By Winston Pickett
June 8, 2012
If talking about antisemitism – and by that I mean discussing or engaging with it as a subject in verbal or written form – poses challenges all its own, certainly one of them is conceptual.
Let’s face it. Antisemitism is a lousy word. Essays, prefaces, monographs and footnotes have all but exhausted themselves trying to explain what is, was or could be meant by the term. It has been parsed, dissected, etymologised and psychoanalysed probably more than any other ‘-ism’ in the dictionary. All of which, begs a strictly neutral question: If a word has been so ardently debated, what does that tell us about its precision?
Aren’t terms – especially ones that are meant to describe a world-view or thought structure – supposed to be clear and unambiguous? If they’re not, does this render them less effective – or at least more problematic?
Of all of the most thought-provoking discussions of terminology one of the most useful is one written by Dave Rich, who spends an entire essay parsing the differences in shades of meaning – along with their implications – between the hyphenated versus un-hyphenated version. In other words: anti-Semitism vs. antisemitism.
Another essay, by Ben Cohen, is less philological but wider in its political and philosophical implications. Cohen zeroes in on a phenomenon that has riddled the term ‘antisemitism’ since it was coined by Wilhelm Marr in 1879.
To put it crudely, Marr was looking for a ‘scientific’ term that would replace Judenhass (Jew hatred) and ‘rationalise’ the vilification and exclusion of Jews as a group without touching on a post-Enlightenment taboo: hating Jews because of their religion.
‘Antisemitism’ fit the bill nicely because it could focus on ‘objective’ criteria such as biology and ‘race’ in finding a rationale for Jewish inferiority. It was never a term that Jews ‘chose’ but rather one that they were forced to react to, defend against and somehow understand in order to devise strategies against it.
Now, says Cohen, the term has become a definitional football once again, with endless debates about antisemitism vs. anti-Zionism, anti-Israelism and conflations with racism – only this time, whatever essentialist justification or logical understanding that it should be Jews – i.e. its victims and recipients who understand it best – the word's meaning has somehow been ceded to our opponents.
All this, of course, is a rather high-minded way of saying that the term ‘antisemitism’ is notoriously difficult to pin down.
It also becomes instantly slippery in an everyday conversation largely because of what could be called the Holocaust shadow hanging over the term. Try as we might – for Jews and non-Jews alike – speak the word ‘antisemitism’ and the human brain conjures up images of the death camps.
And even if antisemitism of the genocidal variety isn’t part of the conversation it always seems to lurk in the background, concealing an invisible causal thread between even the mildest of stereotypical slurs to the systematic annihilation of the Six Million.
Surely then, one of the ‘problems’ with (the term) antisemitism may have less to do with conceptual frameworks than it does with the matrix of emotional responses that the word evokes.
All of which led me to conduct a bit of an experiment.
While I knew that raising the subject of a ‘political’ antisemtisim – or the variety of antisemitism which is expressed in political discourse surrounding Israel – was the equivalent of a live wire for my class, evincing spirited discussions and animated debates that would have happily superseded all time constraints – what about raising the subject of personal encounters with the phenomenon?
So I asked them: “Where and when have you encountered antisemitism? What took place? What did you do?”
As anticipated, the answers were varied.
One kippah-wearing British participant in his 40s said that he regularly is the recipient of an unwelcome greeting from semi-passers-by who blurt out “Shalom!” as if Hebrew were his native language and said in a tone of voice containing a latent hostility. A lifetime of reading and engagement with the subject came with his background. “My mother fled Russia before the war,” he said, “so I know from personal experience and current affairs how much antisemitism is a ‘light sleeper,” he said.
Two other participants expressed identified a certain brand of genteel antisemitism either via quips they had received about their Shabbat or yom tov visits to a synagogue, while one woman in her 60s distinctly remembers being bullied as a ‘disbelieving Jew’ by her classmates growing up in the UK in the 1950s. “It felt like a dagger,” she said.
