On Antisemitism (& Racism) Theorized
A glance at conceptual commonalities between critical theories of antisemitism and racism
When Jews talk about antisemitism, how do they presume it operates? Do they use the term to refer to isolated instances of prejudice against Jews for being Jews, or do they have something more in mind than that?
I’ve been thinking about this question in light of recent debates in the United States regarding Critical Race Theory (CRT). Before leaving office, President Trump signed an executive order banning diversity training for government employees. That has sparked an effort in many state legislatures to pass a fusillade of laws limiting the propagation of “divisive concepts” in educational and other settings. And there’s many more bills like them set to come down the legislative pipeline in the coming months.
The bills’ proponents tend to group the manifold things they target — political correctness, wokeism, diversity and equality training, multiculturalism, identity politics, anti-racism — under the unifying term Critical Race Theory. Aside from the glaring free speech issues involved, critics of these bills argue that they attribute to CRT ideas that the devisers of CRT do not espouse.
Dovetailing the nationwide uproar over CRT has been a sometimes strained, often times exaggerated discussion among American Jews over its merits. This article explores the similarities between some of the actual axioms of CRT and how American Jews have and continue to think about antisemitism. It then ponders what lessons we might draw for contemporary political discourse from the overlap between the two.
What, then, do proponents of CRT argue?
A leading one is that racism is systemic, meaning it isn’t just a matter of individuals expressing racist views but really that racism is embedded in our laws, our social institutions, and in our cultural practices. This is to say that racist outcomes can be produced and reproduced regardless of whether individual Americans think of themselves, on the whole, as explicitly racist.
A second key CRT point that flows from the notion of systemic racism is that the US remains a deeply unequal place regardless of the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and other hallmarks of congressional civil rights legislation. So long as systemic racism remains unaddressed in institutions, politics, and culture, it is impossible for the US to live up to its meritocratic ideals because racial legal, economic, and other outcomes will always obtain. The presumptions to objectivity or race-neutrality or other long-celebrated liberal notions of fairness are until then illusory.
There is a lot more to it, of course. Concepts like white privilege, intersectionality, and counternarrative emanate from CRT as well. But, for our purposes, the contentions about systemic racism and the disjuncture between American ideals and practices are illuminating. Though it has often gone unremarked, these ideas aren’t too different from the ways Jews — writers, historians, other intellectuals — in the United States have and continue to talk about antisemitism.
Now long-forgotten, Maurice Samuel was one of the most prolific English-language Jewish writers of the early twentieth century. He devoted much of his oeuvre, from his first major book You Gentiles (1924) to his opus The Great Hatred (1941), to theorizing about the origins and mechanics of Jew-hatred. The through-line in Samuel’s thinking was that Jew-hatred was endemic to “Western” or “Christian” civilization, terms he used interchangeably. It was not, in Samuel’s words, “a collection of local eruptions,” but rather “a pervasive condition of the Western world.”
Take this, for instance, from Jews on Approval (1931) that tries to explain why leading writers of the era often associate unflattering characteristics with Jews: “It is merely the evidence of a general attitude, something worked into the cultural mind of the Western World” (15). What does he mean by that? Samuel offered a fully-articulated presentation of this strain of thinking in The Great Hatred, where he argued that antisemitism was not mere prejudice but rather the byproduct of a world-historical conflict within Christian civilization itself. “Anti-semitism [sic] is the concealed hatred of Christ and Christianity rising to a new and catastrophic level in the western world” (36).
In both these quotes, Samuel construes Jew-hatred as, to use our contemporary parlance, systemic. This is to say that it operates at a substructural level, and thus manifests even among people who would normally disavow that they’re antisemitic, and even among world religions whose adherents would reject the idea that they harbor such base hatreds.
This kind of thinking set the tone for the ways that many leading theorists and historians in the United States came to view antisemitism during and after World War II. Some examples through the decades:
- The arguments formulated in the 1940s in the various iterations of Dialectics of Enlightenment produced by the émigré theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer that antisemitism derives from dynamics embedded in Enlightenment thinking. In their rendering, antisemitism derives from trans-historical psychosocial forces that undergird all of modern life and have little regard for actual Jews or other geo-cultural specificities.
