Racism and anti-Semitism vs. personal animus and prejudice

There is a national conversation about racism – what it is, is it different from prejudice, or personal animus against a group. The whole “some of my best friends” trope is based on the rejection of the accusation of personal animus, when the problem might not be that at all. You might – well, not be blind to color or gender or gender expression, because nobody is – but, all in all, a pretty good person and get along perfectly well with all kinds of people; but you might defend systems and policies that oppress people differentially by color, gender, gender expression, ethnicity, language, or other criteria. And that might be painful to confront, because while you may be a good person, and good to others, you might be benefiting from and supporting a system that is not.

We could use a similar approach to anti-Semitism. You may have many good, Jewish friends. They might agree with you on a range of opinions, from which TV you like to which politicians you support. But, as Rep Omar has discovered, if you play into anti-Semitic tropes – of which there are quite a few – you may be supporting an anti-Semitic mindset even if you are not the least bit anti-Semitic yourself.

Here’s one: Jews are particularly good with, or care about, money. Or Jews’ loyalty is suspect – they are “rootless cosmopolitans,” or “globalists,” or “care more about Israel than…” something. It might not be a blood libel (killing Christian children and using their blood in sacraments, for instance), and it might not be casually insulting or stereotyping, like Jewish women are (somehow) both frigid and licentious.

How do we distinguish a legitimate criticism from anti-Semitism? Take a recent example: of all the countries that lobby the US government for favorable treatment, if you single out Israel, that’s anti-Semitism. South Korea, for instance, spends more on lobbying Congress than Israel does. There may be good arguments for banning all foreign government lobbying. It might be tricky, given that lobbying is political speech, but it would be an interesting conversation.

Saying that Israel should be eliminated is anti-Semitic, unless you say all states formed under certain conditions, e.g., by colonizing countries, should be rethought. Should Saudi Arabia return to being Arabia? What about a nice country, like Canada, that is a settler colony? That would be an interesting conversation. But when it is only about Israel, that is anti-Semitic.

But here’s an important point. Just as with racism, supporting an anti-Semitic argument does not mean you hate Jews (necessarily). It might just mean you have absorbed biases and opinions, and they feel right, even though your friends and family and colleagues might be Jewish and you might really like them.

Just as we are asking people to examine their privilege and examine how they might be supporting systems and policies that oppress the poor or women or brown people or other “others,” we should ask people to check why they hold onto certain opinions – is it a general opinion that covers all people, or are they focusing in on Jews because… Well, because they’ve never given much thought to how their position might apply to many other people and nations.

PS: Interesting how stereotypes are deployed in a favorable way, too. Jews may not like to be portrayed as stingy, but they don’t mind being thought of as good at business. They may not like being portrayed as physically weak, but they seem to enjoy the image of not being able to fix things. So it does get even more complicated.

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