What is a Semite?

Image: Tee shirt with the words “Yo Semite.” Photo courtesy of the National Museum of American Jewish History Museum Store.

Actually, there’s no such thing. “Semitic” is a designation for a language group that includes Arabic, Amharic, Aramaic, Tigrinya, and Hebrew.

The term was coined in the late 18th century by August Ludwig von Schlözer, a historian, and Johann Gottfried Eichhorn, a German Protestant theologian. They derived it from Shem, the name of one of the three sons of Noah in Genesis 10, via the Greek pronunciation Σημ (“seem.”)  As critics at the time pointed out, this was problematic because in that passage, the Canaanites (who also spoke a language from this group) were descended from another brother, Ham.

Academics began to refer to Jews as “Semites” in the 19th century. Pseudoscientific theories about race abounded in the West and were used to justify hatred towards Jews and other people deemed undesirable by those in power. Targeted groups included people of African descent, Irish descent, Asian descent, and those with brown skin. So-called scientists strove to identify physical characteristics which “proved” that those groups of individuals were inferior to whites. Jews were also one of the targeted groups and were referred to as “Hebrews” or “Semites” to underline the notion of a Jewish race (a concept that completely ignores Judaism’s long history of accepting converts.)

German journalist Wilhelm Marr used the term “antisemitismus” [antisemitism] as a more scientific-sounding, more elegant alternative to “Jew hatred.” in 1880 he published a pamphlet, Der Weg zum Siege des Germanenthums über das Judenthum (The Way to Victory of the Germanic Spirit over the Jewish Spirit, which outlined his theory that Jews were infiltrating and damaging German culture. In the same year he founded the Antisemiten-Liga [Antisemitism League] in Germany and the term antisemitism moved into popular use.

It is probably more useful to use the term “Jew hatred” for the fear and hatred of Jews, rather than to get embroiled in arguments about whether or not Arabs are also “Semites” and therefore subject to “antisemitism.” However, courtesy of some 19th century Germans, we seem to be stuck with this misnomer.

Jewish tradition as well as Christian tradition teaches that all human beings are made in the image of God and are therefore equal:

And God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them. – Genesis 1:27

Islam also asserts the equality of human beings, as established in the Quran. God makes distinctions among people only according to their individual righteousness:

O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things). – Quran 49:13

Therefore the hatred of any group of people merely because of their designation as a member of that group is wrong according to all three Abrahamic religions. Nor does science perceive any difference among homo sapiens: despite differences in coloration or belief, we are all one humanity.

A Visit to the Anne Frank House

Whenever Linda or I told anyone we were going to Amsterdam, the first question was usually, “Are you going to get stoned?” (No.) The second question was, “Are you going to the Anne Frank House?”

The Anne Frank Huis (its Dutch name) is the third largest tourist attraction in the city, after the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum. It is the building where eight Jews hid from the Nazis for two years during WWII, only to be ratted out by an unknown person near the end of the war. Only one of the eight survived, Otto Frank. After the Nazi raid on the house, a friend found a collection of books and papers that she recognized to be the diary of Anne Frank, Otto’s teenaged daughter. The Diary of a Young Girl became a bestseller, a play, and has been made into a movie as well.

To get a sense of the popularity of this museum, look at the photo above. This is the line of people waiting to buy a ticket early on a weekday morning. We’d been told it was best to get tickets online before we even left home, but there were already no tickets available for the dates when we’d be there. At our hotel, we were assured that the best thing to do was get over there and wait in line before the doors opened.

I had visited the “Secret Annexe” in the summer of 1973, and I knew that it was not accessible for a person on wheels. A quick check of the website told me that that was still the case. So that day we split up: Linda went to visit the Anne Frank House and I had other adventures. She arrived at 8 a.m. to find the line in the photograph above. I don’t know how long those people had been waiting, but it was a long line even so early.

Linda tells me that the museum and the hiding place itself were very educational and very moving. Certainly the hiding place had made a huge impression on me when I visited there at age 18. Anne’s diary comes to life there, when the reader can feel how cramped the rooms are, and how careful one must be to be utterly quiet when anyone else in on the premises. As an American kid used to moving about at will, I remember marveling that the eight people hiding there for over two years managed to hang onto their sanity. It is unbearably sad to know that they went to the camps, after all they’d been through, so near to the liberation of Holland.

If you wish to get a sense of the Anne Frank House, the museum website has an excellent online exhibit complete with a virtual tour.  I know that Linda’s glad she went; I’m glad I saw it when I could climb all those stairs.

