Justice  /  Comment

Anatomy of a Moral Panic

The repressive machine currently arrayed against campus protests follows a familiar pattern.

These claims build on recent attempts to paint pro-Palestine activism as a source and expression of a novel form of antisemitism. An emblematic example is a February cover article in Time magazine by Harvard legal scholar Noah Feldman, which announced the arrival of “The New Antisemitism.” The article urged readers to pay attention to a recent surge in antisemitism and its supposed new source: the pro-Palestine left. According to Feldman, despite antisemitism historically being a right-wing phenomenon, “the most perniciously creative current in contemporary antisemitic thought is more likely to come from the left.”

Ironically, this article proclaiming its identification of a “new” phenomenon shares its exact title—and much of its argument—with a work from 50 years ago. In 1974, Arnold Forster and Benjamin Epstein of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) published the book The New Anti-Semitism, warning of a novel form of anti-Jewish animus emerging from the left, and singling out particular groups, such as Arabs and Black Americans. Their argument conflated anti-Zionism and antisemitism. In the intervening years, over a dozen books and articles with “new antisemitism” in their title have been published. The main argument is consistent: there is a new increase in antisemitism, which has a new source—leftist social movements. Typically, the concept is revived each time Israel’s repression of Palestinians leads to another wave of international criticism: For instance, texts on the “new antisemitism” proliferated around the turn of the millennium after Israel’s reprisals following the Second Intifada prompted a global outcry and a fresh mobilization of diasporic Jewish dissent.

Despite this long history, each time, pieces like Feldman’s present the “new antisemitism” as though the term has just been coined. Indeed, they barely quote or acknowledge each other: Of pieces we reviewed on the “new antisemitism” by 40 different authors published since the turn of the 21st century, we found no references to the 1974 book. The result is a mystification of history and context—in this case, the “new antisemitism” conceals its own genealogy as a concept and thereby constructs a sense of urgency. It depends, as well, on other ahistorical accounts, such as the omission of the longstanding tradition of the anti-Zionist Jewish left. In this worldview, history is being constantly restarted, and leftist movements are posited as an ever-emerging threat.

This kind of attempt to ahistorically cast a dynamic as “new” is a common feature of a “moral panic,” a phenomenon long theorized by scholars. In fact, much of the “new antisemitism” conversation maps onto the classic features of a moral panic. The sociologist Stanley Cohen, who articulated the first theory of “moral panics” in the late 1960s, summarized their main elements in the introduction to the 2002 third edition of Folk Devils and Moral Panics: