The trouble with defining antisemitism
SAM SANDERS, HOST:
Hey, y'all, Sam Sanders here. You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. So we've talked about "The View" on this show before because I am obsessed with that show. And if you'll allow me, we're going to start this episode with another quick discussion of that daytime television talk show. It serves a bigger purpose. Trust me. All right. Let's begin.
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SANDERS: In case you haven't heard, my favorite "View" co-host, Whoopi Goldberg, she said something on that show recently that got her in a lot of trouble. Like, suspended from the show.
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WHOOPI GOLDBERG: The Holocaust isn't about race.
JOYCE BEHAR: No.
GOLDBERG: No. It's not about race.
SANDERS: Whoopi was talking about the Holocaust on "The View" because, well, "The View," and she said something a lot of people thought was antisemitic or racist or something.
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GOLDBERG: It's about man's inhumanity to man. That's what it's about.
BEHAR: But it's about white supremacy.
SANDERS: There was a big backlash. Whoopi was off "The View" for two weeks. And there were condemnations and apologies, et cetera.
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GOLDBERG: Now, words matter, and mine are no exception. I regret my comments as I said, and I stand corrected.
GOLDBERG: But if I'm being honest, the whole thing seemed rather unfulfilling. In all of this outrage, there wasn't a deeper discussion about how to actually think about antisemitism. There was no discussion about how to fight it, and no discussion about how, outside the confines of daytime television, there's been a lot more antisemitism out in the world - period - with deadly consequences.
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UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: As we come on air this afternoon, police are still working a hostage situation at a place of worship in North Texas. Take a look at this map right now.
SANDERS: Just a few weeks before the Whoopi outrage, there was a hostage situation in Colleyville, Texas. A synagogue was targeted on Shabbat. And in recent years, there have been more extreme antisemitic attacks more frequently. At the same time, antisemitic rhetoric has become more mainstream as well. But talking about this, antisemitism, it is really fraught, as Whoopi discovered, even as more and more people are realizing something must be done about it.
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SANDERS: Part of that's because a lot of people don't know much about the tropes and history of antisemitism. And lots of people don't know what antisemitism looks like right now. And there's another reason - people haven't agreed upon an exact definition of antisemitism, not even the Jewish community.
DOV WAXMAN: There isn't some clear consensus among Jews in America or elsewhere, for that matter, about really what antisemitism is, and certainly not what causes it. And we spend more time today arguing about what we should count as antisemitic and actually spend very little time thinking about how we can actually address antisemitic violence or antisemitic prejudice.
SANDERS: That's Dov Waxman. He's a professor and the director of UCLA's Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies. I talk with Dov about what people are getting wrong about antisemitism. We also discuss how to fight it when it happens. And of course, I made Dov talk with me about Whoopi. I learned so much in this chat. I hope you do as well.
WAXMAN: It used to be thought easily we could just say antisemitism is hatred against Jewish people, right? Antisemitism is hostility and hatred expressed in terms of antisemitic prejudices. That understanding that antisemitism is simply a form of hatred I think doesn't get at the ways in which it can often operate in more subtle and insidious ways, that a person may not hate Jews, but they may simply harbor stereotypes that are antisemitic. It can be kind of implicit antisemitism, just as we can talk about implicit racism.
So in that sense, we have to think about antisemitism as beliefs, attitudes and stereotypes that are negative towards Jews, and also think about antisemitism as negative outcomes affecting Jews. In other words, sidelining Jews or excluding Jews, that can be antisemitic, even when there is no intention. And so...
WAXMAN: ...Antisemitism is a much more complicated phenomena than simply, you know, hatred against Jews.
SANDERS: You know, there are conflicting definitions of the term itself. And there's a conflict over what is defined as antisemitism based on people's views about Israel and Zionism. Can you explain that?
WAXMAN: Yes. So this is really, I think, at the heart of the debate or really argument over the definition of antisemitism today, because there has been for some time now an attempt to expand the definition of antisemitism to include anti-Zionism, to include opposition to Israel, or at least opposition to the existence of Israel as a Jewish state. And some, including many Jewish American organizations and the Israeli government, insist that anti-Zionism, opposition to Israel's existence, or even, you know, certain kinds of criticisms of Israel or certain positions in support of the Palestinians, cross the line and should be considered antisemitic.
