It needs to be said categorically because it is getting in the way of defending Palestinian rights specifically and human rights in general: Anti-Semitism, pervasive and deadly only a couple generations ago, is no longer a form of oppression.
This does not mean that Jews are never oppressed. Many are. But when Jews experience oppression today, it is because they are queer, or disabled, or elderly, or poor, or women, or because they come from one of the many marginalized Jewish communities of colour, such as the Bene Israels, the Ethiopian Jews, the Mizrachim, or the Sephardim. Jews experience oppression based on race, class, sexual orientation, physical ability, and yes, even religious practice, to a point, since Judaism remains a comparatively marginalized religion even in places where Jews as a people prosper, even if finding a Bat Mitzvah card is easier today than it used to be.
But Jews are not currently oppressed on the basis of Jewish identity alone. Measured in terms of social power, a white Jewish male is just another white male, his Jewishness of no more relevance than if he were Dutch or Irish. Individual Jews may continue to understand themselves as a "race," much in the way Hitler did, and they may still be perceived as such by some non-Jews, but the ability of Jews to access social privilege is not determined by this racial understanding of Jewishness. Jews as a category apart – specifically, as a racial category, which has been the basis of anti-Semitism since at least the mid-nineteenth century – can no longer with any reasonable justification earn them recognition as an equity-seeking group. Not anymore. As a form of oppression, anti-Semitism is experienced only on the basis of Jewish religious observance, and then only insofar as the world in which they live does not adequately accommodate Judaic practices, such as the keeping of the Sabbath, or acknowledge Jewish faith traditions.
Could anti-Semitism become dangerous again? Nazi-like dangerous? Anything could happen in the future. But it isn’t dangerous now.
Distinguishing between prejudice and oppression
To understand why I say this, it’s important to distinguish between prejudice and oppression. Prejudice is simply an opinion based on limited information or stereotypes. Everyone has prejudices. We all have some opinions based on incomplete information.
Prejudices only have the capacity to become oppression, however, when they are held by those who occupy positions of power and privilege. The rich and the poor may each believe the other is lazy, but only the rich have the capacity to translate this prejudice into laws and social policies that protect their wealth and perpetuate the suffering of the poor. There’s a very simply formula in anti-oppression theory:
oppression = prejudice + power
Prejudice can exist at both an ideological level (e.g. "white people are ignorant and mean") and at an individual level (e.g. "I won’t vote for that white politician"), but unless that prejudice can also translate into institutional practices that marginalize or exclude, then that prejudice is not oppression but merely a prejudice. Given the current reality of global white supremacy, neither of the examples I have given above have the potential to oppress.
In my grandparents’ time, anti-Semitism excluded Jews from universities, hotels, beaches, and neighbourhoods. Whole industries were closed to Jews. Jewish refugees from Hitler during the war were denied refuge in safe countries merely because they were Jews. But it’s not 1938 anymore. Today, anti-Semitism’s institutional impacts are negligible if non-existent. It has been downgraded from a form of oppression to a prejudice.
Are there people today who dislike Jews just because they are Jews? Certainly. Are there anti-Semites who defile Jewish cemeteries with swastikas and who make anti-Semitic jokes? Unfortunately, yes. But have all these anti-Semites combined managed to exclude Jews from positions of influence, power, and wealth just because they are Jews? Hardly.
Ignore the B’nai Brith reports that anti-Semitic attacks are on the rise – 8.9% higher in 2008, according to their latest "Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents" in Canada. Part of the problem with the audit is its loose definition of anti-Semitism. Despite the report’s disclaimers that it does not count criticisms of Israel as incidents of anti-Semitism, it does include any criticism of Israel that involves the "deligitimizaiton, demonization, and criminalization" of Israel – an overly broad net that would include basically anything B’nai Brith doesn’t like, such as the annual Israeli Apartheid Week events on campuses, which usually features Jewish speakers and are often put together in collaboration with Jewish organizers. Moreover, one could argue that the high reporting of anti-Semitic incidents, especially to police, is an indication of the social privilege Jews enjoy, given that most racialized groups don’t trust law enforcement agencies enough to report acts of racism, either because they don’t expect the people who work in law enforcement to recognize racism, or because their experience has taught them that law enforcers don’t take it seriously. In fact, in real racism, law enforcers and the judicial system are perpetrators of racism. They’re not the people you go to for help.
