Meet the German Academic at Indiana University Mapping the Patterns of Global Antisemitism
“Very often, people will start out with negative feelings about Jews, and then they’ll find ideological justifications for those feelings,” explained newly-appointed Indiana University Professor Gunther Jikeli, during an extensive conversation with The Algemeiner last Thursday. “They look for what makes sense in their own bubble, their own social environment — it might be from the left, it might be from the right, it might be Muslim extremists, maybe it’s Christian groups — and they find the rationale for believing what they believe.”
From his perch in the charming college town of Bloomington, Jikeli is engaged in some of the most important research of the post-World War II era on the persistence of antisemitism. Through a rapidly growing database of one-on-one interviews, as well as thousands of social media posts collected by his small research team, Jikeli continually assembles his raw material from the antisemites themselves. The various comments and observations made in different contexts have enabled Jikeli to study how antisemitic attitudes are formed, how they evolve and adapt, and the degree of social influence they might exercise at a specific point in time.
Born and educated in Germany, Jikeli has spent the last few years teaching and writing at Indiana University’s Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism (ISCA) in Bloomington. Shortly after ISCA’s conference in March this year, Jikeli was appointed as the first holder of the Institute’s Ena B. Rosenfeld Professorship — named in honor of the late wife of its founder and director, Prof. Alvin Rosenfeld.
How did a non-Jewish German become a university authority on antisemitism? Growing up in the city of Cologne, Jikeli said he’d had general concerns about racism and injustice, but tended to think of antisemitism as a phenomenon associated with the Nazi regime, rather than an ongoing presence. Once he entered a student milieu in Berlin during the 1990s, he began to notice the presence of antisemitic tropes around him, especially on the political left. “That was another surprise for me,” he said.
On one occasion, when he was serving as a student union treasurer, a group of Palestinian students approached him requesting funds to print leaflets that Jikeli believed were clearly antisemitic. “Look, if you don’t give us the money, we’ll just go and ask the Nazis for it,” one of the students told him matter-of-factly.
“I was really struck by that casual remark,” Jikeli said. “I decided to investigate why these guys felt they had something in common with the Nazis.” Accordingly, he made the transition from environmental studies to antisemitism research, acquiring his PhD from the Technical University of Berlin in 2011.
Academia has a separate, vital role to play in combating antisemitism, Jikeli argued. Through the creation of ISCA, he continued, “Alvin [Rosenfeld] has established a center that looks seriously at antisemitic developments, without being alarmist, and also without underplaying the problem.”
ISCA is increasingly known in the academic world for its conferences on antisemitism, held every two or three years, which bring scholars together with elected politicians and government officials from Europe, the US and Israel. At this year’s conference in March, the keynote speaker was Katharina von Schnurbein, the European Commission official responsible for combating antisemitism in EU member countries. Speaking to The Algemeiner during a private roundtable involving several of the speakers at the conference — including Jikeli — von Schnurbein said that priority was being given to training both law enforcement officers and the judiciary to recognize when an action is antisemitic.
“The non-Jewish civil society [in the EU] increasingly understands that antisemitism is a threat to them as well,” she added. “Even if it wasn’t a threat to them directly, they should be encouraged to stand up when their fellow citizens are under pressure like that.”
Research like that conducted by Jikeli is of direct relevance to government officials, along with those European citizens who recognize that antisemitism is a problem in their respective countries — as between 62 and 81 percent of respondents in France, Germany, the UK, the Netherlands and Sweden affirmed was the case in an EU Eurobarometer poll of Dec. 2018. In demonstrating the multiple sources of antisemitism, as well as the range of ideologies that incorporate antisemitic tropes or beliefs, Jikeli’s work also challenges those law enforcement officials who continue to believe that antisemitic outrages are the sole preserve of neo-Nazi and far-right groups — an assumption that is especially prevalent among police officers in his native Germany.
One of Jikeli’s more recent projects, and the subject of his forthcoming book, involved a survey of 150 Syrian immigrants to Germany concerning their attitudes to Israel and Jews more broadly. Conducted in 2016-17, the interviews revealed both the antisemitic indoctrination of the Syrian school system, along with a subtle but noticeable difference in how Jews were regarded by immigrants of Kurdish and Arab origin respectively.
“It was important for us to examine the problem of antisemitism in this population without demonizing the Syrian refugees in Germany,” Jikeli said. “There are about 7-800,000 Syrians in Germany, which means they are now the third-largest minority in the country, after the Turkish and Polish communities. About 30 percent of them are Kurds, who have been oppressed in Syria for a very long time.”
Among the historic persecutors of the two million Kurds in Syria has been the Arab nationalist Ba’ath Party, headed by the present dictator Bashar al-Assad. “Some of the Kurds we spoke to remembered being beaten at school if they didn’t shout Arab nationalist or anti-Zionist slogans,” Jikeli said. “And among this group, there were even a few who even had pro-Jewish and pro-Israel attitudes, admiring Israel for standing up to the same Arab nationalism that was persecuting them.”
In the main, however, the interviews demonstrated the enormous hold of antisemitic conspiracy theories among Syrians of all groups. “You have so many actors in the Syrian War, but there is still this belief that Israel has orchestrated all the fighting,” Jikeli noted.
This propensity to interpret the world in an antisemitic way was inculcated early on, Jikeli said. “If you look at Syrian school textbooks, it’s the sort of thing that a Neo-Nazi would love to teach his own children,” he remarked. “In the 1920s, Jews were enriching themselves with the economic crisis, and then Hitler came along and defended the Germans against the Jews. That’s what is written in their history schoolbooks, so it’s no wonder that people who went through this educational system have these alarming views about Jews, Israel, World War II and so on.”
Not all convictions were the same, Jikeli emphasized. One interviewee — a professor of Arabic literature — quoted confidently from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and was genuinely astounded when informed that the text was a fabrication of the Tsar’s secret police in pre-revolutionary Russia. In contrast, a different interviewee — previously a successful fashion retailer in his home country — said that as he was now in Germany, he saw no reason to join in with the antisemitic invective of others, since there was no risk of being arrested for not doing so, a plausible fate back in Damascus.
Jikeli’s present efforts are directed at analyzing the patterns of online antisemitism. Focusing on Twitter, his research is based on a sample of 10 percent of all tweets over a given year. “A lot of studies have found that there is plenty of online antisemitism, but there is still a challenge when it comes to quantifying it,” he said. “If you have trillions of tweets, and then every 83 seconds there is an antisemitic tweet, you might conclude that this is not very significant. There are no studies yet that can quantify and track with certainty, and so we’ve started to do that.”
On Twitter, Jikeli explained, “we run queries like ‘Jews’ or ‘Israel,’ and we get all tweets containing these words. We can generate a representative sample from those tweets and then go through them manually. We might have, say, 400 tweets and we can determine what percentage of those are antisemitic.” Examining tweets containing the word “Israel,” Jikeli said that “eleven percent of those were antisemitic or probably antisemitic. If you think about that, it’s quite a lot, every ten tweets or so.”
Critically, Jikeli’s online research also includes a determination of who the key antisemitic influencers are on social media.
“This method is much more effective than simply doing interviews, because we can see how people with antisemitic views evolve over a period of time,” he concluded.