‘Anti-Semitism’ as a word has been a disaster

It doesn’t come close to describing what it is meant to identify; nor does it accurately label the problem that many of its victims try to convey.

People marching from Manhattan to Brooklyn to protest the rise in antisemitism in New York, Jan. 5, 2020. Photo by Christopher Penler/Shutterstock.
People marching from Manhattan to Brooklyn to protest the rise in antisemitism in New York, Jan. 5, 2020. Photo by Christopher Penler/Shutterstock.
Jeffrey Lax
Jeffrey Lax

Let us examine what I submit is one of the most ineffective and confounding words in the English language: “anti-Semitism.”

When I use the term, I generally get the sense that my audience is wondering, “Well, what exactly do you mean by anti-Semitism?”

Too often, it feels like using the word creates more confusion than it resolves. Not to mention its grammatical challenges.

“How do you spell that?

“Is there a dash in there?”

“Is the ‘S’ capitalized?”

Too frequently, asserting “anti-Semitism” weakens and brings ambiguity to victims’ underlying claims before details of the case have even been set forth.

When an audience doesn’t understand what you are talking about, they simply will not care as much, as it may require too much effort from them to infer, decipher or, heaven forbid, conduct research into the very language itself. That is, and always has been, a profound problem in the fight against anti-Semitism. Nobody, except Jews, really knows what we are talking about.

“Anti-Semitism” is a mystifying morass. It hardly can be said to move any audience forward into understanding the concept or problem. It doesn’t even represent any one concept or problem. More often, it actually moves the listener in reverse.

“Wait … what kind of anti-Semitism are you talking about?”

“I’m confused, isn’t the accused also Jewish?”

Taken literally, anti-Semitism refers to having hostility or prejudice against people who speak Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic. That literal definition hardly demarcates Jews. In fact, such literal interpretation recently led to a secret nefarious email being sent at my university by a CUNY faculty union delegate to the entire delegate assembly who vilely argued, “anti-Semitism does not only apply to the Jewish people … [i]t applies to the Semitic peoples and there isn’t only one Semitic people.” The delegate sent this email in bad faith during the PSC-CUNY union’s discussions leading up to its one-sided, bigoted, pro-BDS, anti-Israel resolution in June 2021, leading to approximately 300 mostly Jewish faculty-member resignations from the union. She did so to further a despicable agenda: removing access to the only word and concept that Jewish people have had, to date, in our arsenal to identify and allege that we have been discriminated against or treated with bigotry or hate. No union delegate expressed any opposition to this effort.

We have seen atheist Jews discriminate against observant Jews and argue as a defense that this cannot be anti-Semitism because, after all, the atheist was Jewish, too. College of Staten Island (CUNY) Professor Sarah Schulman once told an outwardly Jewish student, “I don’t hug murderers” [apparently blaming a random, outward or religious American Jew for the death of Palestinians]. She then argued, “How can I be anti-Semitic? I’m Jewish.”

To be clear; I take no sides here. There have most certainly also been cases where religious Jews illegally discriminate in hiring and in other prejudicial practices against secular Jews. This behavior is no better than Schulman’s and should have no access to the (legally untenable) and ludicrous “I’m not anti-Semitic; I’m Jewish” defense that she offered.

And, yes, there are also bigoted anti-Zionist Jews; some of whom chant “Zionists out of CUNY,” and adopt vile and hateful BDS resolutions against their Zionist Jewish counterparts. But how can they be called anti-Semitic if they, too, are Jewish? Anti-Zionist Jews would be quick to correctly label a neo-Nazi calling for anti-Zionist Jewish individuals’ deaths antisemitic. And yet these anti-Zionist Jews share something very much in common with the neo-Nazis: a bigoted, hateful and discriminatory agenda towards Zionist Jews. This begs the question: How can a Jewish person who can legitimately use “anti-Semitism” as a sword against a neo-Nazi then be prohibited from also using it as a shield to defend against the same neo-Nazi?

A large part of the answer to this question is shockingly simple and rather depressing: “anti-Semitism” is a terrible word that causes confusion, ambiguity, and, in turn, harm.

“Anti-Semitism” alone doesn’t describe anything meaningful about either the victim or the perpetrator. Anti-Semites can be Jews. The same anti-Semites can also be victims of anti-Semitism. There is nothing helpful or elucidating about the word. More often than not, quite the opposite is true: People of bad faith prey on the word’s ambiguity and imprecision to muddle the issues and to help further the commission of anti-Semitism. Just last week, renowned antisemite Nerdeen Kiswani bizarrely labeled a New York City Council probe into anti-Semitism at CUNY as somehow “anti-Palestinian” and even “racist.”