On the surface, B’nai Brith’s annual "Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents" would appear alarming, but only because it fails to distinguish between prejudice and oppression and identify anti-Semitism as the prejudice it has now become. When every act of prejudice appears as a manifestation of oppression, the world does indeed seem a scary place.
Make no mistake, it’s not fun to be at the receiving end of prejudice. I did not appreciate the drunk several years ago at a hotel in Mexico who jokingly referred to a fire set for the purpose of collecting insurance money as "a Jewish fire." Nor did I enjoy having a boorish professor in first year university tell me I had "the face of someone who looked like he was about to make a very good deal." But at the end of the day, I had the money and leisure time to vacation at that hotel in Mexico, and the boorish professor gave me an "A" in his course. (Maybe he was scared of my Jewish lawyer.) So while I have experienced anti-Semitism as a form of prejudice, I have not experienced it as a form of oppression. It has not resulted in my being socially or economically marginalized.
Anti-Semitism in Arab, Muslim, or non-Western countries
Of course, I’m talking about Canada here – as well as North America and, more generally, "the West" – but I would argue that Jews have little reason to fear anti-Semitism in other parts of the world too. Take, for example, the anti-Semitism of Arab countries that is so often invoked (and frequently exaggerated) to justify the need for the state of Israel, despite the fact that it was actually the creation of Israel that provoked the modern persecution of Jews in these countries, which up until the 1980s was real enough. Sometimes the anti-Semitism was state-sponsored, while other times it emerged as part of a broader popular reaction against Israel, or against a perceived tendency of a particular government to favour Israel. Regardless of the source, to the extent that anti-Semitism still exists in these countries today, it no longer poses any serious threat to Jews, if only because Arab states have already purged themselves of their Jewish populations, and at the end of the day, anti-Semitism is of little importance in countries that no longer contain any Jews and have shown no interest in persecuting Jews abroad.
At any rate, the story of Arab state persecution of Jews is several decades out of date. When the Cold War ended, Arab countries, having lost their Soviet patron, were left politically and militarily weak, leaving the corrupt leaders of these supposedly anti-Semitic states lining up to join the U.S.-Israel alliance. Egypt and Libya, once bastions of Arab state resistance against Israel, are today part of the club. Even Syria wants in. Since 2002, the Arab League has offered Israel full recognition and membership in the Arab League in return for the creation of a Palestinian state inside the 1967 borders. King Hussein of Jordan speaks of a "57-state solution" in which every Muslim state would recognize Israel in return for its withdrawal to the pre-1967 "green line." The only thing preventing this normalization of relations is Israel.
While there may be individuals in Arab or Muslim lands – as well as in Christians lands, by the way – who unjustly hate Jews and go out of their way to do them harm only because they are Jews, such isolated attacks are extremely rare and pose far less risk to Jews than traffic accidents or smoking. Attacks on Jews because they are Jews, such as the murder of the Chabad rabbi and his wife in last year’s Mumbai attacks – and, of course, let’s remember that those attacks killed at least 170 other people, most of whom were not Jewish – are horrible and criminal and rightly condemned. But they do not oppress.
Not all acts of violence are oppression. There is a difference. The source of violence matters. Anyone can commit an act of violence. Oppression is when a dominant group uses social and political institutions to limit the rights and privileges of specific groups under its control. It emanates from centers of power, most often the state.
By this definition, there are very few places in the world where Jews are still oppressed. Iran would be one, given the secondary status of Jews in a state that defines itself as Muslim, but things are evidently comfortable enough for Iran’s 20,000 Jews that few have expressed interest in Israel’s recent overtures to take them in. It’s also interesting to note that in this country whose president is so often maligned for his Holocaust denial, the most popular television mini-series in recent history was Zero Degree Turn, an Iranian Schindler’s List about a real-life Persian diplomat who rescued Jews during the Holocaust.
