Why is this happening now?

Dead Jews and live antisemites

Josh Feldman speaks to Dara Horn, author of the bestselling book People Love Dead Jews, about the recent explosion in antisemitism worldwide.

The mob outside the Sydney Opera House on Monday night, October 9 2023. Photo: AAP Image/Dean Lewins
The mob outside the Sydney Opera House on Monday night, October 9 2023. Photo: AAP Image/Dean Lewins

As if October 7 wasn’t traumatic enough, the ensuing global eruption in Jew-hatred has created another layer of trauma, shattering the seemingly solid foundations on which so many Diaspora Jews thought we lived.

To better understand this disorienting moment in Jewish history, I spoke to Jewish American author Dara Horn. Horn served on then-Harvard president Claudine Gay’s antisemitism advisory committee. In our conversation, which was edited for length and clarity, Horn unpacked what’s behind this outbreak of antisemitism, Holocaust education’s failure in combating antisemitism, and what we can do about it.

This isn’t Israel’s first war in Gaza, but it’s definitely the worst global spate of antisemitism in recent memory. Why is this explosion in antisemitism happening now, and why is it so ferocious?

This explosion of antisemitism was not in response to a war in Gaza, but to Hamas’ attack in Israel. It was a celebration of murdering Jews. So when you say, why did this explode right now? Because someone was super successful in murdering Jews. This is the largest slaughter of Jews since the Holocaust, and that’s what’s so terrifying. I don’t feel like Hamas is playing four dimensional chess. I don’t think these people chanting “Gas the Jews” outside the Sydney Opera House are doing an amazing political analysis. I think they’re super excited that Hamas killed a lot of Jews.

Let’s apply that to your book, People Love Dead Jews. The key thesis is that people are happy to mourn dead Jews, but they don’t care so much for living ones. How does that line up with what you’ve seen since October 7 and what you just said?

The thesis in my book is really that Jews are only acceptable to a non-Jewish society when they are powerless, which means politically impotent or dead. This is what was so appealing to people about the October 7th attack. People were showing solidarity with the Jewish community because Jews were dead and not exerting power and agency. That’s why you had the Israeli flag on the Eiffel Tower the day after, before you have Jews showing agency and fighting back.

Jews are most acceptable when they’re powerless. This is super literal for Hamas. Then there’s the more benign form of it, which is, “We’re very proud of feeling sad for people who died in the Holocaust”. Or maybe in the massacre on October 7th. There have been some readers who are cheeky about this and were like, “Look — people don’t even like dead Jews”.

I don’t know if you saw the news about Reem Alsalem, the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women and girls, and one of the UN figures who accused Israeli forces of raping Palestinian women. An Israeli journalist asked her whether she believes Israeli women were raped on October 7, and she answered, “It may have happened”. She’s a UN Special Rapporteur, so I trust she’s educated and intelligent, but a lot of Jews can’t fathom why so many educated people are so sceptical towards Hamas’ documented atrocities on October 7. What’s going on here?

The thing about antisemitism is that it is exactly promulgated by educated people. There’s a historian, David Nirenberg. He’s got this book, Anti-Judaism. His thesis is that Western societies have organised themselves around the ideal of opposition to whatever they call Judaism — which has nothing to do with Judaism, but has to do with whatever evil this society feels it has to overcome. It’s like, “Everything would be a perfect utopia if it weren’t for whatever I’m putting in this box that I‘m calling Judaism”. So if you’re a capitalist society, Jews are communists. If you’re a communist society, Jews are capitalists. If you’re a nationalist society, Jews are rootless cosmopolitans. If you’re an anti-nationalist society, Jews are chauvinistic nationalists.

This starts in the ancient world. It’s pre-Christian. And so the baseline assumption is that Jews are collectively evil and don’t deserve to exist.

What that means is that any claims made by Jews are automatically suspect, and any claims made by non-Jews are automatically not suspect. You see it clearly laid out in this very stark way, where these claims in Gaza must be true. Zero evidence, but must be true. Claims about the attack in Israel: Prove it to me, even though it’s been proven over and over again for months. Because the assumption we’re going in with is guilty until proven innocent, and the assumption for everyone else is innocent until proven guilty.

