Expert Commentary

8 tips to help journalists cover antisemitism — and avoid inadvertently perpetuating antisemitic stereotypes

To help journalists cover stories related to antisemitism in America, we enlisted reporting tips from several people who research the topic.

covering antisemitism
A reporter interviews a protester at the No Fear rally in Washington, July 2021 (photo by Ted Eytan)

The Anti-Defamation League releases an annual audit of antisemitic incidents, pulled from local reports around the United States. 

In 2021, the organization, which advocates against the hate and defamation of Jews, tracked 2,717 incidents, including assaults, harassment and vandalism, which ADL said is the highest number on record since the organization started tracking antisemitic incidents in 1979.

“When it comes to antisemitic activity in America, you cannot point to any single ideology or belief system, and in many cases, we simply don’t know the motivation,” ADL CEO Jonathan A. Greenblatt said in a press release. “But we do know that Jews are experiencing more antisemitic incidents than we have in this country in at least 40 years, and that’s a deeply troubling indicator of larger societal fissures.”

Antisemitism can take many forms, both subtle and overt. It might mean something different, depending on the community one covers–coded language from a public official, a swastika scrawled on a bathroom wall or a tiki torch-wielding mob.

To help journalists better understand issues around antisemitism in America, The Journalist’s Resource interviewed four experts in the field: Jerome Chanes, a senior fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies at City University of New York and author of “Antisemitism: A Reference Handbook”; Ken Stern, director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate; Rabbi Michael Berenbaum, former deputy director of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust, former project director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and director of the museum’s Holocaust Research Institute; and Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector and professor of philosophy at American Jewish University. Below are some of their most valuable tips for covering antisemitism. This tip sheet is a companion to “Antisemitism on the rise: A research roundup and explainer.”

1.  Learn about the so-called “Great Replacement Theory” — and remind your audience that Jews are a target of white supremacists’ hatred.

The “great replacement” is a conspiracy theory positing that immigrants of color are being brought to the United States — via welcoming immigration policies — explicitly to “replace” white people and threaten their political influence. According to the ADL, many white supremacists who believe in the “great replacement” also believe that Jews are in charge of it. The ADL has a page on its website explaining the origins and spread of the conspiracy theory.

Understanding the history can help journalists cover events like the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, when a tiki-torch-wielding horde of white supremacists marched the streets chanting, “Jews will not replace us.”

Stern notes that journalists in the United States have not always been clear to include people of Jewish origin as a target of white supremacists’ hatred. Racism is often called out, he says, though antisemitism often goes underreported until it becomes impossible to ignore.

A 2018 working paper from Syracuse University shows that African Americans are seen as a primary “threat to conceptions of white self-identity” among white supremacists, while Jews are considered “the main political threat to the white supremacist movement.”

“What do journalists as a general principle, do about racist, far-right groups and individuals with antisemitic drivers to their worldview?” Stern says. “There have been lots of instances when journalists, I think, really have failed.

“We tend to try to divide things by, is it directly related to Jews or not,” Stern adds, which often obscures underlying motives.

When a 46-year-old gunman killed 11 congregants at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue in 2018, that, Stern says, was “clearly antisemitic,” and news organizations covered it that way.

The 2019 attack at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, which killed 23 people, most of them Latino, however, would not directly be considered an act of antisemitism — though the ideologies of the two perpetrators were very similar, and both reportedly had ties to white supremacist movements. 

“Jews didn’t come up in that conversation,” Stern says of the El Paso shooting. “But if you look at the ideology of the two shooters, they were pretty much identical. They just chose different targets on different days.”

2. Think about covering antisemitic incidents even when officials don’t call an incident a “hate crime.”

The FBI defines a hate crime as a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity,” though the agency notes on its website that hate itself is not a crime.

An incident driven by bias only becomes a “hate crime,” according to the New York City Police Department, when a crime has been committed. Newsrooms should consider covering antisemitic incidents even when no criminal charges have been filed. It’s important to note the difference between a hate crime and a hateful incident.

