Joshua Shanes joins us to discuss his article, published in the Washington Post in February 2018, “How Benjamin Netanyahu Enables Antisemitism.” We talk about antisemitism today, why it’s particularly important right now, the relationship between antisemitism, Zionism, and Jewish politics, and also the role historians have to play in speaking about this and other issues.
Joshua Shanes is Associate Professor of Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston. His research focuses on Central and East European Jewry in the 19th and 20th centuries, specifically turn-of-the-century Galicia and the rise of Zionism as a counter-movement to the traditional Jewish establishment.
- Read Joshua Shanes’ article, “How Benjamin Netanyahu Enables Antisemitism” (Feb. 26, 2018, The Washington Post)
- See other essays in the Washington Post series, “Made By History”
- Doug Rossinow, “The dark roots of AIPAC, ‘America’s Pro-Israel Lobby’” (Mar. 6, 2018, The Washington Post)
Other essays, books, and topics discussed:
- Benjamin Netanyahu’s Relationship with Antisemitism
- Gershom Gorenberg, “Why did Netanyahu wait so long to condemn anti-Semitism in Charlottesville?” (August 2017)
- The Economist, “Binyamin Netanyahu is soft on anti-Semitism when it suits him” (August 2017)
- Chemi Shalev, “Zeroing in on Soros, Netanyahu Stands Shoulder to Shoulder With anti-Semitic Scum” (Feb. 2018, Ha’aretz)
- Yair Netanyahu’s Antisemitic Meme
- The Guardian, “Netanyahu’s son Yair draws fire after posting ‘antisemitic cartoon’” (Sept. 2017)
- Ha’aretz, “Soros and Reptilians Controlling the World: Yair Netanyahu Posts Meme Rife With anti-Semitic Themes” (Sept. 2017)
- Anti-Defamation League, “Anti-Semitic Incidents Surged Nearly 60% in 2017“
- Wayne Lapierre’s 2018 CPAC Speech
- View Wayne Lapierre’s remarks
- Andrew Silow-Carroll, “Why Wayne LaPierre’s CPAC speech freaked out Jews and heartened anti-Semites” (JTA)
- Sophia Tesfaye, “NRA’s Wayne LaPierre instructs CPAC to “be frightened” of “socialist wave” following Parkland” (Salon)
- South Carolina H. 3643 (2017-18), “Anti-Semitism”
- FPO, Freedom Party of Austria
- The Guardian, “Europe Rallies Against [Jörg] Haider Coalition” (2000)
- Ha’aretz, “Right-wing Israeli Lawmaker Meets Member of Austrian Party With Nazi Roots” (Dec. 2018)
- Etgar Keret, “I’m Not Anti-Israel, I’m Ambi-Israel” (June 2016, New York Times)
- Recent scholarly discussions of fascism
- Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century
- Sean Illing, “Historian Timothy Snyder: Trump’s lies are creeping tyranny” (May 2017, Vox)
- Christopher Browning’s discussion with Vox, “Comparing the alt-right to Nazism may be hyperbolic — but it’s not ridiculous” (Dec. 2016)
- Tom Nicholas, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters
What follows is an edited version of the conversation.
Jason Lustig: I was really excited when I saw your article. I think it’s great that you are engaging with a broad public on some of these issues. Do you maybe want to talk for just a second about the article and why you think that antisemitism is so significant, especially today.
Joshua Shanes: I’m sure what the article was sparked initially when Netanyahu posted that attack, or spoke that attack, that all of these efforts to protest, to prevent, or to convince Israel not to deport the African refugees were all organized by George Soros. It’s kind of a common trope on the antisemitic Right at the moment, that George Soros is behind all these different activities. And of course it’s not only not true, but it’s also a ridiculous comment, at some level, that he could possibly have organized all these disparate forces. And as I was reading about it online in various social media and other spaces, and also speaking with people, I saw a real lack of understanding about what the problem is and why this should be problematic, what exactly is antisemitism, why it is so important. And I really felt that there was a need for a clear introduction and explanation of what’s going on here, and how that taps into the history of antisemitism in how it’s manifesting today.
That was the impetus for the piece, and then it ended up being delayed by three or four weeks just because of the time it takes for things to come out sometimes. And of course, the shooting in Florida was the focus of attention for a while. And by the time it was released, we actually had a new moment which didn’t appear in the article at all, which was that at CPAC, the head of the NRA, Wayne Lapierre, also started speaking about these very prominent Jews, specially George Soros and others. He accused them of coordinating an international campaign of threatening our freedom, uprooting our national values, and so on. In the end, I was actually quite pleased that the article came out when it did, because it was able to speak to that issue as well.
We know that antisemitism is on the rise. The ADL just released a report where they pointed out the sharp rise in antisemitism and antisemitic attacks of various kinds. That doesn’t mean that Jews are necessarily the most vulnerable population in America or elsewhere today. And I actually wouldn’t say that at all. But we do know it’s on the rise. We do know that we see rhetoric that we haven’t seen before, or at least at this level in a very long time. And it’s extremely important that we’re both aware of it, and we’re aware of what we’re seeing and how to handle it. That was the idea of the contribution that I felt I could make as an historian.
What would you say, then, is the role of historians in this kind of a discourse?
JS: I think there’s a lot of difficulty outside of the scholarly community in grappling with what exactly antisemitism is and how it manifests historically. And we know the relationship between, say, rhetoric and the consequences of rhetoric. This is something that historians can offer. We’re not prophets, we don’t know what’s going to come. But if we can explain the central narratives, the central mythology of modern antisemitism and how it manifests in the last hundred or two hundred years, and the relationship between that rhetoric and, for example, the rise of various regimes in the 1920s and 1930s and the connection to the Holocaust and so on. I think we can do that in a way that avoids misunderstandings, avoids abusive history and the abuse of terminology, but also avoids hysterics and avoids hyperbole and says: This is what we’re dealing with, this is why it’s so dangerous. That it doesn’t mean that we’re on the verge of another Holocaust, God forbid, but it does mean that these mythologies are quite dangerous and here’s how you can identify them. I think that that’s our central role as historians. We have to move beyond the classroom and offer what we can to shape discourse and help people grapple with what’s going on around them.
