What Is Antisemitism? (History, Tropes, And Misconceptions)

We break down the history of antisemitism, common misconceptions about Jews, and antisemitic tropes that have historically led to violence against Jews.
A memorial outside the Tree of Life Congregation Synagogue in Pittsburgh is seen on Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2018, to remember the victims of the mass shooting there. (Official White House Photo by Andrea Hanks)

A memorial outside the Tree of Life Congregation Synagogue in Pittsburgh is seen on Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2018, to remember the victims of the mass shooting there. (Official White House Photo by Andrea Hanks)

“Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. compared the spread of hatred to an ‘unchecked cancer’ that corrodes the very fabric of our society. If we truly believe in the equality of every human being and the inherent right to individual liberty, then there is not any room in our society for these acts of hate. To allow anti-Semitism, violence and other campaigns of hate and fear to continue unconstrained threatens the safety and security of every American.”
–Rep. John Lewis, February 21, 1940-July 17, 2020

Another day in the worst timeline, another act of bigotry. Today, antisemitism, a loathing as old as the Jewish people themselves. With an estimated 16 million Jews worldwide they are a true minority, making up 0.2% of the global population. The rate in the US is higher, with Jews totaling about 2.2% of the population if you include secular or cultural Jews.

It’s a very concentrated amount of hatred for a relatively small number of people. While some are unwaveringly clear in their animus, like the Charlottesville right-wing neo-Nazis chanting “Jews will not replace us,” others, like Nick Cannon, wittingly or unwittingly spread the most vile and harmful stereotypes, and then responded to outcry by saying he has “no hate in my heart nor malice intentions.” Cannon subsequently fully apologized, after meeting with Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center:

As with all people repentant after facing consequences for bigotry, only time will tell whether Cannon’s quest for growth is genuine or the work of a savvy public relations executive. Demonstrating the entrenchment of antisemitism, after his apology, Cannon received backlash from some members of the Black community:

Basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, in a searing op-ed, lambasted the lack of outrage at this wave of antisemitism, which included a week-long spree from rapper Ice Cube:

“When reading the dark squishy entrails of popular culture, meh-rage in the face of sustained prejudice is an indisputable sign of the coming Apatholypse: apathy to all forms of social justice. After all, if it’s OK to discriminate against one group of people by hauling out cultural stereotypes without much pushback, it must be OK to do the same to others. Illogic begets illogic.”

And Abdul-Jabbar wasn’t alone in his criticism; other stars of the sporting world, like Charles Barkley and Jemele Hill, spoke out against the bigotry.

Fighting and denigrating the healing between oppressed groups only serves the oppressors. So let’s not do that, and instead, examine the very persistent, very dangerous realm of antisemitism. Recent events uncovered an apparent lack of understanding as to the history of antisemitism and how various tropes have led to violence against Jews. Just as the nation recently went through a mass re-education about anti-Black racism, we need some more education on this issue now.

“Jewish” Is Not A Race

Judaism is a religion, not a race. In his writings about “the Jewish Question,” Adolf Hitler deemed Jewishness a race, erasing the religious identity entirely. He went on to say the “ultimate goal must definitely be the removal of the Jews altogether” which should settle any doubt whether it’s appropriate to adopt his language. It very much is not. Antisemitism or discrimination against Jews can be described as bigotry, prejudice, or persecution, but not racism.

Trump’s 2019 Executive Order allegedly intended to quell rising antisemitism appeared to, like Hitler, define Jews as a separate race or nationality. This othering is troubling in the context of Trump calling the Charlottesville neo-Nazis “very fine people.”

So one more time, Jews are not a race, they are a religious group. Describing Jews as a race is antisemitic, so don’t.

Cultural or Secular Jews

Some people who do not actively practice the Jewish religion still identify as Jewish. That does not make “Jewish” a race, but rather an ethnic group, or a group built on cultural traditions, with whom they identify.

Home DNA kits definitely muddy the waters on this issue, purporting to distinguish some portion of people’s genomes as “Jewish.” Those kits provide questionable information at best, but what they’re really doing is pinpointing genes they claim are more prevalent among particular groups in specific geographic locations. The test may tell you you’re supposedly 37% Irish, but that doesn’t make Irish a race either.

