Why do they want to kill us? It is a question most Jews have probably asked themselves in private. Perhaps when among a group of close confidantes.
It is an understandable question. The Holocaust posed it in the most brutal manner possible, after six million Jews were systematically slaughtered by the Nazis. They murdered others, too, including Roma and Sinti, of course. But it was always Jews who were the Nazis’ primary target.
The 7 October Hamas attack on southern Israel poses the question again in the most painful way possible. More Jews were slaughtered on that day this month than on any other since the Holocaust. Hamas killed about 1,400 people, wounded 3,500 and kidnapped almost 200. Foreign workers, Israeli Muslims and tourists were also among the victims but, as with the Nazis, the target was always Jews. After all, Hamas’s founding document openly states that its goal is to kill Jews and its leaders have repeated it many times. From Hamas’s warped perspective, therefore, the operation was a spectacular success.
Not to be outdone, Hezbollah, the main Islamist organisation in Lebanon, congratulated Hamas on its massacre of Jews and then said it planned to exceed it in scope and scale. On 8 October, Hashem Safieddine, the head of Hezbollah’s executive council, pledged that his organisation would kill many more Jews than Hamas has done. And Iran, which backs both Hamas and Hezbollah, publicly celebrated the murderous 7 October attacks. In a statement on 11 October, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the speaker of the Iranian Majlis (parliament) said that the ‘Zionist regime will never have peace until the day it is annihilated’. This is in line with Iran’s oft-stated goal of wanting to slaughter Jews. No one can say they haven’t been warned about the profoundly anti-Semitic intentions of the Islamist movement.
It is true that many millions of people from different backgrounds have been killed in other ethnic conflicts across the world. But these have tended to result from savage civil wars rather than a deliberate planned process of killing, as in the Holocaust.
Indeed, the Nazis not only killed six million Jews; they also planned to wipe out the whole of European Jewry. Even Jews living in areas that Germany did not manage to capture, such as Britain and Ireland, were slated for the death camps.
So anti-Semitism, at least in its fully developed form, is much more than a prejudice or a form of discrimination. It is not limited to persecuting individual Jews or confined to discriminating against Jews in the jobs market. It is not even primarily about scapegoating Jews. As Hannah Arendt explained, ‘the scapegoat explanation’ remains ‘one of the principal attempts to escape the seriousness of anti-Semitism and the significance of the fact that the Jews were driven into the storm centre of events’ (1). There is something more fundamental and visceral at the heart of anti-Semitism than blaming Jews for economic hardship. It is driven, rather, by a desire to annihilate Jews as the personification of evil.
The annihilation of Jews
The annihilationist character of modern anti-Semitism is a key focus of Arendt’s seminal 1951 work, The Origins of Totalitarianism. There she insisted that modern anti-Semitism was entirely different from the religious Jew hatred that preceded it. The old anti-Jewish tropes from the past still persist into the present. But the nature of anti-Semitism has changed. This is because in late-19th-century Europe, Jews came to be seen in racial terms rather than in religious terms (where Judaism was posed as a rival to Christianity). That was the precondition for development of the annihilationist character of modern anti-Semitism. And this desire to eradicate Jews as a race was to reach its horrifying apotheosis in the Holocaust.
The particular socio-historical conditions of much of Western and Central Europe in the late-19th century provide the context for the emergence of this new form of anti-Semitism. Up until the 19th century, a section of the Jewish community had played a role as financial intermediaries for Europe’s rulers. Arendt refers to them as Hofjuden (court Jews). This is the reason Jews were often associated in the public mind with finance.
So when a modern market economy supplanted traditional European societies, the ensuing social and economic dislocation was often associated with Jews. They were seen as the financiers, the agents of capital. And the appalling living and working conditions that prevailed were likewise portrayed as the result of the Jewish character of capitalism.
The tendency to see certain key institutions as somehow Jewish in character is best grasped not so much as anti-Semitism – which can be targeted at individual Jews – but as anti-Judaism. So the problems and hardships associated with the development of capitalism and modernity were seen by many in 19th- and early 20th-century Europe as essentially Jewish. Jews came to be seen as the personification of the ills of the market economy.
European racial thinking, up to and including that of the Nazis, embraced anti-Judaism. Yet while it was dominant on the right, there was a significant variant of anti-Judaism embraced by the left, too. So when European socialist leaders condemned anti-Semitism as the ‘socialism of fools’, they were not just referring to Jews being scapegoated for capitalism’s ills; they also recognised that some on the left saw the market economy itself as somehow Jewish in character. Those who drew this conclusion were therefore prone to blaming Jews for high levels of joblessness rather than attributing these to economic weakness.
Once the false notion of the Jewish character of capitalist modernity took hold, it would eventually lead to devastating consequences for European Jewry. As Arendt argued: ‘In the final stages of disintegration, anti-Semitic slogans proved the most effective means of inspiring and organising great masses of people for imperialist expansion and destruction of the old forms of government’ (2).