JL: I agree with you entirely, that historians have an important role to play in terms of trying to parse the discourse of this particular moment. Do you want to say something about what’s going on now, and why you think this is perhaps so important and relevant today?
JS: I do think we have to be careful. We’re speaking now in March 2018, and we’re in a moment of severe ethno-nationalist power. Of course, I’m thinking most of all about Trump and Trumpism here in America, but it’s not only here in America. I’m thinking about Hungary and Poland. I’m thinking about Austria. I’m thinking about France. I’m thinking about England. I’m thinking about Israel, obviously, quite a bit. And in this moment of ethno-nationalism, we’re seeing certain dangers that we have to identify. And one of those is antisemitism. And by the way, that doesn’t mean that antisemitism is exclusively a phenomenon of the right. At this exact moment, the discourse is actually focusing on Louis Farrakhan, who gave a speech a few days ago, in early March 2018, which was textbook antisemitism. I mean, it really couldn’t have been constructed any more clearly. Some of it wasn’t even modern antisemitism. A lot of it actually was similar to Christian, medieval antisemitism: Jews as Satan, Christ killers, things like that. It was kind of a blend of medieval Christian anti-Jewish hatred and modern racial antisemitism blended together. It was quite textbook. And we’re having a moment now in politics in America on the left, where there are certain Left figures who are not yet comfortable calling this out. And others on the left are saying, we have to address it on the left just as much as the right. I don’t want to say antisemitism is exclusively on the right by any means. But that said, the right is currently in power, and most of the antisemitic rhetoric we’re seeing is coming from the right. We have to call that out.
The central myth of modern antisemitism, or one of them anyway, is that Jews constitute a single ontological being, that they’re all connected, that they are cosmopolitan and rootless and not part of the nation, not part of the national community, and that they’re there to undermine the national community through various modern means, whether it’s the billionaire capitalist at the top of the pyramid, or all the millions of minions, the poor socialists at the bottom. And that’s why you have accusations of someone like George Soros being both a billionaire capitalist and also someone who’s bringing in socialism, which is what Wayne Lapierre said. How can a billionaire capitalist hedge fund guy be a socialist, be connected to Karl Marx? And that’s sort of the idea of modern antisemitism we have on the right currently. And we have to identify it as such, because rhetoric leads to action.
That was sort of the point that historians debate—and I’m sure you and your own class is bringing this out as well. You know, there’s a debate about antisemitism in the late 1890 between a couple of scholars, one of whom named his book, “The rise of Modern Anti-Semitism,” and the other one famously wrote “the rise and fall of anti-semitism.” Because in the 1890, these antisemitic parties in Germany and Austria and France basically fell out of power. But what the first historian points out is that although these political parties in 1890—that were modern parties based almost exclusively antisemitic codes—although they fell out of power, antisemitism gained a certain legitimacy, where it became perfectly fine to speak about Jews in a certain way. And often people said, “Well, they don’t really mean Jews, they mean something else, and Jews are a symbol of that.” That became totally acceptable so that in the 1920s and 1930s, when you had Nazis and other parties who are again parroting these talking points, it was not considered disqualifying in the least and then were put into power without any problem.
People didn’t vote for the Nazis, for the most part, because of the antisemitism. But they were perfectly fine with the antisemitism, and so when I as a historian see people say, “Well, it’s just talk, it’s just symbols, it doesn’t mean Jews,” I think that as historians we can come and say: Well, even if that’s true, it’s still incredibly dangerous. We have to be aware of it. So that’s one level of why I’m so concerned about the rise of this rhetoric. There was a time that if someone was giving the speech like what we’ve seen, like that of Wayne Lapierre or even some things that the president and others have said, it would have been disqualifying. But suddenly today, it’s not.
And in fact, I think part of that reason is because even Benjamin Netanyahu himself and his son are buying into these things and feeding them: “Sure. George Soros is a puppet master.” You can even see the kind of images when you look at the internet. If you just Google image today, “George Soros and puppets” or “George Soros and Jew” or “George Soros” and any string of search terms. You’ll see these ideas of George Soros or other rich Jews as puppet masters, behind these efforts to destroy the world. And they’re very much like the images in our textbooks of the nineteenth and twentieth century, of Rotschild, for example, as the puppet master trying to destroy the world and take over the world. So we have to be aware of that. And that’s one level of why I’m so engaged in this. And that’s maybe the most important thing, because of the dangers involved because it involves broader American and global politics.
But I think there’s also a sort of internal Jewish point, which is the history of Jewish parties, including Zionists, defining legitimacy and authenticity by their own perspective. It’s not totally new that a specific type of Zionist, or Zionists in general for that matter or other Jewish socialists, would say the only legitimate Jews are the ones who subscribe to our particular perspective. You know, Zionists would write off any non-Zionist one hundred years ago, even when they were quite the minority party. Everyone, as you know, was called an “assimilationist.” And that that sort of dismissal kind of adjective was helped along with the fact that liberal Jews called themselves assimilationists, because it used to mean sort of integrationist. It didn’t mean what it means today. But what’s been growing in the last few years is the idea that antisemitism is actually not what you and I, as scholars, would call antisemitism. But antisemitism is opposition to Israel. But not even opposition to Israel—antisemitism is actually opposition to a specific kind of Zionism, which is represented by Netanyahu and others that, for example, support settlement projects in the West Bank, that opposes groups like Breaking the Silence (Shovrim ha-shetikah) or the New Israel Fund and so on, so that those groups are all just “antisemites.” And actual antisemites, as long as they endorsed those projects, they’ve actually been sort of a made “kosher.” And now that’s OK, and that’s deeply concerning to me both because it writes Jews, even Zionists, passionate Zionists, out of the Jewish community, turns them into antisemites. And it welcomes people in, some of whom are actually antisemitic. And that sort of, at a scholarly level, I suppose it’s deeply interesting to me, but at a personal level it is deeply concerning to me.
