“Antisemitism is an ongoing problem”

Prof. Dr. Heiner Bielefeldt, Chair of Human Rights and Human Rights Policy at the Institute of Political Science at FAU
Prof. Dr. Heiner Bielefeldt, Chair of Human Rights and Human Rights Policy at the Institute of Political Science at FAU.(Bild: FAU/David Hartfiel)

Why facing up to antisemitic hate is more important than ever, and why empathy does not have to be exclusive. An interview with Professor Heiner Bielefeldt, Chair of Human Rights and Human Rights Policy at the Institute of Political Science at Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU).

Prof. Bielefeldt, after the Hamas massacre in October 2023, antisemitic attacks have become a regular occurrence. At the same time, people are loath to criticize Israel’s military offensive as they do not want to be accused of antisemitism. How can we deal with this as a society?

Empathy does not have to be exclusive: There is nothing to stop you feeling compassion for the Jews murdered on October 7 and their relatives at the same time as experiencing empathy for the tens of thousands of Palestinian victims of excessive violence in the Gaza Strip. Similarly, while it is justified that the political spotlight has turned to the spread of antisemitism, it is just as important that we focus on the anti-Islamic sentiment that is currently also on the rise in Germany. However, in spite of the need to consider the suffering of all different groups of people, we must not turn a blind eye to certain specific characteristics of antisemitism, especially the connection between antisemitism and conspiracy theories.

What do you mean?

At the latest since the 19 century, antisemitism has predominantly served as a projection screen for uneasiness with the modern world: it seems to provide an explanation for the insecurities and upheavals in modern society. “The Jew” is presented as the puppet master pulling the strings behind the scenes and influencing everything that is unsettling in the modern world: the collapse of the stock market, the rise of industrial capitalism, trade union strikes, modern political pluralism, socialist programs, the fall in traditional religious piety, the power of the mass media in shaping opinion, urban lifestyle, unpopular avant-garde art, cross-border migration, globalization. Antisemitism is much more than the discrimination of a certain group of people. It appears a means for people to try and give a face to the abstract powers they feel at the mercy of, but in reality it is a grotesque figure of their own imagination.

Which challenges does this pose democracy?

Rejecting antisemitism requires us to think deeply about freedom of expression and its limits. There are good reasons for ensuring that freedom of expression has very wide boundaries. A culture of freedom can only thrive in a society in which people have the chance to express their concerns, especially also controversial concerns, openly. A democratic culture of discourse must be able to cope with aggravation and provocation, even those that are unpleasant in nature. Racist or antisemitic hate speech is a different matter, however. At the end of the day, its aim is to excommunicate people from human society due to their actual or presumed membership of a certain group. It refuses them the right to be heard. Ultimately, silencing people destroys discourse and thereby undermines the prerequisites for liberal democracy. A clear rejection of antisemitism therefore serves democracy, civil rights and liberties, and last but not least freedom of expression itself.

Lecture series “Antisemitism“ – with society for society

Together with the adult education center Volkshochschule Erlangen and other partners, the Centre for Human Rights Erlangen-Nürnberg at FAU and the degree program “Ethics of Textual Cultures” represented by Prof. Antje Kley and Dr. Eva Forrester has initiated a series of lectures that invites all citizens to consider antisemitism in today’s society. Every Tuesday at 6:15 pm in the Senatsaal in the Kollegienhaus in Erlangen.

All dates

This text was first published in the Erlanger Nachrichten.