If the Bible nearly 3,000 years ago described the Jews as “a people who shall dwell alone,” the ensuing Jewish history has validated this as prophecy. Some of the Jews’ own customs have contributed to making them “a people apart,” but it is a hatred that stands alone, more than anything else, that has made the Jews a people that dwells alone. 

Antisemitism is indeed unique among the group hatreds of the world. It is the oldest bigotry, its documented history stretching back some 2,400 years. It is the deadliest bigotry. Demographers estimate that if antisemitism had not claimed so many Jewish lives over the ages, at least one hundred million Jews would be alive today instead of only 16 million. It is a bigotry most eclectic in its appeal. No other hatred has been embraced by so many who are so different. Illiberal leftists, isolationist rightists, Islamic extremists, white nationalists and black separatists move in different circles with very different beliefs, but when it comes to hating Jews, they converge on common ground, sometimes even making common cause. To take one example: As improbable as it may seem that a Muslim zealot, a white supremacist and a Black feminist/LGBTQ activist could find any rapport with one another, shared antisemitism inspired cooperation among former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, former KKK leader David Duke and former Green Party presidential candidate Cynthia McKinney.

The strange bedfellowship of these and other antisemites derives from another characteristic unique to Jew-hatred: its adaptability. Like an ever-mutating deadly virus that regularly produces novel strains, antisemitism can lie dormant or break out violently, but because of its adaptive power, it resists eradication. It survives by making Jews out to be the embodiment of whatever society, at any given time, hates most. The Jews, in other words, are all things to all enemies — the perfect scapegoat. Because of the plasticity that allows this bigotry to be stretched, compressed or otherwise manipulated into conformity with whatever hatred is in fashion, antisemitism has even suggested contradictory reasons to hate Jews. Jews have been hated for being communists and capitalists, non-whites and white oppressors, foreign exiles from Palestine and foreign invaders in Palestine, godless secularists and God-fearing believers, cosmopolitans and ethnocentrists, and superhumans and subhumans.

The strains of this deadly, ancient virus are many, but they can be reduced to three main forms: religious, racial and political. The other varieties of antisemitism are, with few exceptions, outgrowths of one of the three, even if their connection is not obvious. 

The earliest form of antisemitism was religious. The scriptures of the two religions that sprang, one after the other, from Judaism — Christianity and Islam — are dense with unfavorable references to and depictions of Jews. The Book of Revelation characterizes the Jews as forming “the synagogue of Satan,” while the Gospel of Matthew portrays the Jews as the eternally cursed killers of Christ. The Qur’an, for its part, likens Jews to apes while casting them as slayers of prophets and schemers against Mohammed. Mistreatment was the norm for Jews in Christian and Muslim lands alike, but in Christian Europe, violent persecution was constant, while in the Islamic world it was sporadic. Under Christianity, Jewish life was embittered by, among other evils, false accusations, forcible conversions, mass expulsions, mandatory segregation and mass killings. Under Islam, the lot of Jews was better if still bleak. Jews, like all non-Muslim monotheists under Muslim rule, were officially considered inferior and subject to legal, fiscal and social disabilities. Among the Muslims’ religious inferiors, however, Jews were generally regarded as the lowliest of the lot and were treated accordingly. Thus, when Jews in Muslim societies rose above their humble station to achieve wealth or, much less commonly, power, their success was seen as provocation in itself and sometimes led to anti-Jewish violence, even massacres. (The fact that it is not just any state, but the state of the lowly Jews that has inflicted defeat after defeat on the Palestinians and the Arabs since 1948 partly explains their acute sense of humiliation and their burning hatred of Israel.)

