I have been called out for antisemitism...now what?

DO NOT GET DEFENSIVE

In the past few years that I’ve been doing this work, I’ve noticed an extremely worrying reality: nearly every time a person is called out for perpetrating antisemitism, they get defensive. Oftentimes, they deflect. They call upon their Jewish friends to defend them or point to so and so Jew or Jewish organization that will validate their views. They accuse Jews of conspiring against them. They say we are crying antisemitism. And it’s understandable sometimes: most people don’t think that they hold an animosity for Jews. But that doesn’t matter.

Antisemitism is not about your personal feelings toward Jews. It’s a systemic and institutional bigotry that shows up in pervasive ways. It is 3000 years of oppressive laws, persecution, genocide, ethnic cleansing, systemic violence, historical revisionism, and more. It’s the foundation of white supremacy. It’s the world’s oldest hatred. It transcends political affiliation and geographic location. It’s not about what you think and feel. It’s about the little things that add up to the big things that endanger the lives of Jews.

I get it: everyone gets defensive sometimes. And yes, it’s absolutely possible that, like all other accusations, an accusation of antisemitism is unfounded. But the likelihood is that it’s not, and like all accusations of bigotry, it should be investigated thoroughly and without prejudice.

You don’t even have to be an “antisemite” to perpetuate antisemitism. We all likely have a degree of antisemitic bias. Even Jews! It’s up to us to unlearn it.

 

ANTISEMITIC BIAS

A lot of people have predominantly antisemitic views, and even more people have at least some degree of antisemitic bias (Jews included! Every day I unravel more and more of my unconscious bias, even though I’ve been a Jew my entire life and have spent over 10 years studying Jewish history in academic and professional settings).

Antisemitism is a 3000-year-old bigotry and as such has deeply embedded itself into most of our societies and institutions. It’s in the languages we speak. In our literature. It’s in religious texts. It’s at the very foundation of white supremacy! As such, it’s pretty much impossible that you haven’t at least internalized some of it, whether you are conscious of it or not.

According to the Anti-Defamation League Global Index on Antisemitism, about 1.09 billion people hold predominantly antisemitic attitudes. That is about 26% of the world population, which is astronomical, considering that Jews only form 0.2% of the world population. An even higher percentage believes at least some antisemitic tropes; for example, 41% of the world believes dual loyalty tropes. In some areas of the word, the numbers are even more staggering. For example, in the Middle East and North Africa, 74% of the population has predominantly antisemitic attitudes.

 

ANTISEMITISM IS SNEAKY

The expectation that all antisemitism should look like the antisemitism of Nazi Germany is not only inherently incorrect, but also deeply harmful. Nazi antisemitism was the culmination of thousands of years of antisemitic bias — including subtle and covert bias — and antisemitic policies. Nazism did not pop out of thin air.

Antisemitism mutates. It ascribes whichever qualities are least desirable in any given society to Jews (for example: are Jews capitalists or communists? Are we white colonizers or secretly-not-white race polluters? Are we backwards natives or a tool of European imperialism? We’ve quite literally been accused of all these things within recent memory). Antisemitism moves in silence, through conspiracies. Antisemitism uses euphemisms. The overt antisemitism most of us can easily recognize is, in the grand scheme of things, actually rather rare.

If you are accused of antisemitism, it’s tempting to dismiss or deny the accusation, especially when the only antisemitism you see and know is overt antisemitism. But covert antisemitism is still antisemitism and ultimately leads to dangerous, deadly overt antisemitism. It’s so imperative that you understand this. You may not mean to be an antisemite, but if you are perpetuating covert antisemitic tropes, conspiracies, and euphemisms, you are still harming Jews.

One of the best things you can do as a potential ally is to educate yourself on antisemitic conspiracies, tropes, and euphemisms, as well as how they mutate and adapt to any given society.

 

DO NOT TOKENIZE

If you are accused of antisemitism, it can be tempting to point to this Jewish friend or that Jewish organization that can validate your views. This is tokenization. Tokenism is racism, and, in this particular case, antisemitism.

Of course, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that an accusation of antisemitism could be unfounded. Anyone can say anything they want and accuse anyone of anything they want, but that doesn’t necessarily make it true. So how do you distinguish between an unfounded accusation and an accusation with merit? Not by tokenizing Jews that agree with you, that’s for sure.

