Helpful suggestions about criteria for identifying antisemitism, strategies for addressing it, and understanding how antisemitism and racism can trigger one another.
The rise of antisemitism in the United States and Europe has concerned many. Most people are clear that something is antisemitic when there is a shooting at a synagogue or a swastika-burning on a lawn. But what about day-to-day oppressive behaviors that target Jews? When do oppressive behaviors constitute antisemitism? Overt acts of antisemitism do not just happen; they follow days, weeks and years of daily acts of antisemitism. Therefore, understanding the nature of these daily oppressive behaviors is key to stopping overt, violent forms of antisemitism.
One of the key ingredients of antisemitism is confusion. As long as other oppressed peoples believe that Jews are the cause of their difficulties, they target Jews, and in so doing, sink into submission and do not wage a unified fight against the real sources of their oppression. Thus, keeping oppressed peoples confused about Jews is a key mechanism of antisemitism. It is not a coincidence that so many people (Jews and non-Jews alike) have such a difficult time understanding when something is antisemitism and when it is not.
Three Guidelines for Determining When Something Is Antisemitic
Having guidelines for recognizing antisemitism is helpful. Here are three specific ones.
First Guideline: Are Jews Being Singled Out for Blame?
Historically, when oppressed peoples were ready to stand up and fight against their oppression, there was often an invisible large DIVERT sign with an arrow pointing to Jews.
Blaming Jews for all the ills of society has been a key systemic mechanism of antisemitism. This same mechanism can play out in a personal relationship. Whenever a Jewish person is being singled out and blamed for all the difficulties in a relationship, this can be a sign of unaware antisemitism on an individual level.
Here are institutional and interpersonal examples.
United Nations Conference in Durban
At the United Nations NGO Conference on Racism in Durban, South Africa, in 2001, the primary work of the conference was often derailed by the targeting and singling out of Israel to be blamed for all of the problems in the Israel/Palestine conflict. Some of the conference participants expressed hatred of Jews by wearing buttons that read, “Hitler didn’t do enough of his job.” A cartoon circulating at the conference depicted a Jewish man with a hooked nose, a beard and blood pouring from his hands, which were clasped in a greedy pose. The cartoon resembled oppressive “blood libel” caricatures of Jews that were pervasive for centuries in Europe. In the final documents produced by the conference, Israel was the only country in the world expressly denounced for its racism. Singling Jews out for blame is the telltale sign of antisemitism.
City College of New York
In 2016, the Board of City College of New York decided to cut the college budget by $500 million. City College is a campus that serves large numbers of students from low-income families and People of Color. The rationale the board gave for making such drastic reductions was that there had been antisemitic incidents on campus. After the board announced its decision, several Jewish faculty members came forward saying that they had been on faculty for more than two decades and did not recall witnessing antisemitism on campus. Citing increased antisemitism as the rationale for the budget cuts set Jews up against students of limited means and People of Color on campus.
A Jewish Worker
A Jewish woman told her colleagues that it was hard for her that important staff meetings were being held on major Jewish holidays. The Jewish woman was told that she was making a big deal about nothing. When she persisted in voicing her concerns, she was fired. Seeing Jewish concerns as insignificant or seeing Jews as “pushy,” “whiny” or “not good team players” can all be signs of antisemitism. Instead of having an important conversation about whether or not to hold key staff meetings on major faith-based holidays, the Jewish woman was blamed for making the rest of the staff feel uncomfortable.
When Jews speak up about antisemitism, they often experience more antisemitism. They hear, “You complain all the time. This is not a big deal. Get over it.” When Jews mention antisemitism, they sometimes hear that compared to racism, what is happening to them is not nearly as important. Comparing oppressions is never useful. All of these responses deny the pain of day-to-day acts of antisemitism.
A Jewish Supervisor
Several staff members in a grassroots organization sought out a consultant for help with their supervisor, saying she was pushy, aggressive and controlling—all code words often used to describe Jews and Jewish women in particular. The staff may or may not have been aware that its supervisor was Jewish. No one thought or said, “My supervisor is Jewish. That’s why I don’t get along with her.” They didn’t know that their difficulties with their supervisor had everything to do with the struggles that many Jews have—a sense of isolation, a need to do everything oneself, panic about whether things are going to get done well, difficulty trusting that others will ever “be there” and constant worry about impending work disasters.
