Explaining the young antisemites

Young Americans believe the social contract has been violated and they blame the Elders of Zion.

A supporter of the Oct. 7, 2023 Hamas attack on Israel at a rally in New York City on Oct. 9, 2023. Credit: Lev Radin/Shutterstock
A supporter of the Oct. 7, 2023 Hamas attack on Israel at a rally in New York City on Oct. 9, 2023. Credit: Lev Radin/Shutterstock
Benjamin Kerstein
Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor living in Tel Aviv. Read more of his work on Substack at No Delusions, No Despair. Purchase his books here.

Much has been made of recent polls that show disturbing levels of antisemitism among young Americans. It is easy to put this down to “progressivism,” “wokeism” or other ideologies inculcated in students by the professoriate regime. There is no doubt a great deal of truth to this, but there must be a reason the professoriate’s virulent systemic antisemitism has found a receptive audience.

The claim that economic factors drive antisemitism is almost a cliché. Whether it was the late 19th-century financial crises in France and the Austro-Hungarian Empire or the hyperinflation of Weimar Germany, scholars have often pointed to economic deprivation as the source of antisemitic violence.

Obviously, this is an inadequate explanation for antisemitism as a whole. There are religious, ideological, political, psychological, even civilizational motivations as well. Nonetheless, it is impossible to dismiss the economic factor in this particular case.

It is telling that youth antisemitism is largely a phenomenon of the middle and upper-middle classes. In my experience, with some deplorable exceptions, the working class does not particularly care about the Jews one way or the other. When I was growing up in a working-class Irish American neighborhood, we had no problems with antisemitism whatsoever. In fact, all of the antisemitism I have experienced in my life has been from middle-class white people, Muslims or people of color.

To ascertain whether middle-class antisemitism has an economic cause, we must ask: What are the economic discontents of that class?

They are not difficult to find. As children, most middle-class Americans unknowingly signed a social contract that made enormous demands but promised substantial rewards. It stipulated, more or less, that if you work hard and follow the rules, you will be able to get into a “good” college or university. Then, you will receive a degree that will ensure you a “good job,” material plenty and a prosperous future for your children.

The efforts this bargain required were substantial. From the ninth grade on, middle-class Americans were told that they had to dedicate every waking moment to their eventual college applications or ruin their lives. So, they crammed for tests, labored in advanced placement classes, took on a multitude of extracurricular activities, expended themselves on athletic endeavors for which most had little talent, and sat through hours of tutoring for the SATs. They sacrificed their adolescence, in effect, for the sake of a big payoff at the end.

Then, if they did succeed in getting into a prestigious institution, they had to find a way to pay for it. Thanks to a wholly corrupt higher-education industry, the money was waiting for them in the form of massive debt. This debt was to be paid off by the substantial income the applicant would receive from the “good job” they were sure to acquire after graduation.

This system never really worked. For most, the sacrifice simply wasn’t worth it. The middle-class graduates ended up with mediocre jobs and it took them years to pay off their debts. They discovered that their children had to run the entire monstrous gamut all over again. Nonetheless, they did manage to maintain something like a middle-class lifestyle.

In 2008, however, the contract was voided. The global economy that undergirded the contract almost completely collapsed and the youngest generation of the American middle class crawled out of the wreckage into a world of unaffordable housing, stagnant wages, the gig economy and perennial membership in the precariat. On top of that, there was the filthy lucre they owed to the professoriate regime that had promised them so much and delivered nothing.

In a 2019 Buzzfeed essay, Anne Helen Petersen wrote of the Millennial generation, “Our parents—a mix of young boomers and old Gen-Xers—reared us during an age of relative economic and political stability. As with previous generations, there was an expectation that the next one would be better off—both in terms of health and finances—than the one that had come before. But as millennials enter into middle adulthood, that prognosis has been proven false.”

“Financially speaking, most of us lag far behind where our parents were when they were our age,” she noted. “We have far less saved, far less equity, far less stability and far, far more student debt. … We’ve got venture capital, but we’ve also got the 2008 financial crisis, the middle-class decline and the 1% rise, and the steady decay of unions and stable, full-time employment.”

Combined with the glittering and quite unattainable promises of reality television, social media and celebrity culture, this cannot but foster a zeitgeist characterized, above all, by resentment.

As early as 1996, Chuck Palahniuk captured this brilliantly in his novel Fight Club, in which the psychotic protagonist declares, “We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.”

In short, a generation of young Americans believe that they held up their end of the bargain but the other side did not. They did everything they were told to do and expected to receive what they had been promised. Instead, in 2008, the barons of commerce stole it away from them.

People deal with situations like this in different ways. They turn to opioids, messianic religious and political movements, New Age gobbledygook, or transient hobbies and enthusiasms. Some simply disappear into video games and internet chat rooms. Others, however, turn to hatred. They start looking for someone to blame.

Like so many times in the past, there is an easy target waiting for them. It is not difficult to shift from blaming an amorphous, omnipotent, avaricious and filthy rich plutocracy for ruining your life to blaming the Jews for ruining your life. Such a plutocracy, after all, is what the Jews have always been accused of being.

Having gone down this particular rabbit hole, one has centuries of antisemitic archetypes to work with. The possibilities of the Elders of Zion are infinite. For many, this is not merely desirable, it is intoxicating. It is the opiate of the remains of the middle class.

To be clear, none of this absolves young antisemites. We all have a moral responsibility to stand against the barbarians, however difficult our circumstances might be. A poor man can be as evil as a rich man if he chooses and his poverty is no defense. Nonetheless, some of the systemic economic problems that have led to this impasse can be addressed and perhaps it might do some good.

Economic reforms will not, of course, solve the problem of antisemitism itself. People become antisemites for innumerable reasons, some due to environment and indoctrination, others because of neurotic or sadistic impulses they refuse to control. The pleasures of unreasoning hate are, unfortunately, endemic to the species.

However, all of this is a matter for non-Jewish America to consider. For the Jews, a simple truth remains: However real some of his discontents may be, we have no obligation to pity the antisemite. He no doubt possesses more than enough pity for himself.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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