Pat Johnson, founder of Upstanders Canada. (photo from Upstanders Canada)
Pat Johnson, the founder of Upstanders Canada, addressed the importance of standing up to antisemitism during a March 5 Zoom lecture organized by Kolot Mayim Reform Temple in Victoria. Upstanders mobilizes non-Jewish Canadians to confront antisemitism and anti-Zionism.
Johnson writes for many media outlets, including the Jewish Independent, where he is also on the editorial board. Over the years, he has worked for many Jewish organizations. He was quick to stress that, as a non-Jew, he is not trying to tell Jews what is antisemitism, but rather share his experiences fighting and studying it.
Due to the complexity of the ways in which antisemitism and anti-Zionism may overlap, Johnson defined anti-Zionism – as opposition to the existence of a Jewish state, and not as criticism of Israel – and then moved on to his topic.
Of primary concern in recent years, he said, is the notion of non-Jews laying claim to the definition of antisemitism, thereby effectively telling Jews whether or not their experiences with antisemitism are valid.
“Jewish people are treated differently than every other group, even by people who self-define as anti-racist, and I argue that this is proof itself of a problem,” said Johnson.
He maintains that, on such issues as the definition of antisemitism as put forward by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), some people “are willing to devote more resources to fighting over the definition of antisemitism than they are to fighting against antisemitism.”
As a result, he said, there is a more contentious discussion around antisemitism than any other form of racism. Antisemitism is different from other forms of bigotry because Jews can be of any race, colour or identity; therefore, they do not conveniently fall into any racial categories.
“Fighting discrimination against Jewish people has to some extent fallen through the cracks, in part because many people simply do not understand it, cannot see it, deny it or simply wish it away,” said Johnson. “We are dealing overwhelmingly with unconscious biases. People do not even realize they carry them. So, when we call someone out for a statement that appears to us to be premised on antisemitic stereotypes, it just doesn’t resonate.”
Johnson then discussed how antisemitism is not a problem of Jewish making. Rather, it is a product of the antisemitic imagination, a caricature. “In a weird way, antisemitism has nothing to do with Jews, except that Jews are the collateral damage in a corrupt world poisoned by antisemitic ideas,” he said.
Antisemitism comes in myriad forms and is not simply a matter of people hating Jews, he said. “If we think it is, we will never overcome it.”
Johnson provided numerous examples throughout the past several centuries of Jews serving as scapegoats, as well as more recent examples, including the denial in various circles of hate crimes committed against Jews, the abundance of anti-Jewish hostility in Arab media and the inevitability in nearly all conspiracy theories that Jews are lurking somewhere in the background as the masterminds.
Johnson spoke about the manifestation of antisemitism in progressive movements, making it clear that his criticisms were not being made from a right-wing standpoint. “These are my people and I have seen it up close,” he said of the left.
Johnson said discrimination is often the result of economic circumstances. Jews, from a Marxist perspective, are seen as a privileged economic class and not as a disadvantaged minority. Therefore, if taken a step further, lowering the Jewish status a peg can be translated, by some, not as prejudice but the advancement of equality.
“It is a racist economic critique, but I am absolutely certain that this is a core underpinning of antisemitism and unconscious bias about Jews that we see on the left,” Johnson said.
Right-wing antisemitism tends to be more overt and fundamentally racial and so it is more easily identifiable, he said. Left-wing antisemitism, in Johnson’s experience, is different.
“Even Jeremy Corbyn, the former British Labour Party leader, whom I would argue is a bare-faced, dyed-in-the-wool antisemite, maintained enough plausible deniability that perhaps he himself believed he was free from antisemitic ideas. Antisemites on the right don’t bother deluding themselves about where they stand,” he said.
To Johnson, the left’s ambivalence to antisemitism is all the more dispiriting because it ignores the contributions Jews have made in building progressive movements.
“If most leftists are not engaged in antisemitism, they are not engaged in fighting it, either,” Johnson said. “Betrayal hurts most because it does not come from your enemies. To admit that antisemitism has gotten worse during our lifetimes offends our progressive values.”
Johnson believes there may be a long struggle ahead in confronting antisemitism, though he did mention lessons he has learned in this battle. These include being intellectually prepared with an argument before problematic situations arise, so as not to be overwhelmed by emotion in the moment, and not assuming ill will when ignorance may be more likely. He noted that, while calling out antisemites is crucial, calling in those who unknowingly say or do something antisemitic is as important.
For more information about Upstanders Canada, visit upstanderscanada.com.
Sam Margolis has written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.