What’s left is maybe Russia, where anti-Semitism is still quite prevalent and where large numbers of Jews still live. Being Jewish in Russia, I’ve been told by Russian Jews, can be hard, but then life in Russia is hard for most non-Jewish Russians as well. Indeed, during the 1990s, when the state broke down and the criminal gangs and kleptocrats took over, one million Russian Jews were given the option of leaving for Israel, and they did – an option unavailable to most Russians, who had to stay on the sinking ship. In this instance, Russian Jews actually had privileges above and beyond those of ordinary Russians, privileges based solely on the fact that they were Jewish (and in many cases, partly or negligibly Jewish).
The "New" Anti-Semitism
In recent years, people like former Harvard University president Lawrence Summers and feminist scholar Phyllis Chesler, among others, have been warning of a "new anti-Semitism" that disguises itself as criticism of Israel. There is, however, little merit to such claims. First of all, the argument that criticism of Israel is even "potentially" anti-Semitic is a convenient strategy for shutting down all criticism of Israel. Second of all, the claim is groundless since some anti-Semites are actually pro-Israel – like the French nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen, who believes in France for the French and Israel for the Jews – while many Jews, inside and outside of Israel, are not only critical of Israel but even anti-Zionist. There are Jewish traditions of anti-Zionism that go back almost a century, from the bi-national Zionism of Martin Buber and Judah Magnes, to the Bundists, to the religious orthodox like the Neturei Karta who have always opposed Israel on religious grounds. And then, of course, there are the scores of specifically Jewish Palestinian solidarity groups that set themselves up in opposition to Israel, such as Not in Our Name, Jewish Independent Voices, Jewish Voices for Peace, and so forth, as well as the many Jews who have taken leading roles in the international movement of boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel.
Here in Canada, the Liberal MP and prominent "human rights" lawyer Irwin Cotler -probably the most influential Zionist in parliament – has been promoting a variation of the anti-Zionism-is anti-Semitism argument. In a National Post article published earlier this year, Cotler warned of the rise of a new "anti-Semitism expressed as anti-Zionism" that is "predicated on the notion that the Jews alone have no right to a homeland." He explained, "The new anti-Semitism involves discrimination against the right of the Jewish people to live as an equal member of the family of nations — the denial of, and assault upon, the Jewish people’s right even to live — with Israel as the ‘collective Jew among the nations.’"
Cotler’s argument is nonsense since criticism of Israel has never been about whether Jews have a right to national self-determination but about Zionism’s choice to create a state through the dispossession of another people. I have a right to a home, for example, but I don’t have a right to Cotler’s home. The dispute, in other words, is not over the desire of Jews to organize collectively but over real estate: it’s all about location, location, location.
Jews have arrived
Jews today are well represented in all the central institutions of power: in politics, in business, in education, and in the media. The system works for their benefit more than for others. In Montreal, in April 2004, the Snowdon campus of my old elementary school, United Talmud Torah, was torched by an arsonist who left a note linking the attack to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The school’s library was destroyed. The attack made front page news. Politicians around the country condemned it, including the prime minister, as did chiefs of police of several major cities. Donations flooded in from all over Canada. Ordinary people donated books to replace those destroyed by the fire. One year later, news channels across the country featured feel-good stories about the reopening of the restocked, remodelled library.
In contrast, a week before the 2004 attack, the al-Mahdi Islamic Centre in Pickering, outside Toronto, was vandalized and set on fire. The Globe and Mail had a small article about it on page 12. There was no chorus of condemnation from politicians all over the country. Donations did not flood in.
To use an old expression, Jews have arrived. As Bernie Farber, Chief Executive Officer of the Canadian Jewish Congress, told TheToronto Star recently, "We have come to a point in the 21st century where at least in the halls of government, and I think very much in the mainstream of Canadian life, we are viewed as part and parcel of Canadian polity." Interestly, Farber’s "we" does not make clear whether he is referring to Jews in general or to Jewish community "leaders" like himself who head top-down, corporate-dominated organizations like the CJC.
