What Are Antisemitic Tropes—and Are They Happening Today?
by Dr. Susan Michael, ICEJ USA Director
An antisemitic trope is a myth or sensational report, misrepresentation, or lie defamatory toward Judaism or the Jewish people as an ethnic or religious group. This two-part series will first discuss the critical role these untruths play in increasing antisemitism, and then in part two, specific tropes of which everyone should be aware.
Before the Holocaust
In 1933 Time magazine featured a picture of Dr. Paul Joseph Goebbels on its front cover. Goebbels was a German Nazi politician, one of Adolf Hitler’s closest followers, and the chief propagandist for the Nazi party. Under Goebbels’ image was his quote: “The Jews Are to Blame!” That was a decade before the Holocaust, which killed 6 million Jews, and just one instance of countless other lies about the Jewish people that played a part in shifting people’s attitudes toward the Jewish people before the Holocaust.
Ten years earlier, Julius Streicher started publishing the virulently antisemitic German tabloid Der Stürmer, published until the end of World War II. The newspaper often described how to identify Jewish people, included racist political cartoons and antisemitic caricatures, and focused on imaginary fears and exaggerations—like medieval stereotypes accusing Jews of killing children, sacrificing their bodies, and drinking their blood. Over time, these articles and images subtly shifted people’s perceptions of Jews, whom Streicher portrayed as an inferior race. By 1938 his publishing house was producing other antisemitic works, including the infamous German children’s book Giftpilz (The Poisonous Mushroom).
Articles became more malicious in Der Stürmer once the war began, many demanding the annihilation and extermination of the “Jewish race.”
The Nazis used such propaganda to rally the Germans to support the persecution of Jews, war, and ultimately, genocide. By the time of the Holocaust, these stereotypes and images were so familiar that people didn’t realize they had adopted such erroneous views as truth.
Modern-Day Antisemitic Tropes
One would think this no longer happens in twenty-first-century America, yet the opposite is true. Antisemitism is skyrocketing. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reported 3,697 antisemitic incidents in the United States in 2022, the highest number ever recorded since the ADL began tracking them in 1979. In the 2023 ADL Antisemitic Attitudes in America report, 20 percent of Americans believe six or more antisemitic tropes that feed antisemitism, an increase from 11 percent in 2019.
During the COVID-19 debacle, for example, the phrase “poisoning the well” reemerged, blaming Jews for spreading the virus, a trope the ADL says “echoes the medieval trope that Jews were responsible for spreading the Bubonic Plague in Europe.” This myth led to the use of the term “Holocough” across social media—a call to infect and kill Jews with COVID.
The “deadly exchange” myth recently surfaced too. The ADL states this untruth “claimed that training exercises between the US and Israeli police forces fueled American police brutality against Black Americans by promulgating tactics allegedly used against Palestinians.” A 2021 article by the American Jewish Committee (AJC) stated this gross analogy “appeared in demonstrations … when protesters chanted ‘Israel, we know you—you murder children, too.’”
The increase in antisemitic incidents and the rise of repackaged lies and conspiracies are disturbing and verify how critical it is for Christians to understand what antisemitic tropes are and speak out against them, so history does not repeat itself.
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