Dealing with Anti-Semitism, and It’s Not About Israel

Swastika graffiti on AEPi at UC Davis in January.

Introduction

 Anti-Semitism is everywhere, and it is nowhere.

It is claimed to be behind every critique of Israel voiced by progressive youth, yet is said to have been vanquished as American Jews have found themselves increasingly present among the fringes of the establishment.

Of course, anti-Semitism still exists. The attacks on Jews in Paris and Copenhagen show that threats to Jews do still exist in the 21st century; meanwhile, 54% of college-age Jews in one American survey claim to have been witness to some form of anti-Semitism. My own alma mater, the University of Chicago, has been embroiled in a recent kerfuffle over anti-Semitic comments posted on various online forums. Madison, Wisconsin recently had a spate of anti-Semitic graffiti.

Yet many American college students have never had any experience of anti-Semitism in their lives – or if they have, it has often been very minor. Peter Beinart recently noted in a seminar at Oxford that many of the stark generational differences between Jewish millennials and their parents arise from their different experiences of anti-Semitism: a thing largely of the past for the former, but a strongly sensed memory for the latter.

In this context, the most common cries of anti-Semitism in many Jewish communities – and perhaps in American Jewry as a whole – revolve around Israel. Various movements critical of Israel – the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement and Students for Justice in Palestine among them – are branded as “anti-Semitic”; speakers who question Israel’s status as a Jewish state – Jews included – face similar labels. These cries are closely tied to hasbara – advocacy for Israel. To be Jewish according to many voices in the community is to do service for Israel, to advocate for the Jewish state. Israel is presented as the apex of Jewish identity and the natural representative of the Jewish people – whether they like it or not.

Thus for many young Jews, cries of anti-Semitism are closely tied to advocacy for Israel – and in an environment in which young Jews are increasingly detached from Israel, anti-Semitism becomes that much more distant.

But how does this affect those of us in the community who have experienced particularly virulent or traumatic anti-Semitism? Those of us who have been bullied, had our property vandalized, or even physically attacked? How does this environment of hasbara change the way we talk about anti-Semitism in the community and what does it do to the responses we receive?

Does hasbara make it more difficult for Jews to talk about anti-Semitism? I would argue that it does.

In this two-part article, I will use my own experiences of anti-Semitism – and the way I have talked about them in the Jewish community – to illustrate the difficulties and some consequences of dealing with anti-Semitism in this hasbara world.

Part 1

My own experience with anti-Semitism has one centerpiece, and a few other “notable incidents.”

I could always talk about the time a woman came up to my table at a restaurant and started screaming about how the Jews are “snakes.” I could talk about the colleague at a workplace who made derogatory comments about Jewish practices. I could talk about the fetishizing comments I’ve heard in the gay community. I could talk about the Holocaust deniers I have met. And of course, I could talk about the small instances of comments and awkwardness – the “micro-aggressions.”

But the centerpiece – and my most traumatic experience – was after a relationship with a non-Jew. During the relationship, I was subject to fetishization coupled with emotional abuse, alongside constant abusive remarks about how my religiosity and adherence to Judaism were “getting in the way.” (There were also other highly abusive aspects.) After we broke ties, I received a letter – four and a half pages long – which included the winning combination of anti-Semitic vitriol and a lengthy complaint about how inconvenient Judaism was for him.

Israel was not mentioned even once.

Nor has Israel come up in many of the anti-Semitic incidents I have experienced – sure, there has been the odd comment, but the major instances have almost never involved Israel/Palestine. Nor have Arab people been behind any of these incidents: these were all white, Christian people. This is of course not a scientific study, just my own experience.

But how do I talk about my own experience?

In the American Jewish community, our experiences are often “boxed.” We are told to attend day schools and Jewish summer camps, support Israel, date Jews only, marry under a chuppah and live near other Jews. In short, approximate the normative upper-middle-class, Ashkenazi experience. Our communities do not know what to do with those who do not fit in. But when we outliers experience anti-Semitism in our outside lives, we are often told it is our own fault for not adhering to the box.

Comments from a non-Jewish partner? We should not have been dating non-Jews.

Discomfort in Europe? You should go to Israel instead.

An incident at a pro-Palestinian event? This is why we should be supporting Israel.

