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WHAT ANTISEMITISM LOOKS LIKE

 

Subtle, unconscious forms of antisemitism exist in inherent biases, stereotypes and tropes that people may carry without even recognizing them.

 

While these may not be as obvious as overt antisemitism – or as likely to result in violence and outright hatred – they carry a special danger. Inherent biases can permeate individuals and society subliminally and influence the way we view Jews – without us even recognizing that we carry these ideas.

 

Here are just a few of the most common and powerful antisemitic stereotypes, tropes and ideas.

 

 

TROPE OF “JEWISH POWER”: THE TEFLON THAT PROTECTS ANTISEMITISM

 

Probably the most significant antisemitic stereotype is the idea that Jews, collectively and even individually, are “powerful.” Almost all other antisemitic ideas hang on this foundational premise.

 

Ancient and medieval peoples often associated Jews with metaphysical or supernatural powers. Today, Jews are more commonly associated with economic and political power. Examples of an individual Jew in a position of power are extrapolated by some people as “evidence” that Jews are powerful.

 

The trope of Jewish power is one reason we have not defeated antisemitism.

 

Contemporary theories of racism and discrimination are premised on ideas of power and privilege. If we believe (even unconsciously or even just a little) that Jews are powerful and privileged, we may assume that they cannot be victims of discrimination.

 

 
ASSOCIATIONS WITH MONEY

 

Associations of Jews with money are central to antisemitism. In the Middle Ages, Christians were forbidden by the Catholic church from moneylending. Jews, in much of Europe, were forbidden from joining guilds, owning land or engaging in most conventional occupations. This confluence of economic factors forced some Jews into trading and the niche of a nascent financial sector.

 

It also placed Jews as a group in a deeply precarious social position, exploited by rulers and then expelled when their debts to Jews became too onerous, and despised by the populace who became indebted to Jewish lenders.

 

Employed as estate managers by landholding nobility, some Jews became the conspicuous representatives of the landlords who controlled the fate of the peasants.

 

These roles created treacherous social conditions, in which Jewish communities were at the whims of both the nobility, who could exploit or expel them (or, as was repeatedly the case, first exploit then expel them and expropriate their property), and their non-Jewish neighbours, who could rebel against the economic subjugation of the nobility by rising in mobs to attack and murder their Jewish neighbours (as scapegoats for those in positions of actual power).

 

Trading was an area in which some Jews were able to thrive because linguistic, familial and cultural ties across geography facilitated transactions of both currency and goods. This proto-capitalism could create wealth and put Jews in good stead when industrialization and trading began competing with agrarianism as the economic driver. It also, though, associated Jews with money, banking and capitalism in the public mind.

 

Despite the social catastrophes brought about by the economic segregation of Jews, the marginal areas into which Jews were forced were often proto-modern sectors. This, combined with Jewish commitment to literacy and learning and a situational need to survive at the margins of society while responding agilely to changing conditions, hastened a degree of success for many Jews as the European economy modernized.

 

Some non-Jews, who were displaced by the modern industrial economy, saw some Jews succeeding in this new environment and developed or subscribed to ideas of a conspiracy. As would be the case for generations to come, Jewish success was depicted not as a result of hard work or legitimate capability, but of a corrupt scheme to advance Jews and disadvantage non-Jews.

 

These are oversimplified explanations for why Jews came to be associated with money and, by extension, with capitalism, greed, wealth and other negative connotations. These stereotypes existed even in societies where most Jews were poor. They are exacerbated in societies where Jewish individuals have been economically successful.

 

Money is associated with power and so the motif of “rich Jews” and “powerful Jews” are mutually reinforcing. In capitalist societies, but especially in communist societies, both leaders and ordinary people have carried complex relationships to money – and any confused, troubled or messy attitude often results in a projection of that disorder onto Jews.

 

 

ECONOMIC MEASURING STICKS AND INVISIBLE ANTISEMITISM

 

We measure discrimination primarily by economic outcomes. Women and members of minority communities, on average, experience measurably reduced employment opportunities, lower incomes and less wealth because of their identities. That is measurable.

 

While there are Jewish people who experience poverty, Canadian Jews as a group are not statistically economically disadvantaged. Unlike some other groups, Jews (in the Developed World) do not systemically experience loss of income or reduced educational or economic opportunities because of their identities. Since antisemitism cannot be measured by the economic standard we use for most forms of discrimination, this may lead people to assume that antisemitism simply does not exist.

 

Since we cannot recognize it using the criteria of other forms of bias and discrimination, we need to educate ourselves on how antisemitism looks.

 

Antisemitism has parallels with homophobia and anti-Asian racism which, in the North American context, may not generally have structural economic outcomes but are exemplified by micro-aggressions, bullying, interpersonal degradation, threats of violence and actual violence. Like some other groups, Jews are sometimes viewed as a “model minority,” a double-edged sword that can affect the ways other people view and treat Jews. Interestingly, we do not dismiss the seriousness of homophobia and anti-Asian racism because they do not meet our standard of inhibiting economic, educational or social advancement. Antisemitism likewise should not be dismissed.

