Anti-semitism and the Jewish identity

I just read a fascinating article about the integral role anti-semitism has played in the formation of the modern Jewish identity, and why that is a problem.  It is by Avraham Burg and was published in Haaretz (on a side note, isn’t it amazing that Haaretz is so critical of Israeli policies while not a single western media outlet dares to be critical?)

The main question was:

The time has come to take the next step and ask whether we can in fact exist at all without an external enemy, without anti-Semitism. Do we have the courage to take issue against the embarrassing, absurd conclusion of both these writers, which holds that we need anti-Semitism in order to define ourselves?

The author clarifies that of course anti-semitism does exist. But it is little when compared to what it was in the past and what it could be in the future. Burg also touches on the issue of linking criticism of Israeli policies to anti-semitism:

Israel sweeps all the criticism against it, both justified and unjustified, under the same anti-Semitic rug. It is actually we who are repeatedly mixing up proper criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. The reason is to avoid at any price having to confront the situation and make tough existential decisions: the occupation, the injustices, the discrimination, the persecution of the non-Jewish minority in our midst. As long as “they” are anti-Semites, we feel pure and justified in our own eyes.

Burg argues that the establishment the State of Israel not only failed to solve the problems for the sake of which it was founded but, on the contrary, made them a lot worse.

In the past, anti-Semitism was the primary focus of Western hatred. The society of the First World is saturated with immigrants, with new “others.” Muslims and people from the East, labor migrants and seekers of political asylum, Turks and Koreans, Jews and Chinese, pagans and Hindus.

Yes, the Western world is once more coping with issues relating to the “other” by means of hatred and segregation. But this time we are not at the top of the list.

Burg concludes with the following:

There is an internal Jewish essence that is not dependent on external circumstances. It is buried deep below layers of historical trauma. But its heart still beats; in the form of humanism, responsibility for the peace of the world, universalism without boundaries. Israel’s establishment ought to enable the realization of this potential. For example, the state of those who were ostracized can do everything in its power to assist the present-day ostracized who have taken their place. It can be a partner in the creation of a world coalition against hatred. Precisely because of its memories.

It really is one of the best articles I’ve read in a while on Israeli/Jewish identity. You can find the article here.


23 thoughts on “Anti-semitism and the Jewish identity

  1. I agree with many of the points he makes. Most Israelis (at least those around me) do define their Jewishness as opposing antisemitism and our history or persecution. However, Burg’s call for preparing for a post antisemitic world is delusional. The vast majority of Moroccans, Jordanians and Lebanese have “unfavorable” view of Jews ( So we’re surrounded by antisemites (Holocaust denial is also quite popular in the region’s media, and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion are a regional best-seller) and there’s no point in preparing for a world where this is over. Antisemitism will be here as long as Jews are here.

    1. I don’t think Burg is saying there will be a world without anti-semitism: that isn’t going to happen anytime soon, just like sexism, Islamophobia and homophobia are not going anywhere anytime soon. What he’s saying is that Jews should not base so much of their identity on anti-semitism: there is a Jewish identity without it.

      1. Also I would be curious to know whether those numbers are about Jews or Israelis. It is understandable that people in the region may not have the best views of Israel. The Pew survey should have taken that into account.

      2. The numbers (as you can see in the poll) are for opinions on Jews, not Israelis. This looks at antisemitism, not anti-Zionism.

        Here are the quotes I was referring to (I agree with the parts you quoted): “By means of this approach, we are obligated to prepare for “the day after the goy,” the post-anti-Semitic era in our lives.” and “Think for a moment about a world in which Jews are not hated; about a utopia of peace in the Middle East, fraternity wherever our brethren live. Unreasonable? Definitely not!”

        Burg is a post-Zionist who thinks that the State of Israel is no longer needed in order to protect the Jews. If we were living in Europe or the US, I’d agree with him. But we’re living in a neighborhood where Jews are hated and minorities is all the countries surrounding us are oppressed. This is why the overwhelming majority of Jews don’t share Burg’s views. Why would we want to be another minority in another Arab country? At best, a bi-national state will be like Lebanon (civil wars on and off), at worst it will be like Kurds in Turkey, Copts in Egypt and Baha’is in Iran.

        I don’t want by saying this to portray Muslims or Arabs as inherently oppressive of others. Israel treats its minorities badly too. This is why the best solution is to have two states, where the rights of minorities are protected and there is full equality (mostly in Israel, since there won’t be any Jews in Palestine).

