Antisemitism is not an opinion - World Jewish Congress

Antisemitism is not an opinion

 Maram Stern
Maram Stern
Executive Vice President, World Jewish Congress
Antisemitism is not an opinion

Recently, the Stuttgart Administrative Court in Germany issued a decision stating that freedom of expression protects anti-Israeli and antisemitic views. At this point, I do not want to examine the individual case on which the court's decision focused (it was about the question of whether the municipality was obliged to reproduce the contact details of an association on its website, which the municipality refused to do because the complaining association supported the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, which in turn is anti-Israeli and antisemitic). Rather, I am concerned with something more fundamental: antisemitism is not an opinion and therefore should not fall under the right to freedom of expression.

I hardly need to stress the importance of this fundamental right for liberal democracy. Democracy is, as we know, dependent on constant debate as well as dissident opinion. As no one is in full possession of the truth, the correct, best, or generally accepted solutions will emerge victorious in the constant contest of ideas. No society can hardly be called free in which the individual is forbidden to express his opinion, no matter how aberrant.

In the case of antisemitism, however, the matter is different. At its core, antisemitism is the assumption that Jews are different from other people. Beyond the Jewish religion and tradition, Jews, so the insinuation goes, are distinguished by certain external features or character traits. It is initially irrelevant whether these characteristics have positive or negative connotations. The assumption that Jews are particularly good doctors is just as antisemitic as ascribing to them a pronounced greed for money. In both cases, the entire group of Jewish individuals is characterized in a manner that lacks any logical explanation; its foundation is the perception of Jewish otherness. At the same time, underscoring positive attributes is only at first glance more harmless than underlining negative ones, because behind this lies the assumption of Jewish superiority. But who wants to be inferior? It is only a small step from admiration to rejection of the allegedly superior Jews.

The assumed otherness and the perceived Jewish superiority distinguishes antisemitism from other forms of xenophobia and bigotry: The xenophobe does not have to reject the foreigner because of any alleged characteristics, it is enough that he finds his presence in his own country inappropriate. The racist, on the other hand, will attribute negative traits to other ethnic groups: dirty, lazy, violent - this is how racists describe foreigners. The antisemites, on the other hand, are different: Jews are characterized as cunning, sly, deceitful. In the antisemite's view, Jews are morally bad, but possess superior abilities.

This notion of Jewish superiority escalates easily into the superhuman. Racists are likely to perceive the presence of a few "strangers" as disturbing, but not as threatening. In contrast, antisemites are convinced that even small groups of Jews are capable of causing great harm. Otherwise, all antisemitic conspiracy myths would collapse directly, as the number of Jews is small - worldwide, there are just over 15 million Jews. In no country in the world, with the exception of Israel, do they make up even two percent of the total population, and in Germany their share is just 0.2 percent. Most Germans will probably not personally meet a single Jew. And yet antisemitism is widespread, not only in Germany but worldwide.

"Jews will not replace us," chanted the far-right demonstrators in Charlottesville in August 2017. By "us," they probably meant the non-Jewish, white population of the United States. This is over 186 million strong. How these are to be displaced by the approximately 5.7 million American Jews cannot be explained without recourse to antisemitic delusions.

In these delusions, it is precisely small Jewish groups acting in secret that not only conjure up disaster, but also plunge entire countries or continents into ruin. Whether the Rothschilds or the Wise Men of Zion, George Soros or "the Zionists," the list of supposed secret Jewish world rulers is long. There exists nothing comparable for any other population group. The idea of the Jewish world conspiracy is so strong that conspiracy theorists also declare non-Jews to be Jews or their helpers without further ado, which is why during anti-lockdown demonstrations one could read that Bill Gates, who allegedly patented the virus to increase his wealth, was a Jew. Of course, most people do not believe such crude myths, but antisemitism is so ubiquitous that almost no one questions why Gates, according to this absurd thesis, should be a Jew and not, for example, a Hindu or a Canadian.

This shows: Antisemitism is the ultimate conspiracy myth. Jews are considered to be capable of anything and capable of everything. They are the embodiment of radical otherness, and not just since the advent of COVID-19 or Nazism. The history of hostility towards Jews goes back at least three thousand years, to ancient Egypt. Because of their alleged dangerous otherness, Jews were persecuted, imprisoned and killed. Even if the methods, extent and radicality of the persecution differed, the goal was always the same: segregation of those who were different from the rest of society. That is why the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 decreed that Jews had to wear pointed hats for identification, why they were expelled from many European countries such as England, France, and Spain, why they had to live in ghettos, and why they were murdered by the Nazis at Auschwitz and Babyn Yar.

Do assumptions about Jewish greed and money lead directly to the Nazi death camps? No. But the decisive step to the Holocaust is not the transition from persecution to extermination, but that to the segregation of the Jews from the rest of society. With this emphasis on their otherness, the same rules and laws that apply to all other people do not apply to Jews. Antisemitism thus questions the most elementary conviction of society: the equal value of all people. Antisemitism consequently also excludes one group of people - the Jews - from the universality of human rights. Even without explicitly calling for violence, antisemitism is per se a form of hate speech and therefore not an expression of opinion.

Even according to the oft-quoted saying that “everyone has the right to their own opinion, but not to their own facts,” antisemitism does not qualify as a simple, personal attitude. For it depends on the factually false assumption that Jews are distinguished from non-Jews by their alleged character traits. This assumption has caused so much harm over the last three thousand years that it can no longer be trivialized as a simple opinion. For antisemitism is not an opinion: it is an attack on the inviolability of human dignity, which is at the core of fundamental and human rights.

This piece originally appeared in the German news magazine Focus.