In Dire Straits:  How Russian-Style Nihilism Aided the Rebirth of Antisemitism in the United States

Nihilism has long proven conducive to sociocultural radicalization.  A correlation between nihilist agendas, political extremism, and antisemitism recurs in various temporal, geographical, and cultural contexts. In the aftermath of the October 7 massacre in Israel, this symbiotic alliance manifested itself forcefully in the US.  Charting the historical roots of this phenomenon reveals a startling paradigm, spanning a century-and-a-half and bridging the nihilist origins of late-imperial Russia and the 21st-century United States.  

As a sociocultural trend, nihilism (from the Latin root “nihil” — “nothing,” or “bring to nothing,” i.e. to annihilate) emerged in the mid-19th century Russia. Roughly 150 years before Western postmodernists perfected their narrative, Russian nihilist intellectuals had proclaimed all values to be invented and therefore unsubstantiated—all meanings empty, all convictions false.  From the outset, nihilists preferred general assertions to a precise delineation of their ideological stance and its objectives.  “We deny everything!” declared a nihilist student in Ivan Turgenev’s celebrated novel, Fathers and Children (1862).  Initially a fad of the educated few, Russian nihilism took root and spread.  By the early 20th century, outright negation of vital conventions undercut the country’s sociocultural milieu and political establishment at their very core.

Having disdained such age-old bulwarks of the traditional society as conjoint religious practices, community, and family, scores of deracinated nihilists embraced accentuated individualism.  At the same time, many grappled with the relentless loneliness that accompanied social atomization.  A sense of irrelevance and futility spurred them to seek substitutes for the despondency generated in the wake of discarded traditional norms.

The decadent culture of the early 1900s intelligentsia emphasized intense personal experiences in a chain of experimental reinventions.  Inhibitions and taboos no longer restricted endless exploration of anything new, from occult practices and dark spirituality to drugs and “free love.”  “We went insane from living indulgently,” reflected contemporary poet Osip Mandel’shtam.

The decadent nihilist trend established an archetype to be admired and emulated – the complicated individual, burdened by inner strife.  Devotees downplayed affection and kindness as trite and dated.  Instead, they promoted vices and perversions and applauded the “abnormal,” “creepy, “sick, and antisocial.  Destructiveness, perceived as a sign of sophistication, sought venues to showcase itself through various forms of protest. This cycle of investments in and disappointments with “alternative lifestyles,” inevitably led many scions of the intellectual milieu onto the path of political violence and terrorism as valid variants of “subversive individualism.”[i]

The radicalized intellectuals espoused revolution of the masses to whom they bore no meaningful connection, and whom they disdained. They despised reform and did not contemplate practical political solutions.  Instead, they clustered under a broad symbolic banner aimed at annihilating the norm. To destroy the traditional values at the core of the life which they had rejected, they readily allied with the varied practitioners of radicalism.

Russian literature of the 1900s became a nihilist medium to construct the image of terrorist-the-humanist.  Popular stories by novelist Leonid Andreev glorified “the martyrs” and initiated a new fad–sympathy and practical aid for perpetrators of violent acts.  Andreev stood by his beliefs and turned his house into a terrorist shelter.  His famous colleague in trade, Maksim Gor’kii, donated large sums for their enterprises and converted his flat into a bomb laboratory.  For the illiberal Russian intelligentsia, terrorists were allies—temporary partners in subversion.

Progressive citizens followed the writers’ example.  Victims of the trendy fabricated reverence for destruction, they considered assistance to terrorists a sign of ethical decency.  In their eyes, legendary extremists held the status of superheroes and martyrs, to be idolized and fetishized.[ii]


21st-Century Nihilism in the USA

For over a century, nihilist cultural elites have been fascinated with messianic ideologies as substitutes for discarded traditional values.  Across the globe, they endorsed totalist regimes and reaffirmed their commitment to left-wing radicals of all styles.  From Jean-Paul Sartre to Noam Chomsky, progressive thinkers and writers ennobled heroic “freedom fighters” and, like their Russian predecessors, justified rebellion as a rejoinder to oppression and as self-defense.

