In our March/April issue, we explore the thorny and ever-present issue of anti-Semitism: Where does it come from? Why does it persist? Here we highlight one of 34 responses, from Hasia Diner, professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University.
“I am always suspicious of the way ‘anti-Semitism’ is used—it is an easy, convenient label used to end a conversation or analysis instead of exploring what is really going on. This does not mean that there is not a thing called anti-Semitism, but I think it is profoundly overused. It is not at all uncommon now, or in the past, to describe a situation as ‘anti-Semitism’ any time somebody does not like someone else’s political attitudes or behavior vis-à-vis the Jews. For example, today, BDS is labeled anti-Semitic. Why is it that somebody can not take a political, moral, ethical stance and say, ‘I think the policies of the Israeli government are reprehensible and the only way to push Israel to change is to boycott their products’? I am not sure why that constitutes anti-Semitism, but they are immediately tarred with that feather. Among other problems, this means it is impossible to have a conversation about Israel or BDS because one is accused of being anti-Semitic.
In another example from American history, in the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s, the phone companies in cities such as New York and Boston tended to recruit workers from Catholic high schools. These students were considered educated and neat—since Catholic schools enforced a certain standard of orderliness—and the companies believed these girls would not be prone to unionization. When Jewish girls applied for these jobs, however, they would not get them. Most historians have called this anti-Semitic, but I am not sure if this is true. Was it anti-Semitism or anti-unionism—or did the phone companies simply have a vision of which group would make good workers? Instead of anti-Semitism, I would describe the situation with a more analytic statement: Jewish women could not get jobs with the phone companies because the companies recruited telephone operators among the Catholic high schools. To say it is anti-Semitism tells me nothing.
Similarly, African Americans and others complained about Jewish merchants in their neighborhoods in the 1920s and 1930s. But when these merchants were replaced in the 1970s by Korean merchants, guess what—they started complaining about Korean merchants. Was this really anti-Semitism, or anger, hatred, resentment, jealousy and hostility toward the shopkeepers who were not from the neighborhood, regardless of who they were? These are just a few examples to show just how slippery the category is. Obviously, quotas against Jews were anti-Semitic. The Nuremberg laws were anti-Semitic. But I think much of the behavior that is labeled as anti-Semitic is really something else.”
To read the rest of the responses, download our free ebook here.