The Disturbing Rise of Strategic Antisemitism
What the Israel-Hamas war tells us about a troubling new trend.
Almost immediately after news broke about the murderous Hamas terrorist attack on October 7, antisemitism skyrocketed. Antisemitic activity in America, already high before the incident, saw a 400 percent increase in just weeks.
When the initial shock subsided and more details came to light, people began asking how such a complex operation could have happened against Israel’s superior defense and intelligence apparatus. Lacking a satisfactory answer, eyes went to Iran—and for good reason, as the Islamic Republic remains arguably the single greatest material and financial supporter of anti-Israel, anti-U.S. proxies like Hamas and Hezbollah in the Middle East.
Regardless of whether Iran had a direct hand in Hamas’ bloody attack—and U.S. intelligence says no, at least for the moment—Iran has certainly sought to take advantage of it, both on the ground in the Middle East and in the information space of the United States, its allies, and indeed the world as a whole. Iran is not the only one doing this—China and Russia are running similar operations linked to the conflict.
The antisemitic wave unleashed by October 7 and the war that followed has not yet subsided, as evidenced most recently in abhorrent developments on college campuses and ugly rhetoric at protests. That antisemitism exists at this scale is disturbing enough. But arguably worse is the largely unappreciated prospect that certain countries stoke the fires of hate in the media and online deliberately for their own benefit. The question is to what end. Could such activity not be simply ideological, but also strategic? When we look at the activities of Iran and other nations like China, the answer is yes.
Strategic antisemitism from Iran and China
Antisemitism has many faces, running the gamut from anti-Zionism, which denies Israel’s right to exist to religious antisemitism, racial antisemitism, economic antisemitism, and even philosemitism, which elevates Jews as elite and all powerful but sees this as a good and admirable thing. Indeed, antisemitism has as many faces as purposes it serves, including as a political device for governments to advance political objectives at home and abroad.
Iran’s leaders know the power of prejudice and likely see the war as an opportunity to color the way people around the world see the conflict, and critically, the way they see Iran. That's why we shouldn’t pass off Iran’s antisemitic social and traditional media activities solely as an expression of Jew hatred or a denial of Israel’s right to exist. We need to look deeper and see how Tehran uses antisemitism to advance its strategic interests.
That Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei would deploy the rhetoric of antisemitism makes sense when we look at past rhetoric. Khamenei has, for decades, used thinly veiled antisemitic tropes to appeal to the so-called "Arab Street" and bridge the historical and religious divides between Arabs and Persians, Sunnis and Shias in a larger bid to establish Iran’s predominance in the Middle East and leadership of the greater Muslim world. State television has a long history of pushing Jew hatred in children’s television shows and peddling antisemitic tropes about Jews to domestic and global audiences.
Amidst the Israel-Hamas conflict today, we see a similar strategic leveraging of antisemitism by Iran’s rulers. But it’s a dangerous balancing act: on the one hand state media and officials are spewing unvarnished antisemitic, anti-Zionist rhetoric and professing their unwavering support for Hamas terrorists. On the other, we see Iranian officials attempting to walk back the worst of this rhetoric in a bid to prevent further escalation with the United States and Israel that could endanger proxies like Hezbollah. It’s much more to Tehran’s strategic advantage to maintain the status quo of indirect conflict via its proxies; this approach is not as resource intensive as direct confrontation and provides Iran with strategic and tactical flexibility it wouldn't have in a direct conflict. This helps explain the Supreme Leader's earlier denial that he’s called for the destruction of Israel.
Iran is not alone in its attempt to use the opportunity of the war to tap into the well of antisemitism across the world. There are signs that China is using social media in a similar way: the algorithms of TikTok, for instance, which is used by 67 percent of American teens, have created echo chambers of hate and put fabricated accounts of Israeli atrocities into heavy circulation. Such disinformation encourages its audiences to consume fake news that evokes strong emotions. It encourages its young TikTok users to take sides with little or no true understanding of (or interest in) the history and complexity of the conflict. Such voices, be they useful idiots, fake personas or government mouthpieces, deny that Hamas committed the unprecedented carnage on October 7. Others say Israel had it coming. Still others deny it happened at all.
Granted, Chinese media outlets have been trafficking in antisemitism for years now, a practice that has drawn scrutiny during the current war. “State-run media regularly clams that Jews control the world economy and American foreign policy,” writes journalist Sophia Yan in The Telegraph. “Social media ‘influencers’ have a free hand to cheer on Hamas and claim Israelis are Nazis.” Or as one State Department official put it, “This sort of drastic increase [in antisemitism] that has been sustained since October 7 coming out of China does not happen by accident.”