Nihilist rhetoric remained essentially the same following the onset of Arab radicalism:  extreme nationalists and Jihadists were the persecuted underdogs, with no recourse but violence against the “colonizers.”  “Martyrs, not murderers,” chanted their advocates, validating terror as a means to end “occupation.”  They quickly expanded their campaign from the Middle East to America: “About time that we have an intifada in this country,” a Berkeley professor incited.[iii]  “Ameri-kkk-a needs an intifada,” was heard as students on college campuses rejoiced in calls for insurgency.[iv]

Intifada – Arabic for “shaking off” or uprising – indeed seems to be taking place in the US. There, like in Russia in the 1900s, nihilist intellectuals have partnered with radical activists as trusty allies.  A key difference, however, is the patently more proactive position of today’s “progressives,” who have not merely utilized the value vacuum within mainstream culture, but deliberately fabricated it.

American nihilists are no longer a marginal minority; although numerically they may be a fraction, they have gradually come to dominate the sociocultural scene. Not a countercultural fringe group, they set conventions and ethical standards; they formulate public opinions and tastes.  For decades, nihilist intellectuals have been laboring to confine all cultural activities, agendas and acceptable modes of public discourse to the “politically correct” vernacular.  By now, the new lingo has conquered the masses and social media, and dominates public education from pre-kindergarten and onwards. By high school, children take nihilism for granted, mistaking indoctrination for education. Nihilist artists and entertainers have also been instrumental in maintaining a firm hold on people’s perceptions, while academia is essentially under ideologically nihilist control, forging fresh cadres of social justice activists and subversive public intellectuals.

Radical postmodern thinkers repudiate the primacy of time-proven essential truths –and the very idea of their validity.  Empirical evidence and historical fact have lost their legitimacy:  the nihilists have designated them as instruments of oppression and negated them as a measure of authenticity.  Along with factual accuracy, integrity has also been canceled: a lie is not a lie, and a contradiction is not a contradiction, if ideologically they are valid.

A case in point is the issue of identity, whose traits—attained via inherent familial, communal, and national belonging—the nihilists rebut.  They claim that like any “cultural construct,” identity can be deconstructed and replaced with any self-suiting, newly forged persona.  Having long struggled against “oppressive infringements” on one’s right of self-definition, postmodern nihilists have scored a vital victory, for the concept of casual identity reinventions has enabled the individual to become entirely disinherited from his core self.  Only a “white male oppressor” is trapped in encoded guilt; the progressive judgment flouts his humanity and curbs his identity into a gadget of “systemic racism.”

The environment of negation in America drained and left millions – particularly the vulnerable youth – with little which cannot be deconstructed or nullified.  Teenagers and young adults are “losers” in the literal sense of the word, and they are angry—at their parents, who failed to empower them with values; at their semi-literate and confused school teachers, who beg for respect and coach students to respect nothing; at their cynical professors, who laugh away the pursuit of truth, vital to any meaningful intellectual pursuit, and wave college graduates off to adult life with a farewell message that life is meaningless.

Like their peers in pre-revolutionary Russia, young Americans are famished for a credo to fill the yawning inner hollowness.  Postmodernism cajoles them into joining the cohort of the sophisticated, with the only prerequisite being integrated nihilist vitriol, sanctified with politically correct buzzwords.  This affiliation offers a sense of belonging and illusory values to the vulnerable victims of politicized demagoguery, totalist as they come.  “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction… between true and false… no longer exist,” Hannah Arendt writes in The Origins of Totalitarianism.  An attractive bonus for joining the nihilist ranks is the opportunity to redirect the accumulated inner rage towards designated external enemies.  Archetypical targets, condemned and selected for attack, are the Jews.


Progressive Antisemitism

The moment of truth came in a landslide in the wake of the October 7 Hamas massacre in Israel, the most devastating mass murder of Jewish civilians since the Holocaust.  At stake in the ensuant war with Hamas is the future of the State of Israel and the Jewish people in general; for their very being – rather than an unresolved land conflict — is the cause of violence.  The jihadists’ raison d’être is the resurrected Nazi aspiration to annihilate the Jews, prioritized (just as it had been for Hitler and his cohorts) as the primary objective in their ongoing fight against democracy for global domination.