And this is something that divides Jews themselves. There's no real agreement as to whether anti-Zionism should be equated with antisemitism. My own position is that it's really simplistic to simply equate anti-Zionism with antisemitism. For one thing, that would suggest that many Palestinians who oppose Zionism and who oppose Zionism for understandable reasons, given the impact that Zionism and Israel has had upon the Palestinian nation. That, you know, if we say anti-Zionism is antisemitic, we're essentially saying all or most Palestinians are antisemitic. It's a risk of kind of criminalizing Palestinian activism. So I think the question we should ask is not is anti-Zionism antisemitic, but when does anti-Zionism become antisemitic?
SANDERS: You know, the word itself is, in some regards, controversial. It comes from an antisemite. Can you tell us the history of the word itself, in the 1870s coming from this German journalist Wilhelm Marr? What was happening then and what was he doing?
WAXMAN: Well, he was forming a league of antisemites, essentially, a kind of a political movement. This was really - he actually had Jewish acquaintances and even friends and didn't necessarily think of himself as somebody who hated Jews, per se. But this was a time where the, you know, ideas of scientific racism were emerging. The idea is that, you know, people could be divided scientifically, objectively on the basis of their race, and that there was a kind of hierarchy of races and antisemitism then was really a form of politics that became very popular in the late 19th century of scapegoating one race, the Jewish race, as it was seen at the time, for all the kind of social and economic ills at the time. So he was really a, you know, I think, an ambitious politician who saw a political benefit in scapegoating Jews and forming this new antisemitic league based upon these, you know, pseudoscientific theories that were popular at the time.
SANDERS: Yeah. The word itself, it kind of suggests that there is a Semitic race, but there's a larger macro question of, like, what does it actually mean to be a Jew right now? Is being Jewish a culture? Is being Jewish a religion? Is being Jewish a race? Is it something altogether different? I mean, how do you define that?
WAXMAN: Yeah. I mean, this is a subject of great confusion. I mean, just recently, there was the controversy over Whoopi Goldberg's comment on "The View" that the Holocaust wasn't about race. And many people said, well, of course, because, you know, Jews were persecuted as a kind of subhuman race...
SANDERS: As a race.
WAXMAN: ...That was what...
WAXMAN: ...They were defined under Nazi laws as a race and persecuted as a race. So in Nazi Germany and indeed in Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century, Jews were seen as a race under racial antisemitism. In the United States, by contrast, we think of race more in terms of color. And Jews are often inscribed as white, and that's why people don't think Jews are a race. And I think this just goes to show, you know, that these are kind of fluid categories, like...
SANDERS: And made-up categories. Race is made up.
WAXMAN: Absolutely invented categories; they don't exist as real things. So in one context, Jews were seen as a race, in another context, they are not seen as a race. Jews themselves, I think, would see themselves not merely as members of a religion. There's a distinction between the Jewish religion, Judaism and the Jewish people. So I think the more widespread understanding among Jews, at least, is that they are kind of an ethno-religious group, a people for whom Judaism is their religion. But indeed, there are many Jews who don't believe in Judaism, who wouldn't - or maybe who are completely atheist, but still define themselves as Jews. And that's why we can't think of Jews just as members of a religious group.
SANDERS: Coming up, Dov talks about what antisemitism looks like today. Stay with us.
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SANDERS: I want to ask you to just lay out how antisemitism looks today and how that differs from what it looked like in the past.
WAXMAN: In some ways, you know, antisemitism, in the United States at least, doesn't look all that different from earlier forms of antisemitism. The belief in antisemitic conspiracies that Jews are out to dominate and control the world, the belief that Jews are somehow only loyal to themselves or maybe toward Israel, the belief that Jews are greedy and all very good at making money, these kinds of things are not new. These are age-old stereotypes, and they continue to be, you know, believed by not a small number of people. And certainly on the far right, you see the kind of same, you know, racialized form of antisemitism that was popular years ago in Europe at the time of the Nazi Germany. So in that sense, little has changed.
