MARTIN NIEMÖLLER QUOTE
“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.” — Martin Niemöller (1892–1984)
I’m sure you’ve seen the above quote before. It’s the quotation perhaps most associated with the Holocaust and the persecution of Jews. In the past few days, as antisemitism became a viral topic of conversation, I saw this quotation everywhere. It made me incredibly uneasy for several reasons:
(1) Martin Niemöller was an antisemite. He not only agreed with Nazi ideology, but he voted the Nazis into power. His change of heart came not because he atoned for his antisemitism, but because he disliked how the Nazi Party was meddling with the Lutheran Church, which led to his eventual arrest. Even worse: after the Allied victory, he opposed the de-Nazification of Germany because he thought that it would “do more harm than good.”
(2) this quote universalizes (i.e. “All Lives Matters”) the Holocaust. While the Nazis persecuted many groups of people for a variety of reasons, only Jews and Roma were targeted for complete extermination by the genocidal policies of the Final Solution.
(3) people should care about antisemitism because Jews are human beings who, like everyone else, deserve protection from bigotry. People shouldn’t care about antisemitism just because it might affect them later on. They should care about antisemitism because they care about antisemitism, period.
(4) almost every single instance of persecution in Jewish history was limited to Jews and absolutely no one else. So no, just because they “came for the Jews” doesn’t mean that they will come for you too. The likelihood is that they actually won’t, but that shouldn’t matter. The fact that they’re “coming for the Jews” should be enough for you to care.
The universalization of antisemitism is rampant. In other words, discussions about antisemitism rarely center Jews, particularly in political discourse. For example, MSNBC recently interviewed Ilhan Omar about Donald Trump’s antisemitism. Ilhan Omar not only has a history of making blatantly antisemitic statements, but she is not Jewish. Why is a major news outlet interviewing a non-Jewish congresswoman about antisemitism? Only Jews are the experts on our own experience. Only Jews (or in the rare case, those incorrectly perceived as Jewish) experience antisemitism.
Similarly, in 2020, Jewish Voice for Peace (see my post WHO IS JEWISH VOICE FOR PEACE?) hosted a panel on “dismantling antisemitism” with three non-Jewish speakers (with a history of antisemitic comments themselves): Marc Lamont Hill, Rashida Tlaib, and Barbara Ransby.
Jews form only ~2.5 percent of the American population and 0.2 percent of the world population. Our voices are already so drowned out. The fact that we are not even centered in discussions about our own oppression is both absurd and incredibly damaging.
There is no form of antisemitic universalization more rampant than the universalization of the Holocaust. For example, in 2017, the Trump administration released a statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day that did not even mention Jews. Once again, it bears repeating: only Jews and Roma were explicitly targeted for complete extermination by the Final Solution.
As such, Holocaust universalization is a form of Holocaust distortion, which, in turn, is a form of Holocaust denial, as the definition for Holocaust denial includes the distortion or denial of well-established historical facts about the Holocaust.
WHAT ABOUT PALESTINE?
It’s near impossible to come across a post made by a Jewish creator or a post calling out antisemitism that is not inundated by “what about Palestine?” comments, even when the post has absolutely nothing to do with Israel or Palestine. Even when the “I support my Jewish friends and the Jewish people” post went viral a few days ago, a new post started making the rounds: “I support my Palestinian friends and the Palestinian people.”
Palestinians are just as entitled to human rights and allyship as anyone else. That said, this is a blatant example of “All Lives Mattering.” It’s meant to derail and minimize the conversation about antisemitism. After all, Kanye said absolutely nothing about Palestinians in his antisemitic tirade, nor did the white supremacists who hung the antisemitic signs from the Los Angeles bridge. Some notes:
(1) if you can understand that it’s bigoted to derail posts in solidarity with, say, Asians experiencing anti-Asian violence, by commenting “what about China’s occupation of Tibet/Uyghur genocide/what have you,” or derailing a post about Islamophobia by commenting “what about the Islamic Republic of Iran’s oppression of women/religious and ethnic minorities,” then you very well can understand that derailing a post in solidarity with the Jewish People by invoking Palestine is inappropriate and antisemitic.
(2) your allyship with Jews in the fight against antisemitism should not come with a single precondition. Not a single Jew deserves antisemitism, even if you despise their politics or their position on Israel-Palestine. Antisemitism is not a valid punishment for bad behavior. It’s an ancient form of bigotry that gets us killed.
(3) Palestinians, like literally everyone else, are not immune from perpetuating antisemitism. The history of brutally violent antisemitism in Palestine goes back millennia, long before Jews were in any sort of position of systemic power in Israel. It’s a significant (though not the only) cause of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. For more on this, please see my posts A HISTORY OF POGROMS IN PALESTINE, THE ZIONISTS & THE BRITISH: WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED, NAZISM IN THE 1947-1949 ARAB-ISRAELI WAR, and THE ISSUE OF PARTITION.