Though there are various definitions of a “hate crime,” the New York City Office for the Prevention of Hate Crimes has noted two essential factors. First, authorities must determine that there’s an actual crime. That’s the difference between a hate crime and what the city defines as a “bias incident.”

“One can still be victimized by bias and hate if there is no underlying crime,” reads a message on the office’s website.

Once it has been determined that a crime has been committed, for it to be a “hate crime,” that crime must be “motivated in whole or substantial part by bias against certain personal characteristics,” such as race or color, gender identity or expression, or religion or religious practice, among others, according to New York City’s hate crime office.  

Chanes says it’s important to recognize the difference between deliberate antisemitism and inadvertent threats to “Jewish security,” which he defined as “the ability of Jews to participate in the society without fear of antisemitism.”

Chanes maintains the FBI’s initial assertion that the attack was not a hate crime was not, by itself antisemitic although it did threaten the Jewish community’s sense of security. He says that distinction is necessary to understand. 

3.  Understand that some Jews may not want to point out antisemitism — and the role of Jewish humor in helping them to talk about it.

Chanes says that the American Jewish community historically adopted a policy of “quietism.” In the decades following World War II, Jews were attempting to assimilate into the American culture, and calling out antisemitism would generate a sense of “otherness.”

That has changed in the decades after the 1960s, and particularly since the 1980s.

“The Jewish attitude toward antisemitism changed from quietism to activism, one of many responses to modernity, he says. “Our communities became more activist.”

But in smaller communities, where Jews might not feel as secure, victims of antisemitism may prefer to remain anonymous, or to not publicize the antisemitism at all. 

It’s a good idea to cultivate knowledgeable sources within the Jewish community, if only to ask how a particularly sensitive issue might be handled. If a source is reluctant to speak about an issue, a reporter or editor could possibly offer anonymity, and ask specifically what they are concerned about. Is the source concerned about reprisals? Does the source feel threatened physically? Does the source not wish to be known publicly as a person of Jewish heritage?

It’s also helpful to understand that self-deprecating humor is sometimes used as a way to talk about antisemitism. A 2020 Pew Research Poll of 4,718 U.S. adults who identify as Jewish, some 34% said they consider a good sense of humor as essential to their identity.

Chanes uses humor to illustrate the differing perceptions of Jews in the media, including harmful stereotypes and conspiracy theories, and how identifying antisemitism in and out of the media can be a matter of perception:

There’s an old joke about two Jewish men reading newspapers in Berlin, in 1936. One is reading the local Jewish community paper, while sitting next to his friend reading the Nazi propaganda publication, “Der Stürmer.”

“How can you read that garbage?” the first one asks his friend. 

“Well, when I read Jewish newspapers, all I read about is how everybody hates us,” the second man replies. “But here, I learn how we Jews own Hollywood, we control the media and we are all doctors, lawyers and bankers. It makes me feel good about myself!”

Berenbaum sums up social antisemitism with a famous quote from the late comedian Groucho Marx: “I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as a member.”

Marx, for his part, reportedly responded with a joke when an antisemitic swimming club refused to admit his daughter as a member: “She’s only half Jewish. How about if she only goes up to her waist?”

4. Be aware of antisemitic myths and stereotypes. And don’t perpetuate them.

Just as with all bigotry, stereotypes can be verbal, written or pictorial.

“There are certain stereotypes of Jews that really should be avoided,” Dorff says.  

Jews are portrayed as greedy, such as with the “happy merchant” meme, depicting a large-nosed man with a prominent beard and a hat, rubbing his hands in a greedy way. Often it is suggested that Jews control Hollywood, or even the world, sometimes with “puppeteer” symbolism. Sometimes it’s as simple as portraying a Jew with an exceptionally large nose. 

The Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law has a fact sheet on what the organization says are “some of the most common motifs in antisemitic discourse,” including the following:

  • Horns: “During the Middle Ages, Jews were frequently described as children of the devil, often portrayed with horns and bulging eyes, and associated with Satanic attributes, such as arrogance and devious logic,” the center writes. “In the contemporary world, these images are reflected in depictions of Jews, individually or collectively.”
  • Deicide: Though the Catholic church has repudiated this idea, in the past, “Christians have condemned Jews for slaying the Christian messiah and have held Jews collectively responsible for this action,” the Brandeis Center writes. In the modern era, this has translated into expressions of “supposed malevolence, power and treachery.”
  • Blood libel: “Since ancient times, Jews have been falsely accused of killing gentiles for ritual purposes,” according to the Brandeis center. “Today, echoes of this blood libel can be heard in allegations that Jews, especially in Israel, kill young gentile children for military or political purposes or in service of genocide.”
  • Disease carriers: “Jews have long been described, literally or metaphorically, as carriers of a physical defect, deformity or disease, often associated with ugliness, weakness, dirt and excrement,” the center writes. “Contemporary anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli cartoons tend to emphasize physical traits associated with physical ugliness, such as the hooked nose and shallow forehead.”
  • Money: According to the Brandeis Center, “Since medieval times, Jewry has frequently been depicted as a wealthy, powerful, menacing and controlling collectivity, demanding the sacrifice of others to their own greed.”
  • Global conspiracy: “In its standard modern formulation, the Jews or Zionists form a powerful, secret, global cabal that manipulates governmental institutions, banks, the media, and other institutions for malevolent purposes, undermining decent values,” the center writes. “The myth of global Jewish conspiracy has echoes in contemporary opinions about the putative over-representation of Jewish people in various business sectors. This can be seen, for example, in representations of Jewish control over government, the media, academia, and financial institutions, especially when phrased in terms of a ‘Jewish lobby.’”
  • Beastilization: “Since ancient times, Jews have been compared in derogatory terms to barnyard and wild animals,” the fact sheet states. “In contemporary texts and cartoons, Jews and Israelis are often portrayed as a variety of barnyard and zoological animals and insects.”

There are instances in which news organizations have perpetuated these and other stereotypes, resulting in public apologies.

In April 2019, The New York Times published the following apology in its international print edition:

In 2020, the Miami Herald and its Spanish-language sister paper, El Nuevo Herald, apologized for an advertising insert that said American Jews support “thieves and arsonists.”

Also that year the Sacramento Bee publicly apologized for an advertisement that appeared Good Friday, which accused unnamed “religious” people of “planning to slaughter” Jesus Christ.

5. Listen for and avoid coded language.

In a draft working paper he shared with The Journalist’s Resource, Berenbaum writes that not all antisemitism is obvious — that it can be explicit, indirect or coded. Here’s an example of how the same sentiment can be expressed in all three ways.

  • Explicit antisemitism: A statement that “Jews control the world.”
  • Indirect antisemitism: A statement that “the Jewish lobby” has disproportionate influence in Washington.
  • Coded antisemitism: A comment on so-called “globalists” citing individuals such as liberal Jewish billionaire George Soros or the Rothschilds, an Ashkenazi Jewish family with a history of generational wealth.

Berenbaum writes that “The Rothschilds control the world” is a coded statement about the alleged Jewish control of banks and international finance.

It’s not always a simple matter to decode bigoted language or imagery, as Berenbaum notes. It can be a matter of context and judgement. Legitimate criticism of Israel’s policies or actions might not consist of antisemitism but a portrayal of Israel as the ultimate evil or a gross exaggeration of its actual influence can be a coded way to stigmatize Jews, he writes. 

For example, the use of the image of a puppeteer might not be antisemitic by itself, but coupled with an implication that a Jew or Jewish community is controlling the real estate market uses that imagery to suggest outsized Jewish control.

6. Learn more about the context and history of antisemitic tropes.

Many antisemitic tropes used today go back centuries. For example, the false idea of outsized Jewish control over world events goes back, Dorff says, to medieval Europe. Some professions were considered honorable, like farming. Others pit Jews against their non-Jewish neighbors.

“Christian landowners had Christian peasants farming the land, and they hired Jews who were not allowed to engage in farming, because that was honorific,” he says. Being a land-owning farmer was an honor, passed down from generation to generation. Dorff says Jews were placed in the position of collecting taxes on that land: “They hired Jews to collect the taxes from the peasants, and so the Jews were the visible enemy.”

In its history of antisemitism during the early modern era (1300-1800) the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum explains that Jews “were permitted to work as managers on landed estates and tax collectors.”

