Is Anti-Zionism on Campus a Passing Nuisance, or a Fundamental Threat?

The answer might come down to how well America can resist the influence of European-style anti-Semitism.
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The subject is gloomy, but the food will be good—and the music spectacular.”

Thus, in late January, spoke Alvin Rosenfeld, a professor at Indiana University and director of its Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism. He was describing a four-day international scholars’ conference scheduled for late spring on the university’s Bloomington campus. In the event, the conference did not disappoint in its food, its music—or its gloom, which rose like a miasma from the days-long rehearsals of the varied and abundant forms of anti-Semitism, particularly in the form of anti-Zionism, in today’s world.

As if to reinforce the gravity of the occasion, the conference took place in the interval between the November 2015 terrorist massacres in Paris and the disclosure in April of the social-media posts by Naz Shah, a Labor member of the British parliament, advocating the forcible “relocation” of all Israeli Jews to America and the even greater uproar a month later over anti-Semitism among senior party leaders. Although the focus of the conference was mainly on Europe, both the academic setting and the topic, “Anti-Zionism, Anti-Semitism, and the Dynamics of Delegitimization,” inevitably launched attendees into the middle of an issue that many American Jews have strenuously tried to avoid: namely, the anti-Israel activity now rampaging through U.S. universities. Is this a fundamental threat, or a nasty but passing nuisance?

The answer suggested by the conference deliberations—“both of the above”—may sound like another evasion, but reflects an understanding of the still-relevant distinction between the seemingly ineradicable persistence of European anti-Semitism and the contrasting benignity of American social and political institutions. It also suggested the need to exploit that distinction before it becomes too late.

I. The European Scene

That today’s anti-Semitism is intimately connected with anti-Zionism is a virtually axiomatic proposition. Still, there are variations, and Europe specializes in them. The scholars at the conference—mostly from outside the United States—did a thorough job of filling in the European background, anatomizing the beast’s profile in individual countries, and connecting it in each case with the details of local politics. Without pretending to do justice to the richness of these presentations, it’s possible to sketch a few main themes before returning to the American scene.


That Old-Time Religion         

There are places in Europe—and especially in Eastern Europe—where anti-Semitism is still so unreconstructed, and the sanctions against its open expression so few, that it doesn’t bother to cloak itself in “mere” anti-Zionism. One of these places appears to be the Czech Republic.

Thus, according to Zbyněk Tarant, an expert in cyber-hate at the University of West Bohemia, anti-Semitism on the Czech Internet, once chiefly a staple of neo-Nazi websites but now also part of the arsenal of more general conspiracy theorists, has recently specialized in resuscitating more ancient tropes in order to “explain” current events.

Serving as just such an occasion was the 2014 outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, which soon gave rise to anti-Semitic postings on both sides of the divide (though in the web offerings the pro-Putin side has eventually dominated). Anti-Zionist statements do appear, but Israel is mainly a collateral target in an openly anti-Semitic propaganda war featuring pre-Nazi images of a perfidious Jewish hand poisoning the wells to control the course of history and the fate of peoples.

Islamist Reinforcement

If the resurfacing of more venerable forms of anti-Semitism constitutes one aspect of today’s European reality, a better known ingredient, especially in Western Europe, is traceable to the now-50-year-old Muslim immigration. And this, too, has its twists. Remco Ensel of Radboud University in Holland described the way in which the influx of a quarter-million Muslims helped to inject an anti-Israel element into an already receptive Dutch political culture. Then, beginning in 2000 with the second intifada, a new wave made its appearance: Islamist or Islamist-inspired activists armed with a specifically religious identity and vocabulary and eager to invoke the stereotype of the treacherous Jew, this time rooted in the framework not of Christian but of classical Islamic teachings. Daniel Rickenbacher of the University of Zurich told of a similar change in Switzerland, where a new generation of Turkish Muslims has Islamized anti-Zionist politics to the point where recent anti-Israel demonstrations have featured more Caliphate than Palestinian flags.

True, there is more to this story. Throughout Western Europe, an anti-immigrant reaction has made itself felt, notably in the well-documented rise of populist movements and parties of the right. In both France and Germany, the surge has been accompanied by a deliberate effort on the part of a new generation of leaders to downplay or even repudiate anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, once a hallmark of the right. In Holland, the ascendant Freedom party led by Geert Wilders is openly pro-Israel.

Still, anti-Semitism among the general Dutch population remains not only palpable but quite stunning, evidenced in, among other places, schools and sports arenas. This year’s official government report on Dutch anti-Semitism cites the chant of one soccer club: “Father was a commando, Mother was SS. They burned Jews together, because Jews burn best.”


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Suzanne Garment, who was the chief operating officer of the Institute for the Study of Global Anti-Semitism and Policy, is a visiting scholar at Indiana University. She is writing, with Leslie Lenkowsky, a book about the politics of American philanthropy.

Is Anti-Zionism on Campus a Passing Nuisance, or a Fundamental Threat?

The answer might come down to how well America can resist the influence of European-style anti-Semitism.
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