Jewish history scholar talks antisemitism in today’s world

Historian Beth S. Wenger discusses the history of modern antisemitism, its effect on the Jewish people, antisemitism on the right and left, Kanye West, Kyrie Irving, criticism of Israel, and the history of Jewish people in America.

Protesters march across a bridge protesting against hate and antisemitism.
Image: AFP

Antisemitism has been called the oldest hatred, spanning nearly 2,000 years, and as recent events have made clear, it is alive and well in the 21st century.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, there were 2,717 antisemitic incidents in the United States in 2021, the highest number ever recorded since they began tracking the statistic in 1979.

In the past month, there were high-profile incidents wherein a former president, a candidate for governor, a rapper, an NBA player, a comedian, and a college football coach were all criticized for making antisemitic comments.

Likewise, there were lesser-known incidents during which a Jewish cemetery was desecrated in Illinois, antisemitic flyers were placed on cars and homes in California, antisemitic graffiti was found on a trail in Maryland, and antisemitic messages were projected outside of a major college football game in Florida.

In the midst of all of this, Beth S. Wenger, the Moritz and Josephine Berg Professor of History in the School of Arts & Sciences, was teaching her undergraduate course Jews in the Modern World, a survey of Jewish history from the 1650s to the present.

As fate would have it, while the country was embroiled in controversies surrounding antisemitism, Wenger was preparing to discuss the emergence of modern antisemitism with her students.

“It’s one of those moments where teaching about the past is extraordinarily for our present day,” she says.

Penn Today spoke with Wenger, who is also the associate dean of graduate studies, former chair of the Department of History, and former director of the Jewish Studies Program, about the history of modern antisemitism, its effect on the Jewish people, antisemitism on the right and left, Kanye West, Kyrie Irving, criticism of Israel, and the history of Jewish people in America.

Beth S. Wender Headshot
Beth S. Wenger, the Moritz and Josephine Berg Professor of History in the School of Arts & Sciences and former director of the Jewish Studies Program. (Image: School of Arts & Sciences)

Let’s begin with the definition of antisemitism. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum defines it as ‘prejudice against or hatred of Jews.’ How do you define antisemitism?

There have been at least three major attempts to define antisemitism, aside from what you read from the Holocaust Memorial Museum. The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism, and the Nexus Document all represent attempts to define the idea. The three have some overlap, but they differ significantly, especially on whether criticism of Zionism or Israel constitutes antisemitism.

These definitions all struggle to come to terms with the diverse arenas in which antisemitism operates and its frequent contradictions and shape-shifting forms. Antisemitism can’t be confined to any particular sphere. Jews are a religious group; there is a nation-state associated with Jews; Jews are also an ethnic people, a culture, and more. Sometimes antisemitism has nothing to do with any of those Jewish identities or expressions; it is quite often rooted in the imagined behavior of Jews as some sort of collective force in the economy, in media, and in other spheres of influence.

In my opinion, antisemitism should be framed in the plural rather than the singular. It is at best an umbrella term that incorporates all kinds of often conflicting attitudes toward and perceptions about Jews. Sometimes such expressions are clear and obvious, and sometimes they involve antisemitic tropes that invoke Jews in all sorts of conspiracy theories and purported nefarious deeds. I might say the same thing about terms such as racism and prejudices of many kinds. It is possible to define these as hatred or violence toward particular groups, but the phrase encompasses so much more than one term can capture. That’s why I say antisemitism is at best an umbrella term.

Can you expand on that a little bit?

Antisemitism has no logical consistency. Beginning in the 19th century and continuing to the present day, Jews have often been accused of being radicals, leftists, and Bolsheviks. At the same time, they have been blamed for being capitalists and financiers who seek to control all the world’s media, banking, government. These characteristics are inherently contradictory, except that they involve conspiratorial thinking and identify Jews as dangerous.

On top of this, hatred of Jews has become entangled with many other kinds of hatred. That realization is especially apparent in our current moment, where attacks against Jews, African Americans, animus toward immigrants, hatred for those who defy traditional gender norms are often expressed at the same time. Many times, but not always, these prejudices are wrapped up together by white supremacists and other hate groups. The logic of it comes from a fear of otherness and fear of threats to a social and cultural order. It rests on the nostalgic notion of a ‘better’ imagined past that never really existed, and at the very least, depended on the disenfranchisement of a large segment of the population.

