The term “antisemitism” has always aroused suspicion. I don’t use the term for a simple reason. If it refers to racism against the Jewish people, I think “anti-Jewish racism” is a perfectly good term. There is no need to set Jews apart from other groups that have been harmed by white supremacy. Some object by saying Jews comprise a range of skin colors so they can’t be racialized, but this ignores the history of “racism” as a political term. Hispanics are not a race. Asians are not technically a race since brown-skinned Pakistanis, Caucausian Iranians, Malay Filipinos, and Japanese are all technically under the same umbrella. Black people are not really a “race” either since that term refers to biracial people lighter than I am, as well as Zulu peoples who are far darker.
Yet we use the term “racism” to acknowledge the fact that a systematic prejudice operates against people who have been excluded from white identity. I am okay with white people saying they are the targets of “anti-white racism” if, in fact, someone attacks them and explicitly refers to the fact that they are white as the reason for the attack. The term racism originated in prejudice against nonwhites but the thought system, the mental illness, of racism, can grow and expand.
If we avoid the term “antisemitism” then we place prejudice against Jews in a proper context. People see them as fundamentally foreign to a supposedly desirable racial position – usually whiteness – and attack them for that. By “fundamentally foreign” I mean that people define them as separate by biology (the eugenicist view) or by a cultural psychology so ingrained that it can never be changed.
Essentially racism rejects people who have no way to overcome their outsider status. Everyone who is the victim of racism witnesses similar tropes, tactics, exclusion, violence, and repression. Genocide, oppression, dispossession, exploitation, demonization, and other harmful actions tend to appear in the history of groups that have been targeted by racists.
So why do we hear so much about “antisemitism”? Why not “anti-Jewish racism” or “anti-Jewish prejudice”? The artfulness of the term “antisemitism” points to a peculiar exceptionalism regarding the Jewish people. And I think we need to ask why we feel the need to treat Jews as an exception.
In some cases, we see that individual Jews wish to be viewed as exceptional, partly because of the religious tradition of calling themselves “the chosen people.” Where does this idea of the chosen people come from? Their scriptures all but demand that they view themselves as exceptional; “holiness” means set apart.
Genesis begins with the history of God’s creation of the entire universe and the first man and woman, Adam and Eve. By the sixth chapter of Genesis, we get the story of Noah and a flood that undoes the planet earth and restarts everything anew. In Genesis 9, Noah and his three sons emerge as the new origin point of a whole new planet. In Genesis 10, his sons Ham, Japheth, and Shem, are identified as the progenitors of the three main bloodlines for all human beings. Then in Genesis 11, God breaks humanity up into countless ethnic groups defined by the specific languages they speak after they try to build the Tower of Babel. Of all these diverse peoples, Hebrew-speaking Abraham is ultimately called from the rest in Genesis 12, and told that God has chosen his descendants for a certain greatness.
Genesis 12:1-3 reads: “I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse those who curse you; and all peoples of the earth will be blessed through you.”
So there you have the ancient origins of Jewish exceptionalism. By the 12th chapter of the entire Bible, the story becomes largely about the Jews, who are the primary concern of the Divine Being who created the universe.
Many Christian Zionists cite “I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse those who curse you,” as their reason for supporting Israel no matter how many war crimes the modern state commits and no matter how much the alliance undermines the United States.
It would be dishonest to deny that some Jews have internalized the lines of Genesis 12 and see their particular challenges, ambitions, desires, and reactions as the main concern of God. With this exceptionalist mindset, their lives matter more than other peoples, and their emotions carry heavier weight, because they are the ones God has centered the whole universe around. Other peoples are background characters or even props on the stage of Jewish history. I have come across Jewish people who think this way and I find that it requires patience to deal with them because the first impression such exceptionalism gives is decidedly negative. You feel like you are dealing with someone who either sees his kind as superhuman or sees everyone who is not part of his kind as subhuman. As someone who isn’t Jewish, I feel an implicit rejection.
But it would also be dishonest to generalize about Jewish people and imply that they all view themselves as the center of the universe. First, many Jews who have studied the scriptures in context know how the story progresses after Genesis 12. Abraham fathers two sons, Ishmael and Isaac. Ishmael is the ancestor of the Arabs, and Isaac, the patriarch of the Jews. Ishmael is also promised that he will be the father of a great nation in Genesis 21:17. Isaac’s grandson Judah is the ancestor of the “Jews,” with the other tribes simply called Hebrews or Israelites (Israel is the other name for Jacob, Isaac’s son). Israel and Leah’s son Judah becomes the ancestor to Jesus Christ (see the genealogy in Matthew 1:3-16).
