An Overview of Antisemitism: It’s Tropes, Effects, and Current Examples

TWs: antisemitism, antisemitic attacks, the Holocaust and Nazis, gun violence

Before I start talking about antisemitism, I want to write a disclaimer about myself: I do not consider myself to be religiously Jewish and I have not personally experienced antisemitism. That being said, my father’s family is Jewish and I’ve grown up around Jewish friends. I also try to connect to my Jewish culture and ancestry. So, while I’ve never experienced antisemitism myself, I have been surrounded by Judaism my entire life and it is an important part of my family’s history that I always enjoy learning about and experiencing. 

While a personal connection to Judaism is a big part as to why I decided to write this article, it’s not the only reason. Recently, I’ve tried to become more involved with social activism, and I’ve noticed a few things: 1. a startling lack of activism against antisemitism, 2. an increase of antisemitic attacks around the world, 3. a lack of education on antisemitism in the United States (US), and 4. antisemitism in US politics. I would advise you to do even more research on your own if you find this article interesting, or if you want to help combat antisemitism yourself.

Origins of Antisemitism and the Term Itself

The term ‘antisemitism’ was coined in the 19th century by a German journalist. Wilhelm Marr wrote a work titled Victory of Judaism over Germanism in 1879, where he stated that Jews were conspiring to control the government and that they shouldn’t be citizens. This means that the term antisemitism was coined by an antisemite, as the term was created to try and legitimize Jew-hatred. That being said, antisemitism had been around for thousands of years before then, ever since the inception of Judaism.

It’s also important to note that in academic circles, the term antisemitism does not have a hyphen, and is in fact one word. This is the way I’ll be writing it in this article. The reasoning for this is because the hyphenated term allows for the separation of the term ‘semitism.’ This separation makes it possible for people to be classified as ‘semites’ or people who speak a ‘semitic language’ (a family of languages originating in the Middle East). The problem with this, as previously explained, is that the term was coined to specifically talk about Jew-hatred, not about this grouping of languages and peoples. The separation also allows for the use of ‘semite’ as a category to classify humans based on racialist pseudo-science, which has been used to further antisemitic ideas and anti-Jewish campaigns in history.

Common Antisemitic Tropes

It’s important to understand that while antisemitism has changed and developed throughout the years, there are some common antisemitic tropes that follow Jews through time. In 2020, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) released a resource, Antisemitism Uncovered: A Guide to Old Myths in a New Era, about the seven common historical tropes you can find in modern-day antisemitism. 

The first antisemitic trope the ADL mentions is power, or that Jews have too much power. Jewish people only make up around 0.2 percent of the world population, but are seen as people who want world domination or have control over things like banks, government, and even the weather. The Rothschilds, a prominent Jewish family that has been targeted throughout history, have been blamed for controlling the climate, profiting off the Napolionic wars, starting the Civil War, assassinating Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, and finally, controlling the economy. In the early 20th century, secret police in Russia started circulating The Protocols, an elaborate forgery ‘proving’ that Jews were conspiring towards world domination. This publication heavily influenced Nazi ideology, along with gaining traction in the US among people like Henry Ford, the highly antisemitic automaker. The Protocols laid the groundwork for lots of common antisemitic tropes today about Jewish power, and have been circulated and still seen as fact all around the world.

Along with power, antisemites tend to believe that Jews are disloyal, or that they only hold allegiance to other Jews and no one else. This is primarily from The Old Testament where Judas betrayed Jesus (this name becoming synonymous with “traitor”) along with some passages in the Quran that question Jewish honor. Because of this, early Christian and Islamic scriptures portray Jews as untrustworthy. During the Enlightenment in Europe, nations debated allowing Jewish citizenship, and after World War I (WWI), Hitler blamed German Jewish soldiers for stabbing their army in the back. Jews were also blamed for the rise of socialism and communism along with political unrest. All throughout the Middle East, Jews were seen as double agents and faced attacks and legal persecution; this only increased after the founding of the State of Israel. In the West, both Stalin and Nixon believed that Jews were working against them.

A stereotype believing in Jewish greediness is one of the most persistant antisemitic tropes. It is believed that Jews relentlessly pursue wealth with no care for others, along with selfishly keeping money away from everyone else. This stereotype took hold in the Middle Ages, when Jews were restricted in which jobs they could do and if they could own land, so one of the few options for work was high-interest crediting. This occupation caused a complicated dynamic between Christians and Jews because while Jews were recruited for this job, Christians weren’t allowed to practice it themselves. Jews could be easily scapegoated for bad financial times, along with some Christians seeing Jews as immoral. Shakespeare wrote the character Shylock as a greedy Jewish money lender in one of his plays, which furthered this stereotype in literature and art. In 2006, Ilan Halimi was kidnapped, tortured, and later killed because they assumed his Jewish family would be able to pay a large ransom. With the Rothschilds being a prominent Jewish family who gained their wealth through banking, there are many conspiracies about Jewish control over the economy and economic institutions.

