As a Black man who practices Judaism, I’m often asked about antisemitic remarks made by famous Black people. Sadly, antisemitic thoughts are as ubiquitous as polluted air—we simply breathe them in without realizing it. There are so many urban legends, myths and untruths concerning Jews, and if you aren’t careful, you’re bound to repeat one without knowing it. Most non-Jews have an unconscious bias when it comes to Jewish people, as they do toward many groups other than their own. They might not even be aware they have these assumptions. The problem is, once people make such comments publicly, they are accountable for their remarks, factual or not.
When it comes to Jews, Judaism and Israel, even I struggle at times to always get things right; there’s a learning curve. That’s why I can empathize with people who don’t realize their remarks were offensive until after the fact. Many times, I can tell they were just repeating something they’d heard. I often cringe the moment I hear it and think to myself, “They have no idea what they just said and how many people will take offense.” It is at those moments I regret that someone hasn’t educated them.
Misunderstandings can have major consequences. Many Black people were surprised and disappointed when Jewish leaders, who indeed believe that Black lives matter, as demonstrated by their long civil rights advocacy, didn’t support the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement; some Jewish leaders didn’t endorse the BLM movement because some organizations affiliated with Black Lives Matter have expressed anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian sentiments that some Jewish groups view as antisemitic. (More than 600 Jewish organizations have declared support for Black Lives Matter.) I’m not sure most Black people knew or understood that some of the positions taken by the movement or its leadership would be perceived as such.
This topic is important to me because Black people and Jews had a mostly positive relationship during the 20th century, with Jews being involved in the civil rights movement from the time of W.E.B. Du Bois. In this time of intense polarization, I appreciate opportunities to come together. Careless remarks hurt the partnership we have shared. While I don’t like attacks on Jews from the right, I expect them. I’m more saddened by attacks from the left, often on college campuses. I wonder whether the speakers know the facts and have thought through their arguments or whether they’re simply repeating the campus zeitgeist.
I’ve heard liberal white people make racist comments about Black people because they simply didn’t know better, and I can understand Black people making the same type of mistake with regard to other groups, including Jews. In the same way Black people expect non-Black people to learn what is hurtful and racist, other groups have the same expectation.
If you’re Black, your parents may have taught you that being Black meant you didn’t have the freedom to do the same things that white kids could do without repercussions. Similarly, just because you may hear a white person say something antisemitic without getting demonized for it doesn’t mean that’s how it would work out if you said the same thing. Henry Ford, Coco Chanel and many other prominent figures were widely known to be antisemites, yet they didn’t suffer repercussions such as boycotts. Former President Donald Trump has made many antisemitic statements, yet there has been no organized boycott against him. People still rent his apartments, stay in his hotels, license his name and buy his products. I’ve even heard Jews defend Donald Trump, saying he’s been the best friend to Israel the Jewish people have ever had.
So, although I’m still learning, here is how I attempt to pass on what I’ve learned to others:
Don’t say Israel doesn’t have the right to exist. According to the ADL, words or actions related to Israel are antisemitic when they single out Israel in denying the country’s right to exist as a Jewish state and an equal member of the global community.
Don’t deny or minimize the Holocaust. Don’t say the Middle Passage of slavery was worse or that slavery as an institution killed more Black people than the Nazis killed Jews. Horror is horror and genocide is genocide, and nothing good comes from trying to measure one group’s suffering against another’s.
Don’t imply Jews control Hollywood or Wall Street or are conspiring to rule the world. You might have heard words such as “cabal” or “illuminati” in relation to the Rothschild family or Jews in general, but don’t make the mistake of repeating such conspiracy theories. These lies were promulgated in “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” the most widely distributed antisemitic publication of modern times. I’ve heard Minister Louis Farrakhan reference this document in sermons and speeches, which is among the reasons the Southern Poverty Law Center refers to him as an antisemite.
Don’t stereotype Jews as being cheap or as cheaters by using “Jew” as a verb meaning to bargain, haggle or cheat. Many people have grown up hearing and using the term without considering the hurtful connotation. Even if you’re familiar with specific incidents involving Jewish landlords and Black tenants or Jewish merchants selling to Black customers, it’s unfair to generalize from specific examples to all people in a group.
Don’t refer to Zionism in a negative or derogatory manner. According to the ADL, anti-Zionism is a prejudice against the Jewish movement for self-determination and the right of the Jewish people to a homeland in the State of Israel. It may be motivated by or result in antisemitism, or it may create a climate in which antisemitism becomes more acceptable. But criticism of Israel is not always antisemitic—it crosses the line to antisemitism when all Jews are held responsible for the actions of Israel, when Israel is denied the right to exist as a Jewish state and when antisemitic imagery is used.
Don’t repeat any derogatory terms Jews may use among themselves. Just as Black people may use the N-word when talking to each other or in song lyrics, but are rightly offended by a white person using it, Jews are rightly offended when non-Jews refer to them using ethnic slurs.
Don’t generalize and don’t scapegoat. When speaking about Jews, follow the same rules you would use when referring to any other group. Starting out a sentence with, “The Jews…” or “Jews are…” is a bad idea even if you think you’re saying something positive, because whatever follows will probably be a generalization that will offend people.
Don’t repeat religious tropes or heresies about Jews, such as saying that they killed Jesus Christ or are tools of Satan or that they use the blood of Christians in religious rituals.
To sum up my advice on avoiding antisemitic remarks: Be intentional, be informed, be conscientious and be aware of your own biases and assumptions so you can avoid causing harm unintentionally. It’s better to take a few minutes up front to do some research and vet your sources so you won’t say the wrong thing, rather than having to apologize for it later.
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