Torch-bearing white supremacists and neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, VA in August 2017 shocked many with their chants of “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us.” Days later, white nationalist Richard Spencer was interviewed on Israeli TV about the role of the so-called “alt-right” in Charlottesville rally that turned deadly. When pressed about their anti-Semitic slogans, he asserted that Jews are overrepresented both on the left and in the “establishment” as “Ivy League-educated people who really determine policy,” while ”white people are being dispossessed from this country.” [1] He excluded Jews from this circle of persecuted “white people.” Indeed, he implied that Jews were the persecutors, dispossessing white people of their country by imposing a multicultural regime that allowed black and brown people to displace whites and deprive them of their national heritage. Despite his overt anti-Semitic rhetoric, Spencer called on Israelis to “respect someone like me, who has analogous feelings about whites” to theirs about Jews. “You could say that I am a white Zionist,” he proudly stated, “in the sense that I care about my people, I want us to have a secure homeland for us and ourselves. Just like you want a secure homeland in Israel.”

Spencer’s combination of anti-Semitic stereotypes with emulation of Israel has been legitimated by President Donald Trump. Trump’s campaign used symbols with anti-Semitic overtones, he adopted the slogan “America First” from an anti-Semitic movement of the 1940s, and on Holocaust Remembrance Day he refused to mention Jews or anti-Semitism. Spencer, for one, praised Trump for this “de-Judaification” of the Holocaust. The evocation of the Holocaust hurts people like him he wrote, “We can’t limit immigration, because Hitler. We can’t be proud of ourselves as a Europeans, because Holocaust. White people can be Christian, but not too Christian, because Auschwitz” [errors and emphasis in original]. [2]

While using anti-Semitic dog whistles for his followers, Trump at the same time has overtly championed Israel’s most right-wing agendas. During the campaign, Trump lauded Israel as a model for policing in America when he called for racial profiling to prevent terrorist attacks by Muslims. “You know, in Israel they profile,” he said, “they’ve done an unbelievable job, as good as you can do.” If a person looks suspicious in Israel, “they will take that person in.” America is weak in contrast, he added, because “we’re trying to be so politically correct in our country and this is only going to get worse.” [3] Once in office, Trump appointed a Likud supporter, Daniel Friedman, as ambassador to Israel and he put his son-in-law, Jared Kushner—a donor to the Israeli settlement movement—in charge of the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process.” And of course, by recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel Trump fulfilled a right-wing dream in the US and Israel, shattered the liberal veneer of an American-led peace process leading to a two-state solution, deeply offended Palestinians, antagonized Muslims around the world and violated an international consensus.

This combination of anti-Semitism at home and hyper-Zionism abroad may sound strange. History shows, however, that pro-Zionism and anti-Semitism have never been mutually exclusive, even though the Zionist movement arose as a response to the persecution of Jews in Europe. Early advocates for a Jewish state enlisted stereotypes of Jews—wittingly or not—to further their cause. Theodor Herzl appealed to anti-Semitism by promising European leaders that Zionism would resolve the “Jewish Question” by sending Jews elsewhere. British supporters of the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which proclaimed support for a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine, drew on an inflated image of hidden Jewish financial power that could sway the US government to enter World War I. As historian Timothy Snyder recounts, the Polish government in the 1930s supported revisionist Zionism as a rationale for ridding Poland of Jews. It is well-known that the US turned away Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany during the 1930s. After WWII and the revelation of the death camps, anti-Semitism continued to fuel American rejection of Jewish refugees. Some American congressmen called loudly for the British to open the gates to Palestine so that Jews in displaced persons camps would not try to enter the US and thereby contaminate the country with their perceived communist sympathies. Only when conservative groups like the American Legion were reassured that Jewish refugees would go to Palestine rather than the US did they endorse the Displaced Persons Act of 1948, which nonetheless heavily discriminated against Jews.

Consider the case of right-wing evangelical Christians, who formed the Moral Majority in the 1980s and the Christian Zionist movement in the 1990s. They are among the strongest supporters of Israel today and a major constituency backing Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as its capital. They meld strident endorsement of Israel’s right-wing policies with anti-Semitic attitudes toward Jews. Theologically, they love Jews to death. According to End Times prophecy—a nineteenth-century belief system that preceded and contributed to Christian support for political Zionism—the ingathering of Jews to the Holy Land is a precondition for the Second Coming, at which point a select group of Jews will convert to Christianity, and the rest will be killed with all unbelievers.