JL: There’s so much to talk about here. There’s a lot to unpack. What you were just referring to is clearly the thrust of the Washington Post article, about how antisemitism is being put to use as a political tool, especially by Netanyahu and his government. If I can step backwards a little bit to focus on something else that you were talking about that I think is incredibly important: What you’re hitting on here, which is very central, is the pervasiveness of this imagery of antisemitism and anti-Judaism. And some of the challenges that we face stem from the fact that the terms antisemitic or antisemitism are in and of themselves so problematic. This is a term that, when we look at it, we say, well, this is a made up term, right? There is no such thing as a “Semite” to begin with. It’s a term that came out of a very particular political historical moment in the late nineteenth century but people have tried to use it to explain and understand anti-Jewish violence, anti-Jewish hatred throughout Jewish history. I think that’s been a major focus of scholarship of the past however many decades, to separate anti-Judaism from antisemitism. And so even the very discourse in the language of antisemitism, it really is problematic for us to utilize because when we were talking about the political use of the term or the scholarly study of it, it’s so wrapped up in so many of these issues, we have to disentangle it in so many ways.
But then the other thing, of course, that you were talking about which I think is really important is that you’ve talked about how the ideas of antisemitism have often been adopted by Jews in one way or the other. And I think this really speaks to a kind of a mimetic structure. We see that political ideas in certain discourses are taken up in a certain way by the subaltern, if you’ll forgive the jargon. If you look to the Enlightenment, if you look to sort of the discourse of “productivizing” the Jews and so on and so forth— this becomes a part of Zionism, in the way that it’s sort of imbued with a kind of a negativity towards the Jews. It’s not just Zionists who came to to utilize some of this language that was used to describe Jews in a negative fashion in order to think about themselves and about their own hopes for self-improvement, whether you’re talking about politically, socially, economically or whatever. And we see the same thing happening with antisemitism, where this entire discourse can be adopted, perhaps blindly by certain groups or individuals, because it fits into a wider project of what they’re working on.
JS: Yeah, absolutely. There are two issues there, and I’ll try to address them one at a time.
The second issue you mentioned was the relationship of antisemitism to Jewish ideologies, especially Zionism. And that’s spot on, to my mind. Zionism actually is not mainly a response to antisemitism. I know that is the traditional line that many of us grew up with. My first book talks about this at length. Zionism is one of the secondary nationalisms, part of the Zeitgeist that is working the same ways as, say, Ukrainian and Polish nationalists trying to nationalize the communities because of similar forces, the breakdown of traditional communities, the search for new Jewish identities and so on. I don’t think antisemitism is nearly as central, or the thing that sparked Zionism, as many others outside of the field think, or at least as are traditionally a popularly thought. But there is a relationship of Zionism and antisemitism.
I only hinted at it in this article. And Zionist do absorb antisemitic ideas, like the idea that Jews are somehow defective, that they’re somehow degenerate. This is a widespread idea, part of Zionism, that Zionism was going to fix the Jew. This is also oftentimes a misogynistic discourse of Jewish men being too effeminite or too weak. You know, these “coffeehouse Jews,” and Zionism is going to make them to manly, strong Jews. And so much so that even after the Holocaust, as you know, there’s this whole tragic phenomenon that Holocaust survivors in the ’50s often were often quite shunted because, you know, why didn’t you die fighting? Why did you go like lambs to the slaughter and all this kind of old discourse that we’ve worked so hard to fight against. So Zionism, in various ways, does have a complicated relationship with antisemitism, absorbing some ideas, trying to fight it. And early Zionists were willing to work with antisemites when they thought it was to their advantage. And I’m not condemning that, by the way, at all, I’m just pointing it out as a phenomenon. To a certain extent, I hinted at this—Herzl was willing to play up this notion of the Jewish oligarchs having the power to save the Jews. But I don’t really think it’s been a phenomenon where Zionists were playing up the cosmopolitan Jewish billionaire controlling all of this power in the way the antisemites feared. I won’t say that it’s not there. I don’t know it well enough to say that for sure, but I’m not too familiar with that happening very much. I think that’s an escalation that we’re seeing now, and I think we’re seeing it as a part of this transformation of people like Netanyahu redefining antisemitism to mean opposition to his government, and I think these go hand in hand. I do think this escalation, it’s not totally out of thin air. There is this complicated relationship of Zionism, antisemitism, but yet it’s an escalation of all the same. So that was your second point, I think, right? The relationship of Zionism, of the subaltern group, subaltern nationalism to antisemitism.
JL: If I could jump off of that, you mentioned Herzl and his imagination of the Jewish oligarchs, so to speak. But there’s an important difference here. If you want to make this comparison between George Soros and the Rothschilds, well, the Rothschild family, or at least portions of it, anyway, were involved in subsidizing and supporting the settlements in Palestine. So Herzl’s utilization of the idea of the so-called Jewish oligarchs had two parts to it: First, he hoped that these people would support the Jewish state in Palestine financially, and second he appealed to the Ottoman Sultan and to other world leaders saying, “Oh yeah, the Jews actually have all this power and if you will support our state project, the colonial project in Palestine, then we will put this power at your disposal.” So it is trying to take this notion of Jewish “power” and put it to use on behalf of the Jews. I’m of course caricaturing this, there is clearly not any kind of this so-called Jewish “power,” but in Netanyahu’s case, when he is attacking Soros, he’s opposing them in a way that’s sort of the upside down version of Herzl.
JS: Well, it’s a negative version, right? He’s a threat. But Herzl also may have been exaggerating Jewish power, Jewish wealth, and the willingness of those wealthy oligarchs to contribute. But the idea that this Jew is sort of a cosmopolitan traitor to the nationalist order, that this rich Jew is controlling myriads of groups across the globe at his beck and call, paying them to protest, paying them to organize, paying them to do these things. I think that is something which was not a place that Herzl went. I don’t think so. I don’t think that Herzl went down that dangerous path.