While religious antisemitism is ancient, racial antisemitism is quintessentially modern. Before the modern era, what one believed (i.e., religion) was all-important, while what was (i.e., ethnicity) was generally insignificant. But the Enlightenment — the philosophical revolution in 18th-century Europe that exalted science and de-emphasized religion — brought about a role reversal. Unhappily for the Jews, Europe’s new secular and scientific enthusiasms combined to produce racial antisemitism, a novel form of antisemitism even more dangerous than its religious counterpart. Whereas Christian antisemitism had attributed the Jews’ supposedly undesirable characteristics to their religion, racial antisemitism blamed them on their biology. Religion, however, is changeable; biology is not. It was this novel strain of Jew-hatred that moved a German writer named Wilhelm Marr to coin the word “antisemitism” in 1879 expressly to distinguish it from the older religious bias against Jews. In the scientific spirit of the Enlightenment, antisemites of Marr’s era labored to give an empirical basis to this bigotry and produced a vast body of pseudoscientific literature on the biological defects of the Jews. Things took an even more dangerous turn as the 19th century advanced and nationalism swept Europe. Nationalism and its evil twin, xenophobia (hatred of the other), soon mixed with the new antisemitism’s racism and pseudoscience, producing a deadly cocktail that intoxicated Europe and fueled German National Socialism, the Nazis, who murdered six million Jews in the Holocaust from the late 1930s to 1945.

The most recent strain of antisemitism and the most common today is political: hatred of the Jewish people expressed in the form of hatred for the Jewish state. Political antisemitism is often laundered as “anti-Zionism” or disguised as support for the Palestinians. However, it is not the Palestinians but the Jews who interest the political antisemites. The “poet of the Palestinians,” Mahmoud Darwish, candidly explained this to a French Israeli actress in 2004: “Do you know why we, the Palestinians, are famous? Because you are our enemy. The interest in us stems from the interest in the Jewish question. Yes, the interest is in you, not in us.” Political antisemitism posits that the State of Israel is an illegitimate Jewish state, though validly re-established on land of the ancient Jewish kingdoms; Muslims and Arabs contend that all the land that Israel holds is part of the Muslim/Arab land. 

The modern political claim against Zionism and Israel is that Jews are not entitled to a state because they are only a religion and not a people, and the area where Israel is situated has been wrongly taken from Arabs. These anti-Zionists and antisemites seek to disconnect Israel from all outside support, whether economic, military, political or emotional. In pursuit of this objective, they have waged a multipronged war against Zionism and Israel. The fronts in their war are not just military, but also diplomatic, legal, economic and psychological, and their weapons are not just munitions, but also divestment, lawsuits, government lobbying, economic and professional boycotts, and propaganda, among many others. Arab state anti-Zionism presented itself in the perennial Arab economic boycott of Israel and efforts to delegitimize Israel at the United Nations, reaching a crescendo in the infamous 1975 U.N. “Zionism Is Racism” resolution. It asserted “that Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination.” As a resolution it was repealed in the early 1990s, but the phrase remained central to the lexicon of avid antisemites.

Arab and Muslim calls to militant and terrorist action against Zionism and prevention of Israel’s establishment from the 1920s onward aimed to thwart Jewish presence and development in Palestine; then from the 1950s forward terrorist attacks and armed struggle continued against Israel, Israelis and Jews worldwide. Violence, demonization and degradation of Jews and Israel remained tactics and strategies during Israel’s 75-year-plus history, highlighted by the Palestinian attacks on Jewish athletes in the 1972 Munich Olympics. Violence and war were the accepted viable reply to Zionism in part because Jews had interest in Jerusalem, and it as a Muslim holy city had to be protected from Jewish encroachment or control. The growing Jewish presence in Jerusalem, though all religions have had freedom of worship since 1967, has for 90 years eaten at the marrow of religious Muslims and many Arabs. 

Palestinian Arabs engaged in a three-year revolt against Zionism from 1936 to 1939 to thwart the establishment of a Jewish state and any Jewish political presence in Palestine/Eretz Yisrael. In 1931, the Mufti of Jerusalem called upon Arabs and Muslims across the Middle East to defend Jerusalem against Jewish presence; then though the Mufti was promised in 1939 a majority-Arab state by the British in a decade,  he declined the offer despite strong support for the notion from the vast majority of his Arab colleagues. He could not tolerate Jews in Palestine even as a minority. Again two months before the U.N. partition resolution to establish two states in Palestine at the end of the British Mandate, Arab leadership rejected any compromise with the Zionists. In September 1947 the head of the Arab League, Abdulrahman ‘Azzam Pasha, said that no compromise could be possible with Zionism. “We may lose Palestine,” he told three Jewish Agency officials, “but war is our only option.” 

