Expert Commentary

Antisemitism on the rise: A research roundup

To help journalists identify and report on antisemitism, we explain what it is and how it happens. We also have compiled and summarized several academic studies and commentaries on the subject.

antisemitism image
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (Photo by Thomas Hawk)

Antisemitism, according to the Anti-Defamation League, is on the rise in America. The Jewish anti-hate organization’s annual audit of antisemitic incidents showed a 34% increase – including incidents of assault, vandalism and harassment – year over year from 2020 to 2021. In total, the ADL recorded 2,717 antisemitic incidents in the United States last year, the most since the organization began tracking in 1979.

At the heart of many of those incidents are stereotypes or conspiracy theories, many of which have their roots in medieval Europe. In Buffalo, New York, for example, when a man massacred 10 people in a predominantly Black neighborhood, he reportedly adhered to the so-called “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory that Jews are attempting to replace white people in the U.S. with immigrants of color.

Jewish global domination is a conspiracy theory that goes back for decades. Among the notorious examples of antisemitic lie-spreading documents is “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” a hoax document pretending to be a handbook of a Jewish elitist cabal intent on global control. Portions of the fake handbook were published  in 1903 by a Russian newspaper, “Znamya,”though its origins are unclear.

Conspiracy theories and stereotypes about Jews can be found on extremist websites and in the halls of suburban schools. Journalists, who might not be aware of them, may inadvertently perpetuate those stereotypes. “I am sympathetic to the plight of journalists,” says Rabbi Jerome Chanes, a senior fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Center for Jewish Studies and the author of “Antisemitism: A Reference Handbook.” “It’s very tough for us to know what to do on a day-to-day basis.”

What is antisemitism?

In 2016, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, an intergovernmental organization founded in 1998, held a meeting called the Plenary in Bucharest. The group decided to adopt the following working definition of antisemitism: 

“Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

Professor, author and Rabbi Michael Berenbaum, former project director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and first director of the museum’s Holocaust Research Institute, says antisemitism can be grouped into five categories: 

“There is religious antisemitism, there is political antisemitism, there is social antisemitism, there is economic antisemitism, there is also racial antisemitism,” says Berenbaum, who served as deputy director of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust from 1979 to 1980.

Racial antisemitism is a prejudice based on the belief that Jews comprise a distinct, perhaps inferior race with inherent genetic traits. This, Berenbaum says, “was the Nazi form of antisemitism.”

“The Nazis were opposed to Jewish blood,” he says. “They didn’t give a bloody damn about the identity you had, the tradition you follow, etc. They gave a damn about the blood.”

The Nazi Party led by Adolf Hitler in the 1930s and 1940s may no longer exist, but there are those in the United States and elsewhere who adhere to the Nazi ideology, including racial antisemitism. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “Neo-Nazi groups share a hatred for Jews and a love for Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. While they also hate other minorities, gays and lesbians and even sometimes Christians, they perceive ‘the Jew’ as their cardinal enemy.”

Religious antisemitism is contempt for Judaism itself, including the belief that Jews should be converted away from Judaism. It also manifests itself in broad statements suggesting that Judaism threatens other religions, such as referring to all Jews as “Christ-killers.” It’s worth noting that the Catholic Church officially repudiated this notion in a 1965 document called “Nostra Aetate,” stating that while there may have been Jewish authorities who wanted to crucify Jesus Christ, “what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today.”  

Social antisemitism is the exclusion of Jews from social situations. In the past, Jews were excluded from golf and sport clubs, as The New York Times reported in a 1959 article, “Pattern of bias in clubs is found.” More subtle examples persist today, such as holding a sports event on a Jewish religious holiday, so as to discourage Jews from attending – or to penalize them if they prioritize their religious beliefs.

“If you’re living in rural eastern Washington, the issues that you’re facing as a Jewish community tend to be that everything was presumptively white and Christian,” says Ken Stern, director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate. “Therefore, you may be asked to play football on Yom Kippur.”

Economic antisemitism is the attempt to reduce Jewish economic influence and is often based on the false notion that all Jews are wealthy or greedy. Historically, in medieval Europe, Jews were limited to certain professions, including money-lending, in an attempt to prevent Jews from achieving too much influence. As Britannica explains, “Because premodern Christianity did not permit moneylending for interest and because Jews generally could not own land, Jews played a vital role as moneylenders and traders.”

