Race, gender, sexuality — that’s what we generally think of when we talk about discrimination in the United States. Occasionally some extreme right wing conservatives, encouraged by the Fox News machine, will cry religions discrimination against Christianity, and the fine line between separation of Church and State will be blurred. In particular for the United States, the country was founded on a basis of religious freedom. Above anything else, many of the founding fathers came in search of freedom of religion and from religion. So how can a country founded on religious freedom so thoroughly ignore religious discrimination, particularly antisemitism?
When most people think of Jews, they probably picture an Ashkenazi Jew, or the Jewish tribes who settled throughout Eastern and Central Europe. These are not the only Jewish ethnic groups, nor were Ashkenazi Jews always the majority ethnicity. However, today about 80% of the Jewish world is Ashkenazi. In other words, an overwhelming majority of the Jewish population has white skin.
Clearly this shouldn’t matter. The color of your skin should not erase other forms of persecution. But that’s not the reality we live in. There are a lot of people who seem to think that Jewish persecution and antisemitism shouldn’t matter because Jews can take advantage of white privilege. Because we can pass in white society, and because many Jews are socioeconomically well off, Jews cannot be on the same playing field as other ethnic minorities who are both oppressed and struggling to remain above the poverty line.
There are two things wrong with this mindset: First, it entirely erases the experience of non-white Jews, erasing their Jewish identity completely. And second, it ignores the persecution that white-skinned Jews do experience, as though they should ignore any discrimination because they are white.
I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t aware that being able to benefit from white privilege automatically makes you immune to any and all forms of discrimination. But this isn’t the Oppression Olympics; we’re not competing to determine which group has it worse off. I think we can all agree that any form of discrimination is a bad thing. So having established that, I don’t want to hear that my discrimination “doesn’t count” because my skin is white, or that I’m not as bad off as other out groups may be. That way of thinking is how the voices of Jewish people have been successfully silenced for thousands of years.
In order to understand the origins of antisemitism, you need to understand the origins of Judaism itself. Judaism developed out of twelve Hebrew Tribes — who were believed to be the sons of Jacob — uniting under belief in a singular God. The Hebrews wandered for thousands of years in the desert, probably due to famine, before settling in the Levant (an area of the Middle East that includes all of Israel as well as Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and parts of other nearby nations) and creating two Hebrew monarchs in this region: Israel and Judah. The original kingdom consisted mostly in today’s Israel state, but not entirely. (It’s also important to note that the Hebrews were not necessarily the only tribes in the Middle East at the time.) Since the establishment of the first Kingdom, Jews have faced invasion and exile from their kingdom, forcing them to be more nomadic and attempt to settle in other parts of the world, which isn’t necessarily different than the way many other nations began.
Here’s a quick summary of the way things usually developed: Invading nation comes into the land; invading nation exiles Hebrew tribes; Hebrew tribes wander for a while; Hebrews who attempt to settle somewhere else face persecution; other Hebrews attempt to return to the Israeli Kingdom. Repeat for a few thousand years. Of course, this is an incredible oversimplification of the Jewish presence in both ancient Israel and the world at large, but the idea to take away from this story is that no one liked Jews, wherever they settled.
The common belief today is that antisemitism is a new concept that only surfaced preceding World War II, but that’s inaccurate. Hatred of Jews is one of the oldest forms of discrimination. Throughout the centuries, antisemitism has surfaced in many forms: From the pogroms (violent attacks against Jews) of Europe dating as far back as Alexander the Great (and you could probably go further back), to the Assyrian invasion of the first Kingdom of Israel which forced Hebrew tribes out of the Levant, to the Crusades and the Roman invasion of the Levant, to King Edward I’s Edict of Expulsion in 1290, to the Spanish Inquisition and subsequent expulsion. And these are only a few quick examples; this list of people who hated Jews throughout the history of the world seems endless.
In summation, hatred of Jews isn’t a new concept, but rather one that has been around longer than a formally written history has existed. And the story is always the same: Laws preventing movement of Jews within the rest of society, violent hatred of Jews, expulsion of Jews from the land they are living in, and some sort of rebellion that sometimes results in Jewish victory, but almost always holds a lot of bloodshed. The Holocaust, for example, was a result of hundreds of years of built-up hatred against Jews living in Europe. The antisemitism was always there; we see it surface in literature and historical texts. A well-known example is Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. Shakespeare probably never met a Jew, as few were living in Great Britain at the time. However, he wrote his play off of popular Jewish stereotypes, such as the idea of the greedy Jewish banker.
The rise of the Renaissance in Europe brought on an extreme wave of antisemitism. In fact, some of the most widespread and extreme attacks against Jews, both pre- and post-Holocaust, have occurred in Europe. Many of the early prejudices that manifested in early Europe are still seen today, like the stereotype of the greedy, money-obsessed Jew who controls all the world’s finances. That particular sentiment dates back to roughly the Middle Ages, where laws prevented Jews in Europe from holding jobs. One of the few jobs Jews were allowed to hold were those involving money, such as lending and tax collecting, which were seen as lower than ordinary jobs. It also allowed for the spread of antisemetic sentiments; it wasn’t the government collecting hard-earned money for taxes, it was the Jews. From there, Jews began to be blamed for other things going wrong in Europe, such as the Bubonic Plague.
