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Antisemitic conspiracy theories arise in light of Ukraine war

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Israel Diaspora Affairs Minister Dr Nachman Shai has expressed concern over the rise in antisemitic conspiracy theories in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This is just one aspect of rising antisemitism around the globe.

Ahead of Yom Hashoah, Shai said that antisemitic conspiracy theories about Jewish culpability for world crises still persist. “We have an historical duty to rectify this situation,” he said.

According to an analysis published last week by the ministry, a worrying picture is emerging in which extremist movements are exploiting the war between Russia and Ukraine to spread antisemitic propaganda on the extreme left and right.

Some far-right movements have advanced conspiracy theories of Jewish culpability for the war based on the Jewish identity of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

White supremacists speak about a “brother war” between two “white” nations, which they say is fuelled by a Jewish conspiracy to annihilate Western civilisation and establish a “new world order”.

Other antisemitic conspiracy theories say Russian President Vladimir Putin is being controlled by Russian-Jewish oligarchs. This extremist far-right rhetoric has occasionally degenerated into calls for violence.

Meanwhile, on the extreme left, activists have compared the Russia-Ukraine war to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and have used the war to advance anti-Zionist messaging. These claims have been championed by high-profile political and media figures on the progressive left.

Nazi-related rhetoric and the use of the memory of the Holocaust has been widespread in relation to the current war.

“Holocaust Remembrance Day reminds us more and more every year of the horrific consequences of antisemitism, ignorance, and unbridled hatred of Jews,” said Shai. “It’s sad to see extremist movements exploiting the terrible situation in Ukraine for cynical purposes and to increase hatred and division. Israel has a historical duty to preserve the memory of the Holocaust, to fight ignorance, and declare war on antisemitism.”

Meanwhile, antisemitism is on the increase generally around the world. The number of antisemitic incidents recorded in the Netherlands reached a 10-year high of 183 cases in 2021, a Dutch Jewish watchdog group said recently.

The 2021 tally was a 35% increase on the previous year, said the Hague-based Center for Information and Documentation on Israel (CIDI).

At least 72 of the incidents happened in what the CIDI, called “real-life” conditions, meaning in physical spaces and not online. Of those, 21 were acts of vandalism and three were violent assaults.

In one assault, three men punched a Jewish man and his sister on the street in western Amsterdam. The woman was wearing traditional Jewish Orthodox clothes and had a mask with a Star of David on it that she got from a Jewish old age home while volunteering there. One of the attackers told the siblings, “Jews don’t belong here,” the siblings told police.

One of the vandalism incidents involved a Rotterdam mural caricaturing Steven Berghuis, who isn’t Jewish but plays for Ajax, an Amsterdam team that’s deemed “Jewish” by its fans and fans of rival teams. In the mural, Berghuis wears a yellow star and a kippah, and has a large hooked nose. It was titled “Jews always walk away” in an apparent reference to his transfer from the city’s team, Feyenoord, to rival Ajax.

Canada also experienced a record number of antisemitic incidents in 2021, according to B’nai Brith Canada’s annual audit released on 24 April. The advocacy group cited 2 799 anti-Jewish hate crimes in total, up 7% from 2020. Most notable was a sharp rise in violent incidents, from only nine in 2020 to 75 in 2021.

Incidents included a kosher Montreal bakery being firebombed, beatings, and synagogue vandalism, with the sharpest increases occurring in Quebec and British Columbia, the audit said. In one incident, a man gave the Nazi salute before beating a woman in a Toronto subway.

Canada’s Jewish community “leads the list” of minorities targeted in the country, said B’nai Brith senior legal counsel David Matas.

In the United States, the number of antisemitic incidents recorded by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in 2021 reached an all-time high, according to a new report by the group.

The 2 717 incidents identified in news articles by the ADL or reported to the ADL directly in 2021 represent a 34% increase from the 2 024 incidents of antisemitism tallied by the group in 2020. Previously, the 2 107 incidents in 2019 were the highest total since the ADL began publishing annual counts in 1979.

Anything from a slur to a terror attack can be included in the tally. For the second straight year, there were no fatal incidents tied to antisemitism in the United States in 2021, but the ADL counted 88 antisemitic assaults, a 167% increase on the 33 assaults in the 2020 count.

The ADL also documented a surge in incidents linked to the May 2021 round of deadly clashes between Israel and Hamas. “Jews were being attacked in the streets for no other reason than the fact that they were Jewish, and it seemed as if the working assumption was that if you were Jewish, you were blameworthy for what was happening half a world away,” ADL Chief Executive Jonathan Greenblatt said.

The 297 incidents that took place during the fighting in May represent an increase, but the ADL recorded other spikes later in the year, without a similar trigger.

More than any single factor, Greenblatt said the overall increase in antisemitic incidents could be linked to political instability and polarisation. “We know that Jews are experiencing more antisemitic incidents than we have experienced in this country in at least 40 years, and that’s a deeply troubling indicator of larger societal fissures.”

Greenblatt said at the ADL’s national leadership summit that the rhetoric equating anti-Zionism with antisemitism ran the same risk of violent outcomes. Around this time, both Democrats and Republicans increasingly charged the other party with tolerating antisemitism.

The ADL has appealed to both parties to address antisemitism within their own ranks.

Greenblatt tied rhetoric from both the right and the left to the spike in antisemitic incidents. “That’s why we’re seeing this jump in antisemitic incidents, because groups from all sides of the ideological spectrum are using their words to make it OK to hate Jews,” he said.

He acknowledged the violence often identified with the far-right, but said that didn’t diminish the risk posed by anti-Zionist rhetoric from the left. “Unlike their right-wing analogues, these organisations might not have armed themselves or engaged in an insurrection designed to topple our government, but these radical actors indisputably and unapologetically regularly denigrate and dehumanise Jews,” Greenblatt said, citing attacks on Jews during the Israel-Gaza conflict a year ago.

“Again, I’m not diminishing the singular threat of white nationalists. However, as we saw last May, vicious rhetoric isn’t just an abstract issue. It’s dangerous and destabilising because it can manifest in the real world and impel individuals to act violently.”

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