Antisemitism is racist – no ifs no buts

Once again, antisemitism is in the news.  A celebrity has been sounding off on his twitter account, threatening to take on the whole Jewish community, comparing Jews to the KKK, encouraging the usual tropes about Jews controlling the world’s money.

If we thought that antisemitism had gone away with the change of Labour Party leadership, then it hasn’t. There is a reason for that. This ugly form of racism isn’t constrained to one end of the political spectrum. I have heard it expressed by people affiliating to a variety of political parties on the left and the right as well as by those with no political affiliation.

Yet, antisemitism doesn’t seem to get the same public attention that other major social justice issues do.  Where are the statements from local church leaders? Where are the symbolic changes to facebook and twitter profiles? Where are the viral hashtags.

I think there are a few reasons for this.

The first is that there is a widely circulated belief that it isn’t racism to be against Jews exactly because of the Jewish money tropes. That Jews have been scattered around the world, despised, and persecuted doesn’t matter because they have made a success of it.  The hashtag #JewishPrivillege is apparently considered acceptable by twitter.[1] We should be able to see through this. That some Jewish people have been successful does not mean that all are.  Just as we can recognise the folly of pointing to examples of successful black businesswomen or politicians to claim that systemic racism isn’t there, so too we should be able to see the flaws in this approach.  Furthermore, even if every single Jew has overcome the odds, that does not mean that the odds weren’t there.

Israel is the second issue. People do no know how to distinguish disagreement with the actions of the state from attacks on a people group.  We should be able to make that distinction. But even our criticism has to be informed by all of the facts too. 

Thirdly, we see it as a Nazi problem. This means that we associate antisemitism with the holocaust. We minimise what we do because relative to that horror it does not seem so significant.  The problem with this is that it is both ignorant of our own history,  take a trip to Clifford’s Tower in York to see the affects of the pogroms against the Jews.  Church leaders, check out your church history and the way that a particular theological view combined with fear and prejudice led to a culture of antisemitism which provided the environment for the holocaust to become acceptable.

Fourthly (I hope this is not true but fear it may be), it seems to me that we constantly make calculations before speaking out. Politicians look at how many people are affected by an issue to determine how many votes are in it. I hope we would never be so crude as to make calculations about potential converts and church members. However, the point is this, the Jewish community in the UK is only about 290,000 and that may leave us thinking that the issue isn’t a big one for us.  This misses the point that anti-racism should not be based on a calculation of numbers, in fact, the very point is that Jews are a minority in our country so that how we treat them matters.

Fifthly, there is an overlap between religion and ethnicity. This means that we may make the mistake of seeing Jewishness as a choice. It is important to remember that it is possible to be Jewish without practicing the religion. It is possible to be ethnically Jewish whilst converting to Christianity. Anti-Semites like all racists do not check up on your level of religious observance before spraying swastikas on your wall or putting a brick through your window.

It was right and good that church leaders spoke up against the racism experienced by black people in recent weeks and months. I have written here on faithroots that I support use of the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter and of people “taking the knee.” However, we cannot speak up on one issue of social justice and ignore others.  Today, I am asking my brothers and sisters to speak up against antisemitism. I am asking church leaders to stand up and be counted on this.

Anti-semitism is racism – no ifs, no buts.

[1] On a side note, consider here the danger of careless language. Several people have warned that it is unhelpful to talk in terms of “white privilege”. Whilst we want to highlight the alignment between privilege and prejudice in racism, the term may distract from  the way that many white people do not experience such privilege. The other side of things is that we have a clear example with the term “Jewish privilege” of how such slogans can morph into something even more poisonous.

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