The banality of antisemitism 

The banality of antisemitism 

Hannah Arendt famously wrote about the banality of evil. She was referring to how ordinary people could perpetrate extraordinary evil. Her ideas arose from her witnessing of Adolf Eichman’s trial in Jerusalem. Bureaucrats could be Nazis. Your next-door neighbors could be their sympathizers and your betrayers. They also could acquiesce by their silence.

Today we are witnessing a new chapter in the banality of antisemitism. Not the overt violent antisemitism of terrorists, but the covert, quiet antisemitism of intellectuals and their accomplices. Not the classic anti-religious and racist tropes of the past, but the novel vilification of Jews and the Jewish state as persecutors.

As Noah Feldman puts it, “The core of this new antisemitism lies in the idea that Jews are not a historically oppressed people seeking self-preservation but instead oppressors: imperialists, colonialists, and even white supremacists.”

This new doctrine is a deceptively toxic brew of half-truths, misdirection, revisionism, and willful ignorance.

The new antisemitism has been lying just below the surface for some time, sporadically bubbling up in the guise of anti-Zionism. Then it exploded, in one of the great ironies of our time, after Oct. 7. As heinous as the Hamas attacks were, straightfaced academics and protesters alike intone that Israel is not innocent, that Israel’s oppression going back to  the Nakba of 1948 must be considered, that the Jewish usurpation of Palestine is actually centuries if not millennia old, that it is the Palestinians who have the right to return “from the river to the sea,” that the Zionists have now turned into genocidal avengers.

Here’s my J’accuse:

If you deny Israel’s right to exist — you are an antisemite.

If you deny Israel’s right to self-defense — you are an antisemite.

If you fail to condemn the evil of Hamas — you are an antisemite.

If you tacitly support those who want to eradicate Israel — you are still an antisemite.

If you distort history to fit only your anti-Zionist narrative — you are still an antisemite.

And if you remain silent with regard to all this — you are on your way to becoming an antisemite.

I have a sad case study in the banality of antisemitism from one of the world’s most respected refugee organizations. I present it in the form of a letter I sent to the International Rescue Committee when it asked me for my latest donation. For me this is personally wrenching, as I have contributed to the IRC not for years, but decades.

Since the appeal letter mentioned Gaza as the deadliest place in the world, I went to the IRC website to see how it described the situation. What I found constitutes, to my mind, the sin of commission, distortion through banality, and the sin of omission, failure to provide any fair context and silence about the atrocities of Oct. 7. Though promised a response from the IRC in its automated reply, I never received one. Such is the banality of antisemitism today.

This is my letter:

Dear David Miliband and the IRC Board of Trustees:

As a small, symbolic but consistent contributor to the IRC for decades I am sadly filing this ethics violation report against the IRC itself.

I do so with a request for your response, and as a courtesy before making this case in a much more public way.

I further do so in light of the fact that the IRC proudly invokes the fact that it was “Founded in 1933 at the call of Albert Einstein,” who proudly stood with efforts to create and sustain the State of Israel.

On Oct. 7, 2023 the IRC released what can only be called a pathetically banal statement, as follows: “Amman, Jordan, October 7, 2023 — We are dismayed by the dramatic escalation of violence and mourn the extensive loss of civilian life in Israel and Gaza today. We are focused on the humanitarian needs of civilians in the coming days.”

By failing to name and condemn Hamas’s massive terrorist attack, the IRC is complicit with that organization and in violation of its own ethics code.

Even now, the only explanation on the IRC website is sorely lacking: “Israeli forces began airstrikes and ground operations after Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups launched a deadly ground incursion and rocket barrage on southern Israel on October 7, 2023, killing 1,200 people and taking over 200 hostages.”

“Deadly ground incursion and rocket barrage” does not begin to honestly describe the atrocities committed against Israeli men, women and children.

The IRC has every right and responsibility to address the humanitarian disaster in Gaza.

But at the same time it has an equal responsibility to condemn terrorism and honestly explain the war’s context.

Albert Einstein would be turning over in his grave at the IRC’s failure to confront such evil.


Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz

Barry L. Schwartz is rabbi of Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia and director and editor-in-chief emeritus of The Jewish Publication Society. His latest book is “Open Judaism: A Guide for Believers, Atheists, and Agnostics.”

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