I am astonished at the certainty with which accusations of anti-Jewishness are leveled.
We have been blessed with a wealth of public figures who identify or are identified as Jews. They are celebrities, sports figures, journalists, business magnates, philanthropists and, notably, politicians. Some of them proudly and openly identify as Jews. Some of them barely acknowledge their Jewishness. And yet, whenever there is public criticism of something one of them has done, voices in the Jewish community report it breathlessly as yet another example of anti-Jewishness.
(I am trying to avoid the use of anti-semitism in this discussion. Anti-semitism is a particularly invidious form of hatred that should be repulsed wherever it is encountered. It is generalized and without honest justification. It is not situational, but an almost religious belief in the inherent corrupt nature of all things Jewish.)
I am willing to acknowledge publicly that some Jews do objectionable things. When that happens, it is reasonable to expect that people of conscience will do what they do when they encounter objectionable things: they will object.
Of course, there are two caveats to acknowledge. The first is that “objectionable” can be in the eye of the beholder. Jews (objectionable and otherwise) are not strangers to that concept. Some of us object to what others of us eat, or do on Saturday, or support politically. There really is no independent standard of objection to which we can appeal. Even in discussing the State of Israel, one person’s treason is another’s patriotism.
What is true for Jews is true for non-Jews as well. When an extremely wealthy Jew contributes large amounts of money to a partisan cause, that donor is a hero to those who agree and a villain to those who do not. If John Republican and Mary Democrat are asked if they admire a person of any background who contributes to the campaign against their favorite candidate, each will give the same answer, and it may not be very polite. That’s the price of free speech, but it has little or nothing to do with identity of the donor.
The second is that while we never can know what is in a person’s heart, it says more about the critic than the speaker when motive is imputed without evidence. It may very well be correct that a person who is disparaging only of Jews is anti-Jewish (or even anti-semitic), but it is far from necessarily true that a person who criticizes one Jew, or even many Jews among others, has a thing about the People of the Book.
Is there some kind of litmus test we can apply to a comment or a series of comments? Probably not. But I tend to think that when a broadside against a Jewish philanthropist is accompanied by a derogatory caricature, that’s an indication. When the speaker refers to a Jew or a group of Jews with some analog to the word “typical,” the prima facie evidence is pretty solid. The closer a speaker comes to that line that separates generalized hatred from individual exasperation, the more justified an accusation of anti-Jewish sentiment may be.
On the other hand, my fellow Jews and I would do well to reflect on the uncomfortable fact that not everyone is as fluent in anti-Jewishness as we believe they are.
I recall a conversation many years ago in which a brother clergy shared with me his embarrassment that a public character recently brought to shame was a member of his Protestant denomination. I replied that I knew how he felt and mentioned the name of another such character whose name was as Jewish as “Aaron Goldstein” (though it was not Aaron Goldstein). My friend replied, “Aaron Goldstein is Jewish?”
As I have noted before, it is hard to find a derogatory image that has not been linked by anti-semites to Jews. We have been associated with various animals, noxious hygienic habits, perverted sexual appetites, insatiable greed, criminal inclinations and, let’s not forget, an appetite for murdering innocent children of other faiths. I left out some of the more polite negative characteristics, like clannishness and pushiness and, well, all of them.
A person who finds aggressiveness objectionable may very well call the generic human being who cuts in line at the supermarket “pushy.” On what basis – other than presumption – is that person anti-Jewish if the offending behavior is committed by a Jew?
The answer is: none. And I will go further by suggesting that even if it turns out that the speaker is anti-Jewish, presuming it on the basis of our own inclinations to stereotypes of non-Jews is just as prejudiced.
In my opinion, the rush to judgment about statements to which we impute anti-Jewishness devalues the legitimate accusations of that offense and even of anti-semitism. And it belies a perspective on the world which, if directed at us, would be cause for genuine umbrage. Without denying the persistence of anti-semitism in the world, to consider anti-Jewish as not situational, rather an almost religious belief in the inherent corrupt nature of the non-Jews we encounter is a particularly invidious form of hatred that should be repulsed wherever it is encountered.