Sunday, April 28, 2013

2013, the end of anti-Semitism?

Nick has found that Young People Today - U.S. college students specifically - do not know from anti-Semitism. His undergrads were unfamiliar with anti-Semitic stereotypes. "Jewishness, so far as I can tell, and perhaps only in the eyes of these particular students, is a slightly differentiable form of being white, and so therefore not particularly interesting."

When I saw Nick's post, I almost immediately thought of the Albany high school teacher who decided to assign his/her class an essay in which they were to argue why Jews are awful. What if, rather than finding the assignment offensive/upsetting, the kids were simply at a loss? Could it be that today's youth are really so far removed from Jew-hatred?

My scattered thoughts on this below:

-Anti-Semitism was never the racism in the States, the way it was in Europe. That doesn't mean it didn't/doesn't exist. But if you're looking to compare anti-Jewish and anti-black sentiment, well, they're not comparable in this country. So it isn't obvious to most Americans (other than Jews steeped in Holocaust education to the point that they had recurring childhood nightmares that involved being chased by Nazis) that Jews would have ever been the Other.

-Anti-Semitism is widely perceived of as touchier than other -isms (because Hitler, also because one anti-Semitic stereotype is that Jews are touchy), so it's possible college students know full well about the Jews-and-money or Jews-control-the-media stereotype but would rather not announce this in class.

-I'm about ten years older than Nick's students, but I will say that when I was in college, anti-Jewish - as well as "positive" Jewish - stereotypes were alive and well and exhausting. Jews study all the time! Jews aren't real Americans! Jewish women are "JAPs"! Maybe this has changed - those were, after all, the days of neoconservatism-hint-hint, all that talk of a "cabal" - but I doubt it, because...

-Popular culture continues to provide anti-Semitic stereotypes. The obvious example: "The Big Bang Theory," an immensely popular network TV sitcom, as mainstream as it gets. There's Howard Wolowitz - a weakling momma's boy with a thing for "shiksas" - settling down with one eventually. There's the offscreen and implicitly repulsive Jewish mother, so horrible that a TV audience may only encounter her huskily whiny voice. And "Girls"! Shoshanna not only is a "JAP," but is referred to as such.

Still, pop-culture examples of Jews-and-money from the last couple years aren't coming to mind - lots of pop culture about Jews comes from Jews (who may be reluctant to go there), thus the quasi-persistence of the working-class nebbish paired with the highbrow WASP. Meanwhile one finds plenty of old-school anti-Semitism in comment threads across the internet. I don't know how old the people posting are, but those reading? All ages, I'd think. And... that's about as much as I can know about what those who don't know Jews/aren't talking to a Jew (certain limitations of perspective!) would think about this sort of thing. I Googled around but didn't see any poll that would tell us what anyone who's 18-22 now would think about Jews.

-Re: Nick's concern that if anti-Semitism isn't properly laid out and understood, there's no fighting it, I'm of two minds about this. Obviously, I research this sort of thing, and am hardly against spreading knowledge about modern Jewish history. The opposite! Please, world, hire me to tell you about 19th century French Jews.

But! I will repeat the imperfect analogy I provided in my post about the Albany school-teacher: when that lady comes in and tells the class of 10th-graders what bulimia is, you can bet that a bunch of girls (and, in our modern times, a good number of boys) will think, whoa, you can throw up after meals to lose weight?, and will go do just that. That act having never occurred to them spontaneously. And so it might go with anti-Semitism. If it had never occurred to kids today to believe that Jews control the media, an education in the matter might end up planting the idea in their heads. The amount of contextualization you need, to educate people who genuinely arrive at this topic with no preconceived thoughts, might be beyond the scope of anything but a Jewish-Studies or more advanced European-history class. And a brief, ill-conceived explanation - not what Nick says he did, but oh, say, what the Albany teacher did - can be worse than none at all.


BartletForAmerica said...

I have more substantive thoughts--as someone who graduated from college a year ago--but my head hurts, so I will just say this:

"Here is Oklahoma state Rep. Dennis Johnson (R-Duncan) using the phrase 'Jew me down' when talking about small business owners. Someone pointed it out to him and he quickly "apologized," saying 'I apologize to the Jews. They're good small businessmen as well.'"


Antisemitism may be dead in a class at a prestigious university, but that's hardly a good metric for its existence elsewhere, including in Southern legislatures.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

I'm curious what you experienced, on account of my anecdotes are kinda-sorta ancient at this point!

But yes, anti-Semitism clearly lives on in an older generation. But it would mean something if "a class at a prestigious university" had genuinely never heard of it. As opposed to in the past, when they'd have maybe thought it was crass to openly express it.

BartletForAmerica said...

I've obviously never experienced any sort of outright, blatant anti-Semetic; that's unacceptable in society. But I've very much been viewed as the Other. In many places that may be the bigger thing. It's not that people have a problem with Jews, but we're still seen as different. The stereotypes may not be bad per se, but they exist, and they contribute to the feeling of Othering, and to the feeling that I was constantly representing my people. For many of my friends, I was the only Jew they knew they'd ever met.

The problem is (surprisingly? unsurprisingly?) particularly bad among evangelical Christians, who know lots about Judaism, at least as it was practiced circa, say, 33 B.C.E. They lovvvvve Jews, except for how they want to save us. It's almost a fetishization. I met more evangelicals who had been to Israel than I did Jews who had been to Israel. While they aren't anti-Semitic in the classic way, they have a creepy, laser-like focus on us. We're their number one conversion target. In some ways, I would rather be called a kike.

I linked to this post on Facebook, and a girl I know left this comment: "I would say a lot of younger people in my area view anti-Semitism as 'acceptable' racism. I remember there was a point in high school where 'you're such a Jew' was a popular phrase..." She's 21 and attended a public high school in a college town in Indiana.

Miss Self-Important said...

I don't exactly understand what the problem with the situation Nick describes is: "I worry...that not knowing the argument well enough makes the response to it harder to produce when needed." If the reason that students don't "know the argument" is b/c they've never experienced or perpetrated antisemitism, and they intend to go on thinking of Jews as an uninteresting subset of whites, then why would they ever need to "produce a response to it"? They will live in a world devoid of antisemitism, except perhaps abroad (and abroad is full of all kinds of barbarisms that we condemn without a college course in their history; this would be no different), so what is the use of an education in correct responding? Wouldn't imposing the history of antisemitism on them in such a situation be about as useful as teaching them the history of anti-Catholic sentiment in Boston or something equivalently archaic? Certainly Boston's anti-Catholicism is a matter of historical significance and interest - my point is not that we should bury it or something - but if it's not a live political issue at this point, does it merit universal attention as a matter of civic necessity?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I'm still wondering what sorts of things you mean. I mean, I know what anti-Semitic stereotypes are, but what sort of things have you dealt with? How does it manifest itself, this Othering? I don't doubt you - just wondering if it's similar to what I experienced about a decade earlier.


I think yours is a different (and more scholarly) angle of the bulimia argument - if these kids don't already know about anti-Semitism, why present it as something so central?

But I tend to think they do know about it. They may not share/reproduce these views, but if they haven't heard of anti-Semitism, they were likely under a rock during even skimpy Holocaust education and various other times this would have surely come up. I mean, I'm biased, of course, given that I heard all about anti-Semitism growing up. But the idea that non-Jews (and 19-year-old Jews???) wouldn't know about it, I just doubt it.

Miss Self-Important said...

I agree that Nick's description of his students' ignorance seems surprising given the number of Jews at UChicago at the very least. He is right to the extent that a Holocaust-centered understanding of antisemitism of the sort we received will not readily help anyone understand how Marx is using the Jews in On the Jewish Question, but yes, they probably have heard of the Holocaust.

But even granting that things may have changed since back in the day when we were there (after all, Ex Libris now resembles a fancier Starbucks), what puzzles me is why Nick sees his students' benevolent ignorance as a problem rather than evidence of progress towards an antisemitism-free world or something like that. It would be one thing if they remained theologically-conscious Christians while mysteriously forgetting the history of Christian-Jewish relations in the West, but if they've abandoned both antisemitism and the Christian theology that once contributed to antisemitism, what's the problem?

BartletForAmerica said...

It's hard to have specific examples, because, as happens with these things, it wasn't always concrete and clear. But I'll come up with a few memories from high school and college.

I celebrated different, and implicitly less important, holidays. I fought to get prom rescheduled one year because they scheduled it for Passover (IT SAID PASSOVER ON THE CALENDAR RIGHT UNDER WHERE THE PRINCIPAL WROTE "PROM"). People at school were furious with me because they'd already made dinner plans and such. I tried to explain that it was like if it had been scheduled for Christmas and was told nothing would ever be scheduled for Christmas.* Uh, yeah.

Being in the South, I was surrounded by people who lived and breathed their religion. I was always aware how different I was, how not-them. Their social activities were often church-based, and I was left out. References to Christian dogma, leaders, scripture were always there. But they tried to include me. By talking about things like Mosaic law. A phrase I never heard at Sunday School. But I was assumed to be an expert on all things Jewish, primarily all things Jewish around the time of Jesus. The questions all came to me. Any time something Jewish was mentioned, I was asked about it.

