Fred Maroun
Fred Maroun

Be an ally of Jews against antisemitism, and here is how

Star of David in the Mosaic wall at the entrance to the synagogue in Acre (Akko), a small port city north of Haifa in Israel (credit: Miri Roznshin / Wikimedia Commons).

For non-Jews like me, standing with Jews against antisemitism is a moral imperative.

Antisemitism is as old as Judaism, and eradicating it is not likely anytime soon, but we can fight it and hopefully reduce it. Dara Horn, the author of the book “People Love Dead Jews”, said in an interview with Yair Rosenberg of The Atlantic, “I don’t think that Jews can solve the problem of anti-Semitism. I don’t think it’s our problem to solve.” I agree with her. It is non-Jews who engage in antisemitism therefore it is for us to stop doing it, just as it is for men to fight the rape culture, it is for white people to fight anti-Black racism, and it is for straight people to fight homophobia. We don’t expect women, Blacks, and gays to solve the problem of hatred against them. We shouldn’t expect it from Jews either. As Efraim Inbar wrote in the Jerusalem Post, “It is the moral duty of non-Jews to cure themselves of this scourge”.

Some non-Jews might feel that they don’t hate Jews and therefore that their job is done. Well, it isn’t. That’s just the start. While we may not consciously hate Jews, many of our actions promote antisemitism and some may even be antisemitic.

The Financial Times reported in January 2020 that, “50 per cent of Europeans consider anti-Semitism a problem in their country, including majorities in Sweden, France, Germany, the Netherlands, the UK, Italy, Belgium and Austria”. Instead of decreasing, antisemitism has increased since then, reaching a peak during the latest Israel-Hamas war. During that war, antisemitic violence rose significantly in Europe, Canada, and the US, and that continues even after the war.

The fact that antisemitic violence peaked as a result of Israel defending itself against terrorist attacks should wake up anyone who does not yet understand that hatred of Israel is driven by antisemitism. This means that being an ally of Jews against antisemitism involves more than denouncing traditional antisemitic tropes. Being an ally is not impossible however, and here I attempt to provide six practical ways to be an effective ally, but first let’s be clear on what antisemitism is.

What is antisemitism?

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance defines antisemitism as follows: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

While the definition is somewhat vague, the IHRA provides examples to make it more concrete. The definition has been heavily attacked by opponents of Israel because IHRA’s examples mention Israel directly (for example, it states that, “Manifestations might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity”) even though the IHRA also states that, “Criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic”. However, the definition is strongly supported by Jews, including by Reform Jews who are typically left-leaning. Already 32 countries (in addition to Israel) have adopted the IHRA definition of antisemitism, as have over 450 organizations.

But one should not see the IHRA definition of antisemitism as the only learning required to understand antisemitism. The Anti-Defamation League put it this way: “The IHRA Definition is one tool, albeit an important one, to use to identify and combat antisemitism.  However, it is not a substitute for more nuanced expertise on antisemitism, nor does its use preclude consulting other definitions.  Its use by institutions must not be treated as a replacement for instituting comprehensive education programs, building of good-faith alliances to fight antisemitism and all forms of hate, and other such initiatives.”

Six ways for allies to fight antisemitism. The background picture is from Magen Hassidim Synagogue in Mumbai, India (credit: Rangan Datta / Wikimedia Commons).
  1. Learn Jewish history and be truthful about it

Jewish history is badly misunderstood by non-Jews. Dara Horn illustrated that when she said, “There’s an educational problem with the way that Judaism or Jewish culture is taught in broader society, and it can be addressed. Look at a middle-school textbook about social studies—the “history of the world” kind of classes that we teach kids in public school. Generally, what you have in that curriculum is a paragraph at the beginning about the ancient Israelites, and then a chapter at the end about the Holocaust. That’s it. There’s a bit about Israelites, and then they get murdered at the end. That’s the Jews in the history of the world. […] Each of my kids at some point during that year came back to me and said, “I’m super confused, because in social studies, we’re learning about all these great civilizations. We’re learning about ancient Egypt and ancient Persia and ancient Babylonia and ancient Greece and ancient Rome. And we’re learning about how these amazing civilizations built the world. But then at home, for each of those civilizations, we have a holiday about how they tried to kill us. So are these great civilizations, or are they not?””

I have often mentioned the Arab refusal to understand or accept Jewish history in the Middle East, but ignorance of Jewish history doesn’t stop in the Arab world. Even on historical events that they are nominally taught, non-Jews have little knowledge. As an example, a survey found that two thirds of Americans do not know that six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. But as Horn suggests, better education on the Holocaust is not nearly enough. It’s essential to understand that Jews have a long and complex history and aren’t just a group that suffered a tragedy almost a century ago.

Understanding Jewish history is particularly important if one is to take positions on issues that affect Jews, such as the Israel-Arab conflict, or if one is to invoke Jewish history to make a point. Few people are more vulgar and ignorant than those who use Holocaust imagery and symbols to oppose Covid health and safety regulations. To suggest that regulations, which are needed to save million of lives, are similar in any way to the massacre of millions of innocent people is disgusting and revolting, and it shows a total lack of respect for the victims of the Holocaust and their families.

  1. Recognize that anti-Zionism is antisemitism

Once one understands Jewish history, it is evident that it is not possible to be an ally of the Jewish people without supporting their right to self-determination. Israel is of fundamental importance to the vast majority of Jews all around the world, even if they are sometimes highly critical of Israel’s government. Even in the US where Jews are increasingly critical of Israel, Jewish support for Israel is still very high.

Brian Mulroney, a former prime minister of Canada and a Catholic of Irish origin, explained this brilliantly when he said in a speech in 2003, “Contemporary anti-Semitism has added the state of Israel to its list of targets, to deny the Jewish state its rightful place among the community of nations. Israel has become the new Jew.”

Let’s be clear, however, that supporting Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state and to defend itself does not mean agreeing with every decision made by the Israeli government. Personally, I strongly oppose Israel’s settlements policies, as do many Israelis and many American Jews. That opposition, shared by the governments of all countries that consider themselves friends of Israel, is based on support for a two-state solution which Israel’s settlements policies render increasingly more difficult to achieve. US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield made that case again recently while at the same time denouncing bias against Israel.

But unfortunately, much of the criticism directed at Israel isn’t rational and isn’t meant to bring about peace and fairness towards Jews and Palestinians. Instead, it derives from hatred against Israel and has the objective of destroying Israel through violence or any other means available. So, it’s important to make a distinction between reasonable criticism of Israel and antisemitic criticism of Israel.

As Emanuel Miller and Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll put it, “It’s easy to criticize Israel without being antisemitic.  Focus on policy. Commit to accuracy. Include context. Eschew superficial chants. If you find that too hard, well, you may just be an antisemite.”

  1. Don’t judge Jews by a higher standard

One may think that expecting more from Jews than from others is a form of praise, but it is highly unfair. Expecting Jews to be smarter or richer than non-Jews is a form of prejudice, and it is antisemitism.

Expecting the Jewish state to behave in far more ethical ways than its enemies is an example of this form of prejudice. Israel typically fights far more ethically than its enemies, but this should not be taken for granted.

By placing a higher standard on Israel than on its enemies, we allow its enemies’ behavior to go unchallenged. There are many examples of this, but let’s take the latest Israel-Hamas war as an example. Wikipedia states that the war was caused by a “Planned decision by the Supreme Court of Israel on the eviction of four Palestinian families in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah” and by the “Storming of the al-Aqsa Mosque by Israeli police”. Neither rocket attacks nor any other action by Gaza terrorists against Israel is listed as a cause. The standard used by Wikipedia appears to be that any legal or security action by Israel against Palestinians, even if debatable, is a provocation, but the indiscriminate murder and attempted murder of Israeli civilians by Palestinian terrorists is not a provocation. With this highly biased and illogical standard, Wikipedia is sending a crystal-clear message: no crime committed by Palestinian terrorists against Jews is worthy of condemnation, but any actions taken by Jews against Palestinians, even if they follow due process, are to be condemned.

