What is Antisemitism?

From the May/June 2019 PNL #866

by Carole Resnick and Julie Gozan



Jewish communities around the world have had various experiences with discrimination, bigotry and violence throughout history. The most well-known examples are the Spanish Inquisition and expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, the massacre and persecution of Jews in the pogroms of Russia in the 19th and 20th centuries, and the genocide of six million Jews in the Nazi Holocaust of the 1940s. Contemporary antisemitism has been revealed harshly in the current upsurge of violence perpetrated against Jews in the US and Europe.

Definitions of antisemitism are generally straightforward regardless of the source. Most recognize a core meaning apart from beliefs about Israel and Palestine, in spite of some also falsely characterizing criticism of Israel as antisemitic. For example:

Webster’s Dictionary: Hostility toward or discrimination against Jews as a religious,ethnic, or racial group

• Anti-Defamation League: Belief or behavior hostile toward Jews ... It may take the form of religious teachings that proclaim the inferiority of Jews ... political efforts to isolate, oppress, or otherwise injure them [or] prejudiced or stereotyped views about Jews.

• International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance and US State Department: A certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred, directed toward individuals or Jewish community institutions and religious facilities. [C] riticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.

To discuss and expand on these definitions, we have borrowed liberally from the 2016 essay “JVP’s Understanding of Antisemitism in the United States,” by the national organization Jewish Voice for Peace. We also draw from Judith Butler’s introduction to JVP’s 2017 book, On Antisemitism. For further background, we strongly recommend the “Countering Anti-Jewish Oppression Resource List,” compiled by Showing Up for Racial Justice, found at www.showingupforracialjustice.org/surj-faith.html.

Racial antisemitism, and the term “antisemitism” itself, emerged from pseudoscientific theories of race in 19th-century Europe that placed categories of people into a racial hierarchy. This racist logic has had institutional and governmental support, including in the US, where historically, Jewish refugees were ghettoized and discriminated against along with other immigrant groups. European Jews in the US have largely been racialized as white over time. Even as the Trump administration emboldens anti-Jewish speech and violence, antisemitism is not currently reinforced by state institutions in the same ways that racism and Islamophobia are, through structural barriers to opportunity,
surveillance, policing practices and more. Non-European Jews and Jews of Color in the US have their own histories and experiences of both racism and antisemitism.

Religious antisemitism includes the everyday and pervasive dominance of Christianity in US culture in ways that impact all religious minorities. While many Christian communities practice liberation theologies and work towards justice for all ople, some use antisemitic misreading of doctrine and treat Judaism as inferior to Christianity. Christian Zionism, which encourages Jewish return to Israel as a means to achieve Christian redemption, is founded on antisemitic interpretations of scripture.

Contemporary expressions of antisemitism include treating Jews as a monolithic group, stereotyping Jews as rich or greedy, or demonizing Jews as secretly in control of political events. These tropes are evident when the US-Israel relationship is blamed solely on Jewish power, exempting the US government from its responsibility for unconditional support of Israel. Indeed, the alt-right staunchly supports Israel even as it disseminates antisemitic myths of Jewish dominance. Some on the left claim that hate crimes are just a response to the oppression of Palestinians and Jewish support for Israeli policies; in fact, most of the antisemites in the US who commit anti-Jewish hate crimes are also profoundly anti-Muslim and support Palestinian dispossession. Antisemitic incidents are on the rise and should not be minimized from the right or the left.

A surge in nationalism around the world has brought neo-Nazi ideologies back into the mainstream, and right-wing parties with antisemitic agendas have made electoral gains. The Jobbik party in Hungary, whose leaders have claimed that Jews are a threat to national security, won representation in the national assembly in 2018. Golden Dawn in Greece rallies anti-Roma, anti-refugee, and anti-Jewish sentiment and maintains alliances with far-right groups in the UK, Poland, Slovakia, Croatia and Bulgaria. Austria’s vice chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache has been photographed participating in paramilitary exercises with Nazi groups. This year on Good Friday, the town of Pruchnik, Poland enacted a ritual beating of an effigy of Judas caricatured as an Orthodox Jew.

Hate crimes in the US against Muslims, African-Americans, Latinxs and Jews swelled immediately following Trump’s election and have continued. Synagogues, cemeteries, and college campuses have been desecrated by swastikas and antiJewish epithets; at the time of this writing these were found newly spray-painted on schools, museums and a Democratic Par-
ty headquarters in Oklahoma. Two 2018
studies show an increase in antisemitic
posts on social media. In New York City,
antisemitic crimes in 2018 were up 22%
compared with 2017, and 55 hate crimes,
two-thirds of them antisemitic, were re-
ported in the first six weeks of 2019. In
August 2017, the individuals who rallied
as part of Unite the Right in Charlottes-
ville chanted “Jews will not replace us.”
In March 2019 in Manhattan, Polish na-
tionalists and Holocaust deniers, rallying
to protest a bill seeking recovery of prop-
erty confiscated from victims of Nazism,
waved dollar bills in the faces of Jewish
counter-protestors. In October 2018 a
terrorist killed 11 people in the Tree of
Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. On April
27, 2019 a gunman with an automatic
rifle attacked a synagogue in Poway, CA
during services to observe Shabbat and
the last day of Passover, resulting in one
death and multiple injuries.

These examples show that we need to call out resurging forms of fascism forcefully and clearly. When the charge of antisemitism becomes a tactic to suppress
open criticism and debate about the State
of Israel, we lose the power to accurately
name and oppose antisemitism and its
toxic effects. We welcome this discussion
in the PNL and hope it brings clarity and
renewed purpose.

Carole and Julie are Syracuse activists, members
of Congregation Tikkun v'Or in Ithaca, members
of Jewish Voice for Peace, and committed to work-
ing for the liberation of the Palestinian people.