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22 November 2023

The return of the “longest hatred”

Across the world anti-Semitism is surging, and Jewish people are once again living in fear.

By Brendan Simms and Charlie Laderman

On 7 October 2023, an exultant Hamas terrorist called home: “I killed ten with my own hands! Dad, ten with my own hands.” He urged his father to open WhatsApp and watch the live stream to prove that “your son killed Jews!”

That day around 1,200 others were killed when Hamas launched its brutal attack on southern Israel. Hundreds of women, children and even infants were butchered in their homes; 200 more were taken hostage. It was the largest loss of Jewish life on a single day since the Holocaust. The terror was broadcast with 21st-century technology, but it was the manifestation of an ancient hatred. 

Across the world, Jews are today living in a state of fear. In the wake of the Hamas atrocities has come an avalanche of popular anti-Semitism, beginning almost immediately. On 9 October, at a “free Palestine” protest outside the Sydney Opera House, a subsection of the crowd chanted “Gas the Jews”. By 12 October, there had been more than 100 anti-Semitic acts in France, with swastikas and calls to kill Jews daubed on buildings, and armed intruders arrested outside Jewish sites.

[See also: Gershon Baskin: “There’s only one way to bring all the hostages back alive”]

As Israel stepped up its response and deaths in Gaza climbed to roughly 12,000 – mostly civilians, including many children, according to the Strip’s Hamas-run health ministry – instances of global anti-Semitism escalated further. On 29 October, in the Russian territory of Dagestan, a mob invaded an airport, where a flight from Tel Aviv had just arrived, chanting, “Where are the Jews?” In London, the Wiener Holocaust Library was defaced by vandals scrawling “Gaza”. Posters reminding the world of the Israeli hostages were routinely pulled down by passers-by. In Paris, a former adviser to France’s foreign ministry was caught doing so on camera, her face a picture of hatred and rage.

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What are the sources of Hamas’s annihilatory anti-Semitism? And why has the war it provoked led to such a cascade of Jew hatred across the world? 

“Hamas’s goal,” according to Khalil al-Hayya, a member of its politburo in Qatar, “is not to run Gaza and to bring it water and electricity and such… This battle did not seek to improve the situation in Gaza,” but to maintain a “permanent” “state of war”. Tactically, the attack was intended to disrupt the growing normalisation between Israel and the Arab world, and, as the veteran Saudi Arabian diplomat Prince Turki bin Faisal put it, sabotage attempts to “reach a peaceful resolution to the plight of the Palestinian people”. Strategically, as the former Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal stated in a 31 October interview on Turkish television, the attacks were designed to pave a “wide highway” towards the destruction of the Jewish state. In pursuit of that goal, another senior Hamas member, Ghazi Hamad, warned on Lebanese TV that the 7 October attack would be followed by “a second, a third, a fourth” until Israel was annihilated.

This anti-Semitic aim was at the heart of the Hamas agenda when it was founded in the 1980s. As an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, it offered an Islamist alternative to the more secular Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). Its campaign of suicide bombings during the 1990s helped undermine the Oslo peace process and it continued its terror campaign during the Second Intifada. When Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005, Hamas won the subsequent elections and pushed out the PLO.

Its founding charter of 1988 proclaimed that “our struggle against the Jews is very great and very serious”, and promised to “obliterate” Israel. It looked forward to the “Day of Judgement” when Muslims “fight the Jews (killing the Jews)”. Throughout, the words “Zionist” and “Jew” were used more or less interchangeably. At that time, Hamas opposed any compromise with the Jews on the grounds that the “soil of Palestine” had been a sacred Muslim trust ever since it was “conquered” by the companions of the Prophet. 

[See also: Israel-Hamas hostage deal does not mean the war is over]

It is important to be clear about the nature of Hamas, as the charge of anti-Semitism can be used to shut down legitimate criticism of Israel, just as the accusation of Islamophobia can be used to shield problematic domestic Muslim actors from scrutiny. Hamas’s form of anti-Semitism is not simply a prejudice: it is conspiratorial, political anti-Semitism – an entire world-view that has its roots in late 19th- and early 20th-century Europe. The 7 October attack was the latest, utterly horrific mutation of this virus.

