The war in the Middle East has also inflamed antisemitic sentiment in the West. Antisemitic slogans have been chanted at pro-Palestinian demonstrations in Vienna. In an interview, historian and antisemitism researcher Isolde Vogel talks about the roots of Israel-related antisemitism and what helps against antisemitism.
“We must also manage to convey to young people that oversimplified thinking and a reductionist worldview do not provide the solutions they promise,” Vogel says. She works at the Institute of Culture Studies and Theatre History at the Austrian Academy of Sciences (OeAW).
RELATIVIZING AND CRITICISM OF ISRAEL
After the attacks by the radical Islamist group Hamas on the Israeli population, where thousands of people were tortured, kidnapped, and murdered by terrorists, various interpretations emerged. The attack was frequently relativized, and some even celebrated it. Where does this lack of empathy in the face of violence come from?
Isolde Vogel: These attempts to relativize the attacks can be classified as part of a pattern of antisemitic rhetoric rooted in long-standing and well-known antisemitic forms of argumentation. For example, the notion that “the Jews” are to blame for everything, including the crimes committed against them, exemplifies a classic antisemitic victim reversal. Researchers are familiar with Israel-related antisemitism and its links to Islamism. But the jubilation over the devastating massacres goes far beyond the Islamist scene. It is shocking that such a large number of people glorify this terror.
Is this a new form of hatred against Israel and Jews?
Vogel: Israel-related antisemitism does not differ from other forms of antisemitism on an ideological level, but it is its own, convoluted form of expression with potential for affiliation. People do not see themselves as antisemitic. As social scientist Bernd Marin described in the 1970s, this is antisemitism without antisemites. By hiding behind seemingly legitimate statements and so-called “criticism of Israel,” individuals seek to shield themselves from scrutiny. This is different in the Arab world, where antisemitism is not a public taboo. Anti-Zionist antisemitism was widespread there even before the establishment of the state of Israel.
DEMONIZATION, DELEGITIMIZATION, DOUBLE STANDARDS
Regarding criticism of Israeli politics:When does it cross into antisemitism?
Vogel: Criticism of the Israeli government is not only legitimate, but a common occurrence worldwide, including within Israel. In 2023, major protests were held by the Israeli democracy movement against the planned judicial reform by the current government under Benjamin Netanyahu. It becomes antisemitic when antisemitic sentiments are exploited, for example when it is claimed that criticism of Israeli politics is impossible due to shadowy schemes suppressing it or manipulating the media.
Research has provided tools, such as Nathan Sharansky's “Three D Test”, which helps distinguish between legitimate criticism and antisemitism: The three Ds stand for demonization, when Israel is vilified, Zionism is equated with National Socialism or, for example, Gaza is described as a concentration camp; Delegitimization, when Israel’s right to existence and self-determination is questioned; and double standards, i.e. different standards are applied to Israel than to other nations.
Antisemitic extermination wishes have also been heard in Vienna in recent days. “From the river to the sea” essentially calls for Israel’s destruction.
Antisemitic slogans have proliferated at pro-Palestinian demonstrations in various locations, often cloaked in the language of anti-colonialism.What are your thoughts on these rallies?
Vogel: I observe a lack of critical perspective in media coverage of recent events. Antisemitic extermination wishes have also been heard in Vienna in recent days. Chants like “Khaybar Khaybar ya yahud,” rooted in an old expulsion scenario, can be interpreted as an antisemitic battle cry. Similarly, “From the river to the sea” essentially calls for Israel’s destruction. In a rather trivializing way, the media portrayed the demonstrations as having passed without incident. Yet there were a huge number of incidents, especially a hostile atmosphere, including against journalists. Anti-Zionist antisemitism, particularly from left-wing, Muslim, and anti-colonial perspectives, has long been downplayed.
PROPAGANDA AND FAKE NEWS
So, is it also a matter of disinformation?
Vogel: Israel-related antisemitism has a lot to do with distorted portrayals and fake news. This ranges from Hamas propaganda to claims that Israel is funding terrorism or that the videos of the massacre are fake. This is how antisemitism works: Explaining the world in a simplified way, seeing an aggressor on one side and an oppressed people on the other, gives people a sense of control and satisfaction. Even when Hamas commits a massacre, killing 1,400 people and torturing and kidnapping hundreds, antisemitic thinking leaves no room for condemning the terrorist attack or acknowledging the complexity of the situation.
Hamas opposes education, modern advancements, and is an anti-emancipatory and misogynistic organization, driven by an antisemitic fantasy of redemption.
Jews worldwide have to live with the fear of further antisemitic aggression.What can help against antisemitism?
Vogel: As an academic, I hope that education will help. This is also part of my motivation for doing this work. It is important to name what the Islamist-antisemitic Hamas stands for: It opposes education, modern advancements, and is an anti-emancipatory and misogynistic organization, driven by an antisemitic fantasy of redemption. It is important to talk about antisemitism now, but also when it is not so acute. Current events cannot be explained in a TikTok video or a few Instagram slides. We must also manage to convey to young people that oversimplified thinking and a reductionist worldview do not provide the solutions they promise. And that is automatically a fight against antisemitism, a most basic form of complexity-reducing and conspiracy-based ideology.