Not all Jews are white

White Jews live at an intersection of privilege and prejudice; Jews of color, particularly Black Jews, often face erasure and prejudice from within intersectional communities. Ethiopian Jews, once a large segment of the Ethiopian population with traditions dating back thousands of years, faced brutal persecution in Ethiopia. Some were evacuated to Israel in the last two decades of the 20th century, only to be greeted with abject racism.

While numbers breaking down the racial diversity within the Jewish community are apparently nonexistent, Judaism is a religion, not a race, and thus precludes no one. The majority of Jews in the world live in Israel and the United States, but there are Jews in the Caribbean, like the Jews of Jamaica, some of whom have a swashbuckling history, and Curacao, the first home to Jews in this part of the world, where the synagogue started by the first Jewish families who emigrated from Portugal, over objections of the governor, still holds services today.

Among China’s dense population, there are about 2,500 Jews currently, but during the Holocaust, China admitted about 17,000 Jews, providing a safe haven.

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Antisemitic Stereotypes And Tropes

Ugly, pernicious, and sometimes deadly, stereotypes about Jews persist. Like all stereotypes, even the ones that, on their surface, seem “benign” serve to “other” and dehumanize Jewish people, and stirring up hatred.

Jews and Money

The stereotype of “greedy” Jews stems from the exclusion of Jews from most professions, leaving being merchants and financiers among the few options. Given usury, or charging interest, was banned by Christianity, it provided an opening for Jewish people to earn a living. Still, they made little profit. In England, for example, the interest went to the Crown.

Even Shakespeare embraced and immortalized the stereotype in the character Shylock from “The Merchant of Venice.” Though Jews lived in England from about 1066, Jews were expelled and banned from there in 1290. They were still banned at the time Shakespeare wrote that play in 1605; Jews were not officially allowed back into England until 1656.

Jews do not control the banks or banking, and do not control the Federal Reserve, though these ideas are favorites among the anti-Semitic and perhaps even some people who don’t think they’re anti-Semitic. The Federal Reserve is a government entity, overseen by Congress, and run by a Board of Governors which is a government agency.

From the ADL:

“The world of finance is an area of complexity, if not mystery, to most Americans, and confusions can easily be manipulated and suspicions aroused. The bigot’s rationale is often conveyed in inflated images of intricate, stealthy “conspiracies.” For example, under the headline “The jews [sic] have a Plan,” the Idaho-based Nazi-like group Aryan Nations has reported finding significance in the fact that the Federal Reserve System and the Anti-Defamation League were founded in the same year — 1913.”

One last point: the noun “Jew” is never, ever a verb.

The Rothschilds, Soros, and “World Domination”

The antisemitism against the Rothschild family goes back centuries, or as The Independent puts it, “The Rothschild Libel: Why has it taken 200 years for an anti-Semitic slur that emerged from the Battle of Waterloo to be dismissed?” Yes, that’s right. The Battle of Waterloo. Antisemitism is nothing if not enduring.

After that battle, a completely made-up pamphlet circulated, claiming the Rothchild family made its money when Nathan Rothschild supposedly beat the news of France’s defeat back to England and made a fortune from it. Again, completely not true, but this story has evolved, now with the Rothschilds somehow controlling the government-held Federal Reserve and “Illuminati”, though the name itself is invoked as a shadowy “threat” with, as Nick Cannon put it “too much power.”

What he thinks they have the power to do remains unclear. The idea that Jews are part of a global conspiracy, though, dates all the way back to early Christianity, and was recycled with a fake document purporting to be Jews’ plan for world domination called The Protocols of the Elders. With 0.2% of the world population, global domination seems like an improbable, tall order from the outset, but yet the stereotype persists.

