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Understanding antisemitism and its resurgence


Since the Hamas invasion and killings in Israel, many people have noticed and deplored the antisemitism of the Hamas invasion and also in Australian society. They are right to have done so. In Western societies, antisemitism is particularly noxious. To be understood, however, it needs to be precisely defined and set in the in the broader context of antipathy on racial, religious and other grounds.

Prejudice and discrimination against Jews have been deeply rooted in Western cultures. Jews have been caricatured, resented, forced to live in ghettos and subject to mob violence and expulsion in many nations. This prejudice and the violence that it provokes have been stirred and fed by interpretations of the Christian scriptures that have also had a central place in Western culture.  The appalling history of the attempted genocide of Jewish people under Hitler and its effect on people of Jewish descent in Australia, too make doubly abhorrent the manifestations of antisemitism in Australia.

Even after recognising these grounds for regarding antisemitism as uniquely vicious, however, we must also acknowledge what it has in common with other forms of prejudice. This involves defining closely what distinguishes racial and other prejudice from legitimate criticism of the attitudes or actions of particular representatives of racial or religious groups. We should treat with contempt the claim that Jews are greedy, for example, while judging embezzlement by a financier who happens to be Jewish by the same criteria we would use for any other financier. Similarly the actions of the Israeli forces in Gaza are open to judgment.

Antisemitism, anti-Muslimism and anti-Catholicism are pejorative terms because they involve an a priori negative judgment about persons who are Jewish, Muslim or Catholic. It is not antisemitic, however, to criticise the government of Israel, or anti-American to criticise the government of the United States, for actions they have taken on behalf of their nation, provided that such criticism is based on ethical judgment of the action and not on a pre-formed negative judgment of the people in the nation. 


'Prejudice itself becomes one of the vices they attribute to their enemy and use as a weapon to stifle criticism of the actions of governments and their armed forces. This is understandable but it exacerbates the evil of war.'


This important distinction between people and the governments that represent them becomes eroded, even swamped, in times of war. The fear, anxiety, grief, hatred and disruption engendered by war encourage prejudice against people for their religion or race which is not based on reflection on their actions. It is not surprising that throughout the world since the Gaza war both antisemitic and anti-Muslim prejudice and its destructive acting-out have increased. People stand with one side or the other and demand that others also take their side. Prejudice itself becomes one of the vices they attribute to their enemy and use as a weapon to stifle criticism of the actions of governments and their armed forces. This is understandable but it exacerbates the evil of war.

Antisemitism and other forms of prejudice are also fed by hard times. People naturally look for someone or something to blame. Many place blame on minorities or impersonal forces. In times of economic hardship we can blame the hardship we suffer on banks, on government ministers, on immigrants, or on refugees. Politicians then deflect or fuel anger by vilifying small identifiable groups in society. When explaining the rise in antisemitism and other prejudices around the world today we therefore need to take account of economic pressures, particularly those borne unequally in society.

History offers many examples of the complex strands that are woven into antisemitism. In a fine personal tribute to Paul Kurz, an extraordinary Jewish man who escaped from Vienna to England and then to Australia, Tim McNamara outlines the ways in which economic, cultural and social change affected the place of Jews and public attitudes to them in Vienna.

In the second half of the nineteenth century a liberal Government of the Austro-Hungarian Empire granted civil rights to Jews and presided over industrialisation. The economic growth drew a huge number of immigrants from other parts of the Empire, including German-speaking Jews, to the city. Later Jews from Eastern Europe, distinctive by their traditional dress and customs, also came.  Modernisation was also accompanied by shortage of housing, the concentration of immigrants into ghettos, high inflation, and rising social resentment. People whose traditional crafts and livelihood had been affected by economic change particularly blamed Jewish immigrants for their plight. The expansion of the right to vote also focused resentment against Jews for political gain. It was embodied in Karl Lueger the mayor of Vienna. He was a devout Catholic, an ally of Pope Leo XIII in his call for a more just society, counted many Jewish people friends, and was unbridled in his vituperative anti-Jewish rhetoric directed at winning the votes of small businesspeople. 

This toxic mixture of hostility to Jews fuelled by religious and racial prejudice, economic inequality, social change and hardship, grew even more poisonous after the loss of the war, the effects of inflation, and the Depression. Antisemitism contributed largely to popular support for Hitler’s annexation of Austria. It was embodied in the crowds who gathered to jeer at truckloads of Jews, including relatives of Paul Kurz as they were taken away to the death camps.