To many Arabs and Muslims, Zionism’s success, Israel’s very existence, is a stain on their histories. Pre-modern anti-Judaism existed within Islam, which saw Judaism as an inferior religion. If inferior, how did Jews succeed in establishing a state in 1948? The answer given was and remains that Jews succeeded only because the Europeans felt guilt for what they did to the Jews during World War II and had to make amends. A reputedly core reason for Israel’s success was the regular support from outside powers. The belief that endorsement by European powers for the establishment of a Jewish national home in the 1922 League of Nations was unlawful, as was the United Nations’ vote in 1947 for the partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states. Moreover, the argument continues that Zionists and Israel would not have succeeded in war against Arab and Muslim countries since 1948 if they did not have political, diplomatic, economic and military support from countries such as Great Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and France. The support Israel received after October 7, 2023,  from the U.S. and Western European countries is again proof from these profound anti-Zionist adherents that Israel ‘artificiality’ is sustained only by outside support. Many Arab newspaper writers and politicians found confirmation of this view when France, Britain, the U.S. and several Arab states neutralized the massive missile/drone attack on Israel on April 13, 2024. Many Arabs, Muslims and others still maintain and articulate the beliefs that Judaism is inferior and that Israel is fake and artificial. 

Delegitimizing Zionism and Israel was a core element in the pan-Arab nationalist policies articulated in Arab capitals from the 1950s forward, until Egyptian President Sadat recognized Israel diplomatically in 1979. Before that, the PLO refused to accept Israel as a reality. The 1964 PLO Charter stipulated that “anything based on the Palestine Mandate (Israel) is null and void.” It also said that “Jews who had normally resided in Palestine until the Zionist invasion (1880s or 1917) will be considered Palestinians,” thus Jews who came after those dates had no right to be in the land. Core to the PLO belief is liberating Palestine and repelling Zionism, a view reinforced by the 1988 Hamas Charter, which reiterated the liberation of Palestine as an obligation for every Muslim. Before the June 1967 Middle Eastern war, Egyptian President Nasser’s speech in May 1967 gave one of several pronouncements advocating Israel’s destruction. In preparing his country for war against Israel, he said, “We are not only confronting Israel, but also those who created Israel and who are behind Israel. We are confronting Israel and the West as well.” Anti-Zionism and antisemitism became the clarion calls of the Iranian Islamic Republic from 1979 onward, easily radiating to Arab leaders who refused to accept or recognize Israel’s legitimacy as Sadat did in 1979. In the years before Hamas’ genocidal attacks on Israel in October 2023, Hamas leaders regularly championed Israel’s destruction. In May 2021, Yahya Sinwar proclaimed, “We support the eradication of Israel through armed jihad and struggle. This is our doctrine. The occupation must be swept from all our land.”

During the first quarter of the 21st century, Arabic newspapers regularly refer to Israel as “the occupation state.”  Occupation in their view refers to the whole of Israel, not merely a part of it. And yet six Arab states have recognized Israel diplomatically. Meanwhile, political and ideological antisemites see the only satisfactory solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the degradation of Zionism and the destruction of Israel, and they often seek to disconnect Israel’s supporters from Zionism by demeaning not just Israeli politicians or contemporary politics, but the very legitimacy of Jews as a people, like all others entitled to the inalienable right of self-determination. In 2023 and 2024, chants on college campuses across the world and banners declaring “Free Palestine” or “From the (Jordan) River to the (Mediterranean) Sea” reflect more than one hundred years of degradation toward Jews as a people and their right to have again a territorial state; these calls are all aimed at weakening Zionism and seeking Israel’s ultimate disappearance. Knowingly or  not, those chanting or using these slogans are advocating for end of Jewish self-determination and are supporting Jew hatred by nurturing a belief that Jews are not equal or have no right to be equal to other citizens of the world. Demeaning Jews, their supporters, and weakening Israel wherever it takes place and in whatever formats are individually and collectively representative of classical, historical and modern antisemitism.

Ken Stein, Scott Abramson, Michael Jacobs, April 30, 2024