Like Iran, Beijing’s actions on the information front may well reflect the regimes’ own inbuilt racism and intolerance. And like their Iranian counterparts, Chinese Communist Party leaders are also likely driven by financial and geostrategic interests in the region, interests that include many lucrative assets.
Indeed, Beijing may aim to bridge the culture gap with Arab populations and generate positive public opinion by expressing unwavering support for Palestinians and demonizing Jews. Such strategic leveraging of longstanding grievance and bias is consistent with CCP’s messaging strategy over decades, which Yan calls “the bedrock upon which Beijing has built relations with Arab countries.”
But strategic antisemitism is not just a particularly perverted mode of “soft power,” used by states to advance their interests by means of persuasion and attraction. It is also a potent mode of “sharp power,” or influence operations that take advantage of the openness of democratic societies to divide its people, create distrust in government, and other outcomes designed to “pierce” and “puncture” the fabric of democracies. Iran and China use strategic antisemitism in this way, and there’s no doubt that like-minded countries are doing the same.
The bigger picture and what to do about it
It would be bad enough if the immediate harm associated with strategic antisemitism was limited to Jews. But history shows that Jew hatred almost always leads to and enables hatred of other groups too, often with violent consequences.
History also tells us that antisemitism is a symptom of deeper societal ills, especially in democracies where freedoms and rights are only as strong as the people and institutions that protect them. With powerful technology that spreads hate rapidly, cheaply, and on a global scale, the world faces a new “antisemitic moment.”
So what can the United States do to counter this particularly dangerous tactic of strategic influence and sharp power? First and foremost, we must understand the threat of strategic antisemitism—and then we need to treat it like one.
We tend to talk about the problem of antisemitism using the false binaries of far-left and far-right, at home and abroad. This is a mistake: the antisemitism we see today knows no political identity or ideology, and it also, importantly, knows no terrestrial boundaries. That means that antisemitism used by one authoritarian regime to drum up domestic support can just as easily be used to manipulate public opinion and influence political outcomes in its foreign rivals. For America and its democratic allies, such sharp power tactics are a clear and present danger to which a newly declassified intelligence assessment of the threats to the 2020 elections attests.
Without a doubt, President Biden understands the nature of the threat. He announced his presidential bid in 2019 by summoning the memory of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville and the dire warning that the unprecedented antisemitic event (recall hundreds of neo-Nazis marching across the grounds of University of Virginia chanting “Jews will not replace us”) and President Trump’s feeble response that it signaled. Since October 7, moreover, Americans have seen a wave of pro-Hamas and antisemitic rhetoric from the progressive left as well. Biden vowed to fight antisemitism, racism and other forms of hate as president, deeming the struggle as no less than a “battle for the soul of the nation.” It’s such patriotism and commitment to uphold America’s foundational, democratic values that helped get him elected.
Biden hasn’t veered from this campaign commitment while in office. Last May, the White House debuted the country’s first ever “National Strategy for Combatting Antisemitism.” As these strategy documents go, this one is surprisingly substantive. It’s organized around four pillars of policy and action:
Increase awareness and understanding of antisemitism, including its threat to America, and broaden appreciation of Jewish American heritage;
Improve safety and security for Jewish communities;
Reverse the normalization of antisemitism and counter antisemitic discrimination;
Build cross-community solidarity and collective action to counter hate.
(For another perspective, read this critique of western strategies by the Middle East Media Monitoring Institute’s Yigal Carmon.)
President Biden should harness the momentum of this strategy and the urgency of the moment to elevate the antisemitism to its rightful place, as a matter of national and international security. He should create an office within the National Security Council to both monitor and facilitate the implementation of the strategy and extend it to the international realm, enlisting the help of the State Department (which already has a Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism), the Pentagon, the intelligence community, and other government agencies in a “whole of government” approach the NSC is known for.
This idea is not a silver bullet—far from it. But it should be seriously considered. After all, strategic antisemitism isn’t just a threat to America, it’s a threat to democracies the world over.
Dr. Emily L. Blout is a Senior Research Fellow at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at Reichman University in Israel and author of Media and Power in Modern Iran: Mass Communication, Ideology, and the State (IB Tauris/Bloomsbury, 2023). She holds a Ph.D. in Iranian Studies from the University of St Andrews and teaches courses on propaganda and digital influence at Georgetown University. Follow her @emilyblout and www.emilyblout.com.