JL: Absolutely not. This is the crucial element, that Herzl’s notion of Jewish power lacked the conspiratorial component that you see in the really true antisemitic caricatures of the Jews.
JS: Right, which Netanyahu is now [utilizing]. And it’s not just him, by the way, as I pointed out in the article, there are other as well. I see it, I’m in South Carolina, and there’s a real push right now to have a new bill to ban antisemitism in the college classroom, which has various legal and moral problems. But the part that’s relevant for us today is that its focus is what they call anti-Israel discourse. That’s antisemitism for them, they’re so worried about discrimination and the main sponsor of the bill is somebody who himself engages in the kind of hate mongering rhetoric which he claims he’s trying to stop with this bill. But for him and for others, antisemitism really does mean any kind of rhetoric that is opposed to, for example, the settlements, any kind of rhetoric which uses the word “occupation.”
I mean, he literally called members J Street antisemites. This is someone who’s not Jewish, by the way. Again, the scholar in me is identifying it more than condemning it. I’m just interested in this phenomenon, as you know. I’m trying to be as detached as I can, but it’s hard to be totally detached when it’s so disconcerting, when it’s so worrisome. But I think this is playing in part of the same, the same phenomenon. And you know, when I posted the article online and talked to colleagues and other scholars about it, one comment I got was that I might have been exaggerating this moment, that there’s been a trajectory for years of excluding outsiders to your political perspective of being within the fold. And there’s some truth to that. I think, like I said, it goes back a long way. But I think there is an escalation going on right now, and a real redefinition going on right now.
People need to understand that when someone gets up there and talks about an “international conspiracy” to destroy the nation, and nearly every name that comes out of their mouth is a Jew, it’s called a dog whistle for a reason. There is plausible deniability, theoretically, that, well, after all George Soros does support liberal causes, after all Chuck Schumer is this powerful Democrat, and so on. But when someone is talking about all these powerful Jews subverting the national community, this is at best a dog whistle and maybe even more severe than that. And because people get the message loud and clear.
Earlier, you said you had two different points. One was the relationship, historically, of Zionism, antisemitism, and the changes that are going on in the last few years, but the other point is about the term antisemitism itself. It’s really unfortunate, people get so hooked up—Yes. The term was coined by Wilhelm Marr in the 1870s because racists at the time connected language groups with race, this artificial construct, and Jews were seen as a foreign race, the Semitic, you know, languages or whatever it is. It’s true. All of these categories are problematic, but the term is what it is. I mean, that’s the term we have. And now you’re going to play games and say “antisemite” isn’t really because you know, Jews aren’t Semites, Arab are Semites, whatever. This is just silliness. That language has meaning. This is the meaning that it has right now, but I do think it’s important to emphasize, along the same lines as I’m sure you do in your classes, that it is a modern phenomenon.
It’s not random that in the modern secular world, Jews became the object of hatred and became the scapegoat for modern problems in the late nineteenth century, in Europe and in America to an extent. It’s not that random Jews had been the Other in Europe for many, many centuries. But the nature of the hatred against Jews in the modern period, what we call antisemitism, is distinct from the kind of anti-Jewish animosity that was theological in the pre-modern world, especially the medieval world. And I do think those distinctions are important. I suspect that you spend a lot of time in your classes talking about those differences, as I do. And I try to do that in the article a little bit, to help people understand that there are connections. The notions of a connection between Jews and Satan that are in parts of the New Testament and other church texts, these things do carry some weight in modern antisemitism. But the focus on the Jews as part of this global conspiratorial power, this is modern. The idea that Jews are not able to ever abandon that identity, that they cannot convert or assimilate away from it, in fact that the converted or assimilated Jew is in some ways more “dangerous” because he’s hidden. This is all quite modern, and other aspects as well, some of which I mentioned in the article.
Only so many people go through our classes or read these books, and I don’t blame them, you know. Not everyone’s so engaged with this. We’ve committed our lives to it. Most people are good people living out their lives, raising their families, having honorable careers. Everyone does what they can. So I think that what we can bring is that kind of clarification. So yeah, the term itself, this is a rabbit hole. When they say, “It’s not really antisemitism,” I think we have to push back against that because the term is what it is. We’re stuck with it now. And that’s where we’re at.
JL: I agree with you completely, that we have to use the language at our disposal. To use a sort of religious framework, we can say that “God speaks in the language of man,” right? We need to, as scholars, understand the language that we use and the problematic nature of it sometimes, but this is the terminology that people are using when they’re talking about some of these issues. And it’s almost counterproductive to, as scholars, enter into a conversation about antisemitism and say, “Oh, well, you really shouldn’t be using that term. We should be using this other one.” It’s just not such a productive role for scholars to play.
JS: I tell my students often, and maybe you do this as well, that when we talk about medieval Jew hatred, I try to explain why scholars are reluctant to use the term “antisemitism.” But I’m certainly not going to beat them over the head with it. And we all do the best we can with this kind of language. But I do think that it’s problematic. It’s one thing to refer to the host desecration myth as antisemitic. Technically it’s pre-modern, it’s some kind of other thing besides modern day antisemitism. But we understand what we’re talking about. I think it’s very different to say that if you argue that Israel should be binational state or a secular democracy, that that’s antisemitic. I think that’s a very big leap, and it strikes me as very problematic to use the term “antisemitism” for the latter.
JL: I think it brings us back to the article, where you note the danger in, as you put it, “you’re redefining antisemitism to me any opposition to Netanyahu’s policies and Jews to mean his supporters.” To me, this is really key. Because the idea that anybody who opposes a particular policy is opposed to the existence of the state of Israel is sort of absurd in and of itself. It’s like saying that somebody who does not support the Republican tax cuts is anti-American. I think you’re making a really important point here in trying to indicate some of the ways in which Netanyahu’s government has been trying to coopt the notion of antisemitism and redefine it for political purposes.