      3. Hmmm. Yes minorities around the world are not having the best time right now, and like you said the Palestinians are perhaps one of the most severe cases. I think it is important to separate the political from the religious. Most Egyptians I know, including myself, are against the Israeli state’s unbelievably repressive and brutal policies, but that should not be seen as being against Jews or Judaism. It is almost impossible to criticize the Israeli state without being called anti-Semitic, an important point Burg brings up.

      4. The poll wasn’t conducted in Egypt, so I can’t tell about Egyptians. However, the overwhelming majority of Jordanians, Moroccans and Lebanese are antisemites, not merely anti-Zionists (which is legitimate, unlike antisemitism, which is immoral). The fact that people can’t make the distinction between Judaism and Zionism is their own problem, but the result we get is that we’re surrounded (at least to the east and the north) by antisemites. I’m not surprised by that, given the treatment of Jews in Arab countries before and right after the establishment of Israel (everyone seems to forget that ethnic cleansing).

  2. almostclever

    Have you heard about “Miral?” a movie about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, from the Palestinian perspective? The great thing is that it shows Palestinians as regular, laughing, joking people. The creator is a Jewish man who married a Palestinian woman, they met in Jerusalem.

    Anyway, he is stirring up tons of controversy as he is being called a sell-out to his people. It is not getting much media attention here, but it is quite a big deal. Please do check it out if you have not already. It is quite a movie, with quite a story behind the man who made it.

    Many are saying the movie is controversial because, if it shows Palestinians as people, feeling, loving human beings filled with emotion and compassion, then how could we keep up this apartheid? I am very interested by the comments coming from some sections of the Jewish community.

    Another EXCELLENT movie I think you should see, is narrated by Jewish men and women who are talking about the horrors of the Holocaust, but the images being shown are of the Palestinians in Gaza, and their suffering and atrocities. If displays perfectly the dichotomy of the apartheid in Gaza and the colonization by a people who are inflicting the same pain that was caused them. I think it speaks volumes for this notion of the collective pain body.
    The name of the movie escapes me at the moment.

    Anyways, excellent post, I think more people need to speak on this whole issue of anti-Semitism and identity.

    1. A friend and I were discussing Miral yesterday (haven’t seen it yet) and she mentioned that the director made a comment like “before I met the women I had never really thought about Palestinians”…uhm, REALLY? Wow.
      I’m sure the movie is causing a lot of controversy. It’s too threatening for Palestinians to be seen as human.

      Will def check out the other movie – sounds interesting!

  3. almostclever


    so just oppress the Palestinians in the meantime, eh?

    “We’re living in a neighborhood where Jews are hated”

    much as the Palestinians are living in an open air prison where their entire culture is hated, no? I’m sure it is the same, right?

    So you are saying you are not post Zionist? Meaning you support Zionism, which supports settlement and apartheid and further occupation…. well, can you see why there might be a lot of anger at Jews?

    My point in all of this is, is it anti-Semitism, or reaction to colonization, occupation, and oppression? Or are we supposed to believe that the Palestinians and other Arabs should be peaceful in their oppression?

    You are mighty in your privilege.

    1. almostclever, you equate Zionism with the occupation, settlements and “Apartheid’. But Zionism wasn’t always about that. Zionism is simply Jewish nationalism – the idea that Jews, like other people (Egyptians, Lebanese, etc.) deserve the right to self-determination. Zionism does not mean occupation and I strongly oppose infringing on the rights of Palestinians. You seem to think that the only alternative to the occupation is the end of Israel, but this isn’t true. If Israel withdraws to the 1967 border, the Palestinians can have their own state and Jews would still enjoy self-determination in Israel (that will be smaller).

      When you think about it, settlements are actually anti-Zionist. Why? Because they make a bi-national state more likely (since it’s harder to evacuate thousands of people). A bi-national state means no Jewish self-determination, which means the end of Zionism. Too bad the only people realizing this are on the Israeli left and my stupid government thinks that it can get away with dispossessing Palestinians and depriving them of human rights forever.

  4. almostclever

    P.S. I would think, if you are sick of the hate, you would NOT support Zionism. Your thought process seems a bit contradictory.