This sketchy account of the growth of antisemitism in Vienna demonstrates how seriously we should take its appearance, and that of other forms of racial and religious prejudice, in our society. It also warns us of the potentially corrosive effects of gross economic inequality, rampant inflation, high immigration, unemployment and political dog whistling against minority groups. These factors contributed to the explosion of antisemitism and xenophobia in Vienna and Europe. Their presence in Australia is a warning.




Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Anti-Jewish graffiti in Clayton, Victoria, from November 2023. (Australian Jewish News) 

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Antisemitism, Prejudice, Hamas, Israel, Gaza



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Existing comments

The Jewish people have endured antipathy (antisemitism) for a long time. They have been torn to pieces both emotionally and, during the Holocaust, physically. Israel’s reaction to the brutality of the Hamas attack on 7 October has been driven by history and fear. They are fighting the Hamas war on those two fronts. This does not diminish the world’s fear for the future of the Palestinian people but it does give a context for Israel’s unrelenting aggression. There is no place in Australia, or any other country for that matter, for prejudice and loathing against any race of people. From the chaos of the Israel-Hamas war the world is crying out for order and a working out of valuing our common humanity.

Pam | 14 December 2023  

Yet we still happily recite Matthew's Gospel and his words "Let his blood be upon us and on our children" without resevation.

Terry McKiterick | 14 December 2023  


John Frawley | 15 December 2023  

There were no “Polish death camps” but death camps in Poland occupied by Nazi Germany in which thousands of Polish citizens were also killed. Read the history of World War 2 before you write another article on this subject.

Christopher Lancucki | 15 December 2023  
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Post-war Poles are sometimes quick to react, given the sensitivity of their geolocation and the terrible choice they faced being locked between Germany & Russia.

If some Poles did make compromises with the Nazis, as Gomulka later did with Stalin, cannot be denied but should not be read as tainting the reputation of all Poles for all time.

After all, I bear a widely-recognised converso Jewish surname yet, as a dedicated antisemite, am unreservedly opposed to the Israeli occupation and maltreatment of Palestinians.

I have always found that Andrew is scrupulously careful in everything that's published under his name. I thank and acknowledge that great quality in him.

And in the wider cosmos that is Polish I'd like to believe that the Almighty gave the world the incomparable gift of Chopin to wipe the record clean for all those in historical time who call themselves Polish ;)

A Happy & Joyful Christmas to you, Krysztof!

Michael Furtado | 17 December 2023  

“Many people have noticed and deplored the antisemitism of the Hamas invasion”.
Let’s get one thing straight: Hamas did not attack Israel on October 7, because its members are anti-Semitic (which they may well be).
Hamas would have attacked who ever was and is the occupying power, regardless of whether it was Jews, Russians, French or Aliens.
To describe the attack as anti-Semitic misrepresents the historical antecedents and plays into Israel’s strategy of characterising Hamas as crazed zealots, which they aren’t.
They’re waging a war of national liberation, just like Ho Chi Minh and Nelson Mandela did.

Mike | 16 December 2023  
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Hamas is an Iranian proxy. The Iranian leadership does hate Israel because it's Israel.

Rina | 18 December 2023  

Indeed, Terry; and we continue to proclaim Matthew's transcendental midrashaic accounts as if they were the literal truth when, as with all of the Gospels, the conversion point for Christians is the adult ethicism to which Andy points.

One factor missing from Andy's lucid analysis, but implied in it, is illustrated by the tensions and contradictions demonstrated in Lueger's antisemitism. Corporatism, which is the hallmark of Catholic Social Teaching, eschews the free-market, which in Leo XIII's time attracted the enthusiastic support of Jews who regarded it as a means of escaping from the rigidly feudal social order dominating Catholic Europe.

The enlightened alternative to the collectivism spreading at the time was parliamentary democracy.
Parenthetically, Leo's middle-path had many pitfalls, one of which Pius XI fell into with 'Quadragesimo Anno', which the Nazis regarded as sanctioning their economic policies.

Similarly, contemporary Catholicism must guard against too close a connection with evangelical Christians who, while committed to a conservative reading of the Scriptures tend. in the absence of a papal social teaching tradition akin to the Catholics', to unreservedly support the free market at the expense of the welfare state.

Consequentially, conservative American Evangelical Christians and Millenarian Zionists share much in common.

Michael Furtado | 16 December 2023  

Interestingly much neo-anti-semitism has been promoted by media, cynical political strategists and leaders through 'repackaged' dog whistles.

Anglosphere and Europe it's especially linked to dec. white nationalist John 'passive eugenics' Tanton (now 'Network') ZPG Zero Population Growth tropes, anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, pro-abortion etc., 'great replacement' and 'Soros conspiracy'.