The name George Soros, likewise, is used like an accusation and a slur all in one. A Holocaust survivor and prolific philanthropist, the right sees Soros behind every protest and every social justice cause. Again, from the ADL:

“A person who promotes a Soros conspiracy theory may not intend to promulgate antisemitism. But Soros’ Jewish identity is so well-known that in many cases it is hard not to infer that meaning. This is especially true when Soros-related conspiracy theories include other well-worn anti-Semitic tropes such as control of the media or banks; references to undermining societies or destabilizing countries; or language that hearkens back to the medieval blood libels and the characterization of Jews as evil, demonic, or agents of the antichrist.”

These lies have real-world consequences: in 2018, a Trump supporter tried to kill George Soros with a pipe bomb. In 2019, news broke of a militia training in the US to kill Soros, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama. Soros’ real crime? Philanthropy, and a lot of it. He’s donated over $32 billion dollars thus far in the pursuit of justice, democracy, and other progressive causes.

Jews as demons, savages, animals, rodents, or insects

The equating of Jews to animals and demons dates back centuries, all the way to ancient times, with the comparisons memorialized in objets d’art like those contained in The Katz Ehrenthal Collection of over 900 propaganda objects. About the collection, which spans 500 years:

“Perceptions and understandings of Jews throughout history were manifested in objects—from fine arts and crafts for the elite to everyday toys and knickknacks and household items. Many of these objects promoted negative attitudes and stereotypes about Jews.”

With the prohibition on eating pork, comparisons to pigs, among other animals like apes, abound, with the name “Judensau” given to objects depicting Jews having intimate contact with pigs. The term now includes objects and depictions of Jews with pigs or pigs with the Star of David. Depictions of Jews as insects and other creatures are also common and also wildly antisemitic.

Throughout the rise of Christianity, Jews have also been depicted as demons or agents of Satan; Jews are sometimes depicted with horns. Accusations of Jewish people ritually sacrificing humans or eating babies date back to ancient Egypt. The antisemitic trope of Jews using blood of non-Jews for rituals, called “Blood libel” also featured in nazi propaganda. Nazis have also referred to Jews as disease-infested rodents. These tropes were used to justify horrific violence.

Holocaust Denial And Other Mass Murders Of Jews

Denial of the systematic murder of 6 million Jews by the Nazi regime brings several of the above antisemitic lines of propaganda together. Some claim the numbers are inflated and that all those deaths were not possible; others claim it wasn’t the nazis but disease and starvation. So-called globalism rears its repulsive head again, and posits Jews conspired with Allied Forces to make the Nazis look bad. The Museum of Tolerance breaks it down in an extremely informative, indexed Q & A:

“Holocaust denial is an important tool for anti-Semites. On July 24, 1996, Harold Covington, leader of the National Socialist White People’s Party, explained why:

‘Take away the Holocaust and what do you have left? Without their precious Holocaust, what are the Jews? Just a grubby little bunch of international bandits and assassins and squatters who have perpetrated the most massive, cynical fraud in human history…’

“Holocaust denial is an updated version of an alleged Jewish conspiracy in which Jews use lies and extortion to gain advantage of everyone else. The common denominator to all Holocaust deniers is anti-Semitism.”

The Nazis killed 12 million people in the Holocaust, including political dissents, minorities, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and people with disabilities. Meticulously documented, the atrocities are not debatable. For further reading on Holocaust denial, virtually visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

The Holocaust was not the only mass murder of Jews. From a 3rd century BCE expulsion from Egypt and a 1st century CE large killing of Jews in Alexandria to expulsion from Italy and Rome to another massacre of Jews in Alexandria, through centuries of expulsions and exclusions, to being declared slaves and having possessions seized in 7th century Spain, from the first crusades to expulsions from nascent Germany, from England, from France, to the later crusades, history is replete with antisemitism escalating to violence against Jews.

Jews were blamed for the rise of the plague, leading to the Black Death Massacres, where people of Spain, France, Germany, and Austria accused Jewish people of poisoning water sources in the 14th century. Pogroms, government-sanctioned citizen violence against Jews in Russia and the then-Russian Empire are thought to date back to 1821, with the name, meaning “to wreak havoc, to demolish violently” coming into popular use after the assassination of the Czar. During pogroms, Jews were routinely raped, brutalized and murdered, and their possessions seized. Kristallnacht was, itself, a pogrom.

