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Addressing Anti-Semitism in the United States

May 29, 2024
  • Wang Zhen

    Research Professor, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences


On May 1, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Antisemitism Awareness Act of 2023 — proposed by Republican Congressman Michael Lawler of New York — by a vote of 320 to 91. In the current U.S. political ecology, it will be no surprise if the Senate also passes the act, or if President Joe Biden signs it into law.

But I believe the act will not help solve the current antisemitism problem in the United States and may even trigger a wider range of anger and hatred.

First, the act does not address the deep roots of the new waves of antisemitism that have emerged globally after the Cold War. It is well known that antisemitism is a social phenomenon that accompanied the early religious struggles and diaspora of Jews throughout the world, as well as an old and ugly form of racial hatred. The antisemitism is essentially hatred and attacks against the racial, religious and cultural identity of the Jewish people and their historical traditions.

Although the phenomenon of antisemitism has a long history, the term was coined in 1882 by a German journalist named Wilhelm Marr. It is a combination of the prefix “anti” and the root word “Semite”, where Semite refers to Semitic speakers, including Arabs and Jews. However, in the subsequent historical evolution, the term became synonymous with hate crimes directed specifically against Jews.

After the World War II, the international community carried out a thorough liquidation of antisemitism, with the German Nazi regime and the fascist forces as the chief criminals, thus causing antisemitism to disappear for a time. However, there was a resurgence of antisemitism in the international community after the Cold War. This wave stemmed mainly from the traditional antisemitic prejudice in the West, the rising influence of far-right political forces and the resentment and dissatisfaction triggered by the prolonged stagnation of the Middle East peace process, among other factors.

With the development of the anti-globalization movement in recent years, various conspiracy theories and distortions about Jewish power have resurfaced. In Europe and the United States, the specter of racism and political populism, represented by white supremacy and other factors, has also gained momentum, all of which has provided hotbed for the return of antisemitism. By focusing only on antisemitism as a manifestation and ignoring the deep roots behind it, the act in the U.S. Congress is unlikely to be effective in eradicating the phenomenon.

Second, instead of responding to the immediate triggers of this new wave of antisemitism, the act conflates criticism of Israel with genuine antisemitism. Not only does this do nothing to alleviate the current international outrage but it is extremely counterproductive and does even less to preserve the security of Jews worldwide.

In recent years, debates about antisemitism, as well as opposition to Israel, have never disappeared from the international community. Some Jewish organizations and Israeli media believe that, because Israel is the only Jewish state, opposing Israel is tantamount to antisemitism. However, there are also many media and scholars who believe that Israel, as a member of the international community, does not represent the Jewish people globally, and that its words and deeds should be judged equally by the international community. After World War II, antisemitism became increasingly politicized in Western political discourse, and some Western politicians and Jewish groups have not only seized the moral advantage on this basis but have even tried to weaponize the term. All of this not only blurs the line between antisemitism and simple opposition to Israel but also makes it difficult to have a normal discussion about them.

The recent wave of mass protests in Europe, the United States and other countries, despite some radical and illegal acts with antisemitic overtones, remains centered on opposition to the Netanyahu regime’s military adventure in the Gaza Strip. According to health authorities in Gaza, as of early May, Israel’s military operations there had killed nearly 35,000 Palestinians, including 4,959 women and 7,797 children. When facing such a tragic humanitarian catastrophe, excuses pale in comparison, and no person of conscience can remain indifferent. Indeed, this is a major reason why many Jewish individuals and organizations have come out to criticize the Netanyahu government.

For example, Bernie Sanders, the well-known Jewish Democratic senator, has repeatedly spoken out, emphasizing that the protests which have erupted on U.S. campuses “are not antisemitic,” and criticized the Netanyahu government’s attempts to use the term antisemitism to divert attention from the Gaza crisis. Obviously, the act in Congress not only fails to respond to Israel’s military adventures but also raises suspicions about U.S. motives.

Finally, the act’s definition of antisemitism is highly controversial and contradictory, which will lead to even greater controversy, difficulty and confusion in its future implementation. The act directly quotes the working definition of antisemitism by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance in 2016. However, this definition, which is too broad, quickly met with strong opposition from legal professionals and human rights organizations, including some Jewish people. Some media and human rights organizations are concerned that the protection of Jewish rights and interests should not work to the detriment of other ethnic groups and that legitimate activities in support of Palestinian rights and interests may be delegitimized by being labeled as antisemitism in the future, thus becoming the target and victim of the act.

In addition, the act raises more concerns about freedom of expression in the United States. Under the act, myths about Jewish influence and power are recognized as a kind of antisemitism. However, the excellence of Jewish people is an objective reality in the U.S., and people need to worry about the distortion and misrepresentation of their influence rather than denying the fact itself. In a sense, the act itself is a manifestation of this enormous influence. If such discussion becomes taboo and illegal, it will inevitably lead to more rumors and Jewish conspiracy theories in the future.

Even if the Act is successfully passed by the U.S. Senate and subsequently becomes law, it is unlikely to be effective in eliminating antisemitism in the United States. This outcome cannot be realistically hoped for merely by the passage of a controversial measure. It will require national reconciliation and cross-cultural exchanges based on true equality and fairness.

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