The multiple faces of anti-Semitism

For all their insistence that anti-Semitism is one thing and anti-Zionism something else entirely, however, on the streets of European and American cities, the two work hand-in-glove.

Participants at the “No Hate. No Fear.” rally in New York City on Jan. 5, 2020. Photo by Rivka Segal.
Participants at the “No Hate. No Fear.” rally in New York City on Jan. 5, 2020. Photo by Rivka Segal.
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen, a senior analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics.

Several years ago, in an article for Commentary magazine, I offered a distinction between two kinds of anti-Semitic mindsets. I named the first one “bierkeller” anti-Semitism and the second one “bistro” anti-Semitism, as a way of illustrating the cultural gulf between these two forms.

Bierkellers, or “beer cellars,” were the drinking establishments in Germany that during the 1920s and ’30s were the domain of Nazi thugs. They also provided an arena for Adolf Hitler to refine his foaming gutter rhetoric targeting communism, liberalism, and most of all, the Jews. There was no attempt to camouflage or prettify any of this rhetoric, which loudly declared that the Jews were Germany’s misfortune. The thorough dehumanization of the Jews in Nazi propaganda prepared the ground for a decade of persecution that culminated in the Holocaust.

Bierkeller anti-Semitism, then, was unmistakable and instantly recognizable. But “bistro” anti-Semitism—named a bit mischievously in honor of the cozy restaurants and bars where metropolitan intellectuals tend to gather—was, I argued, harder to identify. That is because Jews as Jews are rarely the direct targets of these writings, speeches, parliamentary resolutions and so on. Instead, the bistro mindset relies upon qualifiers, codes and euphemisms that seek to separate “Jews” and “Judaism” from “Zionism,” “The State of Israel,” “The Jewish Establishment” and the other bugbears of progressives who advance anti-Semitic arguments while indignantly deflecting the charge of anti-Semitism as a reputational smear without foundation.

This contrast between the full-throated anti-Semitism that denies the Jews their humanity and the camouflaged anti-Semitism that denies the Jews their nationality isn’t the only difference. Arguably more important is the observation that the “bierkeller” form of anti-Semitism explicitly aims to visit physical violence upon Jews, whereas in its “bistro” form, protestations against Jewish power and privilege manifest in the main non-violently form: for example, boycott campaigns, demonstrations against pro-Israel and Zionist speakers on university campuses, the constant opprobrium poured upon the Jewish state in the halls of the United Nations, and by leading human-rights NGOs like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

Still, as the years have gone by, the gulf between crude anti-Semitism and its more polite expressions (between the “bierkeller” and the “bistro”) has narrowed considerably. Among the examples I would cite is the British Labour Party, where the anti-Semitic rhetoric that destroyed its reputation over the last five years was, more often than not, of the “Rothschild Bankers Rule the World” variety. (Not to mention blaming Jews for the trans-Atlantic slave trade, accusing “Zionists” of having “collaborated” with the Nazi regime and a slew of other murky fantasies that had nothing to do with Israeli settlement policy.)

I would also cite France, where the phenomenon of deadly violence against Jews—from terrorist attacks to home invasions—is now entering its third decade. No case better symbolizes the crisis of French anti-Semitism than that of Sarah Halimi, the 65-year-old Jewish woman who was tortured and beaten to death by one of her Muslim neighbors, Kobili Traoré, in a Paris public housing project in April 2017. Despite substantive evidence of Traoré’s past criminal record, his attendance at the Islamist Mosquee Omar in Paris, and witness testimony of his anti-Semitic cries as he battered Halimi to death, he will evade criminal trial on the grounds of temporary insanity caused by cannabis consumption. No wonder that the chief rabbi of France, Haim Korsia, described the decision by Paris prosecutors not to try Traoré as a “license to kill Jews.”

Moreover, during the last year, “visible Jews”—those who wear religious clothing or Jewish symbols—have been assaulted in numerous outrages across the globe, from Buenos Aires to Brooklyn to Berlin. In November, I reported on one such incident—a physical attack on a young, kipah-wearing Jewish man in the changing room of a gym in the German city of Freiburg by a man shouting “Free Palestine!” and “You Dirty Jew!” For the assailant, clearly, there was no need to separate the Palestinian cause from the anti-Jewish one; in the moment that he grabbed the young man’s kipah, spat on it and threw it into a garbage can, they were one and the same struggle.

The resurgence of crude, violent anti-Semitism in both the United States and Europe at the close of this last decade inevitably casts the polite anti-Semitism of progressive circles in a new light. For all their insistence that anti-Semitism is one thing and anti-Zionism something else entirely, on the streets of European and American cities, the two work hand-in-glove. Rhetoric that demonizes Israel for allegedly smuggling human organs, for example, has fused with more traditional fixations over Jewish bankers, Jewish lobbyists and Jewish secrecy.

The net result is not just that anti-Semitic hate crimes have multiplied in nearly every country with a Jewish community, most notably in America; it’s that anti-Semitism drawn from all parts of the political and cultural spectrum is now on open display, and painfully so. White supremacists, radical black nationalists and Islamists all coexist and contribute to the overall growth of anti-Jewish animus, while populist right-wing and left-wing politicians alike have shown themselves ready to co-opt anti-Semitism when it is politically expedient to do so. Anti-Semitic dog-whistles and tropes increasingly poison all manner of political disputes—from the ultra-nationalist AfD party in Germany’s parliament denouncing immigration to progressive Democrats on Capitol Hill denouncing American policy in the Middle East.

Neither of those two last groups would appreciate being bracketed with the other, but that merely demonstrates how ideologically adaptable anti-Semitism can be, particularly when digital communication allows for the spread of anti-Semitic ideas that blur traditional political, religious and national boundaries. How we respond to these developments as a Jewish community is among the critical tests we will face in the coming decade.

Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.

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