Combating Antisemitism: The Role of Myth

Gilah Kletenik on Antisemitism

All of my grandparents came to this country as refugees from antisemitism. My paternal grandmother survived Auschwitz-Birkenau and my paternal grandfather endured internment in a Siberian labor camp. My maternal grandmother fled Ukraine as a young child – her father, my great-grandfather had been knifed in a pogrom and taken for dead – and my maternal grandfather fled Soviet Russia undercover, with his family, as his father – my great-grandfather – was under house arrest for upholding kosher practices for the community. I was raised on these stories of survival.

My father’s parents were the only members of their families to survive Nazism and the Shoah. My mother’s parents – who escaped before the War – were victims of Soviet antisemitism. While the histories of my grandparents are distinct, what unites them is antisemitism, which frustrates the reifications of dichotomist political categorization. Antisemitism – as evidenced by my family history – thrives under different social and political conditions. Recent events underscore this complexity. The October 2018 massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue, in Pittsburgh – my birthplace – was perpetrated by a white supremacist. The December 10 shooting at a Jersey City kosher store was committed by assailants linked to black separatism, which is an identitarian movement that adheres to a hybrid of ideologies, including nationalism and conservative social values, such as patriarchy. The assailant from the December 28 stabbing of five Jews in Monsey, NY has been charged with hate crimes, as evidence has emerged about his interest in and adherence to antisemitic views.

The recent surge in antisemitic incidents reminds us that antisemitism – though ideologically aligned with the Right – is not the exclusive domain of a specific political camp or cohesive ideology. This is inconvenient to partisans. To students of history, however, this is expected. After all, Soviets and Nazis – and still other dissimilar movements – utilized antisemitic myths in the service of divergent objectives. Fixating on political binaries like “Left” and “Right,” is not only imprecise – often movements and individual actors defy neat classification – but also obscures the issues at stake. Antisemitic myths appeal to a diverse array of constituents and people are capable of adhering to a variety of ideologies concurrently, even when they are contradictory. Furthermore, the ongoing weaponization of antisemitism by partisans of both the Right and the Left, especially in the aftermath of antisemitic attacks like these, is itself another exercise in antisemitism, as it exploits Jewish suffering for political expedience, capitalizing on Jewish pain for political advancement. This effacement of the lived experience of Jews is a further erasure of Jews and Jewishness.

 How are we to understand the broad appeal of antisemitic myths? Antisemitism – like any ideology – serves to order the chaos of reality, to steady the asymmetry between how things appear and how they really are. It scapegoats a particular minority, blaming it for whatever injustice or unfortunate circumstance is faced. For example, it may be appealing to fault Jews for economic hardship instead of confronting the structural injustices wrought by capitalism. This is why such antisemitic canards may be simultaneously attractive both to a struggling rural white man and a struggling urban black man; people who experience marginalization may hasten to blame their circumstances on other marginalized groups, recycling hegemonic ideologies, instead of confronting the oppressive system itself. This myth may enable its adherents to make sense of their reality, to decipher their circumstances.

The trouble is that facts seldom convincingly disrupt prejudices because prejudices are not intended to reflect reality but rather to respond to it; to cover for its inconsistencies and to account for its indeterminacies. Prejudices are fueled by drives that undermine epistemological inspection precisely because they serve to supplement its deficits. Myth emerges where the boundary separating fact from fiction is destabilized.

As such, if someone believes in the enduring and fallacious notion that Jews control the media, simply disclosing this belief as false will not dissuade the adherent. After all, this person may retort by listing all of the media outlets that are actually owned by Jewish people or adumbrating the names of journalists who are Jewish. Nevertheless, this belief is antisemitic. It rests on the supposition – together with other coadunated suppositions – that Jewishness itself accounts for this phenomenon and that there is something nefarious about Jewishness. This belief originates in the essentialist and false idea that there is something inherently different, dangerous, and deviant about Jewishness. While this ideology may appeal to “facts” for substantiation, it actually has no interest in factuality. Rather, it essays to explain the inconsistencies and inconveniences of reality by appealing to that which transcends reality. It asserts that what we see is not the full story, that there is in fact something lurking beneath or behind or beyond appearances and that this is what is real. And that this “real” is the secret Jewish plot, Jewish interests, and Jewish evil. In this sense, antisemitism recycles the problematic Western philosophical notion that reality is more than it appears, that its true force is transcendent. Constellated with this is the philosophical presumption that there must be a grand unifying explanation, origin, and guarantor for the paradoxes of reality. When in fact, reality is incomplete and uncontrolled.

This is the challenge we face in confronting antisemitism. It is never about the facts. Often, it is not even about Jews. Rather, it centers on what the Jew represents, how the image of the Jew secures the consistency of a serviceable worldview.

What then does combating antisemitic myths entail? Initially, it requires accepting that merely exposing myths as false or focusing on the “facts” does little to disrupt their power. Instead, we must consider the function that these myths serve in securing coherence for their adherents by enabling them to find stability amidst a reality that is contradictory, confusing, and often quite cruel. It also necessitates that we dispense with our own convenient myths, to wit, that antisemitism is the proprietary realm of a specific political affiliation. As such, antisemitism must be dissociated from political binaries and wrested from partisan instrumentalization. Finally, it requires that we address the structural factors engendering the instability and inequality that turn people to take refuge in the conveniences and comforts of virulent ideologies.

 My twin brother dons a black hat and his wife sports a sheitel, my young nieces dress in modest skirts, and my young nephews wear yarmulkes. In the aftermath of the recent spike in attacks targeting Orthodox Jews, I worry about their safety as they walk around their Brooklyn neighborhood in distinctly Orthodox Jewish garb. Sadly, although my grandparents – if they were still alive – would be shaken to learn about this upsurge in antisemitic assaults, they would not have been surprised. History taught them that Jews are first targets in moments of insecurity and uncertainty.

Gilah Kletenik is a doctoral candidate in Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University.