Antisemitism internalized

July 2023
Miriam Sager

I’ve been reflecting on Gustavo Rymberg’s thought-provoking essay in the April issue of the HJN about the need to rethink antisemitism. While I, too, prefer the term anti-Jewish oppression, I feel that the term antisemitism is still useful because it is broadly recognizable. 

As captured in the Haggadah, even in times of quiet and safety, we know that anti-Jewish hatred has gone dormant, and that “in every generation” more or less “they” will rise up against us. When antisemitisim manifests only in relatively minor, though still hurtful, ways, we know it will rear up its head at some point, but for gentiles, it’s harder to remember that Jews have never been guaranteed a secure existence. This is a point Deborah Lipstadt discusses in her book Antisemitism Here and Now, when she describes how many people equate antisemitism solely with the Holocaust, and since the Holocaust is in the past, (or, for some, it never even happened), they believe Jews have nothing to complain about. 

One aspect of antisemitism is the seeding of the population with stereotypes and conspiracy theories. This is the basic mechanism that has prepared the ground for blaming and attacking Jews when those who wish to maintain or seize power, be they Polish landowners, despotic governments or political parties, are in need of a distraction or a scapegoat. 

Today, antisemitic conspiracy theories have become rampant in popular culture and social media, leaving even our would-be  allies vulnerable to buying in to negative portrayals of Jews and the demonization of Israel.

The general population is thus primed to join in small or big attacks, coming from both the left and the right. It can even come in the form of placing Jews on a pedestal, or of loving Israel for religious, financial, political or military ends. Often, antisemitism is weaponized in feuds and struggles that are not about us at all. We need to understand this underlying dynamic and be able to explain it to our potential allies. Antisemitism must be opposed not only because it is bad for the Jews, but because it’s a violation of human rights. It is in everybody’s interest to oppose and eliminate it because it is a powerfully manipulative tool.

Even when antisemitism goes underground, its intergeneral effects can still harm us. We can seem, even to ourselves, a little crazy, mistrustful, obnoxious, pushy or self-pitying. These are expressions of “internalized antisemitism,” ways that our mistreatment has impacted our minds and feelings. For 2,000 years we have been blamed—for the killing of Jesus, epidemics, the rise of people of colour against white supremacy, etc. 

It’s no wonder we can be vulnerable to becoming defensive, extra cautious and apologetic, or blaming each other. After millennia of persecution and attempted genocide, and always living with a sense of impending doom, it’s no wonder we can fall victim to fear and feel an urgent need to anticipate danger. Even the strong push for upward mobility is, at least in part, a search for safety. 

We can live full lives and be very loving and funny despite it all, but the oppression messes with our sense of self, belonging, and safety in the world. Our relationships with both gentiles and Jews are undermined. Arguably, the worst impact is how we have been separated from, even pitted against, one another. 

My extended family is filled with people who would not talk to each other until their death. I believe this is not unique to us.  Just as antisemites divide us into good Jews and bad Jews (depending on who serves their purposes), we ourselves can be guilty of shunning those whose views differ from our own, whether it be in the realm of religious observance or politics,  particularly as it concerns Israel.

It seems pretty clear that healing these divides within our own people is one of our challenges, and I wonder if this needs to happen before we can successfully eliminate antisemitism in the broader society. 

Miriam Sager is working towards building a united front that can take on the issues of our time.