The Case For Anti-Jewish Racism

Why we should recognise that a hatred of Jews is a form of racism

Nazi anti-Jewish Nuremberg Race Laws, 1935

When I was writing my book, Jewish Pride: Rebuilding a People, I struggled with what to call Jew-hatred. Should I describe ‘the world’s oldest hatred’ as ‘Jew-hate’, ‘anti-Jewish racism’ or should I stick with the standard descriptor, ‘antisemitism’ (with no hyphen, of course)? Ultimately I decided to use all three, but let me explain the reason for my initial questioning. I take great issue with the term ‘antisemitism’, a term popularised by Wilhelm Marr in his 1879 article, The Victory Of Judaism Over Germanism (although Marr spelled it with a hyphen). This new term was coined to replace the historic ‘Juden haas’ (Jew-hate) and was an attempt to position ancient Jew-hate alongside other modern ‘isms’ or legitimate ideologies of the 19th century. It was a way to make Juden haas palatable in the modern and advanced world of the industrial revolution. It is also itself a racist term.

The roots of the term lie in 19th century pseudoscientific racism that supposed that if one spoke a ‘Semitic’ Language, like Hebrew among others, then inferences could be made about that person’s biology. This idea of nature vs nurture (and the ensuing demonisation of specific groups because of their perceived inherent traits) is an integral part of the deeply dangerous Eugenics movement. We have already seen a movement to remove the hyphen from ‘anti-semitism’ — led by many prominent Jewish thinkers, such as Deborah Lipstadt — because we now understand that there are no Semitic people to be ‘anti’ or against. As our understanding of the world and our experiences deepen, I advocate for a dropping of this racist term altogether.

Since the publication of my book, I have decided to almost exclusively refer to the hatred of Jews as ‘anti-Jewish racism’. And when I do, I am often met with a small army of outraged non-Jews and, specifically, American Jews who say ‘Jews aren’t a race’ and therefore do not experience racism. This is absurd and shows a real misunderstanding of both racism as a general concept and the actual manifestations of Jew-hatred.

Though I am arguing that Jews experience racism, I am not arguing that Jews are a race. It’s vital to acknowledge that race is not a concept rooted in biology. It doesn’t exist. It is a purely social construct. The mainstream use of this term also seems to be an odd kind of throwback to the time when Eugenics was still an acceptable belief system, but that’s not the purpose of this article. I do, however, understand that while it has no biological roots, we must of course acknowledge the idea that race is made true through racism.

I am arguing that we experience racism, not because we are a race, but because we are an ethnic minority. In Europe, where I am from, this is not a controversial position to take. In 2020, British academic Gareth Iacobucci released a paper titled “Covid-19: Racism May be Linked to Ethnic Minorities” raised death risk, says PHE. Even in the United States, it seems to be accepted in some circles. In 2009, Sumie Okazaki, an American academic, produced a paper titled “Impact of Racism on Ethnic Minority Mental Health”. It is quite clear that ethnic minorities are understood to experience racism. Additionally, even groups perceived to be connected through a set of shared beliefs can also be described as experiencing racism. The APPG (All-Party Parliamentary Groups) on British Muslim’s Report stated: ‘Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.’ This is deemed true despite the fact that the Muslim community is not a racial community, nor is it widely considered to be an ethnic community either.

In the case of Jews, we are an ethnoreligion. We are bound together by religion, of course, but we are also connected through history, tradition, land, language, customs and much more. Thus, making us an ethnic group (and outside Israel, an ethnic minority). We also have important connections due to shared ancestry. Recognising all of these aspects of our identity is of paramount importance. We are not just a religious group. We are an ethnoreligious group and as such, we experience racism.

It is also true that the hate that targets us is racist in its content. Jews are rarely targeted for our beliefs. Most Jew-hatred is rooted in a belief in the perceived ‘natural’ traits or characteristics of Jews. Even in the world described by David Nirenberg, as defined by Anti-Judaism, this ideology still targeted Jews because of non-Jewish perceptions of what it means to be a Jew. Ultimately, we are deemed to be inherently dangerous, oppressive, untrustworthy and amoral. Yes, one could argue that a belief in Zionism is a source of modern Jew-hatred, but we have to understand that antizionism is itself a form of prejudice that superimposes all of the inherent characteristics of the individual Jew onto the Jewish State of Israel or those who support it. And yes, it is possible to be deemed ‘a good Jew’ by parts of the non-Jewish world — if you renounce Zionism for example — but as with other groups targeted by racism, there are always exceptions to the rules.

