Antisemitism isn’t new; it has taken many forms throughout history and reached nearly all of society. But we also see rises and falls in antisemitism. Today, we can correlate some of these spikes with moments of political polarization in history, most infamously being the rise of the Nazis in Weimar Germany. Why does political polarization often lead to increases in antisemitism? What about the messages peddled by these movements that provoke such hate? And what does this say about America today as we face a new wave of political polarization and increased antisemitism?
Political polarization can be understood as a shift within a nation’s or state’s political system where politicians tend to have more “radical” ideas and are less willing to work with opposing politicians. Most notoriously in Weimar Germany, political radicalism prompted by political polarization eventually led to the rise of Adolf Hitler and culminated in the atrocities of the Holocaust. But the issue of polarization is not a relic of the past. After the 2020 presidential election, Donald Trump and his supporters promoted false claims of the election being “stolen,” culminating in the January 6 attack on the US Capitol. Recently, Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s president, refused to accept his electoral defeat and is promoting claims of widespread election fraud. As these figures make claims of election fraud and attack various institutions, they create an unhealthy amount of distrust directed at the government and various other institutions.
This distrust makes Jews even more vulnerable to antisemitism, as many of these institutions lead the fight to educate against antisemitism. Thus, this distrust in institutions then leads to an increase in antisemitism.
The most infamous example of political polarization leading to an increase in antisemitism is the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. Hitler rose to power in a moment of immense political polarization in Germany, taking advantage of the social division in the country and presenting himself as the “solution” to Germany’s economic and social problems.Hitler sought to redress Germany's perceived national humiliations after WWI by illegally rearming the military, imprisoning political enemies, and segregating those he deemed racially impure. He fueled antisemitism by making outrageous claims about Jews and promoting long-held stereotypes of dual loyalty, alongside purported "scientific" justifications. By fictionalizing Jews as wolves in sheepskins, Hitler marketed himself as the solution to this supposed problem. The Nazis used antisemitism and division (in addition to various other methods) to achieve a national reputation that allowed them to secure power and apply their antisemitic vision.
This phenomenon isn’t relegated to Germany but is still prevalent today. As America is now in the midst of its own polarized politics, we are also seeing a sharp climb in antisemitism.
Polarization fosters a deep distrust of the media and educational institutions which are among the frontline combatants of antisemitism. These institutions include organizations like the Anti Defamation League and the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, two of the leading organizations in educating in the fight against antisemitism. Distrust in these institutions makes it much harder to fight against notions of antisemitism, thus making them more prevalent. We see this especially today in the rhetoric espoused by former President Donald Trump, who has a famous moniker for the media: “fake news.” Trump has created a dangerous divide between his supporters and the news, making them more susceptible to believing and promoting antisemitic conspiracy theories.
But the antisemitism ushered in with the new age of “Trumpism” has even more blatant forms. Trump brought out some of the worst hate that America has seen in decades, and created an environment where such bigotry is “acceptable.” As a result, it is unsurprising that far-right antisemites have taken to Donald Trump. The wave of polarization that brought Trump to power is also what fuels antisemitism, and so it is foreseeable that these figures on the far right use this hate to their advantage, by creating division and fear that make people want him to be in power in order to “fight for them.” This “us versus them” mentality is found in populist movements around the world. Thus, by considering the connection between this divisive rhetoric/mentality and political polarization, we can understand why antisemitism spikes during such moments.
Modern left-wing antisemitism shares many commonalities with its right-wing counterpart. But a seemingly unique feature is the occasional convolution between criticism of Israel and claiming that Jews do not deserve a state. While criticism of Israel is not antisemitic, most Jews view claims that Israel shouldn’t exist as an attack against them.
Even legitimate criticism of Israel can spiral into antisemitic theories. Jeremy Corbyn, the former leader of the U.K. Labour Party, has been accused of exactly such an outlook. Corbyn presented himself as a change for Labour who would bring progress if elected Prime Minister, capitalizing on the wave of political polarization that has swept the world in the last decade. In the past, Corbyn has been accused numerous times of anti-Israel bias and, on some occasions, antisemitism. This does not mean Corbyn and Trump are equally “radical,” but they both gained prominence during the rise in international political polarization and are extremely polarizing figures.
Both the far right and left today have sought to frame Jews as being a part of global conspiracies. This is easier to notice on the right, with the recent tour of hate led by Kanye West (with the help of Neo-Nazi Nick Fuentes), where the rapper repeated decades old antisemitic conspiracies about Jews controlling the film industry, the banking industry, and the music industry. These suggestions of Jews being apart of international conspiracies are not isolated to the far right though. On the “left” we can see Congresswoman Ilhan Omar claiming Jewish people “bought support” for Israel as well as how Israel has “hypnotized the world.” While these statements seem “less" antisemitic, they are very much rooted in ideas based on antisemitic theories, the same theories which Kanye West’s rants were based on.
Part of the root cause of antisemitism becoming more prominent during moments of political polarization is messaging. The messages promoted by these populist politicians aim to divide people and create a fictional enemy that must be “defended” against; whether it be along racial, economic, or political lines, Jews are repeatedly made to be this “enemy.” This leads to a cycle where these polarizing figures use antisemitism to stoke hate and division to gain power, then promote even more antisemitism to remain in power, and finally implement policies based on this antisemitism.
Political polarization implies both sides of the political spectrum are drawn towards the poles (the “extremes”), so it is unsurprising when both sides use similar political messaging. As I’ve outlined, even though these polarizing figures may seem to hold opposite beliefs, in reality they share many similarities in their messaging. This style of messaging frames people as struggling against a supposed enemy. Often, this reignites the sparks of hate that have lain dormant within Western society. Even though they may not directly say who this “enemy” is, they often borrow the language and stereotypes used to describe Jews. And by invoking dormant stereotypes, these figures stoke a new wave of hate. Though, can we call this hate dormant? The Holocaust was less than 80 years ago, and there has always been hate, only with rises and falls.