“Since the Catholic and Orthodox Churches banned usury (lending money at interest) and generally looked down upon business practices as immoral, Jews came to fill the vital (but unpopular) role of moneylenders for the Christian majority,” reads a page on the museum’s Holocaust Encyclopedia website.

That ancient stereotype can have violent modern incarnations. It was, Berenbaum says, integral to the Central Synagogue event in Colleyville, Texas, last January, when a man held a rabbi and several congregants for several hours.

The perpetrator, who was shot and killed by police, reportedly believed that the lives of the Jews he held hostage were valuable enough to trade for a jailed Pakistani woman serving an 86-year sentence in the U.S. for attempting to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan.

During a livestream of the attack, the perpetrator explained his belief that Jewish lives were valued higher than other lives in the United States, which is why he chose to hold Jews hostage and bargain with their lives.

7. Be aware that there are Jews from many different backgrounds and belief structures.

Jews are often seen as a monolithic group, with similar physical characteristics, political leanings and religious beliefs. This is incorrect.

Ashkenazi Jews are descended from Jews who lived in Eastern Europe. Sephardic Jews are those whose ancestors lived in Spain, though they are sometimes grouped with Mizrahi Jews who derive from Western Asia and North Africa.

Some Jews may experience both antisemitism and racism. Last year Rabbi Gabriel Lumbroso, whose family originated from Tunisia, told the Eastern Oregon University student newspaper that being an olive-skinned man whose skin gets “quite brown” in the summer, he has been the victim of anti-Arab verbal attacks.

“It happens that in America, a large percentage of Jews are white from Ashkenazi backgrounds,” Dorff says. “But all you have to do is go to Israel, for that matter even in America, you will see Jews who are Black and Asian and Latino.”

Journalists wanting to learn more about that can reach out to Be’chol Lashon, an organization that strives to raise awareness about racial, ethnic and cultural diversity among Jewish people.

Within ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities there are wide divergences in belief. Some communities are more insular, some are less so. Some see Israel as “home” and some Jews refuse to recognize its existence. 

Within those and other ethnic groups are Jews of varying degrees of observance and tradition, including Orthodox Jews, Conservative Jews, Reform Jews and Jews who identify culturally but not religiously. 

“And then we have all kinds of converts to Judaism,” Dorff says. “As a matter of fact, in modern times, conversion to Judaism is a much higher rate than it was in times past.”

In 2021, Tablet Magazine surveyed 100 American rabbis on the state of conversion to Judaism. Of the 79 who responded, 43% said they were performing more conversions recently than earlier in their careers. 

8. Cover antisemitism the same way you might treat any kind of bigotry.

Dorff says there is a sense, among American Jews in general, that antisemitism is more culturally “acceptable” than other forms of bigotry. Just as journalists are now encouraged to call out racism, so too can they call out antisemitism.

A recent Morning Consult/Politico poll of 2,005 registered voters asked respondents, “If a candidate is accused of ______ is it a major problem?”

When asked if it’s a major problem for a candidate to be accused of antisemitism, 71% of people who identify with liberal ideologies, 58% of moderates and 50% of people with conservative ideologies said “yes.” 

Comparatively, when asked if it were a major problem if a candidate was accused of racist remarks, 84% of people who identify with liberal ideologies, 60% of moderates and 39% of people with conservative ideologies said “yes.” 

In a 2019 piece for The Atlantic, Eliot A. Cohen, a professor at The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, writes that “Social anti-Semitism, the kind permissible in polite society, continues.”

In his review of French Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur’s book “Anti-Semitism Revisited,” Robert Shrimsley writes in Financial Times that “Jews are not seen as underprivileged or marginalized. They are caricatured as rich capitalists. They are also “too white” for campaigners. This means they are beyond the interest of social justice activists who see racism as a class construct, one in which you need to be economically or socially disadvantaged.”

Dorff maintains Jews are often not seen as a part of a marginalized community. 

And he says it’s important to “call out all forms of bigotry, especially if “there’s any chance of changing it.” 

The photo accompanying this tip sheet was published under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license. No changes were made.