 

 

“PERSECUTION COMPLEX”

 

If we carry (even unconsciously) the idea that Jews are powerful and wealthy – and are therefore effectively immune from discrimination – we understandably hear Jewish concerns about discrimination as inauthentic.

 

This has led to two identifiable phenomena. First is the idea that Jews have a “persecution complex” – that they falsely (or exaggeratedly) believe themselves to be discriminated against.

 

Second is a related, widespread idea that Jews talk too much about their experiences with discrimination.

 

In conjunction with ideas of “Jewish power,” racist assumptions that Jewish people are inclined to overreact or exaggerate allows us to ignore antisemitism as a serious problem.

 

 

UNTRUSTWORTHINESS AND DISLOYALTY

 

Because Jews have so often been the only “other,” almost every characteristic of antisemitism rests on the fundamental foundation of Jews as outsiders.

 

Racist ideas of Jewish untrustworthiness appear in business (ideas of an inherent Jewish ability to out-negotiate others in a deal), in citizenship (the repeated accusation that Jews are not faithful to their country or that they have “dual loyalty”) and many other situations where a non-Jew interacts with a Jew.

 

A particularly egregious example of this prejudice centres around the very identity of Jews. There are multiple examples of non-Jews commandeering the right to define Jews. One of these is the “Khazar theory,” which posits that the people who call themselves Jews are not the descendants of the Hebrew people of ancient Israel but rather come from a tribe of central Asian people. The misrepresentation serves the purposes of those who seek to undermine the legitimacy of Jewish claims to the land of Israel, but also bolsters ideas of Jewish untrustworthiness, since it contends that, among all the other iniquities for which Jews are blamed, they are not even who they claim to be.

 

Racist ideas of Jewish untrustworthiness prevent us from confronting antisemitism in part because this stereotype nurtures a strain of disbelief about anti-Jewish racism – the idea that Jews cannot be trusted to reasonably or truthfully express their experiences with discrimination.

 

 

DEICIDE

 

The accusation that Jews killed Jesus is among the deadliest of antisemitic tropes.

 

Western civilization’s antisemitism rests to a great extent on the false theological premise that Jews were responsible for the crucifixion. The conception of Jews as the people who killed the embodiment of goodness, peace, justice and forgiveness is foundational to the association of Jews with evil.

 

These ideas are baked into Western civilization, not least through the Christian narrative of Jesus’s betrayal by Judas, whose name has become a stand-in for “traitor.” Even though all of Jesus’ disciples were Jewish, it is the one who betrayed Jesus who has historically been emphatically represented as a Jew. The near-homonym of “Jew” and “Judas” no doubt plays a role in the easy perpetuation of this concept.

 

If we believe (historically or theologically) in the existence and crucifixion of Jesus, the evidence is that after he was arrested at the instigation of a small group of Jewish authorities, Jesus was sentenced and executed by the Roman imperial forces. But even to place the blame on a small clique of Jewish leaders or the Roman authorities is to miss the core message of Christianity. A Christian who blames Jews for the crucifixion betrays the most central teaching of their own religion. The absolute cornerstone of Christian theology is that God sent his son to earth to die for the sins of believers. To accuse Jews of deicide is a betrayal not only of Jews, but of Christianity and the presumed word and deed of the Christian God.

 

Further, even if ancient Jews had been guilty of deicide, why would people blame contemporary Jews for the perceived sin of their ancient ancestors – no matter how grave? This is guilt-by-ancestry no reasonable people should consider legitimate.

 

In an increasingly secular society, arguments over who killed a deity that many Canadians do not believe in may seem immaterial. But the deicide myth pervades our civilizational consciousness and reinforces ancient and modern defamations of Jews as the enemies of humanity and goodness, as literal “god-murderers.”

 

 

DEMONIZATION

 

Throughout history, Jews have been associated in the public mind with the devil. This is partly due to the deicide accusation (above), which assume Jews killed the literal embodiment of God.

 

Demonization and projection go hand-in-hand: Whatever is bad or hateful is associated with the devil, which is associated with Jews. Some people (consciously or unconsciously) employ a convenient shortcut when confronted with anything evil: Blame the Jews.

 

 

DEHUMANIZATION

 

A vast range of accusations that Jews are other-than-human have helped degrade Jews in the non-Jewish imagination, a crucial step in obtaining popular consent to persecute, expel and murder Jews. Throughout history, Jews have been equated with vermin, pests and parasites. Even when Jews are depicted in human form, they are sometimes portrayed as grotesque variations, with enormous or hooked noses, stringy beards, smirking deceitfully and deviously rubbing their hands. These images are often employed to convey that the malefactors are Jews without explicitly saying so.

 

 

BLOOD LIBELS

 

The “blood libel” is the incendiary false accusation that Jews ritually murder non-Jews, usually children, and use their blood to make matzo, the unleavened bread eaten during the Passover meal. This accusation has led to mass murders of Jews from medieval to modern times. The allegation is often accompanied by the suggestion that the murder of children is a “reenacting” of the crucifixion of Jesus.

 

Blood is the human life force. Antisemitism’s emphasis on alleged Jewish desecration of blood telescopes ideas of Jews as the enemy of life itself.

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

 

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