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International Voices

“Antisemitism: Yesterday and Today, Here and Abroad” Reflection

Jewish identity is a complicated and multifaceted subject, particularly regarding its historic relationship with antisemitism. Equally as complicated and multifaceted are xenophobic and other types of discriminatory behavior, which can be difficult to understand in both their  origins and their persistence in our environment. At the lecture “Antisemitism: Yesterday and Today, Here and Abroad,” hosted by the Temple University Office of International Affairs, Professors Deborah Lipstadt and David Hirsch helped to dissect the complicated issues of intolerance and antisemitism from both a local and an international perspective. Dr. Lipstadt is a professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University, and author of the book History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving, which was adapted into the 2016 film Denial. Dr. Hirsch is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of London, and is the author of the newly-released book Contemporary Left Antisemitism. Their presentations examined the origins of antisemitism, its global presence, its interaction with modern politics and Israel, and the reason why everyone should speak out against it.

An understanding of the source of antisemitism is key in the battle against it. Why did this hatred of Jewish people begin? As Dr. Lipstadt explained, “antisemitism is called, and I think fairly so, the longest hatred. It is ancient, but it morphs in how it presents itself.” The origins of antisemitism date back thousands of years, beginning when Christianity grew into a prominent, then dominant, religion. Judaism was not only seen as the “other,” but the direct competitor that refused to recognize the “truth.” Tales of Christ’s crucifixion at the request of Jewish moneylenders painted Jews as a “small group willing to deprive the rest of the world of goodness for their own financial benefit,” said Dr. Lipstadt. Over time, antisemitism has morphed into a hatred of Jews as a political or racial other, fueled by archaic stereotypes and modern-day prejudices.

Dr. Deborah Lipstadt, photo credit Joseph Labolito

Antisemitism is not just an American or European problem. “Antisemitism is, by its very nature, a global business, not an American business in particular. It seems to me that from wherever students come, they will come with some kind of experience or some kind of underlying structure of antisemitism,” said Dr. Hirsch. Internationally, people who have never had any contact with Jewish people may already be familiar with, and possess, antisemitic feelings. “Recently there was a study regarding worldwide opinions on Jews and antisemitism, and what’s really shocking is the amount of antisemitic opinions that take root in societies and countries around the world that have no Jews,” said Rabbi Daniel Levitt, of Hillel at Temple University.

Concerning politics, Dr. Hirsch spoke about  the prevalence of antisemitism not only on the right, where it is typically seen, but also on the left, where it is growing in prevalence. This contemporary left antisemitism, the subject of Dr. Hirsch’s new book, is closely tied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; this politically charged international conflict and the presence of modern antisemitism are hard to separate. “The antisemitism that hangs around that whole discussion is difficult to see, and even the people who push it quite hard don’t see it, don’t understand it, and don’t understand themselves as antisemites,” described Dr. Hirsch.

Dr. David Hirsch, photo credit Joseph Labolito

Dr. Hirsch went on to explain that valid criticism of Israeli policy is very different from antisemitic criticism of the existence of a Jewish state. However, despite being a group that prides itself on supporting traditionally marginalized people, some factions of the left engage in anti-semitic rhetoric and criticize the political existence of Israel. The binary that emerges is that of the oppressor versus the oppressed; only a handful of years after the Holocaust, the Jewish people were framed as “the bearers of white European colonialism,” said Dr. Hirsch. “There arises a culture of hostility against the people who are asking about [the presence of antisemitsm], not against the people who are sliding themselves into these ways of thinking.” In the political climate in which support for a Jewish state typically comes from the right, and support for the Palestine comes from the left, many who support a Jewish state face political alienation. The ultimate result is a lack of necessary introspection within the political left, and a Jewish population who is left politically homeless if unwilling to embrace anti-Israel attitudes. Students in particular often feel forced to choose between progressivism and Zionism, with Israel as “a central morality tale around which we construct our identities.”

Overall, the best thing that can be done, according to both speakers, is to cultivate an environment in which a willingness to engage with all viewpoints is encouraged. Understanding bigotry is about more than being concerned for oneself or what is happening in one’s own country; it requires concern for the global community and an openness to truly understanding the way others think. When hatred is understood, in all of its forms, it can effectively be eradicated.  In Dr. Lipstadt’s words, “Be against hatred because you care about your own society. And when you have a deep-seeded hatred in your society, it’s not a healthy society.”