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GlobalPlus: Anti-Semitism in the Americas

Flowers and prayer cards remembers the victims of the shootings at the Tree of Life synagoue.

Racism, prejudice and the rise of anti-Jewish hatred

 By Pedro Brieger*

The October 27, 2018 attack on a synagogue in the U.S. city of Pittsburgh was one of many on a long list of anti-Semitic strikes against Jewish community centers or synagogues within its territory.

The accused assailant explicitly justified his attack on the synagogue by linking it to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a Jewish organization helping non-Jewish migrants who arrive to the United States.  For this reason, the attack that led to the death of 13 people has a particularly new dimension.

This time, Jews were not the target because they were Jewish, but rather because they were, as Jews, helping migrants.

The prejudice that turns to fear that transforms itself into acts of violence directed at all members of a religious or ethnic group is behind the global rise in anti-Semitism. The contemporary revival of this ancient evil matters not only to the Jewish community, but peoples throughout the world who find themselves under attack with the rise of national identity movements rooted in the toxic combination of intolerance, racism and political expediency.

Racist thinking is characterized by the linearity of its reasoning, which is plagued by prejudice. If U.S. President Donald Trump can say that Mexicans rape or murder U.S. citizens, then for many, all Mexicans are rapists. Therefore, if a Jewish organization helps migrants, then all Jews do it and deserve punishment wherever they are.

In a linear way, the assailant in Pittsburgh associated the President’s anti-immigrant rhetoric with a Jewish organization that supports migrants. As a result, he decided to attack what he perceives as “Jewish”—a synagogue during Shabbat on the house of worship’s fullest day of attendance.

Anti-Semitism today is no less malevolent, but it is far more complex, entwined in far-right nationalist movements and identity politics that increasingly cross geographic borders and boundaries of civility.

To combat anti-Semitism, we must both recognize its historical roots and the various contemporary political, social and religious factors that play a part in its revival.

It is a challenge for all of us.

Nazi symbols desecrate a tombstone in Moldova.

The many forms of hate.

In fact, the merging of hatred for the Jewish organization HIAS and immigrants (today, essentially for Hispanics/Latinos) fully demonstrates that racism and enmity toward ethnic, religious, and cultural minorities are present in multiple ways in all societies.

You can fill up pages with examples of racism: from the black Dominican who feels superior and hates the Haitian “negro” with whom he shares the same island to religious persecution in Cambodia; then what happened in Rwanda and even the “noble” Europe that closes its doors to those trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea in order to survive, only to then die while attempting when their precarious barges sink.

It should also be noted that far-right groups in the United States have transformed dramatically over the years. The Ku Klux Klan’s original fight against blacks and immigrants (including Jews) involved blocking equal rights. This opposition has been relegated to the background.

Today, the vast majority of such groups hold an anti-Islamic, anti-Hispanic, as well as anti-LGBT and gender diversity discourse.

It is pertinent to remember that several of these groups, which are very active on social networks, carried out a systematic campaign against former U.S. President Barack Obama that demonized him as a foreign-born Muslim.  Time and time again, Obama had to reject and deny both “accusations.”  Regardless, numerous polls show that thousands of U.S. citizens still believe that Obama was not born in his country and that he is indeed Muslim.

This demonstrates once more the effectiveness of demonization campaigns based on prejudice and that the phenomenon of “fake news” is nothing new.  It is important to remember, contextually, how the popular anti-Semitic pamphlet titled “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” elaborated by Czarist secret services at the end of the 19th century, is still disseminated around the world.

Graffiti on the wall of the Israeli Embassy in Caracas, Venezuela.

Anti-Semitism today

Contemporary anti-Semitism, that is, hatred toward “the Jew” that developed in the 19th century and had its fullest expression of barbarism in the 20th century, is a product of Western and Eastern Europe targeting the Jew portrayed as a greedy merchant and speculator.  Actually, the word itself is not linked to the “Semite” in general, but rather to the Jew in particular.

In the Arab and Islamic worlds beyond Europe, there had been no Jewish persecution for centuries that came close to the dimension of Jewish expulsion in Spain and Portugal at the end of the 15th century or the “pogroms” (a Russian word, for that matter) of the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Russia and Ukraine.

What is more, the word “anti-Semitism” did not even have an equivalent in the Arabic language considering the expression, “the samyya” (non-Semite), is in its most modern version translated as “hatred toward the Jew.”