No reports or visual images have adequately conveyed the wholesale bloodlust of the October 7 slaughter.  It was as if barbarism had been resurrected in its undiluted form, having shaken off centuries of civilizational development. The nation’s pain resonated in the Diaspora as a shattering insight: the anguish Jewish grandparents had suffered in the bygone and almost fictional past has returned to haunt their grandchildren.

Concurrently, the butchery triggered a worldwide avalanche of hostility towards Israel and the Jewish world.  “Gas the Jews,” chanted protesters at Australian rallies.  Across Europe, terrorist supporters carried Hamas and ISIS-like flags and called for jihad.

In America, antisemitism erupted with staggering intensity.  Over the three-month period post-October 7, antisemitic incidents across the US (overwhelmingly related to Israel’s retaliation in Gaza) skyrocketed by 360 percent. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) declared that the “Jewish community is facing a threat level… unprecedented in modern history.”[v]

The heart of antisemitic harassment are American universities, where Jews have been subject to slander, intimidation, and even violence in hundreds of incidents since October 7.  A mere day after the atrocity, campus activists had already formulated a narrative about Israel’s “colonial occupation” provoking the oppressed Gazans to rape and torture children.  On campuses of American University in Washington DC, UC Berkeley, and elsewhere, protestors spat on Jewish students, calling them “Zionist pig,” “Zionist killer,” and “Dirty Jewess.”  They graffitied swastikas, grabbed Jewish students by the neck, pushed them, and screamed: “Death to the Zionists. Hitler was right.”  A self-proclaimed “black anarchist” assistant professor at UC Davis proposed to intimidate “Zionist journalists” by threatening their children.[vi]  Nothing is wrong with this, for the “Free Palestine” activists clarify: “babies are occupiers too.” Amid chants of “glory to the martyrs” on Harvard campus, its president refused to condemn calls for genocide of Jews, swapping its emblematic “veritas” for ethical and intellectual degeneracy.

The only democracy – and refuge for all religious, racial, and gender minorities persecuted elsewhere – in the Middle East, Israel is charged with racism and violation of human rights.  Indigenous to the land even during the two millennia of forced exile for most Jews, they are accused of “settler oppression.”  On October 7, Hamas murdered entire Jewish families; its US fans denounce Israel’s military riposte in Gaza as indiscriminate slaughter. Hamas jihadists shield themselves with civilians and steal their food; Israel channels aid to the enemy side during fighting — and is accused of genocide.  Antisemitic bias is flagrant.

Postmodern antisemites are a mixed crowd, but they demonstrate striking unanimity in justifying terrorism.  Siding with the perpetrators are the nihilists — fixated social justice warriors and zealots of political correctness; triumphant yet forever vexed LGBTQ+ champions; militant promoters of “identity politics,” frenzied environmentalists and globalists.  The nihilists march with “woke” activists against the “white power;” they support BLM, an insurrectionary Black movement which has declared solidarity with their “Hamas brothers.”  They pursue very different agendas; yet, invariably, they understand and empathize with “the resistance” of bombers and kidnappers, because, like the terrorists, the nihilists engage in destruction.

A common denominator, binding them into an implicit alliance, is their endorsement of every initiative to deracinate whatever is left of the traditional norms. The nihilists have not yet detonated explosives in coffee houses, but by promoting sociocultural demolition, they affiliate with destroyers, who employ brute force. Their mission is to create the intellectual climate and cultural conditions conducive for proliferation of violence, even when they do not understand or take genuine interest in the radicals’ objectives. Hypocritical is their bemoaning of the “oppressed Palestinian nation” and simultaneous disregard for the suffering of persecuted millions in various corners of the globe, ignored when they are not a convenient prop for insurgency.

Support for the Jihadists, misogynist as they come, is not at all paradoxical from the viewpoint of radical feminists, for example.  While masquerading as committed fighters against female abuse, they offered no sympathy for Jewish girls and women molested on October 7.  Instead, they excused Gaza rapists for acting in self-defense against the “Israeli occupiers.”  The call to “free Palestine by any means necessary” justified sexual violence because “rape is resistance” too.  No female victims from the ravaged Israeli border communities, including many advocates for Palestinian rights, deserved compassion or aid.

