generally, through the transvaluation of values promoted by intellectuals like Badiou, to upend and overturn the comparatively philo-Semitic vision that settled over Europe in the postwar decades.


What then? Can it really be that Bernard Lazare’s 1894 diagnosis of the European Jewish condition—rejected for being Jewish, lambasted for remaining Jewish—has lost none of its validity even in the radically changed and democratic circumstances of 2014?

There’s certainly no blinking the seriousness of the moment. Because anti-Semitism as a social movement is so loose and “horizontal,” so politically promiscuous, so much more a matter of attitude than of argument, of fashion than of ideology, it is arguably even less susceptible of being contained than a party or a government subject to defeat or recall. In addition, insofar as it can persuade people to see themselves as reacting to illegitimate manifestations of Jewish “power,” the movement can channel the much greater countervailing power of any number of disparate and pre-existing popular discontents with contemporary European life that have nothing to do with the Jews.

Still, although the threat is real enough, its ultimate course is unclear. As I have argued, today’s Jews are not living through a rebirth of the year 1933, nervously awaiting the rise of an anti-Semitic political party armed with an anti-Semitic manifesto and the will to implement it (though, again, parties like Jobbik in Hungary and Golden Dawn in Greece are menacing phenomena). Instead, in resisting anti-Semitism, European Jews and sympathetic outsiders alike are compelled to focus on more intangible factors, like the prevailing political atmosphere in a country, or what they see in the media or hear from friends and relatives in cities like Stockholm and Antwerp. It is assuredly wise to be fearful, but hard to know what to be fearful of. More violence? Legalized discrimination? Expulsion? Worse?

It may be none of these; like other fashions, social movements can be fickle, and anti-Semitism is no exception. For the period ahead, European Jews may be fated to live at the mercy of the news cycle, prepared for intermittent outrages that then die down but leave the nagging sense that Jews would be better off elsewhere. At the very least, there is comfort to be taken in Robert Wistrich’s closing statement that what France—and by extension, many other European countries—stand to lose, “Israel will gain.” It is undeniable that the very real empowerment of the Jews in the post-1945 era—in itself, an unqualified blessing—has had profoundly negative implications in Europe. But to have the great good fortune of living in an age of Jewish empowerment also means, when all is said and done, that there are options.

More about: Anti-Semitism, BDS, Bernard Lazare, European Jewry