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The Antisemitism of Erasure
The ‘antisemitism of erasure’ is a term we have coined for a group of types of antisemitism which may at first seem unrelated, but which have in common of that they are forms of erasure or denial – of Jewish ethnicity, Jewish achievements, of ‘the wrong kind of Jews’ – and of antisemitism itself.
Example 44: Denying that Jews are an ethnic group, and claiming that they are just a religious group:
Many antisemites claim that being Jewish is only a matter of religion, not of ethnicity. This, they believe, helps them to deny charges of racism against Jews, since they are merely prejudiced against – or they would say aiming justified criticism against – a religious group. Some of these people question the foundation or existence of the state of Israel on the grounds that a country should not be reserved for or necessarily have a majority of, those practising a particular religion. Other people, however, are genuinely ignorant about Jewish identity, and easily misled by this false claim.
Jews are not just a religious group – in modern times there are many secular Jews – but an ancient people, or ethnicity, originating in the Middle East and with a millennia-long history. An ethnic group is defined as ‘a social group that shares a common and distinctive culture, religion, language, or the like’, but in addition to this, many Jews share genetic characteristics, and this bears witness to the history, over thousands of years, of limited intermarriage with non-Jews, and only limited conversion to Judaism by non-Jews in many areas and eras. Certain illnesses, such as Tay Sachs disease, affect almost exclusively those with an Ashkenazi Jewish background. Some have called Jews an ‘ethno-religious group’ to reflect the complexity of definition by religion and/or ethnicity.
Perhaps the most hurtful aspect of being misdefined by religious practice only is this: neither the Pogroms against the Jews nor Nazi persecution were conditional on Jews following the Jewish religion; Nazi persecution was based on Jewish ancestry and equally affected religious Jews, secular Jews, and converts to other religions including Christianity. Indeed, all streets and buildings named after the composer Felix Mendelssohn were renamed by the Nazis, purely because of his Jewish ethnicity, even though he was baptised a Christian and never practised Judaism during his life.
Denial that a particular ethnicity even exists is in many ways one of the most fundamental forms of racism; it seeks to erase a people, in this instance Jewish people, and throw doubt on what for many is a central part of their identity.
Example 45: The Khazar myth:
The Khazar myth is another way of distorting what is known about Jewish ethnicity and so erasing Jews as a people.
According to a theory popularised by Arthur Koestler in his book The Thirteenth Tribe, the Khazars were a historical (6th to 9th centuries CE) kingdom near modern-day Mongolia whose rulers and a large part of the population converted to Judaism; it was theorised that this was the origin of Ashkenazi Jews, who were therefore of non-middle-Eastern heritage. However, the consensus is that this theory is borne out neither by genetic studies which have found no substantive evidence of a Khazar origin among Ashkenazi Jews, nor by linguists, who have found no significant link between Turkic languages and Yiddish. It can thus now be said that the Khazar theory is a myth (albeit there may have been some Khazari Jews). However, it is still used to argue that some or all Jews are lying about who they say they are, that they are ‘fake Jews’, not descended from members of the tribes of Israel (of course some Jews are in any case converts, or descended from converts) and have attained their religious status by deception. It often features in conspiracy theories, especially more religious-based and esoteric ones such as the gobbledegook example given below. In Russia the Khazar theory has been adapted to suggest that Jews dominated the Khazars, and to justify antisemitism.
In the examples below the myth is used by anti-Zionists to suggest that Israel was founded by Ashkenazi Jews who were ‘really’ Khazar, hence not of middle-eastern ‘Semitic’ origin; and stolen from true ‘Semitic’ people (Palestinians). See Example 6 below – modern academia no longer groups peoples as ‘Semitic’ in any case. Moreover, this claim erases the presence of Sephardi, Mizrahi, Maghrebi and black Jews in Israel.
Example 46: Separation of Jews by non-Jews into ‘real’ and ‘not real’ groups:
This form of antisemitism is one that is more often found on what is sometimes described as the ‘crank’ left than amongst neo-Nazis. Most on that part of the left are rarely willing to openly damn all Jewish people. Instead, they claim to be not antisemitic, but merely anti-Zionist. This can lead them in turn to emphasise the support not just of Jewish anti-Zionists, such as Tony Greenstein and Jewish Voice for Labour, but also of the tiny section of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community that rejects Israel not on political grounds, but on the basis that, since the Messiah has not yet come, the foundation of the state of Israel is in effect a blasphemy.
Although anti-Zionist attitudes are to be found in some larger ultra-Orthodox groups, the tiny Neturei Karta, which has only about 1500 members worldwide, is particularly fundamentalist on this question, so much so that they enthusiastically join pro-Palestinian demonstrations. They have even demonstrated in favour of Hungarian fascist and antisemitic party Jobbik, so are not natural allies of the left. Indeed, their views on matters such as women’s rights and tendency towards Holocaust revisionism makes even some extreme anti-Zionists wary of associating with them.
