November 1, 2023
With the recent dramatic rise in Anti-Semitic incidents, according to the ADL, Jews around the world are uncertain as to whom they should identify their political affiliation or see as their allies. Is their political home now with the conservatives, the traditional home of religious Jews, or with Liberals, the traditional home of more secular Jews? With whom do they have the greatest affinity? Is it with the adherents of the “Judeo-Christian” traditions or evangelical Christians associating the state of Israel with Biblical prophecy, or is it with religious pluralists or secularists? And who do Jews see as their greatest detractors? Is it the far left, mobilizing on College campuses against Israel, or the far right, the traditional domain of fascists and nationalists?
Against this background, we witness a shift in the lens of anti-racism, prevalent in liberal America and particularly in schools and Colleges. It is one influenced by three frames that put Jews at a seeming disadvantage in combatting hate and discrimination. The first frame is that racism is tightly correlated with skin color, with the traditional ethnic groups being front and center: Blacks, Indigenous Peoples, Latinos, and Asian Americans. In its current context, we see a narrative tightly wound with the slave history of African Americans, the colonization of indigenous peoples of America, and the exploitation of industrial labor. This nexus of racism to color prevails here in the U.S. even though racism in its many forms was practiced against poor Italians, Irish, and others with a light or white skin tone for decades before the mid-20th century. Today, 15 percent of American Jews under 30, our students, identify as Jews of color. And then there is the unnatural construct for South Asians, in particular, for whom systems of caste prevail among people of the same skin tone. The second frame is one focused on who holds power today, and whether it is the result of hidden structural advantage, undeserved privilege, or greed and colonization in the form of unfair appropriation. Standing tall as the oppressor in modern anti-racist constructs is the white race, with their accomplices in crime being those who have gained conditional acceptance as whites. The best test of the power imbalance of oppressors is which group holds inequitable outcomes; as Ibram X. Kendi has postulated, racial inequity is evidence of racism and should be unconstitutional. The final frame is one of intersectionality, where combatting one form of prejudice should typically enjoin other forms of oppression, typically offering a form of supportive allyship. In all three frames, Jews seem to be at a disadvantage: the majority lack the skin color of typical oppressed minorities, their outcomes seem superior (inequitable) to many (e.g., 58% of U.S. Jewish adults have four-year college degrees compared to an average of 31% among U.S. adults overall), and they now seem to lack allies — oppressed or not — among the younger generation.
Yet based on 2019 FBI data and the 2019 population estimates, the American Enterprise Institute found that Jews were the minority most targeted by hate crimes in terms of relative numbers. In May 2023, the Biden administration introduced a national strategy to counter antisemitism. The strategy includes over 100 new actions and over 100 calls to action to combat antisemitism, including new actions to counter antisemitism on college campuses and online. And all of this was before the recent surge in antisemitic incidents since October 7. I suggest that we as educators need to look at the following areas in ensuring that the historically persecuted community now known as Jews or Semites do not suffer the same discrimination as other “races”.
- Are the ideologies around race helping or hurting combating anti-semitism?
The predicament that Jews in America find themselves in now requires a deep analysis of the framing of recent views on anti-racism offered by leading African-American theorists, Kimberlé Crenshaw and Ibram X. Kendi, promoters of intersectionality and critical race theory. These theories have been embraced widely in schools, public and private. At the very least, recent events have raised important questions about these ideologies. Are they under-theorized for their lack of applicability to anti-semitism? If intersectionality enjoins one group of the oppressed to take another group into account, how has this worked for Jews? Are the recent allies of Jews indulging in “whataboutism” and how is this valid? Is there a difference between how Jews are identified and treated? Is identity politics increasing anti-semitism? How can Jews in the U.S., a tiny portion of the population, not be considered as much of a minority as others, say Muslims, just because some of their outcomes might be better? These are not questions to be summarily dismissed as the domain of academics, they are exactly the kind of questions that DEI teams and inclusion strategists must wrestle with if they are to be taken seriously; this too when the world of DEI is at an existential crossroads and an apparent research dead-end with the dimming of its stars like Ibram X. Kendi and the failure of DEI bureaucracies on campuses to include Jewish students within their ambit.
- Is our curriculum as it relates to Jewish history specific enough to provide a real context for anti-semitism, as CRT has reached for greater context on anti-Black racism?
What do I mean by specific? It fairly captures the full history and evolution of hatred towards the Jews over time and provides a sense of the lived experience of Jews not only today but at the time of great waves of anti-semitism. My sense is it does not, despite the existence of electives provided by our schools on the Holocaust and more. You may have heard of the book People Love Dead Jews by Jewish professor and novelist Dara Horn, profiled this April by the Atlantic, and making the case that Holocaust education may be making anti-semitism worse. She argues that most Holocaust education is more about the Nazis and making students feel good about how they could never be involved in something so horrendous. As upstanders, not bystanders. Something that does not translate into a deep empathetic understanding of the painful history of Jews and is thereby likely to melt away in times of trade-offs and conflict.