Antisemitism, like many other forms of bigotry, functions as kind of an available language for all kinds of hatred and insecurity. It becomes like a Rosetta Stone that can translate hatred toward one group into a universal hate for another group. I think that in times of insecurity, instability, and political, social, or economic disruption, antisemitism becomes a way of making sense of the world. It’s a trope that identifies those at fault for all sorts of perceived maladies.

A memorial of flowers and stars line a sidewalk outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, on Oct. 28, 2018. (Image: AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)

In what ways has hatred toward Jewish people become entangled with other kinds of hatred?

I think an instructive but disturbing example is the 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. The shooter was aiming at a synagogue, but according to his own social media posts, what had set him off was that HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, had held a meeting at that congregation. In his rants on social media, he said, ‘HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered.’ He attacked Jews not so much as worshippers of a faith than as leftists, activists, liberals, and supporters of refugees. This characterization of Jews arouses hatred as much as any religious difference. It involves a disturbing cultural calculus that renders immigrants and refugees as potential threats and equates all Jews with those groups. That, at least, is how I interpret the words of the gunman, and indeed, it describes much of the rhetoric coming from the right.

The same pattern emerged in 2017, when a group of white Christian nationalists who were upset about the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee descended upon Charlottesville, Virginia. They chanted slogans like ‘white lives matter,’ ‘blood and soil,’ and ‘Jews will not replace us.’ We have to ask ourselves, why were anti-Black and anti-Jewish attacks conflated in that way? Of course, these hatreds have always been intertwined, and both groups have been seen as ‘others’ who threaten to unsettle the foundation of a white Christian America.

Your class Jews in the Modern World discusses the rise of modern forms of antisemitism. What gave rise to antisemitism in the modern period?

When we talk about antisemitism in the modern period, it’s important to understand that it is closely tied to the rise of nationalism, mass politics, and emerging racial thought. If Enlightenment thinkers were inclined to claim that all human beings were born with a tabula rasa (a blank slate), they also conveyed a clear message that Jews needed regeneration and ‘improvement’ in education and culture, that they required some sort of ‘reform.’ In newly formed nation-states where there were public debates about the question of Jewish emancipation, citizenship came with a quid pro quo understanding that Jews would somehow change to be ‘worthy’ of their newfound status. Modern antisemitic movements often played on the rhetoric of emancipation, insisting that the entire campaign to extend rights to Jews had been essentially a liberal scheme that allowed Jews to acquire power and status, and that they displaced and eroded the foundations of white Christian culture. Antisemites quite literally claimed, ‘We welcomed these people and they took over everything; they took over our society.’

At the same time, systematized racial science—really pseudo-science—identified Jews not merely as culturally unassimilable but also as racially ‘other.’ At least in theory, the tension between Christians and Jews can be resolved through conversion, while racial difference is purportedly immutable in this strain of thinking.

This kind of thought also appears quite powerfully in U.S. immigration policies that gave preference to Western Europeans and restricted Southern Europeans—Italians, Poles, Slavs, Jews—along with Asians and certainly brown and Black people. Many groups were deemed unassimilable by virtue not only of so-called racial science but also in broader cultural terms.

A former sign that stood at the entrance of Beverley Beach Club in Maryland. (Image: Jewish Federation of Baltimore)

Historically, how have Jewish people been treated in the United States?

Well, that is a complicated question and I’m going to give you a long answer because historians are hotly debating this very issue right now. Older accounts of American Jewish history stressed the fact that Jews in the United States never needed to seek legal emancipation, although they did face disabilities and inequalities. Until fairly recently, most Jewish historians insisted that ‘America was different’ and that American Jews never confronted the vituperative antisemitism that gripped parts of Europe.

The classic if somewhat oversimplified argument goes as follows: The limited barriers to Jewish legal rights and equality fell quickly on a federal level and then gradually but systematically in individual states. America allowed for freedom of religious expression; antisemitism never gained mainstream political power, and eruptions of violence remained rare. According to this way of thinking, America’s dominant liberal paradigm resulted in less virulent forms of antisemitism that allowed for successful immigrant acculturation and explained the rapid upward mobility of Jews, particularly in post-World War II America—the era when these historical interpretations first emerged.