Some antisemitic people who identify with the left will then claim that NK are the true Jews, and that all those who do not regard Israel’s existence as blasphemy or a criminal act are fake Jews. They also tend to either exaggerate NK’s size, or try to make out that they are representative of opinion within the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community as a whole, rather than being a tiny minority of ultra-Orthodox, let alone all Jews. Any attempt by non-Jews to portray NK as the real Jews, and the rest of the Jewish community as fake, is another very strong example of antisemitism in practice. It is for Jewish people themselves to decide who is and who is not a Jew.
Example 47: Stating that Jews have no culture of their own but stole all their traditions, art, etc., from other cultures:
This form of antisemitism, like so many others, is derived directly from the Nazis, and is much more common on today’s neo-Nazi right than on the ‘crank’ left, which tends to prefer insinuation to direct accusation in many of the types of antisemitism that they most prevalently used.
This is an extract from Pesthauch der Welt (‘The Pestilential Miasma of the World’) by Robert Ley, a particularly nasty Nazi anti-Semitic book published late in the war:
‘If anyone wishes further proof for the genuinely parasitic nature of Jewry, he should ask whether or not the Jews have ever created a culture, an economy, or a state of their own. Can anyone find a single Jew anywhere who, in any field whatever, has shown creative, original abilities? I know that Jewish propaganda has been trying for millennia to find this proof. Whenever a Jew somewhere or another shows some superficial talent, the whole Jewish mess tries to make such superficial talent into real talent in order to prove that the Jews, too, can be creative. However, when anyone looks behind such Jewish machinations, he will easily be able to prove that the ostensible Jewish creations are actually stolen, plagiarized, or borrowed from somewhere else.’
In other words, Nazis stated that everything Jews created was ‘plagiarised’ from the Aryan race.
The Facebook post below repeats a conspiracy theory started by the Nazis that Einstein was a plagiarist who stole other people’s ideas. This idea is also expressed at https://www.biblebelievers.org.au/einstein.htm; this is is a very unpleasant Christian fundamentalist site which states not just that Einstein was a plagiarist, but that this was covered up by ‘The Jew-controlled media’.
Some forms of antisemitism attempt to show that the Jewish people are inferior, dangerous or undesirable in various other ways. This form however is one of a group which essentially tries to show that the Jews are not really a people at all, or that if they are, they are parasitic in cultural terms. Of course, it bears no relation to reality; there are many creative pursuits as well as types of scientific achievement in which Jewish people have, of course, excelled, ranging from song-writing to physics. Some types of antisemitism are based on at least a vague grain of truth, although invariably distorted or hugely exaggerated; this type doesn’t even start from a grain of truth, but is rooted almost entirely in invention, in lies.
Example 48: The claim that the word antisemitism was stolen by Jews off the other people of Semitic origin:
We have seen above that antisemites have attempted to show that Jews are not a people, or do not have a genuine heritage of their own. This even extends to the words antisemitism, antisemite and antisemitic – it is often claimed that since there are other ‘Semitic peoples’ than Jews, then (illogically), the word antisemitism does not mean prejudice against or hatred of Jews. Bizarrely, this specious claim is used to minimise or deny the reality of antisemitism.
The German word antisemitisch was first used in 1860 by the Austrian Jewish scholar Moritz Steinschneider (1816–1907) in the phrase antisemitische Vorurteile (antisemitic prejudices). Steinschneider was describing false theories by Renan about how ‘Semitic races’ were inferior to ‘Aryan races'”. Such pseudoscientific race theories grew during the 19th century, but the term ‘Semitic race’ is now obselete, though there is still a language group of Semitic languages, which includes Arabic, Hebrew and Maltese among others.
In 1879 German antisemite Wilhelm Marr published a pamphlet where he used the term Semitismus interchangeable with the word Judentum to denote Jews and Jewishness. This was followed by his use of the word Antisemitismus to describe what he saw as a necessary overcoming the Jewish ‘spirit’ by the Germanic ‘spirit’. Certainly from this time ‘Antisemitism’ has therefore clearly meant opposition to Jews, not to ‘Semites’ more generally (whether as Semitic ‘races’ or speakers of Semitic languages). Initially, as it was invented by Marr who approved of antisemitism, some Jewish people still today prefer the alternatives ‘Jew-hate’ or ‘Jew-hatred’. However, these alternatives are unlikely to replace the usual term, which is so widespread we are stuck with it. (We should also point out that a further inaccuracy about ‘Semitic’ is that Jews comprise many different groups including black people, going beyond even the original outdated classification of ‘Semitic’ peoples)
To clarify that antisemitism does not mean racism against ‘Semitic’ peoples, many prefer to spell it as antisemitism rather than ‘anti-Semitism’ or even ‘anti-semitism’, and the same applies to antisemitic and antisemite: there is no such thing as ‘Semitism’ or (in modern theory) a ‘Semite’, and ‘Semitic’ applies only to a language group. We have adopted this usage here.
