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Antizionism is not Antisemitism: a Guide for the Perplexed

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.

I've been asked several times over the years to write a resource for organizers, and good-hearted people in general, that would help distinguish between actual prejudice against Jews, and accusations of antisemitism that are routinely used to shut down Palestinian solidarity work. 

I've been asked this in order to help people defend themselves against wrongful accusations of Antisemitism, and because antiracist people, and good hearted people in general, do tend to want to become aware of their own unexamined prejudices, including prejudice against Jews.

My own small way to answer this question is to take up the offer to work on prejudice against Jews as one thread of antiracism work.

My internal motivation for this piece is twofold: I want to create some safety and clarity for myself personally, and to strengthen my understanding and that of people who ask me these kinds of questions.

I believe that Jews, given our history, ought to be vigilant about recognizing authoritarian propaganda when we see it, and one of the things propaganda does is simplify complex realities and repackage identities to focus resentment onto scapegoats. We know this history intimately, and we are well placed to recognize when it is being done to others. I am not alone in this belief; many Jews believe our cultural and intellectual identity is inextricably bound up with honest vigilance about authoritarianism in all its guises, including from our own leaders. See, for instance, Albert Einstein's 1948 letter in the New York Times, which is also signed by Hannah Arendt and other prominant Jews of the era. Yet actual prejudice about Jews, while it is largely demolished compared to 60 years ago, is not gone in the world, and our cultural memory of the waxing and waning of that prejudice over centuries makes us vulnerable to manipulation by our own leaders. Trust that we can fight for the safety of others does entail knowing that others will fight for our safety. 

When I experience prejudice - not specifically in organizing, but in life in general - I need a place to point people to where they can learn on their own without me having to explain on the spot. So I've taken some time to hammer out a few ideas here that formed over a long time. Perhaps this entry can become that kind of resource for myself and others. I'm still learning, and everything here is open to your thoughts. 

First: What Antisemitism is NOT

First, the obvious. This has been said many times by many different people but it bears repeating: a few things that antisemitism is not.

Antisemitism is not criticism of Israel. Listening to, learning from, and staunchly supporting Palestinians is also not antisemitism. Indeed, if we do not do this, if we do not see the suffering and oppression of others, we are giving up a fundamental quality of our Jewish identity. 'Israel' means 'wrestles with God' - we are obligated to debate, to struggle, to ascertain truth. What is left of who we are if the obligation to speak truth to power is gone? 

More subtly, speaking of "Jewish" responsibility for Israel's actions is not antisemitism. Because Israel, like France, Germany, and several other countries, has citizenship laws based on ethnic ancestry, all those of us with Jewish mothers can become Israeli, at least in theory, and often in practice. With my maternal ancestry, my name, my face, and my rudimentary Hebrew, even as a non-Israeli Jew I can travel in Israel under the protection of the Israeli military for a vacation, visit family, study, or set up permanent residency there if I so choose. Those enormous practical, tangible privileges come at the expense of Palestinians who cannot travel freely in their own country without threat of being shot on sight, who cannot return to their own childhood and ancestral homes, in the land of their parents, grandparents, and immediate ancestors. That is a direct responsibility, and to ignore it is to ignore our own identity that teaches us to recognize oppression in all its guises. 

Jews benefit in deeper ways as well, even if we never set foot on that contested soil. On some level, there is always the knowledge that if things ever get really bad for Jews in the diaspora, we finally have the available escape to the Promised Land where it's possible to live as a member of a majority society. This yearning for Return is woven deeply into our cultural consciousness, but it has not always meant what it means today. A modern State with exclusive borders and a military is not what our ancestors had in mind when they sang "Next Year in Jerusalem" at Pesach. And yet, a modern state is what we now have, one where we can shake off, finally, our status as perpetual Other in every society in which we live. Again, in theory, since this right doesn't actually include all Jews, and since not all Jews in Israel are members of the dominant society there or benefit equally from privilege.