So in terms of why this appeals to educated people, this is framed as the way society defines its ideals is by fighting evil, meaning Jews. And this is what thought leadership is supposed to do in a society: figure out ways to enact the ideals of the society. People don’t even realise this is the frame they’re living in. It’s like fish swimming in water who are like, “What’s water?”

I can give another example. In New York City there are large Hasidic communities that have their own schools. The New York Times did this big investigative piece about these Hasidic schools, and it was accusing the schools of exploiting public funds. There’s an extent to which you’re like, “Okay, this is a critique of these schools. Legitimate”.

Dara Horn. Photo: Michael Priest

But what was interesting was the way these things were framed. They were talking about how Hasidic communities were manipulating the city government through block voting. And the way they tried to make this argument — in the United States voter turnout is always an issue — was by saying these schools would ask kids to bring to school the day after the election this sticker that said their parents voted. And they were rewarding kids who did that. The article said this is evidence of these schools manipulating city politics.

If this were about any other community in New York, this would be a celebratory article about how wonderful it is that this community figured out a way to crack this problem of getting people to vote. It’s only because Jews are doing this that this is nefarious.

The thing about sexual assault is — all women know this — this burden to get people to believe you. It’s the same burden that Jews face. People are assuming that you’re lying, and they don’t even realise that that assumption is built into the way they’re thinking.

So when we look at the Al-Ahli Hospital bombing in Gaza City, you’d say people didn’t believe Hamas because Hamas said it. People believed Hamas because Hamas blamed the Jews.

Yes. The assumption is that whatever Jews are doing is evil until proven otherwise, and what’s astounding is that this extends to Hamas. Why are people taking Hamas at their word?

I was writing an article for the New York Times about historical attacks on Jewish communities, and comparing the October 7th Massacre to various pogroms in Jewish history. What they were doing for me was normal for journalism — you have to fact check everything and provide sources. But they didn’t make Hamas do that. They were like, “Hamas said this, therefore banner headline”. Yet I had to prove that these pogroms from 100 years ago happened.

Antisemites have been doing a lot of crazy things since October 7, and people always say, “I can’t believe they did that”. Why are they acting so crazy?

This cognitive dissonance — I still can’t believe this, I still can’t believe this —  is what a lot of Jews are doing. We thought this was criticism of Israel. No. It’s what I call the big lie: all the other lies are part of this lie that Jews are collectively evil and shouldn’t exist.

The blood libel is this bonkers thing, this claim that Israelis are harvesting Palestinians’ organs, or the Israeli army is using Palestinian children for weapons testing. All of this is blood libel. And it’s so crazy that you can’t refute it. It’s actually quite clever, because then you are forced into the position of, “Let me explain why I don’t eat babies”.

But you’re not talking about the absurd claim. You’re talking about the “hashtag something something Israel, and therefore I lose my mind”.

This is a mind virus. The obvious explanation is scapegoating. Everybody would rather blame their problems on somebody else. This is even bigger than that, because this is basically saying my society would be wonderful if it weren’t for Jews. Or the world would be wonderful if it weren’t for Jews. Once you have that in your head, then suddenly that’s the only thing that matters, because if we only could do this, meaning eliminate all the Jews, then everything would be great.

I don’t talk about this in People Love Dead Jews. That was about the more benign version of this, which is, “Oh it’s so sad that Jews died in the Holocaust, and it’s so gross that people live in Israel”. Like that Anne Frank example: We’re not gonna put the Israeli flag on our audio guide because that’s gross. [In 2016 visitors at Anne Frank House in Amsterdam noticed that Hebrew was the only language on the audio guide without an accompanying national flag.] But we love the Jews’ humanity. The humanity of the nice Jews: the dead ones. Not the ones doing gross things like practising Judaism or living in Israel where half the world’s Jews live.

It’s because it is so crazy — [that] is the appeal.