JS: It’s amazing to me to see ideas that are completely normative in Israel—or at least they were until recently—for example about the future of Israel and best practices and so on. But in America, those ideas are something that writes you out of the community. It gets you called in a Kapo, which is a particularly offensive way of calling somebody in somebody an antisemite, and that’s a problem. That’s a serious problem, to put it mildly. And it does parallel to America to a certain extent, when you have the president calling members of the media “enemies of the people,” which is an old Stalinist term. That’s disconcerting, to put it mildly. That’s very, very concerning when you write a position out as being anti-American because of a political position. That worries me very, very much. I admit it does. I like to avoid any kind of litmus test altogether, but certainly positions that are part of the Israeli spectrum should be part of the Israeli spectrum and we can hopefully strengthen that as much as we can with this sort of teaching.
JL: I think, fundamentally, one of the challenges is that the political discourse within the American Jewish community on Israel does not have the full scale or the full breadth of opinions that you see within Israel. Some things that are perhaps, you know, within a minority position in the state of Israel are perhaps seen as beyond the pale within the American Jewish community in ways that are problematic, because someone like Netanyahu can amplify the ideas that these positions are beyond the pale by calling them “antisemitic.”
JS: By the way, it’s not the community as a whole—because most American Jews actually subscribe those ideas [which are being called antisemitic because they are critical of Israel]. Actually, it’s the American Jewish leadership and power. There’s an old comment, I don’t remember who said it, but I certainly repeated it many times, that Zionism is the last great litmus test of Jewish blogging. Someone said, I could walk into any synagogue—Reform, Conservative, and even many, many Orthodox synagogues—and say something to the effect that, you know, I don’t keep kosher. I don’t keep Shabbat. I don’t believe in God. I don’t believe the Torah came from any God. But I have sort of a soft spot for this community I’d like to belong. I like to come to the synagogue. Can I be a member? And that person would be certainly welcomed.
I mean, it’s possible an Orthodox synagogue might not let them, you know, read the Torah, or maybe not even give them an Aliyah potentially. Or maybe they would. But they will be welcomed. But if a person came in and said, you know, I believe in God, I believe in the Torah. I keep Shabbat and kosher very, very strictly actually. And I just, I’m more convinced by the older ideas a hundred years ago that Jews are just a people. They’re not a nation, they really don’t have any special claim to having a state in the land of Israel. This is a very minority view obviously today, but it was quite the majority of hundred years ago. And that’s how I feel, that they will be shown the door out of most synagogues. That would be a heresy that couldn’t be tolerated. Atheism is no problem, but that wouldn’t be tolerated and it was, it was kind of a funny comment but also had some truth to it I think. But I think it’s gotten to the point today that the heresy isn’t saying Jews aren’t a nation—although I think that that’s not a heretical position at all. I think all nations are modern and constructed, in any event. But to say, “I think Israel is really doing wrong. I want there to be a strong Israel, but I think the occupation is very immoral and I think that the settlements are terrible, terrible at a human rights level, terrible for Israel’s future,” you know, basically express the left view of Israel, something along the lines of Meretz, that would be the heresy that would get them excluded from any synagogues or communities. It’s only anecdotal, of course. I’ve never done a study about this. But I have a sense that that’s the case. And seeing the kind of rhetoric coming out of a guy like Netanyahu and many others in many communities which I inhabit and friends inhabit, this thing is moving along. This process is moving along and I think we want to arrest this process as possible because it’s going to undermine the ability of the Jewish community to accomplish various things, not to mention just the tragedy in and of itself.
JL: I think what you’re really hitting on here, it was just a really big issue, is this relationship between antisemitism and Jewish politics. If to be a Zionist or to be pro-Israel is a kind of a litmus test, then for a Jewish person to be called a self-hating Jew or antisemite is perhaps one of the worst things that someone could be termed as a Jewish person. There’s this entire discourse sort of wrapped up here that to be anti-Israel, or anti-Netanyahu, is to be antisemitic. And this seems to be so ahistorical, it’s almost bizarre that this is something that’s even happening.
JS: Someone said to me that this is historical: Jewish politics one hundred years ago were extremely vicious, which they were, and various groups of Zionists and various types of Zionist socialists and others did attack the other groups quite strongly. And they did. But I don’t remember them accusing them of antisemitism. That’s something I don’t remember now. I could be wrong, and I’d be very happy for a historian to come along and say, actually the sources I’ve seen do show that. But I have not seen that. I think they accused them of threatening the Jewish future, that this is not the way to go forward, using this sort of language.
I do think it’s important to talk about rhetoric. If someone is talking about a powerful Jewish mogul who’s controlling the strings of a global effort to undermine national sovereignty, that is a central myth of antisemitism. And anyone who’s seeing that needs to be saying, you are saying something that’s antisemitic. And if you’re the prime minister of Israel saying it, it’s extremely dangerous, it’s dangerous for anyone to be saying it, but it’s especially so for you to be saying it. And that doesn’t mean he’s antisemitic. I don’t know what’s in his heart of hearts. I think he is quite cynical, and will do whatever he can for political purposes, but I think we have to call it out. That’s sort of the point I’m trying to get at. We need to call things out for what they are, as opposed to accusing somebody being an antisemite because of their political view.
You know, there was an article that came out a few years ago by Etgar Keret, the famous Israeli writer about the uselessness of the term “pro-Israel.” I think these terms like anti-Israel and pro-Israel have become quite useless. What do you even mean by that? More often it means, again, a litmus test of what political view you have about Israel as opposed to anything else. I remember recently, there was a synagogue of a colleague, a friend of mine who’s a rabbi there, who got a letter by someone saying, “How can you invite this speaker to come? He’s anti-Jewish, he’s anti-Israel.” And the person who was coming had dedicated his life to Jewish education, to Zionist organizations, to your groups. They pushed him (the letter-writer), like, “Why do you say that?” And he said, well that person wants to withdraw from the West Bank and then he explains why that’s going to destroy Israel.
