Are you antisemitic?
You'd probably say no, right?
After all, you don't hate Jews.
But here's the thing: you don't have to consciously hate Jews to be an antisemite, or to perpetuate dangerous antisemitic rhetoric. You don't even have to hate Jews at all.
Antisemitism is hostility, prejudice, or bigotry against the Jewish People on the basis of culture, religion, and/or ethnicity.
To begin to understand antisemitism, we must also understand who the Jewish People are: an ethnoreligious group (an ethnic group with a common religious practice), a nation, and one of the oldest tribes in the world. Though Jews are not a “race,” much of antisemitism is racialized, as, for example, it was in Nazi Germany.
Antisemitism, with a history dating over 2000 years, is often called “the world’s oldest hatred.” We are quite literally the oldest persecuted minority in history. Antisemitism has permeated nearly every culture in the world, from Europe to Southwest Asia (the Middle East), Central Asia, North Africa, and more. It’s one of the two building blocks of white supremacy (the other being racism, especially anti-Blackness) but it’s not limited to white supremacy. As such, it’s inevitable that most — if not all — people (yes, including Jews) will have at least some antisemitic biases.
Antisemitism can be tricky to spot because it works very differently than every other form of bigotry. While other bigotries see their victims as “inferior,” antisemitism sees Jews as both “inferior” but also “superior” or all-powerful, capable of causing every calamity from wars to natural disasters to diseases to controlling the weather. Because of this, Jews are the perfect scapegoat. For instance, in communist nations, such as the Soviet Union, Jews were persecuted for being “capitalists.” In capitalist (or at least anti-communist) nations, such as Nazi Germany and even the United States during McCarthyism, Jews were persecuted for being “communists.” In that way, Jews become everything that any given society doesn’t like.
Antisemitism moves through conspiracy theories. Most notably, since antisemites see Jews as all-powerful, the most prevalent (and probably deeply ingrained) antisemitic conspiracies have to do with Jews and wealth and power. Unfortunately, this inherently makes antisemitism almost impossible to address. If an antisemite faces consequences for their actions, this will serve as “proof” that the all-powerful Jews have imposed these consequences. In that way, antisemitism is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Antisemitism has survived for the past 2000+ years because it’s very adaptable. When societies change, antisemitism mutates to survive. The euphemisms and details of the conspiracies change, but the formula remains the same.
“Biases” can be defined as “an inclination or prejudice for or against one person or group.”
Unconscious biases are known as implicit biases. We all have implicit biases (whether negative or positive) in the way that we interpret the world around us. Conscious biases (such as, for example, the Nazis outwardly believing that Jews were “the inferior race”) are known as explicit biases.
Because antisemitism is everywhere in our world — in our cultures, our languages, our folklore, our literature, our entertainment, our media, and more — it’s impossible for us not to internalize at least some antisemitic biases. These biases, however, exist on a spectrum: from unconsciously assuming that most Jews are wealthy (implicit bias) to believing the white supremacist conspiracy theory that Jews are enacting a “white genocide” (explicit bias) to everything in between.
Because antisemitism is so old and so deeply embedded into our society and institutions (e.g. religion, language, literature, education, and more), that means that there is a lot of antisemitic bias in our world, most of which you might not even be able to see. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
WHERE IS THE LINE DRAWN?
If most of us have at least some antisemitic biases (both implicit and/or explicit), then who gets to decide who is or isn’t an antisemite? Where is the line drawn from having antisemitic biases to outright antisemitism? And does it even matter? There are people who almost everyone in the world can agree were and are undoubtedly antisemitic, such as Hitler or the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Amin al-Husseini (although believe it or not, I’ve seen people claim that al-Husseini and even Hitler weren’t “really” antisemitic! Of course, I find those claims absolutely ludicrous). But what about everyone else?
Let’s take the Anti-Defamation League index of antisemitism as an example. As of 2014, the ADL found that 75% of Egyptians (using a random country to illustrate my point) are antisemitic. However, 81% of Egyptians believe that people hate Jews “because of the way Jews behave.” If 81% of Egyptians believe this, shouldn’t 81% of Egyptians be considered antisemitic? Clearly, there’s a gap here. Where is the line drawn between having one (or more) antisemitic attitude(s) to being an antisemite?
It’s also important to remember that there is quite a large spectrum between a few unconscious antisemitic biases and Hitler. Just because you are not at the far end of the spectrum, that doesn’t mean that you are not antisemitic. Most antisemitism doesn’t look like Hitler’s.
HERE'S THE THING
Ultimately, I don’t have a definitive answer regarding who is or isn’t an antisemite. I also believe that it’s not for me to decide, because who has the authority to decide such a thing? I certainly don’t. Jews infamously hardly agree on anything, and so it’s no surprise that there is not one opinion on the subject.
In the end, whether you (or I) think you are or aren’t antisemite doesn’t matter much if you are still engaging in rhetoric that is harmful to Jews. You don’t have to consciously know that you’re doing anything wrong for your words or actions to cause harm.
If the Jewish community accuses you of causing harm, the best and most respectful thing you can do is to step back, reflect, learn, and make amends. Sure, there will always be people who weaponize accusations of bigotry for whatever reason. But if your instinct is to immediately assume accusations of antisemitism are unwarranted or meant to “silence” you, then that is your antisemitism speaking. You are falling into the trap of assuming that Jews must be targeting you for some nefarious or sinister motive.
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