Do Jews or Israel Cause Antisemitism?
For centuries, people have claimed that Jews cause themselves to be hated. Many still do today, including in respectable circles. It's time to debunk this lie that won't die.
In 1938, on the eve of the Holocaust, the polling firm Gallup asked Americans for their opinions about the Jewish victims of European antisemitism. The results still shock today: 54% of Americans said that “the persecution of Jews in Europe has been partly their own fault.” 11% said it was “entirely” their fault. In other words, 65% of Americans blamed Europe’s Jews for their own abuse. Such stark figures make it a lot easier to understand how the Nazi genocide happened in the first place, and why it met so little international resistance.
This might seem like ugly but ancient history, largely irrelevant to our present reality. It’s not. In 2018, CNN found that nearly 1 in 5 Europeans believed that antisemitism was “a response to the everyday behavior of Jewish people.” And those were just the ones who openly admitted believing this to a pollster. In 2015, after a series of deadly antisemitic attacks in Europe, a noted presenter on Swedish Public Radio suggested—in an eerie echo of Gallup’s pre-Holocaust poll—that “the Jews themselves have ... responsibility in the growing anti-Semitism that we see now.” She went on to suggest that “a lot of people” think that Israel is the cause of such antisemitism.
This lie that refuses to die is the subject of the latest video in my antisemitism explainer series. Because if we’re going to beat back antisemitism, we need to understand why attempts to pin the prejudice on its victims are so egregiously wrong—logically, historically, and morally.
There are still two more videos to come in this series! If you’d like advance access to them, consider upgrading to a paying subscription to support work like this. And for those who already have, but can’t yet view the videos, reply to this email and I’ll send you the password. (I’m told Substack swallowed a few of your emails earlier, but that problem should now be resolved.)
I want to expand on the allegation that Israel causes antisemitism, because this misconception is common even among well-meaning people today. In the aforementioned 2015 Swedish public radio broadcast, the host suggested that “a lot of people” believe that the Jewish state causes anti-Jewish violence. In attributing this belief to many Europeans, she was undoubtedly correct. The 2018 CNN survey found that 28% of Europeans agreed that Israel caused anti-Jewish bigotry in their countries. Even the head of Human Rights Watch recently implied that the Jewish state caused anti-Jewish attacks in Britain.
The consequences of this widely accepted narrative are clear and disquieting. In 2018, a survey by the European Union’s Agency for Fundamental Rights found that an astonishing 79% of European Jews felt that they’d been blamed for “something done by the Israeli government.” And the more societies legitimize the idea that Israel causes antisemitism, the more they incentivize people to assail local Jews for Israeli actions.
In reality, however, the notion that “Israel causes antisemitism” is a fundamental misunderstanding of how bigotry works, and simply a more sophisticated way of blaming victims for their own abuse. Let me explain with a rough analogy.
If you are flattened by a grand piano that falls from the sky, the cause of your death is the grand piano. But obviously, the actual cause of your death is the person who chucked it out the window and onto your head. This is the difference between a proximate cause and a root cause.
When Jews on the streets of Europe are beaten up while Israel battles Hamas in Gaza, the fighting overseas is the proximate cause of the antisemitism. But the root cause is the hateful ideology of the bigot, who holds every Jew responsible for whatever any other Jew in the world might do, and uses this to justify violence against them. This is how racists think about minorities. In their fevered imagination, all Muslims are accountable for the perceived bad acts of any other Muslims, all Black folks are responsible for the perceived bad acts of any other Black people, and so forth. This warped worldview is the root cause of racism, not the actions of members of the targeted community. Take away this ideology, and the bigotry goes away. By contrast, Israel could disappear tomorrow but the racist outlook would remain and continue to cause antisemitism, just as it did for centuries before Israel existed. Until people learn to treat Jews and other minorities as individuals, and not as racist stand-ins for their entire group, bigotry against them will persist. That’s because it’s the ideology, not Israel, that causes the problem.
The idea that the Jewish state fundamentally causes antisemitism, then, is simply a more sophisticated restatement of the idea that Jews themselves cause antisemitism. Neither is true, and neither should be excused.1
Jews don’t cause antisemitism. Antisemites do.
The top book in that pile is an advance copy of Dara Horn’s forthcoming People Love Dead Jews, which you will want to preorder immediately. Expect to hear more about it in this newsletter.
I recently took over Tablet’s flagship podcast Unorthodox to talk about my antisemitism video series, how we can have smarter conversations about anti-Jewish prejudice, and why watching these videos is a good way to support my retirement plan. Listen to the whole thing here, or wherever you get your podcasts.
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Put another way: While I personally think that Israel should end its settlement project because it’s the right thing to do, I do not delude myself into thinking that doing so will meaningfully reduce antisemitism, because that’s never been what fundamentally drives the hatred in the first place.