This is a difficult piece for me to write. It is also not the kind of thing my five or so readers typically want to hear from me. But the topic is deeply important to me, even more so right now. So, here I go…
Like many who have experienced antisemitism, I have been moved by the vigorous push-back on anti-semitic remarks. The essay of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar asks “Where is the Outrage Over Anti-Semitism in Sports and Hollywood?” It is a great op-ed, as I expect from this author. He sums up with the statement: “If we’re going to be outraged by injustice, let’s be outraged by injustice against anyone.” Jemele Hill’s essay in the Atlantic was moving and a model for how a person deals with their racism.
I learned that just because I’m aware of the destruction caused by racism, that doesn’t mean I’m automatically sensitive to other forms of racism, or in this case, anti-Semitism. Black people, too, are capable of being culturally arrogant.
I hope that every Jewish person who reads her essay, myself included, can take her as a model as we face a reckoning for our complicity in racism, especially anti-black and anti-indigenous racisms. I was heartened to read Roxane Gay being categorical.
She even directly called out Ice-Cube.
Her question to Ice-Cube is important: What the fuck are you doing? I want to take it seriously. But first, let me say that the three examples I’ve cited are beautiful models of anti-racism; they are not examples of philosemitism. This statement is what I will try to explain as a way to answer Gay’s question.
Despite Wikipedia’s definition, I am using philosemitism in a semi-technical way. Alana Lentin, building on the important work (e.g. this book) of Houria Bouteldja, focuses on what they call “state philosemitism.” (See chapter 4 of Why Race Still matters). Lentin explained Boutledja’s idea in the following way:
Jews today in France (and we could say the West in general) do not face institutionalised state racism. What they do experience is the state’s ‘philosemitism’ which engages Jews against their will to the state’s demonisation of racialised people as the source of social disunity in general and antisemitism in particular. (Source)
I gloss the idea, somewhat simplified, in this way: By becoming white, jews gained certain protections against anti-semitism. The price they paid for this membership was to have their experience used against other racialized peoples. As all too often, James Baldwin’s words echo in my mind:
It is probable that it is the Jewish community or more accurately, perhaps, its remnants — that in America has paid the highest and most extraordinary price for becoming white.
Now, it is obvious that not all Jews are white. But many are, I among them, and enjoy white privilege. And as one price, we get to see our historic suffering weaponized against other racial groups while being unable to object.
One example among too many. When Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez compared the ICE detention camps to concentration camps, the story changed from the horrible crimes the government is committing, to a discussion of the uniqueness of the Shoah. I remember my great aunt’s tears as I sat in her kitchen in New York, listing to her stories. The Shoah is a terrible horror, but let us not kid ourselves, it is not so unique. More importantly, it is not the point. There are fucking children in cages! And many of the loudest voices do not really care about the Shoah. Let’s modify Gay’s question: What the fuck are we doing? America is doing philosemitism. Jews gain nothing by this news cycle. I would be surprised if all this did not increase anti-semitism among racialized groups. Philosemitism serves white supremacy while increasing anti-semitism.
There are some Jews who are fine with the bargain, even if they must recognize they are not really welcome, not really white in the end. I am not. I hate the bargain. I hate that I cannot unmake it.
I will probably lose all standing among other Jews when I say I did not feel outraged at the examples of antisemitism from DeSean Jackson or Ice-Cube. And not just because I am a fan. Why, you ask? It is because I understand their anti-semitism. Their antisemitism is not simple ignorance, not simple racism; it is a direct consequence of white supremacy. Gay asks Ice-Cube, What the fuck are you doing? Well, his antisemitism is enacting white supremacy. The question is why? And I think the answer is philosemitism.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar calls for an expression of outrage. Jemele Hill laments the “stereotypical and hurtful tropes about Jews” that “are widely accepted in the African American community.” Roxane Gay is categorically against anti-semitism. I see these three authors as models of anti-racism. And yet, I want us to be less categorical, to be less outraged, at least until we understand better the roots of specific instances of antisemitism.
My plea to anyone who reads this: As we try to be more anti-racist, we must protect ourselves against philosemitism when we see it. Philosemitism is white supremacy.
I knew this piece would be divisive, so I was not surprised to be accused of egregious antisemitism, or at least encouraging and condoning it. Jews can be antisemitic; my own Jewishness does not protect me for the charge. I take seriously also the criticism of being unclear. As these are ideas in progress, it is not surprising that I was not as clear as I could be. My purpose was not to diminish antisemitism but to think seriously about how Jewish participation in whiteness allows Jewish suffering to be used in racialization and how it can lead to more antisemitism.
Another issue raised was how confusing my technical use of philosemitism is, given its popular sense as, more or less, pro Jewish. I admit I used it not only because I found it in my main sources, but also because I’m skeptical of the value of its popular usage (another view philosemitism). How many other groups get a “philo” designation? Compare the term Islamophilia. Or if someone were to say, I’m not racist, I love Blacks, the Chinese, the Indigenous, etc.? So, what would I call a person fighting anti-semitism, like the authors cited above? Anti-racist. Even if the histories and experiences are different, the anti-racist project of fighting anti-Black, anti-Islamic, anti-semitic, anti-indigenous, (etc) racism is, I hope, one project in the end.
Another valid criticism was that I should have engaged with more Jewish writers. This blog came from a particular moment and in direct relation to the work of Lentin and Bouteldja (only a 50% jewish ratio), which is why they were highlighted. If a bibliographic note can help redress this, let me recommend two relevant books: Eric L. Goldstein, 2006. _The Price of Whiteness_ (Princeton) and Karen Brodkin (1998) _How Jews Became White Folks_ (Rutgers). But I may also have inadvertently implied through my silence that many Jews have not vigorously and vocally opposed what I refer to as philosemitism, or the weaponization of historic Jewish suffering to silence anti-racist activism. Take, for example, this essay in Jewish Currents. I fundamentally agree that the call to “never forget” the Shoah is a moral imperative to make sure nothing like it happens again, anywhere, to anyone.