Are all forms of prejudice really equal?

Those who explain anti-Semitism as “just another” form of bigotry are failing, sometimes willingly, to understand it.

Those who explain anti-Semitism as “just another” form of bigotry are failing, sometimes willingly, to understand it

“The members of the Security Council”, according to a UN press release, have “strongly condemned all forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance”.

The 15-member body was responding to the recent shootings at the Brussels Jewish Museum.

“All forms”? Anti-Semitism is indeed routinely appropriated as “an example” of the type of atrocity to which “any” group can fall victim. That’s largely how it is discussed in schools and in the media.

But are “all forms” of inequality really equal? Prejudice generally harms vulnerable groups through myths of inferiority. Those myths include stereotypes about culture, ability, belief, or physical appearance. Images of Jewish inferiority climaxed under Nazism – Jews as lice, vermin, Untermenschen.

“Inferiority” denotes incapacity or debility. For the most part, however, anti-Semitism has not primarily taught that Jews are debilitated or incapable. The Jew is depicted as too capable by half.

For the anti-Semite, Jews call the shots “behind” global capital and finance, “behind” neo-imperialism and exploitation, “behind” predatory austerity measures, “behind” worldwide intelligence networks, “behind” Western cultural hegemony, “behind” the international media, “behind” the machinations of states and governments.

Those evils become lumped together on the right as well as the left. Ironically, only German public discussion has seriously acknowledged that parity between right-wing and left-wing anti-Semitism. In Britain and much of Europe, the comparison is reviled.

The anti-Semite’s inability to show us that network of Jewish “control” ends up not refuting anti-Semitism, but confirming it. Conspiracy theories are always constructed to preclude contrary evidence. Contrary evidence never discredits the conspiracy, but only “proves” how cleverly the secret cabal is covering its tracks.

By the 19thcentury, anti-Semitism had emerged as the pre-eminent conspiracy theory for a steadily industrialising and globalising Europe – a fragmenting, volatile continent, precarious enough to spawn legends of the subaltern global puppeteer. Jewish domination is visible nowhere because it pulls invisible strings everywhere.

That invisibility does not reveal “Jewish influence” to be a nasty myth. It instead reveals the Jew’s shrewdly honed skill. Invisibility becomes just another clever gadget in the Jew’s toolbox. Even anti-Semitism awareness campaigns become suspicious. They’re all just part of the grand plan.

Today, that legend stretches far beyond Europe. TheProtocols of the Elders of Zion is by no means a creepy but anodyne curio from the past. Its message about a Jewish plot for world domination continues to spread apace. (Those ignorant of the historical origins of the term “anti-Semitism” still often object to Jews using it. Jews, they teach us, are not the only “Semites”. But I’ll leave aside that thorny debate.)

Of course, many minorities are tarred with the brush of “taking over” their host nations. Why would Jews be different?

Unlike other groups, it scarcely matters where Jews live. Today, the Jewish invasion is ferociously condemned in countries where Jewish communities are tiny or non-existent. Jews do not “need” to invade physically.

As Christianity long taught, the Jew invades metaphysically. Jews are not merely, along with other detested groups, a menace within the material world. They are the force manoeuvring behind the material world.

One might respond: “Yes, Jews have their own stereotypes, but so does every group.” But what separates the “secret domination” stereotype is that it sparks the revolutionary imagination. Revolutions are about nothing, if not about freeing the masses from domination.

Sure, not just anti-Semites, but bigots of all types concoct agendas for “liberating” their people from one or another detested minority group.

But when decades (or centuries, depending on the country) of propaganda link Jews to conspiracies of world control, such “liberation” stories take on epic proportions. The “liberators” fancy themselves heroes within a world-historical drama, perhaps a divine mission. Now it is not just their own people whom they will free. They will unleash all of humanity from the shackles of the “eternal” Jew.

Even my views here will be seen to confirm the legends I am trying to debunk. After all, many maligned groups commemorate their pasts and circumstances. Why don’t we just join forces against all oppression? Why snoop around to uncover this or that group’s special woes? Doesn’t the search for Jewish difference only confirm the aura of exclusiveness claimed by what always seemed to be a rather suspiciously “chosen” people?

Claims about the uniqueness of the Jewish Holocaust have sparked venom in the past. In most of Europe today, they are taboo. Here’s the silent bargain. We will gladly disdain Holocaust deniers. They’re loons anyway, so sidelining them is no grand sacrifice. But that concession to Jewish sensitivity comes at a price: don’t dwell “too much” on the distinctiveness of anti-Semitism.

Some might suspect here a “more victim than thou” agenda, but that’s not the point at all. Anti-Semitism is not “worse” than other forms of discrimination. Insisting on the exceptional traits of anti-Semitism in no way denies the particular histories of other historically oppressed groups.

But those who explain anti-Semitism as “just another” form of bigotry are failing, sometimes willingly, to understand it. Inequalities are not all equal. By treating all forms of discrimination as variations on the same theme, we do not challenge anti–Semitism. We sanitise it.

Prof. Eric Heinze works at the School of Law Queen Mary, University of London

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