A people or a religion?
Ludicrous as it may sound, it is difficult for some people to understand what Jews are. To be Jewish is to be part of a peoplehood. To adhere to Judaism means one practises the religion of the Jewish people. Yet one can be Jewish and not practise Judaism. This may be called variously humanistic Judaism, cultural Judaism or any number of other imaginative descriptors.
At root, Jewishness is both a peoplehood and a religious identity, sometimes overlapping, sometimes not. This is problematic because it means Jews do not fit neatly into the categories the world likes to assign people. This becomes increasingly difficult as the world moves further toward communicating even complex ideas in 140 characters or less.
Writing in Haaretz Monday, Joel Braunold, executive director for the Washington, D.C.-based Alliance for Middle East Peace and a former leading member of Britain’s National Union of Students, says the antisemitism being exhibited by members of the U.K. Labor Party and the NUS stems at least in part from leftists’ refusal to see Jews as a national group and instead narrowly defining Jews as adherents of a religion.
Braunold makes some insightful observations about how self-identified anti-racism activists can treat Jews differently. In one instance, he writes, an ostensibly anti-racist group distributed flyers lamenting the Holocaust’s toll on Roma, homosexuals and members of other groups, while not mentioning the Shoah’s Jewish victims. They are doing Jews a favor, Braunold says some have told him, by not falling into the Hitlerian trap of defining Jews through racial categorization.
Dejudaizing the Holocaust, obviously, is appalling. Yet there is a far more common approach employed almost universally by people condemning antisemitism. It is the seemingly well-intentioned habit of condemning antisemitism and then carrying on to list many other forms of discrimination. In other words, while it is fully acceptable – as it should be – to condemn anti-black racism when it occurs in the United States or elsewhere without numerating a laundry list of other forms of racism that are unacceptable, it seems almost impossible for many people, including some elected officials, to condemn antisemitism without subsequently providing an exhaustive list of other bigotries that deserve denunciation.
It is hard to argue that this is a sign of ill will. After all, every opportunity to condemn discrimination of every kind is a good opportunity. But when it seems anti-Jewish animus is the only one that cannot be singularly condemned, it should raise questions. We can condemn Islamophobia, misogyny, historical and contemporary treatment of indigenous Canadians, inequality of minorities in Western societies, the historical wrongs perpetrated on Chinese and Indian immigrants (or would-be immigrants who were prevented from entry) to Canada and all range of other victims, yet condemnations of antisemitism seem to need qualifiers.
It may be precisely that Jewishness is confusing to some – is it a religion or is it a national identity? – that allows people to behave the way they do toward Jews. I can’t be racist, one might say, because Judaism is a religion and I should be free to criticize religion.
There is also, in contemporary Canada, a stream of anti-religiosity. “Imagine there’s no countries … and no religion too,” John Lennon sang in an anthem of a generation of dreamers.
In addition to antipathy toward religion, there is a stream of anti-nationalism at play. Some of the criticism of Israel stems from the dream of a post-national world, where, to quote Lennon again, there is “nothing to kill or die for.”
And yet, many who subscribe to some variation of this quest for an ideal post-nationalistic world by targeting for elimination the one state of the Jewish people, a people whose statelessness was the primary reason six million were able to be murdered seven decades ago, should be an obvious indicator of misplaced priorities. Especially when many of these same activists support Palestinian national self-determination, but not the Jewish version.
In his Haaretz piece, Braunold posits a unique motivator for some of the attitudes we see on the left toward Jews. It may not be the magic key that explains it all, but it is a part of the puzzle.