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Antisemitism flourished in Europe for centuries, with Jews expelled from country after country, massacred or relegated by law to live in ghettos, a word that emerged in the 17th century to describe the segregated Jewish area of Venice. But with the 20th century, fascism rose, and like so many quests for power before it, they made Jews the enemy and the scapegoat.

Adolf Hitler himself, after fighting for Germany in World War I, incensed and incredulous at Germany’s surrender, bought into the propaganda that it wasn’t that Germany lost, but that Jews, dissidents, and Democrats sold Germany out, in the age-old trope of Jews as betrayers. Going into politics, Hitler argued for “antisemitism of the mind” and the complete removal of Jews. Indeed, that was his ultimate goal of the Holocaust, which Hitler indicated as early as 1922:

“Once I really am in power, my first and foremost task will be the annihilation of the Jews.”

He deemed genocide his “Final Solution.”

The Nazi party was outlawed in Germany after World War II, but unfortunately, it did not stay dead, as neo-Nazis rose to carry on the antisemitic ends. Jews are targets for all of the modern white supremacist groups, though they cloak themselves in names like “Proud Boys,Boogaloos, the “alt-right,” they all wend back to the neo-Nazi pool of hate and the sludge of antisemitism within their toxic rhetoric.

And, like the Nazis they so admire, they do not stop at words. In October of 2018, 11 people were murdered at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in a shooting motivated by antisemitism. Nancy Levine, who lost two great aunts in the Holocaust and whose grandmother, as a child, hid from Cossacks in a basement in Budapest, wrote in Rantt Media:

“The shooter frequently wrote on the social network Gab where he threatened Jewish groups and touted refugee caravan conspiracies. On one of his social media pages, the shooter wrote of the caravan of asylum-seekers: ‘HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.’”

With a current regime in power led by Donald Trump, who has labeled people opposing fascism or “Antifa” the problem, modern Nazism appears to have taken root in the US. Trump has used symbols associated with the Nazi regime, selling shirts with an eagle that looks very much like that of Hitler’s Third Reich, and putting out a campaign ad with a symbol used by Nazis, claiming it was an emoji. Even the phrase “America First,” used on the eagle shirt and by Trump in his inaugural address, has a history of antisemitism.

Despite the rising and demonstrated threat of domestic terror from white supremacist groups, and a rise in antisemitic hate crimes, Trump’s Department of Homeland Security has diverted resources from tracking them. Trump also shut down the unit dedicated to tracking them to prevent attacks like the one that killed worshippers at the Tree of Life Synagogue.

And there is, forever, the indelible moment when right-wing hate babbler Laura Ingraham appeared give Trump a Nazi salute at the 2016 Republican National Convention, though it was explained away, though ironically the banner image of that article seems to dispute its own thesis. It’s also tough to argue with your own eyes; watch and judge for yourself.

Rabbi Shaina Bacharach wrote in Rantt Media:

“Anti-Semitism is rising to levels not seen here in decades, especially on the right. It’s not an accident that this is happening under a national leader who uses the stature of his office for demagoguery. Trump’s supporters follow his lead and spread false, dangerous conspiracy theories. They often use coded language. They might not even use the word Jew. Republican lawmakers and voters have singled out rich Jews, like George Soros, or well-known European Jewish banking family, the Rothschilds, all of whom are thought to be taking over the world.”

Why Louis Farrakhan Is So Problematic

The flimflam man of antisemitism, Louis Farrakhan has, for decades, spewed divisiveness and bigotry, recently calling Jews “termites” (remember those comparisons to insects?) in a since-deleted tweet:

“I’m not an anti-Semite. I’m anti-Termite.”
–Oct. 16, 2018, tweet from Louis Farrakhan (@LouisFarrakhan).