In 1947, two popular Hollywood movies—‘Gentleman’s Agreement’ and ‘Crossfire’ – sent the message that antisemitism was both unacceptable and un-American. In the decades following the war, ‘Whites Only’ and ‘Gentiles Only’ signs began to come down in many areas, Gallup polls reported a sharp decline in those who objected to having Jews as neighbors, and fair housing and employment discrimination legislation was slowly being enacted. A generation of American and American Jewish historians asserted that antisemitism was on the wane and would likely survive only on the fringes of respectable American society.  

As you can imagine, the events of recent years have called into question such buoyant predictions and prompted historians to look back more critically in assessing long-held assumptions about antisemitism in the United States.

What have those assessments and rethinking revealed?

It is certainly the case that in the early years of the republic, anti-Catholic sentiments loomed much larger in American society than anti-Jewish attitudes. It is also undeniable that racial inequality was woven into the fabric of American society from its founding, and that it was enacted far more systematically and oppressively than anything experienced by Jews, both legally and otherwise.

At the same time, Jews drew particular suspicion as non-Christians, along with others who shared that status. And certain attitudes toward Jews made their way to American shores, particularly the notion that Jews were not loyal patriots, that they fostered political and economic corruption, and supposedly threatened to takeover certain sectors of the economy. Even after Jews joined other hyphenated Americans—such as Italian-Americans, Polish-Americans, et cetera—in being regarded as white ethnics, the specter of Jews as particularly dangerous due to their supposed intent to dominate, exploit, and conspire lingered through the Red Scare, the Great Depression, the McCarthy era, and to the present day. 

While previous generations of historians tended to view American antisemitism as episodic, bubbling up at particular moments, or as a result of attitudes that could be changed through education, today’s scholars are looking more closely at the structural forces—political, legal, and extra-legal—that have undergirded antisemitic practices. While rarely codified in law, antisemitism has remained institutionally entrenched in American culture and has been mobilized both politically and economically throughout the nation’s history.

I want to be very clear: I am not saying that antisemitism lurks around every corner. Not at all. But American culture has harbored the promise of liberalism and democracy while also nurturing potent forms of structural inequality and prejudice. These seemingly contradictory traditions have shaped the America that we have inherited and built.

People attended the “NO FEAR: Rally in Solidarity with the Jewish People” event in Washington, D.C., on July 11, 2021. (Image: AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

In far-right circles today, you can see some of these attitudes expressed through code words like ‘globalist’ and ‘internationalists.’ What is the correlation between globalism, internationalism, and antisemitism?

Globalism has long been an antisemitic trope used to mobilize fears about alleged Jewish power mongering. In the 19th century, Jews were caricatured as insects with tentacles reaching around the globe, taking over the world. The classic text that illustrates this—that I just recently read with my class—is ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.’ It’s a forgery created about 1902. If you read it, it’s as if you’re reading a group of Jews getting together plotting how they’re going to control the world by starting wars, by siding with divergent political parties, all supposedly in the interest of gaining global economic and political control.

The document is an antisemitic invention—such a meeting never happened—but what’s particularly fascinating is how widely the document circulated and how long it has endured. The document was translated into many languages and spread across countries and continents. In the United States, the automobile manufacturer Henry Ford circulated the text in his newspaper, the Dearborn Independent. He also collected articles about the Jewish ‘takeover’ of banking and culture in volumes called the ‘International Jew,’ had them translated into many languages, and circulated the publications around the world. 

‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ continues to reappear in our day. It resurfaced after 9/11 in conjunction with nefarious claims that Jews must have been behind the attacks. Jews were also among those targeted for having somehow plotted the COVID epidemic—either by generating the disease or supposedly by scheming to implement worldwide lockdowns for their own economic benefit. While Asians were the primary targets of hate surrounding COVID, conspiracy theorists have also included Jews in their imagined web of perpetrators.

