El Lissitzky, The Constructor (1924). Public domain
The ruthless Hamas attack on civilian communities inside Israel shocked not only Israelis but much of the world. Pictures and grisly videos—some broadcast live by the perpetrators—flooded the world. Many governments and elected officials in the West swiftly expressed solidarity with Israel and empathy for the countless innocent victims, condemning the slaughter.
At the same time, as news was still coming out about the scope of Hamas attack and days before Israel’s retaliation, in cities and on college campuses across the United States pro-Palestinian rallies and demonstrations showed a shocking lack of empathy for the massacred and kidnapped Israelis, among them young people attending a music festival, elderly Holocaust survivors, women, and children.
As a scholar of anti-Semitism watching these rallies, I wondered why there was such a reflexive disregard, even contempt, for Jewish victims.
Some of this contempt surely stems from the polarization wrought by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Some is obviously rooted in centuries of theologically-grounded habits of thinking about Jews as unworthy of the respect accorded to other kinds of human beings.
But some blame for this I think can also be laid on how those who study and write about anti-Semitism, including myself, have approached this subject.
For almost a century, most of us have focused on dissecting anti-Semitic ideas and ideologies. But—with the very important exception of those studying the Holocaust—we have not paid enough attention to the impact these ideas, images, and actions have on Jews as human beings.
Having taught a comparative course on anti-Semitism and racism at Fordham University, I have been thinking a lot about different scholarly approaches to the study of anti-Semitism and racism and their social impact.
Consider for example how scholars generally approach anti-Black racism. Many have focused on the impact of racism on Black communities and Black individuals—no matter how successful and accomplished they are. President Obama spoke about being “mistaken for a waiter at a gala” and acknowledged the experience many Black Americans have had of being “mistaken for a robber and to be handcuffed, or worse.” We all can picture Ruby Bridges trying to get to school. We can think of Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair, killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. We can all picture George Floyd and understand the significance of the words uttered by Eric Garner: “I can’t breathe.”
The focus on the Black experience of racism has a long history—it goes back at least to the publication of slave narratives and continues to the present day, as we read the works of James Baldwin, Ta-Nehesi Coates, Toni Morrison, or George Yancy.
One result is that most educated Americans have been trained to acknowledge the full range of anti-Black racism and its impact on individuals, from microaggressions to public lynchings.
In contrast, scholars of anti-Semitism have long focused not on victims but on proponents and perpetrators.
There is a cost to both approaches. The works on racism have been subsumed under “Black history,” and the relatively recent effort to shift the gaze onto white supremacists and their ideologies, and to make them part of our understanding of American history, has led to a fierce backlash, including book bans.
In contrast, the focus on anti-Semitic ideas and their perpetrators has arguably resulted in a comparative lack of empathy for the Jews victimized by such ideas. Even worse: paradoxically, by studying and writing about the perpetrators, we spotlight and preserve their anti-Semitic ideas. Our readers then are exposed to toxic ideas without seeing their impact on real people.
The Biden-Harris’s U.S. National Strategy to Combat Anti-Semitism, released in May 2023, advocated: “(1) increasing awareness and understanding of anti-Semitism, including its threat to America, and broaden appreciation of Jewish American heritage; (2) improving safety and security for Jewish communities; (3) reversing the normalization of anti-Semitism and countering anti-Semitic discrimination; and (4) building cross-community solidarity and collective action against hate.”
Coupling “increasing awareness and understanding of anti-Semitism” with “appreciation of Jewish American heritage” is helpful in diversifying the image of Jews and their role in society.
But, as the responses to the Hamas massacres in Israel suggest, we need to do more to build empathy and recognize the impact of anti-Semitism on Jewish individuals—from microagressions to outright violence.
—October 18, 2023
Magda Teter is Professor of History and Shvidler Chair in Judaic Studies at Fordham University, and author of Christian Supremacy: Reckoning with the Roots of Anti-Semitism and Racism (Princeton, 2023).