Andrew Pessin

The Indelible Stain of Antisemitism: The Failed Practice of ‘Jew-Washing,’ Part 2

Part 1 of this essay may be found here.

We turn now to the project of getting clearer on just how Jew-washing works.

There are two main modes of Jew-washing. The non-Jewish anti-Israelist may deny the charge of antisemitism by noting either (a) that “some of my best friends are Jews” or, more importantly, (b) that many Jews share his anti-Israelism.

We shall focus on the latter, which seems to invoke a kind of relevant Jewish authority that itself might be understood two ways.

On the first, the idea may be that Jews presumably know best what Jewishness is or involves, and if, as for “As a Jew”s, their anti-Israelism derives from their Jewishness, then it can’t be antisemitic.

On the second, the idea may be that Jews presumably know best what counts as antisemitic, so if Jews endorse a position, it must not be antisemitic. But this idea itself relies on another widely held assumption, that Jews would not adopt antisemitic positions.[1] Some might immediately reject this assumption by invoking the familiar notion of Jewish “self-hatred.”[2] I am not convinced that that classic notion offers the best analysis in the current context, however, as many alleged anti-Israel “self-haters” neither recognize themselves as such nor really fit the description: they are in fact quite “self-loving,” and enamored of the Jewish principles they take to support their anti-Israelism.[3] While I believe the assumption is false in any case, for now what is important is merely that it is in fact widely held.[4]

With these modes in mind, we begin our programmatic response to Jew-washing by next examining several of the many different “types” of Jews that anti-Israelists might invoke for Jew-washing purposes.

Jews in Genes Only (JIGOs)

Many Jewish anti-Israelists are what we might call Jews in Genes Only (JIGOs). Their connection to Jewishness is not much more than skin-deep, fairly literally: it is only biological at best, and does not include much (if any) particular Jewish ideological, social, historical, or religious component, and may even explicitly reject such. Here, for example, is the well-known Jewish anti-Israelist, the late British historian Tony Judt:

I reject the authority of the rabbis—all of them … I participate in no Jewish community life, nor do I practice Jewish rituals. I don’t make a point of socializing with Jews in particular … I am not a “lapsed” Jew, having never conformed to the requirements in the first place. I don’t “love Israel” (either in the modern sense or in the original generic meaning of loving the Jewish people) … But whenever anyone asks me whether or not I am Jewish, I unhesitatingly respond in the affirmative …[5]

Recent studies suggest that (a) JIGOs are becoming an increasingly significant component of the Jewish population at least in the United States, as American Jews assimilate and disaffiliate from organized Jewish life, and that (b) as they do so their attachment to Israel declines.

Nevertheless, JIGOs are particularly poor candidates to serve the purposes of Jew-washers, in any of the modes above. Given their superficial connection to Jewishness they are no authority on what Jewishness involves, and qua JIGOs they have no more expertise on antisemitism than anyone else. In fact when a JIGO says, “As a Jew, I am anti-Israel,” she is saying little more than “As someone with a certain molecular or genetic structure or a certain set of ancestors…” Since one’s biology or ancestry has no bearing on whether one’s beliefs are antisemitic, there can be no presumption that a JIGO’s anti-Israel beliefs are not antisemitic. Nor could the fact that a non-Jewish Israel-hater has JIGO “best friends” in any way exonerate his antisemitism, since it may well be the very antisemitism of the JIGOs that makes them appealing, or “A-1,” to the antisemitic Israel-hater.[6]

The very existence of JIGOs reflects the fact that there are (obviously) different criteria by which one may count or identify as a “Jew.” At barest minimum, a “Jew” is a member of a people, and/or of an ethnic group, and/or a practitioner of the religion of Judaism.[7] That these are distinct criteria is clear since there is no contradiction in the idea of a non-religious Jew, as the existence of many self-declared non-religious Jews (such as Judt) attests.

Jew-washing with a JIGO then takes advantage of this ambiguity. 21st-century progressive values generally condemn discrimination based on ethnicity (say), and antisemitism construed as such is forbidden. Jew-washers can (and do) perhaps correctly claim in at least one sense that they are not (ethnic) antisemites, if they do not hate all or most individual (ethnic) Jews.

But now it can be seen that that defense is comparable to the defense of medieval Church officials against the charge of antisemitism imagined in Part 1 of this essay, which in fact relied on the same ambiguity. “We don’t hate all Jews,” anti-Israelists now say, “only those with a certain ideology and behavior. JIGO Jews who reject that ideology and behavior—for example by opposing Israel—are A-1 by us!”