However, the emergence of the Zionist movement and its desire to create a Jewish homeland in territories dominated first by the Ottoman Empire, then Palestine under British rule, modified the Arab and Islamic worlds’ relationship toward the Jews.  Rejecting the State of Israel and Zionism became confounded with the rejection of Jews themselves, including those they had lived with for centuries in Arab and/or Islamic countries.

Due to Middle East centrality, the so-called Arab-Israeli conflict transferred to the rest of the world primarily after the 1967 war.  At the same time, France’s strong Arab-Muslim presence produced by its colonial past (mainly Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia), African decolonization in the ‘60s, and Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 1967 led to the rejection of Israeli policies enmeshed with anti-Semitic messages in Europe.

This was also true in the United States where the rejection of Israeli policies occurred in parallel to the rising struggle for equality among blacks, the Vietnam antiwar movement (supported by Israel), the Islamic conversion of public figures (Cassius Clay-Muhammad Ali), and the growth of radicalized Islamic groups whose anti-Israel discourse with anti-Semitic rhetoric has caused tension in numerous social movements, including the recent women’s movement.

If support for the Vietnam War by the State of Israel is mentioned, it is because Israeli foreign policy began to play a role on the international stage, even in areas far from the Middle East.  This is how Israel openly supported the bloody dictatorships in Latin America during the ‘70s and ‘80s of the last century, despite the fact that in the case of Argentina, the military in power between 1976 and 1983 focused on slaughtering detainees of Jewish origin.

As a particular case in Latin America and the Caribbean, Argentina is a country that had experienced a “pogrom” at the beginning of the 20th century and two terrorist attacks at the end of the same century.  Following a major workers’ strike in 1919, anti-worker and anti-communist groups pointed at Jewish community leaders as creators of “Jewish Soviets” that had tried to emulate the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Indeed, numerous Jews were among the Bolshevik Revolution’s leaders. They were hunted as a result, and many Jews were murdered.

This occurred between January 6–13, 1919 and is known as the “Tragic Week.” According to various testimonies, it resulted in a total of 700 dead, erased from Argentina’s official history except for unions and some of the Jewish communities’ left organizations.

In 1992, an attack destroyed the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires killing 22 people. Another attack occurred in 1994 at the headquarters of the country’s most important Jewish mutual, the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA), killing almost 100 people.

The actual perpetrators of both attacks remain unknown to this day, despite the fact that the leaders of the organized Jewish community and the Israeli government insist that it was a Lebanese Hezbollah command led by the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Numerous Nongovernmental Organizations are in Latin America documenting anti-Semitism, such as the Anti-Defamation League from the U.S. or the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which grew from the need to persecute the Nazi hierarchs who had escaped Germany after the Second World War. While these organizations document acts of anti-Semitism on the global and regional levels, a large part of their activity today consists of defending the Israeli government’s policies toward the Palestinians.

Regarding Latin America, the focus is on avoiding ties between regional governments and the Islamic Republic of Iran, a country that the State of Israel considers its main enemy today. This has been very clear in terms of the Venezuelan and Bolivian governments.

This implies that today’s anti-Semitism is significantly more complex to analyze when compared to the pure and simple hatred and persecution toward Jews in the past.

Moving forward

This attack in Pittsburgh was not an outburst of a “disturbed” person. Such a profile is usually presented in the United States when it comes to perpetrators of massive attacks (mass murder) against citizens.  As an electoral campaign candidate, Donald Trump positioned the Hispanic/Latino migration issue as his political propaganda axis. He did so to gain votes from the most conservative and reactionary corners, and to reinforce an abstract all-American “nature.”

In contrast, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, founded in 1881 to help Jews arriving on U.S. soil, evolved to help refugees of all religious and ethnic groups.

In recent years, the organization has become directly involved at the U.S.-Mexican border in terms of legal assistance for asylum seekers and travel to the border for community leaders and rabbis in opposition to the government’s “zero tolerance” policy toward immigrants.

On September 19, 2017, HIAS President Mark Hetfield published a critical article in the New York Daily News on Trump’s policies and called for “welcoming refugees.”  The gunman under arrest, named Robert Bowers, seemed obsessed with immigrants and those who help them, which in this case was HIAS. Thus, in his social networks he wrote: “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people (….) I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered.”