Farrakhan also rails against white people as a whole and the LGBTQ community. The ADL cataloged many of his statements if you have the stomach to read them

Leading the Nation of Islam (NOI), a group founded in 1930, since 1977, Farrakhan is a virulent and outspoken antisemite. Farrakhan has gone as far as to call Hitler a “very great man.” Despite his clear bigotry, he’s enjoyed unrepentant support from a number of famous people, including Allen Iverson. In the wake of the George Floyd/Black Lives Matter Protests, many white celebrities have shared his words, including Chelsea Handler. When confronted with his history of hatred, Hander said, somewhat indecipherably:

“Another thing: perhaps Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic views took form during his own oppression. We know now that oppression of one race leads to an oppression of all races.”

From the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC):

“Farrakhan blames Jews for the slave trade, plantation slavery, Jim Crow, sharecropping and general black oppression. Farrakhan’s tone grew more belligerent in June 2010, when he sent letters to several leaders of the Jewish community as well as the Southern Poverty Law Center demanding that they acknowledge the evils they have perpetrated and that they work to further Farrakhan’s goals. The letter ended with a threat to ‘ruin and destroy your power and influence here and throughout the world’ if his terms were not met.”

NOI has perpetuated Holocaust denial, the propaganda that Jews control global politics and the idea that Jews control Hollywood and media. From Rolling Stone:

“Unlike other forms of ethnic prejudice, Farrakhan’s rhetoric is rooted less in a belief in Jewish inferiority, but in a conviction that they are responsible for black suffering – a conviction that is systemically false, but which is informed by a complicated history in which the two communities, forced into close proximity by anti-Jewish and anti-black prejudice, at times found themselves in cycles of exploitation and resentment. “

One of Farrakhan’s most persistent antisemitic ideas is that Jews are not really the rightful heirs to Jewish legacy, but rather Black people are. Wide receiver DeSean Jackson committed an “Inception” of antisemitism when he posted a quote attributed to Hitler supporting this idea, accusing Jews of “blackmailing” America. The quote, which is entirely fake, implies that the reason Hitler wanted to kill Jews was so that Black people could claim that legacy. Stephen Jackson quickly jumped in to support Jackson with a trough of antisemitic videos and tropes of his own, complete with invocations of the Rothschilds.

So, to recap, because it’s a tough onion to peel, Jackson intended to quote Hitler, which is its own antisemitism, with a fake quote which rehabilitates Hitler, more antisemitism, to claim Hitler supported the idea that Jews somehow stole the legacy of Black people, yet more antisemitism. For the record, Hitler also hated people of African descent, but it wouldn’t be Hitler if it didn’t also have antisemitism. According to Hitler: “the Jews had brought the Negroes into the Rhineland with the clear aim of ruining the hated white race by the necessarily-resulting bastardization.”

“Necessarily.” We shall raise an eyebrow and move on.

Within a brilliant thread that should be read in its entirety, Malana writes:

You see this a lot in Farrakhan’s rhetoric. Taken to the extreme, you’d have to exterminate racism you’d have to exterminate Jewish people so Black people can reclaim their spot as the “chosen people.”

— Malana ??? (@MalanasQueendom) July 15, 2020

The Rantt Rundown

Antisemitism isn’t bounded by left or right. Rather, it diffusely pervades throughout the discourse. While significantly more dangerous and violent historically by actors on the right, from Hitler to neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and members of the Trump administration, it also wends all the way to people like Farrakhan on the purported other-end of the spectrum.

But as we teeter on this precipice of history, with the chance to undo systemic dehumanization of people of all backgrounds, some cling to antisemitism like an ill-timed ballast. Says Rantt co-founder, Ahmed Baba:

“We have to call out anti-Semitism not only because it’s wrong, but because it intersects with other forms of racist thought…Let me tell you something: you can’t ask everyone to be an ally of your cause but not come to the defense of Jews.”

And therein lies the crux. Our strength comes when we stand shoulder to shoulder, the complete rainbow of our full diversity on display, and speak up not only for ourselves, but for others, wherever we find oppression. Division is the lifeblood of bigotry, which, in turn, feeds that monster of hatred.

In the future of our making, each one of us has value, and our inherent characteristics enhance us, add dimension to an otherwise flat world, but do not define us. Now is our moment. It may not come again.

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Rantt 101 // Anti-Semitism / History / Racism / Radical Right