Jonathan Greenblatt on Anti-Semitism
Yascha Mounk and Jonathan Greenblatt discuss the shifting nature of anti-semitism, its present manifestations, and Jewish resilience.
Jonathan Greenblatt is the national director of the Anti-Defamation League. Greenblatt previously served in the Obama White House as Special Assistant and Director of the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation. He is the author of It Could Happen Here: Why America Is Tipping from Hate to the Unthinkable-And How We Can Stop It.
In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Jonathan Greenblatt discuss the rising threat of antisemitism in the United States; the link between strong liberal democratic institutions and the safety of minority populations; as well as how to draw the line between antisemitism and legitimate criticisms of the Israeli government.
The views expressed are those of the speakers, not those of Persuasion. The transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Yascha Mounk: Anti-Semitism is a topic that we’ve thought about for centuries, and, yet, it seems new to each political context; its contours always shift. What's different about anti-Semitism today that you think we should worry about compared with 30 years ago?
Jonathan Greenblatt: Well, first of all, I think at a time of rising hate, we need to acknowledge the similarities of anti-Semitism to other forms of prejudice; the idea of marginalizing a group of people, the idea of singling out a group based on how they pray, where they're from, who they love—that isn't very unique. Using that group as an object of aspersion, politicizing them for the purpose of some partisan gain. That's very invoked today—you see it with the AAPI community, with the LGBTQ community. You see it from both sides, to be honest. Sometimes groups are fetishized. Sometimes they're demonized.
Anti-Semitism is often the “canary in the coal mine.” It's just always a progenitor of other forms of hate. Anti-Semitism has evolved. If you go through the last 3500 years, anti-Semitism used to be kind of religiously based—because Jews didn't accept the Greek gods, the Roman gods, Christ, or Muhammad. Then, with the advent of the Enlightenment, and the evolution of different types of science in an age of reason, we had a kind of racialized anti-Semitism, where Jews were held out as different because they were of a different ethnic stock. Religious anti-Semitism culminated with the Inquisitions across Europe and forced conversion in the Muslim world. Racialized anti-Semitism culminated with the Shoah, the Holocaust.
Mounk: There is an important shift in the 19th century—really, more than the 18th, I believe—in terms of racializing various existing forms of prejudice, right? I'm not an expert in this topic, but it seems to me that we sometimes exaggerate the nature of that shift, because it implies that before that it was purely religious—it wasn't an ethnic element, and then it became ethnic and religious. If it's purely religious, then it should be the case that the moment you convert that there should be no prejudice against you, you should be fully accepted. But if it has an ethnic, racial, and perhaps in certain ways, cultural element, then you go on to say, “Well, OK, you've converted, but you're still a Jew.” Now, obviously, that's true in the Holocaust: many, many murdered Jews were Protestants and Catholics, had been baptized, and the Nazis didn't care.
Were there forms of ethnic prejudice that may have been formulated in different ways, in different language, even before the Age of Enlightenment?
Greenblatt: Let's be clear that the Jews, again, are complicated. And a lot of this doesn't fit neatly into the boxes that we use today to think about difference. Yes, they are a religion. They are also an ethnic group. And that different ethnicity was kind of like a mini polity within these larger, very homogeneous societies. It wasn't an age of globalization, and the group that was different were the Jews. It was the Jews, the “Wandering Jew” that moved all over the world without a home. These Jews, even though they converted to Catholicism in places like Spain, Portugal, Italy, or France to avoid Inquisition and to avoid persecution—still, they were suspect. They might have retained a different language or different customs and so they were regarded as different.
Prior to the Age of Enlightenment, when these divinely anointed monarchs and forces like the Catholic or the Orthodox Church were still very strong and existed almost as political entities in these broader governing frameworks, the religious space tended to dominate the day. But to your point, these things are never a total break. There's overlap. Ethnic marginalization didn't start with the 19th century. It had been there before. Look at the Roma people who have been discriminated against for centuries, irrespective of how they pray, because they look different. Their ethnic origins are quite different from what Western Europe was used to. The subjugation of indigenous people and the enslavement of them, over centuries, well before the Age of Enlightenment, wasn't just the fact that they were “pagans,” but deemed “racially inferior,” even if that wasn’t the language they used to describe it. Race was clearly present in the thinking around these people and why they were considered inferior.
