There is no way to scientifically prove what is causing the rise of anti-Semitism in modern times, but we can advance theories.
Some of it is clearly connected with burgeoning white nationalist populism around the world, which scapegoats racial, ethnic, and religious minorities for the world’s problems.
Many believe that growing Jew-hatred among the political left accounts for additional growth in anti-Semitism, including the hot rhetoric and inexcusable anti-Semitic conduct emanating from college campuses since the October 7 Hamas terrorist attack and Israel’s war in Gaza.
Where Does This Hatred Come From?
This sentiment was expressed in a New York Times column, in which Bret Stephens asked, “Where does all this hatred come from?” He then fenced off one particular explanation, writing: “If your answer is Israel, then … you aren’t explaining anti-Semitism; you’re replicating it.”
In this one sharp sentence, Stephens makes two claims.
First, he categorically rejects the possibility that Israeli government policy could be contributing to the global rise of anti-Semitism.
And second, even though he is a frequent critic of cancel culture, he attempts to shut down debate over any linkage between Israeli policy and growing anti-Semitism by asserting that even mentioning a connection is an anti-Semitic act in and of itself.
I disagree on both counts.
Exercise in Denial
Much of today’s anti-Semitism has been fueled by almost 15 years of absolutely horrible Israeli policy on Palestine.
Some excuse the large-scale anti-Israel animus this has generated as anti-Semitic hatred of Jews more generally. This is deeply disturbing and unacceptable.
However, pretending that the metastasizing anti-Semitism witnessed in recent years has nothing to do with Israeli government policy is an exercise in denial.
Of course, I also reject the idea that even voicing this sentiment is a form of anti-Semitic discourse. Otherwise, I would not be writing this article.
My View of Israel
My intuition about the genesis of increasing anti-Semitism comes from comparing how I conceptualized Israel growing up in the 1970s to what the current young generation has observed during its intellectually formative years.
For me, Israel was a place where Jews had fabulously built something unique and special in the wake of the Holocaust — a country where Jews could be openly Jewish and thrive.
Israelis had reversed the stereotype that Jews were weak by successfully defending against powerful Arab nations who desired, like the Nazis, to exterminate them.
I also admired Israel’s core democratic and pluralistic values as reflected in its Declaration of Independence.
Finally, I viewed Israel’s creation story in miraculous terms. The swashbuckling Ari Ben Canaan from the novel and movie Exodus was my modern Jewish-Israeli hero — clever, strong, fearless, and tough.
As I grew older, I came to understand the many distortions in my mythological understanding, especially that Israel’s creation had come at the expense of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians forcefully displaced or scared away from their homes during and after the 1948 war.
Now, more aware that both Israelis and Palestinians had legitimate grievances and interests at stake, I experienced the late 1980s and 90s as times when I saw Israel as engaged in a much-needed peace-making process that reflected and was consistent with the values that attracted me to Israel in the first place.
I cheered the Oslo Accords. I cried when one person in Israel who could have seen them through, Yitzhak Rabin, was assassinated, shamefully by a fellow Jew.
Israel Under Netanyahu
Compare these experiences to what my children have seen as they have matured since 2009, when Benjamin Netanyahu began his uninterrupted 12-year reign (and then regained office in 2023).
Unlike virtually all his predecessors, Netanyahu unapologetically refused to continue advancing the peace process and shifted instead to a policy of permanent Israeli occupation of three million Palestinians in the West Bank and an unending blockade of two million more in Gaza.
Once Netanyahu deserted the pursuit of a settlement, many have perceived all of Israel’s security activities in the West Bank and Gaza to be only in furtherance of its permanent occupation of Palestinian territory and control of Palestinian people.
Whereas I grew up seeing Israel as the scrappy underdog that used force legitimately to protect itself while actively seeking diplomatic solutions to conflict, the current generation has perceived Israel exclusively as an oppressor, using violence to prevent Palestinians from achieving some form of liberation.
Consider what today’s young adults have been exposed to during the past 15 years, primarily through social media’s unfiltered lens: frequent military operations in the West Bank; large-scale, rapid expansion of illegal settlements; checkpoints making it impossible for Palestinians to move freely; home demolitions of Palestinian property; police or military action killing young Palestinian men; and, most dramatically, three devastating military campaigns in Gaza since 2008 (including the current one), resulting in thousands of civilian casualties, widespread infrastructure destruction, and collapse of public services.
And most heartbreakingly, today’s young generation has observed something I never had to grapple with during my early years: the emergence of Jewish bigots in Israel and even among Israeli government ministers, who engage in dehumanizing rhetoric and deny Palestinians have any right to self-determination (see examples here, here, and here).
Should it really come as any surprise that today’s generation approaches this issue with deep hostility toward Israel and in sympathy with Palestinian civilians?
By making this observation, I am not excusing how hatred of Israeli government policy has far too easily morphed into anti-Semitic rhetoric and conduct around the globe.
Casting aspersion on all Jews for actions of the current Israeli government is anti-Semitic. Claiming that all Jews are oppressors is anti-Semitic. Expressing outrage only about Israeli violations of human rights against Palestinians while ignoring equally bad or worse violations against Palestinians by Hamas is a form of anti-Semitism too.
The anti-Israel activists and the intellectual left engaging in this rhetoric deserve all the criticism they have received for allowing their ideas to be infected with anti-Semitic tropes and conspiracy theories.
However, I believe that those who admire Israel and continue to hope for its success must admit that Israel’s policy shift from searching for peace with the Palestinians to imposing permanent occupation has come at a serious cost. It has provided kindling for the pre-existing flame of anti-Semitism that has plagued the world for centuries.
That flame was confined and manageable as I grew up, but it has now burst out of control.
Pointing this out is not “replicating” anti-Semitism, as Stephens claims. It is acknowledging reality.
Until there is a dramatic change in how Israel addresses the Palestinian situation, hopefully triggered by the current crisis, I fear that my children will experience a world that is far more anti-Semitic than the one of my youth.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.