And so we had to sort of had to explain to him, “Well, you know, that’s your view and, you know, you are certainly welcome to it. And who knows, maybe you’re right. But there are other views that think that the present in the West Bank is actually the threat and to tar somebody as an antisemite and anti-Jew and anti-Zionist, for that matter”—to the extent that that’s a tarring—”someone who’s given their life to Jewish education, living in Israel by the way, I think requires a moment of reflection.” And I hope it got through to him. But I think it’s something that we’ve all encountered and that we have to, again, try to fight as much as we can. I personally do subscribe to sort of more left wing views about Israel, but I make an effort and I pushed my colleagues on the left to make the effort not to accuse people on the right who are pushing for more right wing views, to accuse them even if we think going to lead to Israel’s destruction or the end of Israel. Not to use that kind of language because that’s not helpful right there. They are advocating what they think is going to be most successful. And maybe that’s a way to fight this trend. I don’t know. You know, we all have our own little corners of the world to battle it out.
JL: I think there’s a second element here as well. We’ve been talking about how the language of accusations of antisemitism are being thrown around for political purposes. But there’s also this question of alliances, political or otherwise, with those who have espoused antisemitic ideas or values or concepts. And then Netanyahu’s inability to condemn certain leaders in Eastern Europe, for instance, with whom his relationship and the Israeli government’s relationship is important, who have espoused anti-Jewish views. This also seems to me an important part of this whole discourse.
JS: Look, politics is messy at times. And I wouldn’t suggest otherwise. I lived in Vienna in 1999 when the FPO, the Freedom Party in Austria, the right-wing party that was founded by Nazis, basically, in Austria led at the time by Jörg Haider, who later died in a car accident. They were running for office and, for the first time, they were going to do well. They got something like 20 or 30 percent of the vote. And they were going to go into power. I was living there in 1999. I was living, by the way, at the time I was Hasidic. And I dressed the part, both in terms of my beard and my clothes, and there were signs all over the city that said things like “We guarantee a stop of the foreignization of Austria,” and things like this. It was not an unscary time. And when they were put into power, not even the prime minister by the way but they were made part of the governing coalition, there were consequences in the EU. Israel recalled its ambassador. It was a big deal. When similar regimes in Austria and also elsewhere come to power today, they’re being embraced. Yehuda Glick, a member of Knesset, he went and met with the head of the FPO in Austria. And he said, “there’s no problem here, because this guy is pro-Israel. So we’re all, we’re OK with them.” And that would have been unimaginable twenty years ago.
Certainly, Hungary is one of the most famous examples, and I talked about it in the article, where you have a president who’s really pushing explicitly antisemitic campaigns. But obviously, also, with Trump here in America, right? Why is Netanyahu uncomfortable condemning Trump when he talks about, you know, “very fine” Nazis? Why is Netanyahu comfortable with people like Steve Bannon? And so on.
And the reason is because if antisemitism means anti-Zionism, and that means opposition to Netanyahu, that gives you the ability to work with people who by a traditional definition, produce antisemitic ideas. And that has a benefit to him. If his goal is not to defend world Jewry against antisemitism, but if his goal is to advance a certain nationalist project, then there’s a sensibility that I think, speaking as a Jew in America and speaking as a scholar of antisemitism, I’m troubled by that and very worried about that. Because that kind of enabling is exactly what allows antisemitic rhetoric to grow into antisemitic violence. So that concerns me very much.
When the Freedom Party first came to power in Austria in 1999/2000, it was a huge deal. And today it’s sort of, what’s the expression they say today? A “nothing burger.” It’s nothing at all, because this party says “we support Israel,” meaning we support the current government. And that’s very concerning. It’s very concerning to me when these sorts of ideologies, this sort of fear-mongering, hate-mongering and ideologies with antisemitic histories are legitimated. That concerns me very much. Our job is to call it out, right? At least call it out and say, hey, this is happening. This is a thing that’s happening right now.
JL: There’s a lot to talk about here. Obviously, one way to look at the way in which the Netanyahu government is being friendly with regimes that are authoritarian, or have those tendencies, or are expressing antisemitic ideas and discourse, is just that perhaps Israel has fewer allies now due to the political situation and the occupation and so on and so forth. And then, as a result, Israel needs all the allies it can get, because of the untenable situation of the occupation.
JS: Well, I guess. I’ll just reiterate that whatever you think about that—you know, I have my ideas, you have yours, and others have theirs—it’s still important that we call it out. At least we identify what’s happening, and that way people can have a conversation. I taught a class yesterday on fascism and what fascism is, its core ideas and so on. And we focused, of course, on the 1920s and 1930s. And more than one student asked about today, about Trump and so on. And what I told them was, it’s not for me to tell you about that, to tell you what I think. It’s not for me to tell you what to think about Trump, because that’s what they kept asking about. All I can do is give you the tools to try to understand fascism so you know how to have the conversation and you can decide for yourselves.
I think the same is true when it comes to the question you just asked about Israel, the wisdom of what they’re doing. Maybe they have no choice. Whatever. I think they do have choices, and I think there are consequences for the choices that they’re making. But even if we want to set that aside, at least let’s have a conversation so that we know what we’re talking about. Here’s what’s happening. It’s never happened before. Here’s the you’re the choices that the government’s making that they’ve never made before, and the kinds of things they’re saying that they never said before, and things that they’re not saying that they would have always said before. And just identify it so that we know what we’re talking about, and then whatever comes up, it comes with it. But at least we have a shared language of the phenomena that are happening in the world right now. That seems to be the best that we can do a scholars, right? That’s what we can offer is to help refine our thinking and our language. And it doesn’t mean we are prophets. It doesn’t mean that you or I know the best practices. But at least we can not obfuscate what’s happening.
JL: I think that whenever we teach about the past, it always reverberates with the present in one way or the other. That’s one of the reasons why it’s interesting. And I’m glad that you brought up fascism, inasmuch as this is something that a lot of people are talking about now. One of the big questions that people have been debating in various forms is, can we use the language of fascism to describe the rise of authoritarian regimes around the world today, or certain tendencies, even within the Trump administration being anti-press, etc. There’s this debate about, like, can you use the language. Do you need to call it “neo-fascism”? How do you make these kinds of historical comparisons, and this whole sort of issue of antisemitism is also a part of this kind of discussion as well.
