How To Fight Anti-Semitism And Build Bridges, Part 1

Rabbi Abraham Cooper (left) and Nick Cannon during a conversation on July 16, 2020, in Burbank, California. (Rabbi Abraham Cooper via AP / via TOI)
Rabbi Abraham Cooper (left) and Nick Cannon during a conversation on July 16, 2020, in Burbank, California. (Rabbi Abraham Cooper via AP / via TOI)

IMPORTANT NOTE: This was supposed to be a single article. But for reasons of sheer length (and because I want to get this thing out already), I’ve decided to make it a multi-parter.

Anti-Jewish racism, known colloquially as “anti-Semitism”, is an ingrained social illness endemic to all white-majority societies. Anyone who lives in a country with a European (or Christian, or Arab-Muslim) colonial foundation, or anyone who has been exposed to the cultural currents of these countries, is susceptible to it. No one is immune. Countless marginalized groups, even Jews, have internalized anti-Semitic ideas in this way.

Not all anti-Semites have white skin and blonde hair. Not all anti-Semites brandish swastikas, speak German, and wear jackboots. Not all anti-Semites are uneducated white nationalists.

Some of them are relatively ordinary, unassuming people. Some work at the laundromat down the street. Some work at the local post office or grocery store. Some have doctorates from prestigious universities. Some are globally-acclaimed and highly influential artists and thinkers. Some have otherwise impeccable left wing, anti-racist credentials.

Some belong to other marginalized outgroups.

The recent and growing list of anti-Semitic outbursts by black celebrities and public figures immediately springs to mind here. Although the response to these offenses were initially tepid, the condemnation (among celebrities and vox populi alike) has been growing in both volume and quantity. Moreover, at least one of the accused (Nick Cannon) has taken steps to rectify his mistakes, and build bridges between the American diasporas of Israel and Africa. The gravity and seriousness of anti-Semitism is (hopefully) starting to be recognized on a wider level.

Be that as it may, very few people (in progressive spaces, or in general) are sufficiently equipped to challenge it.

As one non-Jewish acquaintance put it to me not long ago: “we don’t call out anti-Semitism because it flies over our heads. We don’t know how to identify it outside of very obvious manifestations, like Nazism”. This is a paraphrased recollection of what was said, but accurate enough to convey the main point.

The more subtle manifestations of anti-Semitism all too often go unnoticed, because non-Jewish society is insufficiently attuned to its origins and how it has functioned over the centuries.

With this article, I hope to cover all possible bases and provide a useful, instructive heuristic for combating anti-Semitism and building bridges with the Jewish community.

To that end, here is a comprehensive list of guidelines, in no particular order of importance.

Ancient Israelites And Modern Jews Are The Same People

You may have heard the stories of Biblical Israelites such as Moses, King David, King Solomon, Jesus, and Samson at some point. And you might be asking “where are the Israelites now? Who are their descendants?”

They are the Jews and the Samaritans of today. In other words, they are us.

We are not impostors. We are not religious “Europeans” fetishizing and stealing Israelite heritage from some hapless group of “true Jews”. We are literally the same ethnic group – the same people – that we were in Biblical times, and we have the history, the culture, the DNA, the phenotypes, and the scars to prove it. Israelite heritage IS our heritage.

Yes, those are our ancestors. Image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Canaanites_and_Shasu_Leader_captives_from_Ramses_III%27s_tile_collection;_By_Niv_Lugassi.png

We belong to the Jewish civilization of Israel – the civilization built by our ancestors. We did not build new identities and/or scrap our old ones when we entered diaspora. Instead, we preserved our indigenous Judean (i.e. Israelite/Am Yisra’el) identity with us over many centuries of exile, up to the present day. That is why we are called Jews in the first place. It’s also why we are called diaspora Jews in every location except Israel, and why Jewish immigration to Israel is known as “aliyah” (meaning “ascent”, as opposed to “descent”).

We’re Jews not because our “religion” is Judaism. Many of us, myself included, do not practice Judaism. We are Jews because that is our ethnicity. Because our descent is from Judea, in southern Israel. That is our ancestral background. Our mother land.

This is where we come from
Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Early-Historical-Israel-Dan-Beersheba-Judea.png
Our national flag
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Flag_of_Israel.svg

Just as the ancestors of African-Americans were stolen from West Africa and brought to North America as slaves, our ancestors were stolen from Israel and brought to Europe and Babylon as slaves, or dispersed throughout the world by later conquerors.

And as with African-Americans, our European captors spared no effort to scrub us clean of our identity – our culture – and “Europeanize” us. They failed.