Holocaust inversion is the act of depicting Jews and/or Israelis as Nazis, crypto-Nazis, or “worse than Nazis.” Holocaust inversion is a rhetorical tool used to portray Jews as morally equivalent — or worse — than Nazis. It’s often employed in discussions about Israel-Palestine and is frequently used by anti-Zionists. Holocaust inversion is a form of Holocaust revisionism, and, as such, is inherently a form of Holocaust denial. Holocaust inversion is revisionist because:
(1) Jews inherently cannot be Nazis or morally equivalent to Nazis, because Nazis considered all Jews, regardless of their political views, to be the inferior race.
(2) objectively, the scale of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and the Holocaust is simply not the same, and any attempts to frame them as such are intellectually dishonest. This is not to minimize the suffering of Palestinians; that said, the Nazis exterminated six million Jews in an industrial genocide in the span of less than six years. The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict is an inter-ethnic conflict over territory that has claimed the lives of (by the highest estimates) ~55,000 Palestinians (at the hands of Israel) and ~25,000 Israelis over the span of 75 years.
For perspective, the US war on Afghanistan (2001-2021) claimed the lives of ~200,000 people, the Syrian Civil War (2011-present) has claimed the lives of ~600,000 people, and the Chinese occupation of Tibet (1951-present) has killed 1.2 million Tibetans. And yet: only Israel, the one Jewish state in the world, with just 0.1% of the world’s population, is consistently compared to Nazi Germany. Why? Because it’s the comparison that would hurt Jews the most. The antisemitism here is blatant.
(3) the vast majority of Holocaust survivors have been supportive of Jewish self-determination (i.e. Zionism), and equating Holocaust survivors with their oppressors is repugnant and antisemitic.
(4) the Nazis were ardently anti-Zionist.
(5) the Nazis persecuted all Jews, regardless of their political views.
(6) the Arab leadership in Palestine actively collaborated with the Nazi regime during the Holocaust, which fundamentally shaped the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict as it exists today.
THE 11 MILLION
You might’ve heard that 11 million people — 6 million Jews and 5 million others — perished in the Holocaust. It’s a myth that has been repeated by a number of influential sources over the decades: Jimmy Carter, the Trump administration, even the Israeli Defense Forces. The problem is that the 11 million figure actually has no basis in reality.
Let’s get one thing clear: though the Nazis persecuted a bunch of different groups, the Holocaust refers exclusively to the genocide of 6 million Jews and about 1-1.5 million* Roma. This is because the Nazis only adopted a genocidal program — with the intent of complete extermination — for these two groups. The persecution of other groups, such as communists and gay men, for example, was also rooted in antisemitism, as the Nazis believed that Jews were to blame for the existence of those groups.
So where does the 11 million figure come from? In the 1970s, Holocaust survivor and Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal felt frustrated about the non-Jewish world’s lack of care about the Holocaust. So he created a figure to de-emphasize the Jewish nature of the genocide, knowing that the world would likely be more interested in the plight of others. Historians who knew him say that he chose the figure carefully: 5 million was a large number, but not a number large enough to obscure the 6 million Jewish victims.
35 million people died in World War II as a result of Nazi aggression. That said, no more than half a million non-Jews were exterminated in death camps. Unfortunately, the fictitious 11 million figure is now used by antisemites to minimize the Jewish-specific nature of the Holocaust.
*while the most often cited number for Roma victims is 250,000-500,000, Roma historians believe the figure is much higher, as Roma deaths weren’t as meticulously recorded as Jewish deaths for a number of reasons.
WE ARE SEMITES TOO
We hear this all the time: “I can’t be antisemitic because I’m a Semite too!” Even Ye used a similar version of this argument. So let’s talk about it.
First, no one, absolutely no one, is immune from perpetrating antisemitism, Jews included. Second, Semitic languages exist. Semites don’t. “Semites” is a pseudoscientific, white supremacist, Darwinian racial term to describe the “race” of peoples who speak Semitic languages, such as Hebrew, Arabic, Amharic, Aramaic, Tigrinya, Maltese, Tigre, and more. In the 19th century, racist European scientists conflated linguistics with ethnicity, believing that the language one spoke could define “racial character.”
In the 1800s, race theorist Arthur de Gobineau claimed that three distinct races existed: white, black, and yellow. Among the “white” races was the “Aryan” race, which had remained “the purest” over time. Meanwhile, other “races,” such as the “Semitic” Jews from Southwest Asia (the Middle East), were a “dirty,” mixed race made up of white, black, and yellow ancestry. This idea that the Jews were “diluting” or “soiling” the white Aryan race was later adopted by the Nazis. It’s still very much present among white supremacists, who claim Jews are trying to “trick” their way into the white race to enact a “white genocide.”
