Fighting Antisemitism | 2016

#1: JVP’s Understanding of Antisemitism in the United States

Jewish Voice for Peace is dedicated to working toward justice, dignity, and equality for all people, and to actively opposing all forms of oppression. Fighting antisemitism is an important part of our work for a more just world.[1]

As a community rooted in Jewish traditions, we understand antisemitism as discrimination against, violence towards, or stereotypes of Jews for being Jewish. Antisemitism has manifested itself in structural inequality, dispossession, expulsion, and genocide, with the most well-known examples being in Europe, with the Spanish Inquisition, the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, and the Nazi Holocaust in the 1940s. Antisemitism does not impact all of us who identify as Jewish in the same way. The experiences and histories of Jews of color and/or Sephardi/Mizrahi Jews are distinct from those of white, Ashkenazi Jews.[2] Jewish communities around the world have had different experiences with discrimination, bigotry, and violence. In this statement, we will be focusing on two forms of antisemitism that resonate in the United States today: Christian antisemitism and racial antisemitism.

Christian hegemony – the fact that Christian values and beliefs dominate U.S. culture in everyday and pervasive ways – impacts all religious minorities in the United States.[3] Despite the many liberation theologies that can and do inspire Christian communities to work towards justice for all people, there are some denominations of Christianity in the U.S. that use antisemitic religious interpretations of Christian scripture. These interpretations treat Judaism as inferior to Christianity, or cast blame on “the Jews” for the death of Jesus.[4] Additionally, we see the theology of Christian Zionism, which encourages Jewish return to Israel as a means to achieve Christian redemption, as similarly founded on antisemitic interpretations of scripture.

Racial antisemitism, and the term “antisemitism” itself, developed alongside pseudo-scientific theories of race in 19th century Europe. These theories identified and classified different categories of people, then placed them in a racial hierarchy. This racist logic still echoes in U.S. white supremacist, “alt-right” or neo-Nazi circles, which have moved from the fringes to the mainstream since the election of Donald Trump. At various points in history, this form of antisemitism has had secular institutional and governmental support, reaching its apex in the mass violence against Jews and other groups during the Nazi Holocaust. In the United States today, even as the Trump administration emboldens and empowers antisemitism in the form of in incidents of bigotry, violence, or speech, it is not currently reinforced by state institutions in the same ways that racism, anti-immigrant, and anti-Muslim bigotry are through state violence, mass incarceration, and surveillance. We commit to fighting racism, Islamophobia, and antisemitism – we all need to be vigilant as we expect  these forms of bigotry and oppression to  gain greater intensity in the coming years.

Historically, European Jewish immigrants to the United States were marginalized along with many other immigrant groups, but have largely been racialized as white over time.[5]  In the US, many Jewish institutions focus on white Ashkenazi history when discussing antisemitism, ignoring the histories of Mizrahi/Sephardi Jews and the existence of Ashkenazi Jews of Color. Those of us who are white Ashkenazi Jews have a responsibility as white people who benefit from white privilege to challenge and disrupt white supremacy and systematic racism, notwithstanding our histories and experiences with antisemitism.

Contemporary expressions of antisemitism include treating Jewish people as a monolithic group, stereotyping Jewish people as rich or greedy, or demonizing Jews as all-powerful or as secretly in control of political events.[6] These tropes are evident when the U.S. is exempted from responsibility for its unconditional support of Israeli apartheid, and instead the U.S.-Israel relationship is blamed solely on Jewish power. The white nationalists known as the “alt-right,” for example, staunchly support Israel even as they disseminate and perpetuate antisemitic myths of Jewish control and power.[7]

Antisemitism does not operate in a vacuum; we must fight it along with Islamophobia, sexism, classism, and homophobia as well as anti-Arab, anti-Black, and other forms of racism, as part of the work of dismantling all systems of oppression. JVP is committed to challenging Ashkenazi dominance and racism as we oppose antisemitism and Islamophobia. The just world we seek depends on it.

 #2: Inaccurate and Misleading Definitions of Antisemitism

As we fight antisemitism, we must also examine how inaccurate, misleading, or problematic definitions of antisemitism have a harmful impact on movements for justice. We see these harmful definitions most often in attempts to defend Israeli policies, in anti-Muslim rhetoric and policies, and sometimes even in progressive movements.

Definitions of antisemitism that treat criticism of Israel or of Zionism as inherently antisemitic are inaccurate and harmful. The majority of Jews are not Israeli, and not all citizens of Israel are Jewish. Israel is a state; Zionism is a political ideology; Judaism and Jewish identity encompass a diversity of religious and secular expressions and a robust, varied set of traditions, cultures, and lived experiences.The misplaced focus of those who demonize Palestinian rights advocacy while ignoring or defending the antisemitism of white supremacists dilutes the understanding of antisemitism and makes it ever more difficult to fight.

JVP’s criticism of Israeli policies comes from a desire to see justice realized for all peoples in the region. For many of us, such criticism is rooted in our Jewish values and traditions. While it is antisemitic to criticize the State of Israel based solely on the Jewish identity of most Israeli citizens or leaders, criticism of the Israeli state that is based on its past and present actions is not antisemitic. Likewise, advocating for justice for Palestinians, including recognizing their right of return, is not antisemitic. Israel should be held accountable for its discriminatory policies, which systematically deny Palestinians, and to varying degrees Mizrahi, Sephardi, and Ethiopian Jews, access to equal treatment and human rights.