It’s also important to note, as we saw with the rise in antisemitic attacks against Jews during the latest Israel-Hamas war, that unfairness towards Israel doesn’t stop in Israel. It affects Jews everywhere.

  1. Don’t support or appease people who want to kill Jews

Several terrorist organizations, including the current Iranian government, are sworn to the destruction of the Jewish state. To support or appease any of these groups is to indicate that killing Jews is acceptable.

Only the US, Canada, the UK, and Europe (under pressure from the US) have designated all of Hamas as a terrorist organization. A few more countries consider only Hamas’ military wing to be a terrorist organization. The vast majority of countries have no terrorist designation for Hamas, and Hamas officials are welcomed in many of those countries. The situation is similar for Hezbollah. These terrorist organizations openly call for the destruction of the Jewish state and are actively engaged in attacking Israeli civilians, and yet they enjoy the friendship of many countries. The Iranian regime too has openly called for the destruction of the Jewish state, and yet the vast majority of countries have diplomatic and trade relations with that regime.

If you’re the ally of someone, you don’t befriend people who want to kill him or her. Instead, you denounce them, isolate them, and force them to change their behavior. It shouldn’t even need to be said, but unfortunately, it does.

  1. Expose and neutralize antisemites

Ilhan Omar, a Democratic Member of the U.S. House of Representatives, was voted 2019’s antisemite of the year, yet she is still accepted within the Democratic caucus, and she serves on three different committees, including a committee on higher education.

Donald Trump, the former president of the United States, has made many antisemitic comments over the years, yet he is still the first choice of most Republicans to be the Republican candidate for the presidency in 2024.

These are only two examples, but there are many more. Antisemitism is generally not treated as seriously as other forms of bigotry. Racist, sexist, or homophobic comments have a high likelihood of derailing one’s career, as they should, but antisemitic comments do not.

Antisemitic comments must be denounced as strongly as we denounce other forms of bigotry, and those who make those comments and do not show credible remorse should be ostracized, just as we would do with other bigots. Anything less than that indicates that we value Jews less than we value others, and if that is not antisemitism, I don’t know what is.

  1. Listen to what Jews have to say and don’t subvert their views

Candid conversations with Jewish friends is a great way to hear Jewish opinions unfiltered, but do not limit yourself to a few friends or to marginal groups that claim to represent Jews. Listen to a cross-section of Jewish voices because there isn’t only one Jewish voice or one Jewish opinion. One good source of diverse Jewish opinions is The Time of Israel blogs.

There are, however, dominant mainstream opinions among Jews, especially on subjects that have strongly affected them, such as the Holocaust and Israel. It’s dishonest to promote a marginal Jewish opinion while claiming that you’re respecting Jews. For example, support for Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state is a widely held view among Jews across the political spectrum, and to ignore that is dishonest. Listening to what Jews have to say is the opposite of subverting their views by taking one small minority’s opinion and pretending that it represents Jews.

One example of a marginal Jewish group is Jewish Voice for Peace. The Anti-Defamation League, an international Jewish non-governmental organization that promotes civil rights, provides an assessment of JVP which it describes as “a radical anti-Israel activist group”. JVP is very popular among antisemites because antisemites use it to claim that they have the support of Jews in their hatred for Jews.

The emphasis on listening versus speaking is also important. Do not pretend to be a spokesperson for Jews. While it is reasonable to state what we believe are Jewish opinions, it is not at all reasonable or acceptable to make pronouncements on their behalf.

