Am I an anti-semite?

When positions I hold are being called antisemitic, it causes me to self-reflect. So in this post, I ask myself: Am I an anti-semite?

Am I an anti-semite?
Photo by Andrea Nardi / Unsplash
Anti-semitism: hostility to, prejudice towards, or discrimination against Jews. This sentiment is a form of racism.

The most common definition of anti-semitism is the racist treatment of Jewish people.[1] Even though when we talk about racism we often talk about white supremacist racism towards Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), racism can be directed to any group.[2] But that also means that if you have been learning about racism since Black Lives Matter, we can use that knowledge to understand anti-semitism better. The parallels do not hold, so the knowledge needs to be critically evaluated still. In this blog post, I want to dive into a specific parallel of the question "Am I a racist?" – namely "Am I an anti-semite?"

Racism is a system – as a form of racism, it means anti-semitism is also a system. The question "Am I an anti-semite?" individuates the question and makes it harder to answer.

Most people do not want to be characterized as racists because of feelings of shame, guilt. As a white european myself, I am conscious about how white folk treated BIPOC people. Slavery, genocide. How white folk treated Jewish people in the past. Ghettoization, genocide. Enough to feel ashamed and guilty about.

Those feelings of guilt and shame are in relation to people, but they result in a focus on the self. Those feelings create a self-centered (i.e., selfish) focus, with a common response in regards to racism: defensiveness. After all, it is directed at preserving oneself, not the other. "But I have a black friend" is an unsuccessful attempt to maintain a self-perception of non-racist.

Instrumentalizing guilt or shame by calling people anti-semitic is powerful.

When I pass the Holocaust memorial here in Berlin, plenty of people walk atop the stone slabs. If I were to tell them that it is anti-semitic to stand atop the slabs, I would guess that they are more likely to step off than if I said it was disrespectful. I am not going to test that hypothesis just to prove a point, so I am speculating to paint a picture. A similar picture however: Because the Israeli state is a project by some Jewish people, being critical of it is called anti-semitic. The result? People may reduce criticism of the Israeli state, in order to not be perceived as anti-semitic. What about criticizing the Israeli state is anti-semitic though? Plenty of Jewish people criticize the Israeli state. Essentializing the act of being critical of something as being fundamentally against the people behind it, vastly overstates what criticism is.

If you are critical of the Israeli state because of anti-semitic racism, yes, it is anti-semitic. Pillorying Jewish people is anti-semitism. Being critical of the Israeli state for the Israeli state's actions is holding it accountable. Conflating a critical stance on the Israeli state's position with anti-semitism, only goes to muddy the waters. Sure, it will reinforce the impression that being critical of the Israeli state is anti-semitic, which will only reify the association.

On the flipside, there is a lot of anti-semitism around that is real and systematized. We live in a system that keeps perpetuating tropes around Jewish people being rich and part of a globalist elite "cabal" conspiracy running the world. In for example the USA, right-wing politicians propogate these tropes, reinforcing suspicions of Jewish people. For example, in those conspiracies George Soros is often put forward as problematic, with their organization being driven from Hungary for example. This is real anti-semitism, the kind which was also present a hundred years ago.

Anti-semitism is a problem and we need to call it out when we see it. But we also need to call it out when we see it being instrumentalized, to ensure we do not desensitize each other to its usage. Being critical of the Israeli state is not anti-semitic, unless we collectively reify that it is so.

  1. To add to the confusion, the term Semitic people covers Arabs, Jews, Akkadians, and Phoenicians according to Wikipedia. ↩︎

  2. It surprised me to learn about anti-Irish racism, a thing the British invented. Theodore Allen has a very terse (in my opinion) read on this if you are so inclined: The Invention of the White Race. ↩︎