Maybe he sees no distinction. It is, after all, part of the condition of privilege to universalize one’s privileges as "normal" and to mistake one’s own privileged interests as everyone’s. This is why the Jewish billionaires who have appointed themselves our leaders – the Aspers, the Schwartz-Reismans, the Bronfmans, and the Tannenbaums – believe they can speak for the whole of the Jewish people.
The Jewish elite, once excluded from the gentile old boys networks as a result of anti-Semitism, has over time become not only accepted but an integrated part of the white elite to the point where it no longer serves any purpose to note their Jewishness at all. They have even intermarried into each others’ families. They have the same class interests and the same class fears. The Jewish Holocaust haunts them both because, unlike the Romani Holocaust – the Porajmos, a word few people know – it tells a story that strikes at the deepest fears of all privileged classes: the revocation of privilege, the stripping away of whiteness. The dispossession of a Palestinian farmer may be outside of their experience and therefore their capacity to feel empathy, but the degradation of a famous Jewish pianist or the on-going disputes over Nazi-plundered Jewish art – those stories speak to fears they’re familiar with.
For the Jewish and non-Jewish (and half-Jewish) elite, identification with Israel is automatic because it affirms their place among the privileged in the world. Colonialism, after all, has always served to define whiteness by setting it against the darkness of the native, the "savage." Similarly, Zionism affirms the whiteness of Jews, for it places them firmly within the centers of white imperial power and defines them in opposition to the native, the Arab, the Muslim fanatic. Indeed, Zionism, which first took root in the nineteenth century among Christian Zionists like Lord Shaftsbury – or, in Canada, with Henry Wentworth Monk – can be seen not simply as a Jewish ideology but an elite one, intended from its inception to advance first British, then later U.S. imperial interests.
It is important to erase the distinction between the Jewish and non-Jewish elite so that one does not succumb to the old anti-Semitic notion that our country’s corporate and political class is pro-Israel only because there’s a group of hook-nosed Jewish Zionists with money bulging out of their pockets playing them like puppet masters. Jewish leaders are a part of this class, and support for Israel speaks to common class interests, not separate ethnic or "racial" ones.
Distorted human rights policies and bogus equity: the case of schools and universities
It is important to see the place of Jews within the broader white power structure because the perpetuation of the myth that Jews still need protecting as Jews has led to the distortion of equity and human rights arguments for the purposes of silencing criticism of Israel and Zionism. This is especially true of schools and universities, which are the real battlegrounds these days. Student organizers of Israeli Apartheid Week at campuses across Ontario have come up against the arbitrary application of university human rights policies to justify shutting them down. At Carleton University in Ottawa this year, administrators ordered the removal of IAW posters depicting a cartoon of an Israeli helicopter shelling a Palestinian child on the basis that it was "insensitive to the norms of civil discourse in a free and democratic society" and it might "incite others to infringe rights protected in the Ontario Human Rights code" (my emphasis). Shortly afterwards, the University of Ottawa did the same thing. Their communications department issued a memo explaining that the posters did not recognize "the inherent dignitity and equal rights of all students." In 2008, McMaster University banned the use of the word "apartheid" when applied to Israel on the basis that it was "offensive" to many McMaster students, a claim that was supported by McMaster’s Human Rights and Equity Services (HRES) office.
At the high school level, where I teach, it’s even worse. Across the country, Zionist organizations have thoroughly infiltrated our school boards, which have all sorts of formal and informal partnerships with organizations like the Canadian Jewish Congress, the Simon Weisenthal Center, and B’nai Brith. They are facilitated by members on staff who are part of these organizations or who have been influenced by Zionism. Despite the efforts of some exceptional educators in developing equity guidelines and policy language, Zionist groups usually learn how to exploit these policies to their advantage. In fact, Zionist groups have not only hijacked the human rights policies of our boards, but in some cases they have also authored them. Dr. Karen Mock, for example, the former head of B’nai Brith, was appointed a few years ago as the Senior Policy Advisor on Equity and Diversity to the Ontario Ministry of Education and developed the province’s Equity and Inclusive Education Strategy. Formerly, she was head of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation. At a presentation on racism she gave at my school a few years ago, Dr. Mock mentioned anti-Semitism about twelve times, anti-black racism once, and anti-Native racism never. Yet when asked to produce an example of Jewish oppression in the school system, the only example she could come up with was the fact that high school commencement ceremonies are often on Friday nights during the Sabbath.