Many people express worry or panic; that’s not unique to Jews. But historically, certain trauma is unique to Jews. Antisemitism is cyclical. It vacillates between periods of overt persecution, violence and genocide, and periods of more subtle, covert forms of antisemitism. This insecurity about when antisemitism might arise has left many Jews super-vigilant, always worrying and on edge. Even in periods of relative security, the worries are always present. Has the cycle turned? Is another Inquisition, pogrom, or Holocaust imminent? Are we in possible danger? These concerns get passed down from generation to generation and seep into every aspect of life—from close personal relationships to supervising a staff.
Staff members may not have understood that their supervisor experiences fear and panic based on historic Jewish trauma, which made it hard for her to feel safe. They were probably unaware that their supervisor’s issues could have roots in anti-Jewish oppression. Instead of finding ways to be her ally or looking honestly at their own contributions to her struggles, the staff simply blamed her for all of the problems at work. They missed the opportunity to examine their own behavior that may have contributed to their supervisor’s struggles and to grow emotionally themselves.
Antisemitism is sometimes called “the oldest hatred.” More than 2,000 years of persecution, expulsions, violence and genocide have had a significant impact on the life of all Jews, whether they understand it or not. The trauma resulting from killing 6 million Jews in during the years of World War II and the Holocaust affects every Jewish person. The supervisor is but one example of a person acting from a set of fears that those around her do not readily understand.
Second Guideline: Are Jews Being Isolated From Other People?
Isolating Jews and forcing Jews to live separately from the rest of society has been a key component of antisemitism. One must remember that historically, Jews were forced to live in ghettos. This legacy of enforced isolation can play out in day-to-day activities and in coalition work. Because the isolation of Jews from other oppressed peoples is a key dynamic of antisemitism, any time Jews are being isolated and kept out of coalition activities, the presence of antisemitism needs to be considered.
On an East Coast college campus, in 2018 a group of Jewish students were told they could not participate in a major climate-change coalition unless they signed a statement declaring that Zionism is racism. If an organization forces a group of Jews out of a coalition unless it agrees to renounce Zionism (especially as no other group in the coalition is subject to a similar precondition for participation), one needs to look at this action as antisemitism. The policy both singles Jews out and isolates them from participating in joint action with other groups.
Third Guideline: Are Progressive Movements Being Diverted From Their Work by Confusion About Antisemitism?
One of the key ways antisemitism functions is to divide Jews from other progressive forces, weakening any possible coalition for social change. When Jews and People of Color are divided from each other, progressive forces become weakened. The use of trigger words is one mechanism for reinforcing these divisions. Trigger words can pit Jews and People of Color against each other, bringing up painful emotions that keep them unnecessarily divided. The Black Lives Matter platform—a powerful document that spoke out against racism in the U.S. criminal justice system—also included a section on international issues, using the terms apartheid state and genocide to describe Israeli practices towards Palestinians. For several weeks following the release of the platform, members of the Black community and the Jewish community were fighting each other over these triggering terms.
Is Israel an apartheid state? Does Israel perpetrate genocide? When the words apartheid state or genocide appeared, many Blacks and Jews spent hours fighting each other over the accuracy of the terms. Are they an accurate description of reality? Are they not? We need to educate each other about what words trigger painful memories of past injustices for each of our people. The use of trigger words, even when some might consider the words an accurate description, only divides us. In the end, these arguments function as a convenient diversion, preventing effective coalition-building.
The Personal Intersection of Antisemitism and Racism: ‘The Hook’
Given that a major function of antisemitism is to divide Jews from other oppressed peoples, working to strengthen relationships between Jews and People of Color is a key way to reduce antisemitism. Understanding the intersection of antisemitism and racism can strengthen these relationships.
Ideally, Jews and People of Color would be natural allies. There have been many historic moments of cooperation between Jews and people targeted by racism, particularly people of African heritage. Over time, Black Gentiles and Jews, particularly in America, have come to recognize that they have experienced oppression that links their peoples in a common struggle for social justice.
But there have also been too many moments of mistrust and division between Jewish people and Black African heritage people on both personal and political levels. One way to look at the difficulties over the years between Black Gentiles and White Ashkenazi Jews is to examine the intersection of racism and antisemitism. One can think about the relationship as a “Hook.”
