Ten Commandments For Thinking About Modern Anti-Semitism
In an op-ed for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on January 2, editor-in-chief Andrew Silow-Carroll suggests that defining anti-Semitism is a key question of the moment, but that it’s complicated given the polarization of left and right. Like so much else in politics today, the debate about contemporary anti-Semitism is a dialogue of the deaf waged as a battle to the death. Both sides are correct about a number of their claims, but neither can hear the truths of the other.
Meanwhile, the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act is being debated in Congress, which would codify the State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism. Under this definition, language that demonizes Israel is deemed anti-Semitic: both comparing Israeli policy to the Nazis and calling for boycott, divestment, and sanction of Israel (i.e. BDS) would qualify.
With the sources of contemporary Judeophobia coming from both the right and the left, debates about how to understand it are split. On the one side, alarmists (generally on the right) describe a “new anti-Semitism” that draws an equation between contempt directed at Israel today and the derision of Jews in the past. The “new anti-Semitism” is like the old, they claim, because Israel is now the Jew among the nations. They also assert that anti-Semitism is the glue that binds together a dangerous alliance between sections of the left, the extreme right, and radical Islam.
On the other side, the minimizers (generally on the left) claim that the charge of anti-Semitism is mostly overblown and primarily is used as a cudgel to obstruct legitimate criticism of Israel. They also maintain that whole groups of people who raise concerns about Israeli policies are tagged as anti-Semites (Muslims, the left, the European Union), while charges such as Islamophobia or racism are not taken seriously.
The result of these polemics helps to stoke not only Judeophobia but also Islamophobia. Saying it is complicated, as Silow-Carroll does, is not enough. To that end, I issue the following Ten Commandments for how to think about what I will term post-Holocaust Judeophobia.
Commandment #1: Thou Shalt Not Be Anti-Semantic
Naming things accurately helps to identify the problem more acutely. As with discussions about racism, we need a more nuanced vocabulary for naming what we want to fight if we want that struggle to succeed. The word “anti-Semitism” is part of the problem. It is used to discuss everything from stereotypes (enduring images or myths about Jews), to prejudice (the internalization of such views, often unconsciously), to discrimination (calls for social or legal action on the basis of bigoted views), to genocide. These are very different things. If someone reiterates a stereotype about Jews having too much power, for example, this does not make them an anti-Semite. Anti-Semitism, a form of racism, is an all-encompassing ideology that explains everything to those who believe it holds the key to interpreting the world.
Commandment #2: Thou Shalt Think Historically
“Anti-Semitism” is also used as a singular term for all periods of history. This obstructs seeing the differences, for instance, in the dynamics in the ancient world when Christianity first arose, often defining itself against Judaism, from what happened during the Holocaust. This is a problem because what is happening today is not the same thing as what happened in Germany in the 1930s. We need to understand the changes in anti-Jewish discourse and actions over time if we are going to properly understand our present situation.
Post-Holocaust Judeophobia is a more useful label than “the new anti-Semitism” since it aids us in discerning the specific features of the political, religious, and cultural conflicts at present. Judeophobia is no longer articulated as a racial war between Aryans and Semites as was the case for the Nazis. Judeophobia is quite different today than it was 75 years ago.
Commandment #3: Thou Shalt Ask, “So, What’s New?”
There are three new vectors to monitor as drivers behind post-Holocaust Judeophobia. Learning about the history of each and when they actually manifest as Judeophobia is key: 1) Holocaust denial; (2) Anti-Zionism; and (3) Post-Holocaust Judeophobia among Muslims.
Commandment #4: Thou Shalt Correlate Social Facts And Social Acts
Let’s dig deeper into the case of Muslims living in Europe as a case in point. Take the situation in France where you have the largest global community (other than Israel) in which Jews (more than 500,000) are living side by side with a community of Muslim descent (more than 5 million). Since 2000, there have been an average of 600 Judeophobic incidents yearly. Anti-North African, anti-Arab, or anti-Muslim incidents are the next highest recorded hate crimes. These are a product of widespread Islamophobia.
Before 2000, those on the hard right perpetrated most acts of violence against Jews and Jewish institutions in France. Since the Second Intifada, two out of three perpetrators that were caught are North African male youth of Muslim descent. The alarmists often ascribe this to the ideology of Islamism (i.e. Islamic political activism) or even to a Judeophobia intrinsic to Islam.
But to understand the hate crime numbers, you have to understand the divide and rule tactics of the French state and its imperial legacy. Unlike Arabs, Jews were given citizenship in Algeria. They also acquired it more easily if they were from Tunisia and Morocco, given their French acculturation. When they migrated to France following independence in North Africa, they came to a country where anti-Semitism was anathema as a result of France’s collaboration in World War II. A Jewish community with institutions and resources welcomed them. Integration was consequently made easier. Social success as a minority already had more than 200 years behind it, going back to the equality Jews were given in the French Revolution.
For Arabs, colonialism and anti-colonial struggles were incredibly violent and racist. This racism continued in post-colonial France when they migrated there. Today in the U.S., we gage institutionalized discrimination with systemic metrics. In France, half of unemployed workers are of Muslim descent. The housing projects in the banlieues are rough neighborhoods with higher rates of crime and violence. A massive disproportion of those in prison and juvenile centers are from “foreign born” families. Prisons have become incubators for radicalization.
