Antisemitism takes many forms, ranging from an off-hand offensive comment right through to genocide. Most official reports on antisemitism by Jewish organisations, and by others who monitor hate, cover incidents of antisemitism which include assault, verbal abuse, vandalism, graffiti, and the like. One form of antisemitism is rarely monitored – casual antisemitism.
According to the Australian Human Rights Commission: “Casual racism is one form of racism. It refers to conduct involving negative stereotypes or prejudices about people on the basis of race, colour or ethnicity. Examples include jokes, off-handed comments, and exclusion of people from social situations on the basis of race.”
How should Jews deal with casual antisemitism when faced with it? Is it best to ignore it? Turn away, pretend not to have noticed? Or is it important to respond? And, if so, how?
Often, in the back of the mind of a person who is being subjected to casual racism, or who witnesses it, is a nagging fear of the possible consequences of responding. If we respond, will it make the situation worse? Will it engender vitriol or aggression? Or, will responding be dismissed with the assertion that we are being “sensitive, defensive, paranoid” or unable to “take a joke” or that we have “taken things out of context”? Will we be humiliated or will we be vindicated?
These are the fears many of us have, and they are legitimate fears. Some part of one’s inner self whispers: “Don’t create a scene. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t make trouble. Keep a low profile.” Yet, there is another whisper: “This is wrong, it is unfair, I must stand up and respond.”
There are no hard and fast rules for dealing with casual antisemitism, whether one is the target or a witness. Whether one responds or not, and if so how, depends on the circumstances, the nature of the offence, and of course on one’s own personality and character.
A key circumstance is the physical setting in which the casual antisemitism occurs – on the street, in a shop, in an educational institution (school or university), in the workplace, in social settings, or in a private home.
In some settings, for example, at work, the power relationship may affect whether and how we respond. If we know the offender, is the casual antisemitism pre-meditated or spontaneous? Is it done through ignorance or malice? Does the offender not realise that the conduct is racist, or is it apparent that the offender knows and intends that the conduct will be hurtful? Is the offender in the habit of behaving that way?
There are other factors that may determine whether or not we respond to casual racism, and if so, how. Are we are alone or with others? Are we vulnerable, either at this moment or generally? Are there children present? Are there witnesses present who may assist if needed? Are there supportive friends on hand? Or will others join in and take the side of the offender? Will the offender understand that he has given offense and learn from your response? Is the offender likely to become verbally or physically aggressive? Is the offender under the influence of drugs or alcohol? Does he or she seem dangerous? Is the offender displaying antisemitic or other racist symbols, or possibly carrying a weapon? Can I get away quickly if need be, if things become uncomfortable or even dangerous?
In short, whether or not we respond to casual racism will often depend on our assessment of whether responding will escalate the situation or, alternatively, have the positive effect of enabling the offender to understand our concern and not repeat those remarks, or putting the offender on notice that such behaviour is unacceptable and that he/she will be called to account. Often the assessment needs to be made in a matter of moments, and we can never be sure our assessment is accurate.
This article, written by Julie Nathan, originally appeared in the Newsletter of the National Council of Jewish Women of Australia in 2016.