Andrew Pessin

The Indelible Stain of Antisemitism: The Failed Practice of “Jew-Washing”

[In the days just before the Messiah] a man’s enemies

will be the members of his household …. [Sotah 49b (quoting Micah 7.6)]

When a man can longer be a Jew, he becomes a Zionist. [Haim Hazaz character, “The Sermon,” 1942]

When a man can no longer be a Jew, he becomes an anti-Zionist. [Edward Alexander, Jews Against Themselves]

Among the many difficulties confronting Jews who are comfortable calling themselves Zionists is the phenomenon of “Jew-washing.”[1] Inspired by expressions such as “whitewashing” and “pinkwashing,”[2] the idea is that if a non-Jewish person (the “Jew-washer”) can count Jews among those endorsing his beliefs or behavior then his beliefs or behavior cannot be deemed antisemitic. Indeed if the non-Jew can count Jews among his personal friends, if “some of his best friends are Jews,” then he cannot be deemed an antisemite. The problem for Zionists then is clear: the fact that so many Jews are anti-Zionists obscures or disguises the antisemitic nature of much or most anti-Zionism (or, as I prefer, “anti-Israelism”).[3]

And though they are only a minority, there are many such Jews: the very visibly orthodox Jewish Neturei Karta who headline anti-Israel events all over Europe and elsewhere,[4]The Guardian’s Anti-Israel Jews,” the German Jewish Holocaust survivors who go on anti-Israel tours, the many British Jews so ably satirized in Howard Jacobson’s Booker-winning The Finkler Question as belonging to “ASHamed Jews” (the capitalized “ASH” reflecting their contempt for Holocaust memory),[5] the American organization Jewish Voice for Peace, etc. These are just a small sampling, so the problem itself is large.[6]

Now obviously not every instance or type of criticism of Israel is antisemitic. By “anti-Israelism,” I shall mean that negative attitude toward Israel that is generally characterizable as antisemitic. As a guide I shall assume the “working definition of antisemitism” that has been adopted in various forms by the European Parliament, the thirty-one countries comprising the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, the United Kingdom, and the U. S. State Department. The latter puts it particularly succinctly, noting that criticism of Israel becomes antisemitic when it operates by means of any of the “3 Ds”: when it demonizes, applies double standards to, or delegitimizes the State of Israel.[7]

The aim of this essay, then, is to demonstrate that Jew-washing generally does not succeed: the sheer fact that some or even many Jews share a non-Jewish person’s anti-Israelism will not itself absolve that person, or his anti-Israelism, of this sort of antisemitism. Given the enormous scope of the phenomenon—the many different forms of anti-Israelism and diverse motivations of anti-Israelists—the essay cannot be exhaustive but merely programmatic. Ultimately each instance of Jew-washing must be critiqued on its own merits and demerits; this essay will provide illustrative examples of how one might do that.

The Generality Assumption

There is a widely held assumption that racism, or more broadly, bias, has a general nature: to be biased is to display a negative and discriminatory attitude or behaviors (call this “hatred”) toward all members of the targeted group. This “Generality Assumption” is quite reasonably grounded in the paradigmatic manifestations of anti-Jewish bias throughout history. When medieval European Christians hated Jews on the basis of religion, for example, they hated all Jews (we usually think), until the Jews converted. When the Nazis hated Jews on the basis of race, they hated all Jews (we usually think) no matter what their creed, even those Jews who had converted and assimilated.

It rather makes sense: if someone is characterizable as a Jew-hater, then he hates all Jews.

Nevertheless, it simply is not true—neither empirically, nor theoretically.

Heinrich Himmler, the head of the Nazis’ paramilitary organization, the Shutzstaffel (S.S.), famously said to senior S.S. officers in Poznan, Poland, in October 1943:

… the extermination of the Jewish race. It’s one of those things it is easy to talk about, “the Jewish race is being exterminated,” says one party member, “that’s quite clear, it’s in our program, elimination of the Jews, and we’re doing it, exterminating them.” And then they come, 80 million worthy Germans, and each one has his decent Jew. Of course the others are vermin, but this one is an A-1 Jew …[8]

Himmler’s complaint? That the Nazis’ fatal efficiency was being compromised because everyone had his favorite “decent” Jew, his “A-1 Jew.” Here we have very dedicated Nazis filled with paradigmatic racist Jew-hatred, in other words, who still found room in their hearts not to hate some particular Jew or another, for whatever reason. Those exceptions did not mean they weren’t Jew-haters, of course; indeed these individuals are (again) the ultimate paradigm of Jew-haters. But sometimes other considerations overrode their general hatred.

