Anti-Semitism is Racism

08 May 2019

In incidents six months apart to the day, White supremacist shooters walked into American synagogues with the sole purpose of killing Jews. It seems that lethal anti-Semitism has returned. But in reality, it never went away. It’s simply been dormant, like an ancient pathogen that reawakens when the environment once again becomes hospitable to it.


Judging from what I’ve read, and from the conversations that I’ve had with students, friends, and colleagues, many Americans think that the synagogue shootings were motivated by religious hatred, just as many believe that the Nazis persecuted Jews because their Jewish faith. This is seriously and troublingly wrong. To the Nazis of the past, as well as the neo-Nazis of the present, a person is a Jew because of their race. During the Third Reich, you didn’t have to practice the Jewish religion to end up in the ovens of Treblinka. And conversion to Christianity or to atheism didn’t make you any less Jewish. Race was all that mattered.


As historian Michael Berkowitz observes in his book The Crime of My Very Existence: Nazism and the Myth of Jewish Criminality:  

The crackpot notion that Jews are a distinct race and that Germans are a pure Aryan race colored almost every facet of the Nazi state and all it held in its grasp. Once in power, the Nazis expended copious amounts of time and energy subduing and annihilating those they deemed a racial menace. Racism was clearly central to the systematic mass murder of Europe’s Jews in the Holocaust.

The racialization of Jews didn’t begin with the Nazis. It stretches back at least to 15th century Spain, and probably much further. The idea that Jewish “blood” can contaminate the purity of the White race has been around in the US for quite a while too, as is evidenced by the American eugenicist Madison Grant’s 1916 remark that, “Whether we like to admit it or not, the result of the mixture of two races, in the long run, gives us a race reverting to the more ancient, generalized and lower type…. the cross between any of the three European races and a Jew is a Jew.”


Americans have a hard time wrapping their minds around the idea that anti-Semitism is racism because they so often equate race with skin color. It’s a view that’s demonstrated time and again when people describe a person’s race as “the color of their skin.” This is a profoundly misleading way to think of race, because race is a political category, not a chromatic one.


Unlike many philosophers who take an interest in these matters, I’m not especially concerned with what’s called the “metaphysics of race”—the philosophical enquiry into the question of whether races are real, and if they’re real, what it is that makes them real. Instead, I’m concerned with what I call the folk-metaphysics of race—the gut-level assumptions that people make about the nature of race (including the assumptions that we philosophers make when we’re out on the street instead of teaching in the classroom or buried in the study).


The most common folk-metaphysical picture of race goes like this. There are a small number of fundamentally different kinds of human beings, and everyone on earth is either a “pure” specimen of one of these kinds or a mixture of two or more of them. Although most members of each kind have an appearance that’s typical of their kind (skin color, hair texture, facial features, psychological dispositions, and the like), these observable features aren’t what make a person the race that they are. They’re merely surface features, but a person’s race is something that’s deep inside of them—it’s something that’s unalterable, that’s in their blood or in their genes, that’s handed down biologically from parents to their offspring, and that constantly presses for expression. Philosophers call this the idea of a “racial essence.”


Although a person’s appearance is taken to be a pretty reliable indicator of their racial essence, it can belie their true nature, and allow them to pass themselves off as belonging to a different race. This is why White supremacists believe that a person can display all the outward signs of Whiteness without really being White. That’s where Jews come in. Many Jews look White without being White. Like the Nazis of the past, today's White supremacists think of Jews as especially menacing because they can so easily disguise their true racial identity and insinuate themselves into White society, where they work to destroy White race (in their jargon, “White genocide”). That’s why the aggrieved torchlight marchers in Charlottesville chanted “Jews will not replace us!”  


Even though racial essentialism is scientific nonsense, it maintains an iron grip on the human imagination. And in the case of right-wing extremists, the metaphysics can turn deadly. The two synagogue shootings with which I began this essay were both racially motivated, as are many of the other episodes of anti-Jewish violence that are occurring with increasing frequency both in the US and abroad. In light of this, it’s a serious and perhaps even dangerous mistake to distinguish anti-Semitic violence from racist violence. Anti-Semitism is racism. Let’s stop courting confusion and call it what it really is.


Comments (8)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, May 8, 2019 -- 3:02 PM

'Let's stop courting

'Let's stop courting confusion and call it what it really is'. All right, then. Antisemitism is Racism, BECAUSE it is what we believe it to be. How do we change beliefs? I do not know. There is a re-visitation of John Dewey, upcoming. I have admired him as pragmatist and educator, but do not know enough about him yet to assess his primal leanings on racism---if indeed, he had any. But his feelings toward belief were pretty well stated in his life and works. He thought beliefs suspect, ('shady') at best. Additionally, he noted that belief need not be based on belief in God., saying something like: religion and science, ... both, equally, are what they are because human beings HAVE THE INTERESTS THEY DO (emphasis added).Bingo. (He could have added IRRELIGION, but that might have been throwing the baby out with the bath water. Or something). Just as we cannot legislate morality, (as some have asserted foolishly), we cannot legislate reason, as the Humanists seem to be advocating, of late. I told them today that I thought their legislative support was misplaced---don't expect to hear anything about that notion. I do not mind, one way or the other. My contention is that we cannot stop the 'courting of confusion', when facts have no affect on those whose minds are 'made up'. This is one of the thornier problems of society. I would like it to be resolved. That solution may take more than we can muster. now or ever...unless we learn the true meaning of 'reason', in all of its implications. Be well, Dr. Livingstone Smith. Kudos to PT: always there; always cordial....