Couple these conditions with imams who draw on Islamic sources to sacralize Judeophobia, or cultural icons like the comic M’bala M’bala Dieudonné, whose popular act, live and on the web, sardonically pokes fun at elites who control “the system,” which he invariably identifies with Jews and Zionists and you have a toxic brew. These are the social and ideological conditions that helps explain the data.
Consequently, if you want to understand what is going on with Judeophobia in France, you have to understand how it is interrelated with Islamophobia. The fate of Jews and Muslims has long been bound together. The same kind of analysis needs to be applied to Jews and Muslims in other European contexts.
Commandment #5: Thou Shalt Think About Anti-Racism Without Making Exceptions
Those who look at the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in a black/white binary, and figure Palestinians as good and Israelis as evil, reduce a complicated situation to a simplistic calculus. This has led some to place Jews as outside the bounds of their anti-racist politics.
Recently, longer standing claims about Israel as a racist, colonial, apartheid state have been supplemented by identifying Jews and Israel with white supremacy. This is done to yoke together movements like #BlackLivesMatter with the Palestinian struggle.
But this obscures the complicated history of whiteness and anti-Jewish racism. It also effaces how anti-Jewish racism was the scaffolding for anti-Muslim and anti-Black vilification. It obfuscates how Jews only became white and relatively privileged in the aftermath of the Holocaust in America.
But black/white color-based racism on the American model makes little sense when applied to Israel or France, where half the Jews come from North Africa and the Islamic World. Not to mention the Felashas from Ethiopia. Moreover, the white supremacists in Charlottesville or elsewhere would hardly concur with identifying Jews as white. And whiteness still does not protect Jews from being murdered because they are Jews.
Palestine Legal offers a compelling definition of anti-Semitism, however, that takes seriously the interconnectedness of forms of social ostracism and oppression and so should be taken to heart by all anti-racists: “Anti-Semitism is ethno-religious bias, hate, discrimination and violence against Jews because of their Jewish identification. As part of addressing anti-Semitism, we must recognize the interconnectedness of systemic forms of oppression, including genocide, slavery, racism, sexism, homophobia, class-based oppression, Islamophobia, able-ism, ageism and more.”
Commandment #6: Thou Cannot Define The Problem Away
Palestine Legal offers this definition in opposition to the U.S. Department of State definition because it includes Natan Sharansky’s 3-D definition of the “new anti-Semitism”: Demonizing Israel, delegitimizing Israel, and applying double-standards to Israel.
Identifying Jews or the Jewish state as the main cause of evil in the world is the heart of Judeophobia. But today on all sides of the political spectrum, analogies to the Nazis are common. What Leo Strauss once termed the fallacy of reductio ad Hitlerum, whereby you tar a position you dislike by claiming it was the same thing Hitler did, is prevalent everywhere.
Ultimately, you cannot define this problem away in America because Free Speech protections will uphold people’s right to make these analogies and arguments. And political and moral reflection depends upon making analogies, whether that Israel is like apartheid South Africa or ISIS is like fascism in Islamic clothing. But every analogy is only valid when you have thought through both similarities and differences.
Commandment #7: Thou Shalt Not Mirror Your Enemy
In debates about “anti-Semitism,” both sides reduce their opponents’ positions to simplistic formulas. A key claim of the BDS movement is that “Zionism is racism.” The retort on the other side is that “Anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism.” These charges are mirror images of one another, catering to a media landscape hungry for digestible sound bites. These charges are the product of polemics, which are about defining enemies and constituting them as evil. We will never get beyond racism playing this game.
Commandment #8: Thou Shalt Not Speak In Stereotypes
Both sides speak about the other in clichés. There is no such thing as an undifferentiated “Europe” or “the left” or “the right.” To consider just what is meant by Europe, we must remember that there are 28 member states in the European Union. In each of those countries the political spectrum is much more complicated than in the U.S., since there are many more parties across the continuum. All of the mainstream political parties on the left and the right accept the legitimacy of the State of Israel and denounce anti-Semitism. The problems generally begin at the extreme ends of the spectrum.
Commandment #9: Thou Shalt Be Wary Of The Glue That Binds
There is no serious evidence of a political alignment made up of leftists and Islamists. In general, these are competing ideologies. Some groups within these camps may share a hostile discourse towards Israel or Zionism. They may march in rallies together. But this does not an alliance make, except in the cases of some individuals who prove the rule. There are also occasions where the extreme right seeks to align with Islamists against Zionism and Jews. In France, for example, Dieudonné plays the front man and the national-socialist Alain Soral functions as his back-end engineer. But in general, there is no coordinated red-green-brown alliance.
Commandment #10: Thou Shalt Be Vigilant, But Avoid Alarmism
Judeophobia remains a serious, indeed a deadly problem. But avoid alarmism. We are not in the 1930s today, so shun reductio ad Hitlerum arguments. Be sure to address your analogies both to what is similar and what is different in what you are comparing. Refuse reductionism and essentialism, which is the core of all racisms. Try to listen to what those you most disagree with are trying to say. Be especially sensitive to their fears, for often stereotypes are expressions in the language of anxiety about real social ills.
If we are going to move beyond the war of words, we need a vocabulary and historical consciousness that transcends sound bites, stereotypes, and demonization. Following these Ten Commandments is a beginning.