Opinion | What speaking up about antisemitism taught me about the rebranding of antisemitic tropes

A new survey by the Anti Defamation League (ADL) showed that about 11% of American adults (roughly 28 million people) hold ingrained antisemitic beliefs. These beliefs include harmful stereotypes about Jews having disproportionate power, dual loyalties, and the idea that Jews were behind the death of Jesus Christ — a trope that’s been around for the last two thousand years.

For context, there are only around 14 million Jews in the world. And about half of these Jews live in Israel — the world’s only Jewish-majority country.

I recently penned a piece for the Jewish Journal about my experience of antisemitism under the guise of “anti-Zionism” at my law school. In the piece, I embraced the controversial label of “Zionist.” While I received a lot of support for the article, my classmates were less than thrilled about it. Unfortunately, this led them to use antisemitic tropes against me. In the comments section, I was branded as a liar, a racist, a stalker, an Islamophobe, and as someone exaggerating events for my own “agenda.” 

To be clear, my support of Israel is not a blind endorsement of all its policies. I merely believe in a Jewish homeland where we can exercise autonomy after centuries of persecution. I stated quite directly in my piece that I also believe in a Palestinian homeland, the withdrawal of the West Bank settlements, and an end to the military occupation of the West Bank.

Reading these condemnations of me from my classmates, I was hurt. But I couldn’t help but think about how these paintings of me tie into a larger history of viewing Jews as sneaky and untrustworthy. This stereotype can be traced back for centuries, most notably appearing in the early 20th century Soviet propaganda, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

“The Protocols highlights some of the dense, coded ideas embedded in antisemitism going all the way back to early European Christianity,” says the group Jews for Racial and Economic Justice. “Jews are portrayed as fully dispersed, not always recognizable (a.k.a. ‘secret’) yet unassimilable, as well as untrustworthy, dirty, and foreign (among other stereotypes). The overall idea is that Jews are a powerful, corrupting influence on otherwise good, pure people.”

The Protocols is in no way the only antisemitic publication to come out of Europe. In the 1500s, Martin Luther penned On The Jews and Their Lies, a 65,000-word antisemitic screed. “[Jews] are nothing but thieves and robbers who daily eat no morsel and wear no thread of clothing which they have not stolen and pilfered from us by means of their accursed usury. Thus they live from day to day, together with wife and child, by theft and robbery, as arch­thieves and robbers, in the most impenitent security,” he wrote. “However, they have not acquired a perfect mastery of the art of lying; they lie so clumsily and ineptly that anyone who is just a little observant can easily detect it.”

During the 17th and 18th centuries, Christian merchants and traders continued to view Jews as liars and cheats. Needless to say, these tropes led to expulsions and pogroms against Jews across Europe.

Then there’s the dual loyalty trope, which also has historical roots but most recently is being used across the American political spectrum — from Donald Trump to Ilhan Omar — to paint Jews as the “other.” Along with this trope comes the idea that Jews are collectively working toward our own “agenda,” which is something I was accused of by my classmates.

“The charge of disloyalty has been used to harass, marginalize, and persecute the Jewish people for centuries,” writes the ADL. “Sometimes referred to as the ‘dual loyalty’ charge, it alleges that Jews should be suspected of being disloyal neighbors or citizens because their true allegiance is to their coreligionists around the world or to a secret and immoral Jewish agenda. This anti-Semitic allegation posits that non-Jews should not trust the motives or actions of their Jewish neighbors, who may be engaged in deceitful behavior to accomplish their own goals at the expense of others.”

Of course, my critics would argue that they aren’t against my Jewish identity, just my Zionist one. Yet, as mentioned, Israel is the only Jewish-majority country in the world. It houses about half of the world’s Jews. And roughly 95% of American Jews support Israel in some way, shape, or form. Indeed, a central theme of Judaism is a longing to return to our homeland.

In my mind, to demand an end to the nation of Israel in its entirety is antisemitic, as that would put Jews in physical danger yet again. To use these same old tropes against Jews who support Israel is nothing short of a rebranding of these beliefs — especially when the vast majority of Jews have a positive attitude toward the country’s existence. 

So to my critics I’ll say this: Antisemitism did not start and end with the Holocaust. Jews were persecuted for centuries throughout the world based on the same tropes you’re rebranding for your own leftist political beliefs. The majority of Jews in Israel don’t even have connections to Europe, as they are Mizrahi and were persecuted in the Arab world. Do I even need to mention the famous picture of the Palestinian Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini meeting with Hitler in 1941? It’s not Islamophobic to point out that antisemitism exists in the Arab world. It’s not an indictment of all Muslims, not by any means — it’s simply stating a well-documented fact.

I would implore you to think more critically about antisemitism and the different ways it manifests across the political spectrum and around the world. I would encourage you to speak to more Jews, and not just the small fraction of Jews who agree with you about Israel — that’s called tokenism. Do your own research. Learn about Jewish history. Include us — all of us — in your social justice activism. Otherwise, you’re part of the problem you claim to rally against.

Featured image via Wikipedia Commons 

Rafaella Gunz

Rafaella is a graduate of The New School in NYC, where she majored in Journalism and minored in Gender Studies. She writes for publications including DeadState, Gay Star News, Alma, BUST Magazine, and more.