What is Anti Semitism?

The question of what constitutes Anti Semitism has never been as complicated as it is today. We all seem to believe we understand what it means, but we keep failing to find the boundaries of the phenomenon, often leaving out of it what should be in and/or including what we should not. Is it possible to define such boundaries? Possibly to some extent... I will share my take on it:

a) When we use the term "Anti Semitism" we are referring to hate or discrimination against Jews. This part seems clear, doesn't it? Maybe no. Persecution during the Middle Ages was not against Jews as much as it was against Judaism. If a Jew converted in the Middle Ages, he/she became part of the mainstream without a problem. Even the attacks of the Crusaders, on their way to Jerusalem, against the Jewish communities in Europe, were not attacks on the Jews as much as attacks against Judaism. There probably were some who hated the Jews as Jews, but they were not the majority. Many ecclesiastic figures of the Middle Ages and even early Modernity were in fact former Jews. Tomas de Torquemada, head of the Spanish Inquisition came himself from a family of Conversos and his uncle Juan de Torquemada was a Cardinal of the Church. Michel de Nostredame ("Nostradamus") also came from a Jewish fanily. Elhanan ben Simeon, in the tenth Century, became a Christian - and as such rose through the ranks to become a Cardinal and elected Pope as Alexander III (some sources claim he was the Antipope Anacletus II). These are but some examples.

In the XIX Century, with the rise of Positivism in Europe, all the negative traits and stereotypes adscribed to Judaism became exagerated and adscribed to "the Jewish Race". It is from this point on that we can truly talk about Anti Semitism as such, supported by the pseudo science of Racial Studies. The rise of anti semitism in Viena was one of the motivators for Theodore Hertzl, along the anti Semitic treatment of Alfred Dreyfuss in France. 

2) So what IS anti semitism? It can be described in general terms as hate of Jews as a class. Hating one Jew is not Anti Semitic, but treating the Jews as a class is. General Ulyses S Grant, during the Civil War, in his infamous General Order 11, expelled the "Jews, as a class" from the Department of Tennessee (which included large swats of Kentucky, Tenessee and Mississippi). It was only Lincoln's intervention which prevented the implementation of the Order. General Order 11 was anti semitic because it was based on stereotypes of "the Jew" and treated them as a class without individual distinctions. Grant blamed all Jews as War Profiteers. While there were some Jews who did, indeed, profited from commerce with the South, there were also many non Jews (including Grant's own Father in Law) who did profit as well.

3) So how does anti Semitism manifest itself today? Let me suggest the following possibilities:

- Blaming all Jews whenever a Jew is involved in something illegal

- Denying Jews, for being Jews, the same rights granted to everybody else

- Denying the historical suffering of the Jews as Jews or minimizing it to make it trivial

- Denying the Jewish People, and just the Jews, the right to self-determination or even self-definition

- Adscribing to Jews, as such, demonic or supernatural attributes threatening to the general population

- Making generalizations about the Jews, highlighting characteristics (often stereotypes) with the purpose of presenting them as "the Other" - This was done with the Nuremberg Laws in Nazi Germany, but it can also be done in far subtler ways.

- Denying a Jew a position or promotion or a job solely on the basis of his/her being a Jew

- Using unflattering and dehumanizing descriptions of Jews to justify their mistreatment or worse

Of course there are more situations which probably do not fit what I described above, but I think these examples cover most of the cases.

4) Is it Anti Semitic to question Israel? Sometimes. Questioning Israeli policies is the right of very person, because people have the right to their own opinions - even if they are based on missinformation or prejudice. Questioning the right of Israel to exist, however, means denying the Jews the right to self-determination - and that IS anti semitic. If I question Israeli policies regarding settlement of Jewish citizens in the occupied territories, it is an opinion. If I question the right of Israel to self defense (a right granted to any other country in the world) - that is anti semitic. Of course, in the case of Israel things get very complicated, but the bottom line is that judging Israel's actions by standards not applied to any other country constitutes discrimination, prejudice and anti Semitism. If the BDS movement would be limited to prevent annexation of what they perceived to be Arab land - it would be an opinion. Since their clearly stated goal is to undo History and eliminate the State of Israel to replace it by a State of Palestine from the river to the sea, the movement is clearly anti Semitic.

5) The attempts by Palestinians and others to define Jews as "a religion" and deny Jews the right to self-definition, is indeed anti Semitic. The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin Al Huseini, wrote that he had no problem with the "Mustarabi Jews" (Jews who behave and dress like Arabs) because they were "good Arabs". This is the same Al Husseini who later on joined the Nazis in Berlin and served as their propaganda agent in the Arab world.

As Jews we have the right to define our own identity (and God knows we argue among ourselves to death on the issue), and we are entitled, as a people, to the same rights than everybody else - No more, no less. When these two very basic Human Rights are denied we are talking about hate, discrimination and prejudice not unlike the one suffered by African Americans in this country until the Civil war and beyond. 

Just my opinion, of course.




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