There is a direct and unbroken (biological, ethnic, and cultural) continuity between the Jews of Jesus’ time and Theodor Herzl, Anne Frank, Jeff Goldblum, Albert Memmi, Maimonides, Benjamin Netanyahu, and even Rabbi Rosenberg who lives down the street. We’re not some group of “European whites” LARPing as ancient Middle Eastern Semites. We are the same people. We are their descendants. We are not lying about who we say we are.

Although Judaism accepts converts, conversion has always been (and still is) exceedingly difficult and exceedingly rare. The vast majority of us are ethnic Jews (i.e. Israelites/Canaanites). We are not converts.

Converts comprise less than 1% of our entire population. The vast majority of Jews are either Ashkenazi (Jews exiled into Central, and later Eastern, Europe), Sephardi (Jews exiled into Southern Europe and later North Africa), and Mizrahi (Jews exiled to other parts of the Middle East). Individuals from all three of these diaspora populations trace the majority of their ancestry to the ancient Israelites – as has been demonstrated by more than 20+ years of peer-reviewed DNA papers, including a more recent analysis conducted on a set of Bronze Age Canaanite remains.

Anti-Semitism means anti-Jewish

The oft-regurgitated repartee that “Arabs are Semites too” is a recalcitrant, disruptive, and ahistorical attempt at policing Jewish language and, essentially, a derailment. It is also an expression of anti-Semitism in its own right; doubly so when paired with the (explicitly or inexplicitly expressed) sentiment that “modern Jews are not real Semites anyway”.

The term “anti-Semitism” was coined by xenophobic German agitator Wilhelm Marr in 19th century Europe as a more “sophisticated” replacement for the more traditional, and comparatively crude, “Judenhass”. This was the age of race science, and Jew-hatred was once again forced to adapt itself to the prevailing cultural zeitgeist in order to survive. Just as it always does.

Wilhelm Marr
Source: https://fy.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ofbyld:Wilhelm_Marr.jpg

Moreover, this term was introduced at a time when Jews were the only non-European ethnic group (besides the Romani, from northern India) living in Europe in any noticeable numbers. By extension, we were also the only ethnic Middle Easterners around. This meant we stood out like Nigerians in Hong Kong or, more literally, like Palestinians in Berlin and Warsaw (because that’s essentially what we were).

This also meant that Europeans of the time understood “Semite” to mean “Jew”.

Hence, “anti-Semitism” came to mean “anti-Jewish” prejudice specifically, and that’s how the term has been used ever since. Endeavoring to expand its definition now via the hamfisted inclusion of “all Semites” would remove its historical weight and dilute its power. It is also a not so clever way of derailing, and ultimately subverting, conversations on anti-Jewish prejudice (especially as it pertains to the virulent and deeply ingrained Judenhass that exists in the Arab world).

For additional clarity, consider the term “Asian”.

Israel is in Asia, which means Jews are technically Asian. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flags_of_Asia#/media/File:Map_of_Asia_with_flags.svg

Asia is the largest continent in the world, as well as the most racially and ethnically diverse. In a cultural, ethnic, and geographic sense, Jews (and Arabs and Persians and Turks by extension) are every bit as Asian as Chinese, Japanese, Indians, Russians, Thais, Malays, and Koreans are.
But would this give me, an ethnic Jew, the right to try and center conversations about anti-Asian racism (meaning: racism against East and Southeast Asians specifically) on Jews because “Jews are Asian too”? My imagining is that very few would agree.

Those who insist on shoehorning anti-Arabism under the umbrella of “anti-Semitism” are doing the same thing, whether they admit it or not.

Identifying blood libels

In consonance with prejudiced Western perceptions of the East (i.e. Orientalism), Europeans have long characterized Jews as evil, violent, blood-crazed savages. Although this ingrained fictive is thought to have originated in the blood libel of Norwich, its true origins date back to Ancient Greece and Rome.

European colonialism, including but not limited to its Greco-Roman variant, has always entailed (to varying degrees) misrepresentation of indigenous peoples as primitive, backwards, and in need of “saving”. In this, the Jews were far from exempt. Greeks and Romans alike rationalized the rape of Judea with haughty and disdainful aspersions against our “uncivilized” culture. They chided our closed-off nature as “misanthropic”, disparaged our “barbarous” mutilation of the human form (i.e. circumcision) and, most pertinent of all to this section, accused us of kidnapping and sacrificing strangers in our Temple.

And as has always been the outcome of prolonged racist inculcation, these anti-Semitic memes never vanished from the European lexicon. Instead, they snowballed – increasing in both volume and intensity – as the Romans spread their Empire, and their prejudices along with it, throughout Europe and the MENA region. They were baked into Roman Catholicism – soon to be the dominant religion throughout most of Europe – and repeated in sermons over many centuries.

Anti-Semitism became an ingrained part of European culture and, in accordance with the popularity of the Roman Catholic faith, was augmented by European Christian demonology.

After a substantial number of us had been dispossessed and exiled into Europe (or taken there as slaves), we remained largely isolated and continued to “stubbornly” cling to our culture which the Europeans had been working so hard to stamp out. Our continued existence was seen as an affront to European/Western feelings of superiority.

In the eyes of the locals, we were a strange, alien, dark, and primitive outsider presence that primarily kept to itself and had no interest in assimilating. We kept yearning for our homeland in the Middle East, from which we had been plucked by force. We did not look or dress the same (as is to be expected of a Middle Eastern diaspora in Europe, especially back then), we refused to eat pork, we did not observe Christianity, and we prayed in a “strange” Eastern tongue that the locals could not decipher. We even wrote using a different alphabet, in our vernacular of Ladino or Yiddish (both Creole-esque diaspora fusions of Hebrew/Aramaic with local languages), as well as in our ancestral tongue.

In short, we were dangerous and could not be trusted. The mythos that had earlier been built up by Greece and Rome only evolved and grew in intensity. Our refusal to abandon our culture and identity, and assimilate into European society via conversion to Christianity, was increasingly interpreted in a sinister and demonic light. How could they be so impervious to reason? How could they reject the “light” of the Lord Jesus Christ? They must be evil. They must be in league with Satan himself. They must be his devilish little helpers put on Earth to mislead “good Christians” and lead them astray.
It was a straight and fairly easy line from this anti-Semitic conceptualization to the first “official” blood libel in Norwich, England.

In the year 1144 CE, William of Norwich – a 12 year old Anglo-Saxon boy – had been found dead in the nearby woods with multiple stab wounds. The local Jewish community was blamed for the murder. William’s hagiographer – Thomas of Monmouth – alleged that the Jews of Norwich had kidnapped the boy, shaved his head, mutilated his scalp with a crown of thorns, and crucified him in a mockery of Jesus’ martyrdom before dumping him in the forest.

William of Norwich, who has since been made a Saint.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Saint_William_of_Norwich.jpg

He further went on to claim that this was all part of a prophecy – that if Jews sacrificed a Christian child each year, we would be restored to Israel. He alleged that an international congregation of Jews met in Narbonne, France annually, where they would decide which country would be targeted next, and that England had been chosen that year. These claims could almost be seen as a precursor to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion that emerged in 19th century Russia.

The true cause of William’s death is not known, but the Church quickly proclaimed him as a martyr and a saint, while the Jewish community of England suffered violent backlash. Similar accusations surfaced over the following decades and eventually spread to continental Europe as well. We were routinely accused of kidnapping white children for use in our “hideous demonic rites”, and using their blood to bake matzah. A ludicrous claim, if only for the fact that if we *had* consumed the blood of foreigners over a prolonged period of time, we would’ve all contracted blood diseases and died off a long time ago.

It is likely that the blood libel of Norwich was only the first to be documented in writing, and that there were many more preceding it.

These accusations, and all similar ones, are now known to be false. But the anti-Semitic image of Jewish evil and bloodlust became embedded in Western conscience. This is what racism does – it evolves, it adapts, it survives. Just as other non-white groups are stereotyped as barbarous, primitive, and criminal, so are we.

The blood libel did not die with the Christian era. It simply changed its clothes and freshened up its appearance to make itself more amenable to the newer, more “enlightened” zeitgeist that had since emerged. And it would do the same thing in each successive cultural epoch, up to and including the present day.

An abundance of modern parables can be found in the 21st century – in both left-wing AND right-wing anti-Semitism.

The anti-Zionist “left’s” framing of Israel as an irrational, monstrous war-mongering entity that lives for brutality and bloodshed is one such example, as it is clearly couched in ancient and medieval European anti-Semitic myths. The lachrymose histrionics over the countless alleged “victims of the IDF” bear all of the hallmarks of the classic blood libel. Rachel Corrie and Mohammed Al-Durah are obvious modern analogues to William of Norwich – anyone whose understanding of the conflict extends beyond “Western news media told me that Israelis are treating Palestinians the same way the Nazis treated them” will understand why.

One need not look far to find examples on the right, who are (generally) far more open about their anti-Semitic proclivities than their left-wing counterparts. The Chabad of Poway shooter, in his manifesto, cited the killing of Simon of Tarsus (a child supposedly murdered by Jews in a basement that never existed) as well as the killing of Palestinian Christian children as motivation for his murder spree.
Even now, Jewish blood has been and continues to be spilled for this medieval lie.

And that concludes Part 1 of this series. As soon as the other Parts are finished, I will provide links up top. Thank you for reading.

About the Author
Half-Irish/half-Jewish American activist, musician, and writer.
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