Discussions on race are all too often reductive, and truly lack the historical interlacing and semantic manipulations of human history, linguistics, and politics. For example, let’s look at the debate on whether the word anti-semitic should be hyphenated or not: this would never rise to the kind of topic that students should cover but this kind of analysis gets to the root of how racism foments. The word Semite, until the last century, was used to describe people of common Semitic languages, and that included Jews and Arabs. The initial use of the term was secular, not religious in context, and was not hyphenated by Marr, the German political activist in the early 19th century who coined the term; for him, he was antisemitic (no hyphen) against all the people of that language group: Jews, Arabs and Syrians from the broader Levant. By separating the word anti-semitism with a hyphen, we imagine that there is a “racial” group called Semites as carriers of any range of theological, economic, or political fears that racists are willing to conjure up. It was with the Nazis that the “biological” Semite then emerged as an association with Jews only, in contrast with another language group, Aryans, that were morphed into a white Northern European master “race”.
Around the same time, the concept of the Judeo-Christian tradition emerged in the 1930’s, a notion with significant divisive impacts. Before that, there was less distinction between semites of Jewish and Muslim faiths and their conjoined histories. The notion that there was not an Islamic contribution to math, science, architecture, and the humanities of the Western tradition is simply ridiculous, but today it is thought that there is a Judeo-Christian Western tradition, rather than a Judeo-Islamic-Christian tradition. As the Arab-Israeli conflict from the 1940s onwards has led to political issues, the term Semite has come to mean Jewish: Muslims and Jews have been seen to be eternal enemies then, even though after their expulsion by the Spanish Inquisition, Jews lived under the Ottoman Muslim empire for centuries with, depending on the time and place, some degree of safety and autonomy. Today if you are anti-Jewish, you are assumed to be pro-Muslim and that is because of the current Israel-Palestine conflict, a political conflict, with origins in the first half of the 20th century with the British Palestine Mandate. There has been criticism of the Western canon for not encompassing the valid histories of people of color, but what of its failure to give true weight to conjoined Jewish and Islamic contributions?
So how are we teaching the history of the Jewish people, their integration in societies they were absorbed into and lived in peacefully, their perceived otherness as corrosive elements in unified nationalities, and more? Just as narratives of Western canons have misshaped Jewish and Arab history, is it fair to ask whether the canons and narratives of the history of “people of color” in the U.S. may not do justice to Jewish history? The recent controversy of the California Ethnic Studies Curriculum, with its failure initially to include anti-semitism as a form of bigotry and racism, and asking students to write how Jews and the Irish acquired whiteness and privilege, represent great examples of this potential danger and inadequacy.
- Does the concept of intersectionality and allyship offer any appeal to Jews?
Under the ideological lens that critical race theory and intersectionality have provided, it seems that the Jews are the oddball group unable to secure allyship despite the fact they represent the smallest of minorities. Their assumed “whiteness” or their apparent lack of economic oppression (about 20% of American Jews live in poverty) has left them hanging between ideological racist buckets. How is it that there is a “Greater Middle Eastern” affinity group, a much larger population globally, and yet no Jewish or Semite affinity group at the People of Color Conference? Should Jews just settle to be in the White European Awareness & Accountability Group and examine their privilege and their superior outcomes? Who are their allies against anti-semitism? And what if none of their allies are victims but the perceived oppressors in the form of Christian white conservatives? Does that mean they are oppressors, too, or that anti-semitism is fiction? Or that it is intersectionality that is flawed, and just a conveniently packaged academic construct, with only limited theoretical value?
Today the fear rising is that anti-semitism will become a political construct associated with opposition to a recent political conflict rather than the much more complex phenomenon that intertwines racial, religious, economic, and nationalistic prejudice. Racism towards Jews throughout history has taken many different guises. Often the stereotypes about Jews as some sort of threat have been linked with some political goal. This was very much the case during World War I, the Holocaust, the Inquisition, the Crusades, the Bubonic plague, and even Roman times. In all those cases, some form of subverted ideology or political motive has been the driver.
So what is the antidote? Critical thinking, not packaged ideology, is the antidote for racism. As it is for timeless education. As Carl Jung, the famous analytical psychologist said “Thinking is difficult, that’s why most people judge”. For critical thinking to be practiced, our students must be unafraid of speaking out, they must not self-censor their thoughts, and their teachers must see that reflex of critical inquiry as the core of their pedagogy. Our schools need to be places of true neutrality, not ideological breeding grounds. Our Boards and administrations should not be in the business of releasing statements of support or condemnation. Our curriculum must be more inclusive. Let’s be sure our Jewish students are feeling as safe as our black and other students of color—or perhaps, just all students, irrespective of color. Because childhood is precious and thereby colorful.
You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Sanje Ratnavale for Intrepid Ed News.