To varying degrees, then, all Jews - at least all of us recognized officially as Jewish - benefit directly, materially, and tangibly from Israel's existence as an ethnically Jewish state; thus we are all, to varying degrees, responsible for the actions of the Israeli government and military. This is particularly true of an ostensibly democratic state, but it's also true of any group identity. If I personally, materially, benefit from my membership in a group, I am responsible to notice and prevent actions that group takes that harm others, especially if that harm to others benefits me directly and personally. 

To suggest otherwise - to say that criticism of Israel is antisemitic, or that non-Israeli Jews don't have any responsibility for Israel's actions - is propaganda. It is simplistic black and white emotional argumentation not based in any nuance or the complexity of real life. As rhetoric, those arguments may touch the 'hearts and minds' of certain audiences, but that doesn't make them true. Propaganda, especially nationalist propaganda, is powerful and it does make people feel strongly, but that doesn't make it ethical.

There's not much more that needs to be said on that subject, and many others have made the point better than I can here. So why have I been asked to distinguish between  the kinds of faulty arguments I mention above, and actual honest-to-god prejudice against Jews? What can I add to the conversation?

Ok, so then, what is Antisemitism? How can I recognize it?

It seems to me that although many of us know that 'criticism of Israel is not antisemitism,' there may still be a hesitancy to speak or uncertainty, because of the need for clearer ideas about what is actually prejudice against Jews. What does it look like? How can people recognize it when they encounter it (in themselves or others) and thereby include this knowledge as another building block in strong antiracism practice?

Jews in Canada and the US (unlike in other places, or so I'm told) are not structurally or systemically discriminated against. While we do face the pressures and choices associated with assimilation (and these are very real pressures that force assimilation in a million and one small ways), we can, if we wish, live lives openly as Jews without being beaten by police, jailed, denied entry at the US or Canadian border, denied housing or health care. We face cultural assimilation and ignorance, but we do not face systemic discrimination. At all. This is an important distinction and understanding what this means is necessary before anything else will make any sense. 

While we do face prejudice and ignorance (mainly outside places like New York, Montreal and Toronto) on an individual person-to-person level, there is no systemic discrimination against jews qua jews in Canada or the US.

Jews of colour - Mizrahi, Beta Israel/Falasha, Hispanic/Latino, Sephardic, multiracial, convert, etc. -  face discrimination due to racialization but not for being Jewish. We can cross the border. We can rent or buy housing in any neighborhood, including those traditionally reserved for WASPS where fifty or sixty years ago we may have been unwelcome. If we are white, which the majority are, we can walk down the street and expect to be treated politely by police. Indeed, if we are arrested for an actual crime, we can expect to benefit from whiteness, statistically, and receive a lighter sentence than a person with dark skin. We can even travel in other countries and be treated better than the people of those countries. We have gained many of the unearned privileges of whiteness. Understanding antisemitism must begin there. Jews aren't dominant in the very highest echelons of power (the rotating door of corporate CEOS and government office), which are still vastly reserved primarily for anglo-saxon men. However, we are very well represented in all of the professions and in the upper- and upper-middle classes. Certainly, nothing systemic about being Jewish stops a Jew in Canada or the US from getting a good education and becoming a doctor or a lawyer, to the pride of bubbies everywhere. Quotas on admission of Jews to McGill are ancient history. Poor and working class Jews face financial barriers - the extensive history of Jewish labour organizing speaks to this reality, which is still real for Jews from working class families (yes, we exist), but being Jewish isn't the reason working class Jews are poor. In fact, being Jewish, and white, works in our favour, giving us more vertical mobility, more benefits socially and access to integration than racialized immigrants. We fought for these forms of safety after the war, and we have gained them

So what forms does antisemitism take in Canada? Mostly prejudice, by which I mean assumptions or stereotypes about us that are psychologically difficult to deal with, but that are not generally systemically enforced. I have encountered ignorance on the part of individuals, but I'm not going to be killed or denied basic needs as a result of my Jewish identity. Here are a few of the most blatant and obvious forms of actual racism that I have seen. There are all old hat and will, probably, already be familiar, so they're not really the point of the rest of this piece - the more subtle forms of prejudice interest me more - but since I'm laying foundations, here they are:

 

Examples of actual antisemitism:

1. quoting from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as though it is true

2. "Jews control the government/pull strings/wag the dog." This only makes sense if you normalize or ignore who actually "controls" the government, i.e. elite, wealthy WASP men - it's set up as a paranoid imagined encroachment on the naturalized power structure that actually exists. If you don`t personally identify as one of the anglo-saxon elite who actually hold economic and political power, then this "encroachment" on power is not about your power being lost: It`s a projection of the fears of the elite. Don't fall for it. 