They were obsessed with my difference. They prayed for me, and made sure I knew it. Because they loved me. They did it because they loved me, see, and they didn't want me to go to hell. Which I was going to. Because of my religion. But, they assured me, I could totally be a Messianic Jew!

*Not that they're comparable holidays at all. And, of course, they were right. I lectured a store manager when I was five years old and living in a small town in Virginia, because the store had no Chanukah decorations.

BartletForAmerica said...

Sorry: previous one is still Abby; I finally figured out how to change my username from the Spice Girls reference that I chose when I was 15.

caryatis said...

I think I’m a pretty typical clueless Gentile. When I was growing up, I was aware of anti-Semitism from reading history, but it never seemed relevant to my life. To develop stereotypes about Jews that would have been relevant to 20th century America, I would have had to recognize a difference between Jews and non-Jewish white people, and I really didn’t.

Being able to tell who is Jewish at a glance seems as strange to me as, say, being able to distinguish between an Irish person and a British one. That’s not a distinction I’ve been trained to look for. As someone has said, in this country there are only two races: black and non-black. I knew Jews had a different religion from my family, but they didn’t seem any more exotic than the Mormons and the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Lutherans.

People in New York (and evangelicals) seem to be more conscious of Jewishness as a category. Those pop culture stereotypes Phoebe mentions seem plausible, but I would never connect them to Jewishness without prompting.

caryatis said...

But I can see how my cluelessness, although benign, is not ideal for the Jews, because I totally would have scheduled the prom for Passover too. Jewish holidays just aren't on the radar.

BartletForAmerica said...

It was a two-fold thing for me. The scheduling of prom on Passover was frustrating but, as you said, benign. The fact that people (fellow students, peers) gave me shit for wanting it changed (and didn't get that it was actually a real holiday, just as important as theirs) was not benign. I suspect you wouldn't have told me I was ruining your prom.

Funnily enough, I don't know that I ever hear that someone "looks Jewish" from non-Jews. Jews, on the other hand, can spot an MOT (Member of the Tribe) from a mile away.

caryatis said...

Agreed regarding Passover. If you ask me, it's understandable to overlook holidays you don't celebrate, but to blame others for wanting to celebrate them is beyond the pale.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Were you also, growing up, incapable of noticing stereotypes about/the difference, real or constructed, of Asian-Americas? Latinos? In terms of picking Jews out of a crowd, considering I’m not capable of it, I wouldn’t expect random non-Jews to be, either. (No, not all Jews can pick out a Jew "from a mile away." See: the time an Orthodox kid picked out a certain definitively non-Jewish person in our Hebrew class and said that this, here, was the platonic ideal of an Ashkenazi Jew. Seth Meyers of SNL? Not Jewish. Nor Jonathan Krohn, ex-conservative wunderkind.) But that’s never been the point of anti-Semitism. Indeed, I will be the trillionth to point out that the reason the Nazis and much earlier anti-Jewish sorts made Jews wear a special badge was precisely because Jews did not always look all that different from their Gentile countrymen.

Bartlet/Abby (for continuity’s sake),

I think it’s important to distinguish between the inevitable plight of religious minorities and discrimination/bigotry/stereotyping. If a school or workplace fails to account for religious holidays, or dietary restrictions, it might be that they a) don’t know anyone belongs to the religion in question (after all, there are other minority religions, not all of which are represented in all cases), or b) they know but need it explained to them what it means. And that alone can be marginalizing, annoying, upsetting. There’s a downside to being a minority, even in a welcoming society. Stuff’s closed on some other group’s holidays, one must be the representative of one's kind all the time, which can get exhausting, etc.

But it’s really only in case c) – they know, it’s been explained to them, and they persist, that I’d say there’s malice. It’s a bit like something that’s come up here recently re: that which is racist but not obviously so to those out-group. Such as, we don’t need to expect non-blacks to all know why “articulate” is offensive. We need only for those to whom this has been explained not to insist that because they don’t see the big deal, they’re going to say whatever they damn well please. So: not a problem to have scheduled prom for Passover. A problem, though, to make a fuss once this has been explained.

caryatis said...


"Were you also, growing up, incapable of noticing stereotypes about/the difference, real or constructed, of Asian-Americas? Latinos? "

Well, yes, because race is one of the things our society pays (a lot of) attention to. As I was trying to say, I never learned that Jew vs. Christian was a distinction of equivalent importance.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Oh, I was just responding to what you said re: black vs. non-black being all that mattered. I would say, though, that "Latino" is sometimes as much of a quasi-visible minority as "Jewish."

caryatis said...

Oh, yeah, forgot I said that. I do think that black/non-black is the most meaningful and charged distinction for us, but not really the only one.