I think one of the things you do that’s really important in the article is that you are fundamentally trying to historicize antisemitism. To say that it’s not really appropriate for Netanyahu to use this language, (a) to describe people who are just opposed to his own policies, but also (b) that we have to just think about historical context. But of course, there’s a danger in overly historicizing it. Because if you overly historicize some of these ideas and concepts, then that removes our ability to use these tools to understand the world around us.
JS: That’s a really interesting point. There has to be a balance there. You know, it’s interesting. I read voraciously all the various leading historians of fascism. Tim Snyder, obviously, is most famous these days. But not only Tim Snyder, others as well. And it’s quite interesting, and also affirming, to see the way they talk about the contemporary political moment, because they do so in very nuanced ways. Tim Snyder is most outspoken and energized in his sort of crusade, but others as well. I’m thinking, for example, about someone like Christopher Browning who wrote an article about a year ago saying, here are aspects of Trump and Trumpism which do evoke the kind of fascist language and politics that I study, but here are things that are actually quite different, and this is how we can use that knowledge. My teachers at the University of Wisconsin, Rudy Kosher, Stanley Payne, none of them came out and said, “Trump is a fascist. This is Nazis, Hitler.” No one does that. But rather, they say, these are things that have happened, let’s understand them and try to see how they are at play now in very carefully nuanced ways, understanding context.
I’m just saying that we’re not prophets. But nevertheless, history matters, right? History matters. I feel very affirmed by that. I haven’t really read historians being black and white hyperbolic. But you know, I’m reminded, there was a friend of mine who quoted a Jewish newspaper in the spring of 1933, in which the editors wrote on the front page: Actually, we don’t think for a moment that Hitler is going to de-emancipate the Jews and round them up and put them in Ghettos; we’re not going back to the Middle Ages; but rather he was using this as politics and now that he’s in power he’s going to mellow out because that’s what he wanted all along. And you know, his point wasn’t to say Trump is Hitler. His point wasn’t to say that this is Germany, 1933, in some kind of gross or course way. All the historians who read him understood that he was saying, first of all, that it’s kind of interesting. It just makes us stop and think. Second of all, you can use this as a shock tool to get your students to think for a minute and just have a discussion, to say let’s talk about the ways this moment is relevant, to talk about the ways that it’s not, to have a conversation. And one of the responses he got was something to the effect of whoever posted this, you know, he’s an idiot, he doesn’t know the first thing about modern Jewish history or the Holocaust and so on and so forth. Now, the person who wrote this is a renowned scholar of twentieth-century Eastern European Jewish history, he’s written three or four books, the fourth one is on the Holocaust itself. He’s a senior scholar on the advisory board of the Holocaust museum in Washington, he teaches there frequently, and he runs one of the most prestigious Jewish studies programs in the country. But I’m reminded of this, because that’s the kind of the dismissiveness that people say when someone talks about Trump in a certain way, or talks about Netanyahu in a certain way, or Israel in certain way, and they’re dismissed as ignoramuses or as antisemites. That’s the kind of mood that concerns me, the sort of death of expertise. You know, not that we know everything, we surely don’t, but we know some things. And I think what we know best is how to use language carefully and to understand how to use history carefully.
JL: Let’s talk about the death of expertise, so to speak. One of the reasons why I was so glad to see your article in the Washington Post was because I think that it’s really important for scholars to insert themselves into these debates, because if scholars don’t do that, then this expertise is really not accessible to a wide public. A big part, I think, of what you were doing in the article, on a fundamental level, is just sketching out the history of antisemitism, to demonstrate why Netanyahu’s utilization of this language and of these accusations to apply to his opponents, why it just doesn’t work, and the fact that you had to write an article to lay out and to sketch out some of this history indicates that all of these things that scholars are talking about are not necessarily that accessible to the wider public. I think that it’s important for us to share this expertise, and it raises a lot of questions about the role of scholars in the public sphere, and what it is that we can do to help to inform the discourse in one way or the other. Yeah,
JS: I agree. And I was thrilled to be part of this particular site, it’s a division of the Washington Post called “Made by History,” which basically invites scholars, especially historians, to explain a particular historical issue that is of deep contemporary relevance. For example, there was an article about the origins of AIPAC and what it was always trying to do. Because history matters. Understanding where these things come from, the institutional history matters, and ideological history matters, social history matters. These thing matter. I don’t want to exaggerate our power or our value, but I don’t want to minimize it, either. Society has, to a certain extent, invested in us and what we in turn owe society is not to hide in our offices, but to try to offer what we can. And we might get things wrong. We might not predict the future very well. But the more we talk, the more we share what we can as articulately and concisely as we can, I think the better off we’ll be.
By the way, the death of expertise, that wasn’t my own phrase. There’s a book out about a year ago, by Tom Nichols, there was a big article he wrote and expanded to a book about this. My wife’s a doctor, and there’s a phenomenon of people coming into doctors’ offices and basically saying, “I read this article and I’m very concerned about what you’re choosing to do here.” It’s a sense of equality, “I read an article so I know what’s best in this medical situation, as you do, who went to medical school and trained in a profession.” That’s the thing happening as well. That’s a phenomenon happening right now as well. And so I, I do worry about that. That’s one of my concerns about the current government in the United States, that science is being disrespected and shutdown, research is being shutdown. Researchers get things wrong. Experts get things wrong. But they tend to get things right, and they tend to collectively get things right, and they offer a much greater chance of getting things right. Doctors aren’t always right, but they have the best shot at getting it right, as opposed to someone looking into the Internet for a minute and reading an article. So, to the extent that we can offer that expertise, I think that is what we owe. We’re trying to get our students to think more clearly. We learn from them as they learn from us. I learned from people as they learn from me in the public sphere. So, yeah, I agree with everything you just said.
