February 21, 2020

When I Discovered That My Anti-Racist Colleague Is an Anti-Semite

“But you’re not listening. You do not get to tell Jews what it means to be Jewish and what it means to experience anti-Semitism.”

This was the upshot of the pleas my Jewish friends and I offered to a colleague in Communications and Disability Studies, whose work centers on listening to the voices of marginalized communities. She was not listening to our voices. After a 24-hour flare-up on Facebook sparked by President Donald Trump’s executive order to combat anti-Semitism, I discovered my self-proclaimed anti-racist colleague harbored her own bigotry: She was an anti-Semite.

Like many Jewish studies scholars, I entered the social media fray over Trump’s Dec. 11 executive order on “Combating Anti-Semitism,” which adds Jews to the list of communities protected by Title VI from discrimination “based on an individual’s race, color, or national origin.” Alarmed by the uptick in anti-Semitism in recent years, I welcomed the news — notwithstanding my distrust of Trump, who unquestionably has ulterior motives. But good policy can emerge from bad administrations, and I berated my fellow Jews who rejected it, some absurdly viewing this as an ominous step toward the classification of Jews as racial aliens, much as Stalin had stamped “Jew” (“Evrei”) as “nationality” in the passports of Soviet Jewry.

Predictably, I received pushback. Jews argue; that is what we do and as generations of comedians have kibitzed, it is intrinsic to our identity and keeps us healthy as a people. However, I was not expecting a rebuke from a non-Jewish colleague, a white, Christian female who teaches social justice and disability studies. She resented my claim that Jews constitute a community that can be classified with the criteria we use for defining “race,” “ethnicity” and “nationality.” She insisted Jews are a religious community and contending otherwise demeans minorities of color.

“Jews are not merely a religion,” I countered. Our communal identity is rooted in kinship, common descent and shared culture, irrespective of religious practice. Moreover, for centuries, white supremacist anti-Semites have targeted Jews as a sinister, non-European race deserving elimination. I brought up the Holocaust but she contended Nazi Germany persecuted the Jews because they were a “different religion,” oblivious to the fact Jews who had converted to Christianity still were exterminated precisely because anti-Semites believed Jewishness flowed through their “noxious” blood. Besides, she retorted, the Nazis’ definition of race was irrelevant; it was objectively wrong, unlike the one used in the United States today for social justice.

I usually try to reason with non-Jews who don’t understand Jewishness and anti-Semitism, even when they engage in haughty “goysplaining” — a benighted arrogant act of telling Jews what they are. Determined to get my point across, I asked her to read two pieces I published in The Forward on Jewishness and race. My encounters with anti-Semitism framed one of these stories. My colleague ridiculed my essay, insisting my claims of discrimination were trivial, that it oozed with “white privilege” and was harmful to people of color and their struggles. Had she read my story carefully, she would have noticed I acknowledge benefiting from white privilege and the perverse legacy of Jim Crow. Apparently, she was uninterested.

“Oozing with privilege.” She kept saying it. It reverberated in my head. This was not merely about white skin. Jews “have higher incomes, education and life expectancy than whites as a whole,” she repeatedly stated, insisting it has been proven statistically — but she produced no corroborating data. For good measure, she offered mock sympathy for my daughter having “to endure Christmas carols in her [school] cafeteria,” snubbing Jewish concerns over the alienating ubiquity of this exclusionary Christian holiday and its impact on our children, which I had expressed a few days before. This had little to do with being white; it was about my being a certain kind of white person: a Jew, stereotyped for undeserved wealth and lack of gratitude for “inclusion” in white Christendom, a space where our concerns with socially ascribed difference were frivolous.

Some of my Jewish Studies colleagues were distressed by her incendiary rhetoric and they stepped in. When they tried to reason with her, she skirted the issue. Perhaps she realized she was wrong. Or maybe she didn’t. Instead, she chose to double down by unexpectedly switching her discursive strategy, claiming I had a history of belittling the struggle for the rights of marginalized communities. “I am a disabled person with a gender nonconforming son,” she proclaimed — a fact she had expressed many times, but now speciously linked to a polemic about Jews —  and my alleged “repeated attacks” on disability and LGBT advocates was a “threat” to her and her family.

“My defense of Israel made me a political reactionary by definition in the eyes of someone who identifies as a social justice warrior.”

Why was I a threat? Is it because I am a Zionist who has written against the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel? The anti-Zionist left has adopted the pernicious tactic of inserting Palestinian liberation into virtually every domestic cause. “Palestine is a disability issue”; “no walls from Mexico to Palestine”; “you can’t be pro-LGBT if you support the occupation” are omnipresent, facile and utterly illogical slogans one now hears at demonstrations and on college campuses.

Apparently, their strategy is working; my defense of Israel made me a political reactionary by definition in the eyes of someone who identifies as a social justice warrior, even though, by her own admission, she knows little about the conflict in the Middle East. But Palestine is a “social justice issue” and by her logic, you cannot be against oppression in America if you are for Israeli “war crimes.” As a supporter of Jewish self-determination in our ancestral homeland, I was a threat to the disabled.

I have a mentally disabled son with limited prospects. Most of my colleagues do not know about him. I do not discuss it in the classroom or on social media. I do not begin my sentences with, “As a parent with a mentally disabled son. …” His condition has caused enormous hardship and heartache for my family. When she accused me of hurting the struggle for disability rights, it struck deep into my heart, particularly because she knows him. I demanded she produce evidence of my ableist and transphobic bigotry, and failing that, she should apologize. 

She did neither. Instead, my colleague in communications — who, ironically, has won teaching awards for listening to the voices of “marginalized communities” —  suggested we “stop conversing.” But we had never been conversing. She was not even listening to me.

 Much of the anti-Semitism on the left is rooted in misguided enmity toward Israel because of the ways in which Palestinian advocates have insinuated their cause into every facet of the domestic progressive agenda, a practice exhibited with unusual clarity by activist Linda Sarsour’s defamatory speech at the American Muslims for Palestine conference in late November.

However, the problem runs far deeper. Remarks about Jews “oozing with privilege” echo nearly two centuries of anti-Semitic rhetoric disseminated by virulent Jew-haters and by those who are casually clueless about Jews. It is found across the political spectrum in the United States, Europe and in more recent decades, Muslim countries. 

However, such anti-Semitism also is a product of the intersectionalist paradigm propagated as religious dogma by activists and professors on the left. The notion that skin color and economic wealth are the sole factors in determining ethno-racial vulnerability in the United States simply does not work for Ashkenazi Jews. It belittles our concerns, undermines our security and marginalizes our identity.

When the shots were fired on Oct. 27, 2018, in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, those who hate the Jews as a race decided it was time to come for us; neither our skin color nor our alleged economic affluence prevented them from finding us and gunning us down in our sanctuary. Having white privilege does not mean one is secure from racial discrimination.

There is a term for people who refuse to accept this even after it has been painstakingly explained to them by actual Jews: anti-Semite.


Jarrod Tanny is associate professor and Charles and Hannah Block Distinguished Scholar in Jewish History at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. He is the author of “City of Rogues and Schnorrers: Russia’s Jews and the Myth of Old Odessa” (Indiana University Press).