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What Can Academic Institutions Contribute to the Fight Against Anti-Semitism?

Filed under: Anti-Semitism

Remarks at a Jerusalem Center Strategic Roundtable on Assessing the Role of Institutions in the Fight Against Anti-Semitism, October 20, 2020.

Negative Influences in Academia

Historically, academics have often been at the forefront of developing new forms of anti-Semitism. By the end of the 19th century, scientists were instrumental in defining the “racial Jewish question.”1 Universities in many countries discriminated against Jews with quotas, and anti-Semitic student organizations excluded Jews from their membership. In Germany in 1933, the burnings of books of Jewish and other disliked authors were spearheaded by students. The president of Freiburg University, Martin Heidegger, participated in a related event. “Flame announce us, light us up, show us the way from which there is no turning back! Flames ignite, hearts burn!” he reportedly told the crowds in summer 1933.2

At the end of the 1960s, many intellectuals and students in Western Europe adopted anti-Zionist Soviet propaganda in their anti-imperialism political activism and international solidarity with the “oppressed peoples.”3

Academics have since participated in legitimizing anti-Zionism as part of this intellectual framework, embedding it in theories of post-colonialism, post-modernism, or Critical Whiteness Studies.4 They have helped create a myth of Zionism as a globally operating cabal with a racist, colonial, and evil agenda. What anti-Zionists today think of Zionism has very little to do with the historic Zionist movement or with the complex politics of Israel today. Anti-Zionists have used the local conflict between Israel and Palestinians for accusations against Jews worldwide, and some scholars have legitimized such views by giving it academic credentials. Some went as far as justifying attacks against Jews by reinterpreting the motivation of anti-Semitic perpetrators of violence against Jews as a political expression of “criticism” of Israel. Others have attacked and scandalized the act of expressing an accusation of anti-Semitism, instead of discussing anti-Semitism. Thereby, they often successfully divert attention from talking about concrete anti-Semitism. The vehement rejection of the IHRA Working Definition of Anti-Semitism by some intellectuals is a case in point. This leads to a situation where everyone can pay lip service to be against anti-Semitism, but never in its concrete form.

Thus, it is no coincidence that academic institutions are part of the problem today and that many anti-Semitic incidents occur on campus. Anti-Semitism in Western academia currently emanates mostly from the political left, but we also see attempts at some universities to modernize Islamic and white nationalist forms of anti-Semitism, which continue to be serious threats.

Potential for Academic Research

However, academic institutions can also be part of the solution. Academic research can provide insights into the sources, dynamics, motivations, and historical contexts of anti-Semitism that are important to develop effective strategies to defuse and combat anti-Semitism. Secondly, academic institutions have a unique role in educating future political and intellectual leaders who solve problems instead of looking for scapegoats.

Reliable statistics of anti-Semitic incidents exist for France (CNCDH), the UK (Community Security Trust), and the United States (Anti-Defamation League and FBI). The Kantor Center at Tel Aviv University collects data on anti-Semitic incidents worldwide on a consistent basis. These statistics indicate a rise in anti-Semitic incidents in recent years. Surveys among Jews reveal, however, that about three-quarters of anti-Semitic incidents go unreported. They also show that Jewish communities globally see anti-Semitism as a rising threat, and many have reported having personally experienced anti-Semitic harassment in recent years. Thirty-nine percent of Jewish participants in a European-wide survey in 2018 reported that they had been personally harassed in the past five years because of their Jewish identity, and seven percent reported even experiences of vandalism or violence.5 The numbers are slightly better in the United States but still alarming. Thirty-seven percent of American Jews responded in 2020 that they had personally become a target in the past five years, and three percent of them experienced an anti-Semitic physical attack.6

Academic research should put statistics and surveys in context. A simple comparison to other victim groups is revealing. Jews are disproportionally often victims of hate crimes, that is, crimes that are partially motivated by bias against their Jewish identity. In fact, according to FBI data for the United States and compared to the size of each victim group in the population,7 Jews are more likely than any other group to become the target of a hate crime – more than three times as likely as Blacks or African Americans, and twice as likely as Muslims; see table below.

Hate Crimes 2019
(Source: FBI)


100.0 %

(Source: Census/PEW)

Victim Groups

Race Related


57.6 %

% of pop.