Used to justify violence against Jews, the myth that Jews killed Jesus, also known as “deicide”, has been around for centuries. It wasn’t until 1964 that the Catholic Church released a statement absolving Jews from these charges. But even with this declaration, this trope has continued, and is one of the seven antisemitic tropes talked about by the ADL.

Most prevalent in the medieval and early modern period, one common antisemitic thought was the blood libel, or that Jews would kill non-Jews, especially children, to take their blood for use in religious rituals. While this goes against Jewish religious law, the origins of this charge come from 12th-century England when Jews were blamed for killing a boy named William. It was even thought that Jews needed Christian blood to make Passover matzah (unleavened bread). This blood libel trope continued in the modern era with ritual murder accusations occurring in the 19th and 20th centuries all throughout Europe and even in the US. In Damascus, 63 Jewish children were held hostage, two Jewish men were killed, and many others were tortured because Jews were accused of killing two men. Nazi propoganda als oused the blood libel trope to further their antisemitic cause years before the Holocaust. This trope is still being used today, especially for political means, as a Syrian delegate in the United Nations Human Rights Commission read blood libel charges in 1991 and some anti-Zionist cartoons and publications use blood libel imagery. 

A trope created by the Nazis when they purposefully mislabelled and covered up the Holocaust, Holocaust denial has continued to this day, despite the extensive collection of evidence opposing it. Holocaust deniers opperate on a spectrum, from fully denying its existence to simply diminishing it, and this happens in a variety of ways. However, whichever way these deniers sway, they all believe that the Holocaust was an enormous hoax created by the Jewish people to gain power and have an excuse for the creation of a Jewish state. In 1978, far-right politician Willis Carto, a white supremacist and antisemite, created the Institute for Historical Review (IHR) which published journals and held conferences that disregarded and minimized the Jewish experience in history. Even though many scholars, courts and academic institutions have criticized the IHR, it is still operating today. Along with that, the Iranian government has been a driving force in Holocaust denial and mockery, as they sponsor conferences and cartoon contests about Holocaust denial. Recently, Holocaust denial has migrated into the internet, and has a strong presence in alt-right websites such as 4chan or the Daily Stormer, along with large social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.

The last of the seven antismitic tropes talked about by the ALD is anti-Zionism. Much of modern anti-Zionism draws on many of the antisemitic tropes that I’ve already mentioned. While criticism of Israel isn’t inherently antisemitic and people should criticize a country and its government when they do something wrong, there is a fine line between legitimate criticism of Israel and antisemitism. First off, the true definition of Zionism is solely the movement for Jewish self-determination and statehood. Despite what others may say or believe, that’s it. Zion is the biblical term for Jerusalem, and ever since the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, the longing to ‘return to Zion’ has been a main principle in Judaism. Modern Zionism as we know it today came about in the 19th century as a response to antisemitism all across Europe. While there’s always been a Jewish presence in the land of Israel, Jews had been returning to the territory of Palestine to escape antisemitism in Europe and fulfill their dream of homecoming. Zionism puts forth the belief that Jews should have a safe haven that protects them from antisemitism, whether it be Tzarist pogroms (an organized violet riot and massacre), Nazi ideology in Europe, Jew expulsion in Arab lands, antisemitic violence, or anti-Jew restrictions. Zionism is a large tent, filled with both progressive and conservative Jews, apolitical Jews and non-Jews that believe that the State of Israel has the right to exist as the Jewish homeland. These Zionists have varying points of view on the Israeli-Palestine conflict and resolutions, along with how little or a lot they criticize Israel. Despite these varied opinions and values and based on data from the Pew Research Center, 8 in 10 American Jews are either somewhat or very attached to Israel, and that should not be forgotten or ignored.

The Nazis and Antisemitism

The Nazi regime capitalized on the antisemitism that was growing throughout the years and created the perfect scapegoat for the problems in Germany after WWI—Jews. The Nazis used common antisemitic tropes like greed, power, and disloyalty, views that, as you’ve already read, had become more and more popular all across the world. They were able to take control of the government and create state-sanctioned Jew-hatred and genocide.

This came to a head with the Holocaust, where six million Jews were mostly killed in internment camps throughout Europe. Led by Adolf Hitler, the Nazis tried to exterminate anyone who wasn’t considered part of the ‘aryan’ or superior race. There are many first-hand accounts you can read about the horrors of the holocaust, from Elie Weisel’s Night to Anne Frank’s diary.

“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed….Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust.” – Elie Weisel, Night

Modern Antisemitism

Antisemitism did not begin with the holocaust, and sadly it did not end with it either. The effects of the Holocaust made countries and peoples ashamed of open acts of antisemitism. So while those types of antisemitism did decrease for a time, it did not eliminate it fully, and recently they’ve been on the rise again. In the UK, antisemitic incidents increased by around 500% in only two weeks this May. In fact, all around the world antisemitic attacks are increasing drastically. 

