“All models are wrong, but some are useful”– George E.P. Box
“People view the world through their theories”– Thomas Kuhn
Recently, a reason dawned on me behind why some people believe antisemitism is a problem within some American and British progressive movements. A– I didn’t say the, as I know people on the left with different definitions– standard definition amongst many progressives and progressive movements use is that racism = prejudice + power. As these groups define Jews as part of the white privileged, or ‘white supremacy’ (their term for white America), class, that means that the adherents to that definition are saying antisemitism isn’t racism. Or, if they say antisemitism is racism, they’ve undercut their own definition.
Perhaps they say that antisemitism is not racism but a different form of bigotry– and that is a fair topic for debate. How to define race, what is race and the question of if Jews are a race are interesting questions. Many scholars, the United Nations and the World Jewish Congress, define antisemitism as a type of racism, and many textbook and international laws define racism as including both race and ethnicity. Anne Frank House states that race is an artificial cultural construct and, thus, Jews are not a race, but that the classification of Jews as a race and discrimination based on that is racism. A Jewish friend said it is in part a matter of semantics. This all says that the world, societies, structures, concepts and ethnic oppression are far more complex and nuanced than a simple equation or definition can define or encompass.
Racial categories are an artificial and arbitrary social not biological or genetic construct, and people on all parts of the political spectrum have long drawn the lines to suit their political ideologies and agendas. Depending on the prevailing or particular and often political and ideological sentiments, Jews, Japanese, Latinos, Irish, Greeks and Arabs have fallen in and out of the “white” category.
A problem with power as a necessary and required element in the definition is that Jews have been persecuted (as a race– at least that’s how the Nazis defined them and how White Supremacists define them– and, according to Anne Frank House that is thus racism) in major part because of the perception they had power. In the 1800s to early 1900s many elite universities– including Harvard, Yale, Colombia, Cornell, McGill and Toronto–, had quotas on Jewish students because they were too successful. The Nazis and White Supremacists defined/define Jews as both having power/privilege and being an inferior people/race. This also points out that there are many ways and types of discrimination, oppression and persecution.
Another common point that has often been brought up is that it is incorrect, or at the very least problematic, to generalize across all members about the privilege or power race. There, of course, have been many poor and powerless Jews and Jewish communities throughout history, and a homeless opioid-addicted white man in rural West Virginia will likely question the existence of his privilege and power in the United States.
Rabbi Michael Lerner says the ‘privileged’ categorization is a stereotype. “This argument leaves out the hundreds of thousands of Jews who have not ‘made it’ the way their Manhattan brothers and sisters may have.” (reference)
Further, equating “Jews” with “power and privilege”– as the ‘racism = privilege + power’ equation does– is one of the age-old stereotypes and prejudices long used against Jews. It should be disturbing that some groups and movements on today’s far-left use and play into this same trope that has been and are used by antisemitic movements on the far right. The definition defines Jews, as an entire group, as oppressors.
A complaint from some Jews is that some progressive movements and people trivialize or dismiss the significance of antisemitism, and some Jews have accused some progressive movements as antisemitic (link: ‘On The Front Lines of Progressive Anti-semitism‘). That has been an accusation of British Labour. A Jewish congregant I know opined there is much antisemitism in the progressive movements, and said “We have been listening to this White Privilege stuff for 5000 years.”
Brooklyn College history professor KC Johnson said, “If Jews are seen as ‘white’ (which, in this permutation of progressivism, they are), and ‘whites’ cannot be subjected to racist attacks, then antisemitism becomes a trivial concern.” (reference)
Robert Walker, director of Hasbara Fellowships Canada, says that left activists on university campuses often dismiss the opinions of Jews, including on issues of discrimination because Jews are cataloged as privileged.
Walker says: “Our fellows have seen more instances where a pro-Israel side is dismissed in a summary manner, merely because many of our students are Jews, (and are) therefore seen to be privileged and therefore excluded from consideration or mainstream dialogue . . . Their opinion is often dismissed for being Jewish or pro-Israel and seen as part of the privileged white bourgeoisie . . . People are dismissed simply for who they are. We’re seeing this more and more.”
To the average person, automatically dismissing a person’s opinion simply because of their race or ethnicity is racism.
In his article “Jews are Not White“, Rabbi Michael Lerner says many Jews, including he, do not consider Jews white, and consider categorizing Jews as white an act of oppression. He says some on the far left categorizing Jews as white is an attempt to paint them not as a historically marginalized and persecuted people with their own unique culture and history, but a part of the generic oppressive power structure.
Whatever one’s definitions for the terms, it should be obvious the rhetorical odiousness of the telling Auschwitz survivors in Pittsburgh or Charleston that they part of “White Supremacy” and part of the “racist oppression.” Following that up by then telling those survivors that any offense they take is “white fragility” is nothing short of gaslighting.
I know people on the left, progressives, people of color and Jews with a variety of opinions and views and considerations, including on this topic. Thus, I am not painting with a broad brush or generalizing. In fact, I know many progressives and people of color who do not subscribe to that definition of racism.
Personally, I find that that definition of racism to be simplistic, artificial and arbitrary (though most simplistic definitions are) and ideologically self-serving. It also is counter to common usage and definition of the term, and, dare I say, common sense. If used as the primary or overarching racial/ethnic/social lens, the removal of antisemitism from the equation and saying antisemitism is not racism, is personally troubling to me, and I would say a fly in the ointment of the equation or at least an obvious question and concern that has to be answered.
However, as with any belief, ideology or model, a key is that is it that matters how one, or groups, using the ‘racism = prejudice + power’ definition consider it.
Though I consider the definition itself false, if one considers it one of many definitions, perspectives and functional tools in the tool box, that is fine and fair, and the definition indeed gives a useful way to look at things (George Box: “All models are false, but some are useful”). A Phillips head screwdriver is an important and useful tool for a particular purpose, but no one conceives of it or uses it as the only tool.
Race, racism, oppression, marginalization and bigotry are incredibly complex and multifaceted areas, full of gray areas, contradictions and self-contradictions that cannot be defined much less solved by one model, theory or equation. Antisemitism demonstrates that one can both be privileged and marginalized, that oppression and persecution can both involve punching down and punching up. Defining any race, ethnicity or large group as monolithically “all this” or “all that,” is embarrassingly simplistic and a type of stereotyping that one would think anti-racism is supposedly aspiring to overcome.
If the ‘racism = privilege + power” is dogmatically used as the sole or key definition and lens through which to view the world and social structures– as some do–, I would call it clearly antisemitic, using dangerous and what most people would see as clearly troubling stereotypes and tropes about Jews.
The irony is, if one categorizes antisemitism as racist (and I’ll let you decide that for yourself), the defines the anti-racism theory and its definition of racism as racist.