Recognizing “ironic” antisemitism for what it is

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If it looks like a Nazi, acts like a Nazi, and makes openly antisemitic remarks like a Nazi, is it a Nazi?

Well, if you're asking on an online message board these days, the answer you might get is "of course not! It's just 'ironic'”

This is the strategy of the modern antisemite. Call it the "it's just a joke” defense, but today's savvy neo-Nazi shares more in common with a comedian than a Brownshirt. They've traded in the polished boots and clubs for snappy social media accounts and goofy pictures made in MS Paint. Instead of ranting against specific Jewish political figures or populations, they make jokes about "hording shekels” and "(((Globalists))).” They'll make purposely outlandish claims that a reasonable person could only interpret as an intentional joke, but there is always a "but, really...” lurking behind the smile. 

The strategy is two-pronged. Bigots and antisemites know their undiluted views are unpopular and unacceptable. This hurts them not only when they end up shunned and discredited in the public discourse, but it also makes it hard to recruit new blood into their cause. Nobody wants to sit next to the scary skinhead on the bus.

But, with a veneer of "ironic” jocularity smeared over the lens, their views become a lot more palatable. When critics accuse them of expressing a hateful and dangerous worldview (one which led to the calamity of the Holocaust and WWII), they always have a fig leaf to hide behind. It's not "real” racism, it's edgy humor. Not only do they get to deflect criticism, they get to position themselves as hip, cool rebels, flicking the nose of the humorless and uptight "mainstream.” For those not aware of the subtext or intent behind the goofiness, it looks ridiculous when some politician or journalist attacks a cartoon frog as a symbol of hate speech. They look like the crusty old Dean in a frat house comedy, shaking thier fist at Delta Tau Chi's antics.  

It lets them get away with even overt hatefulness. When they refer to the media as "lügenpresse” (a term the Nazis used to vilify and delegitimize the Jewish press), it's a cheeky joke, not a deliberate choice to use term loaded with antisemitic baggage. When someone makes a white power salute at a rally, it's not an authentic expression of hate, it's a goof, a silly gag someone did to rankle a journalist. When someone is caught on tape or in a private chat room talking about creating a white state, it's just a joke! There is always room to back-peddle and wheedle out of a statement when everything is wrapped in so many layers of supposed irony and abstraction.

These same jokes and memes that serve as a smokescreen to dodge criticism also work as a safe introduction to these otherwise extreme beliefs. Antisemites know that trying to bring in new members by lecturing about international Jewish cabals and sinister plots won't work, but a cartoon of an unpopular Jewish media personality with an exaggerated nose? Well, people might just chuckle at that. Co-opting the aesthetics of the Nazi regime for shock value? That can seem cool and edgy if done with enough swagger. Using poorly drawn cartoon characters from obscure comic books or old video game franchises to express abhorrent opinions seems ridiculous and yes, even kind of funny, until you realize that if you take away the character and just leave the message, they're still joking about gas chambers and mass graves.

By starting with jokes and a kind of so over the top kind of racism that it "can't be serious,” normal people are led down the rabbit hole of developing authentic antisemitic feelings. It starts as gags, but ends with real action. It's all fun and games until collage age kids are marching in America with torches shouting "Jews will not replace us! Blood and soil!”

This is how it works. Nobody wants to sit next to the skinhead on the bus, but they will hang around with the class clown if he's funny enough. It's the same old racism, just with better brand management. 

The worst part is, it's working. In a February report, the Anti-Defamation League grimly recognized 2017 as the most antisemitic year on record in the United States over 40 years. With over 1,986 confirmed antisemitic incidents ranging from vandalism to physical attacks, the harassment was wide spread and sustained. With over 163 bomb threats made to various Jewish community centers, headstones and graves destroyed at multiple Jewish cemeteries across the country, and uncountable acts of property damage in Jewish neighborhoods and businesses, it's impossible to discount this as coincidence. There is a growing antisemitic movement taking root in our backyard. 

The hatemongers of the world are waging a war for the hearts and minds of a new generation, and they're doing better than anyone would like to admit. 

This is not something that is going to get better on its own. We need to recognize ironic antisemitism for what it is – antisemitism. We need to rip off the rubber mask of jokes to expose the skinhead underneath, to get wise to their tricks. Most of all, we have a responsibility to educate our young and impressionable. A funny antisemite is still an antisemite.

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