- Veteran Jewish historian Ben Halpern in his 1981 essay “What is Anti-Semitism [sic]?” landed on the following definition, “Anti-semitism [sic] is a hostile attitude towards the Jews…that develops into a tradition and becomes institutionalized” (225). For Halpern, in other words, antisemitism achieved its most mature expression when it transcended the level of interpersonal prejudice and became embedded in larger social structures and systems.
- IHRA definition drafter Kenneth Marcus, in an essay as part of a 2015 book collection on the “new antisemitism,” pointed back to the work of Adorno to define antisemitism as “a set of negative attitudes, ideologies, and practices directed at Jews as Jews, individually or collectively, based upon and sustained by a repetitive and potentially self-fulfilling latent structure of hostile erroneous beliefs and assumptions that flow from the application of double standards toward Jews as a collectivity, manifested culturally in myth, ideology, folklore, and imagery, and urging various forms of restriction, exclusion, and suppression” (24).
This is just a sample of a veritable corpus of twentieth century theorizing about antisemitism. What all these examples have in common is their insistence that it transcends quotidian prejudice and constitutes much more than just isolated hostility towards Jews.
It is a “tradition,” it can become “institutionalized,” it is both “ideology” as well as “practices,” it manifests as a “self-fulfilling latent structure.” Like racism as construed by CRT thinkers, antisemitism for these theorists can become encoded in cultural practices and social institutions as much as it is carried by individuals, and can potentially persist regardless of whether or not Jews enjoy legal equality in any given country.
Lest you’re inclined to chalk up the cases I’ve offered above to irrelevant, mostly deceased ivory tower eggheads who had little influence on wider Jewish attitudes, consider Bari Weiss’s How to Fight Anti-Semitism [sic], a best-seller which nods at Maurice Samuel’s outlook by asserting: “It is a deeply rooted and highly infectious thought virus carried in the DNA of Western culture. This may sound terrifying and deterministic” (33; for more on the virus metaphor, see here). Or syndicated columnist Jonah Goldberg titling a recent substack article about harsh criticism of Israel in the latest Israel-Gaza conflict “Structural Antisemitism.” The word “systemic” has even made its way into one of the more recent attempts at a definition of antisemitism, the Nexus elaboration of IHRA (though, not surprisingly, several of the Nexus definition drafters are outspoken about the need to take CRT more seriously, a point I will address again immediately below).
These reflections are important because they illuminate inconsistencies among dueling camps in the CRT debate, and allow for us to think about ways of ameliorating them.
There are plenty of Jewish leaders, pundits, and organizations who have come out against CRT thinking but who ascribe to some version of structural antisemitism as delineated above. Some take issue with the policy prescriptions they have come to associate with CRT (Human Resources antiracist programming, affirmative action, reparations, whatever the case may be), and all of that is worthy of sober debate. More baffling, however, is the contention that one of the core problems with CRT is it’s assertion of an American racist past and systemically racist present. Is it really that hard to believe that there is something nearly intrinsic about racism in US political history and culture when you’re convinced that antisemitism is written into the very DNA of all of Christian civilization?
Conversely, greater familiarity with this intellectual tradition might help Jewish as well as non-Jewish CRT advocates and Jewish communal representatives engage in a more productive dialogue about America, Jews, and race issues than has been evident of late. Some have wielded blunt versions of CRT to argue that American Jews are beneficiaries of the white power structure and must therefore disavow their privilege in order to help undo the systemic forces of racism in the United States. Putting aside the fact that not all Jews have white skin, many American Jews are rankled by these assertions in no small part because they deny a deeply held Jewish belief about the systemic nature of Jew-hatred which has and is always on the verge of marginalizing them as non-white, as non-Christian, as any other signifier which amounts to being disenfranchised. Isn’t it possible that the commonalities between different theories of bigotry, and the complexities of racial identity in the United States that those theories shed light on, offer greater potential for building anti-racist coalitions than the wielding of a strict white-non-white or racist-anti-racist binary?
This all to say that how Jews and others talk about bigotry is more similar than it might initially appear. We should be more cognizant of those discursive and conceptual similarities. They can help promote greater sympathy and understanding between various stakeholders and more civil dialogue among leaders and activists.