Nihilist terror fans chant “Intifada” while blocking traffic in New York.  In their eyes, the New York Police Department, KKK, and IDF are “all the same,” and the “only solution” against them all is “intifada revolution.”  The slogan “from the river to the sea” is a euphemism for the demolition of the Jewish state and for insurgency in the US: “Disrupt everything. Shut it all down. #FreePalestine,” declared the People’s City Council in Los Angeles, an “anti-capitalist & anti-imperialist collective” for “direct action.”

Throughout history, Jew-haters validated antisemitism via pivotal values of their eras, noted the late Chief Rabbi of England Jonathan Sacks.  In the Middle Ages, Jews were the pariahs because of their faith; in the 19th and 20th centuries, because of their race. Today’s reincarnation of antisemitism stems from and revolves around key aspects of the progressivist narrative, such as moral relativism and negation of (the purportedly bigoted) nationalism.  Essentially nihilist, progressivism is intrinsically at odds with strict ethical boundaries and prioritized national life – traditional Jewish values well-integrated into modern Israeli culture.  Nihilist attacks against Israel – the nation’s heart since 1948 – are but ineptly concealed, redecorated antisemitism.

With antisemitism permeating much of mainstream—and nihilist-influenced—culture, it is not surprising that American Jews have assimilated its agendas to no smaller degree than the non-Jews.  In a 2021 poll, 22% of Jewish respondents blamed Israel for genocide of the Palestinians.  Younger Jews have been particularly prone to condemn Israel.  38% of respondents under the age of 40 agreed that Israel was an apartheid state.  A shocking 20% endorsed the claim that it “does not have a right to exist.”[vii]

Or perhaps not so shocking, after all: at times of crisis across various epochs, there have always been community members hoping to salvage their own status by dissociating from, and even turning against, fellow Jews.  Like opponents of the Maccabees and champions of the Romans, movements such as “IfNotNow” and “Jewish Voice for Peace” side with the “underprivileged” adversaries of Israel and de facto facilitate terrorism.

Moreover, in a culture permeated with progressivism, to identify with one’s people — especially if they are the Chosen People — is reprehensible and tantamount to being a bigot who denies equality.  American Jews are therefore in a bind.  To assert Jewish identity means to choose the fate of shunned marginals–something that requires a moral courage and ideological conviction left largely underdeveloped in the postmodern United States.  Rather than risk the ostracization that accompanies publicly going against the current, many Jews justify dissociation from the “Jewish narrative” with recited mantras of social justice.  Some even enjoy high profile partnership with antisemitic organizations.

Philosopher Judith Butler has found “the uprising of October 7th… anguishing,” yet still a legitimate form of “armed resistance.”  Whether or not burning Jewish babies alive is acceptable, “we can discuss armed resistance; it’s an… open debate.”  Open-minded and liberal, Butler encourages “different views of Hamas as a political party,” not terrorists.

The October 7 “massacre of Jews is a fabricated narrative,” according to Butler’s colleague at UC Berkeley, Brooke Lober.  Like Butler, she is Jewish, yet as a Hamas advocate, she must not let “freedom fighters” come across as barbaric murderers.  Having seen irrefutable proof that the slaughter was not fake news after all, she has found a politically correct solution for the quandary: on October 7, Jewish civilians were butchered by the merciless IDF.[viii]

The nihilism-fueled narrative, ridden with cliches and oversimplification, yields confused and conflicting judgements, mistaken for open-minded, empirical reasoning.  66% of Americans in the 18-24 age group agree that the October 7 Hamas onslaught is genocidal murder, which 60% think is justified by Palestinian suffering. 70% agree that calls to slaughter Israelis are hate speech, yet 53% of them insist that students should have the right to advocate for Jewish genocide on campuses.[ix]67% hate the Jews, who are oppressor “as a class.” Inherently elitist and “oppressive,” mental clarity must have been canceled for the sake of egalitarian ignorance, glaring in the nihilist culture.


“World Revolution Part 2”

In his 2020 article, writer Peter Savodnik underscored the narrowing of a “metaphysical gap” between old Russia and contemporary America.  There, personalities à la Turgenev’s fictional nihilists have been reincarnated in “todays protesters and statue-topplers, the 20-somethings sowing discord in our newsrooms, the cancellers, the uber-woke, the sociopaths who police our social media feeds.”  Like Turgenev’s nihilists, they abrogate their own environment and seek its destruction.  “Any comparison of or generalization about historical periods – especially one that reaches across cultures and involves fictional characters – is necessarily sloppy,” Savodnik recognizes.  Nevertheless, he highlights “psychological similarities, or forces, which are universal,”[x] like zeal for annihilation.

