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Sunday, June 26, 2022

A message for non-Jews

Leah Mitchell discusses her experiences with antisemitism and how it continues to pervade society today.

TW: antisemitism

At the time of writing it’s past midnight and, instead of working on my Roman history essay and then winding down for bed as I had intended, I’ve spent my evening arguing with strangers on the internet. Before you jump to conclusions, I don’t make a habit of doing that. But in this particular instance, I couldn’t help myself.

My fifteen-year-old brother writes short articles for a student-run progressive online news platform (@intersect_news on Instagram). His writing is mature, thoughtful, well-researched, and at the same time uncompromisingly personal – in recent months, he has made it his business to write about modern-day antisemitism. In fact, his knowledge of Jewish history and culture and ability to articulately explain tropes and dogwhistles used in antisemitic discourse has often put me, his older sister, to shame.

We come from a Jewish family, and growing up I was proud of the legacy of my great-grandparents. For a school history project in Year 9, I wrote about how they escaped the Holocaust but, like almost all Jews, suffered from antisemitism nonetheless – I vividly remember my grandmother telling me how hurt her father was when the Nazi government portrayed Jewish WW1 soldiers as traitors to Germany, despite his and his family’s personal sacrifice to fight for their country during that war.

Nonetheless, I would always tell people that I wasn’t ‘really Jewish’ or a ‘proper Jew’, because I’m not religious. Thanks in part to my brother, and in part to my own self-education, I am now embarrassed at the sheer laissez-faire ignorance of such statements. Judaism is not just a religion, but an ethnicity and a culture, and one which forms an important part of my heritage. And sadly, whether I call myself a ‘real Jew’ or not, that won’t prevent my family and I from experiencing ‘casual’ antisemitism or microaggressions.

For years I brushed off comments implying that I was ‘pretending’ to be Jewish by wearing the star of David necklace that my grandmother had given me, or asking for my hot take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict simply because I was the only Jewish person they knew, or telling me that Jews were fine, they just had a problem with the existence of Israel. Accordingly, when my grandmother told me that her father had insisted that if he and her mother fled Germany after Hitler’s ascension to power, it would be to Palestine, because he was a Zionist, I was surprised and a little embarrassed – I had come to believe that ‘Zionist’ was a dirty word.

It is only in recent months – again, thanks in large part to my brother – that I have started engaging with Jewish-created educational resources about the history and culture of our own people, and realised how wrong I was.

For a start, Zionism is the belief in the right of Jewish people to self-determination; a human right protected by the UN in international law. It is emphatically not the belief that Palestinians do not also have the same right; most Jews believe that the two groups have an equal right to self-determination, and support a peace process which would allow the two nations to co-exist. This should not be a zero-sum game; Zionism in its true form – as defined by the general consensus of the Jewish community – simply protects the human rights of Jews,  and does not seek to undermine the rights of Palestinians or other groups. Therefore, warping the definition of Zionism, as ‘Western’ media tends to do, to portray it as a movement which is inherently aggressive and even xenophobic, is simply wrong. Not only is it factually inaccurate, it is hugely harmful to Jews everywhere; it demonises a self-protective Jewish movement, and therefore the Jewish people, for no reason other than latent antisemitic biases. Therefore, saying that one is “anti-Zionist” is pretty clearly an antisemitic dogwhistle; it either condones and reinforces the twisting of the definition of Zionism to suit antisemitic agendas, or, if the true definition is intended, denies Jews the same human right granted to all other groups.

Secondly, Jews are ethnically and historically indigenous to the Levant, just as much as Palestinians are. It is a land for both of us. However critical you are of the actions of the Israeli government (and believe me, I’m highly critical), questioning the right of Israel to exist is a fundamentally antisemitic viewpoint. Israel’s right to exist and the actions of Israeli government are not remotely synonymous; and it is worth bearing in mind that double standards are at play here. For no other country do we equate critiquing their government’s policies with stating that that country should cease to exist, but once again Israel – the only Jewish country in the world – is singled out for delegitimisation. Questioning Israel’s right to exist denies Jews the right to self-determination, gaslights us about our own ethnic and cultural history, and delegitimises the existence of the only safe haven for Jews in the entire world, given that we’ve been ejected from or harassed within pretty much everywhere else we’ve existed. 