Jews (White Ashkenazi Jews in particular) are sometimes scared and panicked as a result of a long history of betrayal and abandonment. This panic has left them, in certain circumstances, wanting to take charge of situations, exert strong leadership, even urgently interrupt or take over if it looks to them as though something could go wrong. These behaviors are a result of the history of anti-Jewish oppression, when things going wrong could mean imminent death. When Jews, however, exhibit these behaviors in relationship with Black African heritage people, it is racism.
Black people have learned over a long history of oppression that when white people get scared, Black people’s lives can be in danger. In the United States, for example, many states have what are called “stand your ground” laws. Under these laws, if a white person is afraid of a Black person, their fear may be considered a justifiable defense for shooting and killing the Black person. As a result, Black people may understandable want to run from a Jewish person showing panic and fear.
Here are some examples of the “Hook,” where people are caught in the interplay of racism and antisemitism:
- A Jewish activist and a Vietnamese director of an advocacy organization are working together to improve the lives of domestic workers. The Vietnamese director fails to meet agreed-upon deadlines. The Jewish activist panics about the possible impact of the delays and becomes impatient with her colleague, exhibiting racism. The director testily pushes back at the Jewish activist, blaming her for her panic, exhibiting antisemitism.
- In 2018, several Jewish students at a Midwestern university were distraught when they learned that the organizers of a rally in support of Palestinian rights scheduled the event on the Jewish religious holiday of Rosh Hashanah. The Jewish students shared their upset with the rally organizers, but they were oblivious to the racism coming across in their strident, urgent and demanding tones. The organizers of the rally pushed back at the Jewish students, saying, “This isn’t about you! Don’t tell us when we can or cannot hold a rally!” This response was unaware antisemitism. The organizers failed to recognize the legitimate concerns of the Jewish students. By scheduling the rally on Rosh Hashanah, the organizers were excluding Jewish students who would otherwise want to participate in the event. The racism of the Jewish students elicited the response of antisemitism.
- A Jewish leader in a national organization became troubled by the unaware antisemitism expressed by Black colleagues in a panel discussion. It took the Jewish leader three months to summon the courage to approach one of her Black colleagues to discuss her concerns. When she did so, her Black colleague became upset with her, noting that waiting so long to raise these concerns was racist. The Black colleague felt that the Jewish leader had left her “high and dry” with her antisemitism “showing.” The Black leader, however, focused solely on condemning her Jewish colleague for waiting so long without recognizing how scared her Jewish colleague was to even raise the issue of antisemitism. Both the racism and the antisemitism needed to be acknowledged.
This is the “Hook:” Jewish panic can lead to acting out racist behavior, and the response to the racist behavior in turn can lead to abandoning Jews, which then is also antisemitism. By understanding this intersection of racism and antisemitism, Black Gentiles and White Ashkenazi Jews can keep from getting caught in a pattern of misunderstanding and mistrust.
With greater clarity of their own and the other’s struggles, they can reach for a stronger alliance.
Actions to Increase Awareness about Anti-Semitism
To combat antisemitism, here are two concrete actions that both Jews and non-Jews can take.
Consciousness-Raising Groups for Jews
Similar to the consciousness-raising groups that women participated in during the early years of the feminist movement, Jews would benefit from a consciousness-raising group on antisemitism. At each meeting of a support group on antisemitism, each member might consider the following questions:
What has it been like to be a Jew this week…this month…this year?
How have you experienced antisemitism?
What was an “Aha!” moment in your life when you realized there was antisemitism?
Groups for Allies to Work on Antisemitism
Allies are critical to ending antisemitism. They can start by examining the hurtful things they learned about Jews (consciously or unconsciously). They can review their early memories about Jews and answer the following questions:
What did you first learn about Jews in your family or at your place of worship?
When did you first hear about Jews?
What would you have to face if you were never to allow Jews or Israel to be singled out for blame?
Allies can organize together to defeat antisemitism. They could make sure to include the issue of antisemitism as one of the “isms” in a social-justice program or march. They could also decide to attend a march with a banner, such as one reading “Jews and Allies United to End Antisemitism.”
The rise of antisemitism in the United States and Europe is understandably a growing concern. Yet, a clear awareness of how antisemitism functions is the way to oppose it, which includes recognizing day-to-day acts of antisemitism, understanding the guidelines for determining when something is or is not antisemitic, identifying the intersection of antisemitism and racism, and taking action with others to reduce antisemitism.