Historians trace the origins of nihilism in America to the post WWII era and the practitioners of the Frankfurt School, who applied essential Marxism (diluted by psychoanalysis and other contemporary intellectual trends) to sociocultural discussion.  Many of them had escaped from Nazi Germany and found intellectual refuge in Columbia University, the new home for the so-called “critical theory.”  It proposed a theoretical critique of capitalist society and its various ills, such as cultural enslavement of the individual.  The Frankfurt School formed a theoretical base for the New Left, which comprised radical student movements of the 1960s and other dissident currents, sharing hostility towards the establishment.  In the 1990s, the nihilist culture advanced the cause of “political correctness,” an idiom for labeling opponents as sexists, racists, and colonialists.  By the new millennium, nihilist agendas have become part of the sociocultural mainstream.

In postmodern America, negated traditionalist values and norms have left behind an intellectual, ethical, and spiritual void – to be filled with totalist agendas, mirroring what had happened in Russia a century earlier.  Nihilism thrives and seems to be shunting from the insurrectionary, or underground, stage to the next phase of “empowerment,” becoming  exceedingly rigid. Incompatible with everything American democracy has ever meant to be, generalized fear is a new norm, an eerie deja vu of subversive nihilism metamorphosing into a Soviet-spawned nightmare.

Dogmatic and punishing, the nihilists coerce nonconformists with totalist vehemence.  Intimidated citizens in an oppressive environment, the dissenters—in this case, Americans—are highly conscious of potential repercussions for deviating from the progressivist mindset. There is little need for direct threats because, sorrowfully, many have already sacrificed free thinking and free expression, lest they be “canceled,” or purged, in Stalinist vernacular.

Nihilist narrative has digressed into a surreal discourse among characters from Kafka, Huxley, and Orwell.  The newest rhetoric centers around race-gender, which allegedly predetermines all thought and behavior. For all its claims to be liberating,  the concept of ”white power” is intrinsically racist and as narrow-minded and reductionist as has been the good-old Marxist economic determinism. The classic Communist mantra about socioeconomic status “shaping consciousness’ ‘ stigmatized  the downtrodden proletariat as perpetual victim and the exploitative bourgeoisie as inherent villains.  Likewise, race-gender abuse, allegedly a defining personality attribute, encodes – and degrades – the individual into either an apologetic persecutor or an acrimonious victim. Nihilist morality always absolves those it brands as downtrodden, vile as their deeds may be. In contrast, Israel’s continual refusal to self-identify as powerless victim enflames antisemitism.[xi]

Like Soviet Communists in their era, radical nihilists support the universal right of national self-determination, so long as the nation is not Jewish.  There is an enduring legacy of demonizing Israel which the Soviets had passed on to the global Left; under their influence, the nihilists have integrated anti-Zionism as a pet project.  Their rhetoric is KGB-fabricated verbatim, branding Zionism as Nazism, racism, colonialism, and apartheid, enhanced with familiar antisemitic libels about Jews manipulating US politics and finances.  For over 20 years—since the Six Day War—the Soviets sold antisemitism as a pivotal part of their foreign propaganda, which the nihilists are recycling and reutilizing.12[xii]


Political alliances are often formed between proponents of conflicting ideologies because of shared values that go deeper than dogmatic postulates.  Among many others, a classic example is the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939—the totalitarian regimes having more in common with one another than with liberal democracies, which both Hitler and Stalin despised. The solidarity of nihilist progressives and the jihadists in America today is no more unlikely than the fatal partnership of Russian liberal intellectuals with fanatic bomb-throwers in order to crush the imperial regime.  Destructiveness is a profound unifying force, rendering many otherwise insurmountable differences unimportant.

It is a truism that the “war of civilizations” is being fought between the liberal West and radical Islam. Yet the struggle is infinitely more profound than disputed borders, political influences, and even dogmatic truths. The deeper ongoing conflict pits cultures embracing norms that reinforce the sanctity of life against an array of totalist forces, from Jihadism to progressivism, allied in spirit and in deed for the sake of destructive ends—and all drawing from the precepts of militant nihilism.