Antisemitism is bigotry, prejudice, and/or discrimination of Jews based on religion, culture, and/or ethnicity. The word “antisemitism” itself was coined in the 1870s by a self-proclaimed antisemite in Germany to replace the previously used term “Jew-hatred,” as “antisemitism” sounded scientific, which “legitimized” it. In other words, the term implied that it was legitimate to be an antisemite, because, as the logic of the time dictated, Jews were an inferior race. So while Jews weren’t the only so-called “Semites,” the word was specifically conceived to legitimize Jew-hatred, not hatred of any other “Semites,” and as such, it is only applicable to anti-Jewish bigotry.
Jews today overwhelmingly agree that “antisemitism” should be spelled as a single word, rather than as a hyphenated word (“anti-Semitism”). The spelling “anti-Semitism” perpetuates the racist, pseudoscientific, Darwinian theory that there is such a thing as “Semites” or a “Semitic” race. Additionally, the spelling gives credence to non-Jews who speak Semitic languages to co-opt the term to deflect from their own antisemitism.
On January 15, 2022, on Shabbat, the holiest day of the week, an armed British Pakistani man named Malik Faisal Akram, inspired by virulently antisemitic speech by the director of the San Francisco chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, took four Jews hostage at Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville, Texas. He was welcomed into the synagogue by Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, who thought he was a unhoused man in need of shelter.
When the rabbi turned his back on the congregants (to pray facing Jerusalem, as Jews do), he heard Akram’s pistol click. Jeffrey Cohen, the vice president on the synagogue's board of trustees, secretly called 9-1-1. As the synagogue was steaming its services, all of this was caught on livestream.
Akram demanded Siddiqui’s freedom in exchange for the hostages. He claimed that he flew to the city of Siddiqui’s imprisonment and targeted a synagogue because “[the US] only cares about Jewish lives [and] Jews control the world. Jews control the media. Jews control the banks." Just after 12pm, Akram demanded that the rabbi call Rabbi Angela Buchdahl in New York City. He claimed to have a bomb and believed Buchadahl would have the connections, power, and political leverage to free Siddiqui. She immediately contacted the FBI. The survivors of the crisis recall him using antisemitic and anti-Israel language.
After 6 hours, Akram let one of the hostages go. After an 11 hour standoff with the FBI Hostage Rescue Team, the rabbi threw a chair at Akram, which allowed the remaining victims to escape. Akram was fatally shot by the FBI agents.
The manner in which the non-Jewish world responded to the incident was infuriating. Instead of centering antisemitism, instead they warned against Islamophobia and white supremacy, neither of which had anything to do with this particular attack. Instead of tackling the issue — that is, antisemitism, and in this case, left-wing and Islamist* antisemitism — head on, the conversation instead de-centered Jews, as usual. How are we supposed to make things safer for Jews when even blatant attacks on the Jewish population are misappropriated for some other cause?
*Islamism is a political ideology; Islam is a religion. Please do not confound the two.
Even as Jews have been the victims of blatant acts of white supremacy in the last few years, the non-Jewish world has found ways to universalize the conversation, stripping Jews of the unique experience of antisemitism.
On October 27, 2018, a white supremacist fired at Jews during Shabbat morning services with a semi-automatic rifle, murdering eleven Jews and wounding six others, including various Holocaust survivors. It was the deadliest attack on Jews in American history. The shooter had a long history of white nationalist, antisemitic rhetoric online. For example, one of his online profile bios stated “Jews are the children of Satan.” For years, he’d been sharing antisemitic conspiracy theories online. This was, without a doubt, an explicitly antisemitic mass shooting.
And yet: following the horrific attack, almost all of the non-Jewish media focused on the issue of gun control and swept antisemitism to the side. I am personally a huge proponent of gun control, but guns weren’t the root of this: antisemitism was. The lack of attention given to antisemitism by the mainstream media was actually what first prompted me to say anything about antisemitism on this account.
Similarly, in August 2017, as white nationalists, neo-Nazis, the alt-right, Klansmen, neo-Confederates, and other far-right militias marched in the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally, they chanted “Jews will not replace us!” which specifically alludes to the white genocide and great replacement antisemitic conspiracy theories. Yet, to this day, when many recall the event, they claim that they chanted “you will not replace us!”
Even in discussions of white supremacy, we are consistently swept to the side, if not altogether ignored. Jews were the first victims of white supremacy, and antisemitism is foundational to white supremacy. It was the lynching of a Jewish man — Leo Frank — that prompted the resurgence of the KKK in the early 20th century. You cannot dismantle white supremacy without tackling antisemitism. But for some reason, the non-Jewish world rarely includes us in this conversation.
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