Reevaluating Antisemitism

Abe Frolichstein-Appel, Guest Writer

Reevaluating Antisemitism

For thousands of years, Jews have experienced persecution and oppression in a wide variety of forms. These range from direct assaults by imperial armies to apartheidal policies that prevented Jews from participating in business, taking advantage of public services, and relying on the protection of law enforcement (read: living in a state as a citizen). They include mass expulsion and literal state sponsored genocide. The phenomenon of goyim (non-Jews, literally “the nations,”) stealing from and murdering Jews is not new. These goyim almost always act while backed by legal power and massive wealth. Parts of this history, like the Spanish Inquisition or the Holocaust, are are widely taught and well known. Other parts, like pogroms in Eastern Europe (violent attacks on Jewish communities that are enabled, condoned, and sometimes even facilitated by government authorities) are not as widely known but are pieces of history which are accessible and frightening. Others, like the pogrom this year in Pittsburgh, are still being written.    

This scares me. It scares me because I am Jewish, and whenever a Jew dies for being a Jew, I know that it could have been me. If not me, it could have been either of my Jewish parents, either of my Jewish brothers, or any of my Jewish friends and family. When I read that a  Shul (synagogue) in California has been attacked, I know it could have been my own Shul. And when I read that George Soros, a Jewish donor to Democratic politicians throughout the country and a regular target of antisemitic conspiracy theories, had a pipe bomb mailed to him, I know that, had he been a great bit wealthier and more prominent, that same bomb could have been sent to my Sabba (grandfather).

Fear of antisemitic violence is a tragic price to pay for things I consider to be some of the best parts of my life. My Judaism has allowed me access to community through my synagogue and summer camp, where I have made many of my closest friends and developed the values and principles which have shaped my character and my worldview.

The word “antisemitism” has an interesting history unto itself, created by a Jewish scholar in 1860 to characterize a philosopher’s claims of the Aryan race’s superiority to Semitic races.  “Semite” does not mean Jew, but rather any person who speaks a Semitic language (Hebrew, Arabic, Amharic, Tigrinya, etc). In 1879, however, the term replaced the word “Judenhass” (German for “Jew Hate”) in order to present the concept of Jew hate as more scientific and credible than its old name might suggest. Since its implementation in the place of Judenhass, antisemitism has come to mean “hatred of Jews” through repetition. (Antisemitism is sometimes written as anti-semitism or anti semitism. I choose to write is as one word because it’s meaning is different from being against semites.) This is important to understand, because the language used to describe the oppression of Jews has been explicitly controlled and manipulated by our oppressors for centuries in order to rationalize and extend our oppression.

I was first familiarized with the word antisemitism at home, by my parents, but was taught the word in religious school and public school, by teachers and rabbis and grandparents and friends. It’s a common part of our lexicon, but I was only first exposed to its historically relevant etymology when reading the introduction to On Antisemitism, a collection of essays about the hatred of Jews throughout history and today compiled byJewish Voice for Peace (JVP), a politically left Jewish organization dedicated to seeking “an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem; security and self-determination for Israelis and Palestinians; a just solution for Palestinian refugees based on principles established in international law; an end to violence against civilians; and peace and justice for all peoples of the Middle East.”

Funny enough, JVP and its leaders themselves have frequently been called antisemitic. The claim exists because JVP is very critical of the Israeli government and state while standing in powerful solidarity with Palestinian people fighting for their lives in Gaza and the West Bank. JVP has condemned the actions of the Israeli government time and time again, as well as the political philosophy, Zionism, which calls for the existence of the Jewish state in historic Palestine in the first place. The theory goes that JVP poses a deliberate and potent threat to the survival of the Jewish people by focusing on the state of Israel rather than on other human rights violators and by normalizing antisemitic rhetoric in the sphere of political discourse surrounding Israel and Palestine.

This claim is false. To allege that JVP’s work is antisemitic implies that its criticism of Israel is truly rooted in hatred for Jews, that Jewish safety is dependent on Israel’s continued oppression of Palestinian lives and livelihood and that Jewish survival and collective liberation are mutually exclusive. These implications are false, and extremely dangerous, not only for Jews but also for every group of people likely to be subject to state facilitated terror.

