The Jews and the Boggart
“‘So, the first question we must ask ourselves is, what is a Boggart?’
Hermione put up her hand. ‘It’s a shape-shifter,’ she said. ‘It can take the shape of whatever it thinks will frighten us most.’
‘Couldn’t have put it better myself,’ said Professor Lupin, and Hermione glowed. ‘So the Boggart sitting in the darkness within has not yet assumed a form. He does not yet know what will frighten the person on the other side of the door. Nobody knows what a Boggart looks like when he is alone, but when I let him out, he will immediately become whatever each of us most fears.”
This excerpt from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, by J.K. Rowling, perfectly sums up a role that Jews play to the non-Jewish world:
Jews take the form of whatever frightens them most.
This theory is crucial when considering defining features of anti-Jewish hate: 1) anti-Jewish racism shapeshifts 2) it often contains contradictory elements and 3) it always fits the Zeitgeist.
This ability to fit its specific context demonstrates the malleability of Jew-hatred. But do not be mistaken in thinking that the root of anti-Jewish racism differs with each expression. It does not, and as one of my students said, ‘it’s the same soup different bowl’. Like the Boggart, it retains its dark and dangerous core while taking the shape of whatever frightens the viewer most.
Importantly, these expressions have absolutely nothing to do with real Jews. It is not the case, as Ken Roth, the Executive Director of the Human Rights Watch, wrote in a 2014 tweet, that Israel (in this case, the collective Jew) caused anti-Jewish racism to spread in Germany. The “scary Jew” is a fantasy that haunts the non-Jewish world, and that terrifying figure is absolutely divorced from the actions and lives of real Jewish people. It is simply a fantastical imposition of fear. However, this fantasy is then imposed on real Jews and it attempts to shape our destiny and define our identity.
The Jews as the Boggart is exemplified by the modern Leftist idea that Jews are white. First of all, this notion erases the countless Jews in our community (including many Ashkenazim) who do not have light skin. Secondly, just as other forms of Jew-hatred have nothing to do with real Jews, so too does this have nothing to do with the actual appearance of real Jews. Clearly, though, there are Jews who are light-skinned and therefore do benefit from the advantage of being perceived a white. I understand why some people would end the conversation there, surely if you look white then you are white?
However, there is another layer to this conversation, which is rooted in the concept of whiteness and what it means in the 21st century. In the 21st century (particularly on the Left of the political spectrum) whiteness means power. It means oppression, and it means privilege.
Well, throughout history (and the present day) through the Economic and Blood Libel and Conspiracy Fantasy, Jews have been framed as supremely powerful, privileged, oppressive, untrustworthy, immoral and dangerous. This idea is expressed in the infamous anti-Jewish document, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion which includes the forged quote from a Jewish elder, ‘the goyim are a flock of sheep and we are their wolves’.
So, in the 21st century when the concept of “whiteness” is a synonym for historic access to power, it follows historical patterns that Jews are now deemed white. But, not only are Jews white, but we are the most white. From the perspectives of those on the left, Jews are the most oppressive and the most dangerous. It is our raison d’etre to oppress groups perceived to be vulnerable, i.e. people in low socio-economic communities, minorities and in particular Brown and Black people. However, it is simply false to impose this concept on the historically and currently persecuted Jewish People.
This specific manifestation of the Boggart became particularly evident yesterday when the HRW released its much-derided report labelling Israel an apartheid state. Along with the report, they released images that demonstrated the perceived differences in rights that American Jews possess versus Palestinians born in Palestinian Territory. Twitter users were quick to point out how the Jews were all depicted the same way — blonde with blue eyes and fair skin — while the Palestinians were also all depicted monolithically, with darker skin and darker hair and eyes. The statement is clear: Jews are white and are therefore oppressors (who are not indigenous to the Land of Israel). This depiction had nothing to do with real Jews (nor real Palestinians). As genetic cousins, we look similar and in some cases are indistinguishable from one another, but still, the statement was clear.
If we now shift our attention to the right of the political spectrum, we have to ask, what do they fear most? People on the right (in particular the far-right) fear non-whiteness. They fear minorities coming in to “white societies” and destroying the white race. And how are Jews framed on the right? Well, of course, Jews are framed as non-white.
This is evident in the theory that Jews are responsible for race-mixing, which sees Jews control other non-white minorities in an attempt to destroy the white race. In 2018, Robert Gregory Bowers committed the worst mass murder of Jews on American soil in history. One of the primary reasons the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh was targeted was because the Synagogue had participated in a Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society National Refugee Shabbat programme. Bowers was of the opinion that Jews were enabling and promoting the invasion of America by non-whites.
Not only can we see a difference in how Jews are perceived across the political spectrum, but we can also see a difference across time. Historically, Jews in America were not perceived to be white. Propaganda released in the decades prior to the Immigration Act of 1924 which specifically targeted Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe (alongside Asian and Southern-European people) shows dark-skinned foreigners coming into America to pollute it. Why? Because at that time this is what white America feared most. However, as times, culture and fears shifted, so did the roles Jewish People were assigned.
So, Jews continue to be the Boggart:
Jews are capitalist, Jews are communist. Jews are rich, Jews are poor. Jews trained the police that murdered George Floyd, Jews funded the Black Lives Matter protests. Jews are European and Jews are foreigners in Europe. The list goes on.
If we look at anti-Jewish racism as a true-crime documentary, each individual example of Jew-hate is evidence. But what we are often missing is the motive. Understanding that Jews play this specific role in the non-Jewish world helps us understand the motives for millennia of Jew-hate.
Ultimately, the Jew as the Boggart is part of a larger concept which I discuss in my book, Jewish Pride: Rebuilding a People. My work builds off the supremely important work of David Nirenberg in Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition. The non-Jewish world has constructed its identity in opposition to their ideas of Jews.
This theory — including the Jew as the Boggart — helps us understand why the oldest hatred still plays such a significant role in our all of our lives. It was a foundational part of the non-Jewish world and it is more deeply embedded than we can ever imagine. The Jewish role as the Boggart specifically helps us understand how it is able to shapeshift depending on when and where it is being expressed.
Understanding all parts of Jewish experiences is vital. Dissecting the evidence in the crimes against the Jews is crucial. Each piece of evidence must be examined, analysed and understood on its own terms, but what kind of detectives would we be, if we weren’t constantly searching for the reason, the motive, the ‘why?’.
Every example of Jew-hatred whether it was the Spanish Inquisition, the Iraqi Farhud or the countless Pogroms in the Russian Empire are all part of the same story. They are all rooted in the same ideas. What Jews experience today doesn't exist in isolation. It is connected to the previous pages in the story of anti-Jewish racism, and if we hope to raise our children in a world less governed by this ancient hatred, then we have to start combating it.
In Harry Potter, Professor Lupin tells his students that you finish off a Boggart with a spell, ‘Riddikulus’ and most powerful of all, laughter. Now, in our case, laughter won’t do it. But what might help is knowledge. As I always tell my students, knowledge is power.
Once we recognise the Jewish Boggart for the fantasy it really is, maybe we can help the non-Jewish world acknowledge and combat their irrational fear of the Jew, understand the reality of Jewish history, and stop associating the Jewish people with whatever happens to be the greatest villain of the day.