Abraham is indeed set apart in the story of Genesis 12, but through his descendants came both Christianity and Islam. Jesus was born into the bloodline. The Arabic speakers to whom the Qu’ran was given (in Arabic) are traced back to Abraham’s older son Ishmael. Having circulated in the world among Muslims and Christians, most Jews tend to understand that if they think of themselves as chosen, so do Muslims and Christians, based on the same holy narratives. If they have common sense they know they shouldn’t push their exceptionalism too much since they must co-exist with people who will predictably react with their claims that they are the chosen ones.
Jewish exceptionalism has always been a deadly two-sided coin. On the one hand, the psychological satisfaction of believing that one’s kin are the most beloved by God probably inspired Jewish people to persevere and excel throughout their long history. On the other hand, the predominant complaint voiced in anti-Jewish racism is that Jews think they are better than other people and treat outsiders badly. As I discussed in a recent piece on Old-Fashioned Democrat, often exceptionalism flips quickly and unexpectedly from Gentiles’ admiration of Jewish accomplishments to Gentiles’ rage against the perceived attitude of Jewish superiority.
I would argue that on the whole Jewish exceptionalism harms the Jewish people. Whatever small thrill one might get from believing that one is part of a chosen people with special rules, deserving special treatment, and holding greater value than others; the billions of people who find such a superiority offensive will always pose a threat that far outweighs the benefits.
Because of this calculation, I think we need to avoid exceptionalism wherever possible when speaking of the Jews. The greatest protection for the Jewish people is universalism: consistent rules, human rights, general standards, and fair equity. The greatest threat to the Jewish people is separation and isolation: targeting, resentment, blame, scapegoating, and othering, all of which are amplified directly or indirectly by the perception that Jews have conducted themselves under rules and terms that other people are not given access to.
All of this goes to explain that “antisemitism” is a dangerous term to use, for the simple reason that it promotes more Jewish exceptionalism. Why is there a unique term for hatred against Jews? They were expelled, slaughtered, enslaved, and ghettoized over the millennia. But so have countless other groups. To use a separate term implies some gap between what is objectionable racism in dealing with non-Jewish minorities, and objectionable racism in dealing with Jewish people. What is “antisemitic” that is not “racist”? If we define antisemitism expansively, then we imply that there are some forms of prejudice that we are forbidden from showing toward Jews, which are okay to demonstrate toward other racial minorities. If we define antisemitism narrowly, then we imply that we can be prejudiced in certain ways toward Jews, which would be denounced as racist toward non-Jewish minorities.
Either way, the very use of the term “antisemitism” sets Jewish people up for hatred. It either gives them special protections, which feeds the anti-Jewish sentiment that Jews always get special treatment, or it denies them universal protections, which gives people a green light to go after them.
In a recent conversation with three members of the Bronx Antiwar Coalition, I tried to work through several recent developments in the ongoing discussion of Israel’s actions in Gaza:
The United Nations’ deliberations about how the international community can react to Israel’s illegal occupation of Gaza and continued genocide and ethnic cleansing within the apartheid system Israel has set up.
House Resolution 888, which raised concerns about antisemitism and affirmed the Jewish State of Israel’s right to exist (as a Jewish homeland).
House Resolution 894, which equated anti-Zionism with antisemitism.
Hearings before a House committee on “antisemitism on college campuses,” which took place on December 5.
This was a difficult issue to tackle, and I was happy that I had the chance to discuss these with Janet, Deborah, and Richie, of the Bronx Antiwar Coalition.
I walked away from this rich conversation with the sense that everyone will be better off if we discuss what is happening with Israel in universalist, standardized, and consistent terms. In either direction, if we apply a different set of standards to this conflict, everyone including the Jewish people lose.
Israel’s enjoyment of the United States veto to protect them from resolutions calling for restraint poses a serious problem. Underlying Israel’s exceptionalism is a tendency to characterize any criticism of Israel as antisemitic. Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu did exactly that recently, saying it is “pure antisemitism” to take Israel before an International Criminal Court, because the court was set up to stop events such as the Jewish Holocaust. The overuse of the Holocaust as a precedent is unconscionable for multiple reasons.
First, millions of people died in the Holocaust who were not Jewish.
Second, many of Israel’s own policies toward the Palestinians resemble Nazi policies that led up to the so-called Final Solution. Remember that the Nazis’ first desire was to deport the Jews rather than exterminate all of them, which was at first deemed logistically infeasible. Anyone observing Israel’s actions can see that Israel wants to rid Gaza wholesale of its Palestinian residents. More than a few Zionists state this aim openly.
