At the Well blog


Antisemitism as a Public Affair: Identifying and studying antisemitism in contemporary Finland

Turku Synagogue was vandalised on Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2020. Photos by Harry Serlo.

Antisemitism has long been present in our societies. Whilst the basis of antisemitic narratives has not changed much over the past centuries, the formula of such narratives has been re-developed by actualizing the details of antisemitic conspiration theories, and blood libels, writes researcher Mercédesz Czimbalmos.

Antisemitism and antisemitisms are and have been found all over the world, in different societies, including those with very few or no Jews at all.

Recent examples from various European countries, including Finland, show that the occurrence of antisemitic incidents has been on the rise in most European societies. Rhetorical, and physical violence against Jews is on the rise, and Jewish subjects report an ever-growing fear from antisemitic sentiments.

There is a recognition that antisemitism is harmful to the society and democracy: whenever democracy is under threat, antisemitism can be found. The scale of antisemitism correlates with the scale of democracy in a country – making antisemitism, similarly to any (other) form of racism a public affair. Studying antisemitism in our societies, investigating its manifestations and causes, and mapping its permutations is ever-so-pressing.

What is antisemitism?

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), defines antisemitism as follows:

“Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

Whilst antisemitism can be understood as one of the most persistent expressions of xenophobic and racist thought, what differentiates it from other forms of racisms is that in antisemitic discourses anyone can take on the function of the Jew: in antisemitic fantasies, people or characteristics can be declared “Jews” or “Jewish,” even if they do not consider themselves Jewish. They become Jews in the eyes of others – Juif par le regard de l’autre.

Antisemitism is complex, it is difficult to research and study, and it is difficult to understand, and sometimes even to recognize. Why? Simply because in many countries, today’s antisemitism does not always come in explicit forms – or, as David Hirsh, an internationally recognized scholar of antisemitism phrases – antisemitism today does not come “dressed in a Nazi uniform, and it does not openly proclaim its hatred for the Jews” (Hirsh, 2018: 5). 

Antisemitism is not only a form of racism, but of course, it operates with a number of racist elements. For example, racist ideologies seldom include conspiratory narratives: thinking that the Jews rule the world, control the media, and finances, and created Covid, but also want to control people via the vaccinations against Covid, or via the “LGBTQI+ propaganda.” The list could endlessly go on. 

Antisemitic sticker in Rastila, Helsinki, in June 2021. Source: Mercédesz Czimbalmos

What makes measuring antisemitic sentiments difficult is that in today’s societies, especially after the largest genocide of Modern History, the Holocaust, it is not “cool” to be an antisemite anymore: people are seldom open about their antisemitic views or their prejudices against the Jews when being interviewed, or when being surveyed.

While of course, blatant, upfront antisemitism also exists, subtle antisemitic sentiments, dressed up as humorous slurs, or repeated so often that they are normalized are so common, that some people barely even raise an eyebrow when hearing them anymore. “Burping up” racist jokes and using “humor” to express opinions that are difficult to discuss, or even taboo are way too common ways of reinforcing stereotypes and preserving lingering and covert antisemitism and racism. 

To give a rather recent real-life example, can the notorious sentence – as published in Helsingin Sanomat on 27 July, 2023 – “We, Nazis, don’t really like that kind of Jewish stuff” (Fin. “me natsit ei oikein tykätä semmoisista jutskujutuista”) be interpreted in any other way, than antisemitism? Hardly.

This short sentence encapsulates several elements that contribute to its classification as an antisemitic expression. The significance of an antisemitic slur is not the novelty of that slur itself. Its significance lies in the revoking of common antisemitic tropes and in the connotations: firstly, the usage of “Nazis” invokes historical and contemporary connotations of a regime responsible for the systematic persecution and genocide of Jewish individuals (as well as individuals from other minorities, such as sexual minorities or people of Roma backgrounds) during the Holocaust. Secondly, the Finnish word “jutsku” as a pejorative term for Jews portrays a belittling attitude towards Jewish cultural practices, traditions, and beliefs.

The sentence is a perfect example of the normalized antisemitic, and fascist language some opt on using, without recognizing that as an endorsement of the National Socialist German Worker’s Party (Ger. Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, NSDAP), such ideals and related affiliations can hardly be misunderstood. We all have different tastes, surely. Nevertheless, most of us will agree that there are things one cannot negotiate joking about. 

Photo derived from the Defend Finland Telegram Channel. Source: Mercédesz Czimbalmos

This is, of course, one manifestation of antisemitism, amongst many. The inversion, or the diminution of the Holocaust, or comparing it to Covid-19 restrictions, denying Jewish people the right to self-determination are common examples of antisemitism – whether these things are said upfront, or “jokingly” as sidenotes.

And what about free speech?

Some may argue that freedom of speech should allow certain comments to be made. Finland is considered to be a country where press freedom, as well as the freedom of speech in general, is well-established. Things may be said out loud and if they do not imply criminal actions, or break any laws, they will not be punished by imprisonment or other similar consequences. Nevertheless, we need to remember that our words carry meaning, and may result in harmful consequences. Neither racist, nor antisemitic comments or actions can be allowed to pass, as they can legitimize or normalize further similar comments (or actions), allow them to re-occur, and jeopardize the advancement of human rights, and democratic values in our societies.

Our goal in the Antisemitism Undermining Democracy project is to investigate and analyze the different manifestations of antisemitism in the Finnish society, by focusing on the matters that are easily identified as antisemitic but also, by studying what are the matters that individuals who identify as Jewish in Finland perceive as antisemitic. Not only to study and fight antisemitism, but also to create a society where hatred is replaced with understanding, and discrimination by solidarity. 

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