Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The end of racial anti-Semitism?

A commenter suggests that I may be too quick in dismissing the existence of racial anti-Semitism in Europe. Which tells me that I should have been more clear: I don't remotely think racial anti-Semitism is done - in Europe or anywhere else. But it does seem significant if anti-Semitism has swung (back) towards penalizing Jews for not assimilating. Bigotries that target immutable traits (real or constructed) are always going to be that much more unsettling.

But racial anti-Semitism hasn't disappeared. This is most obvious when it comes to the whole "looking Jewish" question. Secular Jews - Jewish women especially - continue to be relieved when they pass as non-Jewish. This is still, in 2015, a thing that happens. What else is going on when Broad City's Abbi Jacobson compares doubts about her and Ilana Glazer's Jewishness to "being carded"? I point this out not to accuse these women of self-hatred or of hiding their backgrounds - far from it! - but to point out an aspect of how Jewishness is day-to-day experienced, even by many out-and-proud Jews.

Or consider the response to the first sentence of Lisa Schwarzbaum's recent essay about traveling through Europe on a Jewish heritage tour. The sentence: "Like many who share my hair texture and fondness for rugelach, I am the descendant of Jewish forebears who boarded boats in the first half of the 20th century to escape bad times for our people in Central and Eastern Europe." Readers were horrified. One commenter writes, "That opening could just as well be coming from a Nazi, who was (falsely!) trying to prove that we Jews are genetically different, and therefore somehow inferior!"

Imagine a similar reaction to an article by an Italian-American writer - same reference to hair, but replace "rugelach" for "tiramisu."  Would that be seen as an outrage-worthy affront to the Italian-Americans who don't have "Italian" hair (whatever that might mean!!!) or enjoy delicious, creamy desserts? But the default assumption is that looking Jewish is a bad thing, and that surely the author is upset about her hair texture, whatever it may be. (A Google image search confirms what I'd suspected - she and I could totally share hair-product recommendations.) Schwarzbaum didn't say that all Jews resemble her, or cast doubt on the Jewishness of those who don't. Nor did she even say that most Ashkenazi Jews do - but what if she had? What does it tell us that Jewish-looking is assumed to be something a person - a woman - would wish to avoid?

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