Third, so much of anti-Jewish hatred arose because people accused the Jews of trying to live under a special set of rules with special treatment (basically, unfairness). Nothing will drive more of such hatred than a Jewish state demanding to be freed from international standards of war that the International Criminal Court would apply to other countries.
Resolutions 888 and 894 are similarly problematic.
As Janet points out, they are antisemitic in their use of antisemitism as a straw man, because rather than resolving to stamp out racism, prejudice, or discrimination in general; they specify that opposition to the policies of a foreign country is prohibited only in the case of a Jewish state, as if the history of Jewish people requires a “safe space” from any scrutiny.
The resolutions ignore the millions of Jews who oppose the policies of the state of Israel. The anti-Zionism resolution even ignores the many Israelis who criticize Zionist ideology.
Both resolutions set up the Jews as a future target as people will naturally decide in the future that Jews have been given special treatment by the United States government. As debates about Black Lives Matter, police brutality, immigration, and Chinese power all rage across the country, people of color have had to cope with countless provocations and heated discussions with the understanding that in a free country, fellow citizens are at liberty to say things that might hurt our feelings. For Jews to be shielded from this basic criticism, they are again being singled out. The blessing of such exceptionalism will become a curse soon enough.
Finally, the claim that universities must act to suppress criticism of Israel for fear that it hurts the feeling of Jewish students is out of line for multiple reasons.
The House of Representatives comprises officials elected to serve their districts. The Constitution not only protects free speech from government compulsion; it also protects the US from the influence of foreign nations. “Treason” is listed prominently as grounds for impeachment, and there is a clear emoluments clause that prohibits foreign influence on American leaders.
In American democracy, it is not okay for government to force private citizens to appear before them and answer questions like Elise Stefanik’s whopper “do calls for genocide against the Jewish people violate your rules against harassment?” Such interrogation, followed by Stefanik’s blatant actions to get the presidents of Penn, MIT, and Harvard sanctioned, constitute persecution by elected officials using their government powers. The questioning violates the due process principles that protect citizens from misleading interrogation in courts of law. And the question was phony because people have not called for genocide against Jewish people; they have voiced solidarity with the Palestinians who are being ethnically cleansed by Israel. The hearings conducted in the wake of Resolutions 888 and 894 compound the impropriety of the whole scene, because Stefanik was interrogating these presidents just after her legislative body had redefined “antisemitism” to mean any dissent from Zionism, and Zionism as the unquestioned right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state and to “defend itself.”
Countless ethnic groups in the USA have strong feelings about their motherland and its government’s actions but none can demand that Congress use the public’s time and money to censor Americans’ constitutional rights to opine about foreign affairs. Janet points out that “dual loyalty” is one of the main anti-Jewish libels, the idea that Jews in the USA cannot commit themselves wholly to the Constitution because they are secretly trying to advance the interests of Israel. This is the same allegation lodged by right-wing conspiracy theorists who compare American Jewish influence to the famous Rothschilds, the Jewish bankers who allegedly funded multiple sides of European wars in order to amass money for themselves and other Jews at the expense of their European nations of residence. It is uncomfortable but important to note that this was a major grievance, whether real or imagined, expressed in Germany against the Jewish bankers as the Nazis grew in popularity after World War I. The Balfour Declaration was issued to a Rothschild in 1917, as World War I’s devastation rocked Germany. (The Rothschilds were originally from Frankfurt, Germany). In no small way did the dual loyalty trope contribute to the Holocaust.
It seems that antisemitism is sadly now a commodity. Israel can use it as a pretext to brutalize Gaza and to avoid being held to account by the international community. Even anti-Jewish Republicans can use antisemitism as a weapon to remove university presidents and “DEI” programmers whom they have accused of liberal bias since long before Gaza became an issue. Anti-immigration activists can cite it as a way of justifying Israel’s brutal ethnonationalism, something that indirectly justifies white nationalism in the United States. The right wing historical revisionists who have long wanted to whitewash slavery and who pushed to ban critical race theory in many states are now using the antisemitism charge as a way to dislodge DEI officials, whom they have long cast as the obstacles to institutionalizing a sanitized vision of American history. None of this can be said to advance academic freedom or constitutional principles of free speech.
The fact that antisemitism is not widespread nor a major threat in many of these quarters means that antisemitism is largely a production–a commodity sold to be weaponized. The people harmed by the production of false antisemitism are vast in number: the Palestinians, college students, Americans whose needs are neglected at home, residents of the USA who are now subject to arbitrary targeting from Congress, people of conscience who need to speak against genocide, and the Jewish people themselves, who are going to be targeted once again for what people perceive as their exceptionalism.
José Vargas Vasco can be followed at x.com/josevargascasco. His email is josevargasvasco at gmail.com.
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