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HOW ANTISEMITISM WORKS

 

Antisemitism has characteristics that are similar to, and characteristics that are different from, other forms of racism and bias.

 

Later, we will examine a number of the most common antisemitic assumptions, tropes and stereotypes.

 

First, we’ll look at some of the core characteristics of antisemitism, the framework on which this problem is constructed. These are examples of the ways that antisemitism works. Some of these examples are common to almost all forms of prejudice and discrimination. Others are mostly or entirely unique to antisemitism.

 

 

OTHERING

 

Othering is typical of most forms of bias and discrimination. But antisemitism could be considered the mother of all othering.

 

In parts of ancient, medieval and early modern Europe, North Africa and Asia, Jews were often the only “other.” Jews, for almost 2,000 years, lived in places where they were a permanent minority. More than this, in many places, they were the only minority.

 

Xenophobia may be an elemental human characteristic – and the urge to identify an “other” for political, social or economic reasons, in many places and times, has turned attentions to Jews.

 

 

VICTIM-BLAMING
 

Probably more than in any other form of bias or discrimination, antisemitism rests on ideas that the targets (Jews) bring it on themselves. Rather than condemning the perpetrator, victim-blaming validates discrimination by asserting there is something in the victim that invites and justifies the discrimination they experience.

 

Antisemitism’s prevalence across time and place is often cited as its own justification. That is, any people who have been so ill-treated across so many centuries by so many societies must bear some responsibility for their victimization. But the constancy of antisemitism is not “proof” that Jews “bring it on themselves” any more than centuries of homophobia and misogyny are the fault of LGBTQ+ people and women. People of goodwill do not intuit that the victims of discrimination had it coming.

 

 

INVERTING VICTIM AND PERPETRATOR

 

Victim-blaming (above) is a characteristic of antisemitism and the trope of “Jewish power” (discussed later) takes the problem further – inverting perceptions of victim and perpetrator.

 

When perpetrators of antisemitism are called out over their racism, the offenders frequently paint themselves as victims, often employing antisemitic tropes (like “Jewish power”) and conspiracies (“the Jews are silencing me!”) in the process.

 

 

PROJECTION

 

The late Rabbi Lionel Blue coined the humorous adage: “Jews are like everyone else, only more so.”

 

There is a serious subtext to this quip – the belief that, whatever characteristics humans have, good or bad, are magnified in the Jewish character. Of course, this is not a statement about Jewish people but about the perception non-Jewish people have of Jews—it is a form of projection in which we cast Jewish people as the (often exaggerated) epitome of our own characters.

 

Example: A trope of antisemitism is that Jews are clannish, insular and only care about their own. Yet, to some extent, this idea applies to any group, community or nation. Social cohesion is crucial for the thriving of any collective. To single out Jewish people as the (often pathologized) embodiment of this trait is an example of a human characteristic being projected as a uniquely (or exaggeratedly) Jewish phenomenon.

 

Through history, peoples have projected onto Jews the characteristics of whatever they opposed or viewed as a threat. Capitalists accused Jews of being communists. Communists accused Jews of being capitalists. The French accused Jews of spying for Germany. Germans accused Jews of spying for France. Racists accuse Jews of not being white. Antiracists accuse Jews of being not only white but, in some narratives, representing a sort of “hyper-whiteness.”

 

In a contemporary example, as Western societies confront the horrific legacy and intergenerational trauma of slavery, a new slander has been created, blaming Jews for the slave trade.

 

Accusations against Jews are very often a projection of the unresolved fears, hatreds or disorders of the individual or society perpetrating the accusation. Whatever the issue of concern, many people often find some way to blame Jews or to explain the inexplicable through an antisemitic lens.

 

 

CONSPIRACY THEORIES

 

Conspiracy theories are ways that people try to explain what they find inexplicable, often forming a simplistic, universal theory intended to make complex problems comprehensible.

 

Unlike most other forms of discrimination and bias, antisemitism often provides the scaffolding for an entire worldview, with Jews, or Jewish doings, being the explanation for things that happen in the world, the key that unlocks every mystery. While many forms of racism are obsessive, antisemitism often takes the form of a comprehensive worldview that comes to possess the individual, who sees the world and everything that happens in it – from their own misfortunes to macroeconomics and global events – as somehow related to Jews.

 

Conversely, many conspiracy theories ostensibly unrelated to Jews will eventually become antisemitic. Conspiracy theories, by nature, rest on ideas of clandestine plots, underhanded forces and misuse of power. Because Jews have historically been accused of precisely these types of manipulations, it is a short leap to simply accuse Jews of being the force behind any and every conspiracy.

 

Conspiracy theories are uniquely impervious to reason because a lack of evidence, or even outright contradictory proof, is dismissed as part of the conspiracy itself.

 

Throughout history, blaming Jews for economic downturns, natural catastrophes, outbreaks of diseases and other unexplainable or complex challenges has had disastrous impacts on Jews — but this phenomenon has also had incalculable deleterious effects on non-Jews. By distracting people from confronting the legitimate causes of their problems and diverting blame to a Jewish scapegoat, effective solutions to social problems have often been avoided. Those in positions of power have been able to deflect the rage of subordinated peoples by pointing the finger at an imagined enemy in the form of “the Jews,” thereby perpetuating oppression.

 

 
“PROTOCOLS OF THE ELDERS OF ZION”: THE ULTIMATE CONSPIRACY THEORY

 

A pivotal moment in the intersection of antisemitism and conspiracism came around the turn of the 20th century with the fabrication of the “Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.”

 

The long-debunked document, which is still accepted in many places as fact, purports to be the minutes of a secret midnight meeting held in a graveyard by Jews intent on taking over the world. The document was not so much a new work but a greatest hits album of centuries of antisemitic and other conspiracies.