Why Do Some People Think All Jews are Rich?

Image: Stacks of coin in front of shadowy figures. Art by Pete Linforth via pixabay.com.

You’ve heard the stereotypes, and the nasty little comments: “Jews are all rich.” “Jews control all the banks.” “All Jews are obsessed with money.” Some Jewish readers may have had pennies thrown at them. As a reader asked recently, where does this come from?

First, notice something: the word “all.” Any time you see that word, put on your skeptical hat! Global statements are a sign that there’s irrationality involved.

“All Jews are rich.” – Not true. Half a million Jews live under the poverty line in New York City alone, according to a study by the UJA-Federation of New York.  So why do people say that or think it? In purely contemporary terms, it is true that a higher percentage of Jews earn more than $100,000 than any other “faith group” in America, according to this chart from GOOD and Column Five.  It is also true that there are individual Jews who are famous for their wealth, for example, George Soros and Sheldon Adelson. But no, not all Jews are rich, and the majority of rich people are not Jewish.

According to the Pew Research Center’s study of religious groups in the U.S. and income distribution, 44% of American Jewish households  make above $100,000 per year, the highest percentage of any group. Some possible reasons for this:

  • Jewish culture values education highly, and higher education correlates with higher earning power.
  • Until recently, in each generation, Jews have been shut out of “old” professions and have therefore sought careers in emerging fields. For instance, when the American film industry was getting started, most white Americans looked down on people in entertainment. Jews established many of the first studios because that field was open to them. Being early in new fields means higher risk, but higher rewards for those who succeed.
  • Jews in America benefitted from a coincidence: Antisemitism decreased dramatically in the US after WWII, at the beginning of the post-war boom. Jews were not “redlined” out of the housing market, unlike other minorities. The growth in the housing market was the single greatest builder of middle-class wealth in US history.
  • The Jewish practice of tzedakah encourages the giving of low- or no-interest loans within the community. Jews who have “made it” contribute to organizations like the Hebrew Free Loan Society that give assistance to entrepreneurs that qualify, and to households in temporary distress.

While it is not true that all Jews are rich or have access to wealth, it is true that as a group, Jews have prospered in America. Jews faced considerable prejudice but were able to establish themselves in newer, riskier industries where the initial return is high. Partly they were able to do that because within the Jewish community there is a tradition of helping young people get educations and start businesses. Furthermore, while Jews faced prejudice in America, including redlining, they did not face the systematic institutional racism that African Americans have faced.

The linking of Jews and money goes back to the Middle Ages. The Bible forbids usury [taking or paying interest on a loan “from your brother.” (See Exodus 22:24, Deuteronomy 23:20-21, and Leviticus 25:35-37 for examples.)] Jewish law discouraged lending to non-Jews as well as forbidding lending at interest to other Jews.

However, sources of income for European Jews prior to about 1800 were extremely limited. Jews were barred from most professions and guilds. Moneylending was a viable way to make a living, especially since Christians were barred by their own laws from lending money. Thus moneylending became a niche for Jews. It was a dangerous niche, however: no one likes their creditors.

Financial skills are also portable. Jews were uprooted again and again from their homes in Europe, and those with portable skills were the best equipped to survive. One side-effect of the various expulsions was that families were often scattered to different cities. Having trusted family members in financial centers like Amsterdam, London, Paris, etc meant that money could be moved easily across the continent. For a more detailed history of Jews and banking, there’s an excellent article in the Virtual Jewish Library.

So yes, there are connections between Jews and money. But not all Jews are rich and not all Jews have access to wealth.

One way that these ideas spread was a hoax called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It was produced sometime in the early 20th century in Russia or the Ukraine. It purports to be a blueprint for world domination by a Jewish conspiracy. It claimed that Jews plan to dominate the world by economic means. So even today, “All Jews are rich” is a central belief for many antisemites.

A Very Important Class

It’s that time again – I’m teaching the class on antisemitism tonight.

I looked over my old lesson plan, and almost changed it. We’re in a different world all of a sudden. We’ve had antisemitic “incidents” in Europe ranging from murder to riots, and an ugly inquisition at a student government meeting in California.