I have plenty more to say on the subject of modern-day antisemitism, but those are a couple of the major points that I think everybody ought to know – and yet a worrying number do not. This was illustrated to me all too painfully when my brother wrote a short article on the subject of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s antisemitism. I won’t go into the details of that topic here, because it is summarised well within the article. Similarly, you’ll be able to find plenty of information about the subject just by following Jewish content creators on social media, such as @rootsmetals, @evebarlow, @girl.with.a.hamsa.earring, and @progressivejews.

After a quick read of the article and a flush of pride for my brother for raising an awareness about such a difficult and personal topic, what first caught my attention was that there were already, only shortly after the first half of the article was posted on Instagram, 86 comments under it. I started reading through them and was instantly struck by the blatant antisemitism and wilful ignorance displayed – which, as I’m sure you’ll have guessed by now, is what prompted me to stay up too late arguing with people who don’t know me and, frankly, don’t care what I have to say.

There was constant gaslighting. Pro tip: a non-Jewish person doesn’t get to tell a Jewish person what is and what is not antisemitism, and whether our intergenerational trauma (in particular, the Holocaust) can be appropriated and tokenised to make a political point. There were also frequent dogwhistles of the usual “anti-Zionism is not antisemitism” type, which I debunked above. Even when my brother reiterated again and again in replies to these comments the actual definition of Zionism – which is after all a Jewish movement and so can only be defined by Jews – they persisted in their blinkered determination to insist that he was wrong.

However, what was most alarming to me was how so many people immediately jumped on a fifteen-year-old Jewish boy’s pointing out of antisemitic behaviour in a well-researched and fact-checked manner to attack him, and placed him under enormous burdens of proof – despite the long list of sources he listed in the comments – rather than just listening and considering modifying their opinions. Defending their own biases seemed to be more important than listening to what marginalised people have to say about their own marginalisation. Why is the default assumption that we are wrong about something which we alone experience?

Antisemitism is already so little talked about apart from when it’s time to bring out the kneejerk Holocaust or Nazi comparisons to score a political point; one problem is that it’s very little mentioned in our news or media (hence no doubt why so few non-Jewish people are even aware of AOC’s track record of antisemitism). Another issue is that of discussion and awareness on an interpersonal level; I don’t remember a non-Jewish person, even friends who know that I am Jewish, ever talking to me unprompted about antisemitism, or so much as sharing a post about it. Frankly, it feels like non-Jewish people just don’t care, and it hurts.

I’m sure there are a lot of reasons for this; one is no doubt the general lack of information or news about antisemitism from non-Jewish sources, which is why I encourage everyone to seek out some Jewish educational resources or content creators, such as those I mentioned above. Another is likely that non-Jews often see Jews as privileged rather than oppressed, due to – you guessed it – age-old antisemitic conspiracy theories, as well as the fact that many (but importantly, not all) Jews are white-passing.

However, that doesn’t stop us from being subject to hate crimes – in England and Wales, Jews made up 19% of the total victims of hate crimes in the year from March 2019 to March 2020, despite comprising under 0.44% of the UK’s population. It also doesn’t prevent more covert and insidious forms of antisemitism, exhibited through social exclusion or microaggressive behaviour. Antisemitism may be distinct in some ways from other forms of racism – for example, many (though importantly not all) Jews are white-passing and therefore benefit from white privilege at the same time as being discriminated against for their Jewishness. However, antisemitism is racism nonetheless, and the prevailing implicit attitude that it’s “not as big a deal” as other forms of oppression is hurtful and misguided.

Please, non-Jews who are reading this: step up and show you care, even a little. Educate yourselves, and do some of the work for us. It’s mentally and emotionally exhausting having to deal with this and then taking it upon ourselves to educate others. I don’t want to spend more evenings arguing with strangers on the internet, on my own.

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