Still another woman in her 60s, whose family emigrated from Amsterdam to London before the war, said she had experienced the most penetrating display of antisemitism when they lived in Paris in the 1950s. There, following a school discussion the infamous Vélodrome d'Hiver roundup of French Jews during the summer of 1942, a group of boys, sons of the French police who had helped deport Jews to Auschwitz, physically attacked her and other Jewish students after class.
All of which made her understand the validity of her mother’s cautionary adage: “Never deny you are a Jew – but don’t draw attention to it.”
To a person, participants in my class touched on issues of dignity, marginalization and hurt – feelings that they nevertheless were able to respond to with humour, a robust sense of historical awareness, a measure of self-esteem and even a positive reflection – especially amongst those with teenage children – that for the next generation, things may be different.
“My kids have no problem expressing their Jewishness,” one said. “As a matter of fact I get the sense that for their friends it’s considered something almost cool. Even when they are the recipients of negative stereotyping, they don’t let it get to them.”
In many ways these anecdotes – especially the latter ones – reflect national trends. According to the National Jewish Student Survey (NJSS) published by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR), even though a sizeable 2 out of 5 UK university students (42 per cent) experienced an antisemitic incident during the course of an academic year (2010-11), only 4 percent reported being ‘very worried’ about it – a pattern reflected in a national study by JPR as well.
On the surface, this looks like good news – so much so that Simon Kay, director of the British Council in Israel in a recent rejoinder to a an essay alluding to a well-documented spike in anti-Israel and antisemitic discourse in UK universities, asserted that “the vast majority of Jewish and Israeli students have a successful and happy time on campus.”
Yet the question remains: Is there a risk that the 96 percent of UK Jews in the NJSS who don’t feel ‘very worried’ about antisemitism might become complacent – or reluctant to put their head above the parapet when antisemitic incidents do happen to occur?
This nagging question entered my head after reading an eye-opening blog by an active member of the Jewish student body at Cornell University in upstate New York. Under the heading, “Have we gotten used to antisemitism?” Josefin Dolestin wondered out loud if – in contrast to her black and Asian-American colleagues – Jewish students on campus give a pass to antisemitic taunts, invectives and insults, some of which have been accompanied by defaced property.
When white fraternity members verbally harassed and threw bottles at a group of black students, the reaction was swift. A solidarity rally was organised, demands were made to the university administration and the fraternity was put on suspension.
Similarly, Cornell’s Asian-American student body carried out a rapid-response, social media driven protest against posters featuring a Korean-American stand-up comedian because they were printed using the ‘racist’ bamboo-style ‘Chop Suey’ font – an action which was met with the poster’s recall and an official apology.
By contrast, Cornell’s Jewish students – who make up 20 per cent of the student body – did nothing. The reason?
Posits Dolestin: “I think part of it is because we feel privileged. In today’s America, Jews have simply become white, and white automatically means privileged. A white person cannot complain of racial discrimination, that would simply be ridiculous, right? ... Young Jews in America have grown up with privilege and this brings along with it a sense of guilt...
“When discussing these incidents with friends, some thought I exaggerated or made it too big of a deal. But this is precisely the problem. When faced with similar situations, other minority students chose to act instead of questioning their gut reactions.”
While I have written earlier about a certain reluctance to ‘play the grievance card’ in this country, my question now touches on what may be a deeper predicament.
Do we possess, deep down, a resignation that antisemitism can never be eradicated or, like the biblical Amalek or to quote from the Passover Hagaddah: ‘In every generation they rise up against us’?
Does our reluctance to respond have more to do with an ignorance that Jews actually have access to a ‘redress of grievances’’ via the law and such mechanisms as the Race Relations – and more recently – the Equality Act?
“Antisemitism is not a Jewish problem; it is a non-Jewish problem. We monitor antisemitism, we measure it, we study its history; but at bottom, there is precious little that we Jews can do about antisemitism. Our best counteraction is the reaffirmation of the positive reasons for being Jewish. Leon Wieseltier makes the point well: ‘The analysis of antisemitism must take place somewhere between the indifferent and the hysterical.’”
Talking about antisemtism, it seems, has never been more of a challenge.