Mounk: So how should we think about anti-Semitism? You said that it is in many ways similar, but in some ways different. When we think about hatred of Asian Americans, or hatred of African Americans, or hatred of Turkish immigrants and their descendants in Germany—whatever other example you might think of around the world—what element of that definition is effectively going to be the same, where hatred of Jews is the same kind of hatred, and when do we have to change the definition because of the complicated nature of what makes a Jew, which is religious, ethnic, but also cultural?
Greenblatt: It is a kind of ethnicity, and it's a kind of religion, and it's a kind of culture. You will find people who say “I'm an atheist, and, yet, I’m a Jew,” as if it were, again, a place from which someone was from, or an ethnic stock. I had dinner last night with an individual who was born Catholic, an African American from the South, was a convert to Judaism and wears a kippah and has a kosher home and is Shomer Shabbos. He’s as Jewish as I am from my point of view. We have a different ethnic stock, and he is much more religious than I am, but we still have a kind of commonality to us. My wife's Iranian Jewish heritage is entirely different from my Ashkenazi Jewish heritage. Challah bread on a Friday—they don't do that. That's a foreign concept to them. They didn't have challah bakeries in Isfahan. But that is so central to my observance of this very basic Jewish rite that we observe every week. It's just complicated, which makes it interesting and challenging.
What's different is that anti-Semitism, as the Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt has written, is a kind of conspiracy theory about how the world works that posits that the Jew, the Eternal Jew, in some way is responsible for whatever is wrong. Colorism, we call it racism today, isn't new. It's been going on for thousands of years. But that's where someone feels superior to someone else. Anti-Semitism is “the Jews who are responsible for controlling business, manipulating government, the world's wars, cheating me,” whatever. There's a set of recurring myths that seem to cross cultures—that have been reinforced, again, by different sociocultural forces over time—that keep this alive. But I think the conspiratorial nature of anti-Semitism makes it very different. We're living in a time that is shaped by social media, where we're trapped in our filter bubbles in a world where everything has become relative. Conspiracy theories are often the coin of the realm in a world in which nothing can be believed and in which anything is possible. People always feel like something is working against them. We shouldn't be surprised that anti-Semitism not just festers but flourishes in a world in which systems also seem to be failing. Our politics are failing. Markets are failing. Our expectations aren't being met. That creates the kind of space where populist demagogues come in and their typical toolbelt is blame: “Well, it's not your fault. It's the fault of the Jew.” And so the conspiratorial dimension of anti-Semitism, which, again, I think is somewhat unique, because of its recurring nature and how amorphous it is. The immigrant takes your job. The welfare queen takes your money. But the Jew does all of it.
Mounk: The more I think about it, the more it strikes me that conspiracy theories are actually deeply revealing of the person who believes in them. My model of the world is that it's a really chaotic place in which there are a bunch of powerful and affluent people, but nobody actually has a tremendous amount of agency, even the President of the United States. Even a billionaire feels very constrained within the various logics of their field of endeavor. The truth is that nobody's fully in charge. And that's pretty scary. But if you believe in conspiracy theories, actually, what you end up thinking is that there are these thirty evil guys, and they get together at Bilderberg or Davos or whatever and make all the decisions; and if only we could replace them and put good people in charge, instead, then things will be great. There is something that is actually essentially reassuring about the implicit causal model of the world that conspiracists have, and I think that's part of the reason for its appeal.
Going back a bit, the Nazis and Germans blamed Jews for being communists and communist activists, and when you go to Moscow at the same time, the Jews are being blamed for being the capitalists. And of course, in a way, both were true at the time. It's just because for complicated, novel cultural reasons, Jews have proven to be very successful in the modern world. So there is a description of inferiority, but it's also this fear of superiority—the idea that they seek to govern the world. They're the ones who are really in charge, right? How much of that fear is rooted in the empirical success that Jews have had in various societies in the modern world?
Greenblatt: I am a former entrepreneur, so I had the good fortune to try my hand at business and creating new things, and I was blessed to have some success at that not starting out with money, not starting out with resources, not starting out with some kind of like aristocratic pedigree. I was the first in my family to go to college—not a big deal. It just is what it is. But I had to figure it out. And there's something very Jewish about that. Jews typically are immigrants. Jews typically come to places, historically, without land, without capital, and without a pedigree. They have to figure it out. Talmudic education, its questioning and inquisitive nature and its questioning imperative, is about figuring it out. We have a cultural predilection to “figuring it out.” My wife has family in Iran who were communists because the Jews were discriminated against because of their religion. This idea of wiping out religion seemed like an antidote to their persistent diminishment. And then Jews were the capitalists because in free markets they figured it out. And they could by their wits create things that otherwise weren't available to them.