WAXMAN: What I think is different is - in a couple of ways - first of all, because, to some extent, antisemitism in the aftermath of the Holocaust was delegitimized - it was unacceptable, it became basically socially taboo - you see less explicit antisemitism in mainstream politics. You see, instead, a more - more coded forms of antisemitism, as I was saying. So in other words, instead of explicitly saying the Jews are responsible for X, the rhetoric now might talk about globalists, which is essentially a code - or cultural Marxist is another term that has been used. So these kinds of words - you know, they're connotations. They still come to mind Jews, and when we see this most clearly in the - I think the word would be demonization of George Soros.
SANDERS: And we should say who he is.
WAXMAN: Yeah, so George Soros is a major financier and philanthropist who made a fortune on the financial markets and speculating but has also, you know, poured a fortune into progressive causes in central and eastern Europe, in trying to promote democracy and civil society there. And as a result, he has become, first and foremost, a target for the right-wing government in Hungary, who have really gone after him and really campaigned in a blatant, blatantly antisemitic manner against George Soros. And now that same campaign against Soros is now appearing on the American right, and we've seen this recently on Fox News, on Tucker Carlson's show.
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TUCKER CARLSON: Hungary has no desire to destroy itself.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Globalism, liberalism, open borders - Soros is the man who stands for all that.
WAXMAN: Blaming George Soros now for, you know, supporting whatever political movement or social movement those on the right decry.
WAXMAN: So he's become a kind of bogeyman on the right, and he happens to be Jewish. In fact, he was a Holocaust survivor, and so the fact that he's become this kind of target for antisemitism is particularly disturbing.
SANDERS: Enriched (ph), yeah.
WAXMAN: But I think it indicates this kind of less explicit form of antisemitism. Another example of the ways in which it comes up today is in the ways in which protesters, for example, against restrictions imposed to deal with the COVID pandemic, have adopted the use of the yellow star, which was the star that marked Jews out during the Holocaust - or have compared COVID restrictions to Nazi Germany. That's, in a way, a minimization of the Holocaust.
SANDERS: It's a minimization, yeah. That is just this - yeah.
WAXMAN: It's a minimization. And I think for many Jews, that's deeply offensive. The other way in which antisemitism can manifest today is on the left, and that comes up largely in debates about Israel-Palestine. You know, sometimes you may hear this in the accusation that, say, the Jewish lobby, or what, more likely, is referred to as the Israel lobby, controls American foreign policy - or even is responsible for America's wars in the Middle East. And again, this, in some ways, evokes this older antisemitic conspiracy that Jews are manipulating world events from behind the scenes - that they kind of pull the string levers of power quietly, silently behind the strings. People who make these claims aren't necessarily even aware that they're antisemitic.
SANDERS: Well, it's so in the cultural DNA. I'm just thinking of you talking right now - I remember as a kid hearing people in my family and hearing my friends - the term that they used for bargaining the price down was Jew them down.
SANDERS: Jew the price down. And I didn't learn until, you know, I was a teenager or older that, oh, this is very problematic, and it has a long history that is very problematic. I was raised an evangelical Christian, and a lot of that antisemitism you speak of was built in the DNA of the religion, you know? But there was also, on the flip side, this weird and strange embrace of the idea of the Jew. I mean, you know this - there is a strain of evangelicalism that believes Christ himself will not come back and rapture his flock until a certain number of Jews confess and devote their hearts to Christ. I remember hearing some folks back in the day say that they were praying for 144,000 Jews to convert and believe in Jesus because only then could Christ come back. And then you even see now, there are white supremacists - white supremacists - who support Israel. There's this weird - especially in theology, in Christian theology - this equal parts rebuke and embrace of the very idea of the Jew.
WAXMAN: Absolutely, I think - well, for one thing, I think there's a very fine line between what you might call philo-semitism and antisemitism. Both often play off Jewish stereotypes. Say, for one person, Jews are good with money is a positive trait, and they might think - imagine that when they say that they see themselves as a philosee (ph) might, as, say, Donald Trump, I think, does. But the same belief, that - you know, the association of Jews and money can also fuel antisemitism. So I think that's true for many people, but I think you're absolutely right. Within the evangelical Christian community, there is at least a strain of evangelical Christianity which believes that, ultimately, the return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel, and then their eventual conversion, is part of the prophecy of the second coming of Jesus.
