Anti-Semitism in the Occupy Movement

Stan Guthrie | Author | Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Anti-Semitism in the Occupy Movement

“I think that the Zionist Jews who are running these big banks … need to be run out of this country.”

This comment comes not from the archives of Nazi Germany, but from the lips of a participant in Occupy Los Angeles. Subsequently, the speaker, substitute teacher Patricia McAllister, lost her position with the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Yet fellow Occupy demonstrators, rather than repudiating her opinion, gathered at the district offices to protest the firing. McAllister refused to apologize, telling a reporter: “It is not racist, it’s the truth. Anyone who speaks against the Jews are [sic] called racists nowadays.”

In Chicago, meanwhile, one Occupy activist held up a sign reading, “Hitler’s Bankers — Wall St.” Demonstrators gathered outside the office of Rahm Emanuel, the city’s first Jewish mayor. They were displaying a large Palestinian flag.

When asked for comment about anti-Semitic demonstrators and about the flag in a protest that is supposed to focus on financial issues, Occupy Chicago organizers revealingly declined, saying: “One of the things the Occupy movement is deeply concerned with is the condition of free speech and First Amendment rights in this country. Everyone has the right to express their views. Occupy Chicago does not endorse one political, philosophical or spiritual view over another. We all have the right to speak our minds.”

This includes, apparently, anti-Semites.

Chicago Jewish leaders, however, are not so shy about saying what they think. “It was appalling to see this stuff in the public marketplace of ideas,” says Lonnie Nasatir of the Anti-Defamation League of Chicago. “It’s the age-old stereotype of Jews and money. … Our country is in significant economic straits, and unfortunately [some] are looking for who they can blame. And it’s sometimes easy to blame Jews because there’s this misconception that Jews control banks and Jews control Wall Street and Jews control the media and all the rest.”

Indeed, anti-Jewish stereotyping never lurks far below the surface — especially in times of economic suffering or uncertainty. Two years ago, when the current economic crisis was still new, author Ira Stoll called “the historical precedents … exceedingly grim.”

Some historians, Stoll notes, link the First Crusade in 1095 to famine and a poor harvest. The expulsion of Jews from Spain, according to Benzion Netanyahu, was an attempt by Spaniards “to get rid of their debts by getting rid of their creditors.” More generally, he writes, “it is an iron-clad rule in the history of group relations: the majority’s toleration of every minority lessens with the worsening of the majority’s condition.”

And of course we have the horrific example of World War II. Rabbi Ronald Price of the Union for Traditional Judaism notes, “In the 1930s, as Germany’s economy collapsed, the finger was pointed at the Jews and the Nazis ascended to power.”

Eric Metaxas, in his magisterial biography, Bonhoeffer, recounts the 1922 assassination of Germany’s foreign minister, Walter Rathenau, a political moderate. Rathenau aroused hatred in the Weimar Republic for advocating that Germany pay its stipulated war debts while renegotiating the terms — and for being a Jew. Rathenau was murdered “by a carful of thugs with machine guns.” When Hitler came to power, the killers were made national heroes.

And despite all the convulsions of that era, anti-Semitism lingers still in Europe. An ADL survey found that 74 percent of Spaniards believe that Jews “have too much power in international financial markets.” Meanwhile, 67 percent of Hungarians believe Jews “have too much power in the business world.”

Yet for Americans who believe we have moved past those ancient hatreds, this can all seem like ancient history. They say that the words and actions of a few angry Occupy protesters are an anomaly, more than a portent. However, anti-Semitism is uncomfortably widespread in the United States. According to a survey by the Anti-Defamation League, 15 percent of Americans hold “deeply anti-Semitic views” — an increase of 3 percent since 2009. This means that 35 million Americans are now anti-Semitic. The all-time high was 17 percent, in 2002, when the country was in the throes of a far milder recession.

A total of 19 percent of Americans in the survey said they thought the statement “Jews have too much control/influence on Wall Street” is “probably true,” which is up 5 percent since 2009. Further, in a recent report, the FBI found that two-thirds of the 1,700 religiously motivated hate crimes committed in a year were directed against Jews.

With the economic crisis dragging on with no end in sight, and with the Occupy movement growing increasingly violent, I expect that anti-Semitism in the United States will only grow stronger. So do some Jewish leaders.

“It’s an age-old canard that really has damaging effects, not only [in] the Jewish community but [in] the community at large,” warns ADL Chicago’s Nasatir. “And we believe those types of nefarious stereotypes can only lead to bad things.”

Stan Guthrie, a Christianity Today editor at large, is author of All That Jesus Asks: How His Questions Can Teach and Transform Us and coauthor of The Sacrament of Evangelism. Stan blogs at

Publication date: November 15, 2011