Harnessing the power of testimony to counter antisemitism
The negative beliefs and perceptions about Jews that manifest in intellectual, physical and rhetorical expressions of hatred towards Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, community institutions and religious facilities. When criticism of Israel demonizes, delegitimizes or holds Israel to a double standard, it is a manifestation of antisemitism.
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A Long History of Hate
Due to the highly complex and dynamic nature of antisemitism, a clear and sustainable definition is difficult to find. It is better suited to a typology, in which a variety of actions fall into broad range of antisemitic behaviors, than to a narrow definition, even though some scholars, such as Robert Wistrich, have successfully provided clear definitional guidance. Broadly speaking, antisemitism refers to a range of prejudices against, stereotypes about, and hatred towards, any person or persons who identify themselves as Jewish; people identified by others as being Jewish; entities perceived to have Jewish influence through ownership, political influence, fiscal control, or largely Jewish habitation; religious tenets, laws or property of the Jewish faith and its associated institutions; people who associate themselves or sympathize with Jewish people or perceived interests; individuals or groups that are insulted or harmed by other individuals or groups using demeaning actions or insulting language about Jews. The list is far from exhaustive, but illustrates the complexity, particularly when multiple types of antisemitic behavior are used in conjunction with one another.
Antisemitism in the Visual History Archive
Conducting a “Quick Search” using the term “antisemitism” in the Visual History Archive reveals that 23,674 of the 51,367 searchable testimonies reference the theme. That result is not surprising because every single interviewee defined by the Nazis as Jewish and who lived in Nazi-governed territory between the years of 1933 and 1945 was subjected to state-sponsored antisemitism. The fact that so many talk directly about it makes the Visual History Archive one of the world's largest social history sources for the study of antisemitism in the 20th century.
The Visual History Archive is not only a valuable database of individual experiences of antisemitism, it may also be thought of as a series of case studies. Some examples include the role antisemitism within political ideologies; the use of propaganda to drive and disseminate hatred; the response and actions of individuals, organs of state and religious bodies; the deadly intent of rhetoric; the legalization of antisemitism; the power of hate speech; the prevalence of collaboration and denouncement; antisemitism and the role of the bystander; the justification of looting and theft; exclusion; branding; labeling; isolation; enslavement; torture; starvation; execution and mass murder – all categories of antisemitism. The Visual History Archive also provides many insights into counter strategies, including identifying antisemitism, making public statements, personal acts of bravery, resistance, courage, espionage, political lobbying, networks of influence and personal sacrifice.
Testimony as Counter Strategy
For contemporary antisemitism to be countered successfully, precedents from the recent past need to be understood. Recognizing that the Visual History Archive provides insights into the causes and consequences of antisemitism as experienced by thousands of individuals, with sufficient and appropriate analysis, it may also provide valuable strategies on how to mount an effective response. This USC Shoah Foundation Focal Point provides a place for that response to happen.
Antisemitism is targeted at the group, but is almost exclusively experienced by the individual, which is why testimony is such a valuable resource. Put another way, engaging with testimony about antisemitism as experienced by the individual is a direct way to understand the devastating impact it has and therefore clearly identifies the need to overcome it. Victims of any form of hatred have a heightened sense of threat. They have to be alert to physical, psychological and emotional danger to protect themselves. Testimony takes us in a more visceral way into the lived experience of the victim. In the case of the Holocaust, antisemitism became a lethal killer that ultimately resulted in the destruction of millions of Jewish lives. But antisemitism has many more consequences, even when the outcome is not fatal. They include fear, anxiety, psychological pain, trauma, loss of identity, lack of confidence, avoidance of social situations, migration, physical removal, erosion of economic stability, lack of access to services or education, etc. Each of these consequences of antisemitism can be found through testimony, enabling both empathy and knowledge to become tools for action.
By Stephen D. Smith
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