We’re celebrating Purim in three weeks. This is an old problem. Haman is like, “This guy doesn’t bow down to me, therefore let’s kill all the Jews throughout the Persian Empire and seize all their assets. That will eliminate my ego problem”.

There’s individuals with psychological problems. There’s societies that have bigger problems that are harder to address, and this is an easy way to feel like you’re doing something about whatever society’s problems are.

There’s one other piece to this. The point where these outbursts of antisemitism historically become bonkers is never correlated to anything Jews do. That’s always irrelevant. It’s at best a pretext, but sometimes not even a pretext. The responses of these non-Jewish societies has to do with new unregulated media. I don’t mean the government has to regulate it — I mean there aren’t yet norms. One example was the printing press. There already are blood libels in Europe before that, but it becomes really popular with the printing press. [A copious amount of] books published in the first years of the printing press in Italy are about Simon of Trent, this non-Jewish child who the Jews of Trent are accused of murdering and eating. We have this amazing new technology, and that’s what we’re using it for.

You see this now with social media. It’s this amazing opportunity to disseminate ideas, and it turns out the ideas people are disseminating are bonkers crap about Jews eating babies.

For religious, cultural and historical reasons, Israel holds immense significance for people around the world. Can we really put all the focus on Israel down to antisemitism?

There’s this stupid thing that we in the Diaspora are asked to do where we have to publicly announce at all turns that criticism of Israel is not antisemitic. When you’re throwing eggs at a synagogue, that’s not criticism of Israel. When you’re shutting down a train station, that’s not criticism of Israel. When you’re spray painting Jewish communal buildings, that’s not criticism of Israel. When you’re spouting blood libel, that’s not criticism of Israel. And it doesn’t really matter if you use the word Zionist or Israel instead of Jew while you’re spouting blood libel.

This idea that there’s some kind of slippery slope spectrum between criticism of Israel and antisemitism — that’s this lie that they’re making us engage in as Diaspora Jews. There’s criticism of Israel, which looks like a conversation about government policies, and then there’s antisemitism, which looks like people throwing bottles at your head, and it’s really not that hard to tell the difference. If somebody is yelling “Free Palestine” while they’re throwing a bottle at your head, that doesn’t magically make it criticism of Israel.

I want to move to Holocaust education, because you’ve previously criticised the idea that Holocaust education helps prevent antisemitism. Have the last few months only made your case stronger?

I don’t know the trajectory where you are, but here it’s 50 years of Holocaust education, and antisemitism in the United States is much worse now than it was 50 years ago.

One impetus for Holocaust education in the United States was this incident in [Skokie] outside Chicago in 1977, where neo-Nazis wanted to march, and the town tried to stop these guys from marching. This was a town with a huge population of Holocaust survivors. In the United States we have free speech laws, so the law was on the side of the Nazis. So at that point, the Holocaust survivor community pivots to education as the way to fight this. But what’s so amazing is that Nazi march ended up not even happening. Even though the law was on their side, they were spooked by the public backlash. Now we’ve got these bozos screaming “Gas the Jews” every other weekend in every major city. And this is the people who grew up with Holocaust education. So I do think there’s a flaw here. I don’t think Holocaust education is relevant to this.

Anti-Nazi demonstrators in the predominantly Jewish Chicago suburb of Skokie, Illinois in 1977 protest a possible march by neo-Nazis. Photo: AP Photo/Charles Knoblock

I’m not saying we shouldn’t have Holocaust education. It is hugely important for a lot of reasons, top one being combating Holocaust denial.

I think it is absolutely inadequate and incapable of addressing contemporary antisemitism. One of the reasons is there are requirements in a lot of parts of the country for people to learn about the Holocaust in school, but there’s not a single place in this country where anyone is required to learn who are Jews. So what you learn about Jews is that they’re people who died in the Holocaust, and that’s the only thing you know.

I was at a Holocaust museum in Texas, and the people who work there told me students who come through the museum are asking, “Oh, are there still Jews alive today?” If you went through this museum, you wouldn’t know.

