Antisemitism: The Past, Present & Future – A Conversation with Professor David Feldman.

Antisemitism: The Past, Present & Future – A Conversation with Professor David Feldman.

David Feldman is Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Study of Antisemitism and a Professor of History. He joined Birkbeck in 1994 having previously held lectureships at Christ’s College, Cambridge and the University of Bristol. David specialises in the history of antisemitism, Jewish history, the history of racialization and the history of migration in modern Britain.

In addition to his work as a historian, David is actively engaged in research which addresses public policy. He led a pan-European project exploring contemporary antisemitism in Western Europe. He has advised international institutions on policy issues connected with antisemitism including the United Nations, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and Human Rights Watch, and in the UK, the All Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism, the Labour Party and the Football Association. David provides expertise and advice on antisemitism to a wide range of political, philanthropic, and cultural organisations as well as giving briefings and interviews to the media. His writing on the politics of antisemitism has appeared in The Guardian, Financial Times, Haaretz, History Workshop Online and The Independent.  His most recent book, edited with Marc Volovici, is Antisemitism, Islamophobia and the Politics of Definition (Palgrave: 2023).

In this conversation I speak to Professor David Feldman, Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Study of Antisemitism. David is one of the world’s foremost experts in Jewish history, antisemitism & radicalisation. We discuss the origins of antisemitism, the impact of WW2 and the Holocaust on antisemitic beliefs, and why we continue to see antisemitism in modern culture.

Q: What are the origins of antisemitism?

[Professor David Feldman]:  First, I should deal with the term ‘antisemitism’ itself, which gained popular usage in Germany during the 1880s. This was largely due to individuals who considered being an antisemite as something commendable. Notably, in 1879, Wilhelm Marr founded ‘The League of Antisemites’. This group staunchly opposed Jewish emancipation, a movement aimed at granting Jews identical legal, civil, and political rights as non-Jews; a process that was introduced across Europe during the 19th century. Only Russia – where the greatest number of Jews lived – remained an exception. Marr and his followers believed that this emancipation was a grave error, leading to what they perceived as Jewish dominance in German society and culture. Thus, in the 1880s, to be an antisemite meant to oppose equal rights for Jews.

However, as you astutely pointed out, anti-Jewish prejudice or racism has a much older history. It can be likened to a reservoir of water, accumulating over time, with some elements diminishing while new ones are added. A key component dates back to the very beginnings of Christianity, with the concept of supersessionism. This is the belief that Christianity supersedes Judaism, which early Christians, such as Paul of Tarsus (St Paul), criticised as a limited, ritualistic religion with an exclusive moral code, as opposed to a universal and spiritual one. This critique positioned Judaism as either obsolete, due to the advent of Christianity or as morally and ethically inferior.

Significant additions to this reservoir of antisemitic thought emerged during the high Middle Ages, in the 12th and 13th centuries. One was the notion of Jews conspiring against the common good, particularly the belief that they were allied with the devil, conspiring against Christians. This era also saw the emergence of the blood libel myth, alleging that Jews used the blood of Christian children for ritual purposes, a concept originating in 12th-century England. Another addition was the association of Jews with money, a stereotype stemming from Christian thinkers observing the growing commercial development of their time. They cautioned that this could lead to moral decay and un-Christian behaviour, suggesting an excessive preoccupation with money was characteristic of Jews, drawing on the biblical account of Jesus expelling money changers from the temple. Together, these three concepts – supersessionism, conspiracy theories, and the stereotype of a special, negative affinity Jews had with money – became central to the perpetuation and evolution of antisemitic ideology over time.

Q:  How did antisemitism change after World War 1 & World War 2?

[Professor David Feldman]:  When I refer to the ‘reservoir’, I’m speaking about a cultural phenomenon that transcends geographical boundaries. Antisemitism, I believe, has been present in Christian culture for roughly two millennia. Today it’s not solely a Western, European, or North American issue; it’s part of a global common culture. This ‘reservoir’ idea conceives of culture as a resource. This perspective, I believe, is crucial for understanding antisemitism. Often, we perceive antisemitism as an issue affecting someone else, never ourselves. However, it’s a resource that a very wide range of individuals, groups and institutions have tapped into overtime, which is a point we might revisit later.