Political anti-Semitism builds on thousands of years of religious Judeophobia. Together they constitute what Robert Wistrich christened the “longest hatred”. Across both the Christian and Muslim medieval worlds, Jews were massacred in pogroms. In Europe, theologically driven animosity towards Jews for being “Christ-killers” and blood libels that accused Jews of using Christian children in religious rituals led to violent persecution. In the Muslim world, the position of Jews was ambiguous. Some rulers used Koranic passages that depicted Jews as perfidious to justify persecution. Others appealed for toleration towards a “people of the book”, albeit within a system that stressed their subordination. If a Jew became too politically prominent, mass violence might ensue to restore them to subservience – as in Granada (1066), Baghdad (1291) and Fez (1465). 

Until the 18th century, Middle Eastern Jews were generally still better off than those in Europe. Conditions slowly began to improve for European Jews in the 1700s, and most were emancipated by the mid-19th century. But hatred of Jews did not disappear – it just mutated, into a new racially based “modern” anti-Semitism. At its heart is a paranoid conspiracy theory that Jews run the world. The fraudulent text The Protocols of the Elders of Zion set out a supposed master-plan to surreptitiously establish a Jewish world empire to replace all existing institutions and religions. This forgery, first published in St Petersburg in 1903, spread across Europe during and after the First World War and was seized on by those seeking a simple story to explain the turmoil. Fanatical German anti-Semites drew on this purported Jewish power over world governments to urge the use of Jews as “hostages” to gain international leverage and improve their defeated nation’s condition.

As we showed in our book Hitler’s American Gamble, Hitler believed “Jewish international finance” had manipulated both Britain and the US into the First World War and encouraged them to turn postwar Germany into a “colony”. As war again approached, he warned that a new global conflagration would result in Jews’ destruction. In effect, he regarded Jews as hostages to pressure the Western powers, the supposed agents of “world Jewry”. During 1941, while his killing squads massacred Jews in the east, he issued threats of further violence against central and western European Jewry to deter the Americans. Once he believed their intervention was inevitable, Hitler pre-empted it with his own declaration of war on the United States in December 1941, followed immediately by a private announcement that the “necessary consequence” was the complete “extermination of the Jews”.

[See also: Rashid Khalidi: “Israel is stealing land as we speak”]

The defeat of Nazism and the horrific reality of the Holocaust did not put an end to anti-Semitism or the Protocols. Millions of copies have been published in multiple languages. And nowhere has it circulated more widely since the war than in the Islamic world. With the Ottoman empire’s collapse, and as Islamic lands came under foreign rule, hostility to Jews grew in the Middle East. The 1917 Balfour Declaration, with its promise of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, and the increasingly violent struggle between Zionists and Arabs, changed perceptions of Jews across the region. They were cast less as a relatively impotent religious minority and increasingly as Zionist fifth columnists in league with Western powers. The Protocols were first translated into Arabic in the 1920s as European-style anti-Semitism established a foothold. 

In Hebron, where Jews had lived since biblical times, they were slaughtered without regard to age or sex in 1929. The flames in Hebron were fanned by Hajj Amin Husseini, mufti of Jerusalem. He propagated the idea that the Jews were planning to conquer the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and destroy the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Husseini drew on religious rhetoric to urge violent resistance, infusing the emerging Palestinian Arab national movement with a radical Islamic aspect. He helped incite a pogrom in Baghdad in 1941 before fleeing to Berlin. A confidant of Hitler, he supported the “Final Solution” and disseminated Nazi anti-Semitism in radio broadcasts across the Middle East. Even before the state of Israel existed, then, paranoid, political anti-Semitism was growing in the Islamic world.

This increased after Arab armies were defeated in 1948 by a people traditionally regarded across Islamic societies as weak and inferior. Palestinians’ subsequent flight, and their expulsion by the fledgling Israeli state in 1948, further fuelled anti-Semitism. Arab states turned on their Jewish communities, many of which had been established in antiquity. They were labelled Zionist agents, oppressed and expelled. In this febrile atmosphere, new Arabic editions of the Protocols proliferated.

Secular Arab nationalism was discredited by military defeat in the 1967 Six Day War. As support for the ideology waned, this left a vacuum that was filled by Islamism, with its own brand of conspiratorial anti-Semitism. 