AAdditionally, Racial Libel, the form of racism I named in the first chapter of my book, specifically addresses a demonisation of the concept of Jewish shared ancestry. Arguing that Jews aren’t indigenous to the Levant is racist as it makes judgements about our roots and is used to demonise us as colonialists. Arguing that Ashkenazi Jews are indigenous to Europe or that Sephardic Jews are indigenous to the Iberian Peninsula is racist. The Nazis were one of the most infamous promoters of the Racial Libel through their warped, obsessive and ultimately genocidal perception of Jewish identity and shared ancestry. But this was not the first example of this idea. Conversos in post-forced conversion Spain were viewed as having dirty or unclean blood, even though they had converted to Christianity. And what about Britain? Let’s not forget Jeremy Corbyn’s comments that Zionists, ‘despite having lived in this country for a very long time, probably all their lives…don’t understand English irony…” This is a racist inference that because of our indigenous roots — regardless of whether we were born in Britain or not — we are inherently incapable of fully integrating into British society.

The Racial Libel also seeks to demonise how Jewish people look. Regardless that there is no one way to look Jewish, we are presented monolithically. We are depicted as having big noses, big lips, curly hair; we are hunchbacked. We are all ugly. Like all forms of racism, these representations have nothing to do with real Jews, rather they are intended to be the physical manifestation of our perceived ugly evil souls. This is also not a feature of the past either. This racist demonisation of Jewish beauty is still a constant of anti-Jewish rhetoric. Despite purporting to only target Zionists and not Jews, anti-Jewish racism was a prominent feature of Soviet Propaganda. In 1979 an anonymous article was published alleging that Brezhnev was a Zionist (read Jew). This article instructed people to spot Zionists because of their “hairy chest and arms”, “shifty eyes”, and a “hook-like nose”. Though this purported to target Zionists because of their belief in a Jewish state, it clearly targeted them — through Racial Libel — because they were Jews. This was anti-Jewish racism. Additionally, take the 2020 editing of Jewish US Senator, Jon Ossof’s nose by Republican Sen. David Perdue of Georgia. This, too, was anti-Jewish racism. And this is still a deeply frightening and real expression of anti-Jewishness.

While in the United States, racism is solely seen as a system of oppression that marginalises non-white minorities based on the colour of their skin, we have to recognise this is an incomplete understanding of this term. Of course, minorities can be targeted by racism due to the colour of their skin, but it is not the only way in which groups are targeted through racism. As evidenced through the Racial Libel, Jews are deemed to have inherent characteristics rooted directly in our identities as Jews. What are those perceptions if not racist? In the United States, there is also the notion that racism = prejudice + power, with specific regards to anti-Blackness and structures of power. This can inadvertently prevent Jews from being perceived as experiencing racism. Jews were forced into professions that dealt with money and have been framed as rich and powerful for thousands of years. The idea that this specific expression of Jew-hate precludes us from experiencing racism is in itself a racist perception because it frames us a rich and powerful. Racism can target a variety of groups in different ways and each way is as important as valid as the next. It can also target individuals in multiple different ways. For example, a Black Jewish person can experience both anti-Jewish Racism and anti-Black racism.

Regarding the racism = prejudice + power concept, I believe that, as with most things, the truth is a more complex and universally, this is an incomplete understanding of this term. Ultimately though, from my European context, I understand that racism is the targeting of a racial or ethnic group because of those specific characteristics, which I also believe includes white people.

TToday, Sunday March 21, is International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, so this conversation feels particularly apt. Ultimately, we have to recognise that an incomplete or binary perception of concepts such as racism leads us to misunderstand and potentially erase the experience of specific groups and individuals. This is particularly important considering how prevalent Erasive Anti-Jewish Racism is.

It’s also important because we have to accurately identify a problem if we ever hope to solve it. How can we ever hope to defeat the scourge that is a hatred of Jews if we can’t even properly name it? I am not calling for Jews to be pitied or viewed as victims because we experience racism. We are not victims. We are not the sum of what we experience. We are so much more than that, and we refused to be defined solely by the hate that targets us. However, what I am calling for — what I am always calling for — is an accurate representation of Jewish identity and Jewish experience. We experience racism, simply because we are an ethnic group. That’s it. We are not primarily targeted for our beliefs. We are targeted because of inferences made about our inherent characteristics. This understanding does not diminish the experience of other peoples nor does it attempt to frame us as victims. It is an attempt to progress the conversation on Jewish identity and accurately represent the experiences of millions of Jews all over the world.

We deserve that just as much as anyone else.

Ben M. Freeman is a Jewish educator and author of Jewish Pride: Rebuilding a People.