The flaw in this defense is the same as above: JIGO Jews are those who for whatever reasons disaffiliate from many or most of the ideological, social, and religious trappings of Jewishness, and who, more generally, have minimal or no vested interest in or affinity toward the Jewish collective. For a non-Jew to invoke such individuals to avoid the charge of antisemitism amounts to claiming that he does not hate Jews because he does not hate those Jews who disaffiliate from Jewishness and disavow the Jewish collective. That leaves him sounding very much like someone who really does have a problem with Jewishness, not to mention the Jewish collective—an antisemite.

The distinct criteria for qualifying as a “Jew” also make it easy to understand at least one way that Jewish antisemitism is possible. A JIGO is an (ethnic) Jew who (for whatever reasons) may have a problem with Jewishness and the Jewish collective. But that just is a Jewish antisemite, and one who need not count as self-hating: the Jewishness he hates (either the religion or the collective) is not the (biological) Jewishness he identifies with.

To genuinely avoid the charge of antisemitism, it is Jewishness itself one must not hate—not to mention, the Jewish collective as well.[8]

Jewish Jewish Anti-Israelists

More relevant, then, are the many Jews whose Jewishness is more than vaguely ethnic or biological, who do affiliate in some manner and to some degree with Jewishness and the Jewish collective. Fortunately for the Jew-washer, there is no shortage of such Jews who are anti-Israel as well.

There are some who in fact ground their anti-Israelism in ultra-orthodox religious Jewishness, for example. In a recent article about the controversial new anti-Israel president of Britain’s National Union of Students, Samuel Lebens points out that those very religious Jews who believe that the Jewish state should not have been brought into existence before the coming of the Messiah may well be Israel-haters, but they are not antisemitic in at least one important sense. If it is Jewish principles themselves that militate against Israel, then being anti-Israel on the basis of those principles is not being against Jewishness.

This position is made only stronger if we grant that Judaism comes in many forms and denominations. Since this is not the place to determine which forms are legitimate or which principles precisely count as “Jewish principles,” I shall err on the side of extreme lenience. I shall grant, imprecisely, that many of the diverse prima facie denominations of Judaism, from ultra-orthodox to reconstruction and beyond, count as forms of Judaism.[9]

So granted, there seems to be a wealth of “Jewish principles” on the basis of which Jewish anti-Israelists may be anti-Israel without being antisemitic.

Let us examine several of the many possible cases across the spectrum.

(1) Ultra-orthodox Jewish anti-Israelism

The most famous here are perhaps the Neturei Karta, a fringe group whose members appear at anti-Israel events worldwide.[10] They are ideal for Jew-washers, since, in their ultra-orthodox appearance, they are quite visibly Jews—and what could better exonerate an Israel-hater from charges of antisemitism when such clear Jews hate Israel too? Yes, they are a small group, but they are real, and they do derive their anti-Israelism from their Judaism: the Hebrew Bible as they read it teaches that Jews will legitimately re-form their political collective in the Land of Israel only by divine means, upon the coming of the Jewish Messiah. The contemporary State of Israel, then, is a religious abomination. The fact that the state and its overall culture are largely secular—surely only worse. No wonder they have 3-D hatred toward it.[11]

But does the existence of Neturei Karta successfully exonerate the non-Jewish anti-Israelist from the charge of antisemitism? (Henceforth we focus only on the “invoking authority” mode of Jew-washing.)

To see why not, consider a distinction made by former Harvard University President Lawrence Summers, who famously described campus attempts to boycott and divest from Israel as “antisemitic in effect if not intent.” Effective antisemitism will roughly be any position, policy, or behavior that de facto discriminates in some negative way against Jews, whatever its actual content or intent. Intentional antisemitism is much harder to define, but doing so should not be necessary for our purposes. Suffice to note that sometimes a person’s intentions can absolve even his effective antisemitism from counting as antisemitism simpliciter.[12]

Neturei Karta’s ideology does seem to be effectively antisemitic, after all, for it discriminatorily denies to the Jewish people (pre-Messiah) the same right to political self-determination in their ancestral homeland that presumably all other peoples enjoy in theirs. Members of the group themselves may escape the charge of being intentional antisemites (or antisemites simpliciter), however, since they sincerely derive their position from bona fide Jewish principles.

But the same is simply not true for the non-Jewish Israel-haters who Jew-wash with Neturei Karta. They share the group’s effectively antisemitic doctrine that the Jewish state is illegitimate while not sharing precisely those intentions that would exonerate their antisemitism.[13]

So Jew-washing with Neturei Karta fails. Neturei Karta provide an illusory cover for Israel-haters’ antisemitism, but they do not remove it.

We turn in the next part to what we might call “ultra-non-orthodox Jewish anti-Israelism.”

To be continued…


[1] Cf. anti-Israel CUNY Professor Sarah Schulman in March 2016 asking incredulously, “How can I be antisemitic? I’m Jewish.”