 

Many or most of the stereotypes, tropes and accusations that form the foundations of modern antisemitism are found in the “Protocols,” including the ideas that Jews …

 

 

Aim to dominate the world

 

Are rich and control banks and the economy

 

Are the root of all evil

 

Incite wars

 

Undermine Christianity

 

Enslave (or oppress) non-Jews

 

Take things to which they are not entitled

 

Are puppet-masters of governments and those in power

 

Cannot be trusted

 

Among people who rightly dismiss the “Protocols” as the absurd hoax that it is, there are nevertheless many who carry residue from the document because its ideas have permeated the zeitgeist of European, North American, Middle Eastern and other societies. We may scorn as preposterous the corny depictions of devious Jews in a graveyard. But the antisemitic ideas of Jewish scheming, avarice and thirst for power that the “Protocols” attempted to mainstream remain remarkably tenacious.

 

 

DOG WHISTLES

Conspiracy theories are often accompanied by dog whistles, subtly aimed messages intended for, and understood by, people who hold a particular prejudice. For example, invoking the name of well-known Jewish people can imply Jewish control without using the word “Jew.” As such, the names “Soros” or “Rothschild” can often be dog whistles.

 

The (((echo))) symbol — triple parentheses around the name of a Jewish person, often on social media — does more than simply identify that person as a Jew. It implies that they are part of a secretive conspiracy, inevitably dovetailing with ideas of “Jewish power.”

Terms like “Hollywood (or cosmopolitan) elite” can evoke the idea of Jews without using the word, as can political terms like “globalist” or “New World Order.” There are many forms of dog-whistles and they can be very subtle. “Zionist” is sometimes used as a dog whistle to mean “Jew” by people who seek plausible deniability that their comments are political commentary rather than racism.

 

Terms like “Zionist lobby” or the “Jewish lobby” are problematic in that they are not necessarily offensive in substance, but the subtext is that those involved are not advocating for legitimate rights or causes, but instead are motivated by nefarious intents. Note, for example, that we would consider it dismissive to refer to women's rights organizations as the “feminist lobby” or LGBTQ+ rights agencies as the “gay lobby.”

 

Dog whistles are especially challenging because they offer plausible deniability for the perpetrator but can convey antisemitic intent by stealth – so that even the recipient may not consciously intuit that they have absorbed an antisemitic idea.

 

 

MORPHING

 

A core characteristic of antisemitism is its ability to morph, to shapeshift to suit the perpetrator’s “needs.”

 

In a current example, racist opponents of immigration have created the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory, which is new – but is also a classic example of antisemitic projection. The perpetrators take what they hate (non-white immigration) and accuse Jews of being the primary advocates for it (via a convoluted theory that ultimately rests on ideas of Jewish control over American government policy).

 

Shape-shifting has been a recurring characteristic of antisemitism for centuries, often metaphorically compared with cancer, which opportunistically metastasizes.

 

This is one of the reasons antisemitism is so difficult to define and defeat. Not only does it take so many unique forms, but those forms keep changing and expanding.

 

ENVY AND “PUNCHING UP”
  

Envy is an explosive human emotion, the source of much human conflict from sibling rivalry to revolutions. Envy plays a unique and destructive role in antisemitism.

Most forms of bias are based on the idea that the perpetrator thinks they are better than their victim. Antisemitism disrupts this narrative. In many instances, the antisemite is convinced that the Jew thinks they are better than the antisemite. Where other forms of racism impart a sense of superiority, antisemitism can provoke inferiority – and envy-fueled outrage.

 

Most forms of discrimination see members of an “in group” enforcing the reduced status of an “out group.” Antisemitism often sees Jews as an “in group” and seeks to make them an “out group.”

 

Similarly, racism generally “punches down,” attacking those perceived by the perpetrator as weaker and inferior. Antisemitism can be seen as a form of “punching up,” attacking those perceived as (or perceived as perceiving themselves as) superior or more powerful.

 

This dynamic is especially tricky in a climate where the contemporary dialogue on race views the presence or absence of power and privilege as a defining characteristic of racism. If equity depends on lessening power differentials, it could be considered an act of social justice to diminish and attack a group perceived as disproportionately powerful.

 

The problems in this construction should be obvious. Treating members of a group not as individuals but as representatives of a group is the definition of discrimination. Moreover, whether perceived as “punching down” or “punching up,” the person being punched is always a victim.

 

 

The Chosen People …

 

The perception that Jews “think they are better than everyone else” stems in part from misunderstandings around the theological concept of Jews as the “chosen people.”

 

“Chosen-ness” does not represent privilege, but rather obligation. Theologically, chosen-ness is the responsibility to foster moral law in the world and to strive as a people to bring about on earth the values of heaven. Misrepresentations of this idea depict Jews as believing they are God’s “favourite” (which, we should note, is a core concept of almost all religions, suggesting again that Jews are uniquely condemned for embodying common traits). This simplistic misreading of a religious concept has invited a sort of cosmic sibling rivalry with catastrophic consequences.

 

Christians and Muslims, to varying degrees, have had ambivalent approaches to the Jewish origins of their own theologies. Christians and Muslims sometimes venerate Jews and Judaism as the wellspring of their theology, while also sometimes condemning Jews for refusing to accept the new religion.

 

This complex psychological terrain evokes convoluted human reactions. One of these may be a tendency to spotlight Jewish behaviour that does not live up to the standards of divine ideals. People who are associated in the minds of much of the world's population as the very conveyance by which humankind came to understand ethical living are almost destined to invite envy, hostility and schadenfreude when they do not live up to the model of moral perfection.

This page is part of BE AN UPSTANDER: HOW ALLIES CAN RECOGNIZE AND CONTEST ANTISEMITISM.

 

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