WAXMAN: You know, some of these people - many of them - are also very strong supporters of the state of Israel today, very strong. And this just - as are, as you mentioned, some on the far right, both the far right in the United States and particularly in the European far right, who proclaim their strong support for Israel for a variety of reasons. And that just goes to show that you can be pro-Israel and antisemitic. Supporting Israel doesn't mean you're somehow - you get a get-out-of-jail card when it comes to antisemitism.
SANDERS: How unique is this moment where it seems as if antisemitism and the language of antisemitism and the coded language of it is so intertwined with mainstream politics? I feel like there were moments in history before where politicians who wanted to be antisemitic did it real loud, and now it seems, especially hearing you describe what this language looks like, it can happen quietly and be all over our politics. Is that unique to this moment?
WAXMAN: You know, there is a feeling among Jewish Americans today that we are in entirely new times, that this rising - rise of antisemitism, the mainstreaming of antisemitism in American politics, the increase of hate crimes - this is all completely new, and we've never been there before. And I think if we look back to, say, the 1920s and 1930s, antisemitism was pretty widespread then, and there were antisemitic movements that really trafficked in antisemitism and that were widely supported and very popular and quite mainstream among Americans, and even among some American politicians. So I think it's true that compared with the post-war period, we haven't seen in the United States this kind of alarming rise of antisemitism or the ways in which it's entering mainstream politics. But I think in the 1920s and 1930s, we will see some parallels with the situation today.
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SANDERS: Up next, how do you fight antisemitism? Stick around.
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SANDERS: You know, when I think about what you do to push back against the hate crimes against Jews, I look at a lot of mainstream American white supremacist ideology. And, you know, you cannot be a white supremacist without also being antisemitic. This ideology - it lumps Jews in with Black people and Latinos and Asians and every other. And in this orthodoxy, white supremacists cast Jews as, like, the evil ringleaders of all of the darker-skinned people. And so I guess what I'm asking is, if white supremacy needs antisemitism to exist and it's part of anti-Black and anti-brown racism, is a response to antisemitism - does it need to be similar to the response to racism?
WAXMAN: Yes, that is exactly my view. I think that antisemitism in the United States is a core component of the kind of white nationalist worldview, particularly in this form of the so-called kind of replacement theory, this idea that somehow Jews are orchestrating opening up the gates of the United States to immigrants in order to bring about a nonwhite majority in the United States. But it goes to show, I think, that the great danger - not the only, but the greatest dangers facing Jews in the United States today come from the far right. That is where primarily - not solely, but primarily - you see the threat of violent antisemitism, the actual organizing of attacks against Jews. And in that respect, I think the fight against antisemitism has to be an inseparable part of the wider fight against racism and other forms of prejudice in this country.
I mean, it's not just Jews who have been facing a rising tide of hate crime. As we know, so, too, have African Americans, Asian Americans, LGBTQ people. I mean, across the board, there is an epidemic of hate, if you like. And I think we need to think about what to do about that. Is this happening both in real time and online, as well? So in many ways, I think it doesn't serve Jews well to focus on antisemitism alone. I think the battle against antisemitism largely has to be framed in terms of a wider struggle against all forms of racism. And after all, in my mind, antisemitism is a form of anti-Jewish racism.
SANDERS: Yeah. Well, and also, I think it's like - I guess at least here in the American context, the real struggle is against an idea and a belief that America was just created for white people and only should exist for them.
SANDERS: And if that is what we're fighting, everybody who is not white is kind of fighting the same thing, to a certain extent.
WAXMAN: Absolutely. I think we're seeing a kind of backlash of what you might call white Christian nationalism - this idea not only that the United States was made by and is designed for white people, but also Christian nationalism, which overlaps. This idea is really gaining steam as a kind of backlash, I think, to the political, social and demographic changes that have been taking place in the United States over the last few decades, I don't think this backlash is likely to die down. In fact, I think, even though Donald Trump may no longer be in office, it will continue to be a threat to minority groups in the United States for years to come. And I think that threat needs to be clearly identified. We have to have a sense of proportion about where these dangers are.
