As all decent people mourn those in the neighborhood of Squirrel Hill who lost their lives in an act of brutality that has become quite common in the “civilized” world, let us not be distracted from the fact that attacks on any groups, in this case Jews (and I am dealing here specifically with anti-Semitism) come in many forms. One could even claim that the less brutal anti-Semitic projects — frequently disguised as “justice” — are responsible, to some degree at least, for the more murderous attacks on Jews. At least they act in concert with them.
Where is hate actually being covertly promoted? As someone with 45 years of experience in teaching, I can attest that there are some programs — fashionable in American academic institutions today — where pretty rhetoric is being used to mask the undemocratic aims and obsessions of the directing professors. What these programs — chief among them, “Social Justice Studies” — do is to establish an absolute binary structure based on the irrational worldview that all can be understood in terms of good and evil. The faux liberals promoting this sort of vigilante justice already have the structure nailed down in two fields of social identity: gender and race.
In the race category, the accepted victims are blacks (oppressors are white); in the gender category, the victims are female and the predators are male. It is all very clear and simple: guilt assigned a priori on the basis of essences. Students are taught to “identify” predetermined victims and victimizers and to spring into action — with passion or whatever it takes — to defeat the enemies. Considering complexities is not part of the agenda. Nuance and doubts are not allowed.
The binary structure of us and them is a built-in formula for intolerance. Yet in Social Justice Studies, it is this formula that lays claim to justice and is embraced without thought by many academic institutions. Students, guided by the charged language, also accept that only one side of the equation is just and progressive. They are convinced that they have come upon and chosen the right cause. Let me note that many identified as blacks have recognized that this patronizing frame of interpretation serves the purpose of perpetuating their collective identity as “victims” — whether they wish it or not. (It is possible that bigotry-based programs like these will be undone by the very reactionary and racialist ideologies they promote. Blacks will refuse to submit yet again to the dictates of white, patronizing privilege, and more women will become more class conscious than some of their stepsisters in the throes of #MeToo.)
So what about anti-Semitism? Unlike in the above examples of race and gender, social justice programs manage to camouflage the prejudice and hate against Jews through the tactic of splitting Jews into the binary categories of good Jews and bad Jews, with some Jews embodying the evil pole and others placed at the opposite end of the scale. Allowing some Jews to be “good” makes the social justice practitioners look like they are treating Jews fairly. But the only Jews allowed to be good Jews are those who are willing to recognize that there are bad Jews. The reality is that rather than supporting fairness, this formula works not only to solidify pre-existing anti-Semitic biases, but to enable the expression of full-blown anti-Semitism.
Before I return to this fundamental requirement for perpetuating anti-Semitism, I will review some of the reasons why anti-Semitism is easier to disguise. One, Jews are not as easily identified as other ethnic groups and, despite their long history (the group most consistently discriminated against globally after women), Jews do not possess the status of victims. The obverse is true. Despite their relatively small number in comparison to other ethnic groups and despite the Holocaust, Jews have persistently been stereotyped as privileged and evil. Even the Holocaust is often seen as overblown in significance. Two, with confirmation bias and disproportionate emphasis on Jews, Jews are made a natural justified target for condemnation and hate.
As noted above, a tactic applied to Jews (and soon no doubt to be applied also to African-Americans) is dividing them into good and bad Jews. Those with whom we disagree are the bad ones. And the split may not necessarily be articulated. But this binary vision — simplistic, deceptive and dependent on subjective moralizing judgments and on emotion — obscures what must be recognized as racist. Labeling groups, or dividing them into opposing camps of good and evil amounts to essentializing them. Whether one side is in focus or the other, the group itself remains, even if implicitly, foregrounded and stereotyped: the Jews. In my opinion, no Jew should be flattered by it. Such simplistic but effective manifestations of total anti-Semitism do not promote analyses, debates and progress.
However willing those of us who identify as Jews are to engage in auto-criticism, we should refrain from joining those who attack others of us, for in fact they are implicitly attacking all of us. The haters/judges of half the Jews or a portion of them are high on emotion and subjective judgment, and short on facts and history. Social justice ideologues are not interested in issues, resolution or fairness. They mean to win at any cost, even if it means, as in the case of anti-Semitism, promoting the us/them binary code which always and inevitably divides people and prevents them from considering their common humanity. pjc
Channa Newman, Ph.D., is the chair of the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at Point Park University. She lives in Squirrel Hill.