Far-right extremism is one reason for this. In Europe and America, far-right extremist parties are becoming more and more mainstream. In 2017, the far-right march in Charlottesville was ripe with not only racism, but antisemitism. The shooter at the tragic Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in 2018 was a far-right extremist who spouted antisemitic rhetoric. There is also Islamic extremism, where a small group of Muslims, most commonly in the Middle East, hold antisemitic views.

Part of the reason for this increase in antisemitism is the lack of education about it, especially in America. This is one reason why antisemitic conspiracy theories gain traction and add to the antisemitism in far-right circles. Although antisemitism can be far more dangerous and obvious on the right, that does not mean there isn’t antisemitism on the left; both sides of American politics and politicians can, and have been, antisemitic. Along with modern antisemitism, America has a long history with antisemitism too. Its laws were an inspiration for Nazi Germany, rich American figures like Henry Ford have had the power to widely spread antisemitic massages across the country, and even some large American companies such at IBM and General Motors supported the Nazi Party in the 30’s and 40’s.

Antisemitism in any form is a threat to society. There’s been a surge of antisemitic attacks, vandalism, and comments all around the world, and it’s important for us to condemn them. From people attacking Jews on the streets, to vandalizing Jewish businesses or shootings at synagogues, to making comments about space lasers or the Holocaust, to perpetuating antisemitic tropes in any way, it’s important to stand together against antisemitism in any form.

Effects of Antisemitism 

The effects of antisemitism are different for all Jews. For instance, some Jews, specifically Orthodox Jews, might be more susceptible to antisemitic attacks because they are more visibly Jewish, like wearing a kippah (a brimless cap), payot (long sidelocks), or wearing certain types of clothes. Others might be worried and stressed about antisemitic attacks towards themselves or their Jewish friends and family, as I am.

But besides the effects of current antisemitism, some Jewish families are still effected as decendents of people who experienced the Holocaust. There is a Mount Sinai study from 2015 suggesting that Holocaust survivor descendants have “different stress hormone profiles than their peers, perhaps predisposing them to anxiety disorders.” Many Holocaust survivors experienced mental health disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and survivor’s guilt, which often impacts their second and third generation descendants. Jewish asylum seekers, especially Soviet-Jewish refugees, may even be double survivors, as they fled the Nazis to the Soviet Union, but then encountered further antisemitism in the USSR and Russia.

Even if they don’t have ancestors who survived the Holocaust, it is highly likely that Jewish children learned from a very young age their history. From the age of 8, Jewish writer Gila Lyons “was made aware that the Jewish body was an endangered body” when she went to Jewish sleepover camp. Lyons also cites examples from Jewish peers talking about certain aspects of current life that remind them of the Holocaust, like gym steam rooms and gas chambers, rush hour subways and cattle cars, or supermarket lines and Nazi soldiers.  

Throughout all of this struggle, many found strength and solace in the Jewish faith. Jews are proud to be Jewish, and no amount of hatred and antisemitism will stop that. Gila Lyons, in describing many Jewish holidays, fully embraces Jewish perseverance and resilience with this quote: “They tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat.”

How to Combat Antisemitism

The most impactful action that combats antisemitism is education. You can do the research yourself, learn more about antisemitism and listening to Jewish voices, and help to support and invest in education programs about antisemitism in schools. Learn to recognize antisemitism in leadership, and only vote for people who will support Jews and Jewish voices in office. Work with Jewish organizations to address antisemitism you see in your community, and report any incidents if you see it.

Jewish Voices and Groups

That being said, along with education, you can self-evaluate your own actions to check them for antisemitism with the 3-D test. A three part test on demonization, double-standards, and delegitimization is a great way to separate legitimate criticism from antisemitism, or to just check if comments are antisemitic in general. 

First, are you demonizing Jews? Are you blowing Jewish figures’ actions out of proportion to the point of irrationality, especially politicians? An example of this would be comparing Israelis to Nazis, or calling Palestinean refugee camps Auschwitz, as this is obvious antisemitism. Next, are you holding Jews to a double-standard? Are you judging Jewish actions on a totally different yardstick than other groups of people? Is your criticism of Israel applied selectively, or are you also criticizing other countries with similar actions at the same level? Lastly, are you delegitimizing the Jewish faith, or even the Jewish state? All throughout history, antismites have deligitamized Judaism, are you doing the same? Some Jewish people think delegitimizing Israel’s existence is antisemitic; by calling Israel “imperial colonialism”, you are delegitimizing the fact that Israelis and a lot of Jews are, in fact, indigenous to the land of Israel.

Never forget that antisemitism is not a hatred that ended after the Holocaust. Antisemitism is alive and thriving today, and it’s important to stop it in its tracks. Six million Jews died in the Holocaust, and the antisemitism that allowed these actions follow the same tropes and hatred that are still around and going strong today. It’s important to make sure it never happens again, and you can help.

Written By:

Sage Freed

Sage is a 16 year old junior in Howard County, MD. She spends her time drawing, painting, and participating in her community through protests, and fighting what she believes is right. She’s very passionate about art and writing, and believes that it can bring communities together, impact people into learning new things, and can change peoples opinions towards a better future.


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