The jewish position of exception contributes to structural racism

The Ambiguities of Anti-Semitism

© Brecht Goris

Anya Topolski

Accidents of birth are both curses and blessings. It is an accident of birth that I was born in Canada. I experienced this as a blessing. It is an accident of birth that I was born into a Jewish family. My parents and grandparents experienced Judaism as a curse due to virulent antisemitism. I have sought, in my adult life, to transform what they experienced as a curse, into a blessing. While I experience aspects of being Jewish as a curse (we’ll come back to Israel later), Judaism has come to have a central and empowering role in my life. In particular, the collective and ritualistic aspects of Judaism have helped me to find a reason to keep living and to find meaning and joy in life. 

One of the collective rituals I have embraced is the fourth commandment (it’s the third for most Christian denominations).

Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God: you shall not do any work—you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it. [JPS]

To remember and keep the sabbath holy, I stop working. I turn off my computer (and as much as possible my phone) for 24 hours starting at sundown on Friday evening. I focus my attention close to home, to my children, to my friends, I try to separate what is urgent from what is actually important and meaningful. Given the business of work, kids and politics, I actually need this weekly ‘reset’, to keep me sane. While I do not know the ‘official’ reason why the sabbath was instituted, the latter is its raison d’etre (in my life). Moreover, Shabbat helps me focus and acknowledge the blessings I have. Life, for many of us (sadly not all) fortunate enough to be born in countries in which human equality is at least rhetorically a right, is better than we often take time to realise. This however does not mean we experience it as easy (I often wonder for whom life is easy, or from where we get the idea that life should or can be easy). 

Last night, Saturday October 27th, I came back online to read the news about the tragic shooting in a synagogue in Pittsburgh. I cannot possibly find the words for the torrid of thoughts and emotions, many of which are contradictory, I experienced. It was to say the least, terribly destabilizing. It of course affects me on a very personal level. I spend almost every Shabbat with my children at synagogue. Antisemitism, which while I do not experience it often, is real and sadly it will continue to be so for my children, and so many more Jews across the world for the foreseeable future. It is this basic fact, this insanity, that makes the sabbath so essential for me. I need time to process the injustice that is so omnipresent in our world. This week, I needed time to process the fact that even after the Shoah, after humanity has seen what horrors it is capable of, antisemitism continues to flourish. 

But its then that my thoughts continue in seemingly contradictory terms. Why does this fact surprise me? Anti-black racism continues to be rampant after the horrors of slavery and colonial have been exposed. Sexism continues and thrives after so many centuries, and while I want to believe campaigns like #MeToo will change this, much more is needed to achieve justice. Why do I think (if only for a moment) it is, or should be, different when it comes to Jews and antisemitism? What my thoughts betray when reading about the Pittsburgh Shabbat tragedy is that I, like so many others, might implicitly hold the view of Jewish exceptionalism. Falling back into this view, which I once held (as part of my white innocence), is problematic – both personally and politically. I cannot help think about all the daily racism that I either do not read about or am less affected by. This bias is of course promoted by the media that pays great care and attention to some tragedies and ignores others. This implicitly makes the lives and deaths of some people more valuable as it did the Paris bombings that came just a day after bombings in Beirut.

Making such statements is very dangerous as it opens me up to the accusation of antisemitism (which we’ll return to when we talk about Israel), so let me quickly add a few caveats. First, while seemingly banal, it is important to state that every form of racism and every racist occurrence is unique in the sense of being different than any other specific manifestation. When we try to bring different forms or events into relation this is so that we can better understand, learn and prevent any, and ideally, all future forms (which of course will also be unique and different). Second, I could critique each of the arguments in favour of exceptionalism which I have done extensively in my scholarly work (e.g. systematicity, numbers, geographic or temporal proximity etc.). Doing so in no ways denies the tragic reality of past and present antisemitism. Nonetheless I take this risk inspired by the Judaism I might be accused of disparaging. Perhaps the most important collective priority in the Torah is that found in Deuteronomy 16:20: “Justice justice, you shall pursue”. 

It is essential we do not see antisemitism or the Shoah as unique

It is essential we do not see antisemitism or the Shoah as unique because a) this blinds us to a more systematic pattern of racism and genocide and b) because it means we don’t actually get to the root of the problem and will never be rid of antisemitism and any other forms of racism, whether genocidal or not.  To illustrate the first point, I refer to Falguni Sheth’s elucidating analogy to domestic violence:

A case of domestic violence, where a person beats his partner with some frequency, say for example, once every two weeks. During the other thirteen days, he is a functional and even conscientious citizen… But on the fourteenth day, he invariably becomes inebriated, and he is not in control of his temper, which is managed rather well the rest of the time. There are two ways to address this situation: One is to assess the violence with a view to the person’s everyday behavior and conclude that he is a good parent, good worker, and good partner who occasionally loses his temper. It is a shame, but each instance is considered to be accidental …  Another approach to the same problem would be to focus directly on the violence, and insist that it is unacceptable, regardless of how good of a parent and partner the abuser is during the other thirteen days. … To take the second approach requires us to see the occasions that he beats his spouse as a systemic series of events—a pattern—and not, as the first approach does, as an accident that occurs every fourteen days.1 

The analogy Sheth offers makes it clear that it is a choice whether to see events of violence as accidental or to focus on the violence leading one to identify a pattern, a choice that has ethical and political repercussions. We cannot permit the Shoah and antisemitism to be viewed as exceptional or unique events or aspects of Western political history (in this way ‘accidental’), as this helps to obscure a chronic symptomatic pattern of exclusionary power. This pattern of power must be exposed in order to be challenged and it is our collective responsibility to identify this pattern of injustice. This challenge requires solidarity between groups, for example Jews and Muslims in Europe, who fail to identify each other as potential allies because of this epistemological choice. 

