Antisemitism in the 21st Century: A Conversation With Prof. David Schraub

With the resurgence in anti-Jewish violence and antisemitism, including online hate speech, cemetery desecration, and attacks on synagogues, it’s essential to understand antisemitism to work towards eliminating it.

Interview by Kelsey M. Chapman-Sutton ’25

With the resurgence in anti-Jewish violence and antisemitism, including online hate speech, cemetery desecration, and attacks on synagogues, it’s essential to understand antisemitism to work towards eliminating it.

David Schraub joined Lewis & Clark as an Assistant Professor of Law in 2021. His research and teaching are focused on constitutional law, law and religion and anti-discrimination law. He has also published extensively in the areas of political theory, philosophy, and Jewish studies. Schraub hosted a national conference, “Law and Antisemitism,” at the law school in spring 2023, bringing a number of legal scholars together for a series of discussions. Proceedings from that conference will be published in an upcoming issue of the Lewis & Clark Law Review.

Professor Schraub talked with us about the presence of antisemitism in modern American politics and its role in rhetoric surrounding the Israel-Palestine conflict.”

[Judaism is] certainly a religion. It’s also arguably a nationality, an ethnicity, a race, a civilization. It doesn’t fit neatly into conceptual categories.”

How do you define antisemitism?

Antisemitism includes anti-Jewish attitudes, practices, behaviors, or things that meaningfully obstruct the ability of Jews to be included in social, political, cultural, economic, academic life. But it’s also about systemic social conditions that thwart the ability of Jews to participate as equals in relevant social spheres. And for me, that’s highly influenced by definitions around racism, misogyny, and so forth. There’s a lot of great work that’s been done in those fields to think more robustly about the full scope of what the various “isms” are. I think antisemitism, properly interpreted, should be viewed as parallel to those.

Could you explain how the multi-dimensional aspect of Jewishness—including religion and ancestry, as well as racial, national, and cultural identity—impacts antisemitism and its expression, as well as the barriers to eradicating it?

Judaism crosses categories. It’s certainly a religion. It’s also arguably a nationality, an ethnicity, a race, a civilization. It doesn’t fit neatly into conceptual categories that we have. Some people try to argue that it’s just a religion, and therefore it doesn’t make sense to think about it in terms of racial or ethnic discrimination. This is a serious thing on the law side of things, because Title VI of the Civil Rights Act doesn’t apply to religion, but it does apply to race, ethnicity, or national origin.

The past few administrations have all interpreted Title VI to cover Jews where the form of discrimination is based on ethnic, racial, or national origin. Incidentally, they did a similar thing for Muslims. There can be situations where Islamophobia takes on a racialized character and is covered under Title VI. That whole method was inspired by a similar pathway for getting at antisemitism, which is a nice example of how thinking critically about forms of discrimination for one group can lead to advances for others.

Ideally, these sorts of complexities make us think harder and improve things. But a lot of times, unfortunately, they are leveraged by people who want to opportunistically adopt a narrow understanding of what Judaism or Jewishness is, in order to interpret Jewishness in a way that lets them do the things they already want to do.

How do conceptualizations of whiteness play into antisemitism?

There are a couple of different things going on here. There are forms of robust antisemitism that are predicated on, and violently enforced by, the denial of Jewish whiteness, and at the same time, in other contexts, Jews are able to gain access to these powers, privileges, and prerogatives. We need to understand that both things can be true at the same time.

One of the stories that I tell when I’m trying to illustrate this is that for most of the period from the mid-1930s through the early 1970s, the Speaker of the South Carolina House of Representatives was a Jewish guy by the name of Solomon Blatt. You do not become Speaker of the South Carolina House of Representatives in the middle of the 20th century, in the heart of Jim Crow, if they are not seeing you as white.

Antisemitism is central to the animating ideologies of contemporary white supremacy. It’s not something that has gone away.”

At the same time, this was when the Holocaust was happening—the quintessential example of Jews, in the antisemitic imagination, not being white in the most violent possible way. The same year Blatt first became speaker, the Buchenwald concentration camp was opened in Nazi Germany.

You can’t dismiss either side of the equation. You can’t say the antisemitism part is over and that Jews are now just another flavor of white people enjoying white privilege. That is a very serious mistake. Antisemitism is central to the animating ideologies of contemporary white supremacy. It’s not something that has gone away. And there is a real sense among many Jews that some on the left no longer view Jews as a minority that needs allyship and support because we’re supposedly “just White.” Again, that’s a serious mistake, and one that both breeds and apologizes for dangerous antisemitism. But at the same time, in the context of someone who looks like me in the United States of America in 2023, there is little doubt that I enjoy substantial elements of white privilege. Holding those two truths together is difficult. But it is doable.

How did antisemitism evolve in the post-World War II era, and how has it continued to evolve in the 21st century?

I’ve heard antisemitism described as a scavenger ideology. It grabs what’s available to it in the language and the argot of the times. After World War II, there was discrediting of antisemitism, because that’s something that Nazis did, and Nazis are bad. This got folded into an assimilationist, “we’re tolerant” attitude by letting Jews into the suburbs. That is a form of inclusion—but it also comes with pressure for Jews to be a “quirky Protestant sect.” That, in turn, generates tensions when Jews don’t want to be that assimilated and don’t want to just be Christians who go to a different temple.

We’re seeing that right now with the Dobbs decision. Jews, by and large, have a different opinion on abortion rights than do many evangelical religious Christians. When Jews say not only that they don’t agree with the Evangelical view (which is often labeled—albeit never by Jews—the “Judeo-Christian” view) on abortion, but that they overwhelmingly believe that abortion rights are a part of Jewish religious heritage, many Christians are not happy to see that exercise of independence. They’ll say that the “real” Jews are the ones who oppose abortion. Turns out that most Jews aren’t “real” Jews under this framework. It ends up being a way of denigrating and dismissing a large portion of how the contemporary Jewish community understands itself.

We’re seeing this resurrection and resurgence of classic antisemitic motifs about the wide-spanning globalists who control the world, combined with this notion of, “Well, of course I’m a friend of the Jews—the real Jews,” as a way of warding off the sting of being accused of antisemitism. But it is antisemitism, and it is dangerous, and it has a direct relationship with attacks on synagogues and Jewish community centers throughout the country.

It feels obligatory to mention George Soros in a conversation about contemporary antisemitism. What does Soros and the rhetoric surrounding him represent about where antisemitism is and where it’s heading?

I often hear people making the point that criticizing George Soros is not antisemitism. Which always makes me chuckle—because it’s obviously true. It’s true in the exact same way as criticism of Israel is not antisemitism. Yes, obviously it’s entirely fine to criticize Soros or the State of Israel. There is nothing inherently antisemitic about it. But there are ways that one can do it that are antisemitic, and there are ways that an overall thrust of discourse can proceed that is antisemitic.

What we’re seeing with Soros is not actually criticism of him. It’s criticism of people and groups who are viewed as being puppets and handmaidens of this global conspiracy. That’s what makes it antisemitic—because there’s no plausible argument that Soros is pulling the strings in the way that’s being asserted. Soros is standing in for this notion that Jews are the source of our misfortune.

This is a common motif in Republican campaign ads. I think every major Republican 2024 contender is going to be asserting this. Elon Musk is promoting this. When you see those sorts of rhetoric penetrating into the mainstream, that’s alarming. The people who do this have made it abundantly clear that Jewish voices do not matter on the subject of antisemitism—and that, in some ways, is the scariest thing of all.

Antisemitism is one of the most powerful mobilizing social movements the world has ever seen. For that reason, it’s always going to be attractive to leverage.”

What role is antisemitism playing in contemporary American political discourse?

One thing that is underappreciated is the degree of irrelevance that Jews have to conversations about Jews. When antisemitism hits the public eye, the way it gets talked about has only a modest (if that) relationship to how Jews are talking about it amongst ourselves. When there are 90 articles asserting that “The Squad” is antisemitic, people assume that the Jewish position is that The Squad is antisemitic. But really, many Jews have complicated feelings about The Squad and that wing of the Democratic Party. And when we do try to correct these narratives, we’re ignored. If you think back on what was talked about with respect to antisemitism in the past ten years, it had little to do with how Jews wanted to frame the conversation.

Antisemitism has increased in American politics, just as it has increased everywhere. Antisemitism is a central organizing principle of this ascendant wave of reactionary conservatism and white nationalism. What is not always appreciated about antisemitism is that it is a productive ideology. It helps build things. It makes things happen. It greases wheels. It reduces friction. Antisemitism is one of the most powerful mobilizing social movements the world has ever seen. For that reason, it’s always going to be attractive to leverage.

What is the relationship between the resurgence of antisemitism and the evolving American opinions and rhetoric on the Israel-Palestine conflict?

My general view is that when you’re talking about antisemitism, it always permeates the field. It is an important mediating consideration that helps govern any conversation we might have about Jews or Jewish institutions. There’s no way to parcel it off and ignore it. Israel is a very convenient vector for spreading and facilitating a bevy of antisemitic conspiracy theories ranging from Jewish hyperpower and world domination, to Jewish deceit and political manipulation, to Jewish foreignness and rootlessness. That rhetoric is very present, very real, and never can be avoided entirely, because of what I said above: antisemitism is a productive ideology. You’re going to miss huge parts of the story if you try to talk about Israel without talking about antisemitism. It would be an exercise in nonsense.

But just because it is there does not mean the entire discourse is illicit—it doesn’t mean it’s an irretrievably diseased conversation. And antisemitism is not the only thing that needs to be said about it. The current government of Israel is dangerous to human rights, to the rule of law, to democratic values. That is going to yield some sharp elbows—and deservedly so. That these elbows may make supporters of Israel uncomfortable does not make them antisemitic. And likewise, that some sharp criticisms can justifiably be made is not a license for declaring that anything styling itself as a “criticism of Israel” is never antisemitic.

How do you distinguish between legitimate criticism of Israel and rhetoric that verges into antisemitism?

Israel is almost half of the global Jewish population. It’s a centerpiece of global Jewish cultural, religious, practical life. There’s no way to just excise out that part of the Jewish community and still be a people in the way that we are a people. [But] if you’re not suggesting that there’s something inherently illegitimate about the Jewish presence in Israel or Jewish self-determination, then I would walk pretty far with you. There’s ample room to affirm that Jews belong in Israel and recognize their right to be there, while having robust criticisms of a range of Israeli governmental policies and practices. Likewise, there is no conflict between affirming Jews’ right to self-determination in Israel and affirming the equally essential Palestinian right to independence and self-determination.

Looking to the future, what are your biggest hopes about the eradication of antisemitism?

What I hope happens is a stronger coalition of recognizing that we’re in this together. Ultimately, when we work hard and think hard about anti-semitism, we are also going to be learning things about racism, Islamophobia, and anti-trans ideology. And vice versa. All of those things can inform the fight against antisemitism. It’s not a zero-sum game. We are stronger together, and I think there is some good momentum for this coalitional approach.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and space.