3. "'The Jews' own the media" (see point above about controlling the government). The Aspers owned CanWest, or they did until they drove it into the ground. Who owns everything else? if you look at who actually owns the media, who sits on the boards, who the CEOs are, again, this power is primarily reserved for Anglo-Saxon men. The fear of Jews here is about obscenely rich white men fearing some of their complete stranglehold on power may be lost. If you`re not in that group of people whose power is threatened, notice: it`s not about you.

4. "Jews are all really smart." There is a strong tradition of textual exegesis in Jewish culture, a strong focus on literacy, and a long tradition of highly skilled intellectual debate, a pleasure in the sharpening of wits with a worthy intellectual equal. When most of Europe was kept illiterate by their own leaders, Jews always had literacy skills. There were no 'dark ages' in Jewish culture, and that made us stand apart from much of the rest of the world. Even when there is no money for food, Jews traditionally shared reading and intellectual rigour with their kids - it is a cultural imperative. That traditional emphasis on literacy and textual analysis does equip us well for success in academic environments that reward literacy and numeracy over other kinds of skills. 'People of the book' isn't just a metaphor. However, the prejudice comes in when this cultural focus on literacy, numeracy, and intellectual debate gets mythologized or exoticized as mysterious, and scapegoated as threatening to the normalized systems of dominance and power in society. This kind of scapegoating can literally mask the real power dynamics of society by pitting working class people against one another, or against a scapegoat. Again, others have made this point much better than I can, so I'll defer to resources already out there (See attachments - and see http://www.pinteleyid.com/past/#main).

5. "Jews are all rich."  I remember sitting on the grass as a teenager with a black guy from my neighborhood who had flirted with me. We were around the same age, and he had said hi as we passed on the sidewalk (which was a normal thing to do in Cote Des Neiges, where I lived) and so we walked around for an afternoon, then came back to my house and sat in the yard. Learning that I was Jewish, he looked wistfully at my place, which was identical to many others in our neighborhood - a one-floor upstairs duplex of fairly shoddy construction where my family and I had crowded in together all my life, perpetually worrying about money - and said "I wish I was rich." I was dumbfounded. My place was a duplex, yes, not an apartment building, but the inside was the same size as an apartment, and definitely was not fancy. I wanted to take him inside and show him around, show him the old sleeping bag on my bed, the secondhand clothes, the old shabby sofa in the living room. I was comfortable with my small life, which was what I was used to and had its benefits, but nothing about my house said 'rich'; my dad was an electrician. Stable, yes, a good job, yes. My father had made good from the utter poverty of his youth. But wealthy, no. Yet this boy's story about what it means to be Jewish was stronger than the evidence of his eyes. 

While many Jews are upper and upper-middle class, posing, in some ways, a threat to the dominant elite, that should not erase the reality of working class Jewish communities of New York, Montreal and Toronto. The men in my family feel a great pride in their skill with their hands. My uncle, with his grade three education, proudly ran his own metal shop that made staircases in Montreal, and was highly respected for his metalworking skill. This working class culture abhors what they view as 'paperpushers' like me, who don't make anything and 'leech' off the 'real' workers. And this is also a strong part of Jewish identity - a working class one. So this fantasy that 'Jews are rich' is simply not the whole story, in real practical terms, because while as I've said, Jews are well-represented in the professional classes,  plenty of Jews are poor and working class. You just don't hear about them as much - because who ever hears about poor and working class people? Go looking for those stories. 

This fantasy of 'jewish money,' like the fear of 'taking over' media or government, is, as I've said, a white Anglo fear of encroachment on white dominance. Because in this world view, white Anglo-Saxons are the only ones who are *supposed* to be rich. If you yourself are not part of the wealthy elite, think about *whose* perspective this is when you hear that 'Jews' are 'taking over': it's a fear expressed by the uber-elite, which I'm guessing is not you, at an encroachment on their naturalized right to rule. 