Perhaps what made the Holocaust so deadly as compared to pogroms in Europe before it is technology. Media made it possible for the Nazi party to spread its violent hatred and myths about Jews in a way that wasn’t possible during the Roman era. Hitler and the Nazi party weren’t really building on anything new: the antisemitism he evoked had been around for centuries. Media just made it possible to spread and grow upon the negative imagery of the Jew, radicalizing it quickly. This same technology made it possible to kill people en mass: Nazis could round up Jews by the hundreds, cart them off to death camps and kill them all at once, then dispose of the bodies. What’s more, violence towards Jews was made legal through the government. The sentiment became that it was being done for the greater good — to rid the world of the “evil Jews” before they took over.
This violent hatred didn’t just disappear once World War II ended. Particularly in Europe, antisemitism has been on the rise of late, fueled by anti-Israel sentiments. Paris, for example, has had a number of incidents in 2012. The week leading up to Christmas alone saw two attacks: The first incident involved a shul being set on fire and the second involved a Jewish man being assaulted and stabbed. This follows a year that saw a rise of antisemitism in the city. In March, for example, a terrorist shot and killed seven outside of a Jewish school, including three children and a rabbi.
We want to believe that antisemitism is over, but it’s pretty clear from that it isn’t. These are not isolated incidents either: It’s very common for Jewish cemeteries and synagogues to be defiled with Swastikas. In Greece, the Nazi party is on the rise. On November 27th, a politician in Hungary called for a governmental “List of Jews“ because, in the wake of the Israel/Gaza conflict, Jews are a potential “national security risk.” Swedish artist Carl Michael von Hausswolff made a painting using the ashes of Holocaust victims from the concentration camp Majdanek; the painting now hangs in the Lund gallery in Sweden.
In the Middle East, antisemetic sentiments are strong, particularly within governments. Jews are not allowed to enter many countries, such as Iran, if they have an Israeli stamp on their passport. (There is a small Jewish community present in Iran today, despite President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s repeated denial of the Holocaust and antisemetic comments towards Israel.) Saudi Arabia bans Jews from entering the country all together. In Jordan, Jews visiting the nation are encouraged not to dress or act Jewish in public if they want to avoid provoking attack.
America is not immune to antisemitism either, despite reports that antisemitism is on the decline. In November, a flyer was posted on the doors of dorm rooms at Harvard University advertising a Finals Club, stating that “Jews need not apply. Seriously, no fucking Jews. Coloreds ok.” On the same day, two Northeaster University students were reprimanded after they vandalized a menorah on the school’s campus.
This year in New Jersey there have been multiple incidents, including a series of defiled synagogues and Jewish-owned shops in North Jersey, and a home in Manalapan spray painted with swastikas and “kill the Jews” in September. In addition, White Supremacy groups and American Neo-Nazi parties still exist today, spreading the hate-filled message that Jews are out to take over the world. Due to the controversy of the Israel/Gaza conflict, antisemitism has morphed. Increased frustration with the Israeli government has brought all Jews of the world into the line of fire, as though we personally are responsible for the actions of a single nation’s government.
And the above incidents, most of which occurred in the last couple of months, are just a few of what feels like an endless list. I ask you: Does this sound like a world where antisemitism no longer exists?
Today, because Jews and the Jewish experience vary from person to person, antisemitism can take many different forms. A black Jew has a very different experience than a white Jew. Many African American Jews are not even seen as Jewish, successfully erasing their voices as well. Predominantly black congregations have been trying to reach out to Jewish community, but have faced some resistance. Not that this stops them, nor does it keep converts away. Chicago synagogue Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, lead by Rabbi Capers C. Funnye Jr, has been making every effort to expand to the community at large. One of his pupils, Tamar Manasseh, will be one of the first African American women to become a rabbi when she completes her studies.
“People ask me, ‘As if you aren’t already in a bad enough situation being black, why would you want to be Jewish?’ I can’t change being Jewish just the same way I can’t change being black.”
The problem is that we don’t like to think of oppression of Jewish people to be a huge problem because we like to think of Jews as doing economically well compared to other ethnic minorities in the United States. From this idea emerges the common stereotype of the rich, greedy Jew. From there, the stereotype grows and the fear of Jew spreads. Jews are disloyal and only out for themselves. Jews control the media, so Jews are to blame for everything that’s wrong with society. In fact, they are responsible for the destruction of society, because they control the government and all businesses! Jews are an inferior race. Jews are responsible for disease, like the Black Plague. Jews are vulgar and will rape your children. All Jews have horns on their head because they are the Devil. Jews are responsible for 9/11. Jews only create trouble wherever they go, and Hitler may have had the right idea. (That was an anonymous message I actually received.) Actually, the Holocaust didn’t really happen; Jews are just exaggerating to gain world sympathy. The world would be better off if Jews didn’t exist. Jews are evil — they killed Jesus!
Are you starting to see where the problem is? These stereotypes separate Jews from the rest of society. Jews effectively become The Other. We are not necessarily perceived as white (or black or brown or whatever skin color we are): we are Jews. Evil. Subhuman. And it grows violent quickly. Think about it: if you believe these things and were working alongside a Jewish person, would you trust them? Would you feel justified in anything negative said or done against a Jewish person?
Until antisemitism stops existing completely, it is always something that we should be concerned about. The history of the Jewish people has shown us how quickly simple dislike can turn violent.
Header image courtesy of AlysaMerle