I decided to stick with my old lesson plan, because it is the basis for what my students need to know. Hatred of Jews goes way back in history. It has taken various forms over the centuries. Roman and Greek thinkers believed Jews lazy and disrespectful by nature. Christian antisemitism began as a set of religious beliefs about Jews. Religous antisemitism gradually took political forms, as Christianity became the established religion of Europe. By the 16th century in Spain, there was talk about “Jewish blood” and a sense of Jews as a race began to creep into the European vocabulary. Judaism was no longer an error of belief: it was a physical characteristic. Meanwhile, justifications for doing worse and worse things to Jews piled up.

And then, yes, the 20th century came and with it the horrors of the Holocaust. What I want my students to understand is that the Holocaust wasn’t just “a German thing” and it wasn’t just an episode. All of European history led up to it, and unfortunately, many of the same beliefs and attitudes that gave rise to it are with us today.

Some things have changed for the better: Vatican II brought a radical change of doctrine from the Roman Catholic Church, repudiating its old antisemitism. In the United States and in some parts of Europe, there is a strong feeling of “never again.” Organizations like the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center track hate speech and hate crimes.

But we have also slid backwards in other ways. Nazi propaganda made its way into the Arab world during WWII, and so the blood libel and other horrors are still circulating, believed as fact. The Protocols of the Elders of Zionan ugly antisemitic hoax, is still circulating, too. And there are hate groups in the West as well: anyone who searches for “Jew” on Google will be greeted by an avalanche of filth.

The modern state of Israel has become a magnet for antisemitic rhetoric. Criticism of Israel is certainly a valid activity – I am not madly in love with many policies of the State of Israel and its government – but a frightening amount of the anti-Israel rhetoric one hears tumbles over the line into antisemitism.

So that’s what’s on my mind tonight. I need to make sure that those studying towards conversion understand that they are signing up for this, and that it isn’t going away. I want to communicate ways of responding, and ways to stay centered while reading the news. It’s a big job, and I feel one of the most important things I do as an “Intro to Judaism” teacher. I’ll finish with questions I’m going to ask the students:

What do you do when you hear someone say something antisemitic? How do you decide what you are going to do? What about hatred aimed at other groups such as people of color or Muslims? When did it last happen, and what did you do?

How I Deal With Antisemitic Comments

Visibility is a mixed bag for Jews. This weekend in all the excitement of being Freshly Pressed this blog saw a burst of traffic, “follows,” and “likes,” – thank you very much to those who contributed to that and welcome to new readers! It also got some really ugly antisemitic comments. I’ve been sitting quietly for while, thinking about how I want to handle the mixed blessings.

My comment policy has been pretty simple. Simple is good. I decided though to reiterate my old policy and give it its own page, so that I can point to the comment policy without having to look it up.

I will continue to delete antisemitic comments as soon as I see them. My experience in raising children and training dogs is that the less attention paid to bad behavior, the better. That doesn’t mean “ignore it” – it means don’t reward it by lavishing attention on it. Therefore I shall zap antisemitic comments and then look around and say to myself with deepest satisfaction: “What antisemitic comment? Heh.”

Questions are different. A question is at least on the surface a request for information. “Is it true that Jews are [fill in antisemitic stereotype here]?” will get a straight up serious reply from me, with historical background on its origins. Even if I suspect a question is cover for a nasty comment, I’ll entertain it because it’s an opportunity to teach.

In life, that’s how I try to deal with antisemitism also. If I am pretty sure a comment was made simply to get a rise out of me, I say, “That comment’s beneath my attention,” and move right on. If I think the comment was made out of ignorance, that’s a different matter: I’ll counter it with facts in as calm and kind a manner as I can muster. If people are listening who may be misled by the antisemitic statement, then it’s even more important for me to pursue the teaching moment, even if the ignorance is willful.

To anyone visiting this blog who wants attention (and goodness knows, most of us don’t get enough of it, unless we’re tabloid fodder) – ask a question. I love questions. I crave them. They give me topics for posts, and they give me a chance to have a conversation with the questioner, and get to know you a bit.

Thank you for reading, and bless you for asking questions!

Antisemitism, Again.

Photo credit: Beny Shlevich
Photo credit: Beny Shlevich

Antisemitism is alive and well in Europe. The news in the past few weeks has been grim: a shooting and murder outside a synagogue in Copenhagen and the kosher supermarket murders in Paris are the most serious. There has also been a disturbing video of a man being harrassed as he walks around Paris in a kippah.

