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The language of contemporary antisemitism

The language of contemporary antisemitism
Throughout this lesson we’ve seen how antisemitism has been expressed after the Holocaust, and how it took on new forms in relation to the events taking place in the second half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century. Israel, Zionism, and the Holocaust constantly come into question and under attack in the postwar forms of antisemitism. However, though these forms are relatively new in the history of antisemitism, they build on pre- Holocaust antisemitic stereotypes and imagery, adapting them according to the changing ideological needs. This reliance on classical antisemitic perceptions is especially clear when examining the language of contemporary antisemitism. As we will see, it is a shared reliance that in many cases bridges the gap between Left and Right.
My research all-in-all focuses on today’s antisemitism or contemporary antisemitism with the focus on language. Why is that so? Because I strongly believe that language is the key to understanding antisemitism. As a cognitive linguist I have the assumption that language, through language we can have a window into the minds of antisemites. We can understand how they feel and how they think and what kind of conceptualizations they have when they think about Jews and Judaism and, in modern times, about Israel. Now among those research projects, there was one which I did together with the American historian Yehuda Reinhardt. It’s a book about inside the antisemitic mind and we did a very extensive corpus study.
We examined more than 14,000 letters and emails that were sent between 2002 and 2010 to the Central Council of the Jews in Germany and to the Israeli embassy in Berlin but also to some embassies in other countries in Europe. Very interesting was that in these fourteen thousand emails and letters only let’s say three or four percent of the writers were coming from the Neo-Nazi scene, from the right-wing extremists. More than 60% of the people writing to those institutions came from the mainstream society, from the middle of society. Most of them said that they were good people; that they were no racists, no antisemites; that they were Social Democrats; that they were left-wing oriented.
So most of the people had a left political affiliation. But when we had a close look at the utterances of those people, we saw that there is hardly any difference in the argumentation patterns and in semantics when it comes to Jews and Judaism and Israel and there is hardly any difference to the writings of the Neo-Nazis. Of course the writings of the Neo-Nazis are much more vulgar and they say such things as “we want to open the gas chambers.” You won’t find such utterances with educated people coming from the mainstream. They use a more subtle language. They prefer indirect speech acts. They use rhetorical questions.
And they use some kind of camouflage, and instead of saying “Jews are the evil of the world,” they say “Israel is the evil of the world.” Instead of saying “the Jews are the enemy of mankind and are a threat to world peace,” they say “the Zionists are a threat to world peace.” So you have only a substitution of words but essentially it is the same. I would like to read some of the examples so you can see that there is hardly any difference whether the texts come from right-wing extremists or left-wing extremists, or from educated people from the mainstream. “You Jews are the biggest filth of mankind.” Or “You filthy Jew you are to blame for this world’s misery.”
This is a conceptualization we find frequently that Jews are really not only responsible for certain actions - let’s say military actions or some actions in the banking system - but they are to be blamed for everything that is bad in the world. This is a conceptualization that we find in the modern text and in the old text as well. We have a lot of dehumanization and demonizing of the Jews. For instance, in a sentence like “Jews are not persons. They are excrements.” All the traditional stereotypes you can see in … along the ages, we found in those modern texts.
For instance, very prominent, especially if something is happening in the Middle East conflict, is a concept of Jews as child murderers or you have the blood libel stereotype projected to Israel. That is very common. That “Israelis and Jews together all over the world are going to control the world” is another one. And the very concrete picture or stereotype of Jews poisoning the fountains has now become a more abstract stereotype that Jews are poisoning societies. So we have a shift, a modern shift, but in the end it’s the same argumentation patterns.
So if we come back to a comparison of the death threats and the very vulgar and aggressive speech of antisemites belonging to the right-wing extremists or to the neo-Nazis, here you see interestingly that most of those people, although stated otherwise in research, do not so much deny the Holocaust but they regret, in our corpus, that Hitler didn’t finish off. Those utterances are much more than the denial of Holocaust. So we have then utterances like “it’s a pity Hitler couldn’t finish his good job but be sure the gas chambers are still waiting and we will open them once again.”
Or they use the language of the 19th and the early 20th century saying “the Jewish Question needs to be solved” and of course this solving means killing all Jews. Interestingly the Jewish Question has turned to the “Israeli question” by now, and this you can find with educated antisemites. They do not give death threats. They do not talk about gas chambers because they of themselves they say, “I’m not an antisemite” but … and then they produce all the old stereotypes. But their solution plans, you know they transfer the old solution plan “kill all Jews and there will be peace in the world” - they project and transfer this solution plan to the Jewish state of Israel.
And then we have sentences like this and this is by a professor the highly educated man, “Only by the complete dissolvement of the illegal State of Israel, peace will come to the world and this is one of many examples.

Prof. Monika Schwarz-Friesel

Though contemporary forms of antisemitism are relatively new in the history of this phenomenon, they build on older antisemitic stereotypes and imagery, adapting them according to the changing ideological and political needs. This reliance on past antisemitic perceptions is especially clear when examining the language of contemporary antisemitism. As we will see, it is a shared reliance that in many cases bridges the gap between Left and Right.

What are the similarities and differences between the way antisemitism is expressed by the groups discussed in this step?


  • Schwarz-Friesel, Monika and Jehuda Reinharz, Inside the Antisemitic Mind: the Language of Jew-Hatred in Contemporary Germany (Waltham, M.A.: Brandeis University Press, 2017).
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Antisemitism: From Its Origins to the Present

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