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An additional problem – and one that this toolkit addresses especially – is conscious versus unconscious biases.


Everyone carries unconscious, inherent or innate biases. Unconscious antisemitism is especially pernicious, difficult to definitively identify, and challenging to overcome.


If we are discussing unconscious biases about Jews, there is even a basic problem with the term “antisemitism.”


The prefix “anti” implies an active, conscious decision to be “against Jews.”


This phenomenon exists, of course – and overt, conscious antisemitism is the most immediately dangerous kind. It is the type of discrimination that is most likely to turn violent.


But all people of goodwill oppose that kind of hatred.


Subtler, often unconscious, biases can be carried unknowingly even by people of goodwill. These unconscious types of antisemitism are not so easily recognized and therefore can be difficult to confront and defeat in ourselves and our society.


While less likely to become violent, these unconscious biases may be more likely to have lasting impacts in mainstream society because they can penetrate minds, movements and societies in subtle ways. This subtlety means they can go unchecked and can entrench themselves into individual and collective assumptions and become part of the body politic.


Is “antisemitism” the right word for unconscious bias? Maybe not, but that is a conversation for another time. For the purposes of this toolkit, we will use the umbrella term “antisemitism” to reflect discrimination, unconscious bias, prejudice, tropes or other attitudes about Jewish people.





Who are Jews?


We sometimes hear people say that antisemitism is not a problem like racism because Judaism is a religion.


This is a misunderstanding – or, at least, an incomplete understanding. Judaism is a religion. But Jewishness is something larger, with Judaism at its core. The fact that so many people do not understand this – and do not take the time to learn – is among the reasons we have not adequately confronted antisemitism.


Put simply …


  • Jews are a cultural and ethnoreligious group

  • Jews are part of a peoplehood with a religious tradition at the core

  • Jews are a community with a shared historical narrative, cultural expression, practices and traditions


This is an extreme simplification of a complex identity.


The most important thing to remember is that members of a group have the right to self-define. People of goodwill do not diminish a people’s experiences with discrimination by arguing over the nature of that group’s identity.


Not understanding the complexities of a group’s identity does not give us the right to define them, or exclude them from our commitment to human equality.



What is the definition of Antisemitism?


Possibly more than any other form of discrimination, antisemitism is difficult to define, partly because it mutates frequently and quickly. Today, we see controversy around efforts to define it.


The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) adopted this “working definition” of antisemitism:


“Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”


In this resource, we mostly sidestep theoretical definitions of antisemitism and focus instead on practical approaches around some of the most common ways antisemitism has manifested historically and what it looks like today.




Today, race is generally understood as a social construct, not a biological fact. hence, racial boundaries are often porous. Jews have sometimes been considered a race (notably by those who sought to eliminate them). At times, Jews have been cast by others as non-white, pretending to pass as white (such as by white supremacists who sought to exclude Jews). Others see Jews as white (and privileged) and thus exclude Jews from consideration as a group targeted by racism. These discourses fail to address the multiplicity of Jewish identity and the diverse manifestation of antisemitism as a particular form of racism.


The unique history of Jewish people, including almost 2,000 years of statelessness, has helped create a wide diversity of Jewish people. There are Jewish people among almost every race, colour, nationality, ethnicity and other forms of identity. For example, there are African and Asian Jews whose families have lived in Ethiopia, India, Iraq and other places for centuries. During this time, they adopted linguistic, cultural and other characteristics – including, through intermarriage and conversion, a diversity of racial characteristics – while maintaining the traditions and identities that define them as Jews.


While most Jews in North America are white-presenting, very many Jews in Israel are not. Furthermore, many Jews of Ashkenazi (European) ancestry do not see themselves as white but as a distinct ethnocultural group.





If Jewish people are not a “race,” why do we use the term “racism”?


While antisemitism is different, confronting it demands that we approach it in a manner similar to the way we address various forms of racism.


In its simplest formation, antisemitism “racializes” Jews (even if it problematically racializes them as “white”), regardless of the complex ways Jews self-identify, and this, if nothing else, justifies antisemitism’s inclusion in this category.




In their book Why the Jews? The Reason for Antisemitism, the Most Accurate Predictor of Human Evil, Dennis Prager and Rabbi Joseph Telushkin argue that it is Jewish ideas that provoke antisemitism.