My relationship with the non-Jew was traumatic on multiple levels, and I sought guidance and support from the Jewish community. Much of this support simply constituted a place to be – for prayer, fellowship, and generally being surrounded by good people. The Jewish community did a fine job in this regard – and as I went through a post-traumatic phase of “flipping out” (to become, temporarily, Modern Orthodox), the Jewish world offered a temporary reprieve from the aftermath of trauma.

It took a few months for me to bring up, with close Jewish friends, the anti-Semitism I had experienced in the trauma. I remember the first conversation clearly: with a friend, after synagogue, just after I returned to being a “typical, somewhat observant Conservative Jew.”

“I have never experienced anti-Semitism!” He said. “It’s a thing of the past in this country. Are you sure he was being anti-Semitic?”

I told the story about the letter.

“Are you sure the letter didn’t talk about Israel?”

I read the letter.

This incident has been repeated a few times throughout my experience: a proclamation of a lack of anti-Semitism, and then incredulity when my own experiences have not been connected to Israel. “Anti-Semites are fundamentally anti-Israel,” I would hear – but never that my workplace anti-Semitism was often rolled in with Islamophobic comments as well. “Eating normally” meant eating pork – and Israel was barely on the agenda there.

 

Part 2

“Protect Israel from the anti-Semitic BDS Movement!”

The new rallying call of the right-wing in the Jewish community is to protect Israel and pro-Israel students from the BDS movement, which is typologized as anti-Semitic. Sure, some anti-Semites are BDSers, but a cursory investigation reveals that the two are not the same. Yet much of the dialogue that emerges from the organized Jewish world centers anti-Semitism around anti-Israel politics. Hillel is presented as a “safe space” for pro-Israel students, colleges’ records on Jewry are graded based on their Israel stance, and Hasbara Fellowships pay students to protect Jews by protecting Israel.

Of course, under this radar anti-Semitism often occurs with no mention of Israel. Jewish students present at the recent UCLA Board Meeting noted that Israel was barely, if at all mentioned. Anonymous online anti-Semitic comments at the University of Chicago also skipped Israel. The Jewish Joint Distribution Committee – itself a fairly Zionist organization – acknowledges that much of the anti-Semitism it combats is not related to Israel.

The anti-Semitism I faced was not related to Israel. What happens to these experiences?

There is the pressure to shape the story of your anti-Semitism to the story of the Jewish state. This is a pressure I have faced when speaking with other American Jews around issues of anti-Semitism.

Firstly, there is the assumption that the anti-Semite may have also had pro-Palestinian or pro-Arab opinions. I have been asked, on occasion, “Was this person part of Students for Justice in Palestine?” Or “Did this person participate in BDS?” In almost every case, I have no idea about their politics in regard to the conflict. In fact, I can think of more cases where the anti-Semites had prior made Islamophobic or anti-Arab comments.

Then there is the messy – and racist – assumption that any anti-Semite I encountered must have been Arab or Muslim. This parallels well with the Zionist portrayal of Arabs as the enemy – not just of Israel but of the Jewish people. This idea comes from well-meaning liberal Jews – who take the Palestinians’ righteous anger on the colonization of their land and apply it as the “only case of anti-Semitism.” It is a Pollyanna view.

Finally, there are the constant “reminders” that I “never” would have to deal with anti-Semitism in the Jewish state (or so we are told). Thus my experience apparently makes it imperative to “protect” Israel as the “one home” for our people – and to frequently speak well of it to other Jews. And to certainly not write such critical things for New Voices and The Forward. “What will the goyim say?” I, in effect, become the cause of the anti-Semitism I face – for not being “good enough” at Jewishness.

But what about the fact that I seek to be Jewish in the United States or United Kingdom, not in Israel? What about safety here?

Sometimes, the Israel narrative takes on another manifestation. A usually politically liberal, usually secular Jew will claim that the anti-Semitism I have faced was a product of the fact that I am loud and proud about my Jewish identity. Be quiet, I am told, and anti-Semitism will not happen. (Though anecdotally, my loud and proud Jewish friends somehow face less anti-Semitism.) It is not Israel, and thus one should be quiet about Jewishness. This notion plays directly into the Zionist playbook – greatly ironic, given that I have heard this line of thought from a few pro-Palestinian Jews. The narrative goes as follows: Israel, as the Jewish state, is the only place where Jews can lead a completely open and Jewish life – which is impossible in exile.

