The racial politics of antisemitism and Islamophobia

Jews in the US were being increasingly defined as “white” and antisemitism being distanced from groups that fight against racism, anti-Islamic views were being defined as “racism.”

HE CAN be a victim of racism also. (photo credit: REUTERS)
HE CAN be a victim of racism also.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A recent wave of attacks on Jews in Brooklyn led to concern about rising antisemitism. Seven synagogues and Jewish schools were targeted by arson in the fall of this year and there were at least six physical attacks on Jews in October and November. This comes amid a larger trend of assaults on Jews, particularly those who appear Orthodox, with some suspects shouting “fake Jew” as they beat the men. Yet some have attempted to downplay the attacks, asserting that it’s not really antisemitism.
An article in The Forward claimed, “Jews are being targeted, say residents of these communities, by members of non-white ethnic groups who see Jews as symbols of gentrification in their neighborhoods.” According to the article, local non-Jews, unsurprisingly, don’t see the attacks as antisemitic.
“While the attacks are targeting Jews, it may be because black people identify Judaism as ‘a form of almost hyper-whiteness,’ according to Mark Winston Griffith, executive director of the Black Movement Center.” In this narrative, the attacks on Jews are just an extension of “animosity toward white people in general” and Jews have become the new “whites.” Interestingly enough, the actual white people who don’t dress like Orthodox Jews are not seen as “white;” only Jews are. Most importantly, groups that are involved in “social justice” and intersectionality, which struggle against racism, don’t care about the attacks. Conveniently, when Jews are targeted by “non-white” perpetrators, then the Jews are termed “white” and the perpetrators are not termed “racist.”
Across the Atlantic Ocean in the UK, Muslim communities and activists held an event to inaugurate a report on “Islamophobia Defined.” The report sought to create a definition for Islamophobia.
“Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.” An article by Anna Soubry and Wes Streeting, the Conservative and Labour MPs who co-chaired the All Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims, says, “Islamophobia is a form of racism – like antisemitism. It’s time it got its own definition.”
At the very same instant as Jews in the US were being increasingly defined as “white” and antisemitism being distanced from groups that fight against racism, anti-Islamic views were being defined as “racism.” This has to do with racial politics. There is a concerted effort to label Jews as “white,” while labeling all Muslims as people of color, even when Jews and Muslims may come from the same countries and look almost identical. For instance, even if a pair of white people who are identical twins convert to Judaism and Islam, one will become a person of color and suffer racism and the other will be called “white” and if he is attacked in Brooklyn it will be because of his “whiteness.”
THIS PHENOMENON was encapsulated in comments by the Women’s March activist Linda Sarsour in 2016 where she had said that anti-semitism is different than racism against black people or Islamophobia.
“While antisemitism is something that impacts Jewish Americans, it is different than anti-black racism or Islamophobia because it is not systemic, as a Jewish American, particularly a white Jewish American.” She made sure to insert “white” into the definition of Jewish Americans. Muslim Americans, however, are never described as “white,” regardless of how they look and appear. Only Jews are called “white.”
There is an increasing attempt to portray Jews as “white” in order to excuse hatred of them in Western countries. These are the same countries where only a bit over a half century ago, Jews were subjected to genocide specifically for not being white. Now, as being “white” is considered a negative stereotype in Western countries, Jews have been increasingly described as white.
This is not a marginal narrative. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, an academic and activist, tweeted in March 2018 that “white Jewish anti-Blackness is a form of antisemitism.” She then noted, “When I said white Jews I meant all y’all white Europeans, not just the Ashkenazim. Do not try to avoid responsibility white Sephardim.” She went on to claim, “Sephardim in Charleston [North Carolina] first arrived to profit off the slave trade.” She also condemned Israel, claiming “Zionism and white supremacy work together.” In June, civil rights activist Shaun King claimed that “white supremacists” in Israel were targeting an Arab family in Afula. “They want the neighborhood to be for white Jews only.”
Attacks on “white Jews” are also found, oddly, at some Jewish publications. Nylah Burton’s October 18 article in The Forward, titled “Stop Weaponizing Louis Farrakhan against Black Jews,” asserted that “not all forms of antisemitism are alike. White antisemites are motivated by a hatred of Jews and a desire for power. Black antisemites are motivated by anger over gentrification, police brutality and slavery.”
She then claimed that “white Jewish people” were “part of the racist system that keeps black people under the foot of this society.” Black antisemites had suffered this pain, and “you simply cannot separate conversations about black antisemitism from the fact that many black people have directly experienced oppression from white Jewish people.”
In this formulation, not only have Jews turned into “white Jews,” but antisemitism is excused as merely a form of anti-gentrification, just as we heard in the beginning of this discussion with regard to attacks in Brooklyn. In additions Jews are accused of profiting from the “slave trade” and being “white supremacists.” In a sense Jews become a stand in for every crime of white supremacy. This isn’t an argument based on the concept that Jews are “white passing” and sometimes benefit from white privilege, but an attempt to single out Jews are particularly responsible for slavery and white supremacy.
Part of this racial discussion also dovetails with another toxic form of hate crime in which Jews are attacked as “fake Jews” in the US. In a case on a B train in New York, a Jewish man was accosted by an African American who asked if he was Jewish. When he said “Yes,” the other man said, “Blacks are Jews, man. I’m a real Jew, you’re an impostor.” The “fake Jews” accusation showed up at a rally in May in Washington, DC. Council member Elissa Silverman was called a “fake Jew” and Jews were called “termites.” The “termites” term was also used by Farrakhan in October.
The attempt to deracinate Jews from their minority status and to take them away from their Middle Eastern roots and classify them as “white” is a part of a larger agenda. The agenda is not confined to claiming Jews benefit from “white privilege” in the US. If that were the sole agenda, then one could say the same thing for Turkish-Americans or Arab-Americans. Instead, the agenda is to make being Jewish a form of “whiteness,” while make being Muslim not only a minority religion, like Judaism, but a racial minority, like African-Americans. A Jewish American who converts to Islam immediately becomes a victim of racism and Islamophobia. His appearance didn’t change, but how racialized politics and intersectionality classifies people did change.
ACCORDING TO the definition of Islamophobia that has been put forth in the UK, the hatred of Muslims is partly directed at them for the religious clothing they might wear, which is used to “other” them – for instance, the wearing of hijab. Discriminating against someone who wears a beard or hijab is seen as a form of racism. So why isn’t it also a form of racism for a man to beat and attack an Orthodox Jewish man in Brooklyn? Because of an agenda put forth increasingly in some media, among some activists and others that seeks to differentiate and excuse attacks on Jews.
Let’s say you accept the theory behind the “Jews are white” activists. If they are white, then why are their synagogues burned, their graves smashed, swastikas painted on their houses, doors, dorm rooms and places of worship? If they are just “white,” then one would expect swastikas to appear as randomly on other places of worship and for the graves of other groups to be smashed as regularly.
In 2016, more than half of religious hate crimes in America were against Jews. In the UK, there were 672 attacks on Jews from May 2017 to April 2018 and 2,965 attacks on Muslims defined as hate crimes. That’s four times more attacks on Muslims, but there are 10 times as many Muslims in the UK. So Jews are more likely to be a target.
One could see this as an example of the commonality between Jews and Muslims, both of whom are victims. But increasingly, especially in the US, there is an attempt to excuse antisemitism under a racialized lens that denies Jews their diversity and history. The new form of anti-Jewish hatred is being born in the West’s toxic environment of racialized discussions.