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Antisemitism Is on the Rise, but Defining It Is Harder Than Condemning It

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Kobie Talmoud, 16, (left), a student at John F. Kennedy High School in Silver Spring, Maryland, speaks with Karla Silvestre, president of the Montgomery County Board of Education in Maryland, after a hearing on antisemitism in K–12 public schools, by the Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education on May 8, 2024, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP Photo)

To some, the marked rise of antisemitism in the U.S. over the last few years has been shocking.

But for journalist Julia Ioffe, it’s been unsurprising and a reminder of the long history of persecution of Jews around the world.

“We were second-class citizens,” Ioffe says, recalling her childhood in the Soviet Union.

“We were excluded from universities, from jobs, from overseas travel, where we were called names by our teachers and just random passersby on the street.”

She says the relative safety of Jews in the U.S. over the last few generations has been an exception to the larger scope of history.

Franklin Foer of The Atlantic shares that sentiment. His latest piece is titled “The Golden Age of American Jews is Ending.”


“Like many American Jews, I once considered antisemitism a threat largely emanating from the right,” he wrote.

One of the most vivid examples was in 2017, when white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, chanting, “Jews will not replace us.” That year, Jewish cemeteries were vandalized. There were bomb threats against Jewish Community Centers.

Then, in 2018, a man walked into the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh during Shabbat services and killed 11 people.

“‘In every generation, somebody rises up to kill us.’ That’s what we say in the Seder,” Ioffe says.

That context helps explain why there is now so much debate over demonstrations in support of Palestinians — a debate over how to define antisemitism and what to do about it.

Politics and antisemitism

Democrats and Republicans both say they want to fight antisemitism, but that might be where the agreement ends.

House Republicans have held hearings into antisemitism in schools, and the House voted on a bill that would adopt a legal definition of antisemitism to enforce civil rights laws at schools. President Biden also gave a major speech on the topic.

To Foer, the fact that politicians are even talking about antisemitism is important. “But on the other hand,” he says, “it inevitably becomes a hugely polarized thing, and you have Republicans in Congress trying to score political points.”

Ioffe similarly sees many of those efforts as disingenuous. She describes the political back and forth over antisemitism as “cynical opportunism.”

“To me, one of the things that’s … most dangerous for Jews is when we become a political football where both our needs, our safety, our humanness is completely erased,” she says.

Anti-Zionism vs. antisemitism

Amid demonstrations in support of Palestinians, many are now grappling with the question of when, or if, anti-Zionism is antisemitic.

“You can absolutely be anti-Zionist without being antisemitic,” Ioffe says. “One of the main ways that you do that is by being Jewish.”

She says people who are rightly “incensed and horrified” by the humanitarian crisis in Gaza can have noble intentions but blunder into antisemitic territory when talking about anti-Zionism.

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“Then you get into questions of double standards,” she says. “If the Palestinians have a right to national self-determination, do the Jews not have that? And if so, why not?”

Foer agrees that it’s complicated.

“There’s a whole range of people who I know who are anti-Zionist,” Foer says.

“[Anti-Zionism is] not something I agree with … but I don’t think that they are, per se, antisemites.”

But there is a line. To Foer, when people use the word Zionist, it’s often a synonym for Jew.

“It becomes a way of expressing thoughts about Jewish villainy, about Jewish control, about a Jewish cabal that would be socially unacceptable,” he says.

This is from an episode of the NPR podcast Consider This, hosted by Ari Shapiro, produced by Connor Donevan, edited by Courtney Dorning, with executive producer Sami Yenigun.

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