But we lead Jewish lives in America.

Yet so much of this feeling is engendered by the communal hysteria raised by certain organizations over treatment or discussion of Israel on campus. Drawing the line between criticism of Israel and actual anti-Semitism becomes difficult when that line is so intentionally blurred in communal rhetoric. Israel has been made central to so much of Jewish identity in the United States – beyond prayer, beyond civic cultures, beyond a way of life. Israel is “it.” Yet there is also a certain amount to which talking about anti-Semitism is met with disbelief: Things are so secure in the United States that many simply have never encountered it. Or, more frequently, it is assumed to be indicative of a certain right-wing political orientation – one associated with protecting Israel from “undue criticism.”

Thus the victim of nasty anti-Semitism in the United States can become exhausted. As I did.

I was firstly tired of having to explain that yes, some of us in the room have experienced anti-Semitism. This was particularly the case with Baby Boomers making generalizations about the younger generation’s naïveté regarding anti-Semitism – which I found particularly irritating, since my experience mentioned in Part 1 was probably of a greater emotional intensity than most of their experiences. More irritatingly, their claim rang true: so many of my Jewish peers could not fully empathize with my experience – given that they had never experienced something similar themselves. When I found others who had experienced it – and tellingly, many were Orthodox kippah-wearers subject to more common street-level abuse – a similar exhaustion was voiced. “It’s tiring,” one friend told me, “to come off the street after a slur to people that only use the past tense when talking about this.”

There was, however, a second exhaustion. I was tired of the assumptions made about my experience – and thus, about me. It was assumed that my experience was somehow tied to Israel, perceptions of Israel, or my own (non-existent) advocacy for Israel. Thus I felt that some other Jews to whom I had hinted at my experiences perceived me as some sort of reactionary. This assumption is far from the truth: I am not only a vocal critic of the Israeli government’s actions, but also was subject to anti-Semitism unrelated to Israel. My experience is indicative of a wider trend: not only are the experiences of anti-Semitism by liberal or left-wing Jews liable to denial, but are often connected to Israeli politics without due cause.

What lessons can we learn from these experiences about anti-Semitism and the American Jewish community today?

Firstly, I would argue that we have become too complacent. Ashkenazi Jewry in the United States has by and large uncritically accepted and celebrated its acceptance as “middle-class and white” – and thus incidents disturbing this highly problematic narrative are simply not assessed. This story has of course stunted our ability to engage with communities of color, and of course has impeded the acceptance of Jews of color and non-Ashkenormative Jews in the community. But beyond that, it has given many people in the community a dangerous idea that all is well and nothing bad really happens to Jews in the United States. Yet we are still a minority in this very Christian country, and that is worth remembering. I was recently told that bringing up anti-Semitism is sometimes an “unwelcome emotional burden.” Yes, it is a burden. But why must the community be so complacent as to not think about it? And when they do, why is it always connected to Israel – the easy, classical white-privilege method of shifting anti-Semitism to the Other, lest the white men our communities have sought assimilation into be blamed?

Secondly, Jewish communities run great risks by centering Jewish identity on Israel. Communal organizations have centered so much energy on creating Israel-focused Jewish identities that the two have become conflated in American Jewish communities. People, including anti-Semites, are also often not smart. So by conflating Israel and Judaism, it is almost adding fuel to the fire to those anti-Zionists who are anti-Semites! This centricity has also politicized a discussion that did not need more politics: that on the anti-Semitism we face today.

I do think Jewish communities are becoming better at discussing anti-Semitism – my own alma mater’s Jewish community has had an incredible and dynamic conversation following some incidents involving anonymous internet posts. UChicago and others have also separated political (Israel-tied) identities and Jewish identities. But so often on campuses and beyond anti-Semitism is boiled down to toeing the line on Israel politics. Thus for those of us who have experienced significant anti-Semitism – or even small-scale anti-Semitism – it becomes harder to process our experience, given that it is trapped in a hasbara world.

 

Jonathan P. Katz is an American student studying at Oxford.

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