Do Jews cause antisemitism?

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Editor’s note: This is part 4 of a multipart series. You can view the entire series here.

Do Jewish people cause antisemitism? 

This probably seems like an offensive question —  and, sure sounds like an example of blaming the victim. But a shockingly large number of people believe that Jews cause themselves to be hated, and it’s one of the reasons why antisemitism has endured for so many centuries. 

A recent CNN survey found that nearly 1 in 5 Europeans believed that antisemitism in their countries was “a response to the everyday behavior of Jewish people.” An even more commonly expressed version of this belief is the claim that Israel causes antisemitism. And that’s just the ones who admitted it to a pollster.

So back to the question: do Jews or the Jewish state cause antisemitism? If we’re going to uproot anti-Jewish prejudice, it’s crucial to understand exactly why the claim is so egregiously wrong–logically, historically, and morally.

Unfortunately, the idea that Jews are responsible for their own persecution is not some fringe idea. Take Swedish public radio, the country’s equivalent of NPR. 

In early 2015, host Helena Groll interviewed Isaac Bachman, Israel’s ambassador to Sweden, in the wake of two deadly anti-Semitic attacks in Europe.

But Groll didn’t ask the Israeli envoy what non-Jews could do to stop this virulent antisemitism. Instead she asked: 

Groll: “Do the Jews themselves have any responsibility in the growing anti-Semitism that we see now?”

Bachman, unsurprisingly, was shocked. 

Bachman: “I reject the question altogether… The question of how a woman contributes to the fact of being raped is irrelevant altogether. I don’t think there is any provocation that Jews are doing—they just exist.”

As we noted in an earlier video, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights has found that 60% of Swedish Jews fear to publicly identify as Jewish. That Groll, a respected member of the media, felt comfortable blaming Jews for their own abuse helps explain why.

Groll didn’t stop digging, however. She went on: 

Groll: “But a lot of people would look at the Middle East today and say there is conflicts that we know between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and a lot of people might say, ‘we see the Gaza war, we see things that have been happening,’ that Israel and Jews in Israel have a responsibility to reactions that are coming?’”

After outrage on social media over this bizarre exchange, the public radio station apologized for the interview and purged it from their online archives. 

But erasing the evidence of bigotry is not the same as confronting and debunking it. In her interview, Groll said that “a lot of people” think as she does. So why are these people mistaken?

Simply put, the idea that Jews or Israel cause antisemitism is wrong for three interrelated reasons: logic, history, and morality.

Shylock, a fictional character in William Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice, is a Venetian Jewish moneylender. Shylock is the play’s principal antagonist. His defeat and conversion to Christianity form the climax of the story.

Logic: Take the notion, sometimes presented by well-meaning people, that Jews came to be despised as miserly and greedy because they were forbidden from owning land or holding most occupations, and so were compelled to become moneylenders in the Middle Ages. The argument is that Jews came to be associated with money, and thus hated for their money. Jewish behavior caused Jew hatred. 

It’s a very convenient tale to explain antisemitism. But it doesn’t actually make sense. After all, why were Jews restricted from so many professions and not permitted to own land? The underlying antisemitism predated the conduct that allegedly caused it. Supposed Jewish miserliness was an excuse for antisemitism, not the explanation.

This underscores a fundamental point: Like most groups subjected to bigotry, Jews are hated not because of what they do, but who they are–a small minority that is different from the majority. This intolerant dynamic stays the same, while the justifications for it change over time. That’s why if you get rid of one rationale for antisemitism, a new one just takes its place. And these explanations never stand up to scrutiny.

At a pro-Palestine rally in Vienna a man was met with cheers as he shouted, “shove your Holocaust up your *ss” at Jewish students.

History: Take the claim that the modern state of Israel–the home of half the world’s Jews–causes antisemitism. Studies and headlines show that when the Jewish state engages in military action, antisemitic acts tend to spike in parts of Europe. But if we reflect on the last 1,000 years of history, we see that once again, this is not the cause of the anti-Semitism, it’s the cover story for it.

A sign reading ‘Juden Zutritt Verboten!’, forbidding entry by Jewish people to the 1936 Winter Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. (Photo by FPG/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

From the Crusades to the Spanish Inquisition to the Holocaust, antisemitism plagued Europe and beyond long before Israel was established in 1948. The Jewish state couldn’t provoke any of these anti-Jewish assaults; it didn’t exist! In fact, Europe’s utter inability to protect its Jews was a major reason why many of them fled to found their own state. The effort to pin Jew hatred on the Jewish state, then, is an attempt to invert cause and effect in order to evade historical responsibility. If Israel had never been created, antisemites would happily have conjured new rationales for their intolerance, just as they had for centuries.

But ascribing antisemitism to Jews or Israel is not just wrong logically and historically. It’s also wrong morally: we do not consider it acceptable or understandable to blame the victims of bigotry in any other context–or at least, we shouldn’t. 

Walter Russell Mead talks about how blaming Jews anywhere in the world for the actions of other Jews anywhere in the world is the essence of racism, and how we’d not accept such justifications in other contexts.

It’s never okay to attack random Jews over the actions of completely different Jews thousands of miles away in the Middle East, just like it’s never okay to attack random Muslims over the actions of Muslim groups or countries thousands of miles away in the Middle East. It’s as absurd and offensive as assailing a French person in New York over the actions of French people in Paris. This sort of racist thinking isn’t the cause of antisemitism — it’s the essence of antisemitism.

That people still blame Jews or Israel for antisemitism in polite company—just as today, many still blame Black people for racism… or women’s dress for their abuse by rapists—shows just how embedded anti-Jewish assumptions still are, even in educated enclaves.

But while antisemites may cite Jewish actions to justify their prejudice, we know better — and we don’t have to fall for it.

Jews don’t cause antisemitism. Antisemites do.

You can find this video and all Unpacked videos on YouTube.

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