Leon Saltiel is the World Jewish Congress representative at U.N. Geneva and UNESCO, and its coordinator on countering antisemitism. His most recent award-winning book is “The Holocaust in Thessaloniki: Reactions to the Anti-Jewish Persecution, 1942–1943.”
As Sweden prepares to host this week’s meeting of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), I find myself grappling daily with how anti-Semitism still thrives, some eight decades after the end of World War II.
I routinely think about this ongoing enigma as part of my work but also in a more personal context, as the grandchild of Holocaust survivors.
What may not be immediately obvious is that contemporary anti-Semitism should be a grave concern not only to Jews, whom it most immediately and directly impacts, but to those outside the Jewish community as well.
While it denotes hatred of the Jewish people, anti-Semitism actually threatens all societies and is an indicator of wider problems. As the world’s “oldest hatred,” it exposes the failings in each society, and though Jews are often the first group to be scapegoated, unfortunately, they are not the last. History has shown us, time and again, that hateful discourse initially targeting Jews soon broadens to other members of society.
Moreover, anti-Semitism exists regardless of the size or presence of a Jewish community. As UNESCO Director General Audrey Azoulay has said, it doesn’t even “require the presence of a Jewish community to proliferate.” Rather, she said, “it exists in religious, social and political forms and guises, on all sides of the political spectrum.”
For instance, Jews are attacked for being “capitalist” as well as “communist;” for being rich as well as poor; for being insular as well as cosmopolitan. They are accused of controlling the world, sometimes through puppet figures, and of secretly running the media, governments and economies.
But as much as anti-Semitism puts “the Jews” at the center of all that is bad in the world, anti-Semitic discourse has little to do with Jews.
Shortly after the liberation of Paris from the Nazis, French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that the anti-Semite is “a man who is afraid.”
He’s afraid “not of the Jews, to be sure, but of himself, of his own consciousness, of his liberty, of his instincts, of his responsibilities, of solitariness, of change, of society and of the world — everything except the Jews,” Sartre stated. Adding, “If the Jew did not exist, the antisemite would invent him.”
Anti-Semitism also goes together with anti-democratic politics, especially in Europe and North America, as well as conspiracy myths, which offer oversimplified half-truths and erode the basic fabric of our societies.
For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw a surge in anti-Semitic incidents where Jews were blamed for creating or profiting from the virus, as well as the trivialization of the Holocaust, as evidenced by anti-vaccine proponents donning yellow stars, or comparing lockdowns to the experience of Anne Frank.
Conspiracy theories thrive in segments of the electorate that lack critical judgment and media literacy. It’s no coincidence that people who express anti-Semitic ideas are often part of the anti-vaccine movements or support illiberal regimes. In this regard, anti-Semitism doesn’t primarily target the Jews, especially in Europe where they represent a small minority.
We can also see a direct line between conspiracy myths and disinformation, which often spread virally, and violence, as regrettably, people are still being victimized today — some even killed — by those with anti-Semitic motives, in cities ranging from Buffalo, New York to Halle, Germany.
When left unchecked, anti-Semitism enables prejudice and active discrimination against multiple communities within societies, threatening the rule of law and human rights protections. It emboldens intolerant members of society wherever they may be.
The ambassadors, government delegates, academics and other global leaders about to descend on Stockholm will surely discuss the current manifestations of anti-Semitism and how best to combat it as a follow-up to the commitments made in October 2021, at the Malmö International Forum on Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Antisemitism.
And to be sure, some progress has since been made. For example, the first ever EU Strategy on combating antisemitism and fostering Jewish life and the Action Plan of the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief present action items that should be implemented without delay.
Fueled by conspiracy myths and propelled by social media, today’s anti-Semitism shows no signs of abating. And we need to weed out racism and intolerance once and for all, educating future citizens about the essential values of democracy and tolerance.
We have no time to lose.