Here on earth, conservative evangelicals have cast secular Jews both as subversive amoral influences from below—responsible for the depredations of the counterculture—and also as powerful bankers in the shadowy upper reaches manipulating the New World Order for their own financial gain. There are good Jews and bad Jews, as Spencer also implied. The good ones are marked by their nationalist identification with the State of Israel, the bad by their liberal cosmopolitanism. A striking example can be found in the late Tim LaHaye’s enormously popular Left Behind series of novels about the End Times. A small militia group leading the fight against the Antichrist consists of rugged, born-again white Americans and brainy Israeli converts to Christianity, but not one American Jew appears in the 16 volumes.

This pattern of admiring Israel while denigrating American Jews resonates with alt-right white supremacists today. Spencer may believe that Jews have no place in the resurgent white nation, but he views Israel as a model for an ethnically homogeneous state. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Spencer’s mission is “to inspire whites with the dream of such a homeland just as Zionism helped spur the establishment of Israel. A white ethno-state would be an Altneuland—an old, new country—he said, attributing the term to Theodor Herzl, a founding father of Zionism.”[4]

The parallels between white supremacy and Zionism have shocked many liberals. When Spencer spoke at Texas A&M University, Hillel Rabbi Matt Rosenberg stood up to decry racial hatred and he invited Spencer to study the Jewish tradition of “radical inclusion and love.” Spencer’s response literally left him speechless: “Do you really want radical inclusion into the State of Israel?….and by that I mean radical inclusion. Maybe all of the Middle East could go move in to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. Would you really want that?”[5] In a rally later that year at the University of Florida, Spencer asserted that he respected Jews for not assimilating and wanted America to be a country for whites just like “The Jewish state of Israel is not just another country in the Middle East,” but “a country for Jews around the world.” He called Israel the “most revolutionary ethno-state, and it’s one that I turn to for guidance, even though I might not always agree with its foreign policy decisions.” In addition, he spoke of the “moral legitimacy” of other “ethno-states,” naming Russia, Poland and Hungary as supposed examples.[6]

Islamophobia and White Zionism

What white nationalists have in common with right-wing evangelicals is not only pro-Zionism but also Islamophobia, and they are less circumspect about expressing antagonism toward Muslims—a centerpiece of Trump’s appeal and policy—than they are about anti-Semitism. They admire Israel not only for what they see as its ethnic homogeneity but also for its gutsiness in dominating or expelling Muslims to keep the Jewish nation pure. Conservative evangelicals propound the idea of the “Judeo-Christian tradition” less as an inclusive attitude toward Jews and Catholics, as the idea developed in 1950s America, than as rallying cry for a civilizational conflict against Islam.

Mainstream Jewish organizations have been somewhat divided about pro-Zionist white supremacists. To be sure, all Jewish leaders condemned the violence of neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan in Charlottesville, and most condemned Trump for his outrageous response of blaming “both sides.” The Zionist Organization of America, however, refrained from criticizing Trump, and indeed echoed him by denouncing the anti-fascist activist group Antifa as also responsible for the violence in Charlottesville.

A year earlier, the appointment of Steven K. Bannon as Trump’s chief strategist generated more controversy among Jewish organizations. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) opposed the appointment of the man who as founding editor of Breitbart News “presided over the premier website of the ‘alt-right’—a loose-knit group of white nationalists and unabashed anti-Semites and racists.”[7] Jewish Voice for Peace and J Street also condemned the Bannon appointment. Breitbart did indeed bring white nationalism into the mainstream from the political fringes, although Bannon has since tried to distance himself from overt forms of racism by calling himself an economic nationalist. At the 2016 Republican Convention, however, Bannon did boast: “We’re the platform for the alt-right.”[8]

While the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a lobbying group for pro-Israel policy in the US, remained silent on the appointment, the president of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), Morton Klein, defended Bannon from the personal charge of being an anti-Semite on the grounds of his staunch partisanship toward Israel: “Every article about Israel and the Palestinian Arabs he has published are all supportive of Israel,” said Klein. These include “fighting anti-Semitic rallies at the City University of New York,” “courageously…reporting that the Palestinian Authority defames Israel,” “bravely” publicizing “Iran’s violations of the nuclear rollback deal that pose an existential threat to Israel” and “sympathetically” reporting on the “scourge of anti-Semitic, anti-Israel boycotts, divestment and sanctions.”[9] ZOA’s evidence that Bannon could not be anti-Semitic was simply that Breitbart News hurled that label at those who oppose the Israeli occupation and support Palestinian rights.

