In the last two weeks there has been a plethora of discussion on anti-Semitism in this paper. From Teresa Mia Bejan’s reflections on European attitudes to Daniel Wagner’s appeal to consider anti-Jewish sentiment only within the broader context of global racism, a discussion of the goals and practices of discussing anti-Semitism has taken center stage. Even Katie Pomerantz’s article in Tuesday’s news section on Ellis Avenue’s ever-present anti-circumcision activist engages with this issue.
Both Bejan and Wagner make good points, but Wagner is shortsighted in his overall claims. Bejan is correct to call attention to the growing anti-Semitism in European culture, for it is culture that shapes one’s thinking and decision-making. While most Jews on the continent may be safe from organized persecution now, years of negative social attitudes may erode their security in the future. Wagner is right when he demands that anti-Semitism be viewed in the wider context of racism, but is this not the case already? Jews who have suffered from persecution in the last century are among the leading voices against racist activity around the world, from Rwanda to Bosnia to the Sudan. Every Shoah-remembrance program I have ever participated in (and, as the grandchild of a survivor and a former Jewish-day-school student, I have been to many) always ended on the same note: a call for all present to work toward ending racism and hatred of all kind internationally.
Activism against anti-Semitism must be seen as a part of the wider anti-racism struggle, but it would be racist in itself to deny Jews the right to be vigilant over our own community. Every nation has its tragic moments, which are enshrined mournfully in its collective memory. The recollection of these moments strengthens our community and educates future generations. It is a vital cultural activity. Nobody claims that Armenians are detracting from the global anti-racism movement by speaking out about their genocide. African-Americans are not told to sit down and be quiet when they complain about the ill-treatment of their community in modern America, as if their speaking out against racism directed at a particular group is detrimental to the fight against racism on the whole. What is racism if not the sum of its parts?
Wagner is very careful at the close of his article to deny the label of anti-Semite simply because he is a non-Jew who discusses it. Nobody should ever be called a racist for discussing race. Race exists, and the diversity that separates us into nations should be a cause for global learning, not discrimination. The European Union says it best: “Unity in Diversity.” Wagner does cross the line, however, when he alleges that Jews who denounce the growing anti-Semitism are hurting the fight for worldwide tolerance by singling themselves out as if their cause were more important. Jews, in fighting anti-Semitism, do not seek to be any more important than any other people. Nor do we seek to claim to deserve more sympathy than any other people. Jewish efforts to combat anti-Semitism are our community’s means to the common end of defeating racism around the world.
It is Wagner who singles out one group in particular for different treatment. His assertion that Jews are doing themselves a “terrible disservice” by fighting racism against other Jews and not solely as part of non-specific efforts worldwide is a denial of the Jewish nation’s right to a united defense of our community. It is also a de-legitimization of the many efforts Jews have made in the globally war against all forms of racism. Combating any specific type of racism is a contribution in itself to the larger battle.
This debate these past two weeks, as well as the article on circumcision, highlights this tradition in Western society of holding the Jewish people to a higher standard than any other. To Christians and those brought up in those places with a history of Christian influence, Jews are the “people of the book,” a kind of mysterious, “biblical” group that is both central to their cultural identity and yet separate and foreign in their ways. For centuries the Jews have been romanticized in popular culture. It is the great tragedy of the Jewish people that our very existence has become the cultural property of another group. We remain enslaved, not by physical force, but by the West’s denial of our right to define our own identity and shape our own destiny.
I refuse to be defined. The Jewish people must reassert its national rightthat which belongs to all peoplesto shape its own character. It must not be constructed from stories others tell about us; rather, it must be crafted from our own words and deeds. When our tradition tells us that we are a chosen people, it is because we, like every group, have been chosen by history to be masters of our own fate. Every nation is a chosen people. If this is true, then I look to the 21st century with the hope that diversity will be celebrated. Perhaps then the end of racism will be within reach.