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Subtle anti-Semitism

Some forms of prejudice are less blatant but still dangerous

Subtle anti-Semitism

A group visits the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site. (Johannes Simon/Bongarts/Getty Images)

Last year, I joined a group for World War II historical tour in Europe. Part of that trip took us to Dachau concentration camp, the first Nazi death camp, where a documented 32,000 prisoners died due to brutal treatment, murder, diseases, malnutrition, and suicide.

All our tour participants were Americans. Given the heavy topic, the air was somber as we walked through the iron entrance gate with the slogan “Arbeit macht frei” (“Work makes one free”). Our guide pointed out the seven guard towers surrounding the area, the electrically charged barbed wire fence, the torture chambers, the barracks that held Nazi-defying clergy members and human guinea pigs for medical experiments. 

It was sickening to hear these true stories—but apparently not sickening enough for one couple in our tour group, who began snapping pictures of themselves holding up their arms in a mock Nazi salute, snickering as they did so. Not many people saw that, but I did, and so did our guide, who turned away with a look of disgust. Mercifully for that couple, he didn’t report them—doing a Nazi salute is currently illegal in Germany, as I learned later that day.

I was horrified by the American couple’s insensitivity—how could they have thought that was appropriate or funny?—but I also wondered if that kind of behavior warranted jail time. Don’t such criminal codes curtail freedom of expression and thus become counterproductive to fostering a more tolerant society? Can we really shut down anti-Semitism by punishing people for doing something incredibly insensitive, stupid, and ignorant? 


A man attending a ceremony to mark the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp in Dachau walks past an Israeli flag. (TIMM SCHAMBERGER/AFP/Getty Images)

Back then, I was already reading news about the alarming rise in anti-Semitic attacks in Europe, but I didn’t think I’d be so soon working on a story about rising anti-Semitism in my own country. Days after I returned from Europe last year, the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting happened, shocking the nation with what’s now known as the worst anti-Semitic attack in modern U.S. history. That tragedy—and the Poway, Calif., synagogue shooting six months later—shifted the conversation about anti-Semitism among American Jews. Those who had been merely anxious about anti-Semitic graffiti or the “boycott, divestment, and sanctions” movement or white supremacist rallies are now urgently ramping up security for their communities.

During my reporting on anti-Semitism in the United States, I talked to many Jews: rabbis of local synagogues, cops, security experts, and hate group researchers. The kind of anti-Semitism they worry about isn’t only the blatant far-right, neo-Nazi violence, but even the seemingly harmless Jewish tropes and jokes. It’s not so much the number of anti-Semitic incidents, but the existing societal attitudes and false stereotypes of Jews that might go unnoticed yet still affect Jews in the long run. Most people condemn overt anti-Semitic violence, but few recognize that historically, those stereotypes have fed anti-Semitism in society, sometimes leading to disastrous consequences. 

What they said jarred me. I was raised in Korean and Chinese churches in Singapore, which meant I had never even seen a real Jew until I moved to the United States. The churches of my childhood taught me that the Jews were God’s chosen people. But even as a kid, I would also hear less-positive tales about Jews from Korean and Chinese Christians: “Jews isolate themselves from the gentiles, because they think they’re special.” “Jews control the media and the banks.” “Jews have a strange influence on global affairs.” “Jews are stingy money-counters.” “If you’re going to get a lawyer, get a Jewish lawyer, because they’re ruthless and greedy.”

The churches of my childhood taught me that the Jews were God’s chosen people. But even as a kid, I would also hear less-positive tales about Jews from Korean and Chinese Christians.

At the time, I never would have labeled such stereotypes as problematic or anti-Semitic—I simply didn’t have the understanding to do so. But knowing now that those same ancient tropes have fueled violence against Jews during times of social unrest, I wonder: Where did these people who had never once met or talked to a Jew get these ideas about them? And how did I as a little kid hear this kind of talk? I have no idea, and to be honest, I hadn’t given it much thought until I researched anti-Semitism and talked to Jews.

And there lies the trickiness of spotting and stopping anti-Semitism: It’s often elusive. It’s not always shrouded in swastika flags and white hooded robes. It can be part of the cultural backwaters, the little jokes about Jewish tropes, the comments that downplay the unique horrors of the Holocaust, and so on. Often, if we don’t understand the history and context of anti-Semitism, we miss it.

That’s why many American Jews worry when people seem to forget what happens when anti-Semitism goes unchecked. According to a 2018 poll, 22 percent of American millennials said they’d not heard or were not sure whether they’d heard of the Holocaust. All the while, they’re growing up consuming leftist, anti-Zionist language in mainstream media and social media that borders on anti-Semitism. Certain people who claim to champion social justice are also sprouting rhetoric that stems from Marxist anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism—and they’re unintentionally normalizing and institutionalizing old Jewish stereotypes in society. 

Some vocabulary of the leftist social justice crowd is new: Jews once not considered “white enough” have somehow now become “too white.” In leftist theology, the quickest way to sainthood is to claim oppression, and today, Jews are labeled the oppressors, not the victims. But much of the anti-Israel, anti-Zionist language is actually old and recycled: Greedy, rich, powerful Jews control the elites, the banks, and the media. Such an image of Jews isn’t so different from white supremacists’ own projection of Jews.

Mark Lennihan/AP

Police officers watch as rabbis gather for a group photo at the Chabad-Lubavitch World Headquarters in New York. (Mark Lennihan/AP)

Which is more dangerous? The blatant anti-Semitism we see in far-right hate groups on the internet, or the subtle, hard-to-pinpoint anti-Zionism among the left that could cross the line toward anti-Semitism? 

So far, the anti-Israel social justice warriors haven’t picked up semi-automatic weapons and stormed synagogues and Jewish schools—“but I cannot tell you that’ll always be the case,” one rabbi told me. While the neo-Nazis are a much more easily recognizable and thus condemnable group, the lines between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism on the left can get so blurred that it’s hard to call out when things go too far. That’s a big problem: How do we fight an issue if people refuse to acknowledge it?

Congresswoman Ilhan Omar might have tweeted some worrying stuff about Jewish power and money on Twitter, but she’s not advocating actual violence. Yet when the Democratic Party refused to clearly condemn her remarks, American Jews felt a shift in the wind. When they can’t even get those who purport to champion social justice and tolerance to take a clear stance against anti-Semitism, who can they count on?

So American Jewish communities hold their breath and watch for more troubling signs with eyes wide open—because they have to. They’ve been here before. “Our eyes are much more open,” one rabbi told me. “We won’t make assumptions that this could never happen here. I know it can happen. It happens anywhere where the government allows it. And it happens anywhere where people stay silent about it.”