Antisemitism Is Racism

I believe that the reason that so many progressives, including racial justice progressives, don’t understand the threat of antisemitism and even, really, that antisemitism is in fact racism!!! is that we understand racism wrong, or at least incompletely. Here’s what I mean.

U.S. residents, for the most part, think of racism in terms of effects – impoverishment, incarceration rates, etc., – and not in terms of root causes like economic exploitation and the gathering and consolidation of power. When considered in those terms, any group can be targeted if enough pressure is exerted by a competing and, especially, dominant group. Keep in mind that Jews comprise less than 1.5% of the U.S. population.

Antisemitism has been and is now one of the most effect levers of reactionary populist movement building in the modern world, and those movements are assembled in order to take down democratic institutions and grab power that is then used to exploit the most easily exploitable, and expel the most likely dissenters. And antisemitism is so effective because it creates demons out of whole groups of people based on myths, stereotypes, and the few exceptions that prove the rule.

For instance, why do most Americans think of Jews as a privileged minority? It’s not because of data. Only folks like us depend regularly upon data, and even then most of us misunderstand the data we use. Medians and averages can tell us some things but not others, and the experiences of groups are often defined not by the average experience but by what’s happening to the most elite and the most vulnerable among us on the edges.

Nope, most people think Jews are a privileged minority because Steven Spielberg is a really rich guy, and Barbara Streisand is one of the biggest movie stars and pop entertainers of the American 20th century. And from that they extrapolate to a whole group of people, imposing certain characteristics on them because of what they know about the few who stand out in their experiences. That’s racism, and Jews have always been vulnerable to it because to non-Jews, Jewish people are only conditionally included among us. When circumstances are ripe for reactionaries to rise, conditional inclusion can quickly turn to persecution, and the perceived privilege of Jews, once lauded, can and often does make Jewish people appear to be a more credible threat than those who have been more directly maligned by white supremacy.

But, wait, Jews are white, right? Nope, not all Jews are white. But, more to the point, while colorism is a real and deadly oppressive force, colorism is an effect of race and not race itself. Race is not an inert object, immovable and unchanging. It is a dynamic force that is ever changing and always dangerous.

By Scot Nakagawa

Scot is a community organizer, activist, cultural worker, and political writer. He has spent the last four decades exploring questions of racial injustice and racial formation and effective forms of resistance and strategies for change through community campaigns, cultural organizing, popular education, writing, and direct political advocacy.

Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against vigilante white supremacist groups, white nationalism, Nativism, and authoritarian evangelical political movements. In this work, he has served as a strategist, organizer, and social movement analyst. Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow and the Association of Asian American Studies 2017 Community Leader. He is busy at work on a number of projects, including writing a playbook for anti-fascists, and a primer on race and power. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition; Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence; and Eyes Right!: Challenging the Right Wing Backlash.