Political antisemitism is the attempt to keep Jews out of political power, such as by spreading antisemitic messages about candidates during election season. (For some examples of how this can play out in local elections, see Rabbi Shlomo Litvin’s opinion piece “Political debates should be spirited, but antisemitism has no place in our public square,” published May 13 in The Courier-Journal of Louisville, Kentucky.)

Each type of antisemitism has its own goal, Berenbaum says. The goal of economic antisemitism, for example, “is diminishment of a Jewish economic power and Jewish stranglehold on it.”

For Nazis, the goal of racial antisemitism was the extermination of the Jews as a people. 

“If it’s religious antisemitism, then your goal is conversion,” he said. “If it’s political antisemitism, your goal can be the diminishment of Jewish political power, or the expulsion of Jews from the political entity.”

The goal of economic antisemitism is to limit Jewish economic participation, which Berenbaum says used to be demonstrated by edicts forcing Jews to work in specific industries, or by glass pay ceilings. More recently, it’s “the association of Jews with money.” 

There’s also growing concern about the intersection of antisemitism and anti-Zionism, which is opposition to the establishment and existence of Israel as an official Jewish state.

Opposition to Israeli politics is not always antisemitic in nature, according to Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector and professor of philosophy at American Jewish University. He says Israel, like all nations, “is a human society, and as a human society has things that it does that can be criticized.”

But Dorff argues that anti-Zionism can also be used as a way to express antisemitism in a politically correct way. 

“Anti-Zionism can certainly be used as a substitute for anti-semitism on the grounds that that’s more acceptable in polite society than antisemitism,” Dorff says.

To help journalists identify and report on antisemitism, The Journalist’s Resource has compiled and summarized several academic studies and commentaries on the subject. Scholarly research can help newsrooms better understand discussions of antisemitism, identify both subtle and overt antisemitism while reporting the news, and examine their own coverage for unconscious bias against Jews. 

This research roundup and explainer is published as a companion piece to our tip sheet, “8 tips to help journalists cover antisemitism — and avoid perpetuating antisemitic stereotypes” — which will help journalists put the research into context.

Research roundup

A Quantitative Approach to Understanding Online Antisemitism

Joel Finkelstein, Savvas Zannettou, Barry Bradlyn, Jeremy Blackburn. American Association for Artificial Intelligence (AAAI) Press, 2020

In this research paper, presented at the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence Conference on Web and Social Media, Joel Finkelstein, of Princeton University’s Network Contagion Research Institute, and his co-authors use mathematical processes to search for and quantify the use of antisemitic language and imagery on fringe platforms. 

They show that antisemitism increased significantly online during the time period studied, between 2016 and 2017, and that it fluctuates due to world events. 

Specifically looking at message board 4Chan and social media platform Gab, Finkelstein and his coauthors searched hundreds of million comments for terms like “Jew” and several derogatory terms for Jews. They found what they term “an explosion in diversity of coded language for racial slurs.”

“Racial and ethnic slurs are increasing in popularity on fringe web communities,” the authors write. “This trend is particularly notable for antisemitic language.”

During the time period studied, researchers found that the term “Jew” appeared in 4% of posts on 4Chan’s “politically incorrect” page, and 3.1% of Gab posts.

The use of antisemitic language is increasing, the authors write, but it is not a steady increase; rather, it fluctuates in response to world events. 

“We find the frequency of antisemitic content greatly increases (in some cases more than doubling) after major political events such as the 2016 US Presidential Election and the ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Furthermore, this antisemitism appears in tandem with sharp increases in white ethnic nationalist content on the same communities.”

The researchers also looked at the spread of visual imagery, focusing on one image in particular, the so-called “happy merchant” meme, which depicts a large-nosed, bearded man greedily rubbing his hands together. That meme, they write “represents an unambiguous instance of antisemitic hate,” and is “extremely popular and diverse in fringe web communities.”

The studied meme was consistently shared on 4Chan, but more sporadically shared on Gab, researchers noting “a substantial and sudden increase in posts containing Happy Merchant memes immediately after the Charlottesville rally.” 

