Once, when I was about 22 years old and living in San Francisco, I was at an evening meeting of volunteers who were coming together to build a program to support LGBT youth. As we gathered around the table, chitchatting before the meeting began, a man was speaking animatedly about a sale he had made earlier that day. I wasn’t listening closely, but then heard the words “He better not have Jewed me down.” I had never heard anything like this before, so I wasn’t sure if I’d heard him right. When he was done speaking, I asked, “Excuse me, did you just say ‘Jewed me down’?” “Yeah” he said innocently. I asked: “’Jewed’ as in Jew?” “Um, I guess so. I don’t know,” he answered. “It’s just what you say when a person is trying to pay you less than they should.” Hmmmm. I replied, “I’ve never heard that before, but I think that word comes from a stereotype about Jews.” He was embarrassed, and I didn’t want to make him more embarrassed, so we left it there and moved on to the topic of our meeting.
For those who haven’t heard this phrase before, a quick look at the Urban Dictionary online tells us it means, “The act of a buyer negotiating a lower price for goods or services from a seller. As in ‘The car dealer wanted me to pay sticker price for my new car, but I successfully Jewed him down to a lower price.'” Or alternatively, “In video games, to kill or down someone in a cheap way. As in ‘I am going to Jew him down with an active reload sniper.’”
I can count only a handful of times I’ve personally encountered anti-Semitism like this. While it can be shocking and offensive, I’ve never felt personally threatened by it. Like in the situation I described above, I often feel embarrassed for the person who has exposed their ignorance and bias.
That’s why for many years in my life I had trouble taking fears of rising anti-Semitism in the United States very seriously. In Europe, yes. In the Middle East, yes. But in the United States, there are many people who face bias that has material consequences, that might endanger them walking down the street or limit their life chances, even life expectancy. In the scheme of things, in this country at least, Jews are doing pretty well.
But now I am beginning to feel that it is time to take anti-Semitism seriously in the United States, and that means understanding it a lot better than we do now. Anti-Semitism is confusing precisely because it is not linked to constraints in economic well-being or social status. In fact, the better Jews do in a society, the more we assimilate and the more powerful we become, the more potentially dangerous the anti-Semitism.
You may have heard that a couple of weeks ago at the Chicago Dyke March, women who were waving rainbow flags with a Jewish star were ejected from the march. The reason given was that the Chicago Dyke March is anti-Zionist. This is problematic for so many reasons – that the Chicago Dyke March has a policy against the self-determination of the Jewish people; that a lesbian march celebrating intersectionality would not allow Jewish lesbians to display the two symbols of their intersecting identity (the rainbow flag and the Jewish star); that Jews and Zionists are singled out among all of the peoples as uniquely deserving of opprobrium and exclusion. Incidents like these are not limited to LGBT environments. We see them increasingly on college campuses and in the social justice movements on the Left. Remember the Movement for Black Lives platform of last summer which accused Israel of genocide.
This leaves us with complex questions, such as, what is the relationship between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism? Overall, it requires that we increase our inquiry and investigation into the nature of anti-Semitism. What is it, exactly? Why is it spreading right now? How is it operating in this historical moment?
I met yesterday with Kenneth Stern, who has been studying anti-Semitism for more than 20 years. Ken offered these elements of a working definition: Anti-Semitism frequently charges Jews with conspiring to harm humanity. It tends to employ sinister stereotypes and negative character traits, and it is often used to blame Jews for why things go wrong. It takes three forms: it can be directed toward the Jewish religion, Jews as a people, or the Jewish state.
This last piece is complex, because as a state Israel does harm and does wrong, as do many states in the world. But it is one thing to criticize the actions and policies of the state—criticism that ought to be loud, persistent, and clear— and arguing that because the state does wrong it should not exist, or characterizing the state as uniquely evil (for example, claiming that Israel is the worst human rights abuser when Syria is next door), or employing sinister stereotypes about the character of the state (in the ways that “he Jewed me down” implies that Jews are scheming, exploitative, and taking what does not belong to us, much anti-Zionist rhetoric is based on the same stereotypes). Glaringly, it is anti-Semitism to blame all Jewish people for the actions of the Jewish state. This happens often, such as when women with a rainbow flag with a Jewish star are expelled from a lesbian march in Chicago because they are Zionists.
To be clear, Zionism is the movement for the self-determination of the Jewish people. If one speaks clearly, as I do, for the freedom, safety, and self-determination of the Palestinian people through a Palestinian state, how could one not speak clearly for the freedom, safety, and self-determination of the Jewish people through the state of Israel?
An interesting piece circulated this week by Black, anti-racist strategist, Eric Ward, who has been studying white nationalist militias and movements in the United States for more than 20 years, argues that anti-Semitism is at the heart of white supremacy—it is the theoretical core of white nationalism– and that anyone on the Left who wants to defeat white supremacy in America must understand and take on anti-Semitism in order to succeed. As we see the growth of explicitly white supremacist movements on the Right, Ward shows that white nationalism depends on the idea of a vast Jewish conspiracy to explain why the supposedly inferior black and brown races continue to have successes, such as ending Jim Crow or electing a president of the United States, or the crossover success of hip hop. If white people are truly superior, the only explanation can be some kind of hidden power, some arch-nemesis of the white race that is pulling the strings behind the scenes, and that is how antisemitism becomes indispensable to white supremacy.
And that is why anti-Semitism is so difficult to identify and name. It is confusing. It becomes more and more dangerous precisely as Jews become more and more assimilated and successful in a society. American Jews are in a Golden Age and that is exactly why we have to start paying attention to anti-Semitism. The more Jews are allowed into positions of power and influence, the more white privilege we have, the more tricky and conspiratorial we are seen to be.
Ignoring anti-Semitism in the United States is no longer an option. As it rises on the Left and on the Right, it behooves us to call it out, to learn about its nuance and understand its complexity, to speak about it with our friends, to teach about it where we can. And to lift up voices like Eric Ward’s, who understand the ways in which anti-Semitism is linked to racism and other forms of oppression. It is through such analyses that we can begin to imagine and articulate a shared vision with oppressed communities in this country – a vision of universal human dignity, liberation, and blessing for all people.
This week in Torah, Balak, king of Moab, fears the Israelites. But it is not just he who fears us. The Torah says, “Moab [the whole country] was alarmed because that people was so numerous. Moab dreaded the Israelites…saying ‘Now this horde will lick clean all that is about us as an ox licks up the grass of the field.’” So Balak sends for the prophet Balaam to curse the Israelites so that they can be driven out of the land.
But that’s not how the story ends. Balaam, upon seeing the Israelites, opens his mouth to curse, but blessing emerges. According to Torah, God places the words of blessing into Balaam’s mouth. But the rabbis have many other explanations, most of which involve Balaam seeing something beautiful when he beholds the Israelites. He perceives that they are not a dangerous menace to be cursed but a people worthy of blessing. “Like palm groves that stretch out, like gardens beside a tree, like aloes planted by Adonai, like cedars beside the water…”
May it be that the day will come when Jews— our religion, our people, our state— will be seen by the other nations as worthy of blessing, and as sources of blessing for our neighbors and the societies in which we dwell. Until then, may we see ourselves that way, and teach those we know to do the same.
Rabbi Rachel Timoner serves Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, NY.