Black or African American


28.0 %

13.4 %




9.1 %

60.1 %




2.5 %

5.9 %


Am. Indian or Alaska Native


1.6 %

1.3 %




1.5 %

no data

Hispanic or Latino


8.1 %

18.5 %


Religious Bias


20.1 %



12.1 %

1.9 %




0.8 %

20.8 %




0.3 %

46.7 %




2.7 %

0.9 %




0.7 %

no data

Sexual Orientation


16.8 %



2.2 %

Gender + Gender Identity


3.8 %

Sources: FBI, CENSUS, PEW, compilation by author

Academic research should also provide detailed information on groups of perpetrators in their social and political context. As Bernard Harrison has pointed out, anti-Semitism is most lethal in its political forms and when “the Jews” are considered a threat.8 Islamism, White nationalism, and radical forms of identity politics are among the biggest ideological threats to democracy and liberty today. These are also the primary ideological sources of contemporary anti-Semitism, each with their specific delusional accusations against Jews. Instead of addressing social problems, Jews are scapegoated for problems that are deemed most pressing. Anti-Semitism is a lethal threat to Jewish communities, but it also has a devastating impact on society in general.

Main Ideological Sources of Anti-Semitism Today

White nationalists are frustrated that their envisioned society of white dominance is not being realized. On the contrary, societies worldwide, including traditionally white societies, are increasingly mixed, and traditional white patriarchal hierarchies are increasingly challenged or have been destroyed. This contradicts the idea of white supremacy that alleges that whites (and males) are naturally superior and dominant. They solve this contradiction with conspiracy myths about Jews, undermining the allegedly natural development of white supremacy.9 White nationalists do not only exclude Jews from their nation. They believe that Jews conspire against them by scheming the “Great Replacement,” a massive influx of migrants to replace the white race. This is the meaning of the slogan that demonstrators of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville shouted in 2017, “Jews will not replace us!” It is also the reasoning that the terrorists of Pittsburgh (U.S., 2018) and Halle (Germany, 2019) used to justify their attack on Jews praying in a synagogue. Instead of addressing economic, social, and cultural problems related to integration and immigration, and taking individual responsibility for success and failure in society, White nationalists attack Jews. However, research can help us understand the reasoning, dynamics, networks, and attraction of White nationalism to wider audiences.

Islamists believe that the monotheistic religions are at war with each other and that there is a global war against Muslims orchestrated by the Jews. “The Jews also conspired against Islam by inciting its enemies against it throughout the world … Jews, as Jews, were by nature, determined to fight Allah’s Truth and sow corruption and confusion. Judaism was by nature defective and corrupted Truth; while true Muslims and true Islam were by nature the mirror opposites of Jews and Judaism,” wrote a prominent member of the Muslim Brotherhood Said Qutb in “Our Struggle with the Jews.”10 Qutb’s writings inspired Islamists around the world, from Jamaat-e-Islami in South Asia to Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini. The Muslim Brotherhood is a global network today, still disseminating such ideas. One of their main spiritual leaders today, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, preaches on Al Jazeera and heads the European Council for Fatwa and Research. He believes that Hitler was sent as a divine punishment for the Jews and advocates for another Holocaust. In 2009, he said, “Throughout history, Allah has imposed upon the [Jews] people who would punish them for their corruption. The last punishment was carried out by Hitler. By means of all the things he did to them – even though they exaggerated this issue – he managed to put them in their place. This was divine punishment for them. Allah willing, the next time will be at the hand of the believers,” by which he means Muslims.11 Radical jihadist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS have embraced similar ideas. For Islamists, Jews are not only non-believers who should be converted or subordinated. They are accused of fighting an eternal war against Muslims and should therefore be destroyed.

The Islamist reaction to modernization does not address the problems of traditional Islamic doctrine that need to be adapted to make it compatible with a modern nation-state. Instead, it blames Jews for real and imagined difficulties and chases the mirage of a state with divine Sharia laws instead of human-made laws. Academic research can reveal the influence of Islamist organizations and their ideology, including in North America and Europe, where a majority of Muslim organizations are dominated by Muslim Brotherhood networks.

Parts of the political left are increasingly influenced by a worldview that goes back to a twist of Marxist teachings that went from class struggles to the struggle between oppressed and oppressor peoples, influenced by Soviet propaganda of the 1960s and 1970s and by Mao and “Che” Guevara. The anti-imperialist impetus predominantly accused the U.S. and Israel of imperialism and colonialism. In recent decades, this has been transformed and popularized in identity politics that divide between groups of oppressors and oppressed. The biggest threat to humanity and to human rights is seen in an imbalance of power structures and in biases such as racism and sexism that further reinforce oppressive power structures.