What draws together the ZOA, Bannon, white nationalists and evangelicals behind Trump is the melding of Zionism with a virulent Islamophobic agenda. The president of the ZOA, for example, sees Israel and America sharing a common fight to defend the homeland against Islam: “In an era in which the vast majority of terrorism is committed by Muslims, in order to protect American citizens, we should adopt the same profiling policies as Israel and be more thorough in vetting Muslims.”[10]

The Old “New Anti-Semitism”

The logic of defending right-wing groups that espouse anti-Semitism on the grounds of their support for Israel follows the logic of conflating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. Simply put, if anti-Semitism is defined as criticism of Israel, then anyone who supports Israel is immunized from this charge. Although the ADL has openly opposed Trump and condemned Bannon and Breitbart for anti-Muslim extremism, the same organization bears some historical and contemporary responsibility for the pervasiveness of this logic.

In 1974, the ADL published The New Anti-Semitism, a book that radically redirected its meaning away from prejudice against Jews and toward animus against the State of Israel, and simultaneously, away from the political right toward the left. “Classic anti-Semitism” was on the wane, the book claimed. Espoused by older right-wing groups such as the KKK, and relegated to the margins by the civil rights movement, the old stereotypes of Jews appeared as an anachronistic throwback in an America where Jews had made it.

Instead, the new dangers of anti-Semitism, according to this book, came from the radical left and Black Power movements. In the context of the Vietnam War and the 1967 Six Day War, some radicals condemned Israel’s conquests as imperialist and championed Palestinian resistance as an anti-colonial liberation movement. Rather than respond to these political critiques, the ADL read them as warning signals of a virulent new strain of anti-Semitism on the rise. As Noam Chomsky pointed out at the time, the charge of anti-Semitism also served to tar more broadly the anti-war movement. Since the 1970s, the ADL has wielded this new definition of anti-Semitism to monitor and suppress groups supporting Palestinian rights throughout the liberal left, especially Arab-American and Muslim organizations.

Ironically, the “new anti-Semitism” has been discovered again and again, decade after decade. It has come to a hysterical crescendo in the twenty-first century. To name a few titles, there is The Real Anti-Semitism in America (1982), and more recently The New Anti-Semitism (2003), Never Again: The Threat of the New Anti-Semitism (2003), The Return of Anti-Semitism (2004) and Resurgent Anti-Semitism (2013).

The argument is always the same: Israel is the victim of international persecution as the “Jew among nations.” The circle of persecutors expanded beyond 60s radicals to include Third World nations and the United Nations in the 1970s, for their support of the PLO and the declaration that Zionism was a form of racism; and to the mainstream media in the 1980s, for broadcasts of Israeli brutality in Lebanon and during the first Palestinian Intifada. New accusations of new anti-Semitism started targeting human rights groups in the 1990s. The term became capacious enough to include Jewish critics of Israel, who had once been considered merely “self-hating.” Since 2001, the new anti-Semites have taken the stereotypical form of “Islamofascists,” who purportedly fuse anti-Semitism with anti-Americanism. In this decade, the ADL and other organizations have launched campaigns to criminalize the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement as the newest of the new forms of “anti-Semitism.”

The ascription of “new anti-Semitism” became all the more important as Israel’s military predominance became undeniable to the world. As the earlier image of Israel as David versus the Arab Goliath became increasingly untenable, especially after the 1979 treaty with Egypt and the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, Israel’s defenders insisted that Israel had become existentially vulnerable to discourse, and that certain kinds of speech had to be policed to defend Israel’s existence.

The “new anti-Semitism,” according to its definers, is immutable. Since they started defining it as an attack on a nation, they stopped understanding it as a prejudice that could be educated away, a set of stereotypes that could be challenged, or discrimination that could be remedied by law, alongside other forms of bigotry—which is the way the ADL approached anti-Semitism for decades. Consequently, believers in the “new anti-Semitism” have little hope that criticisms of Israel might abate if its policies change, and they believe that murderous hatred of Jews is the major obstacle to peace in the Middle East.