“Our findings on Gab dramatically illustrate the implication that real world eruptions of antisemitic behavior can catalyze the acceptability and popularity of antisemitic memes on other web communities,” they write.

What breeds conspiracy antisemitism? The role of political uncontrollability and uncertainty in the belief in Jewish conspiracy

Mirosław Kofta, Wiktor Soral and Michał Bilewicz, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

“When the society suffers, it needs someone to blame, someone upon whom to avenge itself for its disappointments; and those persons whom opinion already disfavors are naturally singled out for this role.” So begins this longitudinal study, published in a high-impact social science journal, which demonstrates that antisemitic conspiracy theories are linked to a person’s belief that they lack political control, as opposed to a feeling of lack of uncertainty about what’s going on in the political landscape.

That belief in a lack of control manifests itself, the authors write, in the proliferation of conspiracy-related stereotypes of Jews.

Psychological Research Examining Antisemitism in the United States: A Literature Review

Caroline C. Kaufman, Andrew J. Paladino, Danielle V. Porter and Idia B. Thurston. Antisemitism Studies, Fall 2020.

In this meta-review of studies examining the psychological underpinnings of antisemitism, researchers conclude that the different kinds of antisemitism result from different factors. This suggests, they write, that no single strategy for reduction of antisemitism would suffice.

Study selection for inclusion in the meta-analysis was reduced from an initial body of 550 papers, ultimately reduced to 15 that met researchers’ criteria, which included requirements that examined studied be in the English language, were empirical studies of human subjects, were recent and contained actual measurements of antisemitism.

“Our review suggests that antisemitism reduction efforts should consider addressing factors concurrently in order to make a significant impact. Intervention efforts that address a single factor (religious identity, for example) without addressing other potential contributing factors (right-wing authoritarianism, racial prejudice) may not be as effective,” they write.

Economic Freedom and Antisemitism

Niclass Berggren and Therese Nilsson. Journal of Institutional Economics, October 2020

This comparative study examines the ADL’s global survey of antisemitic attitudes and compares it with the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World index, in an attempt to investigate why some nations harbor more antisemitism than others. 

The authors suggest that economic freedom and the rule of law in any given nation have direct impacts on the presence and proliferation of antisemitic attitudes among the population. Jews are often seen as exploiters by those holding antisemitic attitudes. The authors write that when a nation has a strong rule of law, there is less of a tendency toward hostility against any groups stereotypically seen as exploitative, and thus there is less antisemitism.

The stereotype of the “greedy” Jew breeds more antisemitism in nations with more economic openness. As the authors write, Jews, “perceived as a greedy international network with particular abilities in the area of finance and banking; and with hindrances for transactions across the countries of the world being low, they will be believed by many to be more able to enrich themselves at the expense of others.”

“Our empirical findings confirm the two predictions: The more economic openness, the more antisemitism; and the stronger the rule of law, the less antisemitism. These findings indicate a complex relationship between markets and attitudes towards Jews.”

Arguing About Antisemitism: Why We Disagree About Antisemitism, and What We Can Do About It

Dov Waxman, David Schraub and Adam Hosein. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 2021. 

In this report, Dov Waxman, of the Department of Political Science at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), along with coauthors David Shraub, of the Lewis & Clark Law School, Portland, and Adam Hosain, from the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Northeastern University, argue that charges of antisemitism are often contested because there are different ways “of thinking about antisemitism and identifying it.” 

They write that while some cases of antisemitism are blatant hateful statements against Jews — the use of swastikas, for example, and violence perpetrated against Jews — many are not so obvious. 

“Antisemitism, like racism, is not always easy to spot,” they write. “We argue that identifying antisemitism can be difficult and often contentious because there are different ways of thinking about antisemitism, and these different approaches can yield different conclusions about whether something is antisemitic or not.”

Antisemitism, whether conscious or unconscious, is often obscured, the authors write. To identify antisemitism, the key is to “focus on the perpetrators’ motives,” “focus on the victim’s perception,” “focus on objective effects or outcomes” and “focus on discourse and representation.”

While the motives behind openly aired antisemitism can be obvious (tiki torch-wielding neo-Nazis chanting, “Jews will not replace us,” as happened in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, for example), a perpetrator’s motives might often not be apparent. Waxman and his coauthors argue that the “range of possible motivations that count as antisemitic goes beyond conscious intentions to harm Jews to include, for instance, certain forms of affect, as well as unconscious sources of behaviour.”