The world revolution is not over. The Soviet phase was horrific and ultimately futile, but the overall paradigm survived to take new forms — still in line with Trotsky’s call to stop the “babble about the sanctity of human life” because at stake was the rebuilding of humankind.  A century after the Marxist messianic venture, nihilists are still striving to reconstruct humanity as part of an updated social engineering project.

“We Are Coming for Your Children,” so entitled, the song was performed by the San Francisco Gay Choir for the first time in 2021.  “We’ll convert your children, quietly and subtly, and you will barely notice it,”13[xiii] the singers gleefully shared the nihilists’ intent to indoctrinate children with progressivism.  The idea was not new: Russian radicals had succeeded in forging cohorts of underage extremists.  Nihilists in the US, however, have achieved a far more impressive headway in annihilating the conventional family as the core of traditional life.  Having redefined gender as an oppressive social construct, they assigned it for demolition via “gender fluidity.”  Publicly approbated, it assaults the human being at the deepest level, striking one’s innermost individuality before it has had a chance to fully develop.

Oppression under the guise of unrivaled freedom is the “big lie” of nihilism. It is a form of totalist idolatry, conspicuous in its sacrifice of the individual—typically by the millions — to a sanctified social cause. Absent their potential contribution to its grand vision of societal reconstruction, the nihilist stance ascribes no inherent worth or purpose to individual lives. Like other types of politicized paganism, nihilism targets the Hebraic Bible-ordained mores, negating in particular the sanctity of life.  Beneath all tropes and libels, today’s antisemitism is a byproduct of nihilism, which stands for destruction and is incompatible with the biblical injunction to the Jews: Choose life.


[i] Term coined in Paul Zweig, The Heresy of Self-Love:  A Study of Subversive Individualism (Basic Books, Inc.:  New York-London, 1968), vi.

[ii] For detailed discussion see: Anna Geifman, Death Orders:  The Vanguard of Modern Terrorism in Revolutionary Russia (Praeger Security International, 2010).

[iii] ]  Excerpt from April 2004 speech broadcast in “The Third Jihad,” Part 1,


[v] Ben Cohen, “Antisemitic Incidents Rocketing in US since Hamas Pogrom, New ADL Data Shows,” The Algemeiner,

[vi] ] Dion J. Pierre, “UC Professor Remains on University Staff after Tweet Threatening Jewish Journalists, Their Children,” The Algemeiner, October 20, 2023, Dion J. Pierre, “Zionist Pig!  Antisemitic Discrimination at American University Alleged in the New Civil Rights Complaint,” The Algemeiner, January 17, 2024,; Dion J. Pierre, “’You Jew!’:”  UC Berkeley Mob Attacks Jews during Event with IDF Soldier, University Pledges Investigation,”  The Algemeiner, February 27, 2024,; Breaking News,

[vii] Jordan Muchnik and Elaine Kamarck, “The Generation Gap in Opinions towards Israel,” Brookings, November 9, 2023,;,vid:LffzmqbGbFY,st:0

[viii] Don J. Pierre, “UC Berkeley Lecturer Calls Oct. 7 Massacre a ‘Fabricated Narrative’ as School Sued Over ‘Unchecked’ Antisemitism,” The Algemeiner, November 30, 2023,

[ix] The Ben Shapiro Show, 23 December 2023,; “Poll: Most Young Americans Think that Israel should be ‘ended and given to Hamas’,” 17 December 2023,

[x] Peter Savodnik, “Woke America Is a Russian Novel,” Tablet (July 15, 2020),

[xi] Psychologist Pamela Paretsky cited in “How Can Israel Treat a Whole Nation in Trauma,” Jerusalem Post, February 5, 2024,

[xii] For in-depth analysis, see Izabella Tabarovsky, historian of antisemitism in the Soviet Union and Senior Advisor at the Kennan Institute of the Wilson Center Washington, DC as in



Anna Geifman

Anna Geifman is a Professor Emerita of History at Boston University and a Principal Research Associate of Political Studies at Bar-Ilan University.

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