Dwells's picture


Friday, June 21, 2019 -- 5:34 PM

I think we ought to examine

I think we ought to examine the inoculation of belief systems in our children. My father was independent from the culture around him. He was a man of strong religious belief--he mostly took the Bible literally. Or so it seem to those who discussed religion with him. But he did not try to encourage others to join into some church. In fact he did not think very much of churches and/or church congregations.

I think his phrase "get right with God" really didn't imply church at all. Thus I came to my own sense or system of values. Dad though that black people were great people. He liked them and they liked him. When I reached college (something Dad did not think useful) my friends included all "races" ( ethnic minorities ) I encountered.

Because of those who decided to assemble and s ynchiornize the Bible's contents, Dad was prejudiced of Jews. I was independent of his prejudice because he did not preach such stuff to me or anyone else.

I did not preach to my children either. I think up-bringing has something significant to do with racism. My youngest asked me about this once when he said, "Dad, my friends all have poor attitudes about their parents. Why?"

The "selves" in my family were strong. This revelation comes to me well after the fact. I think that what parents give to their children can be born of fear. If you do not have the fear, you do not pass it on.

Sebastian Flyte's picture

Sebastian Flyte

Thursday, May 9, 2019 -- 10:28 PM

<i>The crackpot notion that

The crackpot notion that Jews are a distinct race yet contemporary anti-semitism is racism even though there's no such thing as biological race?

is this what passes for reasoning in philosophy departments? they should be called "juvenile sophistry departments".

all jews are closer to one another at genetic level than they are to any group of non-jews. ashkenazi, mizrahi, sephardi. it doesn't matter.

David Livingstone Smith's picture

David Livingsto...

Friday, May 10, 2019 -- 10:34 AM

You are clearly unfamiliar

You are clearly unfamiliar with the relevant literature. Racialization (regarding a group of people as belonging to a race) doesn't entail that races exist any more than, say, believing in Bigfoot entails that Bigfoot exists. There are basically three positions on the reality/unreality of race. Biological realists hold that races are biologically significant groupings (hardly anybody in the humanities or sciences believes this anymore). Social realists believe that races are real social creations (this is the majority scholarly view). Anti-realists (like myself) believe that races are fictional (this, obviously, is a minority view). The wikipedia article that you cite does not actually support your final sentence. Read it carefully. I would suggest that you acquaint yourself the very good research literature on this fascinating topic if--as seems to be the case--you find it of interest.

Dwells's picture


Tuesday, June 18, 2019 -- 5:43 PM



MJA's picture


Monday, May 13, 2019 -- 7:30 AM

"ο άνθρωπος είναι το μέτρο

"ο άνθρωπος είναι το μέτρο όλων των πραγμάτων>" "Man is the measure of all things." Protagoras

The effect of these measurements is the division some call racism. We have been taught to measure everything, it is the scientific method. But who are we to measure or judge anything? Until One knows everything One can judge nothing. As to the question: is nature measurable, is it? What is it's measurement? How many leaves are on a tree? How many grains of sand are on a beach? Which way does a river flow? Measure divides, truth unites. In that division is inequity. "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." All men or all things? When all is equal all is One.
The flaw is measure, something we have all been taught to do. We measure and divide everything inequitably, and as science has proven, the measure of nature is uncertain at best. Quantum mechanics anyone. Einstein knew that Nature is not a dice game, a game of measure and probability, but sadly he could not find the solution that would have corrected our Way. It was the speed of light, a measurement he was told was constant that stood in his way, our way. Beyond the speed of light is an immeasurable light, a light at the end of the tunnel, the Promised Land, One that is here, is now, is just, is equal, is right. All we have to do is be it, be true, be certain, be One. =

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Thursday, May 30, 2019 -- 3:27 PM

Returning to my comments of

Returning to my comments of May 8, the matter turns on what people do based on the interests they have. This is problematic, because THOSE interests turn upon Foucault's notions about power. And, if it were not founded upon skin color; ethnicity; socio-economic position; class; caste or some other manufactured ineffability, the entire notion of discriminatory treatment (i.e., racism, etc.) would have no traction. Dewey, and others, have already sorted this out. Question is: how do we change the 'nature' which has brought all this about. That would resemble (somewhat): How do we reverse or re-engineer the damage now being done by social media? Assuming, of course, recognition that such damage is now being done... This, too, is doing philosophy. Thanks, Tim, for your support.

Dwells's picture


Tuesday, June 18, 2019 -- 5:54 PM

I think that all our media

I think that all our media reinforce us. Maybe the best we can do is be mindful of what we are doing when we pat ourselves on the back?