Regarding the impact of the Nazi genocide of Jews, it significantly altered the landscape of political antisemitism. Before this, antisemitism was a potent force within European right-wing politics during the interwar period, not just among Nazis but across the right-wing spectrum. This was partly due to the perception of Bolshevism and the Russian Revolution as products of a Jewish conspiracy, an idea that harks back to medieval conspiracy theories. This notion was adapted and used by figures like Henry Ford in the USA and right-wing parties, including, most notably, the Nazi party in Europe, to frame Bolshevism as a dire threat to their privileges, property and way of life, allegedly stemming from a global Jewish conspiracy. However, after the Holocaust, such thinking became widely discredited.

In the post-war era, other developments also influenced attitudes towards antisemitism. For many European social democrats and socialists who rejected Soviet Union policies but were drawn to socialist ideas, there was a strong trend of philosemitism, particularly focused on Israel. They saw Israel as a middle path between American Capitalism and Soviet Communism, a model of what they considered democratic socialism. This perspective also helped undermine antisemitism at the time. Additionally, in the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries, where Jews faced discrimination and persecution, opposing antisemitism aligned easily with supporting the West during the Cold War.

So, these varied political factors led to a significant shift in political antisemitism. However, what persisted were the cultural stereotypes – the entrenched narratives and stereotypes about Jews within the culture, ready to be drawn upon whenever they seemed relevant or useful.

Q: Why has antisemitism persisted in modern culture?

[Professor David Feldman]: We can observe two notable aspects regarding antisemitism. Firstly, there’s the enduring nature of antisemitic conspiracy theories. A prime example is the ‘replacement theory’ popular among the far-right, particularly white nationalists in the United States and parts of Europe. They propagate the notion that Jews are orchestrating a plan to undermine the so-called white race through immigration, notably by introducing Muslims and people of colour into these societies. For those feeling threatened or inclined to see the world’s workings as a conspiracy, it’s conveniently easy to blame these perceived machinations on a Jewish elite, given the long and deep-seated history of such allegations.

However, there’s another angle we must consider – instances where ‘the antisemitic dog doesn’t bark’, so to speak. For example, comparing the reactions to the 1929 crash and the 1930s depression with those following the 2008 crash is illuminating. Although it’s possible to identify Jewish figures associated with the 2008 crash and some antisemitic responses, overall, antisemitism was a marginal reaction in 2008, significantly less prevalent than in the earlier period. This begs the question: why was this the case? It suggests that there were more compelling, alternative explanations for the crash available, offered by politicians and influential media figures, which overshadowed antisemitic narratives.

Therefore, when examining the persistence of antisemitism, it’s not just about understanding how these ideas endure and are transmitted within the culture. It is also crucial to ask why these ideas are being drawn upon and why we sometimes fail to provide more convincing explanations for the economic, social, and political challenges we face.

Q: What are your views on the confusion between anti-Jewish, and anti-Israel sentiment?

[Professor David Feldman]:  …this topic is rife with both confusion and controversy, and it seems there’s no consensus on where to draw the line. This is particularly evident in cases like the movement to boycott Israel. The proponents of the boycott argue that it’s a legitimate form of protest, rooted in civil society, and aimed specifically at Israel, not at Jews in general. However, many Jewish individuals contest this, questioning why Israel, the only Jewish state, is singled out when other nations accused of discrimination or war crimes are not boycotted. Thus, there’s a clear lack of agreement on this matter.

To bring more clarity, I believe most would concur that applying classic negative Jewish stereotypes to Israel is antisemitic. For instance, portraying Israel as orchestrating global conspiracies, as happens, for instance, in the image that circulated a few years ago of an alien with the Star of David on its back latched on to the face of the Statue of Liberty, implying Israel controls American democracy, is essentially repurposing an antisemitic trope. Another broadly agreed point is that holding Jews outside of Israel accountable for the actions of the Israeli state is also antisemitic. A case in point is the slogan ‘Free Palestine’; it’s not inherently antisemitic, but when it’s used to vandalise a synagogue, it crosses into antisemitism.

