Using Ancient Anti-Semitic Imagery to Target Israel

September 14, 2020

The International Holocaust Remembrance Authority (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism offers eleven examples of modern anti-Semitism, one of which is “Using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis.” In this short reflection, Prof. Cary Nelson examines this troubling phenomenon:

One of the most disturbing features of the new anti-Semitism is the return of irrational and hate-filled anti-Semitic accusations and conspiracy theories thought to have largely died with the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945. Many of these irrational accusations, like the claim that Jews were spreading the black plague and poisoning the wells of Europe, first arose during the Middle Ages, but some, like the slander that the Jews killed Christ, arose a thousand years earlier. The Catholic Church attempted to put the Christ killer accusation to rest in 1965, and Protestant churches quickly followed suit.

But anti-Zionism and blind hatred of Israel have revived these virulent forms of anti-Semitism and translated them into contemporary form. First promoted most forcefully by the East Jerusalem Anglican cleric Naim Ateek, the 21st century version of deicide takes the form of claims Palestinians were in effect being crucified by Israelis. The phrase “Christ at the Checkpoint” became popularized there and spread to the West, where it is invoked by both secular and religious versions of the boycott or BDS movement.

The rumor that Jews spread the plague by poisoning the wells of Europe now has an internet and newspaper version that claims Israel is deliberately spreading the COVID-19 virus. The Star of David has been repeatedly redrawn in the guise of the corona virus. Such accusations spread vulgar imagery on unregulated internet platforms.

Both centuries ago and during World War II similar conspiracy theories led to pogroms that included mass murder of the Jews of Europe. The claim now is that only Zionists are being verbally attacked, but most Jews support Israel’s right to exist, so that claim really masks what is actually anti-Semitism.

Even in academia, contemporary versions of blood libel and the demand to expel Jews persists. When Rutgers faculty member Jasbir Puar falsely claims Israel is harvesting Palestinian organs and starving Palestinian children we naturally feel we have uneasily returned to the 14th century. When Steven Salaita and Nora Erakat demand that Zionists be cast out of civil rights and other progressive organizations and causes, we recall the many times Jews were expelled from European countries.

When all supporters of Israel are branded as part of an evil conspiracy, we know the world’s oldest prejudice has returned. It is painful to be stigmatized as allies of the devil.

Category: Contributor Op-Eds