On the Perils of “Positive” Antisemitism

Yehuda Bauer and Moshe Fox. Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs, 2018

While most antisemitism is expressed as disdain for Jews, the authors argue that the belief that Jews as a people are influential or wealthy can result in what they term “positive” antisemitism. 

Perpetrators of this kind of antisemitism seek to have relationships with and the support of Jews for their own personal gain. “It accepts the usual antisemitic trope of a worldwide cabal of powerful Jews who aim to influence or control parts or even all of the non-Jewish world,” the authors write. “But the conclusion is the opposite of the traditional one: It is a good idea to cultivate Jewish power and have it on one’s side.”

Authors Yehuda Bauer, a historian and academic adviser to Yad Vashem, the world Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, and Moshe Fox, a historian and former Israeli diplomat, look at “positive” antisemitism through history, beginning with the misconception that Jews have an outsized influence in world affairs. 

“It seems that the fear — or glorification — of Jewish power and influence has its origins in early Christianity,” they write, stemming from the idea that Jews were “responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus, and only people possessed by Satan could murder the Son of God.”

In the early 1900s, the idea of a Jewish global conspiracy took shape as the so-called “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” a hoax document pretending to be handbook used by a cabal of wealthy, influential Jews. 

The Balfour Declaration, rather than a hoax conspiracy theory of Jewish global dominance, was the British government’s 1917 statement of support for the creation of a Jewish state. But it had its roots in the same idea of outsized Jewish influence, Fox and Bauer write, specifically in a desire to cultivate relationships with powerful and wealthy people of Jewish descent. 

“The emergence of that document was at least partly rooted in the antisemitic view that Jews were a powerful group, the ‘positive’ conclusion being that they were worth luring to the British side,” they write. 

A few decades later, then-Secretary of State George C. Marshall accused President Harry S. Truman of “yielding to the Jewish vote when the president recognized the fledgling Jewish state eleven minutes after it had declared independence,” Bauer and Fox write, arguing that both Truman’s desire to court Jewish influence and money and Marshall’s assertion-had their roots in antisemitism.

Today, names of wealthy Jews such as Hungarian-born hedge fund owner and philanthropist George Soros and casino and newspaper owner Sheldon Adelson are often cited, by those espousing the conspiracies of Jewish global control, as evidence of outsized Jewish influence. 

Memetics and the Viral Spread of Antisemitism through “Coded Images” in Political Cartoons

Yaakov Kirschen, The Yale Papers: Antisemitism in comparative perspective, 2018

A series of high-level seminars were hosted at Yale University between 2006 and 2011, titled, “Antisemitism in Comparative Perspective.” Exploring the antisemitism from a variety of perspectives, “The Yale Papers” is a selection of the papers presented at the seminars, plus other working papers, conference papers and lectures.

In “Memetics” (originally published in 2010) the author, a political cartoonist for The Jerusalem Post, examines common visual tropes used to demonize Jews both throughout history and in modern usage. There are, Kirschen writes, themes that have transcended history and continue to emerge in political cartoons and elsewhere in the media. 

“The graphic images themselves speak clearly without the words of the cartoon, as many of the same powerfully communicative images appear over and over again in the work of different cartoonists,” he writes. “They are like a familiar cast of characters.”

For example, the use of a Star of David, often called a Jewish star, is used to signify Jews as a group.  Kirschen shares a 2003 cartoon by the late Tony Auth, a longtime political cartoonist for The Philadelphia Inquirer who won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning in 1976. (Ed. note: As described in a follow-up article in the Jewish newspaper The Forward, the cartoon depicts “Arabs cordoned into jail-like sections of a Jewish star. A number of readers and observers inferred a comparison between Israel’s security fence and a concentration camp in the cartoon, with many offended by the use of a giant Star of David as a restrictive symbol — rather than its representation as the national symbol of Israel and the Jewish people.”)

Kirschen calls the use of such images, including characters with large noses, puppeteers, vampires and others, “a specific set of graphic codes rich in anti-Jewish meaning.”

