/ 21 November 2023

Understanding Jewishness

Death march: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz commemorate Jews deported from Berlin in 1942, in March 2023. Photo: Tobias Schwarz/AFP

One of the ugliest features of human society, racism, is also among its most resilient.

When the African American scholar WEB du Bois wrote at the very beginning of that century that the “problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the colour line”, he summed up a core reality of the next hundred years. But perhaps not even he could have imagined that, two decades into the 21st century, it too was on its way to becoming a century of “the colour line”. 

Du Bois was also focused on the “relation of the darker to the lighter races” and so he could not have expected that the worst racially motivated slaughter during the century would be visited by whites not on people of a darker complexion but on other white people — the Nazi genocide which slaughtered six million Jews, and eight to 10 million Slavs simply because they had been born into the “wrong” ethnic group. (If we calculate deaths as a proportion of population size, the most brutal mass murder of the modern era was that of 10 million Congolese people at around the time that du Bois’ observation appeared in print, but of course the sheer number of Nazi victims was greater). 

While the Nazis slaughtered Slavs and Roma people too, racism directed at Jews was a core element in their ideology of the Aryan “master race”. The prejudice was not new — active hostility to Jews stretches back to the founding of Christianity and was hardened by the emergence of absolutist states in the late Middle Ages. But Jewish identity is complicated by the fact that Jews are both adherents of a religion and members of an ethnic group. This is not unique — Sikhs are another well-known example of a religious group which is also an ethnic group. But it is unusual.

Until the French Revolution and the Enlightenment, these two identities were fused — all Jews were then forced in effect to adhere to their religion by the reigning authorities. When Jews were allowed to choose whether to practise their religion, those who did not were still ethnically Jewish. 

This made Jewish identity more complicated than that of most other religious or ethnic groups. It is possible to choose to be Jewish by converting to the religion but the various strains of Jewish religious expression have different requirements for conversion; those with stricter requirements do not recognise the converts of the more lenient streams and so not everyone who considers themselves to be Jewish is accepted as such by the entire Jewish community.  

Since Jews are also an ethnic group, those who abandoned the religion are still regarded as Jewish although the status of Jews who join another religion has been controversial. There are enough grey areas on the borders of Jewish identity to ensure that who is Jewish and who is not is still hotly debated within the Jewish fold.     

What matters for our purpose is that, when restrictions on Jews in Europe began to ease, religious hostility to them as a group became less tenable — in theory at least, Jews could choose not to be Jewish by converting to Christianity, as more than a few did. But bigotry is not that easily ended. 

Those who were prejudiced against Jews, presumably alarmed that they could now integrate into society, focused not on religion but on accidents of birth — they began to insist that Jews were a separate and dangerous race. It is no accident that this ideology emerged only in the 19th Century, after the Enlightenment. 

The ideologues of this new racism called it anti-Semitism. The term has stuck even though it is inaccurate since Arabs are Semites too, while anti-Jewish racists often despise Arabs as well, the term was used to describe a prejudice against Jews alone. 

The bigotry of which Du Bois wrote — against black and Asian people — is also very old: it can be traced back at least to the Atlantic slave trade and the British colonisation of parts of Asia and Africa. But the term “racism” which we use today was originally coined to describe racial prejudice against Jews only. While prejudice against “the darker races” dominates today, anti-Semitism has not disappeared, as the murder of Jews at synagogues in the United States in 2018, and Germany in 2019 demonstrates. 

These two prejudices obviously have differing targets, but, for decades after Du Bois’ prophecy, they have been linked — as the anti-colonial theorist Frantz Fanon pointed out, anti-Jewish racism and prejudice against black people (and Arabs and Asians) usually formed part of a package of bigotries which went together: anti-Semitism was, in the view of some scholars, a form of white supremacy. But this is now less so than it once was. 

One reason is that the fight against racism has, justifiably, centred on the relationship between the “lighter” and “darker” races of which du Bois wrote. While prejudices against groups considered “white” survive (and, like some other groups regarded as “white” today, such as Irish and Italian immigrants to the United States Jews were not always seen as “white” by the dominant culture), today they rarely if ever enable the domination of these groups. 

By contrast, deeply racist attitudes to “darker” people which were notoriously on display in reactions to the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, do enable domination and the denial of rights. An obvious example is the constant attempt to deny “darker” people access to countries which enthusiastically welcome white Ukrainians. 

But there is another reason why a wedge has been driven into discussions of anti-Jewish racism on the one hand, that directed at “black, brown and yellow” people on the other. The Israeli state and its supporters have turned “anti-Semitism” from a description of anti-Jewish racism into a weapon against critics, including many who happen to be Jews, who believe that its attitudes and practices are racist. 

In effect, an allegation of racism has been turned into a weapon against anti-racists. This is accompanied by another turnaround — they seek to turn the campaign against anti-Semitism from a rebellion against white supremacy into an endorsement of white Europeanness. This book discusses how this happened and what it means both for Jewish identity and for our understandings of anti-Jewish racism, real and imagined. It also discusses how its lessons apply more generally to current developments in South Africa and the world.  

Much has been written about the Israeli state’s impact on the lives and rights of the Palestinian people. The domination of Palestinians is by far the most insidious effect of the establishment of the Israeli state as an authority serving one ethnic group only on territory inhabited by other groups too. 

But a less obvious impact of the Israeli state’s role is what it has done to Jews and to Jewish identity. This is the subject of this book. Its focus does not suggest that the distortions of Jewish identity and the misuse of anti-Semitism to demonise other Jews (often in deeply anti-Semitic terms) is more important than the daily experience of Palestinians. But the changes wrought to Jewish identity are an important element in the ideology which underpins the Israeli state and they deserve more attention than they have received.

Good Jew, Bad Jew: Racism, Anti-Semitism and the Assault on Meaning is published by Wits University Press.

• Steven Friedman is a public commentator, political scientist and research professor at the University of Johannesburg. He has published books on South Africa’s transition to democracy, the role of the trade union movement and current South African politics.