JL: If I might play devil’s advocate for just a second, you’re talking about the challenges of public access to knowledge. In the medical field, somebody might feel an ache in their back, so they look on WebMD, right? And they decide, oh, I have a slipped disk. Well, obviously that’s probably not the case. But they go into their doctor and they somewhat overdo it, right? This is one way to think about the death of expertise. But it also represents a kind of democratization of information. Isn’t that part of what you’re doing in this op-ed, to write that somebody can go online and read an article about antisemitism and then they can have a more informed opinion, as long as it’s written well.
JS: I welcome that democratization, to an extent. The flip side of democratization, is that sense of somebody who thinks they have the same understanding of somebody who wrote the article. That’s sort of the challenge of the democratization of knowledge, is the sense that people don’t realize that there is more to understanding. I hope I helped people who read my article to understand antisemitism better. I hope that it affects discourse in a positive way. As you know, everything I write, everything you write, and everything our colleagues write, we hope it will be read and will affect people in a positive way. By the way that, the nice thing about this moment of being so available via sharing on social media and so on is that my article in the Washington Post was probably read, probably, by tens of thousands of people, at least. You know, my book was read by maybe a few hundred. So there is an access that we have with these sorts of outlets that we don’t have with our normal academic outlets. So, I welcome that democratization. I think that the onus just gets put on us all the more to engage with it, because if we step back too much, then I worry about the kinds of ideas that that people will hold.
And to a certain extent it’s a challenge. Because when you’re writing a book, when you’re teaching a class, you have so much time. If you want to convince your students, let me teach you about modern antisemitism. You have many seventy-five-minute sessions with which to do it, and Powerpoints, and books to assign, articles to assign. And by the end, your students will say, I get it now. I understand this is antisemitism. You’ve explained it to me for quite convincingly. Maybe not. Maybe they won’t be ready to go and write a book about it, but they certainly will understand it and get it.
But if you’re writing an article in 800 words, it’s all too easy in a Facebook or Twitter conversation to say, well, I just don’t believe you. This just doesn’t make sense to me. And I sort of want to say, well, if I had four or five seventy-five-minute sessions, I would explain it to you in greater length. But for now, I just need a little bit of trust based on my training that when I say this is the myth of modern antisemitism, and here’s just one example that I can give in 900 words, I have a thousand more examples. You still have to trust me on that and people don’t want to trust. Their sense is that they understand it just as well as I, until I repeat all those courses and all of those lectures and all of those readings with all those footnotes, they’re not necessarily going to be convinced. So there was a, a plus side, but a challenge, is what my answer to that would be. I certainly welcome it, but I am aware of the downside of it.
JL: I think you’re right that the scope and the scale of teaching a class affords a lot more flexibility, and also a certain kind of hierarchy which doesn’t exist when you’re on Twitter or Facebook.
JS: That’s right, the students know that we’re the trained experts. I try to empower my students, as you do I’m sure, to give them primary sources and say, look, you have the same sources me, what do you think? I try to do it as much as possible. But at the end of the day, they do know that we’ve been trained, that they’re just beginning their journey, and that sometimes can be helpful. We don’t have that in the public sphere. We don’t. If you try say, look, I am trained in that, I’ve read fifty books on this, you sound arrogant. And maybe rightly so. Maybe that is what you were being. And I tried not to do that, because I don’t want to come off that way. But then again, I also don’t want to have to repeat 100 pages of explanation about something if I can do it much more quickly, so there is an advantage the classroom in that regard.
JL: I guess if there’s one last question that I would want to ask: A couple of times you’ve mentioned how history matters, and this is in a certain way the fundamental idea that this podcast is about, that history matters and then also Jewish history in particular, that it matters for broad social issues. Thinking about that particular question, why do you think that the history of antisemitism matters, in terms of both this question of Netanyahu and his approach, which you wrote about in the article. But sort of more broadly speaking, why is it important that people have a historical perspective on this set of issues in the present moment?
JS: That’s a great final question. A big question, isn’t it? I would say, there are two levels here to the conversation. And one of them is, for those of us who are in the Jewish world and concerned about the Jewish community globally and about the relationship of Israel to the Diaspora, and about the relationship of Jews to each other within the Diaspora, I think understanding, seeing the way antisemitism is being used the way it is, is something that we have to address and deal with. I’m very concerned about a huge segment of the Jewish world being written off and cut off and just walking away, because of this disregard to who they are. This is just one aspect of that, by the way, and so from the internal perspective, I’m concerned.
But beyond the Jews, or seeing the Jews in dialogue with the broader world, when we’re seeing global leaders, including the president and other major figures—I mentioned Wayne Lapierre at one time, and he is a very important figure, particularly because of the prominence he is given, because the president is praising him, but other factors as well. When you see them tapping into blatant antisemitic tropes, I think we need to be aware of it. I don’t want to exaggerate, but there’s a lot of talk about how Jews are the canary in the coal mine. When you know the Jews are always the first ones to suffer. I’m not sure that’s true. I’m sure that Jews are not the most vulnerable minority in America today. That’s clear to me. But at the same time, when you have various political figures in Hungary, in Poland, in America, and elsewhere who are talking about Jews using these—at best—dog whistles, and at worst, much worse than that, I think we need to be aware of what that means. That the kind of politician that person is, about the kind of danger that might come out of that.
I don’t know what’s going to come. I don’t want to be overly alarmist or hyperbolic. I don’t want to minimize either, and we know from history that rhetoric, when normalized, leads to action, especially when it’s wed to power, especially when it’s wed to the power that’s in place right now. So, on a personal level, I’m not worried at all right now that I’m going to be rounded up or anything like that. I am a little more worried than I used to be about being a visible Jew on the street, about the kind of rhetoric being whipped up against cosmopolitan Jews, and I think when we see that happening, if we haven’t learned anything from history, it’s that we have to be aware of the power of rhetoric. People dismiss rhetoric just a little bit too often, to my mind.
So there’s, I think, an internal Jewish community perspective. We’re seeing something happening in the Jewish community that is worrisome. But there’s a global political issue going on as well, that we have to be aware of, whether dog whistling or more substantive than even that.