The criticism of Israel regularly made by JVP is rooted in the application of Jewish values to the world we live in today, values like justice, respect and vehement opposition to oppression. Members who are Jews and goyim, who are reform and reconstructionist and conservative and orthodox, who are rabbis and scholars and organizers and lay people have said as much. The specificity with which JVP condemns Israeli apartheid is cited as evidence of antisemitic motivations, rather than a logical response by a movement of Jews to a nation-state claiming to exist for all Jews. Furthermore, Jewish people live all around the world, many of us without any substantial connection to the state of Israel theologically, personally, ideologically or otherwise. There are Jews who support and who oppose the occupation and the atrocities committed by the Israeli Defense Forces, and many of these atrocities contribute to a large scale, centuries old, deadly conflict which has cost the lives of many thousands of people, a significant portion of whom were Jews. The vision for the future that JVP champions is not one of Palestinian led destruction of Jews everywhere, but rather one of Jews and Palestinians living lives which do not involve racist checkpoints, discriminatory voting laws, sniper bullets, or open air prisons. To argue that this vision leaves no room for Jewish survival reduces the Jewish people to the worst things a nation-state claiming to speak for us has done. To argue that this vision leaves no room for Jewish survival requires a deep hatred for Jews or a deep love for oppression. Or both.

In light of accusations of antisemitism against JVP, let us be clear: just as a Jew-hating journalist co-opted and redefined the word antisemitism to justify further oppression of Jews in the nineteenth century, so today has the global right. This process hinges on the conflation of the State of Israel and Israeli national interests with Jews and Jewish interests. By bridging this gap, the label of antisemite can be applied not only to people who pose a threat to Jewish people but also to those who question and criticize the State of Israel and its wider political ideology (of Western hegemony and the systematic exploitation of people and resources) that state serves. The separation between the word “antisemitism” and the phenomenon it once described is used to defend the State of Israel under the guise of defending Jews. The absurd extent to which this separation is taken can be seen most clearly in accusations of antisemitism against Jews like Eli Valley, a cartoonist who depicts threatening political figures as grotesque caricatures, or Brant Rosen, a member of the JVP Rabbinical Council who has served as a congregational Rabbi for decades (and, fun fact, performed my bar mitzvah) at several Shuls full of brilliant, beautiful Jews and who has time and time again spoken out in defense of Jewish people, and in opposition to state violence and disenfranchisement both in the US and internationally. Both of these Jews regularly demonstrate their commitment to and love for the Jewish people, whether in explicit explanations of their politics, in how they invest in a Jewish future that doesn’t hinge on mass violence and displacement, and in the rest of their lives when they publish work discussing Jewish thought in Jewish publications, or when they lead Jewish services and say Jewish prayers and engage with Jews in their communities about subjects of Jewish interest.

This separation between the term and its historical meaning is incredibly dangerous to Jews throughout the world. By using the word that once described anti-Jewish bigotry over and over to condemn both Louis Farrakhan, a real and dangerous Jew hater, and Ilhan Omar, a young Muslim Somali American Congresswoman who criticizes the American-Israel lobby, the American political Right has dissolved many Jews’ ability to identify those people who truly pose a threat to Jews. Without this basic ability, Jews are left vulnerable to those who might be allies to Israel but threats to the Jewish people (like the President, who has spread antisemitic conspiracy theories, used antisemitic stereotypes to influence hiring decisions as a businessman, praised Neo-Nazis as “very fine people”, and presided over increasing the amount of military aid the United States provides to Israel by billions of dollars). On the flipside of this dissolution is the ability the right has manufactured to protect people who say and do things which threaten Jews by accusing benign or even righteous figures of antisemitism. This functions either to invalidate the word antisemitism itself, since it is applied so regularly to situations in which real antisemitism plays little role, or to hide the real antisemites in a mountain of people who harbor no ill will toward the Jewish people but oppose the actions of the Israeli government vocally and visibly. Again, the language used to describe the oppression of Jews is explicitly controlled and manipulated by people in power who pose a significant threat to Jews and other minority groups (people like Steve King, Jeff Sessions, Steve Bannon, etc), and this power is used to rationalize and extend our oppression.

The separation between word and phenomenon puts me personally in an especially tight position, potentially threatening my safety. The word that describes animosity towards me due to one important pillar of my identity is also used to describe me, but the actions which spur on these accusations are driven by that very pillar of my identity. My Judaism compels me to fight for justice and prosperity, which means taking a decisive and strong stance against the Israeli government, which, to many, means I am an antisemite, which to them means I hate Jews. Or, put simply, my Judaism (as I embrace it) is the reason (as they explain it) that I hate Jews. A fabricated contradiction, one which deflates my credibility to identify bigotry and to condemn bigotry against other people under the guise of fighting for my own people.