It informs right wing mainstream & alt right media, especially US, while Tanton (& colleagues) admired white Australia policy, visited and hosted by Tanton linked NGO.

The cynicism is also manifested in e.g. Israeli PM Netanyahu, known as secular, recommended GOP advisors Finkelstein & Birnbaum to Hungarian PM Orban a decade ago to cook up the 'Soros conspiracy'.

Finkelstein was not only Jewish, but gay, married and US foreigner based in Vienna.

Andrew Smith | 16 December 2023  

Until the recent rallies against Israel, nobody, least of all Jewish Australians themselves, was feeling that there was any racial antipathy to Jews in Australia.

There still isn't, except in those people who participated in the rallies.

Don't point the finger at those doing it tough as putative sources of anti-semitism. That's defamatory of them. The only non-Semitic anti-semites are the comfortably-off middle-class types who have been drinking, as the Americans would say, Left 'Kool Aid'.

s martin | 17 December 2023  
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While I admire the flair with which you write, S. Martin.

I attended a major Peace rally in Brisbane and saw no antisemitism there. Had I done so I would have recorded it and reported the matter straightaway to the many police in attendance.

Nor for that matter do I regard myself as a comfortably-off middle-class type, whatever that may mean, my observing that most of those attending were working-class persons of Muslim persuasion who prayed at the end of the assembly of about two thousand persons, including many women and some children.

(I might add that live in Brisbane's most multicultural suburb, Darra, which defies the socio-cultural stereotyping that you employ).

Michael Furtado | 23 December 2023  

Antisemitism is bad and should not be encouraged. However, the abuse of any form of political power should also not be encouraged, approved or justified.

Bernstein | 18 December 2023  

Western Antisemitism is in a category of its own, although related to other antisemitisms. Carl Jung and Karl Barth, both of Swiss-German background, physically and culturally close to the Germany where Hitler rose and flourished, had some very interesting things to say about the psychological and spiritual reasons behind the rise of Nazism respectively. I think we are once again entering into an irrational abyss that gave rise to this.

Edward Fido | 19 December 2023  

Thank you Andrew for raising the issue of antisemitism.

Most of us who were born towards the end of WW2 were appalled at the Nazi genocide against Jews, people with disabilities, members of Germany’s left organisations and the trade union movement.

All who value human rights are outraged at such terrorism.

And in 2023, as we watch the Zionist regime in Israel bombard Gaza’s infrastructure – including hospitals, schools, mosques, churches and residential areas – and where the death toll is now about 20,000, all who care about the value of human life should also be appalled about this situation too.

We have to realise that to criticise the right wing Israeli Government for its act genocide against the Palestinians in Gaza is not antisemitism.

Supporters of Israeli right or wrong are very fond of accusing those who criticise Israel of its long history of war crimes and human rights abuses against the Palestinians as antisemitic.

The interesting fact is that Arabs are Semites as well. Surely, this means that Israelis who discriminate against Arab Palestinians or Jews with colour are also being antisemitic.

The definition of Semite is: “a member of any of the peoples who speak or spoke a Semitic language, including in particular the Jews and Arabs. “

The term was first used in the 19th century and came to include speakers of Semitic languages eg Arabs, Akkadians, Canaanites, Hebrews, some Ethiopians (including the Amhara and the Tigrayans), and Aramaean tribes and people in the Horn of Africa.

Thus the term Semite does not only apply to Jewish people as some mistakenly think.

In addition, many of the Jews from Russia and Ukraine come from an ancient race of people – the Khazars – who had an empire between the 6th and 11th centuries. In the 8th century, Bulan – the king of the Khazars embraced Judaism and made it the state religion. His people and their forebears had no origins in the Middle East like Semitic peoples.

There remains no archaeological or scientific evidence of a common Semitic people.

When human rights activists accuse the Indonesian military of their violations of human rights against West Papuans, East Timorese and the Achehnese, they are not accused of being racist against Indonesians or Asians. They are simply criticising those Indonesians who committed those crimes.

The same is true for those human rights activists who criticise the Zionist regime of Israel for its long history of crimes against the Palestinians.

Many of those involved in the protests against what is happening in Gaza are “righteous Jews” who are outraged that Israel is claiming it is a Jewish state while treating Palestinians as it does.

Yes, we should oppose antisemitism just as we oppose genocidal actions against innocent civilians.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 21 December 2023  
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Very well said, Andy. Thank you.

Bernstein | 22 December 2023  

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