book shelf

An antisemitism encyclopedia for the masses

A new anthology shows how antisemitism has morphed and moved across borders over time

Pictures from History/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Germany: A Jewish-owned shop vandalized by Nazis with poster reading 'Germans Defend Yourselves - Don't Buy from Jews', 1938

A new book on antisemitism has something for everyone — or at least that’s the hope of the editors of the new anthology that delves into the history of the world’s oldest hatred across millennia, on every continent and in all fields of study and culture. 

With 40 short essays on antisemitism on topics ranging from Argentina to anti-Zionism to art, the volume attempts to offer the final, irrefutable word on a problem that has become deeply segmented and politicized. It’s as if they’re saying, You can’t argue this evidence. Now take antisemitism seriously.

“There are multiple inroads into the subject,” said the Shoah Foundation’s executive director, Robert Williams, who co-edited the Routledge History of Antisemitism with Hampshire College history professor James Wald and Mark Weitzman, the chief operating officer of the World Jewish Restitution Organization. “People can take a selective approach to analyzing antisemitism, particularly in a highly, highly politicized age, and antisemitism knows no political bounds.” 

The editors’ hope is that their new book, with its easily digestible stand-alone chapters, can serve as something of a reference book, like an encyclopedia of antisemitism. Contributors include a who’s who of historians of Judaism and antisemitism, among them Brandeis’ Jonathan Sarna, Dartmouth’s Susannah Heschel, Brown’s Holly Case, McGill’s Gil Troy and Yale’s Maurice Samuels.

The book lands at a time of renewed and highly visible antisemitism in the United States. Elon Musk recently attacked the Anti-Defamation League and blamed the Jewish organization for causing antisemitism; in September, days before a controversial Palestinian cultural festival that brought several prominent antisemites to the University of Pennsylvania, a person ran into the school’s Hillel and shouted “F*** the Jews.”

The ideal audience for the book, which clocks in at just over 400 pages, is people “that care about the subject but need to know more about it,” said Williams. He said it could also be used as a resource for policymakers and as an educational tool for college students who have never considered how antisemitism might manifest in their own lives. Instead, many young people mainly learn about antisemitism in the context of the Holocaust, which leaves out its myriad other manifestations in America and around the world.

“A lot of us grew up with the myth of what we call American exceptionalism, which is that the United States had a relationship to the Jews that was totally exceptional to everyplace else in Europe,” said Weitzman. “That myth did not allow for the presence of antisemitism in the American historical narrative or political narrative.”

Antisemitism in America “never reached the horrible ends that it did in Europe,” added Williams. But “the overreliance of the focus on the Holocaust,” he said, leaves out important and disturbing American cases of antisemitism, such as the lynching of Leo Frank or the bombing of synagogues in the South by the Ku Klux Klan. 

The idea for the book came about more than five years ago, when antisemitism “was becoming a highly political topic,” said Weitzman. “We needed something that would be both accessible and authoritative at the same time.” 

In the years since, the politicization of antisemitism has only gotten worse. At the same time, people are more likely to point it out only when antisemitism is espoused by a political opponent.

“If you can say, ‘I’m on the right and antisemitism is only on the left,’ or ‘I’m a Christian and antisemitism is only in Islam,’” Weitzman said, “it becomes easier to just put it in a box, wrap it up and put it on the side, and say, ‘That’s it. It’s not applicable.’” 

What the book aims to show is that “this is the one thing that will unite people who would otherwise have nothing to do with one another,” Weitzman added.

Weitzman and Williams are both closely connected to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism, which has been adopted by dozens of countries and scores of state and municipal governments as a tool to guide public officials whose work touches on antisemitism or bias. The IHRA definition has faced some pushback from activists on the left who disagree with its assertion that some forms of anti-Zionism are antisemitic, and who argue that it stifles free speech.

In the book’s foreword, its editors acknowledge “​​that there are different definitions and other approaches.” But they still assert that in a policy context — the purpose for which the IHRA definition was written — IHRA “is the best thing that we have, and I would endorse it and keep pushing it.” The debate over how antisemitism is defined should be constrained to the academic realm, while just one widely adopted definition should be advanced in the policy realm. 

“Debates over definitions are a luxury of a time of peace. But with rising antisemitism in the United States and abroad, we don’t have the luxury of debate,” said Williams.

This debate reached the West Wing earlier this year as the White House put together a national strategy to counter antisemitism, a wide-ranging plan that praised the IHRA definition while also welcoming a progressive alternative.

“The action plan is, on the surface, a start. It’s a good start,” said Weitzman, who offered suggestions and feedback to the White House as they drafted the document. “But so far, it hasn’t really been put into action yet. So we have to wait and see what happens with that.”

More action is needed by the states, Weitzman argued, and not just the federal government. Williams called for a greater antisemitism focus at the domestic policy level.

“We need to build off of the action plan in order to ensure that just as we have a special envoy for antisemitism in the State Department, we have a coordinator dealing with domestic antisemitism within parts of the U.S. government that deal with domestic issues, equivalent to what you see in most European countries,” said Williams.

The book’s study of antisemitism reaches deep into the 21st century: One chapter examines antisemitism on social media, and another looks at the antisemitic conspiracy theories that emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“The only regret I think that we have is that it couldn’t have gotten out a year or two earlier,” said Weitzman, “as things were heating up even more.”

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