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Opinion: The shocking resurgence of antisemitism

Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a weekly opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.

Some passengers feared for their lives Sunday night, when they landed at the main airport in Dagestan, a majority-Muslim Russian republic, and found their plane quickly swarmed by a throng that had smashed its way into the airport terminal and the tarmac after hearing that a flight from Tel Aviv was arriving.

Frida Ghitis

A few of the rioters carried Palestinian flags, underscoring the obvious link between the attack and the war between Israel and Hamas. But the mob’s target was Jews.

In terrifying scenes, the rampaging crowd, some shouting “Allahu akbar,” surrounded passengers, pressuring them to prove they were not Jewish. Outside the terminal, they searched cars looking for Jews. One of the passengers told local media he was let through after showing his Russian passport and being told they were “not touching non-Jews today.”

The shocking event, in the country that gave the world the word “pogrom” — an organized massacre of Jews, common in the 19th and early 20th centuries — was one more in the global explosion of antisemitism that erupted immediately after thousands of Hamas terrorists infiltrated Israel on October 7 and set out to kill as many Jews as they were able in gruesome fashion, murdering at least 1,400 men, women and children of all ages and taking hundreds more hostage into Gaza.

The surge in antisemitism became much more visible as Israel launched an operation to uproot Hamas, the Islamist organization that rules over Gaza, in a military campaign that has created enormous suffering for the Palestinians trapped between Hamas fighters — positioned in underground tunnels below civilians — the Israeli military and the Gaza border with Egypt, which remained closed until Wednesday when a limited number were let through.

Crowds on the tarmac at Makhachkala Uytash Airport (MCX) in the southern Russian Republic of Dagestan on Sunday, October 29.

The wrenching scenes from Gaza have provided the fuel for new protests, with some calling for a ceasefire and some chanting, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” — a chant that rejects the existence of Israel. The protests started soon after news of the attack spread, while Israel was still fighting Hamas terrorists on its side of the border.

Once Israel’s military response ramped up, the world seemed to disregard what Hamas did. The United Nations General Assembly passed a call for a ceasefire, but it rejected a motion to condemn Hamas.

This moment in history has created a perfect storm for antisemitism. The events of the past few weeks have burst the restraints on the far right — where antisemitism is often naked — and on the far and sometimes not-so-far left, where it comes clothed in lofty rhetoric of defending the underdog and contorted historical analysis.

“This is a threat that is reaching, in some way, sort of historic levels,” FBI Director Christopher Wray told a Senate hearing Tuesday, noting that “the Jewish community is targeted by terrorists really across the spectrum,” including domestic violent extremists and foreign terrorist groups.

Universities have become hotbeds of antisemitism, with Jewish students fearing for their safety. In one post on a message board at Cornell University, a student wrote they would “bring an assault rifle to campus” and shoot Jewish people. This is an Ivy League school in New York. (Police have since arrested a Cornell student after he allegedly threatened to kill Jewish students.)

Not far away, at The Cooper Union, Jewish students, some of whom had stood in silent watch as a counter-demonstration, while a larger group of pro-Palestinian students protested, locked themselves in the library, while on the other side the anti-Israel protesters pounded menacingly on the door. Pro-Palestinian protests have been rife with antisemitic slogans, and some have careened into violence.

American Jews are more familiar with right-wing antisemitism. That is also thriving. From the left and the right, Jews in the US and elsewhere are facing all manner of threats and attacks. Some neo-Nazi groups are monetizing the crisis. But it’s the reaction from some who used to be ideological soulmates that has left so many heartbroken.

As Israel Policy Forum’s Michael Koplow wrote, “… too much of the left is now demonstrating that its calls for universal justice exclude Jews from that universe.”

The historian Simon Sebag Montefiore, dismantling the “decolonization narrative” that scholars use against Israel, noted bitterly, “I always wondered about the leftist intellectuals who supported Stalin, and those aristocratic sympathizers and peace activists who excused Hitler.” Now, he said, he sees the same pattern among Hamas apologists and atrocity deniers, who ignore overwhelming evidence of what Hamas is and what it did.

The phenomenon, from the left and from the right, is unfolding across the globe. Antisemites have struck in Austria, South Africa, Nicaragua, Germany, Venezuela and elsewhere. In Milan, an anti-Israel protester shouted, “Open the borders so we can kill the Jews.” A teenager in an anti-Israel demonstration in Hamburg, Germany, shouted, “I’m for Hitler, for gassing the Jews.”

While antisemitism is rampant, it’s worth nothing that for millions around the world, the phenomenon is utterly unacceptable. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said he was “outraged” after a synagogue was firebombed in Berlin, one of many political leaders around the world who have decried the assaults, from Australia to Argentina.

In the US, the Biden administration has stood at the forefront of the fight, pledging to take action. And Republican presidential candidates have also denounced antisemitic activities on university campuses.

To those who might have mistakenly thought pogroms were a relic of the past, this moment has been a jarring encounter with reality.

Frida Ghitis

As always, these pronouncements do make a difference. It is critical that influential leaders highlight the fact that criticism of Israel routinely becomes a cover for antisemitic rhetoric and worse. And it is long past time to examine the curricula that distort history, for example drawing false analogies between the experiences of Black Americans and in the Middle East, often turning young progressive students into supporters of the oldest hatred.

Clearly, there’s much room for legitimate debate and disagreement about Israel’s actions. (Hamas’s actions are beyond excuse). But there’s no doubt that many of those who claim they are “anti-Zionist” rather than antisemitic are just using a newer word for a hatred that’s been around for thousands of years.

To those who might have mistakenly thought pogroms were a relic of the past, this moment has been a jarring encounter with reality. It’s not just the clash between Hamas and Israel at play.

This crisis comes during a fraught geopolitical moment, when the world is realigning into competing blocs, and autocratic regimes such as Russia and China find in the conflict new fuel to ignite against the United States and its allies.

That’s why it was curious that the main airport in the Russian Republic of Dagestan — which is Muslim-Majority, the former home of the Boston Marathon bombers, in the Caucusus region where Moscow has fought back against terrorism — was so unprotected. What is not surprising was the reaction of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who tried to blame the United States and Ukraine for the airport assault.

Washington strongly condemned the attack and demanded that Russia protect its Jewish citizens. Rabbi Alexander Boroa, head of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, said the Gaza war has “turned into open aggression towards even Russian Jews,” with local authorities allowing open threats against Jews and Israelis.

In China, where the government keeps a tight rein on social media, it has done little to restrain a raging wildfire of antisemitism — “Hitler truly knew the Jews,” declared one popular post — with Chinese state media adding to the conspiracy theories and the disinformation about Jews.

Jews around the world, worrying about their safety, wondering who they can trust, are listening closely to the words and actions of social and political leaders.

In Dagestan, the local government condemned the attack, and it took helicopter-borne security forces to prevent what might have been another massacre.

There’s not much that is new about antisemitism: The individual hatred displayed by small men has been fueled by the political machinations of more powerful ones over the centuries. More than once, it has all spun out of their control.