We are also concerned by definitions of antisemitism that posit that Jewish people are perpetually victims, or that antisemitism is a cyclical or permanently recurring feature of human society. These definitions of antisemitism often function to divert attention from the power and privilege that some Jews exercise, either as beneficiaries of white privilege, or as Jewish citizens of Israel, where Jewish people are privileged at the expense of non-Jews. These definitions of antisemitism have three kinds of effects that harm movements for justice: they single out antisemitism as an exceptional form of bigotry; they reinforce a narrative of perpetual victimhood; and they equate antisemitic microaggressions with structural inequality.[8] It is essential for progressive movements to include analysis about Israel as we fight antisemitism. The campaign and election of Donald Trump have clarified the ways one can be a committed Zionist and a staunch antisemite. We are alarmed by the growing power of antisemitic, racist white nationalists. Nevertheless, we recognize that the policies of the Trump administration will most likely impact Muslim Americans and people of color the hardest.

Those seeking to maintain the status quo in Palestine/Israel routinely use false charges of antisemitism, and harmful and inaccurate definitions of antisemitism, in an attempt to silence voices critical of Israeli policies towards Palestinians.[9]  No one should underestimate the power of an accusation of antisemitism, and when false charges of antisemitism are used to deflect Israel’s responsibility for the dispossession of Palestinians, they should be recognized as censorship. At the same time, supporters of Palestinian rights are not immune from racist, sexist, and/or antisemitic behavior, and this behavior must be addressed when it occurs. Likewise, one can be antisemitic or condone antisemitism and emphatically support the far-right government of Israel.

There is a disturbing trend of incidents of antisemitism being blamed on Muslims and/or Arabs, despite a lack of evidence to support those accusations. This gives antisemites, most often white supremacists, a free pass to vent their bigotry and racism, while harming people who are particularly vulnerable to discrimination in our society. The “alt-right” feeds off this dynamic, which is a major failure of the institutional Jewish community. We’ve also seen examples where anti-Muslim stereotypes about Muslim antisemitism manifest in cases of entrapment by law enforcement, and promote a harmful, false narrative of a clash between Jews and Muslims. These false charges do a disservice to the fight against antisemitism, have extremely harmful effects on Muslim and/or Arab communities, and serve as a way to suppress the struggle for equality and freedom for all people.

At JVP, we have seen how false accusations of antisemitism have muddied the understanding of antisemitism in all areas of our work. We hope these statements will strengthen the movement for justice in Palestine in the United States by clarifying the difference between expressions of antisemitism and support for Palestinian human rights. Given the current political moment is rapidly shifting, we will continue to be vigilant to understand and name antisemitism in relation to all forms of oppression. Our own commitment to fighting all forms of oppression grounds our organizing for justice for all people.

Addendum: This statement was written in the first half of 2016. In November 2016, in the wake of Donald Trump’s election and appointment of staff and advisors with deep roots in white nationalist and antisemitic movements, we have revised this statement to reflect how white nationalism in the U.S. has now been galvanized by its proximity to power and is an indicator of institutional support for antisemitism, along with Islamophobia, misogyny, homophobia, and racism.

 


 

[1] We have chosen to use the spelling “antisemitism,” following the advice of scholars in Jewish Studies who have made a compelling case for this spelling. The category “Semite” was developed as a part of European psuedo-scientific theories of race in the 19th century. We want to be clear that the spelling of “antisemitism” should not be used to further the separation of “Arabs” and “Jews.” (For more, see Wilhelm Marr, “The Way to Victory of Germanism over Judaism,” 1879)

[2] The term “Ashkenazi” (plural: Ashkenazim) refers to Jews who descend from communities in Central and Western Europe, and primarily spoke various dialects of Yiddish. “Sephardi” (plural: Sephardim) refers to Jews who descend from communities in the Iberian Peninsula, and spoke Spanish and Ladino. “Ashkenazi” and “Sephardi” are also used to distinguish between the different religious practices, melodies, and ritual foods that each group uses. “Mizrahi” (plural: Mizrahim) is an umbrella term for Jews who descend from the Middle East and North Africa, including but not limited to Morocco, Tunisia, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Uzbekistan, Lebanon, Turkey, India and Pakistan. The word “Mizrahi” is the Hebrew word for “East” or “Oriental,”and thus has been a controversial term that many are choosing to reclaim. We understand that these terms do not and cannot encapsulate the multiplicity of Jewish difference and experience, and acknowledge that these identities overlap, but we want to name them as important to our understanding of antisemitism.

[3] Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and other non-Christian faiths together make up just 6% of the U.S. population.

[4] For example, these antisemitic interpretations were part of the Catholic Church’s theology and practices up until the Vatican II congress in the 1960s. These interpretations are by no means limited to the Catholic Church. For more, please see Norman A. Beck, Mature Christianity in the 21st Century: The Recognition and Repudiation of the anti-Jewish Polemic of the New Testament (University of Michigan, 1994).

[5] For more on racialization, see Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial formation in the United States: from the 1960s to the 1980s (New York, Routledge University Press, 1989). For more on Jewish racialization, see Karen Brodkin, How Jews became White Folks and What that says about Race in America, (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1998).

[6] The most notable example of this is the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an antisemitic text from 1903 that fabricated a Jewish plan for global domination.

[7] See http://mondoweiss.net/2016/08/breitbarts-right-israelpalestine/

[8] The term “microagressions” describes brief and commonplace comments or actions that intentionally or unintentionally perpetuate bigoted environments. See Derald Wing Sue, Microaggressions in Everyday Life (Hoboken: Wiley and Sons, 2010).

[9] For example, in February 2015, swastikas were found on a Jewish fraternity at UC Davis. Press outlets, especially conservative ones, suggested without evidence that Students for Justice in Palestine were directly or indirectly responsible. Another example would be NY Governor Andrew Cuomo’s anti-BDS executive order, signed in June 2016, which argued that boycotting Israel was discriminatory.

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