Iraqi Jews at the tomb of Ezekiel in Kifl, Iraq, in 1932. (Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection/Library of Congress)
Iraqi Jews at the tomb of Ezekiel in Kifl, Iraq, in 1932. (Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection/Library of Congress)

Calling it ‘anti-Semitism’ is itself a form of racism

For millennia, alienation of Jews has been one the core mechanisms enabling what we refer to as “anti-Semitism.”

Punished for rejecting Jesus and Muhammed, respectively, Jews were systematically ostracized socially and economically, in Christian and Muslim societies worldwide — forced into ghettos, forbidden to own land, prohibited from attending schools and barred from most professions.

The active isolation of Jews made it easier to scapegoat, vilify and ultimately persecute Jews, with mass approval.

Today, ironically, we add fuel to the fire when we refer to prejudiced and discriminatory behavior against Jews as being “anti-Semitic.”

While Arabs, Latinos, African Americans, Native Americans, Asian-Americans and other minority groups stand united under the banner of experiencing and fighting “racism,” we Jews set ourselves apart, standing alone under the banner of experiencing and resisting “anti-Semitism” — a phenomenon described as occurring to us, and us alone.

As an upshot, we need to actively ask others to “stand with us” instead of facilitating the natural development of minority alliances, based on common ground.

There are those who would argue, of course, that anti-Semitism is in fact a uniquely Jewish experience that must be honored as such, distinct from the general experience of racism. After all, persecution of Jews might be religiously motivated as well as racially based. Even here, however, the term “anti-Semitism” is problematic at best and inaccurate at worst.

For starters, while “anti-Semitism” very well may describe the experience of Jews in Europe, it fails to describe the experience of Jews in the Middle East and numerous parts of Africa. The colloquial term “Semite,” after all, refers to people who speak Semitic languages — including Arabs and Ethiopians. While Arab and Ethiopian persecution of Jews was very real, it was not, by definition, “anti-Semitic.”

Given that the European Jewish narrative routinely dominates Jewish discourse, to the dismissal or outright erasure of Jewish narratives from non-European countries, it could, in fact, be argued that the use of the term “anti-Semitism” is itself a manifestation of racism, failing to recognize and incorporate the experience of Jews from Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia and so on.

Kind of like the way ”Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem, erroneously presumes that all Jews were facing east toward Jerusalem, when Jews like my family (hailing from Iraq) were facing west.

In addition, there are those who argue that the term “Semite” is a misnomer out the gate, as “Semitic” technically defines a group of languages, not a group of people.

However you cut it, we need to rethink our use of the term.

Here’s what I find to be the most compelling reason of all: In the wake of the recent spate of attacks against Jews, including brutal assault and murder, there is a striking absence of solidarity protests or marches organized and led by non-Jews. What if the victims were not Jews, but rather, non-Jews of African, Latino, East Asian or Middle Eastern ethnicity? I suspect the self-proclaimed progressive world would be outraged and taking to the streets in droves.

People gather in front of the Monsey house of Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg, the site of an attack at a Hanukkah party by a machete-wielding man, Dec. 29, 2019. (JTA/Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)
People gather in front of the Monsey house of Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg, the site of an attack at a Hanukkah party by a machete-wielding man, Dec. 29, 2019. (JTA/Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

Meanwhile Jews, a scant 2 percent of the U.S. population, are disproportionately at the forefront of social justice movements, routinely organizing on behalf of and contributing our hard-earned resources to others, without recognizing ourselves as part of and without demanding the same enthusiastic support in turn.

What if, instead, we connected the dots between racism against Jews and non-Jews alike, and we showed up as Jews, with expectations of a healthy give-and-take relationship?

Decades ago, I coined the term “Jewish multiculturalism” and called myself a “Jewish multicultural educator.”

Despite the fact that my name is Loolwa Khazzoom — at least hinting at Jewish diversity, for those who were clueless — everyone assumed I was educating Jews (presumed to be white) about multiculturalism (presumed to be about non-Jews of color).

I had to explain, over and over again, that I was, in fact, educating anyone and everyone (equally ignorant) about Jews from Africa, the Middle East, Central and East Asia, Central and Latin America and Southern Europe — those who had been erased from history books and public discourse, in both the mainstream and Jewish worlds.

Back then, as now, leaders in the Jewish world routinely led black-Jewish and Arab-Jewish dialogue panels, without inviting any black Jews or Middle Eastern Jews to speak.

Across the board, Jewish efforts to build bridges with other minority groups often has been based on two cornerstones that undermine these otherwise noble efforts: They overlook the very same minority groups within the Jewish world, therefore missing the most obvious point of connection and relationship-building, and they perpetuate the us-them dynamic between Jews and non-Jews by separating “racism” from “anti-Semitism” — thereby feeding into the very foundation of racist treatment of Jews throughout history: Isolate the Jews. Then destroy them.

On Dec 24, TV station WCAX reported a series of posters, found around St. Albans, Vermont, that stated, “Anti-Semitism is OK,” and apparently those posters had been put around the town once prior. I suspect that whoever put up the posters would be far less inclined to do so with the message “Racism is OK.”

What we call anti-Semitism affects one very tiny, and therefore very vulnerable, group — Jews, and Jews alone. But what we call racism affects a collective of people who, together, are at least a critical mass, if not the majority population.

Anti-Semitism is racism. So let’s stop calling it anti-Semitism and unwittingly participating in the cycle of violence against Jews.

Let’s start calling it racism.

Then let’s start proactively connecting the dots between racism against Jews and racism against other targeted groups — recognizing those very groups in our midst, inviting those individuals to be at the forefront of building bridges from the inside out and expecting that people of all races, nationalities, ethnicities and religions offer to the Jewish community the same level of recognition and support that we routinely, and fiercely, offer others.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of J.

Loolwa Khazzoom
Loolwa Khazzoom

Loolwa Khazzoom is the founder of Iraqis in Pajamas, a band combining ancient Iraqi Jewish prayers with original punk rock. From 1990 to 2010, she served as a Jewish multicultural educator in the Bay Area and nationwide. A San Francisco native, she now lives in Seattle.