These things are frightening, no doubt about it. My heart goes out to the Jews of France and Denmark. I am disturbed, though, by something I’m seeing on social media. Jews all over the world are upset, and are talking loudly about being upset, but a lot of the conversation is not constructive. Some thoughts:

1. If we are worried about antisemitism, we should learn more about it. The media are not reliable when it comes to this issue (remember the reporting about Israel last summer?) If you are interested in learning more about the intersection of anti-Zionism and antisemitism, I recommend this article by Eve Garrard, an Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Manchester. There are some excellent new books on the subject as well, both antisemitism in the past and the so-called “new” antisemitism. Better yet, organize a study group at your synagogue – not a coffee klatch to worry, but a group that will study and learn.

2. It is true that the gunmen in Paris and Copenhagen have identified as Muslims. However, blaming the current wave of antisemitism in Europe and elsewhere on Islam is far too simplistic. White Americans who identified as Christians bombed synagogues in Sacramento, CA as recently as 1999.  Again, I recommend learning about antisemitism, which has deep roots in history and Western culture.

3. Instead of worrying and ranting, how about doing something? Support the Anti-Defamation League. Send letters or emails of support to synagogues in Paris and Denmark. Many have websites, and you can search for them at the World Union for Progressive Judaism website. Ask your rabbi for more suggestions: maybe there is a local group you can join or support or a class you can take.

I am currently taking a class on the history of antisemitism, and doing the reading connected with it. When I feel ready I’ll post to this blog about some of the things I’m learning.

It is a sad fact that antisemitism has been with us in one form or another for many centuries, since classical times. We need not feel helpless in confronting it. Hysterics won’t help, nor will denial. What will make a difference is educating ourselves and supporting one another.

 

 

 

The Class I Hate to Teach

English: Antisemitic graffiti in Venezuela
English: Antisemitic graffiti in Venezuela (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I enjoy teaching basic Judaism: it’s my true love, my mission, my passion. “Intro,” done well, can make it much easier for outsiders to become fellow travelers in Jewish community, whether they are Gentile relatives of a Jew, or Jews who got no Jewish education, or someone looking to become a Jew.  It has to be more than facts and how-to’s, because Judaism isn’t just a religion, it’s a vast array of ethnicities, customs, history, and culture – as Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan famously titled his book, Judaism is a civilization. As an “Intro” teacher, I’m a tour guide, den mother, demystifier, and spiritual director.

But there’s one class in every series that I hate to teach. Not coincidentally, it is the only class specified by the tradition as a requirement. Rabbinic tradition is rather vague about what converts to Judaism must be taught before they go to the mikveh, but it is adamant that they understand that Jews have been a despised and persecuted people. In other words, they need to be acquainted with anti-Semitism.

It’s the one class to which I bring a printed-out lesson plan, because I know I will go off-topic like a giddy puppy at the first opportunity. I march through the list: the misgivings about Jews in classical civilization, Christian attitudes about Jews that took shape in both church doctrine and in civil law, and the obsession with Jewish ancestry that surfaced in Spain in the 16th century that presaged full-blown ethnic hatred of Jews in the Western world.  I talk about Herzl’s realization, as he covered the Dreyfus affair, that the Jews of Europe faced something terrible. I talk about all of that as a prelude to the Shoah. And then we talk about the “New” anti-Semitism.

We talk about the memes that have dogged Jews through history: blood libel, moneylending, court Jews, conspiracy, communism, socialism, anarchism, pinko-Commie-whatever-ism. I tell them about the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.  I tell them about the origins of the term “Anti-Semitism,” that it was invented by a German journalist as a sophisticated-sounding substitute for Judenhass, Jew-hatred.

Some students who have been engaged Christians at some point in their lives practically writhe with discomfort. I name those feelings, and acknowledge that when you’ve got one foot in each community, this can be very hard listening. I share the fact that it was hard for me, when I took the class long ago. Some Jewish students look distant, and I suspect they are running through unpleasant memories and feelings. Maybe, like me, they just hate the topic.

My impulse is to comfort. I bring cookies. I reassure. But I march relentlessly through that lesson plan, because it is important that they know this stuff. I have a duty to see to it that they understand that when you sign up to be a Jew, you sign up for this, too. For Gentiles in the class, it is important to know why Jews seem “sensitive” about some things, why some topics are funny only if you are a genius like Mel Brooks and can take them all the way off the deep end.

Usually the evening ends off topic: I get to the end of the list, and we trail off from “Jews run the media” into jokes and trivia about Hollywood and Jews. If I’m artful, we’ll leave on an upbeat note.  But I’m always relieved when the evening is over, because I hate this topic.  I hate, hate, hate it.