So a bona fide Jew-hater is capable of not hating every single Jew.

But now, as we begin to think more theoretically, can a Jew-hater have not just one or two but a few A-1 Jews? Can someone find even the majority of Jews to be A-1 Jews, yet still count as a Jew-hater? Or, in reverse, if someone does not hate most Jews, perhaps even likes most Jews, does that itself mean that he is not properly characterizable as a Jew-hater, i.e. an antisemite?

It is this assumption that racism or bias need be general in nature that is specifically overdue for retirement.

Antisemitism without the Generality Assumption

Jews, it certainly appears, are not a homogenous group. Not every Jew is the same “type” of Jew, in many different senses. In the typical Jew-washer’s metaphysics, there are “good Jews” and “bad Jews,” the “righteous Jews” and the “Afrikaners Jews” (to use anti-Israelist professor John Mearsheimer’s phrases), the decent A-1 Jews he is fine with and the other Jews he is not. It does not take much scratching beneath the surface to discover that the Jew-washer quite seriously dislikes those other Jews—the Zionist Jews—in a manner that often manifests itself in that 3-D antisemitic way.[9] Or as the English writer Paul Bogdanor has put it,

In the UK today, every Jew, no matter how apolitical or assimilated, has to identify himself either as an enemy of Israel (a “good Jew” to be showered with plaudits) or a defender of Israel (a “bad Jew” to be vilified and boycotted).[10]

The Jew-washer might naturally object here that it is not because those individuals are Jewish that he dislikes them. The proof is that there are many other Jews, the good Jews, that he likes perfectly well. It is because they are Zionists that he does not like them. It is not them personally—it is their ideas, their ideology, their behaviors in support of that ideology. His attitude and behavior reflect anti-Zionism, then, not antisemitism. And of course (many agree) it is acceptable to object to, be hostile toward, even to hate, an ideology, and that ideology’s concomitant behaviors.

But now, let us note, this response only succeeds if we endorse the Generality Assumption, i.e. if we assume that antisemitism requires hating all (or at least most) Jews. For if Jews come in many types—if there are many different ways in which individuals manifest or express or conceive their Jewishness—then it is perfectly conceivable that someone legitimately characterizable as an antisemite might not hate all or even most Jews.

The crucial question should not be whether he hates all or most Jews, in other words.

It is whether the people he hates, he hates for their Jewishness.

To see this, imagine officials of the medieval Church rejecting the charge of antisemitism. “We do not hate all Jews,” they might say, “only those Jews with a certain ideology and behavior. When Jewish people change these—and convert to Christianity—they are A-1 by us!”[11]

The flaw in this defense is obvious: the ideology and behavior these officials rejected was the very essence of those individuals’ Jewishness. They may not have hated the individual people who were Jews (once they converted), but they hated Jewishness. They then absurdly claim not to hate Jews because they do not hate those people who are no longer Jewish by the relevant criteria—namely people who reject Jewishness.

But now Zionism, too, is intimately or essentially related to many Jews’ self-conception and identity. Not every Jew’s, obviously—many Jews claim to derive their anti-Israelism from their Jewishness (as we shall discuss below), and often express their anti-Israel sentiments prefaced with “As a Jew…” But there are in fact many more Jews for whom their Zionism, their connection to and support for the State of Israel, grounded in three-plus millennia of Jewish connection to the Land of Israel, is an essential part of their Jewishness.[12] To hate them for their Zionism just is to hate them for their Jewishness. A person may have a lot of anti-Israel, A-1 Jews among his friends, then, but that itself does not exonerate him from hating the Jews he does hate for their Jewishness.

This account is coarse, clearly, and needs to be refined. As currently formulated, for example, it may turn many of the divisions within the Jewish people into antisemites against each other: if it counts as antisemitic to hate Zionist Jews for their Zionist Jewishness, it would also count as antisemitic to hate the “As a Jew”s who ground their anti-Israelism in their form of Jewishness. Similarly, when generalized this account may classify almost any objection to any group’s ideology or practices as a form of racism or bias. To hate members of ISIS for their ideology might have to count as a form of Islamophobia, since presumably their form of Islam is essential to their ideology and identity, and so on.

