By Ben M. Freeman
I would like to propose a new sub-categorisation of antisemitism:
It is connected to other categorisations of antisemitism, such as conspiracy fantasy which is why I offer it as a sub-categorisation as opposed to a distinct categorisation of its own.
It can take two forms:
1. The erasure of Jewish identity.
2. The erasure of Jews as victims of prejudice.
The Erasure of Jewish Identity
On the 18th of September 2020, the first night of Rosh Hashanah, Ruth Bader Ginsburg died.
RBG — as she is commonly and affectionately known — was the first Jewish woman to serve on the US Supreme Court. Importantly, her Jewishness is not a footnote in her story. It was one of her defining identities. It shaped her life, her work and her values. She herself stated:
“I am a judge, born, raised and proud of being a Jew. The demand for justice, for peace and for enlightenment runs through the entirety of Jewish history and Jewish tradition.”
Yet, much of the non-Jewish outpouring of love and commiseration omitted her Jewishness other than to occasionally recognise that she died on Rosh Hashanah. This omission was not an accident, it is part of the wider trend of Erasive Antisemitism that aims to strip (or redefine) the Jewishness of individuals.
If RBG herself identified as a Jew and saw her Jewishness as a major source of her determination to serve as a Judge, who is it for a non-Jew to erase that fact? It was a defining feature of her life and identity and must be recognised and addressed to accurately and authentically represent her.
This specific form of Erasive Antisemitism seeks to diminish and erase the Jewish people, strip us of our achievements and the major contributions we have made to the wider world. Surely, when commenting on someone’s life, it would be impossible to ignore someone’s Jewishness, particularly when they themselves have spoken publicly about their pride in it?
Another form of Erasive Antisemitism is the erasure of authentic Jewish identity. This is specifically, when people, either non-Jews or Jews, seek to identify Jews as a solely religious group. It is well established that Jewish people are an ethnoreligious group. We are a People. However, due to the complicated history of assimilation that I explore in my upcoming book, Jewish Pride: Rebuilding a People, Jews began to define themselves as a religion.
The non-Jewish world coerced us to adopt a purely religious identity (while diminishing the nation aspect of Jewishness) with the promise of acceptance that never truly materialised. To align Jews with their concept of loyal citizens, the non-Jewish world identified Jews as a solely religious group, stripping us of 4000 years+ of history and in the process, our authentic identity. This resulted in many Jews and the vast majority of non-Jews seeing Jewishness solely through the lens of religion. Despite this, the majority of antisemitism today discriminates against an “inherent Jewish character”, not Judaism as a theology. This causes a multitude of issues in terms of perceptions of both Jewish identity and antisemitism.
In 2020 the House has approved a bill, sponsored by Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., to recommit the Equity and Inclusion Enforcement Act to include antisemitism. However, 164 Congress people voted against this bill, many of whom went on to issue gushing memorials for RBG whose life they inadvertently endangered by refusing to support this bill. Rep. Bobby Scott, Congressman for 3rd District of Virginia justified his vote by stating that it:
“Wrongly added a form of religious discrimination to a bill intended to address racial and ethnic discrimination.”
Let me be clear, the inclusion of Jews in this Act is crucial. It would have made a statement recognising that the vast majority of antisemitism — even that which is aimed at religiously presenting Jews — is not rooted in the concept of Jews as a religious group. In the 21st Century, Jews are rarely attacked for our beliefs. We are attacked because of non-Jewish perceptions of what it means to be a Jew and what that Jewishness represents to the non-Jewish world, not what a Jew believes. Orthodox Jews are not attacked because their attackers disagree with their ideology. No they are attacked because of judgements made against their characters as a result of their Jewishness.
The inability of the non-Jewish world to properly identify Jews — or indeed allow us to define ourselves — is rooted in an arrogance that diminishes the agency of Jews to define ourselves and it is inherently antisemitic. It assigns Jews a passive role in our own destiny. It also actively misunderstands antisemitism, misidentifies Jews and as a result harms us and leaves Jews vulnerable to violence and prejudice.
The Erasure of Jews as Victims of Prejudice
The second main type of Erasive Antisemitism can take several forms such as Holocaust denial or the progressive labelling of light-skinned Jews as purely white (without the crucial nuance of “white-passing”) and therefore not victims of legitimate forms of prejudice. Though wildly different on the surface, both serve the same purpose.
Through its various forms, it seeks to diminish or erase antisemitism and frame Jews as powerful and privileged in an attempt to demonise Jewish people and explain world events.
In reference to modern expressions of Holocaust denial, the 2020 Claims Conference U.S. Millennial Holocaust Knowledge and Awareness Survey, the first-ever 50-state survey on Holocaust knowledge among Millennials and Gen Z found that a sizeable minority (11%) of young people believe the Jews caused the Holocaust. Holocaust denial — as a form of antisemitism — is well known, but understanding it through the wider lens of Erasive Antisemitism is helpful. While it seeks to distort a specific Jewish experience, namely the Shoah, it is part of a wider non-Jewish trend to erase the lived experience of Jewish people. Through their distortion and framing of Jews as responsible for the Shoah, the 11% erase the true experience of millions of Ashkenazi, Beta-Yisraeli, Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews targeted and murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators. Therefore, to the 11%, antisemitism is not real, and what’s more, Jews are a powerful conspiring cabal.
Linda Sarsour, American activist and former co-chair of the Women’s March, exemplified another version of the concept when stating:
“I want to make the distinction that while anti-Semitism is something that impacts Jewish Americans, it’s different than anti-black racism or Islamophobia because it’s not systemic.”
This purposefully and deliberately diminishes and erases the systemic and institutional antisemitism faced by Jewish people, often through an incorrect, inaccurate and idiotic comparison with other forms of prejudice. This is often expressed as part of Antisemitic Economic Libel and Conspiracy Fantasy which frames Jewish people as super-powerful, greedy, not to be trusted, perverse and sneaky and therefore not victims of “real” prejudice. This rewriting of history and current affairs attempts to position Jews as the source of all power and the enemy of the people and ultimately diminishes the concept of “non-Jewish guilt” for their crimes of the Jewish people.
While it is a sub-categorisation as opposed to a full categorisation of antisemitism, it is crucial to identify this specific aspect of anti-Jewish racism. Erasure is used in a nefarious and sinister way to diminish both the historical and current Jewish experience. It impacts individual Jews and gaslights them into believing and internalising antisemitism tropes about Jewish power and ‘privilege’. It seeks to purposefully reframe the Jewish experience, erasing the millennia-long horror show that Jews have been forced to endure by the non-Jewish world.
This specific form of antisemitism has been harming and targeting Jews for many years and I don’t intend to suggest it as a ‘modern phenomenon’, it is clearly not. Saying that however, it seems to have become much more commonplace and more importantly, mainstream in recent years and in light of the results of the Claims Conference poll and Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, it is crucial we name this specific problem so we can understand it, guard against it and ultimately combat it.
About the writer:
Ben M. Freeman is a Jewish leader, a Jewish thinker and a Jewish educator. Born in Scotland, Ben is a gay Jewish author and internationally renowned educator focussing on Jewish identity, combatting antisemitism and raising awareness of the Holocaust. His first book, Jewish Pride: Rebuilding a People, was released in 2021 to great international acclaim. Currently based in Hong Kong, Ben now heads up the Humanities Team at an American International School and lectures on antisemitism at Hong Kong universities. Through his work, he aims to educate, inspire and empower both Jewish and non-Jewish people from all over the world. Follow his work across all social media accounts through @BenMFreeman.
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