Telushkin and Prager contend that, in many societies, Jews, for very specific Jewish reasons, had a better quality of life than many of their neighbours. Study is a religious obligation for Jews and, throughout history, in Jewish cultures, the poor were taught free of charge. In cultures where child labour was common, Jews tended to continue educating their children at least until age 13. With industrialization and the modern age, these and other cultural traits placed Jews in a unique position to prosper – and to invite whole new ways of being both admired and envied.


In recent years, antiracist people have come to a revolutionary consensus about race: that white-presenting people, even antiracist white people, benefit from a societal and historical reality in the form of white privilege.


In addition to social and economic impacts that centuries of racism, prejudices and perceptions about members of racialized groups have passed down – deliberately, inadvertently, and in a multitude of ways – this history has also embedded in our society and in us as individuals a complex of ideas about peoples and how we relate to them. Many of us are working to unlearn these prejudices.


Antisemitism has also been passed down to us. David Nirenberg, author of the book Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, argues that prejudices about Jews are not a peripheral phenomenon but are at the absolute core of Western civilization. To create a Christian civilization, European thinkers and leaders hundreds of years ago invented a civilizational narrative with oppositional ideas about Jews at its very heart.


Prejudices about Jews, Nirenberg suggests, are not a bug of Western civilization, but a feature.


Antisemitism is too complex and diverse to be put down to a single cause. Indeed, while Nirenberg argues a “macro,” civilizational explanation for prejudice toward Jews, the late psychiatrist Theodore Isaac Rubin, in his book Antisemitism: A Disease of the Mind, took a “micro” approach. He contended that deep-seated prejudices about Jews have been passed down, with “the Jews” becoming a representational “symbol” for problems, hatreds, obsessions or other conditions that an individual (or a society) may be confronting and that results in a form of mental illness among susceptible individuals (or a social disorder in an unhealthy society).


No single explanation can succinctly explain the range of the problem. If we could definitively understand antisemitism’s origins and causes, we would be steps closer to eradicating it. But all evidence is that we have a long way to go.




Racism is an irrational response — and reasoning people out of positions into which reasoning did not get them into seems counterintuitive.


In principle, it should not be necessary to respond to negative ideas about a group with positive comments about that group.


However, this toolkit, by nature of the subject and the examples we use, presents bleak reading.


Even though people of goodwill will recognize that the racist imagery and ideas depicted here are factually incorrect and morally wrong, it would seem an omission to not includes some positive expression of the contribution that Jewish people, Judaism and Jewish traditions have made to the world.


In a document so rife with negative stereotypes, biases and imagery, it is valuable to briefly include the constructive, uplifting aspects of Jewish people, culture, tradition and contributions. Libraries are filled with shelves on these subjects, but let us just consider a few contributions.


Judaism introduced to the world “ethical monotheism.” the concept of a unitary deity who is the source of morality and the judge of human behaviour, including the concept that such things as theft and murder are wrong, based on transcendent moral principles.


Both Christianity and Islam are premised on this foundational (Jewish) concept. While there are, today, only about 16 million Jews in the world, well more than four billion people – half the world’s population – adhere to the concept of ethical monotheism that emerged from Judaism.


Stemming from these principles of Judaism are crucial concepts like tzedek, justice, the centrality of righteousness as a guiding principle, and tikkun olam, repair of the world, which have motivated large numbers of Jewish individuals to participate in social justice movements.


The study of Torah and Talmud, with emphasis on intense questioning, the challenging of accepted wisdom, the weighing of alternative viewpoints and enthusiasm for vigorous debate, has enriched the world and helped instill the high value that Judaism places on education, scholarship and intellectual rigour. This tradition of education and considering alternative perspectives accounts in part for the success of Jewish individuals in a vast range of fields.


This pursuit of knowledge, combined with Jewish emphasis on the sacredness of life, has led to a disproportionate number of Jewish individuals choosing disciplines like medicine and research that advances human well-being, knowledge and social advancement. A notable statistic is that Jews, who make up just 0.2% of the world’s population, have received about 22% of all individually awarded Nobel prizes – a stunning 110 times their proportion by population.


As we explore the panorama of anti-Jewish ideas, stereotypes and prejudices, we must resist succumbing to the idea that these have validity, or even a grain of legitimacy.



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