All communities, including the Jewish community, have a communal voice. While Jewish leadership is not centralized in the manner that, say, Catholic leadership is centralized (i.e. the pope), the community still has things that we all predominantly agree on (even though Jews are notorious for disagreeing with each other!). In the case of a marginalized minority, “mainstream” isn’t bad; rather, it represents the predominant voice of the community.

For example, the vast majority of Jews agree with the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s Working Definition of Antisemitism, which, as of March of 2022, has been adopted by 37 nations and 865 entities, including the major Jewish organizations, such as the World Jewish Congress, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, and the Jewish Agency, among many, many others. It has also been adopted by the State of Israel, the only Jewish majority nation in the world (for the skeptical, the resolution quite literally states: “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic”).

 

LISTEN TO THE COMMUNITY

As mentioned in the previous slide, it’s important to understand that listening to the Jewish communal voice — in other words, the “mainstream,” majority voice — should trump that of fringe groups that are not representative of the community as a whole.

You cannot adequately support Jewish People if you are not open to hearing about our experiences, even when they don’t align with yours. The fact of the matter is that if you are not Jewish, you cannot possibly know what being Jewish is like.

There are around 15.2 million Jews in the world today. This means that there are 15.2 million different Jewish opinions and experiences. Like all groups of people, the Jewish People are not a monolith. Jews, especially, are known for our long tradition of debate and disagreement. If you are genuinely interested in learning from Jews — and to avoid tokenization — it’s important for you to listen to many Jewish voices, and not just voices that you always agree with. It’s also important to listen to Jews of diverse backgrounds, races, sub-ethnic groups, social classes, genders, sexual orientations, and more.

This also means that if you disagree with a person about a topic unrelated to Jewishness or Judaism, you should still be willing to listen when they talk about their Jewish experience. People — Jews included — are multifaceted individuals. You might not always agree with us, but you should understand that no one can speak to the Jewish experience better than we can.

 

LEARN

If you’ve been called out for antisemitism, one of the best things you can do is to take this as an opportunity to learn. Fortunately for you, there are no shortage of resources — written by Jewish experts in the field — on antisemitism, Jewish history, and more. In fact, this right here is a good place to start.

In my opinion, the most important thing to do is to familiarize yourself with antisemitic tropes, conspiracies, and euphemisms. Antisemitism doesn’t always look the same — Soviet antisemitism looked quite different than Nazi antisemitism — but it always uses the same formula. Learn to recognize the formula and see where it shows up in your own life.

Learning about the Holocaust is really important, but it’s crucial not to limit your understanding of antisemitism to the Holocaust. The Holocaust was one genocide in a long string of genocides and injustices perpetrated against the Jewish People. Since the Holocaust, 850,000 Jews were ethnically cleansed from the Middle East and North Africa; Soviet Jews were persecuted, deported, and held captive; 25,000 Jews were stripped of their Polish citizenship and forced to flee Poland; and much, much more. And yet the world has been silent.

Make sure to always prioritize Jewish sources. Look into the author. Are they held in esteem by the Jewish community? What are their qualifications? What does the Jewish community as a whole have to say about their work? Remember, Jewish identity is communal,  and so is the Jewish experience: as in, it’s dictated by the community (you can’t just wake up one day and decide that you’re Jewish). Center the voices of the community rather than the fringe. Never stop learning.

 

HOW WILL YOU DO BETTER?

An apology means very little if it’s not followed by tangible action. This action can take different forms: donating to causes that help Jews in need (for instance, about one third of Holocaust survivors live in poverty), engaging with the community, centering Jewish communal voices an all issues related to antisemitism and the Jewish experience, taking the time to learn, and, of course, making sure to nip antisemitism in the bud wherever it shows up in your life (your coworker made an antisemitic joke? Don’t just let it slide).

Remember this: only Jews get to define antisemitism. To do better, the first and best thing you can do is to listen (don’t demand free labor, though! Especially not on the spot. Educating about antisemitism — something that affects us very deeply, when we are already carrying so much intergenerational trauma — is extremely taxing).

Antisemitism is serious and deadly. It puts the Jewish community at risk. No matter how small, if you’ve engaged in antisemitism in any way, you are adding your contribution to a 3000-year-old bigotry that gets Jews killed. You put us in tangible danger.

It would, of course, be better for you not to have engaged in antisemitism in the first place. But if you’ve been called out, you should be thankful for the opportunity to learn, apologize, make amends, and do better.

For a full bibliography of my sources, please head over to my Patreon