The obfuscation of anti-Semitism
Two recent, high profile events serve as examples of how the public consciousness has misunderstood the concept of anti-Semitism.
U.S. Jewry was uniformly relieved last month when law enforcement apprehended a suspect in the spate of bomb threats phoned in to Jewish community centers and institutions since January. The community reacted with far less concord to the surprising news that the suspect was a 19-year-old Jewish American living in Israel.
Among local Jewish organizations, perspectives varied significantly. The chief executive of Combined Jewish Philanthropies, the Boston area Jewish federation, volunteered that the bomb threats were not anti- Semitic in nature; what he meant, we suspect, is that the young man’s actions were actually the result of a physical or mental illness (he reportedly has both).
The head of an area JCC that had received a bomb threat declined to characterize it in any way. Perhaps he did not want to define it as anti- Semitism but did not to rule it out either, in which case he was smart to say absolutely nothing; or perhaps he was not sure what to call it.
The Anti-Defamation League New England apparently did not make any public statements regarding the suspects’ apprehension, nor did it respond to interview requests from this newspaper. In a strongly worded and in our view agitated statement, the ADL’s national office declared the bomb threats were definitely acts of anti-Semitism, and merited continued vigilance.
We find the ADL’s fear-mongering in service to fundraising distasteful, and in this case, incorrect. We agree with the head of CJP that the bomb threats were not, in fact, acts of anti-Semitism.
The two essential elements of anti-Semitism are that Jews, whether individually or collectively, are targeted because they are Jews; and that there is intent on the part of the perpetrator to hurt or defame Jews. The bomb threats may have satisfied the former requirement, but not the latter.
Similarly, presidential press secretary Sean Spicer’s claim at a press conference last week that Hitler did not use chemical weapons “on his own people” or in Nazi “Holocaust centers” was not anti-Semitic. He may have been referring, albeit inaccurately, to historical events that targeted Jews; but his intention was neither to hurt nor defame Jews (nor to offend Jews, although he did manage to do that).
Without excusing him, we maintain Spicer’s invoking of Hitler and the Holocaust is one example of a phenomenon that contributes greatly to the muddying of the concept of anti-Semitism. What the Nazis did, with their actions, words and symbols, is create a vocabulary for expressing hatred toward Jews.
Since the Holocaust, though, haters of all stripes have used that language to revile their perceived antagonists, whether they were Jewish or not.
The most common – and commonly misused – expression of hatred of Jews is the swastika. According to the public interest journalism nonprofit ProPublica, which has been compiling a database of expressions of hatred, swastikas are often aimed at non-Jews, including gays, lesbians and African Americans. Christian churches ministering to gays and lesbians or Latinos have also been tagged with swastikas. In short, not every swastika is an act of anti-Semitism.
It is also worth noting that anti-Semitism does not motivate every act of hatred toward people who just happen to be Jewish. Anger, resentment, jealousy and foolhardiness can motivate attacks on people, and their Jewishness is irrelevant. To be considered anti-Semitic, an act must be against someone simply because he or she is Jewish.
We suggest carefully reviewing a situation – especially including why a suspected anti-Semitic action was taken – before making a definitive declaration. The Jewish people have enough real enemies in the world; we do not need any false ones.