Within this framework, the Jewish State is put into the category of oppressors. The focus on Israel (and on Jews by proxy) in the fight against oppression is a symptom of the misguided approach in addressing issues of human rights. Instead of addressing racism and human rights violations where they occur, Israel is blamed for oppression, racism, colonialism, ethnic cleansing, and other human rights violations. The United Nations’ obsession with condemning Israel more often than any other country is one example. Another one is the accusation that Israel trains American police officers in racist and repressive police practices and is responsible for the alleged racism of American police forces. Academic research can help to make transparent the corrosive nature of this worldview.

Education of Educators and Future Leaders

Education will go through fundamental reforms in the next decade. Information management, including recognizing misinformation and conspiracy theories, will play a significant role. The question of whom we trust as a reliable source of information will increasingly become crucial. At their own peril and the peril of democracy, our educational systems must remain a trustful source of information, and more importantly, a trustful place where you learn how to evaluate and select information.

More and more people receive their information directly from social media. However, anti-Semitism is widespread on social media, and it is growing. A study commissioned by the World Jewish Organization revealed in 2017 that there is an anti-Semitic message online every 83 seconds. Our research on Twitter and conversations directly mentioning Jews alone shows that there has been at least one anti-Semitic tweet every 55 seconds during the first third of 2020. This does not include tweets that have been deleted, nor does it include tweets that we classify as probably anti-Semitic but not certainly.12

Thus, we need more teachers who understand what conspiracy theories are and understand anti-Semitism – not just as a form of prejudice but as a form of thinking. Far too few institutions in academia have been focusing on the study of anti-Semitism. However, it is encouraging to see an increasing interest among younger scholars and students.

The demands concerning academics and their institutions are quite simple. First, they need to stop being part of the problem and stop singling out Jews and the Jewish State. Second, they should play an essential role in educating future leaders. Third, they should undertake meaningful research that helps to understand the social and psychological dynamics of anti-Semitism so that effective strategies can be developed to combat it.

* * *


1 John M. Efron, Defenders of the Race : Jewish Doctors and Race Science in Fin-de-Siècle Europe (New Haven : Yale University Press, 1994),

2 Heiko Wegmann, “Auch in Freiburg wurden von den Nazis Bücher verbrannt – Freiburg – Badische Zeitung,” Badische Zeitung, August 13, 2013,

3 Marlene Gallner, “Like a Cloud Contains a Storm: Jean Améry’s Critique of Anti-Zionism,” Fathom, Autumn 2016,

4 Balázs Berkovits, “Critical Whiteness Studies and the ‘Jewish Problem,’” Zeitschrift Für Kritische Sozialtheorie Und Philosophie 5, no. 1 (April 1, 2018): 86–102,

5 European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, “Experiences and Perceptions of Anti-Semitism. Second Survey on Discrimination and Hate Crime against Jews in the EU” (Luxembourg, 2018).

6 American Jewish Committee, “The State of Anti-Semitism in America 2020,” October 2020,

7 For data on ethnic backgrounds see CENSUS, For data on religious background see PEW,

8 Bernard Harrison, Blaming the Jews: Politics and Delusion, Studies in Anti-Semitism (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2020).

9 Eric Ward, “Skin in the Game. How Anti-Semitism Animates White Nationalism,” Political Research Associates, June 29, 2017,

10 Ronald L. Nettler, Past Trials and Present Tribulations: A Muslim Fundamentalist’s View of the Jews, 1st ed (Oxford [Oxfordshire]: Published for the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem by Pergamon Press, 1987), 83.

11 MEMRI – Middle East Media Research Institute, “Sheikh Yousef Al-Qaradhawi on Al-Jazeera Incites Against Jews, Arab Regimes, and the U.S., Special Dispatch No. 2183,” January 12, 2009,

12 The research will be published in 2021. For a working paper on methodological reflections of this project see Gunther Jikeli, Damir Cavar, and Daniel Miehling, “Annotating Anti-Semitic Online Content. Towards an Applicable Definition of Anti-Semitism,” ArXiv:1910.01214 [Cs], accessed February 15, 2020,