When you have zero information about Jews, and the only thing you tell them is, “Oh, it’s sad they died in the Holocaust. Moral of the story: don’t hate people”, then nobody knows who Jews are, and then we have a situation now where people are like, “Jews are settler colonialists” — except Jewish civilisation is indigenous to the Land of Israel. That’s not a political statement, that’s a basic historical fact that people should learn in school.

Another fun fact no one ever learns in school: Who are Jews? Are Jews a religion? If you teach people Jews are a religion, then it’s like, “Why does your religion need its own country?” But Jews aren’t actually a religion. Jews predate the category of religion. Jews predate the category of race. Jews predate the category of nationality. Jews are a type of social group that was common in the ancient Near East uncommon in the West today, because most of those other peoples were exterminated or assimilated into empires.

The joinable tribal group with a shared history, homeland and culture. Part of that shared history, homeland and culture is a non-universalising religion. What I just said is a paragraph in English, and in Hebrew it’s one word: Am. We’re Am Yisrael.

You have to explain that category to people, because otherwise it doesn’t make any sense. Two days after the October 7th Massacre, I was getting my hair done, and my woman who does my hair is not Jewish, but she’s known me for many years and knows I’m super-Jew. I sit down and she’s like, “How are you?” And I’m like, “I’ve been better”. She’s like, “Why? What happened?” And I’m like, “Maybe you heard about this huge massacre in Israel”. And then she’s like, “Oh, yeah, you know, I saw something about that on the news. That’s really sad”. And then she goes, “But it’s not like you know anyone there”. And I’m like, “Lady, every Jew you’ve ever had sitting in this seat knows people there”.

But she’s not wrong to assume that. If I said, “Oh, you’re Catholic. There was an earthquake in Brazil where Catholic people live. You must feel really connected to those Catholic people in Brazil”, that wouldn’t make any sense. Why would you care about Catholic people in Brazil other than that they’re humans? You wouldn’t think about that. People just don’t know. That you can blame on ignorance, but the problem is that it’s ignorance plus TikTok.

Why are we not teaching people these things? Why are we entrusting that task to TikTok and troll farms? This is idiocy to not teach people who Jews are. I feel like part of the reason for that is the Jewish community had this strategy to not be public about who we are, thinking that that was self-protective. Like, “Oh, let’s just send this universal message of hate is bad”. Yeah, hate is bad. But if your message is hate is bad, and you shouldn’t hate fill-in-the-blank group because they’re just like everybody else, what you’re basically saying is that if they’re not just like everybody else, it’s fine to hate them. And the problem here is that Jews spent 3,000 years not being like everyone else.

Is it over for Diaspora Jewry?

Unfortunately there’s this pattern in Jewish history where you have communities that are very well integrated, and then things change, rather than the other way around. In Western democracies, we’re trained to think minority rights used to be really bad, and now it gets better and better. But we’ve got a long trajectory with Jewish history, and it’s almost always the opposite pattern. Think about Jews in ancient Alexandria. These were people in positions of status and power, and then they were all slaughtered. That pattern is not unusual in Jewish history. More common in Jewish history is you go from a place of integration and status to violence.

That said, I think there are opportunities to change course. I don’t think there’s anything inevitable about this. There are people in the Jewish community who could be speaking up. And there are enormous social costs to speaking up. There are far greater societal costs to not speaking up. I also think there are very good reasons to believe that in the United States there is a large, silent majority who are not on board with any version of antisemitism. There’s so much more ignorance than malice, and that’s an opportunity to change the conversation.

There are a lot of opportunities that we need to be much more fully exploring to change the conversation. And as I said, there are social costs to speaking up about this, absolutely. There are much larger social costs to not speaking up, because then you’re just watching society turn on you. You do have a voice in these societies — that’s really worth remembering. It requires an enormous amount of energy and courage. Here we are coming up on Purim — this is everybody’s Queen Esther moment.

Josh Feldman is a Melbourne-based writer. Twitter: @joshrfeldman

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