It was in this context that the Nazis ultimately drew the conclusion that the only way to resolve the Jewish question was annihilation. If the problem is seen as the Jewish character of capitalism, then purging society of Jewry can be seen as the solution. Or, as the Nazis put it, the ‘final solution’.
The unhinged hostility to Israel
The racial conception of Jews and the virulent anti-Judaism that emerged around 150 years ago are still prevalent today. They are particularly central to Islamist thought.
Take Osama bin Laden, the former leader of al-Qaeda. He justified the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America in the classic language of anti-Judaism. In his ‘Letter to America’, republished in the Observer in November 2002, he includes 11 derogatory comments about Jews. These include the accusation that American governments have ‘surrendered to the Jews’ and that Jews control American politics, media and the economy. So bin Laden saw America as somehow Jewish in character, despite the fact that Jews only account for a small percentage of the population.
Anti-Judaism brings us to another variant of modern anti-Semitism: the unhinged hostility to Israel. Contemporary anti-Zionism is not just about antipathy to individual Israelis or Jews. Nor is it about criticising the Israeli state by any normal political standards. Few would object to that. No, contemporary anti-Zionism involves once again seeing the Jewish people, this time represented by Israel, as a symbol of evil.
Anti-Zionists really do see Israel as the epitome of all the things they loathe. They see it as colonialist, imperialist and racist. And they routinely label Israel as an ‘apartheid’ state. This accusation is not quite what it seems. Even the reports from which the claim is derived, including the UN’s, accept that Israeli society is not analogous to Apartheid South Africa – a regime of capitalist exploitation that involved the forcible denial of all democratic rights to the black majority.
When applied to Israel, the idea of apartheid is redefined to mean a society practising systematic discrimination. Israel is then presented as virtually the only country in the world that engages in discriminatory practices (although Myanmar is sometimes mentioned, too), when that is clearly not the case. It is hard to think of a better example of a bad-faith argument. The term ‘apartheid’ has been wilfully redefined to symbolise supposed Israeli-Jewish wickedness.
So anti-Zionism is about more than Israel, just as anti-Semitism is about more than individual Jews. Anti-Zionists see the Jewish state as somehow the embodiment of a broader evil. As such, their argument cannot be defeated by factual arguments about Israel alone. There has to be a broader debate over the proper meaning of such concepts as colonialism and racism.
There are several reasons why Israel has come to symbolise what many regard as the world’s evils. One main reason dates back to the Six-Day War in 1967, when Israel defeated the combined armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria and other Arab nations. This had two effects. It humiliated the Arab regimes involved – so, rather than acknowledge their own failures, they claimed that Israel had immense power. And second, the defeat of these radical pan-Arabist regimes boosted their Islamist opponents in the region.
Another reason for the demonisation of Israel is that its victory in the Six-Day War also humiliated sections of the Western left. They were already critical of Israel, but after 1967 they doubled down. In doing so, they were able to draw on the tradition of Stalinist Zionology. In the Soviet Union, old-school anti-Semitic language had been generally frowned upon. So Stalinists simply used Zionism as a proxy for Jews. This made it relatively straightforward for them to reframe anti-Semitism as a principled objection to colonialism and imperialism. This Stalinist tactic has been adopted by many on today’s left.
There is another major reason why so many on the left single Israel and the Jews out as uniquely evil today, and that is the rise of identity politics. From identitarians’ perspective, Jews symbolise a great evil, because they are the supposed beneficiaries of white privilege. Jews’ relative success in American society has purportedly come about at the expense of people of colour. According to this pernicious view, Jews play a key role in America’s systemic oppression of black people.
As demonstrated above, modern anti-Semitism takes several different forms. But there is considerable overlap between them. Islamism can comfortably incorporate key elements of European anti-Semitism. And woke anti-Semitism can easily involve an obsessive hatred of Israel.
What the variants of modern anti-Semitism all share is their conception of Jews as symbolising a great evil. This evil can take the form of modernity or capitalism, colonialism or imperialism, racism or white privilege. In each case, the Jew is viewed as the personification of wickedness.
From this perspective, in which Jews represent evil, it is all too easy to draw the conclusion that purging the world of Jews is a righteous crusade. The conviction that Jews are evil motivated the Hamas terrorists when they crossed from Gaza to southern Israel on 7 October to slaughter Israelis. And it seemingly motivates many others around the world right now in their increasingly vicious crusade against Israel.
These are dangerous times indeed.
Daniel Ben-Ami is an author and journalist. He runs the website Radicalism of Fools, dedicated to rethinking anti-Semitism. Follow him on Twitter: @danielbenami. He is speaking at a session on Israel at 75 at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on 29 October.
(1) The Origins of Totalitarianism, by Hannah Arendt (Penguin Modern Classics, 2017), p8
(2) The Origins of Totalitarianism, by Hannah Arendt (Penguin Modern Classics, 2017), p12