Solidarity over Division: Speaking out against Antisemitism
By Rachel Elgy
In the past few days and weeks there has been a distressing amount of antisemitic hatred being spread on social media and beyond. There has been wide-spread (and entirely justified) outrage at Wiley’s barrage of antisemitic tweets, and more so, the platform’s initial inaction against such hatred, leading many to boycott Twitter for 48 hours.
While Wiley has hit headlines in a big way, antisemitism, and the antisemitic stereotypes and tropes he was peddling, are not a new issue. As Eva Wiseman wrote in a recent column ‘Despite being news, antisemitism is anything but new. Instead, it is a song that’s been playing since medieval times, getting louder whenever there’s a need to blame someone quickly for structural problems in society.’
So, what is meant by the term ‘antisemitism’?
The word antisemitism originates from far-right German writer Wilhelm Marr who, in 1879, in his pamphlet ‘The Way to Victory of Germanicism over Judaism’ chose not to refer to ‘Judenhass’ – hatred of Jews – but used the term ‘Antisemitismus’ – hatred of the Jewish race. He made the switch, according to Prof. Deborah Lipstadt, because he preferred an ‘all-encompassing word: a word that would include Jews who were no longer practicing the religion, Jews who might even have converted – because he also was influenced by the idea that it was in your blood.’
The campaign against antisemitism includes a list of the various possible manifestations of antisemitism, and states:
‘Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews…
Manifestations might include the targeting of the State of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. However, criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic. Antisemitism frequently charges Jews with conspiring to harm humanity, and it is often used to blame Jews for ‘why things go wrong.’ It is expressed in speech, writing, visual forms and action, and employs sinister stereotypes and negative character traits.’
Whilst the term antisemitism was popularised in 1879, prejudice and discrimination against Jewish people has a long and painful history across the globe. England was in fact the first country in Europe to banish all Jewish people in 1290, a final blow after over 200 years of increasing hostility and persecution.
Many antisemitic tropes and conspiracy theories originated centuries ago, but still plague the Jewish community today. These include ‘blood libel’– the accusation that Jewish people used Christian blood (particularly that of children) in religious rituals. Again, the first known example of blood libel was in England, in Norwich in 1144, whilst the most recent example was in New York in 1928. Although the accusations themselves may not persist today, it can be argued that it is a theory which contributes to persisting antisemitic attitudes.
Other antisemitic conspiracy theories include the idea that Jewish people have a monopoly on global power and money. Revisiting history, during the 1200s in England, Jewish people were often employed as money lenders, potentially sparking the judgement that Jewish people were greedy or ‘money grabbing’. The reason however that many Jewish people took on this role was because the Christian Church traditionally ruled that money lending for interest was illegal for Christians, but not for Jews. The Jews were taxed heavily, so the wealth earned from that trade benefited the Crown directly.
For many, discussions of antisemitism lead to discussions of the Holocaust, the horrific genocide in which nearly 6 million Jewish people were murdered. Another form of antisemitism is the denial of the Holocaust, or the exertion that it has been ‘exaggerated’.
Antisemitism pervades across party politics and is often exacerbated by geopolitical issues such as the Israel – Palestine conflict. This is a conflict with a long and complex history, with no easy answers, and with strong views on all sides. However, discussions about Israel and Palestine often conflate all Jewish people with the Israeli state. As is clarified in the definition above, criticism of the state of Israel is not in itself antisemitic, as long as it is levelled in such a way that is similar to criticism of any other country and allows for diverse and conflicting views within the Jewish community.
The recent discussions about antisemitism following Wiley’s tweets, as well as the current legal battles against the Labour party have seen elements of pedantry around definitions, ‘whataboutery’, and pitting the Black Lives Matter movement in opposition to movements challenging antisemitism.
Some have challenged whether antisemitism should be considered a form of racism or not. Antisemitism is racialised, because it is not always directed at people because of their faith, but often because of their background and heritage. When Wilhelm Marr wrote of “Antisemitismus”, it was a deliberate choice to refer to Jewish people as a race, and to incite hatred against them. Furthermore, the Nazi Nuremburg laws against Jewish people were directly inspired by the race laws in the USA.