In January 2022, leaflets were distributed in the Miami area with a Star of David and the slogan, ‘Every single aspect of the COVID agenda is Jewish.’ These flyers have also been seen in many other American cities. The flyer lists the names of several public officials from the CDC, HHS, and other parts of the administration. Some of those individuals are Jewish; one is Roman Catholic and Latino, and another is Jewish and transgender. I mention this because it’s crucial to understand the entanglement of various kinds of prejudice in these attacks. It is no coincidence that Jews are vilified alongside those identified as ‘other’ and ‘deviant.’ Bigots consider all these groups to be complicit in big government and state control. This is why I’m so convinced that we have to study antisemitism alongside other expressions of hate. They operate as pieces of a whole, and not in isolation.

But to return to your initial question. Yes, there is no question that antisemitism is profoundly connected to fears about globalism. Fierce opposition to immigrants and conspiratorial notions about Jews exist hand-in-hand with ideologies that reject everything from free trade to multilateral agreements to liberal immigration policies. Anti-globalism does not cause antisemitism but the two remain deeply intertwined.

Some people on the left have also been accused of being antisemitic in regard to some of the comments they made about Israel or Zionism. You mentioned that this is a controversial issue. Where do you stand?

One of the crucial contemporary debates about antisemitism is whether or not criticism of Israel is, in and of itself, considered antisemitism. While some American Jews see movements like [Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions] or even Black Lives Matter in some of its early statements as articulating positions about Israel that they regard as antisemitic, there are many Jews who do not share this view and avidly support these movements. There is no single ‘Jewish’ opinion on this or any other issue. Personally, I do not believe that criticizing Israel, its policies, or its leaders, is antisemitic. Of course, it depends on how criticism of Israel is phrased. If it includes derogatory generalizations about Jews, Jewish character, or any tropes about Jewish power and conspiracy, that’s a different story. I believe that especially in a university, we should strive to conduct constructive dialogue that allows for respectful disagreement.

What are your thoughts on Ye or Kanye West’s recent antisemitic rants and the controversy surrounding NBA player Kyrie Irving, who shared a link to an antisemitic film?

Kanye’s statements came out first, and I’ll admit being taken aback but not entirely shocked. After all, Kanye had just weeks earlier worn a white lives matter T-shirt and he has reportedly had his own struggles with mental health. More disturbing than one celebrity’s misinformed and hateful statements is the way they seemed to give permission to others to join the fray. Within days after his proclamations, banners appeared over the 405 Highway in Los Angeles saying, ‘Kanye is right about the Jews.’ Extremist groups seized the opportunity to amplify the message. Those responses concern me much more than Kanye’s words.

Kyrie Irving posted a link to a deplorable film and also invoked a muddled reference to the very real existence of Black Hebrew Israelites—a term that actually references a wide range of African American groups who have Jewish lineage, hold an assortment of beliefs, and observe a variety of Jewish practices. These are diverse and vibrant communities, and very few espouse antisemitic principles.

I also want to stress that while it is important to call out acts of hatred when they occur, I think our energies are more productively directed toward examining the political, institutional, and social structures that give rise to these ideas in the first place.

I know that two prominent Black men in the worlds of sports and celebrity are currently in the news for their antisemitic comments. But it would be a grave error to suggest that African Americans or African American men are the prime purveyors of dangerous antisemitism as opposed to white, Christian supremacists.

Obviously Jewish people are not one monolithic group, but what are some of the effects of antisemitism on the Jewish community?

It’s difficult to answer that question with a single characterization. I will say that what I see among those of my students who identify as Jewish is greater uncertainty about the society in which they live. Most of them have grown up with a degree of security about being Jewish, and they are trying to understand how to make sense of the current moment. I think antisemitism is a very real piece of a much larger puzzle in this regard. We are living in a time when the very foundations of democracy are shaky, and we can no longer take rights, freedoms, and liberties for granted. Jews are not alone in feeling disconcerted about what’s unfolding in our times.

What do you think the solution is to such an enduring problem?

There isn’t a single solution to such a multifaceted problem. I think for a long time, people thought education was the answer. I’m certainly the first one to say we do need education, but that’s not enough. We need political and legal solutions that safeguard everyone’s rights in society, along with better ways to talk to people with whom we disagree without demonizing them. Today, we have far too little of that. Everyone gets their news from those sources and sites that reflect back their own views. I wouldn’t want to glorify a sense of civic harmony in the past that never existed, but it is difficult not to mourn the loss of civil discourse.