In the first two illustrations below (by the same person), it is suggested that Jews purposely excluded other Semites from the term ‘antisemitism’ although, as we have seen, Jews invented neither the term nor the common meaning. In the third illustration, the argument that ‘antisemitism applies to all Semitic peoples’ is introduced, irrelevantly, into a denial that socialists can be antisemitic.
Example 49: Responding unsympathetically to concerns about antisemitism by saying that it does not exist if it is not illegal:
This is another instance of people apparently regarding antisemitism as a lesser form of racism, and it is a criterion which tends not to be used about other forms of racism, at least not on the left.
Of course many forms of racism don’t actually break the law in this country or many countries – even Holocaust denial is not per se illegal in this country although it is in a few countries e.g. Germany. To make illegality the sole arbiter of what is racist is, in our view, racist itself and, in the case shown here, antisemitic. (It is perfectly respectable, for example, to argue that it is not possible to draft a satisfactory law to prevent Holocaust denial, and indeed from a legal point of view it is possible that such a law could pose some questions which are potentially difficult to answer; it could, for example, make it technically illegal for anti-racist groups to highlight and oppose such denial or revisionism.) However, very few people would argue that Holocaust denial is not a racist act, or that wearing a swastika armband, which is also not in itself illegal in Britain, is not a racist act.
In the example below, the author of the tweet is motivated by a wish to minimise antisemitism in the Labour party, by using this spurious argument. The great majority of complaints about antisemitism in Labour do not involve illegal acts, but the acts complained of are no less antisemitic for that reason.
Example 50: Erasure of antisemitism – ‘denialism’ & ‘minimisation’:
This could include claiming that antisemitism is not a significant problem, or doesn’t exist at all, in society or in a section of it. In recent years, especially since 2015, it has become particularly common with regard to antisemitism in the British Labour Party. This type of antisemitism is often called denialism, and in a sense it too, like the other instances above, is a form of erasure, especially if done maliciously. Related to denialism is minimisation which downplays antisemitism even if not completely denying its existence.
The statement “I think that antisemitism in the Labour Party isn’t as great a problem as people make out” is perhaps not necessarily antisemitic, although it is not at all uncommon for a person who minimises Labour antisemitism to demonstrate other antisemitic beliefs on their social media timeline.
It can however be antisemitic if the person decides to take into account the views of only certain Jewish organisations – those with a point of view that chimes with what he/she believes. It is particularly offensive if a non-Jew contradicts a Jew who is concerned about left antisemitism; members of ethnic minorities must be listened to with respect and understanding when they complain about incidences of racism.
This issue is complicated because some prominent Jewish people (e.g. Michael Rosen) and organisations (e.g. Jewish Voice for Labour) do frequently state that antisemitism on the left is both exaggerated, and much less serious than it is on the far right. In terms of actual physical threat to Jews, far-right antisemitism is certainly more dangerous: but in terms of verbal and online antisemitism, the vast majority of British Jews contend that left antisemitism is not exaggerated at all, and is a serious problem. In other words, Rosen and JVL’s views on this subject, while genuinely held, are not representative of the majority views of the UK Jewish community.
It is frequently said by the left that antisemitism is ‘weaponised’ by the right of the Labour Party (as well as by the Tories, and by Israel and ‘Zionists’), i.e. used spuriously to damn the left as a whole; and it would be foolish to deny this sometimes happens. For example, some of the high-profile people resigning from the Parliamentary Labour Party during 2019 and citing antisemitism as a reason had, in our opinion, a strong alternative reason for leaving the Party and could well have used antisemitism, if you like, as a smokescreen. One example is Ivan Lewis, the then MP for Bury South, who had already been suspended for the party on suspicion of sexual harassment: another is Frank Field, the then MP for Birkenhead, who had shown rather little interest in the issue of antisemitism on a long-term basis before suddenly resigning the Labour whip.
While such cases do in our opinion certainly exist, we contend that the great majority of accusations of antisemitism are absolutely legitimate and that talk of them being exaggerated for purposes of weaponisation is offensive and wrong. It is offensive that antisemitism has thus become a factional issue within the Labour Party and on the wider left, rather than being dealt with as both a significant problem in Labour, and as completely unacceptable in any case in a socialist and antiracist party. We have purposely not given examples here, although there are countless ones available to view; this is not totally without controversy, with some people not entirely accepting that denialism or minimisation is an actual form of antisemitism. We contend that it can often amount to antisemitism, and have therefore included it in our Examples.