However, whilst it is useful to understand antisemitism as a form of racism, it shouldn’t be falsely equated to, or pitted against other forms of racism.
Some, even if with good intentions, are equating antisemitism with anti-black racism. As people pressed for Twitter to take action against Wiley’s posts comments such as ‘imagine the word Jewish was replaced with black…’ were shared in an attempt to highlight the severity of the racism. However, we need to start fighting for equality without erasing peoples’ specific experiences of oppression. Anti-black racism is a pervasive issue which should also be challenged, but these comparisons imply there’s a hierarchy of oppression. We should aim to have compassion that doesn’t rely on having a similar personal experience, but on listening, believing and seeking to understand.
Wiley’s tweets were embedded with an ‘us’ and ‘them’ dichotomy, placing Jewish people in opposition to black people, blaming Jewish people for systemic racism faced by black communities, and the conversations which followed, even those condemning his tweets, often fell into the same trap. Furthermore, a pertinent question was raised about the extent of the outrage against Wiley in comparison to pushback against white people who have also been publicly condemned for antisemitism recently. However, responding to antisemitism by pitting Jewish people against black people ignores the fact that some Jewish people are black. This kind of reaction creates division where we need solidarity, and undermines the important work going on to fight for social justice.
So what can we do to tackle antisemitism?
- Learn: Find out more about antisemitism, its roots, its history, the ways that it manifests. At EqualiTeach, we had excellent training on Antisemitism from the Holocaust Education Trust, and will recommend further resources below.
- Listen: listen to Jewish people when they share their experiences of antisemitism. Listen to understand, without becoming defensive, denying their experience, or making excuses.
- Challenge stereotypes and conspiracy theories: as with all identities, there is huge diversity within Judaism and Jewish communities. There are many incredibly pervasive and harmful stereotypes and conspiracy theories, many of which started hundreds of years ago, and these should be recognised and challenged.
- Reflect on your own assumptions: pause and recognise the responses you have to hearing about antisemitism, or reading news related to Jewish people. Question your assumptions, and reflect on the value judgements you are bringing: how do you know what you know? Where did you get that information from?
- Diversify your social media feeds: it is important that your learning doesn’t only focus on antisemitism, but that you take time to learn about Jewish culture, history and faith, and the incredible diversity within it, as well as hearing Jewish perspectives on news and events that are entirely unrelated to antisemitism. Look to diversify your news and social media feeds, finding accounts to follow that share different perspectives and experiences, such as @ethnicjewess and @the.shaynapunim
- Stand in solidarity: let your Jewish friends, colleagues and neighbours know that you are an ally, and that whilst you may not always get it right, you are open to being corrected when you get it wrong.
Additional Resources include:
-Book ‘Antisemitism: What it is, what it isn’t, why it matters’ by Julia Neuberger
–https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/ – a comprehensive online resource on Jewish history, politics and culture
–https://www.myjewishlearning.com/ – a website with a wealth of information on anything and everything to do with Jewish faith, culture, history, and politics
–https://www.jewishbookcouncil.org/ – the longest running organisation devoted exclusively to the support and celebration of Jewish literature
–https://www.heyalma.com/ – a publication that covers everything from Jewish pop culture to what’s happening in the news to personal pieces about identity, feminism, and more
–https://jwa.org/ – The Jewish Women’s Archive is a national organization dedicated to collecting and promoting the extraordinary stories of Jewish women
–https://www.adl.org/ – a leading anti-hate organisation
–https://www.yadvashem.org/ – the World Holocaust Remembrance Center
– Quakers in Britain Peace Education Resource ‘Razor Wires and Olive Branches’ exploring human rights, conflict and peacebuilding in Israel and Palestine: https://www.quaker.org.uk/resources/free-resources/teaching-resources-2#heading-1
– Solutions not Sides – school resources for teaching about Israel and Palestine: www.solutionsnotsides.co.uk
If you know any great resources that may help to improve understanding about antisemitism, please comment with these below, or get in touch!