The real controversy, however, arises when discussing Israel’s right to exist. This is the most contentious aspect of the debate. While it’s acknowledged that Israel, as a powerful state, is unlikely to disappear, the question of whether discussing its hypothetical non-existence is antisemitic remains divisive. Some Palestinian supporters and some Palestinians do not envision a future for Jews as a people in that region. This was exemplified by the Hamas leadership’s justification of the October 7th massacre, which claimed that the Jewish civilians killed were ’settlers’. Something which clearly suggests that Jews living within Israel’s internationally recognised boundaries have no right to be there. This I would argue is antisemitic.

The Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism, which I helped co-author, offers a useful perspective here. It argues that denying Jews, anywhere in the world including Israel/Palestine, equal individual and collective rights is antisemitic. However, envisaging Jews having such rights within a different state structure in Israel/Palestine, such as a binational or federal state, isn’t inherently antisemitic. It’s important to note that this seems far from a realistic political prospect in the foreseeable future. Nonetheless, discussing or writing about such a future shouldn’t be considered antisemitic.

Q: How do we move forward from here, to eliminate antisemitism from culture?

[Professor David Feldman]:  …a crucial aspect of addressing antisemitism involves recognising that we are confronting not only ideological Jew-haters, the overt antisemites, but also the more pervasive cultural phenomenon of antisemitism. This is a significant distinction: while we often think of antisemites as ‘the other guys’, antisemitism is, in fact, woven into our common culture. This is evidenced by attitudinal surveys conducted by various organisations.

Take, for example, the Anti-Defamation League’s survey in Germany in 2023. This survey assessed people’s attitudes towards 11 antisemitic ideas, categorizing individuals as antisemitic if they responded positively to the majority of these ideas. In this survey, 12% of respondents were classified as antisemitic. However, a closer look reveals a more widespread acceptance of specific antisemitic notions. For instance, 21% agreed with the idea that Jews have too much control over international finance, and 30% believed that people hate Jews due to the Jews’ own actions.

It’s important to note that this is not exclusively a German phenomenon. Similar patterns, which reveal a widespread diffusion of antisemitic ideas and a smaller core of individuals with a solid antisemitic mindset, can be observed in the UK and the United States.

Addressing this issue requires a two-pronged approach. For those with a deeply ingrained antisemitic mindset, the enforcement of existing laws against hate crimes, harassment, and discrimination is essential. However, for the larger portion of the population, who may unknowingly harbour or be influenced by these cultural stereotypes and narratives, there’s a significant need for education. It’s vital to raise awareness, help people recognize these deep-seated biases, and encourage them to recognise, question and refrain from perpetuating such stereotypes. The task at hand is a considerable one, involving extensive educational efforts to combat these ingrained prejudices.

Q: What would be your advice to those in the Jewish community to are feeling targeted and threatened right now?

[Professor David Feldman]:  The events of 7th October have been traumatic for Jewish people, not only in Israel but globally. This impact is something I feel personally. In this situation, it’s essential to maintain as clear-sighted a view as possible. This includes unequivocally calling out antisemitism wherever it’s found and accurately identifying it. However, it’s crucial not to fall into the error of assuming that most individuals who express solidarity with Palestinians are anti-Jewish. The fear among many Jewish people, since 7th October, that this might be the case, is understandable. Certainly, there have been instances when some have hesitated to criticize or condemn the massacre carried out by Hamas, and there have also been expressions of antisemitism on marches called to demonstrate solidarity with Palestinians, but there is no evidence to project these attitudes onto the majority of the people there. We should also acknowledge that some Jews have joined these demonstrations.

We must also remember the broader context of Israel and Palestine. Since 1967, Israel has been the occupying power. Palestinians, despite having formal citizenship rights, are often treated as second-class citizens within Israel. Even though Israel withdrew from Gaza, it maintained significant control over conditions of life there. Jewish Israelis enjoy full individual and collective rights, in contrast to Palestinians who do not.

The critical response to this imbalance which we see across much of the world is not inherently antisemitic. Understanding the complexities of this situation and the ways in which anti-Zionism can morph into antisemitism is crucial. At the same time, we should acknowledge that support for civil, political and collective rights for Palestinians is not in itself antisemitic. In fact, we can draw a line connecting the struggle against antisemitism in the 1880s, which was about achieving equal rights for Jews, with the values shared by many who support the campaign for Palestinian rights today. 

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.