New evidence of anti-Semitism, anti-Israelism and Holocaust denial

The first weeks of the new decade have brought troubling new evidence of anti-Semitism, anti-Israelism and Holocaust denial throughout the Western world, especially in Europe and in some North American university campuses. New reports show record levels of anti-Semitic violence in Western Europe as well as disturbing attitudes towards the Holocaust. The anti-Israel boycott movement continues to gain traction in Western universities, and this month has witnessed a particularly unfortunate development. Moreover, some efforts to combat these problems are having limited success. Fortunately, the emerging field of anti-Semitism studies brings hope for future efforts to monitor and control this global problem.

Rising Anti-Semitism

A new report from the Coordination Forum for Countering Antisemitism this month announced a “record level” of anti-Semitic violence in Western Europe, measured both in the number of events … and in the level of their intensity. The CFCA reported that this spike was characterized by both a “[b]roadening of legitimization of anti-Semitism and violence against Jews” and an “increase in the level of anti-Semitic activity by those perpetrating antisemitism.” In the Netherlands, where anti-Semitic incidents doubled last year, Jews report feeling under siege. Dutch Rabbi Raphaël Evers was recently quoted saying, “I do not get out much, but when I do I am almost always insulted along the lines of ‘Hitler let one get away’. My mother says it is worse now than it was before the second world war.”

New Holocaust Denial

Holocaust denial remains a significant aspect of the rise in contemporary anti-Semitism. Just this week, retired Polish Bishop Tadeusz Pieronek, former spokesman of the Polish Bishop’s Conference, accused Jews of exploiting the Holocaust for their advantage. On the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Pieronek announced that, “The Holocaust as such is a Jewish invention,” promoted by Jews in the media to garner support for Israel. Sadly, this view has now become commonplace. According to new research, nearly half of Western Europeans think Jews exploit their past as a means of extorting money. Nor is this viewpoint limited to Europe. Late last year, a Las Vegas public school teacher launched into Holocaust denial during an “advocacy” class. The teacher was sent home after the incident and is awaiting word on potential disciplinary action. Equally disturbing, however, are reports that this Holocaust denial incident was followed by threats which Jewish students allegedly received shortly afterwards with threats that their throats would be cut.


The Quad has lately reported on the upswing of anti-Israeli attitudes in universities around the world. This has included constant if thus far largely unsuccessful efforts to boycott, divest from or sanction the Jewish state for the manner in which it has responded to terrorist attacks within its territory. Last week, this campaign was joined by yet another Norwegian institution, the University of Bergen. This latest incident is significant not for the extent of Israeli relations which would be disturbed. Indeed, Bergen boasts that it maintains no ties with academia in the Jewish state. Of course, the aim of the boycott movement has always been symbolic rather than economic, i.e., to change the public discourse surrounding the state of Israel in order to undermine its legitimacy. What makes the Bergen movement uniquely disturbing is that it is now led by the university’s rector, Signumd Gronmo, rather than by a disaffected political group at the institution’s margins. While some university leaders have lacked the courage to oppose boycott campaigns with the requisite moral force, Bergen now bears the indignity of a rector who has taken the helm of its boycott campaign.

Responses to Anti-Semitism and Anti-Israelism

Fortunately, there are now several institutions which are attuned to the problems of anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism, particularly as they arise on college campuses. They are not, however, equally promising in their results. The creation of Israel Studies programs has been a widespread means of combating this problem, but these programs’ success has been more questionable. A new study by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University found a “dramatic 69% increase” in courses focused on Israel from 2006 to 2008-9. As Inside Higher Education’s Scott Jaschik has reported, however, that study conspicuously failed to “consider whether the courses were taught in ways that were necessarily sympathetic to Israel.” This is a stunning omission, since university courses on Israel are sometimes highly critical. It should be obvious that one does more harm than good when one attempts to address anti-Israelism in higher education by offering courses which attack the Jewish state.

Holocaust Studies courses are also offered frequently throughout higher education. In some cases, these courses were endowed and funded as a means of combating anti-Semitism. Some commentators have argued that such programs are inadequate to address contemporary hate and bias problems. The American Jewish Committee’s anti-Semitism expert, Kenneth S. Stern, has urged that it is “imperative” for Jewish and governmental agencies to “stop recommending Holocaust education as an antidote for anti-Semitism (as opposed to recommending it as important history with important historical lessons to be learned).” A new study from the University of Bonn shows that in some contexts, Holocaust education – as presently delivered – may actually be counter-productive. The Bonn study shows that German students become more anti-Semitic after reading about continued suffering caused by the Holocaust. Interestingly, these students were more likely to admit to these attitudes when strapped to a lie detector.

More generally, multiculturalism studies are often recommended as a means of addressing campus-based hate and bias incidents, including anti-Semitism. This recommendation is laden with irony, as anti-Semitism is often absent from multiculturalism curricula, and anti-racism programs may also be counterproductive. Last month, the Modern Language Association’s annual meeting included a panel, entitled, “Does the English Department Have a Jewish Problem?” As Inside Higher Education reported, the “underlying premise of the panel was that English departments that would never allow themselves to be without experts in the literatures of many racial and ethnic groups in the United States don’t think twice about failing to have a knowledge base in American Jewish literature.” This is especially perplexing in light of the larger number of Jews who teach in such departments. More significantly, reporter Scott Jaschik noted, “the view of many here is that discussions about multicultural literature that ought to include Jewish writers simply don’t.”

Finally, another new study cast doubts on yet another institutional response to post-secondary anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism, i.e., student leadership development programs. The Israel Project’s Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi and pollster Frank Luntz recently released the results of a study of Jewish student pro-Israel advocacy. As reported by The Jewish Week’s Stuart Ain, Mizrahi and Luntz “put 15 unsuspecting Jewish students from Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in a small room with 20 non-Jewish classmates and prompted them to candidly discuss Israel, Palestinians and Iran.” Unsurprisingly, the tone of the discussion was hostile towards Israel, and the Jewish students were reluctant to defend Israel publicly. The problem, it appears, was not so much ignorance among the Jewish students as it was an understandable unwillingness to interject themselves into a clearly uncomfortable dialogue. These results can be interpreted in different ways, and some may disagree on the extent to which Jewish students should be expected to champion Israel’s cause in a way that may be socially harmful to them. While efforts aimed at Jewish students to address pervasive campus anti-Israelism remain valuable, expecting students to confront anti-Israelism on campus is not only perhaps unreasonable, but also ineffective.

Among academic researchers, the most prominent approach consists of anti-Semitism studies. That is to say, research institutions have begun to monitor and analyze contemporary anti-Semitism in order to combat it most effectively. The Institute for Jewish & Community Research has long adopted this approach, particularly within American educational institutions and through the method of survey research. Other institutions have addressed different aspects of this problem, such as work undertaken by the Yale Initiative for the Study of Antisemitism, the Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism and Racism at Tel-Aviv University, and the The Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism at Hebrew University. Happily, this group is joined this month by the new Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism at Indiana University, which will be headed by distinguished Holocaust literary scholar Alvin Rosenfeld. The Institute warmly welcomes the new Institute at Indiana University into this field and looks forward to the prospect of future collaboration.