To prevent these serious consequences at least two things are needed:

(1) Articulation of just when and where certain beliefs and practices become essential to or part of individuals’ identities. This would yield a distinction between ideologies (toward which it is generally acceptable to be hostile) as opposed to people and their identities (toward whom it is generally not acceptable to be hostile).

(2) A close look at the specific contents of the beliefs and practices that compose people’s identities to see which, if any, it might be legitimate (i.e. not a form of “bias”) to oppose.

These are large projects beyond the scope of this essay, but a start may be made at least with respect to Jew-washing. We shall begin in the next part of this essay by getting a little clearer on just how Jew-washing works.

To be continued…..


[1] Cf. “On Jew-Washing and BDS,” by Yitzak Santis and Gerald M. Steinberg, The New York Jewish Week, July 23, 2012. For some criticism of the notion, see “The Disingenuity of ‘Jew-Washing.’

[2] “Pinkwashing” refers to the allegation that Israel manipulates its reputation of progressive tolerance of gay rights in order to distract from its violations of Palestinian human rights. See “No to ‘Brand Israel’ Pinkwashing” and “Israel and ‘Pinkwashing.’”

[3] Indeed, the anti-Israel organization Students for Justice in Palestine devoted a session at its United States national conference in November, 2016, specifically to how to use their affiliation with the equally anti-Israel organization Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) to block charges of antisemitism.

[4] See “Neturei Karta Rallies in Favor of Iran Nuclear Deal” and “In Berlin, Al Quds Day marchers steer clear of anti-Semitism.”

[5] For discussion of this phenomenon of Jews proclaiming their “shame,” see Richard Landes’s “Proud to be Ashamed to be a Jew: On Jewish Self-Criticism and Its Pathologies.”

[6] Edward Alexander attempts a taxonomy of such Jews but finds he must give up when the list gets too long (Jews Against Themselves, Transaction, 2015, xix).

[7] The State Department definition is adopted from Natan Sharansky. Though the 3-D test inspires some controversy—its terms are admittedly vague, and many anti-Israelists sincerely believe that challenging Israel’s legitimacy should not be deemed antisemitic—it should suffice for the purpose of this essay, which is not to determine what constitutes antisemitism but rather to show how the practice of Jew-washing fails to exonerate the Jew-washer of this sort of antisemitism.

[8] Trials of War Criminals Before the Nurenberg Military Tribunals – Washington, U.S Govt. Print. Off., 1949-1953, Vol. XIII, p. 323, and Himmler, Reichsfuehrer-SS – P. Padfield, Henry Holt and Co, NY, 1990, p. 469.

[9] As one recent Brown University graduate put it concisely on Facebook: “I like Jews in general, just not Zionist Jews …” [accessed November 2, 2016)]. In a similar vein, see “Edinburgh NUS Delegate Calls Zionists ‘Sub-Human Rats,’” or the recent call by a McGill University student to “punch a zionist today.”

[10] Quoted in Edward Alexander, Jews Against Themselves (Transaction, 2015), p. xviii.

[11] For proof of their sincerity in defending themselves this way, merely look at the historically long list of Jews who converted and then rose to prominent and honorable positions in European Christianity’s ongoing campaign against the recalcitrant old ideology and behavior. Examples just from the medieval period include: the Spanish Pablo Christiani, who in 1263 put together and “won” a rigged debate with the great Talmudist Rabbi Moses ben Nachman over the relative merits of Catholicism and Judaism, his countryman Abner of Burgos who used his knowledge of the Talmud to make polemical arguments for Christianity, the French Nicolas Donin who used his knowledge of the Talmud to convince Pope Gregory IX to have the Talmud publicly burned, the German Johannes Pfefferkorn who inspired Martin Luther’s program of burning not merely the Talmud but synagogues too, etc.

[12] This is not the place to defend the centrality of the Land of Israel to the Jewish religion and the Jewish people, although there will be some relevant remarks along the way below. Suffice to say that (a) many Jews do endorse this centrality, and (b) while there is a nascent movement to develop a “Diaspora Judaism” that essentially excises Zion from Judaism (for example the work of Judith Butler, or Brant Rosen), that is currently a fringe movement and, from the historical perspective, a mere blip after three millennia of tradition. Even today most Jewish denominations would consider a religion entirely or largely divorced from any connection to the Land of Israel simply not a form of Judaism.


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 the novel, "Nevergreen," an academic satire examining campus cancel culture and the ideological excesses that generate it. For more information, visit