“Anti-Semitism” doesn’t come close to describing what it is meant to identify; nor does it accurately label the problem that many of its victims try to convey. It is too broad and yet simultaneously too narrow. Significantly, the word doesn’t even successfully assert a cognizable legal claim. You cannot bring an action under Title VI or VII under The Civil Rights Act by alleging merely “anti-Semitism.” Anti-Semitism is not a recognized protected class under city, state or federal discrimination statutes. Rather, victims need to be more specific and allege what exactly it is that they mean by “anti-Semitism.” Were they fired because of their Orthodox Jewish religion? Were they denied promotion due to their Zionist ethnicity? Were they harassed because they are Israeli? Within these statutes, we find helpful actual descriptors: religion, ethnicity and nationality. But none of these descriptors are conveyed by the word “anti-Semitism.” If anything, using “anti-Semitism” only pushes the helpful descriptors further away, before some (e.g., an investigating Chief Diversity Officer) will even get to them. By then, it may be too late.

To further complicate things, “anti-Semitism” cannot be replaced by any one better descriptive word or term because Jewish people fall into multiple categories of protective classes. Some are protected by religious beliefs; others by their ethnicity and still others by their (Israeli) nationality.

For years, I, and fine colleagues, have sought to replace “anti-Semitism” with one singular and more effectively descriptive word. I have come to realize that this is just not possible for the Jewish people. We are a complicated bunch. Very complicated. Moreover, we are exceptionally diverse.

It is time to admit that our use of the very word “anti-Semitism” has itself hurt the very cause that it is meant to represent. But it can only be replaced by separating the Jewish people into five identifiable and protected classes. I propose the following terms, perfectly descriptive of the five protected Jewish classes under American law. Each of the below terms can be prefaced with “anti-“ to denote discrimination taken against each particular class.

The gay rights movement correctly recognized many years ago that advocating for five different gender, gender identity and gender preference groups with one term no longer accurately represented the various identities of the groups it sought to protect. Instead of retaining an inaccurate descriptor or trying to create a new word that could never possibly identify these five different groups, the movement ambitiously and wisely instead simply listed those five groups. Today, we know them simply by the letters LGBTQ. Each class is understood and protected under the law.

It is time for Jewish people to recognize the same thing about the word “antisemitism.” It is antiquated, inaccurate, impractical, and abstract. It no longer represents those it was meant to protect and its very use has harmed the cause it was meant to fight. As with the LGBTQ classes, there are five very distinct classes Of Jewish groups that can only be accurately represented and protected by individually identifying each.

Replacing ‘Anti-Semitism’ with the Jewish Quinary: PREJI

  1. Practiced Judaism: In addition to Religious Zionism, all other Jewish religiously practiced beliefs are similarly protected under civil-right laws. These are well-understood and protected under civil rights laws. (“Anti-Practiced Judaism”)
  2. Religious Zionism: It is indisputable that the Torah, a religious text, connects Jews to the land of Israel. In fact, 204 of the 613 commandments in the Bible may not be carried out without access to the land of Israel. For many religious Jews, Zionism is purely a religious belief, wholly protected under civil rights laws. (“Anti-Religious Zionism”)
  3. Ethnic Zionism: Ethnicity is a protected class under civil rights law and Jewish Ethnic Zionists are people who have a deep-rooted heritage or other connection to the land of Israel that need not be religious. (“Anti-Ethnic Zionism”)
  4. Jewish Ethnicity: Like Ethnic Zionism, Jewish Ethnicity is protected under civil rights laws and would apply to Jewish people with common cultural traditions. It needn’t require any religious beliefs or any form of Zionist beliefs. (“Anti-Jewish Ethnicity”)
  5. Israeli Nationality: Many Israeli citizens hold dual citizenship in the United States and are prime targets of discrimination, such as the adoption of BDS policies in their schools, places of work and other venues. Israelis are protected under American law by their nationality. (“Anti-Israeli Nationality”)

Some will say that the Jewish Quinary is too complex. But the reality is that each class is truly distinct and must be identified for what it is. The Jewish Quinary already exists and is in dire need of protection; it simply hasn’t been named. But identifying it is necessary because it truly covers five completely different groups of Jewish people who experience very different issues and types of discrimination in their lives, at school, and at work.

Try applying one of the five terms to the examples given in this piece. If Sara Schulman stood accused not of “anti-Semitism,” but of “anti-Ethnic Zionism” or “anti-Religious Zionism,” no investigator would have to struggle with the red-herring defense that Schulman “is not an anti-Semite” because she “is Jewish.” Her bigoted views would be on full display and could not be shrouded by the opacity of a terrible word whose use has been tolerated and preyed upon by its enemies for too long.

Jeffrey Lax is a CUNY professor, department chair, and a founder of Students and Faculty for Equality at CUNY (S.A.F.E. CUNY), a nonpartisan group of CUNY students and faculty who advocate for systemically discriminated against and excluded Zionist Jews at CUNY.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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