Incredibly, on October 29, two days after the attack, President Trump indicated in his personal Twitter account that the caravan of Central American migrants approaching the Southern border represented “an invasion of our Country.” This was in line with Bowers’ messages.

One can find a similar line of reasoning in the writings of the Australian white supremacist accused in the March massacres of more than 50 worshippers at two mosques in Christchurch, N.Z.

His “manifesto” referred to non-Whites as invaders who want to replace white people. On his weapons were the names of men who recently carried out mass shootings of Jews and Muslims.

There is a special urgency today to address these purveyors of fear and prejudice.

Science has shown human beings in their evolutionary development have been predisposed to retreat into in-groups when they are afraid of outsiders. But in times of peace, they are also wired to work cooperatively for the good of all.

A powerful tool to increase tolerance, empathy and respect, researchers have found, is the cultivation of both intellectual and general humility.

That includes such components as a willingness to see oneself and one’s place in the world accurately, an openness to new ideas, an ability to acknowledge personal mistakes and limitations and to recognize the strengths of others an appreciation of the value of all things, including others’ strengths and contributions.

In this new wave of anti-Semitism, many variables must be taken into account to avoid falling into simplifications, even though such linear and simplistic thinking prevails for racists and anti-Semites.

One sign of the enduring hope for reversing the growth of anti-Semitism and similar evils can be found in the simple greeting an older Muslim reportedly made to the shooter as he entered Al Noor mosque in Christchurch: “Hello brother.”

And it can be found in the historic motto of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society: “Welcome the stranger. Protect the refugee.”

*Pedro Brieger, Argentine sociologist and journalist, is director of NODAL, a news portal on Latin America and the Caribbean.


ARDA National Profiles: View religious, demographic, and socio-economic information for all nations with populations of more than 2 million. Special tabs for each country also allow users to measure religious freedom in the selected nation.

ARDA Compare Nations: Compare detailed measures on religion on any nation, including religious freedom and social attitudes, with similar measures for up to seven other nations.

A working definition of anti-Semitism. This was adopted in 2016 by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, an organization including 31 democratic member States, 11 Observer and Liaison States, the United Nations, UNESCO and the Council of Europe.

Reports on anti-Semitism can be found from such sources as the U.S. International Religious Freedom Report, the Anti-Defamation League, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Anti-Semitism Monitor.


Brieger, Pedro. Argentina’s Jews after the bomb: From scapegoats to pariahs.. The article examines the aftermath of the bombine that leveled the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association.

Feldman, David, ‘Toward a History of the Term ‘Anti-Semitism.’ Recognizing the layers of meaning that lie within the concept of anti-Semitism will help us understand why the term has become so contentious in the present, the author says.

Finke, Roger, and Briggs, David, “Religious Freedom.” This comprehensive overview examines the roots, prevalence and consequences of the denial of religious freedoms throughout the world. A consistent research finding is that religious minorities are the most frequent targets for receiving reduced freedoms, increased discrimination and open persecution.

Nossiter, Adam, ‘They Spit When I Walked in the Street’: the New Antisemitism in France. Nearly 40 percent of violent acts classified as racially or religiously motivated were committed against Jews in 2017, though Jews make up less than 1 percent of France’s population.


Dawidowicz, Lucy, The War Against the Jews: 1933-1945 The book tells the story of the Holocaust—from the historic evolution of anti-Semitism to the ultimate tragedy of the Nazi’s Final Solution.

Lipstadt, Deborah E., Antisemitism: Here and now. The prominent historian examines the modern resurgence of anti-Semitism.

Jaspers, Karl, A Question of German Guilt. This important philosophical work written after the Nazi government fell challenged everyone, from the German people to others around the world who remained inactive or silent, to consider their own moral responsibility for the Holocaust and other crimes against humanity.

Schweitzer, Frederick, and Perry Matthew, Antisemitism: Myth and Hate from Antiquity to the Present. The authors analyze the lies, misperceptions, and myths about Jews and Judaism that anti-Semites have propagated throughout the centuries.

Ed., Volf, Miroslav, Do We Worship the Same God? Jews, Christians and Muslims in Dialogue. This volume brings Jewish, Christian, and Muslim philosophers and theologians together to answer this question, offering insight into how representatives of each religion view the other monotheistic faiths.

Image by 燃灯, via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 4.0]
Image by Agenția de Inspectare și Restaurare a Monumentelor din Republica Moldova, via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 4.0]
Image by AndresHerutJaim, via Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

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