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Why the Oldest Hatred Persists

Why the Oldest Hatred Persists

Antisemitism is flourishing again, this time in institutions ostensibly dedicated to truth and tolerance.

Michael Mandelbaum

The explosion of antisemitism on American university campuses in the wake of the terrorist attack on Israel on October 7 raises a troubling question: How could the world’s oldest hatred, one based—now as in the past—on lies and bigotry, have found a home in institutions that are supposed to be dedicated to rationality, the pursuit of truth, and the practice of tolerance?

That question raises another, equally disturbing one: How could antisemitism have persisted in the wake of the European Holocaust of the first half of the 1940s, the worst crime in human history, in which the forces of Nazi Germany murdered six million Jews? Germany was defeated in World War II, the Nazi regime was dismembered and discredited and its leaders came to be regarded, rightly, as criminals. Yet the core of its ideology, hatred of Jews, lives on, more than seventy-five years after the Third Reich perished. How could this have happened?

Answers to both questions can be found in a recently published book, Three Faces of Antisemitism: Right, Left, and Islamist. The author, Jeffrey Herf, Distinguished University Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Maryland, has written extensively on the modern history of Germany, the Middle East, and the United States. His book collects excerpts from books and articles that he has published over the last four decades on the subject of antisemitism. Its theme is that, over the last hundred years, this long-lived form of bigotry has appeared in three distinct forms: (1) the antisemitism of the Right, embodied by Hitler’s Germany; (2) the antisemitism of the Left, practiced most enthusiastically, and to greatest effect, by the communist countries after World War II; and (3) the antisemitism that is a cardinal feature of the Islamist movement whose offshoots include the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas that committed the October 7 atrocities, as well as the terrorism-supporting government of Iran.

Herf traces the connections and the similarities among these three incarnations of the world’s oldest hatred. He documents the way in which Nazi Germany, through radio broadcasts, brought its brand of antisemitism to the Arab Middle East during World War II. As for similarities, he finds both Nazism and Islamism to be examples of what he calls “reactionary modernism:” ideologies that seek to restore the glories of an imagined past through the use of the most modern, and sometimes the most lethal, technologies.

Herf writes that the antisemitism of the Left provides the key to the post-World War II continuation of this particular form of bigotry. The communist bloc, led by the Soviet Union, made it an essential part of its propaganda as well as of its foreign policy. Communism claimed to be the dedicated enemy of imperialism (although the Soviet Union itself was a classic multinational empire, held together by coercion) and designated Israel, the Jewish state established in 1948, as an example of what it opposed. The charge was and is false. The Zionist movement that created Israel actually opposed British imperial rule in what was then Palestine; and far from being imperial interlopers in the Middle East, the Jews were and are indigenous to the region. They inhabited the territory where the State of Israel is located long before Islam existed and, although forcibly evicted from it, maintained a close connection to it and a continuous presence in it for centuries thereafter.

Herf argues that antisemitism could not have survived as it did after 1945 without the power and the prestige of the communist bloc behind it. That power and prestige came from the Soviet Union’s military defeat of Nazi Germany. Since the Third Reich qualifies as perhaps the most antisemitic regime in all of history, and communists presented themselves as representing the antithesis of everything Nazism had stood for and had done, they had to insist that their campaign against Israel—anti-Zionism—had nothing to do with antisemitism.

In theory the two are not necessarily the same. Certainly, criticism of Israel does not always amount to antisemitism. If it did, a majority of Israeli citizens would be antisemites. The communist bloc and its contemporary descendants (and Islamists as well), however, object not to Israel’s policies but to its very existence. As Herf notes, the communist countries, including communist East Germany, generously supplied weaponry and training to Middle Eastern countries and terrorist movements whose avowed aim was to destroy the Jewish state and murder its inhabitants.

Moreover, the contrast that Israel’s enemies attempt to make between anti-Zionism and antisemitism amounts to a distinction without a difference. Anti-Zionism is simply antisemitism with a different label. The assault on Israel exhibits the same defining features that antisemitism has displayed throughout the ages: the demonization of Jews; conspiracy theories that impute evil designs and vast power to the Jewish people; and the holding of Jews to standards applied to no other groups—that is, double standards.

The antisemitism that has been on display on American campuses since October 7—and, indeed, before then to anyone who cared to notice—can be understood as the American version of the antisemitism, disguised as anti-imperialism, introduced by the communist bloc after World War II. Communist anti-Zionism, its version of antisemitism, fits all too neatly into the ideology that has taken hold in American universities over the last three decades. 

The term “woke” is often used to describe that ideology, whose goals, for academic institutions and American society as a whole, are “diversity, equity, and inclusion.” It is based on a view of global and American history as an ongoing conflict between oppressor and oppressed groups, with its goal being to overturn the presumed hierarchy and confer power and privilege on those deemed to be oppressed. Following communist anti-imperialism, this campus ideology designates Israel—based on falsehoods, as antisemitism always is—as an oppressor.

The students chanting “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” after October 7 were therefore repeating, unwittingly, a staple of Cold War communist propaganda. Apparently, many of them did not even know which river and which sea were in question, thereby reprising the 20th-century role of naïve Westerners who helped the communist cause without being aware of what they were doing. The term for such people, which applies as well to many academic antisemites, was “useful idiot.” It is a bitter irony that academia—an institution with the official purpose of fostering enlightenment—has produced idiocy; and a further and equally bitter irony that that same institution is helping to perpetuate the oldest hatred of all.

The responsibility for this dreadful state of affairs does not, however, fall entirely on the students. Most of them arrive on campus uninformed. It is the radical faculty who devote their classes to disseminating antisemitic teachings—and the feckless administrators who enable the demonization of Jews that these faculty members preach and the harassment of Jewish students that that preaching inspires—who are the 21st-century equivalents of the communist propagandists of the Cold War. Whatever else may be said of these people, they are not idiots–they know full well what they are doing; and when it comes to nurturing the values that institutions of higher education were established to promote and without which democracy cannot flourish, they are not useful. They are not even useless. They are extraordinarily pernicious.

Michael Mandelbaum is the Christian A. Herter professor emeritus of American Foreign Policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a member of the editorial board of American Purpose. His new book, The Titans of the Twentieth Century: How They Made History and the History They Made, about Woodrow Wilson, Lenin, Hitler, Churchill, FDR, Gandhi, Ben-Gurion, and Mao, will be published in September.

Image: Protestors holding a banner at an anti-Israeli rally in Washington, D.C. (Anti-Defamation League; Instagram)

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