Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Scribblings: Hate Mail and Ideology

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Tzvi Fleischer


Who sends hate mail with antisemitic themes? A German researcher got a shock when she tried to answer this question.

Monika Schwarz-Friesel, a linguistics professor at the Technical University of Berlin, and her team read 14,000 letters and emails addressed over ten years to Germany's Central Council of Jews and the Israeli Embassy in Berlin. Working with Prof. Jehuda Reinharz, an American historian and past president of Brandeis University, she published the result of her research in a new study (currently available only in German) "The Language of Hostility Towards Jews in the 21st Century." 

Schwarz-Friesel said she expected most of the antisemitic letters would originate from adherents to Germany's extreme right - but in fact only 3% actually did. Over 60% came from educated people including "university professors, Ph.Ds, lawyers, priests, university and high-school students." Moreover, most of the writers were happy to use their real names and addresses. 

Schwarz-Friesel and her team were careful not to count mere denunciations of Israel or its policies as hate mail. She says they only counted letters which "clearly [saw] German Jews as non-Germans," "collectively abused German Jews [as] responsible for crimes in Israel" or analogised Jewish or Israeli behaviour to that of the Nazis. Nonetheless, approximately 80% of the antisemitic hate mail contained denunciations of Israel as well as the above themes. 

Schwarz-Friesel concludes from this that "Today, it's already impossible to distinguish between antisemitism and anti-Israelism. Modern antisemites have turned ‘the Jewish problem' into ‘the Israeli problem.'"

The study only deals with Germany, but it seems likely its broad findings apply more generally. The fact is that blatant antisemitism is constantly cropping up in circles associated with the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement which is gaining international prominence especially on university campuses - for instance on social media pages associated with its activities. 

In Australia, there are reports this year of cases of antisemitic harassment of Jewish students at three major universities since the school year began in February - the Australian National University, University of NSW and University of Adelaide. Reports allege the perpetrators in at least two of the cases were associated with the radical left-wing pro-BDS group Socialist Alternative, though the group has denied this. 

In other words, educated people who think of themselves as left-wing and anti-racist are becoming increasingly likely to end up today expressing antisemitic themes - usually in the context of extreme denunciations of Israel. 

Since World War II, antisemitism has been seen as almost exclusively the province of the extreme right - but this is simply not accurate today, if if ever was (and in fact, as I have previously noted, there was an extensive pre-war tradition of left-wing antisemitism.)
How did this reality of antisemitism emanating from university campuses and educated people who see themselves as of the left come about, less than 70 years after the Holocaust?

Britain's Prof. Alan Johnson had some important thoughts (Times of Israel, March 10) on this question after an anti-BDS lecture he gave at National University of Ireland, Galway, was disrupted by pro-BDS supporters threatening students, and repeatedly shouting "You Zionist pr**ks, f*** off our campus, now!" 

Johnson lists three things he believes lead radical anti-Israel activists to engage in this kind of extreme behaviour. One is the basic nature of what BDS activists are actually advocating: 

If you launch a campaign to exclude Israeli Jews, but nobody else, from the global academic, cultural, sporting and economic community, then it's inevitable that your campaign will act as a lightning rod for rising European anti-Semitism.

Another is the extremity of what these activist are told they are fighting - " The evil Jews ‘ethnically cleansed' the Palestinians in 1948, have built an ‘Apartheid State' and are now committing a slow genocide in Gaza." Hatred for anyone who appears to impede efforts to stop these supposed terrible evils is pretty inevitable.

But in my view, his most important point is his last one:

‘Israel' and ‘Palestine' have become tied up with the performance of political identity in the West in a most dangerous way. ‘The Palestinians' are a stage on which the BDS activists act out their identity. To make that possible, ‘The Palestinians' must be reduced to pure victims of the evil Nazi-Israelis. For only those kind of Palestinians can enable feelings of moral superiority, purity, quest, meaning, even transcendence of sorts. Palestinians being starved by Assad hold no interest. Palestinians being thrown from rooftops by Hamas members hold no interest. When Salam Fayyad is building up the Palestinian Nation the BDS activists just yawn, or denounce him as a collaborator. Only as agency-less pure victims can the Palestinians play their allotted role as a screen onto which the individual projects his or her identity of the righteous activist....

I think this issue of identity is the reality that lies behind much of the campus and BDS extremism and the attraction to antisemitism - moral self-worth and a feeling of meaning in their lives for many activists depends on their side being defenders of the most victimised and blameless people in the world against the most terrible evil imaginable. Anything which humanises or explains the views of the other side threatens not only one's preconceptions, but one's identity, on which self-worth depends. In these circumstances, anything you do or say against those seen as defending or justifying the other side - anything which hurts them and reinforces solidarity on your side - is perceived as more than justified - perhaps even cathartic. And that includes harassment, violence and yes, antisemitic denunciations.

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