The Simon Weisenthal Center, which poses as an organization that promotes Holocaust awareness but which actually promotes the view that increasing criticism of Israel is the prelude to another Holocaust, has a program it started a few years ago in which they fly principals and other school staff and administration to Los Angeles for a "Zionist boot camp," where they learn how to go back to their schools and integrate Zionist indoctrination into programs that supposedly promote tolerance. One program, which is actually called "Teaching Tolerance," encourages schools to put up the national flags of various countries in the world, including the Israeli flag, in order to teach "tolerance."
This perverse idea that racial, religious, and cultural tolerance requires embracing the national governments with which various groups may or may not over-identify – a practice that has basically been modeled by Zionists, who cannot extricate Jewish identity from the state of Israel – has had ramifications for other communities not directly tied to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Earlier this school year, Turkish groups used the same arguments as Zionists in their successful efforts to have a book about the Armenian genocide removed from the Toronto District School Board’s list of recommended resources for a new locally developed course on genocide. The argument was that the book would "promote hate" towards Turkish students, which is exactly the same argument Zionists use to shut down criticism of Israel. Both claims defy logic and sense.
During the Israeli bombing of Gaza in January, TDSB staff returning from winter holidays were greeted by a memo directing us not to discuss the situation in Gaza in the classroom, and if it were to come up, to address it in a "balanced" and "non-political" way. The memo was issued by the equity department.
So why no board expression of sympathy for our Palestinian students who have family in Gaza? Why no directives about how to be sensitive to the emotional trauma of Palestinian students at our classes? Is it because the board believes, like the late Israeli prime minister Golda Meir, that there’s no such thing as a Palestinian? Is it because the safe alternative – expressing sympathy for "both sides" affected by the bombing – would have laid bare the fact that only one side was actually suffering?
Clearly, the sensitivities of Jewish students outweigh the feelings of Palestinian students, which is how "equity" gets played out when your equity and human rights policies are either designed by Zionist groups, influenced by Zionist thinking, or enforced in ways that are deferential to Zionist sensitivities.
Another by-product of this skewed notion of "equity" is the incessant and unreasonable demand for "balance" every time criticism of Israel is leveled. And yet efforts to bebalanced have been shut down. Three years ago, complaints from the Canadian Jewish Congress to the TDSB led to the removal from school libraries of Deborah Ellis’s book Three Wishes: Palestinian and Israeli Children Speak, a book that precisely featured a "balance" of perspectives with narratives by Palestinian and Israeli children.
To argue that Israel is an oppressed nation and Jews an equity seeking group cannot help but distort the entire way in which oppression and equity are understood. And this has ramifications for everyone – blacks, First Nations, Hispanics, Muslims, and even Jews who genuinely do experience oppression because they are queer, or disabled, or one of the Jewish racial minorities who experience marginalization in a Jewish community that is dominated by Ashkenazi (European) Jews.
Zionism isn’t just a Palestinian problem, though obviously they suffer its impacts far more than anyone. Zionism is also a Jewish problem, and a black problem, and a Muslim problem, and a First Nations problem. It’s everyone’s problem because its analysis of power places an exaggerated Jewish suffering at the center of social oppression. The sooner we can do away with the notion that Jews as Jews are an oppressed people and that Zionism is inextricable from being Jewish, the sooner we can stop protecting the powerful in the name of human rights and create a world that is equitable and just for everyone, including Jews.
Jason Kunin is a Toronto high school teacher and writer. He can be contacted at [email protected].