Who is (or isn't) an antisemite?
Before proceeding with this post, I want to establish a ground rule regarding the comments. While this post was obviously “inspired” by Whoopi Goldberg’s ignorant and antisemitic comments and subsequent backlash (and lack thereof), I do not want this comment section to focus on whether Goldberg is or is not an antisemite. Plenty of other Jewish accounts are discussing this, which is fine (and obviously an important conversation). However, I want this post to look at the bigger picture, because this issue is much, much larger than Whoopi Goldberg.
I also 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.
Please be respectful of each other in the comments, even if you disagree. I really don’t want to have to close the comment section because clearly this is an important conversation.
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 3000 years, is often called “the world’s oldest hatred.” It 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 & OUR WORLD
As mentioned in the previous slide, antisemitism has permeated nearly every culture in the world. Prior to the advent of Christianity, the Jewish People were subjugated by a number of empires, including the Assyrian Empire, the Babylonian Empire, the ancient Greeks, and the Roman Empire, among others.
With the rise of Christianity and the conspiracy of Jewish deicide (the ahistorical but prevalent claim that Jews murdered Jesus), the persecution of Jews, particularly in Europe and the Middle East and North Africa, drastically intensified. For 2000 years in Europe, for example, Jews were subjugated, confined to living in ghettos, massacred, ethnically cleansed, and more. That said, this persecution was far from confined to Europe or Christianity; nearly every country in the world has persecuted Jews at one point or another.
Antisemitism long predates white supremacy and the Western understanding of race and religion. As such, it’s no surprise that antisemitism was ingrained into white supremacy from the start. To reiterate, however, antisemitism is far from limited to white supremacy; Jews have long been (and are) persecuted in regions that are not “white.”
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.
“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.
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 who has the authority to decide such a thing? After all, there is not one governing Jewish authority (Jews don’t have a pope equivalent!) and disagreement is actually a huge part of Jewish culture (e.g. the Talmud!).
I personally believe that antisemitism exists on a spectrum. 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 (by the way, I know there’s recent controversy with the ADL’s redefining of racism, but that has nothing to do with this post, so bear with me). 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?
Perhaps one could say that the line is drawn between implicit and explicit antisemitic biases. That is, if someone has implicit biases, they aren’t necessarily antisemitic, but if someone has explicit biases, then they are. And while I can undoubtedly agree that having explicit antisemitic biases likely means a person is an antisemite, I don’t think this distinction is good enough. Implicit biases are arguably more harmful because (1) they are trickier to spot, and (2) they permeate everything, such as the media we consume (see my posts WHAT IS JEW-CODING? and JEWISH TROPES ON TELEVISION for some examples).
Additionally, the fact of the matter is that antisemitism — both implicit and explicit — stems from ignorance, whether said ignorance is about Jewish identity, antisemitic tropes, stereotypes, and conspiracies, or more. We combat ignorance with education, which is evidently solely lacking. But the problem is that even people with implicit antisemitic biases might resist this education (I see it happen on my page everyday, because many of these people refuse to admit that they have these implicit biases): does refusing education make them antisemites, then, even if their biases are not explicit? And what of previously explicitly antisemitic people who have taken accountability and accepted this education?
Obviously, there is not one clear-cut answer to this, but I’m looking forward to the (RESPECTFUL) discourse in the comments.