This brings me to my second point. If we allow antisemitism and the Shoah to be seen as exceptional, we are in fact condemning ourselves to spend the rest of our lives, and those of future generations, in a task as futile as Sisyphus’. Fighting antisemitism – as disconnected from other forms of racism – is like pushing the boulder up the hill (only to know it will roll down again), rather than trying to destroying the boulder itself. While this might allow us to temporarily reduce some forms of antisemitism, it won’t prevent antisemitism itself (which we know has many changing faces over space and time), because it doesn’t get to the root of the problem – which is racism itself.

While it would take several columns to give a full account of racism (and I’m not sure I would succeed anyway), in previous columns I have argued that we cannot reduce racism to its Nazis biological manifestation or to the colour-line (anti-Black racism with historical roots in slavery or colonialism). Racism, as Fanon demonstrates, is about a binary between human and non-human. Racism is the structural entrenchment of the hierarchical and exclusionary binary of who is human and who is not deemed human (or less human). This is why racism is always related to dehumanisation, which comes in many forms and degrees­. Whether our goal is to end antisemitism or any other form of racism, the reality is that these forms of injustice are so deeply embedded and entangled with other forms of injustice, that fighting one without the other is a losing battle. This is what Martin Luther King Jr meant when he said “no one is free unless we are all free” or what is so beautifully evoked by Martin Niemöller’s poem.

Toen de nazi’s de communisten arresteerden, heb ik gezwegen; ik was immers geen communist.
Toen ze de sociaaldemocraten gevangenzetten, heb ik gezwegen; ik was immers geen sociaaldemocraat.
Toen ze de vakbondsleden kwamen halen, heb ik niet geprotesteerd; ik was immers geen vakbondslid.
Toen ze de Joden opsloten, heb ik niet geprotesteerd; ik was immers geen Jood.
Toen ze mij kwamen halen was er niemand meer, die nog protesteren kon.

This brings me to my final point which I want to relate to the question of Israel and its current battle to define support for BDS as antisemitism (boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israeli government). The current attempts to delegitimise and criminalise pro-BDS activists, NGOs and governments, is founded upon such problematic exceptionalism arguments. The claim being made by the Israeli government, which they are asking European leaders to sign onto on Monday November 5th in Brussels, is that  the horizontally organised non-violent BDS campaign is anti-Semitic. It is anti-Semitic because any critique against the State of Israel is, according to this faulty logic which equates Israel with Judaism, a critique against Jews and hence antisemitism (this is not to say that there is critique of Israel that is in fact anti-Semitic). To reduce Judaism to Israel is to say the least problematic, especially from the perspective of a Jew like myself who embraces the non-territoriality of diasporic Judaism. 

Affirming Jewish exceptionalism tragically leads to more racism as it helps legitimize the dehumanisation of other human beings - the Palestinian people

But the really problematic issue is that if we accept this false equation, we implicitly affirm Jewish exceptionalism (which for different reasons both Jews and Christians have historically often sought to do) and thus disentangle antisemitism from other forms of racism. In the case of Israel, affirming Jewish exceptionalism tragically leads to more racism as it helps legitimize the dehumanisation of other human beings – the Palestinian people. If we equate BDS with antisemitism, we need to admit that at some level Jewish Israeli lives are more valuable, more human, than Palestinian ones – and this belief – when institutionalised, legalised, and in the hands of those with power – is racist.  

While I would be lying if I didn’t admit the Shabbat shooting in Pittsburgh didn’t affect me deeply, I am equally disturbed when I, or those around me, are not as deeply affected by the violence and deaths of other victims of racism (or other avoidable injustice). We cannot allow Jewish exceptionalism to make Jewish lives more valuable than any other human lives. Arendt, when writing about Eichmann, emphasized the importance of understanding antisemitism and the Shoah not as crimes against Jews but as crimes against humanity. Jewish exceptionalism, whether on a personal level or on the level of the Israeli state, contributes to structural racism. In my case, it is an accident of birth that has led me to see this and to join in the collective struggle against all forms of racism.  

It is heartbreaking that the important work of defining antisemitism in Europe has been hijacked by the Israel government in order to silence protest and critique of this structural racism. This creates an unnecessary victim competition between Israelis (who are implicitly equated with Jews) and Palestinians (and between Jews and Muslims in Europe), a competition between antisemitism and racial dehumanisation, rather than realising these two are fundamentally entangled. It is however not a surprise that Europe continues to support Israel as doing so allows Europe to maintain the myth of antisemitism and the Shoah as exceptional, a myth that enables Europe to deny its violent history and shove its many many other skeletons back in the closet. 

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Over de auteur

  • politiek filosofe

    Dr. Anya Topolski, geboren en getogen in Canada, is associate professor in de Politieke Filosofie en Politieke Theorie aan de Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen.