The antisemitic notion of the ‘Invisible Jew’

The Whoopi Goldberg controversy, in which she originally claimed that the Holocaust was not about racism, has a number of complexities. One of them surfaced on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert where she defended/apologized for her comments by explaining that Jews don’t suffer from racism, unlike Black people, because a Jewish person can walk down the street and go completely unnoticed as a Jew.

On one level, Goldberg is mostly right. There is no doubt that in the kind of racism that Black people encounter, the visual factor, seeing immediately the color of one’s skin, is prevalent and significant. This is not to say that there is no issue of visibleness in antisemitism— for example, Chasidic Jews are immediately recognizable and sometimes pay a price for it, not to mention other Jews who may wear a kippah or a Magen David.  Moreover, Jews are diverse – there are Sephardic, Mizrahi, and Ashkenazi Jews, Jews hailing from all over the world.  As a result, some Jews experience both antisemitism and racism based on having darker skin.

Still, it is not unreasonable to make this distinction between anti-Black racism and antisemitism.

What is totally wrong is to suggest, as Goldberg did, that therefore antisemitism is not racism. Racism can take on many forms, and racism is about how the racist sees the group being discriminated against.

Whether it is the extreme example of the Nazis seeing Jews as the inferior race or many other examples of stereotypes about Jews, all fall under racial thinking.

So, while the visual factor is not as relevant in the case of Ashkenazi Jews, other manifestations of antisemitism clearly reflect a racist ideology.

There is, however, a particular irony, surely one that Goldberg was unaware of, that surrounds her focus on whether Jews can be visually identified as Jews. And that is how the invisibility factor touches on the core of antisemitism.

The phrase that cuts through the history of antisemitism is “the invisible enemy.” It is the notion that the reality of “the Jew” is not seen. The Jew seems to be a normal person, but there is an entire universe in which the Jew resides that is hidden and pernicious.

One can argue that the roots of this conspiracy theory go back to the accusation that the Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus, though the obvious facts were that the Romans were in charge, were brutal, and crucifixion was a Roman form of torture.

In the Middle Ages the idea of the invisible enemy surfaced repeatedly in the accusation of the blood libel, in which Jews were accused of slaughtering Christian children and secretly using their blood for ritual purposes. And all this came home to roost when the Black Plague broke out across Europe in the 14th century and Jews were blamed with the charge that they were secretly poisoning the wells.

In modern times, the theme of the “invisible enemy” has had many manifestations, but the two most destructive were the creation of the infamous fraudulent document, The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, and the Nazi slaughter of six million Jews in the Holocaust.

The central theme of both was that the world had to defend itself from this all-powerful secret enemy that was so poisonous and destructive to society and the world itself.

And the theme of the invisible enemy with regard to Jews is, unfortunately, alive and well in today’s world. Conspiracy theories abound about how Jews are behind the COVID pandemic and how Jews and Israel are benefitting from the vaccine.

The murderer of the Pittsburgh Jews in the Tree of Life synagogue justified his terrorism on the grounds that Jews were secretly behind illegal immigration at the southern border. And the state of Israel is repeatedly accused of secretly poisoning children.

In other words, for Jews, the benefit of being able to walk on the streets and in many instances, but far from all, not being attacked for their appearance is real. It is minor, however, compared to how the invisibility theme has been used over the centuries and is still being used today to justify the most horrible crimes against the Jewish people.

All of which is instructive about how racism takes different forms and how sometimes one characteristic that can appear as a benefit can be turned against a group in the most insidious of ways.

About the Author
Kenneth Jacobson is Deputy National Director of the Anti-Defamation League.