[2] The classic study is Sander Gilman, Jewish Self-Hatred (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986). See also Edward Alexander’s more recent Jews Against Themselves (Transaction, 2015).

[3] For a succinct but helpful overview of the role of Jewish self-hatred specifically in anti-Israelism see Ken Marcus, “Is the Boycott Movement Anti-Semitic?” (in Nelson & Brahm, The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel (MLA Members for Scholars’ Rights, 2015), 254-56).

[4] Indeed if we define as antisemitic any beliefs that de facto negatively discriminate against the Jewish people then it is clearly true that many Jews are possessed of antisemitic beliefs, even if, as opposed to “self-haters” (and traditional antisemites) they harbor no explicit feelings of hatred or animosity in their hearts. (For more, see the distinction below between effective and intentional antisemitism.)

[5] Judt goes on from here to endorse Jewish assimilation, i.e. disappearance. (Tony Judt, “Toni,” NYR Blog—The New York Review of Books (April 19, 2010).)

[6] More darkly, it may be the very willingness of the JIGO to serve the Jew-washer’s Jew-washing needs that makes him useful to the antisemitic Jew-washer.

[7] This is a bare minimum typology. Both “ethnicity” and “peoplehood” are equivocal notions (with perhaps some relationship to biology), as is “Judaism,” given the many forms of the religion. “Ethnicity” is itself divisible into categories defined (at least) along (halachic) maternal lineage v. (more contemporary) parental lineage, all complicated by the many competing criteria of, and conceptions of, conversion to Judaism. “Peoplehood” is a very abstract and vague notion, perhaps related to biology (like ethnicity) but broader, also involving (say) one’s senses of identity and solidarity with culture, language, history, etc.

[8] One is reminded here of the famous quote by the French parliamentarian Clermont-Tonnerre in 1789: “We must refuse everything to the Jews as a nation and accord everything to Jews as individuals.” That was perhaps acceptable in the context of emancipating French Jews in 18th-century France. But to deny the Jews “as a nation” in the 21st-century is a very different story, for it either denies Jewish peoplehood or denies the Jewish people the right to self-determination in their ancestral homeland—both of which would be considered by many Jews to be antisemitic positions.

[ix] To avoid begging the question one cannot assume that “Judaism” necessarily or in some a priori way requires some connection to the Land of Israel and support for the State of Israel. Nor, to avoid begging the question the other way, can one merely assume that authentic “Judaism” is distinguishable from that connection. So what I shall do is grant as leniently as possible what counts as “Judaism,” acknowledge that de facto (and until very recently) most or all forms of Judaism reflected a strong connection to the Land of Israel, and then explore some aspects of the relationship between Jewish principles and Zionism.

[10] There are other prominent religious anti-Israel groups such as the Satmar Chassidim, but we’ll focus on Neturei Karta.

[11] In the early decades of the modern Zionist movement, from the 19th century up to the Holocaust, anti-Zionism was perhaps normative among the orthodox for precisely the reasons mentioned. To be sure there were prominent rabbinic figures who strongly supported and promoted Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel—such as Yehudah ben Shlomo Alkalai (1798-1878), Zvi Hirsch Kalischer (1795-1874), Samuel Mohliver (1824-1891), Jacob Reines (1839-1915), and most importantly Rav Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935)—but despite some of them enjoying great influence, by and large they faced stiff resistance from the religious community. Today, after the Holocaust and nearly 70 years after the founding of the State of Israel, orthodox anti-Zionism is very much a minority opinion.

[12] Anti-Israelists, particularly in the academy, often attempt to exploit this fact by characterizing their intentions in very high-minded language (“human rights,” “anti-racism,” “pro-Palestinian” (rather than “anti-Israel”), etc.). See my “Epistemic Antisemitism” for more detailed discussion (Journal for the Study of Antisemitism, forthcoming).

[13] Compare this anecdote told about the equally anti-Israel Satmar Rebbe. After meeting in 1968 with Presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey, the Rebbe’s aides told him they had warned Humphrey against raising the issue of Israel. The Rebbe laughed and said, “Had Humphrey spoken to me in support of the Zionist state, it wouldn’t have bothered me in the least. We Jews have a Torah which forbids us to have a state during the exile, and therefore we may not ask the Americans to support the state. But a non-Jew has no Torah, and by supporting the state he feels he is helping Jews. So, on the contrary, if an American non-Jew is against the Zionist state, it shows he is an anti-Semite.”

About the Author
Andrew Pessin is a philosophy professor, Campus Bureau Editor at The Algemeiner, co-editor of "Anti-Zionism on Campus," and author most recently of two novels, "Nevergreen" (an academic satire examining campus cancel culture and the ideological excesses that generate it) and "Bright College Years" (about how college used to be before they all went crazy). For more information, visit