While we've succeeded beyond the wildest imagination of our forebears in America, and in the world writ large, we lose sight of history: a hundred years ago this kind of success was almost unimaginable. In the year 1923, Jews were living here comfortably in the US. But look, the ADL was formed just ten years earlier because Jews had a series of systematic disadvantages. They couldn't buy homes in many places in the United States, couldn’t work in many professions, were kept out of medical institutions and universities, and so on. To think one hundred years later that there'd be a Jewish second gentleman and Jewish leadership in business, academia, and culture? This was unimaginable. Jews have had disproportionate success relative to our small numbers. I think part of that is fueled by that survival instinct.
But if history is any guide, then at some point the music will stop here, too. We have to be ready for that. Alternatively, if we don't want the music to stop, we need to learn from history to make sure it keeps playing.
Mounk: Instinctively, I share that sensibility of looking back at Jewish history and realizing how often it's gone wrong. And for me, that's not just because I'm descended from Holocaust survivors. It's also because my grandparents became communists and helped to fight for communism when it was dangerous, and they went to prison for it in the ‘30s. They helped to build up the Communist regime in Poland after World War II, and the regime promptly turned on them and threw out the remaining Jews from Poland in 1968. There were about 50,000 Jews left in Poland in 1967 and about 500 left in 1970. My own parents, who were not political, who were 20 years old, were thrown out of a country they were born and raised in for being Jews.
And yet, I'm perhaps less acutely worried overall for Jews in America than you are. I hope that our place in America may be more secure. What the experiences of generations of my family have had in common is extremist politics that weren’t based on the principles of liberal democracy. My grandparents’ life was deeply shaped, their families killed, because of right-wing extremism. And even though I do not want to equate those two historical episodes and those two evils of very different magnitudes, my parents were thrown out of Poland by a totalitarian regime of the left that they set great store in. I think that doubleconcern that Jews have, again, today, in the United States about attacks from the left and the right is not a new thing. It's something that has a very long history, and the thing that makes me hopeful is that we've been able to flourish here because of the system of liberal democracy that protects the rights of individuals and the rights of minority groups. And that is what makes me optimistic now. That, of course, could be lost.
The other point I would make is that there is an ethnic composition question which perhaps makes me a little bit less worried. Let's say that American democracy fails. I don't know that it would be a very dangerous moment for Jews. In those moments when we lose liberal protections, those are the moments when Jews fare very, very badly. The problem with America though is it has so many different ethnic groups, and so many different religions that if you start to really break the basic social compact of tolerance, the whole thing falls apart, and that’s a bit new. Most of the societies we were talking about earlier were ones in which the Jews were the odd one out in an obvious way. The Jews were the most salient obvious minority group. You could exile them, murder them, impoverish them without its affecting 90 or 95% of the population. But in America today, if you start breaking the basic social compact of this very diverse society, the whole thing breaks apart. Perhaps that just means that we have a danger of something even more horrific down the line, or perhaps it makes it less likely because there's some kind of mutual protection from everybody feeling vulnerable in a way that wouldn't have been the case in early 20th-century Russia.
Greenblatt: I would never be one to say that there's a Holocaust around the corner. I don't believe that. I think the Shoah was a function of a confluence of factors. It's just different from where we are today. Could there be another terrible catastrophe that befalls the Jewish people? Sure. Ayatollah Khamenei talks about “destroying the cancer of Israel.” That could be as horrifying and as homicidal as what Hitler envisioned. And yet, I don't think the gas chambers are around the corner in the United States. When these people make these comparisons that Trump is Hitler, I think it's super unhelpful because it's just factually wrong.
If liberal democracy were to unravel, indeed, lots of people would be implicated in that and be on the losing end, particularly minorities, Jews, and plenty of others. In fact, there may be others who are more disadvantaged than the Jewish people because they lack a kind of purchase or integration in society and so on. So a threat to liberal democracy is a threat to everyone, not just to the Jews. But if you pay attention to the extremists, and we do at ADL, you can't help but notice that the tendency that they have to obsess about the Jews is very, very real. So if the whole project of our democracy unravels, everybody loses. And yet, if you do pattern recognition, you see that in the white supremacist, the far right extremists, the ‘sovereign citizens,’ there is an obsession with the Jew who “wants to replace us,” who's “paying migrants to come from Central America to commit white genocide.” There's an obsession with the globalists and the bankers that is real and palpable. And there's a reason why, on a per capita basis, Jews far and away are the most targeted minority as relates to hate crimes. And there's a reason why if you look at extremist-related murders, it's the far right who commit the vast majority of them over the past 30 years. It just is.