“Stereotyping codes address the question, ‘what are Jews like?’ These codes transmit the belief that there is a set of traits and characteristics that is common to all Jews. They then define those ‘Jewish’ characteristics and present them graphically. Stereotyping codes depict Jews as controlling the world and the media and as being money-hungry, brutal, blood-spilling murderers of everyone from Jesus to Palestinian babies in Gaza,” he writes.

For example, also in 2003, another Pulitzer Prize-winning artist, Dick Locher, published a cartoon in The Chicago Tribune in which he “addresses the question of how to bridge the gulf in Middle East negotiations,” as Kirschen writes. “The cartoon features a Jew with a huge beak-like nose being tempted to follow a trail of dollar bills.”

Kirschen also examines the use of such imagery in viral “memes,” images intended to be shared widely on social media platforms, including images of Jews as vultures or snakes, Jews as vampires, hook-nosed Jews or puppeteer Jews.

He says memes bear significant resemblance to and pull from images used long before the digital age, appearing in “woodcuts, etchings, paintings, murals, and stained glass windows.” 

“Twentieth century mass movements used image codes taken from these medieval works alongside newly created image codes in cartoons, which were mass produced in newspapers and magazines and presented as valid political commentary,” he writes. 

The difference between similar imagery shared pre-Internet and in the modern era, Kirschen says, is the breadth of dissemination: “What once might have only circulated around a small city, state, or even country can now freely cross international boundaries and leap across continents.”

Anti-Zionism and Anti-Semitism

Robert Wistrich, Jewish Political Studies Review, 2004 (originally presented as a written statement at the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, and published in its official record on Feb. 10, 2004)

Wistrich (who was, before he died in 2015, professor of European and Jewish history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and head of the University’s Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism) argues that anti-Zionist rhetoric often uses antisemitic terminology and concepts. 

Wistrich argues that while antisemitism and anti-Zionism have “tended to converge” over time, they are two, exclusive ideologies. 

“There have always been Bundists, Jewish communists, Reform Jews, and ultra-Orthodox Jews who strongly opposed Zionism without being Judeophobes,” Wistich writes. “So, too, there are conservatives, liberals, and leftists in the West today who are pro-Palestinian, antagonistic toward Israel, and deeply distrustful of Zionism without crossing the line into antisemitism.”

But he argues that many of the themes used to characterize and “demonize” Israel have their roots in historically antisemitic movements. 

“I believe that the more radical forms of anti-Zionism that have emerged with renewed force in recent years do display unmistakable analogies to European antisemitism immediately preceding the Holocaust,” he writes. 

The movement to boycott Israeli made goods, for example, “arouses some grim associations and memories among Jews of the Nazi boycott that began in 1933. (Indeed, such actions go back at least fifty years earlier when anti-Semitic organizations first used economic boycotts as a weapon against Jewish competitors).”

Perhaps more blatantly, some anti-Zionists have compared Israel and its treatment of the Palestinian people to the Nazi Party and its systematic extermination of Jews, LGBTQ people and other marginalized groups, Wistrich writes.

“‘Anti-Zionists’ who insist on comparing Zionism and the Jews with Hitler and the Third Reich appear unmistakably to be de facto anti-Semites, even if they vehemently deny the fact,” Wistrich writes. “This is largely because they knowingly exploit the reality that Nazism in the postwar world has become the defining metaphor of absolute evil.”

Additional Resources: 

  • The Anti-Defamation League conducts an annual audit of antisemitic incidents around the United States. Their data is pulled from local sources and is accessible on a state-by-state level. 
  • The AJC does an annual survey of American attitudes toward Jews and antisemitism. 
  • The Federal Bureau of Investigations maintains a searchable database on hate crimes, including those perpetrated against Jews. 
  • The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis tracks media coverage on Israel in the United States and Abroad. 
  • The Southern Poverty Law Center offers a definition and explanation of antisemitism, and tracks the spread of antisemitic rhetoric, including Holocaust denialism. 
  • The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has an extensive history of antisemitism.
  • Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, offers conferences, research and online educational materials. The organization also publishes Yad Vashem Studies, a peer-reviewed bi-annual scholarly journal on the Holocaust.
  • The USC Shoah Foundation collects and houses video testimonies from thousands of people who survived the Holocaust. Many universities and other institutions offer full access to the Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archives.

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