The history of the ADL’s response to Christian Zionism is instructive of its willingness to embrace right-wing supporters of Israel, no matter what their attitudes toward Jews. In 1982, ADL director Nathan Perlmutter wrote that he wasn’t worried about Evangelical theology because of the more pressing needs to fund Israel’s military. In his words: “We need all the friends we have to support Israel…If the Messiah comes, on that day we’ll consider our options. Meanwhile, let’s praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.”[11] In 1994 Abe Foxman, the next director, showed more concern about Pat Robertson’s popular New World Order, which condemned “cosmopolitan liberal Jews” for their “assault on Christianity.” Foxman responded with The Religious Right: The Assault on Tolerance and Pluralism in America, warning of the imposition of a “Christian nation” on America’s democracy.[12] By 2002, when the US imagined itself to be fighting the same war on terror that Israel was fighting against Palestinians during the Second Intifada, Foxman reconsidered and published the 2002 article in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency Daily News Bulletin, “Why Evangelical Support for Israel is a Good Thing.” In 2010 the ADL joined right-wing politicians and anti-Muslim groups to oppose the construction of an Islamic Center in lower Manhattan, on the grounds that it would offend survivors of September 11, 2001 by its location “in the shadow of the World Trade Center.”[13]

During the Trump candidacy and presidency, the ADL, under its new director, Jonathan Greenblatt, seems to have shifted course by working with coalitions against the Muslim ban and other forms of white supremacy. This may be a response in part to Trump’s overt appeal to Islamophobia and other forms of racism as a rallying cry and policy. It may also be a recognition that Trump has sanctioned his supporters’ expression of the “old anti-Semitism” directed against American Jews, while at the same time he has given Israel everything its right-wing supporters want.

The same ADL director, however, has continued the organization’s tradition of targeting left-wing critiques of Israel as the most threatening form of anti-Semitism. Jumping on the bandwagon against Palestinian American activist Linda Sarsour and the longstanding antagonism against Jewish Voice for Peace, he derided their participation in a forum on anti-Semitism. As he tweeted: “Having Linda Sarsour & head of JVP leading a panel on #antisemitism is like Oscar Meyer leading a panel on vegetarianism.” These panelists, he added, “know the issue, but unfortunately, from perspective of fomenting it rather than fighting it.”[14] Ironically, the approach to anti-Semitism taken by Jewish Voice for Peace and activists like Sarsour recalls the principles that once gave the ADL great moral authority in the US: they view the struggle against anti-Semitism as part of a broader alliance fighting all forms of racism, bigotry, xenophobia and Islamophobia.

The ADL today has joined AIPAC and the ZOA in supporting the 2016 Anti-Awareness Act, a benign-sounding congressional bill that would direct the Department of Education to investigate criticism of Israel, using the State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism. This bill is also supported by attorney Kenneth L. Marcus, Trump’s appointee to the post of assistant secretary for civil rights in the Department of Education. Marcus has led the way in legal campaigns to criminalize criticism of Israel, especially the BDS movement and particularly on college campuses. Both the ADL and Marcus concede that not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. They claim that this bill would clarify the distinction and would identify, in the words of the bill, “discriminatory anti-Israel conduct that crosses the line into anti-Semitism.” But the definitions the bill refers to have the opposite effect. They collapse that distinction into the broad categories of “double standards,” “demonization” and “delegitimization.” These terms have no objective or agreed-upon meanings in legal, diplomatic or scholarly discourse. Their alliteration suggests the mnemonic strategy of a public relations campaign. They blur any distinctions between thought, speech and action. There is a further irony in that one of the major definitions of the “new anti-Semitism” holds that Israel is treated differently from all other nations, according to a double standard. But these three definitions together, and the bill itself, create a double standard by legalizing criteria that only apply to criticism of the State of Israel and not to any other nation.

Recent history is instructive here as well. The “3D’s” were codified in 2004 by Natan Sharansky, a Soviet dissident who became a Likud official in Israel and was greatly admired by President George W. Bush and his neoconservative supporters. The essay, “3D Test of Anti-Semitism: Demonization, Double Standards, Delegitimization,” introduced a special issue of Jewish Political Studies Review on “Emerging Anti-Semitic Themes.” Sharansky stated two major concerns. First, that the new anti-Semitism poses a unique challenge: “Whereas classical anti-Semitism is aimed at the Jewish people or the Jewish religion, “new anti-Semitism” is aimed at the Jewish state. Since this anti-Semitism can hide behind the veneer of legitimate criticism of Israel, it is more difficult to expose.”[15] This is a key part of the narrative about the new anti-Semitism, that it is concealed and lurking behind the mask of reputable speech, such as human rights discourse, and thus it must be rooted out and exposed. But who gets to determine the real intention behind the humanitarian statements, who gets to strike through the mask? This claim of veiled anti-Semitism is wielded primarily against the left in the US and Europe. Sharansky’s second concern was “the rise of Arab and Islamic Anti-Semitism.” Overt rather than covert, deploying violence rather than words alone, Arab and Islamic anti-Semitism “viciously” and “expressly” calls for “massive terrorism and genocide against Jews, Zionists, and the State of Israel.”[16]