The threat of the extreme right to the Jews and others is a bit like a Category 5 hurricane that is bearing down on you. You can see it coming, you can put the storm shutters up and it will still blow up your house. It will kill everyone inside, it will destroy everything—like people with masks and billy clubs and gear rampaging through the Capitol looking for legislators to kidnap and kill. The radical left—we need to see that for the threat that it is. The far left is more like climate change. The threat starts down here, and it slowly increases; some people don't see it and other people deny it. They dismiss it, they think they can adapt to it. And suddenly, the temperature is up here—the environment that you live in is no longer hospitable in the way that it once was, and you get those kinds of Category 5 storms that can kill you. It's more subtle and insidious but it's also a threat. If you pay attention to what's happening on college campuses, and the attacks on Zionists—you'll have an anti-Israel speaker on campus and then there are swastikas on the Jewish fraternity. You'll have a professor of psychology at George Washington University berating students in her class who are “Zionists,” and making all the Jewish students feel—and their grades reflect it—less than all the other students. She's not asking them about whether they vote for Bibi Netanyahu. She's not asking them about their opinion of Baruch Goldstein. She's saying “all of you are a problem.” I've heard this from kids on campuses who say to me “I can go to Hillel now and then, but I really can't be open about it because Hillel is part of the Israeli war machine.” That's what's portrayed on campus. And I've heard this from colleagues in newsrooms, “I can't really talk about… People know I'm Jewish, but we can't really address issues of anti-Semitism in a very open way. Because Israel makes it hard.”
We can't talk about anti-Semitism when Jews are getting beaten up in the streets here in the United States. I hear about it in other spheres. So it is not to say that Jews are looking at a new set of Nuremberg Laws. But when a world is created that encroaches upon your ability to show up as your whole self in a way that your peers do, when an environment calcifies where terms like “Zionist” or “globalist” become normalized as epithets—we know what that means. And we know where it goes.
Mounk: Help us think through the standard question of what is legitimate criticism of the state of Israel. What is legitimate criticism of the political project of Zionism and when does that overstep the mark and become an excuse for anti-Semitism?
For people who worry that it's hard to walk that line, how are you able (if it’s your conviction) to criticize, for example, the Israeli government or even Zionism as a political ideology in a robust way without its bleeding into anti-Semitism or those forms of prejudice that should be unacceptable?
Greenblatt: My patriotism compels me to criticize American government policy where I think we get it wrong. It just does. That doesn't mean I would suggest that America should go away; that though the country was founded in large part on the displacement, some would say the genocide, of indigenous people, and that the economy was built on the backs of enslaved Africans (and still, today, a kind of substrata of certain classes of people continue to make this economy work), the reality is that I don't think that makes America illegitimate and I'm not committed to destroying it. But I will robustly speak up and push back on policies and participate openly using the tools at my disposal to call out unjust policies and to push for equal and fair treatment for all. Political Zionism, in my mind, is the right of Jewish people. It's thousands of years old, it’s the idea that Jews should return to their homeland. If you've ever had a Passover Seder, if you think “next year in Jerusalem,” you're a Zionist. Political Zionism is the idea that the Jews have the right to self-determination in their ancestral homeland—that's it.
My Zionism compels me to criticize the Israeli government when I think it gets it wrong, whether it's its treatment of the Palestinians, or Arab Israelis, or how they're thinking about judicial reform. I can choose to do that with the instruments at my disposal, but my Zionism compels me to criticize Israel to say that it can be better. But it becomes something else other than standard criticism, impassioned criticism, when my focus is “because of its flaws, the entire project should disappear. And we should push for its dissolution.” Those who think that don't believe that Jews have that very basic right to self-determination that they would afford to, for example, Palestinians or any other people living in their ancestral home. It's okay not to believe in nationalism. But in the world we live in today, where I think it would seem as if, based on things like United Nations resolutions, or any number of other metrics, Israel receives a degree of attention and condemnation that is far disproportionate to any other country. And when you hold it to double standards, when you delegitimize its very existence, when you demonize and dehumanize its citizens—that to me is not just a strong political position. That is a different kind of animus that looks and feels a lot like the historic anti-Semitism that's trailed Jews throughout time.
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