The Islamist thinker and Muslim Brotherhood leader Sayyid Qutb, one of Hamas’s intellectual progenitors, wrote about “Our Struggle with the Jews” as early as 1950. Qutb explicitly and repeatedly cited the Protocols, arguing in 1964 that “world Jewry’s purpose is to eliminate all limitations… so that the Jews may penetrate into [the] body politic of the whole world and then may be free to perpetuate their evil designs”. Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini also invoked the Protocols in his revolutionary manifesto: “Jews and their foreign backers are opposed to the very foundations of Islam and wish to establish Jewish domination throughout the world.”

By the time Hamas emerged in the 1980s, the fusion of European and Islamist anti-Semitism was well established. Its founding charter cited The Protocols of the Elders of Zion as evidence for Jewish plans for world domination. “World Zionism, together with imperialistic powers,” Hamas claimed, was embarked on a “limitless” plan of expansion, from the Nile to the Euphrates and beyond.

Just how much European conspiratorial anti-Semitism underlay Hamas’s world-view was further elaborated in Article 22. This accused “the enemies”, shorthand for Jews, of taking “control of the world media” and of “stirring revolutions in various parts of the world”, including the French and Russian revolutions. The Jews were allegedly behind the First World War and United Nations, as well as other instruments through which they “could rule the world”. “With their money they were able to control imperialistic countries,” Hamas claimed, “and instigate them to colonise many countries in order to enable them to exploit their resources and spread corruption there.” All of this could have been said by Hitler, and other anti-Semites, 50 years earlier.

Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

It is therefore disconcerting that the 7 October attacks were welcomed by so many in Western universities. In part, of course, this reflected a widespread hostility to Israel on account of its occupation of Palestinian territory, but that is not the whole story. Key to understanding the response to the Hamas killings is the relentless advance of “decolonisation” in the academy, especially its focus on “settler colonialism”.

This prism draws principally on two paradigms. First, and seemingly unconsciously, Soviet Cold War propaganda, which promoted the notion that a state established by Jews fleeing violent persecution in Europe and the Middle East was simply a Western colonialist enterprise. Second, US-centric racial theories that illogically insist that Jews are “white” and “privileged” – ignoring that half of Israel’s Jewish population descends from the Middle East and North Africa, with many arriving destitute – while the Palestinians are “people of colour” and victims, who can engage in “resistance” by virtually all means necessary. The crude comparison with European colonialism not only erases thousands of years of Jewish history in the land; it has also taught a generation of students that Israel is a uniquely illegitimate state more deserving of condemnation than any other.

It is thus not surprising to find, for example, Columbia University’s Students for Justice in Palestine proclaiming, two days after Hamas’s massacre, that they stood in “full solidarity” with the “Palestinian counter-offensive against their settler-colonial oppressor”. The students referred to the fact that “our classes regularly discuss the inevitability of resistance as part of the struggle for decolonisation”. Far from being repelled by the violence of Hamas, they stressed that “we study under renowned scholars who denounce the fact that media requires oppressed peoples to be ‘perfect victims’ in order to deserve sympathy”.

Hamas has played to this anti-colonialist constituency by revising its charter in 2017. Out went the explicitly patriarchal rhetoric and reference to the “conquest” of Palestine by the Muslims. In came the assurance that its “conflict is with the Zionist project not with the Jews because of their religion”. Out went the Protocols and in came the statement that, “Hamas is of the view that the Jewish problem, anti-Semitism and the persecution of the Jews are phenomena fundamentally linked to European history and not to the history of the Arabs and the Muslims or to their heritage.” 

In practice, Hamas continued to pump out a relentless stream of anti-Semitic propaganda, taught the children of Gaza to hate Jews, and invested its resources in preparing a deadly assault on Israel, with results that became evident on 7 October. 

All this matters not only to Jews but also to Western democracies more broadly. As the case of Hitler in 1941 shows, if our enemies think of our governments as manipulated by “the Jews”, they take it out not only on Jews but on us all. It is unsurprising that the proxies of Iran, whose leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, recently said Western powers were controlled by “Zionist merchants”, are now attacking US installations across the Middle East. There is a direct line connecting Hitler to Hamas and the attacks on 7 October 2023. In this context, it is unfortunate that the persistence of history’s “longest hatred” shows that many have very short memories.

Brendan Simms and Charlie Laderman are authors of “Hitler’s American Gamble: Pearl Harbor and the German March to Global War” (Penguin Press)

[See also: In public the US supports Israel, but in private pressure mounts]

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This article appears in the 22 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The paranoid style