New Definitions for Racism and Antisemitism?

Richard Epstein in colorAntisemitism is defined as “hostility towards or discrimination against Jews.” Racism is defined as “poor treatment of or violence against people because of their race.” Fifty years ago, these definitions were sufficient: bigots proudly and explicitly proclaimed their hatred towards Jews and African-Americans. Today, however, antisemitism and racism have become more covert, more indirect, and in some ways more insidious. Therefore, the need to define and condemn such hateful speech and acts is more important than ever.

When I was growing up in New Jersey in the 1970s, antisemitism ran the gamut from name calling (Kike, Christ-killer, filthy Jew) to hateful symbolism (use of Nazi signs). Today, anyone who used such language or symbolism would be immediately and forcefully condemned. But we seem, at best, lackadaisical—and at worst, accepting—of those who cloak their antisemitism in a veneer of respectability. Take, for example, academic boycotts of Israeli professors. Words like Kike are not used. But because there is no legitimate basis for such a boycott targeted against only one nation, the practical effect of these boycotts is antisemitic.

Supporters of such boycotts will argue that they are trying to highlight an injustice – such as treatment of the Palestinians – and are not being “Anti-Jewish.” The problem, of course, is that these boycotts do not apply the same rules to other countries: there are no boycotts of Russian academics despite Russia’s anti-democratic and anti-gay acts; not even a protest as Saudi Arabia treats women like property; not a whimper about China’s poor human rights record. Why the focus on a small, democratic state that provides educational opportunities for its non-Jewish citizens? Antisemitism.

Of course, not all criticism of Israel is due to an antisemitic heart. I will go a step further and affirmatively state that there are legitimate critiques to be made of the Israeli government, much as there are of the United States (spying, drone program), Great Brittan (austerity), Canada (threatened legislation in Quebec barring wearing of religious garments), etc. But why is it that by far the most UN resolutions are against Israel? Again, where one country or group of people is held to a different standard, that reflects something more – and more insidious – than simple criticism.

It happens here too. There can be legitimate criticism of President Obama from the right and the left. However, the singular focus on opposing anything President Obama says, coupled with the number of bizarre and false attacks on him – the President was not born in the United States, the President is not a Christian as he claims to be, the President conspired to cause harm to a U.S. official in Benghazi, the Affordable Care Act being equated with the Nazis and slavery – shows that racism is, sadly, alive and well in the United States.

So what can we do? First, stop being passive. Call out those who act this way for what they are: bigoted, narrow-minded individuals who should be shamed. Second, be active. Correct those who repeat these smears, or argue that any criticism is legitimate. Only by eradicating hate can we can come together as a strong, caring community.


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