And I think, in tackling this, it's absolutely necessary to form a broad kind of coalition or alliance. And that was something that was done in the past when African Americans and Jews aligned in the civil rights struggle in the 1960s. That was partly because there was a recognition that both groups shared common interests. Both groups wanted to fight against white supremacy, and there's no small amount of airbrushing of the past because it wasn't quite as harmonious in alliance. And it wasn't all Jews supporting the civil rights movement by any stretch of the imagination. But I think we need to think again of really linking these struggles rather than seeing them as different groups fighting their own discrete battles.
SANDERS: With all this said, what can listeners now, who want to help fight this, what's a small thing they can do to fight antisemitism, big and small, wherever it is?
WAXMAN: The thing that's incumbent upon all of us when we hear prejudice or we witness discrimination is to speak up. We're not always going to be in the position that we can take action against racist groups or antisemitic groups or organizations. We can't - I'm not suggesting we go out and do battle on the streets. But I think when we hear a remark, when we see something, when we hear people being maligned, even if it's in just a - even if it's just meant as a offhand joke, we need to be able to call that out. We need to be able to stand up and say, you know what? You may not realize it, I'm not saying you're a bad person for saying it, but this statement that you just said is racist. This statement is bigoted.
So I think people, first and foremost, need to educate themselves about how racism can operate, what racism is, what antisemitism is. And then, you know, when you come across that, which you will inevitably come across - even in just casual conversations, you need to be able - just make it clear that that's not acceptable, and point that out and not be afraid to do so.
SANDERS: That requires a level of growth and a level of understanding of racism and antisemitism that I think a lot of people don't have. I'll have conversations with folks about racism, and they'll say, well, I didn't do anything racist because I am not racist. I, as a person, love Black people, whatever. I'm not racist. And the whole point is like, it's not about calling a person racist or not racist or antisemitic or not. It's saying you did a racism, learn from it.
SANDERS: I don't get to say whether you are totally this or that, but I know those behaviors when I see them, and let's talk about behaviors and leave the judgment of the person to whoever else, you know. And I think asking people to divorce their actions from their identities is a big step.
WAXMAN: It is a big step. But I think, when it comes to the conversation around race in the United States, the last few years have - there has been a transformation - it's by no means complete and it's by no means adequate. But I think, you know, there has been a shift among, you know, many white Americans that - by no means all - in recognizing that yes, they can hold racist stereotypes or racist bias or that there can be racist outcomes even when people may not think of themselves as racists. So I think we are beginning to have a better understanding of how racism can operate.
WAXMAN: So I think there is a beginning of a shift, and I hope that will also encompass antisemitism and Islamophobia, anti-Asian racism, and where we can begin to see these things, not just in terms of the, you know, the extremists who hold these views, the hate groups or the hate-inspired individuals, but understanding that these are actually much more pervasive, and that we may have internalized some of these ideas and some of these stereotypes and beliefs, even without realizing it. And therefore, we do have a duty to, like, be attentive to what we say and do. And when it's pointed out to us that this is racist or antisemitic or Islamophobic, that we take that on board and that we kind of accept that that's not necessarily an indictment of who we are as a person, but it's a learning opportunity.
SANDERS: We're not saying all of you is bad. We're saying, in the words of the great Tyra Banks, learn something from this. Learn something from this. All right. That's all I got for you. This is a very tough topic, but I enjoyed our very engaging conversation about it. Thank you so much, sir. I appreciate it.
WAXMAN: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.
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SANDERS: Thanks again to my guest, Dov Waxman. He's a professor and director of the UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies.
All right. This episode of IT'S BEEN A MINUTE was produced by Liam McBain and edited by Jordana Hochman. We had engineering help from Patrick Murray. And special thanks to Peter Beinart and Barry Trachtenberg.
Listeners, of course, come back to this podcast feed for more IT'S BEEN A MINUTE on Friday. And this Friday show, after this one, it's going to be my last show. I'll make it fun. I promise. Come listen.
And for that episode, I want to hear you share the best thing that happened to you all week. Keep sending those. Just record yourself an email that file to us at email@example.com - firstname.lastname@example.org.
All right. Listeners, till Friday, thanks for listening. I'm Sam Sanders. We'll talk soon.
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