What’s more, at the time of mass global protests against the impending invasion of Iraq, Sharansky, along with other neoconservatives in Europe and the US, found anti-Semitism to be indistinguishable from anti-Americanism among European leftists, as well as Arabs and Muslims. In a 2003 essay, “On Hating Jews,” he wrote that “Anti-Americanism was a continuation of anti-Semitism by other means.”[17] In 2004, the US State Department issued its first Report on Global Anti-Semitism and identified one of the four sources of rising anti-Semitism as, “Criticism of both the United States and globalization that spills over to Israel, and to Jews in general who are identified with both.” This report also established the new position of Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, one of the many posts that Trump and Secretary of State Tillerson have left unfilled.

In Trump land today, the unholy alliance of white supremacy, anti-Semitism and pro-Zionism has forced a reckoning with the single-minded definition of the “new anti-Semitism” as criticism of Israel. As Toni Morrison wrote, “definitions belong to the definers—not the defined.”[18] The current effort to legalize specious definitions of anti-Semitism that criminalize pro-Palestinian activism and suppress debate must be resisted. To be sure, there are critics of Israel who also express hostility toward Jews, and anti-Semitism should not be tolerated on the left or right. Working against anti-Semitism today can only be effective as part of a broader struggle against white supremacy, anti-black racism, xenophobia against immigrants and Islamophobia. We cannot allow blind allegiance to Israel to excuse bigotry of any kind.


[1] “Richard Spencer Tells Israelis They ‘Should Respect’ Him: ‘I’m a White Zionist,” Haaretz, August 16, 2017.
[2] Richard Spencer, “Because Hitler…,”, January 29, 2017.
[3] Tessa Stuart, “Why Trump Calls for Racial Profiling After Attacks,” Rolling Stone, September 19, 2016.
[4] “Richard Bertrand Spencer,” Southern Poverty Law Center website.
[5] Jonathan Ofir, “Steve Bannon’s Judeo-Christian ‘Camp of the Saints,’” Mondoweiss, March 11, 2017.
[6] Ali Abunimah, “Neo-Nazi Richard Spencer Says He Turns to Israel ‘For Guidance,’” Electronic Intifada, October 20, 2017.
[7] “ADL Statement on President-Elect Trump’s Appointment of Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon,” Anti-Defamation League press release, November 13, 2016.
[8] Sarah Posner, “How Donald Trump’s New Campaign Chief Created an Online Haven for White Nationalists,” Mother Jones, August 22, 2016.
[9] Morton Klein, “Bannon and Breitbart: Friends of Israel, Not Anti-Semites,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency, November 15, 2016.
[10] Nathan Guttman, “ZOA Leader Supports Call for Profiling Muslims, Just Like Trump,” Forward, June 20, 2016.
[11] Nathan Perlmutter and Ruth Ann Perlmutter, The Real Anti-Semitism in America (New York: Arbor House, 1982) p. 156.
[12] Victoria Clark, Allies for Armageddon: The Rise of Christian Zionism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007) p.195–196.
[13] “Statement On Islamic Community Center Near Ground Zero,” Anti-Defamation League press release, July 28, 2010.
[14] Jonathan Greenblatt (@JGreenblattADL), November 13, 2017, 2:15PM. Tweet.
[15] Natan Sharansky, “3D Test of Anti-Semitism: Demonization, Double Standards, Delegitimization,” Jewish Political Studies Review 16/3–4 (Fall 2004).
[16] Ibid.
[17] Natan Sharansky, “On Hating the Jews,” Commentary, November 1, 2003.
[18] Toni Morrison, Beloved: A Novel (New York: Vintage, 2004 [1987]) p. 225.

How to cite this article:

Amy Kaplan "The Old “New Anti-Semitism” and Resurgent White Supremacy," Middle East Report 283 (Summer 2017).

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