Saturday, April 30, 2022

Antisemitism and Social Malaise

Michelle Goldberg has a very insightful column in the New York Times about antisemitism. It begins by talking about the rapid acceleration of antisemitism that paralleled the rise of Trumpism. Certainly, we are seeing a resurgence of far-right antisemitism (and increasingly, the "far-" is redundant). But even after Trump left office, antisemitic activity has continued to surge. And the most striking thing about this pattern is not its political character, but rather how apolitical it is.

[F]or a huge number of antisemitic episodes, the political motive, if there is one, is illegible. According to Greenblatt, more than 80 percent of the incidents documented in the A.D.L. report “cannot be attributed to any specific extremist group or movement.” Much of the threat to Jews in America seems to come less from a distinct, particular ideology than from the broader cultural breakdown that’s leading to an increase in all manner of antisocial behavior, including shootings, airplane altercations, reckless driving and fights in school.

It is weirdly tempting to think antisemitism is "about" Jews in some meaningful, if mutated, fashion, such that changing something about Jews -- how Jews talk are or talked about, how Jews behave or are perceived to behave, how Jews are viewed or where Jews are positioned in society -- will alter patterns of antisemitism. The vast majority of counterantisemitism initiatives focus on some version of this approach, thinking -- reasonably -- that antisemitism is about Jews.

But as Goldberg points out -- and this resonates with my own observation -- antisemitism often is associated with more inchoate frustration and social malaise. Antisemitism follows things like erosion of trust in social institutions, growth in conspiratorial thinking, widespread financial insecurity, and so on. Such developments are not "about" Jews; no amount of Holocaust education or anti-BDS campaigning or interfaith Seders will change them. And yet they probably play a more direct role in the rise of antisemitism than any Jewish-specific factor one could name.

Even apolitical antisemitism has a political connection, albeit an indirect one. "Post-truth" politics, the decay in an epistemically healthy environment, the rise of viral social media practices which create all sorts of terrible bad coherences, gravely accelerate the rise of "apolitical" antisemitism; in this, it is not an accident that the current surge began with and tracks closely the rise of Trumpism (nor is it coincidental that it's leftward manifestations follow closely similar post-truth post-trust ideologies like tankie-ism). But it suggests that wrestling back down antisemitism paradoxically will have little to do with a distinctively Jewish politics. Antisemitism is a symptom of a larger disease, a disease that ultimately is not really about Jews in any specific sense. One will not ameliorate the symptom without addressing that disease.

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