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Antisemitism is breaking into the mainstream

Dec 19, 2022 | Colin Rubenstein

Rapper Kanye West
Rapper Kanye West has helped unleash an avalanche of antisemitism in popular culture in recent months (Image: Flickr)

The Australian, December 19, 2022

 

Whether browsing through newspaper headlines or scrolling through Twitter, there is no escaping the grim reality that anti-Semitic hatred is again on the rise around the world, including here in Australia. In fact, it has broken into the mainstream in a way not seen in decades.

Experts say it’s not so much that the oldest hatred is back. Rather, it simply never left, but today those who harbour anti-Semitic beliefs are becoming much less inhibited in shamelessly expressing and acting on them.

We’re seeing this in popular culture. In late November, the North Melbourne Football Club drafted Harry Sheezel – set to become the first Jewish athlete to enter the AFL since 1999. An occasion that should have been a tribute to Australian multiculturalism was spoiled by numerous anti-Semitic slurs transmitted through radio talkback and comments online.

Meanwhile, in the US, rapper Kanye West (aka “Ye”), with almost 50 million followers on social media, has become a volcano of anti-Semitic rhetoric recently, threatening Jews, praising Hitler and engaging in Holocaust denial.

Disturbingly, West’s actions were defended by some public figures, and similar ideas were spread by other celebrities such as basketball star Kyrie Irving. Even more shockingly, West was later invited to a friendly dinner, alongside a white supremacist who has also spewed Jew hatred, with former US president Donald Trump at the latter’s estate.

“I would characterise this as the normalisation of anti-Semitism,” Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive of the authoritative Anti-Defamation League anti-racism organisation, said of the meeting. “It has now become part of the political process in a way we hadn’t seen before,” he stressed.

Greenblatt is right. Anti-Semitism is clearly evident both across the political spectrum and among the non-political. In fact, for these hateful people, denigrating Jews might be the only thing they have in common.

Ironically, it appears to be especially prevalent in so-called “woke” progressive circles – those who claim to be the moral arbiters on matters of racism and discrimination. For such people, Jews don’t count. The perverse logic that underpins this stems from their over-simplistic formulation that “racism equals prejudice plus power”. From there it supposedly follows that Jews, whom they perceive as innately powerful – an anti-Semitic trope in itself – cannot be victims of racism. Meanwhile, members of perceived weak groups – including African-Americans, Muslims and Palestinians – cannot be victimisers.

This way of thinking has encouraged the spread of anti-Semitism in many different directions, including among people of colour. It has also provided a safe haven for anti-Semitism among the most rejectionist Palestinian Arabs and their supporters in their campaign against Israel’s existence. This, in spite of the fact that Jews are ethnically diverse, indigenous to the land where they became a people and have historically been subject to relentless persecution by the same European peoples at the core of the key “woke” concept of “white privilege”. The mainstreaming of anti-Semitism is being tangibly felt worldwide. Over 2020-21, anti-Semitic incidents in Britain increased by 78 per cent, in France by 75 per cent, and in the US by 34 per cent.

What can society do to prevent the normalisation of anti-Semitism? The first step is forming a consensus around its definition. This can be tricky because Jews are simultaneously a religion, an ethnicity and a people that possess a national homeland, Israel. This is where the 2016 International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition of anti-Semitism has been so helpful.

The IHRA definition takes a commonsense approach to the matter of anti-Semitism when it comes to Israel. While explicitly stressing that Israel and its policies can be criticised like any other country, it recognises that some extreme forms of such criticism may be anti-Semitic.

This seems obviously necessary – too many extremists today merely substitute the words “Zionists” or “Israel” for the word “Jews” when spreading hateful tropes dating back millennia. For example, denying the Jewish people their right to self determination by claiming the existence of the state of Israel is a racist endeavour or drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.

We should all be grateful for the bipartisan support for the IHRA definition in Canberra. The Morrison government officially embraced it and PM Anthony Albanese supported it while still in opposition. But there is more work to be done, especially on social media, where much of the anti-Semitic content originated and continues to fester. This is why the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council has joined 180 other non-profit and civil rights organisations in calling on Twitter to adopt the IHRA definition for purposes of content moderation.

Australian governments, federal, state and local, that have adopted the definition must also now do much more to implement that adoption across departments and agencies so it can be actively deployed to help identify anti-Semitism whenever it arises in our society. Reducing, containing and marginalising anti-Semitism is important for the world, not only for the welfare of the Jewish people, because history has shown us the moral decay that anti-Semitism represents may start with the targeting of Jews, but it almost never ends there.

Colin Rubenstein is the executive director of the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council.

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