How do you know if you’re an anti-Semite?

I have been seeing many posts on Reddit, indignant angry posts, that if you criticize Israel, people say you’re an anti-Semite! I responded in my (hopefully annoying) measured, calm tone that while I’m sure people do say that, it’s not true. You can certainly criticize Israel from many directions — you can criticize the existence of the settlements, the behavior of the settlers, the support of the IDF for the settler’s vicious anti-Palestinian actions. You can criticize Israel’s support for its Haredi community, subsidized housing, exemption from national service (is that still true?). You can criticize the ultra-Orthodox community’s behavior toward woman praying at the Western Wall.

I think all of that, and more, is fair game and doesn’t make you an anti-Semite.

Of course, you might make those criticisms and also be an anti-Semite.

How can you know?

I will take the example of your (fictional) Uncle Wayne at Thanksgiving. Uncle Wayne watches Fox News and constantly harps on Black-on-Black violence in Chicago. You talk to your cousins about him and agree, the guy is just an out-and-out bigot. Maybe you get a little high out back, and at the dinner table, unwisely (in my opinion) tell him he’s a racist. Uncle Wayne is shocked, insulted and appalled! He is just telling the truth! He trots out some web site and, sure enough, the statistics are as he reports them.

So, is Uncle Wayne a racist? Or is he “just” pointing out the truth? You won’t find out by asking him, because people usually don’t feel they are racist, bigoted, or anti-Semitic (and wouldn’t admit it if they did!). They feel that they are “just” noticing what “those” people are doing, while you are blinding yourself to the truth!

Simple fact about human nature, by and large: an impatient person doesn’t feel impatient, they feel other people are too slow. Cranky people don’t feel cranky, they feel like everyone else is a pain in the ass and they are “just” responding appropriately. Depressed people often don’t feel that they have an illness called Depression, they feel that the world is terrible and nobody cares about them. Anxious people… you get the point. It takes careful, painful introspection to learn that the problem (or part of it) is inside, not the rest of the world. And there is rarely enough incentive to take the trouble of going into therapy. And of course it’s expensive. And even in therapy, one can resist. A complicating factor is that sometimes the problem is other people. Terrible disappointments do happen to depressed people, people do pay with a check at the grocery and an impatient person might be behind them. It can be tricky to tease apart.

So how do we decide if our fictional Uncle Wayne is a racist? We look at his other opinions, the way he lives his life, who his friends and colleagues are. What else bothers him? We look at context. Is he appalled by violence everywhere or does it only bother him when it’s committed by Black people? Does he make excuses for it in other contexts? Are some of his actual best friends actually Black?

Side note — let’s say you decide he’s an actual racist. Ask yourself why would he be that way? There could well be an element of fitting in, of peer group pressure. The peer group could be that artificial group of “friends” we believe we know through TV (Fox News, in this case), and social media. Maybe Wayne is trying to fit in with the cool kids. Might seem nuts (they’re not really cool), but people do strange things to fit in.

We’re talking about bias. Some forms of bias are commendable, such as the bias we feel toward our family. When our teenage kid Jonah gets a C, maybe we argue with the teacher. We might look for reasons that it’s unfair. Maybe that teacher doesn’t like Jonah because he’s a little rambunctious. When the neighbor’s kid Melvin gets a C, my god that kid’s just a lazy good-for-nothing who spends all night playing that dumb video game. Lucky to get a C! Speaking for myself, I want my family to get somewhat more than they deserve, while I want other people to get exactly what they deserve. Fair? Of course not. Understandable? I think so. I try to keep in mind that I need to be objective about what they actually deserve. In other words, I try not to delude myself about how smart, kind, or deserving they are. I try to be objective, and I acknowledge that I’m being unfair in wanting them to receive rewards greater than those qualities might warrant.

I want the same for myself! I’m no genius, I’m a little wanting in the “grit” department, I’m not all that hard-working, but I want high pay for my work. I want a little more than I strictly deserve. To be perfectly honest, I have received quite a bit more than I deserve. I’m hoping that continues!

So, bias: everyone has it. The trick is not to expect to be completely objective and unbiased, that’s impossible. The trick is to be aware of one’s biases and try not to be blinded by them. Be aware of them and try to correct, like if your car pulls to the left a little, you have to steer to the right a little to keep going straight.

So let’s go to Israel and Gaza. Can you criticize Israel and not be an anti-Semite? Sure, but of course you might still be an anti-Semite. How do you know? What else in the world bothers you? If you’re picketing on behalf of Palestinians, are you also picketing on behalf of, say, Ukrainians or Albanians or Indian Muslims. Are you horrified that Palestinians in the West Bank don’t get to vote in Israeli elections despite Israel having control over many aspects of their life, but it doesn’t bother you that Saudis, Emiratis, and Qataris don’t get to vote on anything at all, despite their government controlling every aspect of their civil and religious lives?

If what bothers you is lack of democracy anywhere in the world, good for you. If it only bothers you when the lack of democracy is under Israeli control, well, you might be an anti-Semite.