That ideology spreads downwards at all of our risk, because those with the actual stranglehold on power would much prefer to put this abstraction called 'the Jews' between you and them.

For all of these examples of actual antisemitism, the word 'zionist' is sometimes now used as code for 'Jew'. So it's important to be able to recognize the difference between criticism of zionism, and plain old-fashioned antisemitism under the guise of critique of zionism. See an example in this David Duke video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Ao-IHBHiPw&feature=player_embedded - notice that rather than criticizing Israel, this uses the term 'zionist' to discuss this imagined world domination by Jews - and notice who is speaking. What kind of naturalized power does a man like David Duke think is normal and right? What - whose -  real power is masked by blaming 'the Jews' in this discourse? (Does David Duke think people of colour ought to be running the world, if only 'the Jews' would let them?) Whose fears of losing power are we actually talking about when we say "world domination" is under threat?

6. "The word 'Jew' is an offensive word, so you shouldn't use it."  This one is so horrifically tangled and unfortunate, becuase many good people have no idea how racist this is. It expresses an old prejudice woven through western culture. If you grew up with this belief that "Jew" is a bad word, you probably also grew up with undercurrents of antisemitism. "Jew" is no more  a 'bad word' than "Canadian," "Christian," or "Italian." "Jew" is just the English word for "Yid" which is just the name for who we are. The idea that my very identity could be an insult is... well...  a little insane. Concurrently, however, the idea that "to Jew" means "to rip someone off" is an offensive use of the term. I admit that I grew up using "gyp" (as in gypsy) to mean the exact same thing. I didn't know what "gypsy" meant at the time, and thought the word "gyp" was a reference to some sort of metal. Maybe people think the same lack-of-thought when they say "he jewed me." It's still crappy to have my identity be bent into a racist insult. Much like 'that's so gay,' 'that's retarded' and all those other expressions consigned to the (oft-over-referenced) "dustbin of history." This one is pretty obvious. But my identity? Not an insult, thank you. Next time you find yourself awkwardly saying "Jew......ish...... person" where you would say "Canadian" or "Christian," just suck up your wierd discomfort and say "Jew." That is the proper use of the term. 

7. And then there're all the really crazy ones: something about horns, eating christian babies, blood in the matzah, blood libel. Oh, and that whole getting scapegoated for killing christ thing. The romans killed christ. At no point were Jews into nailing people up on scaffolds in the sky till birds came to eat out your eyes. Jesus was Jewish as was everyone he kept company with, so technically pilate was a Jew - but, then, so was Mary. Now this is interesting: in addition to being gross, the 'blood in the matzah' fantasy is ironic, because Jews who keep kosher aren't allowed to eat any blood at all - not from chicken, not from beef, and not from Christian babies.

Kashrut laws require you to make sure that there is no blood left at all in chicken, for instance, before you cook it. So even if we wanted, however disgustingly, to bake human blood into matzah, doing so would be strictly against the rules of the religion. As a literature scholar, I can only think of these popular myths as stories, whose thematic content reflects the preoccupations of the mythmaker. Since eating blood is not a theme in the Jewish imagination, my guess is that somebody else originally came up with this fantasy. Which major world religion includes the idea of eating blood, transmuted or otherwise? hmmm...

These are so blatantly stereotypical and ignorant, that they don't really interest me all that much. Pretty much anyone who has ever had "Antisemitism 101" anywhere in their lives should know these basic ideas. What really interests me are the ways that prejudice plays out in everyday life, when good people who know all of this and consider themselves antiracist run into their own unexamined prejudices against jews and don't know how to recognize them. That's what I'm going to play with in the next post now that these foundations are down and out of the way.

 

Thanks for reading! If you like this piece, please share!

 

 

 

 

 


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nora_samaran (Nora Samaran)
Montreal, QC
Member since April 2009

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Cultural theorist; PhD in Canadian Literature with a focus on race theory, nationalism, and newspapers; geeking out and/or organizing around all things speculative fiction, independent media, migrant justice & antiracism, radical mental health and social change since 1999. Blogs at norasamaran.com

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