Jewish Voices

In the spirit of listening to Jews, I am including here a sample of Jewish opinions that I gathered by asking Jewish friends the question “What do you expect allies of Jews to do that would help in fighting Anti-Semitism?” (answers were edited for brevity and to filter out repetition):

Call out antisemitism when you see it, especially when it is disguised as anti-Zionism.

Learn Jewish history. Jewish culture is a lot more than the story of the Holocaust. It’s a unique culture that’s both very ancient and very modern, and it’s very diverse in its beliefs, from Moses who received the tablets of the law directly from God to Albert Einstein who considered himself an agnostic and who did not believe in a personal God. However, a common thread in Jewish culture, from Jacob who wrestled with God, to Jesus who challenged the establishment of his day, to Abbie Hoffman who challenged the establishment of his, is the value placed on individual thought, debate, and questioning authority. As important as Holocaust awareness is, overemphasis on the Holocaust misleads people into thinking that it was an exception. For two millennia, wherever we’ve lived has been temporary because whenever hard times came, non-Jews made us their scapegoat and expelled us, engaged in genocidal violence, or both. The number of Jews who don’t exist today because the people who would have been their ancestors were murdered in violence that preceded the Holocaust, dwarfs the six million murdered during the Holocaust. This is one of the reasons why Israel is so important to Jews. It’s not merely a sense of connection to our historic homeland. It’s not merely that we’ve been praying “Next Year in Jerusalem” at every Passover Seder, the world over, ever since we were violently expelled from our homeland. It’s that for two millennia, whenever our lives have been in danger, we’ve been at the mercy of our enemies because we’ve had nobody to stand up for us and no ability to defend ourselves. The very existence of a Jewish nation, with a strong military, changes everything. Those who, like in the past, wish to murder us with impunity or treat us as second-class citizens, want Israel to disappear.

Insist on Holocaust awareness, and build bridges between Jews and your community.

Show up at rallies against antisemitism. Write letters and op-eds in newspapers. When there’s a local antisemitic incident, come to a synagogue to show solidarity, and ask to say a few words to the congregation.

Correct slurs when you hear them from your friends. If necessary, be willing to lose friends by calling them out.

Call antisemitism for what it is, racism. Accept no free pass for the right or the left.

Show strong support for Israel. One thing that speaks louder than words to Jew-haters is Jews who can defend themselves.

Join groups that fight antisemitism, for example The Academic Engagement Network.

Make it clear that we’re an ethnicity that comes from the Levant.

Think critically and encourage others to do the same.

Mention Israel as normally as any other place you refer to.

Treat us with respect.

Recognize antisemitic speech even when it is couched as criticism of Israel.

Do not take stands on topics that you have not studied enough.

Be willing to call out antisemitism even when it comes from your political allies.

Work to have Holocaust education include Zionism as a component – the redemption of the Jewish people.

Denounce antisemitism even when it comes from people who are not white nationalists.

Confront your own, often subconscious, antisemitism.

Understand the huge role that Christian dogma has played in the millennia of antisemitism and persecution culminating in the Holocaust.

Do the same that you would do for any bigotry or prejudice. Antisemitism is too often dismissed and ignored by people who claim to oppose discrimination.

Be aware of which groups represent most of the Jewish community and which are posing as spokespeople for the Jewish people to provide cover to those who hate Jews and Israel.

Never expect anything from Israel that you wouldn’t expect from another country.

Do not use a double standard to judge Israel and its enemies.

Further reading

About the Author
Fred Maroun is a Canadian of Arab origin who lived in Lebanon until 1984, including during 10 years of civil war. Fred supports Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state, and he supports the Palestinians' right to self-determination in their own state. Fred supports a liberal and democratic Middle East where all religions and nationalities, including Palestinians, can co-exist in peace with each other and with Israel, and where human rights are respected. Fred is an atheist, a social liberal, and an advocate of equal rights for LGBT people everywhere.
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