  5. almostclever

    I am in America, and in America, if one is a Zionist (raising money for the “Zionist cause” which is not my wording, but the wording of the groups who collect this money to further settletments) then one supports further settlements and apartheid policies. So yes, I equate Zionism with occupation because that is the name it is going by in these parts. Jewish peoples who want to show they are against settlement proclaim themselves as against Zionism, so as much as I would like to believe you, that is not the case where I am standing. In America Zionism = settlement, it is an extremist cause.

    I completely disagree with your thought process in regards to settlements. The only thing settlements do is push Palestinians further off of their land and onto smaller and smaller reservations.

    1. If you think that all Zionists support the occupation and settlements then you simply have little understanding of Israeli politics. There are plenty of Zionist organizations and parties that oppose the occupation (like “Peace Now” and “Meretz”). In the US, the Jewish organizations tend to be right-wing, like AIPAC. But you’re seeing the emergence of other Zionist voices that are calling for an end to the occupation, like J-Street, which has 170,000 members.

      No Palestinian leader will accept (or should accept) a state of enclaves. This means that the settlements are prolonging the occupation and making a bi-national state more likely. This isn’t something I made up. All Israeli leftists see it this way. My government is making the resolution of the conflict less likely every passing day and it is slowly but surely bringing an end to the Zionist ideal of Jewish self-determination.

  6. almostclever

    The term Zionism comes from noble aspirations, but the reality is that it has devolved into something else, and I think we need to keep up with the times. I am speaking from an American point of view, where Zionism has it’s label and it’s place in the expressions of racist notions.

    J Street is pro Israel it just isn’t pro Zionist. We want a progressive Israel that is a state of all of its citizens instead of a racist Jewish state.

    All progressives reject the racist ideas of Zionism which come from ultra Orthodox judaism. Just like progressive Jews reject racist ideas such as the jews as the chosen people or the racist opposition to intermarriage so too they reject the idea of a Jewish state.

    When Israel becomes a progressive democracy, welcomes back the Palestinians with their right of return and ends the occupation all of us will be proud how J Street lead the way, or at least that is the hope from the progressive American point of view.

    If liberals in Israel have a different way of seeing Zionism, who am I to argue that? I would not even want to argue that with you, but you must also understand how things are going down on this side of the world and outside of Israel.

  7. almostclever


    I think we mostly agree with each other, and if the one thing getting in the way is a term, well then we have done pretty good.

    I am curious about this:

    “My government is making the resolution of the conflict less likely every passing day and it is slowly but surely bringing an end to the Zionist ideal of Jewish self-determination.”

    What does this mean, to you? Can you explain this statement further?

    Also, if you fear you are surrounded by anti-semites, how then would you consider reintegrating Palestinians back into Israeli society? Or would u not consider that?

    Isn’t this just a fear game? Palestinians are locked up in their own land because of this fear, no? As a proclaimed Zionist yourself, what do you see as the resolution? Help me understand.

    1. I don’t think you can say that the American point of view is that Zionism is racism, since most Americans are pro-Israel and the US has worked very hard to the reverse the shameful UN General Assembly (symbolic) resolution stating that Zionism is racism.

      I don’t know what you base your claims about J Street on, but I know what they are stating in public. You can see their positions here:
      They are a Zionist organization since they support the two-state-solution (like I do) and not the bi-national state “solution” (I use it in quotation marks because a bi-national state would be a disaster for Jews and Arabs alike, like the Balkans in the 90s or Lebanon in 1975-1990), and oppose a the entry of a large number of Palestinian refugees into Israel (they oppose the notion of the “right” or return, as you can see in that link).

      I support Jewish self-determination because I think that the Jewish people see themselves as people (nationalism, as Sara would surely agree, is a new phenomenon, and yet very powerful). Therefore, even if you think that Judaism is just a religion and that Jews don’t deserve their own country and they should assimilate among others (didn’t work out well anywhere in the past, though), you can’t deny that Israeli Jews see themselves as a people, just like Palestinian nationalism is rather new and yet Palestinians see themselves as a distinct people. Denying Israeli Jews AND Palestinians their right to self-determination is unfair and unjust, since most other people in the world (Americans, South Sudanese, Indonesian, Pakistanis, etc.) enjoy that right.

      Therefore, the solution I see is two states, Palestine and Israel, where minority rights are protected and respected, and where there is no discrimination against anyone based on their ethnicity, religion, gender or sexuality. Self-determination for me means that the public holidays are Jewish holidays, the flag is our Magen David flag, the prominent language in Hebrew, the education kids get in school is about the history of the Jewish people. In Palestine the holidays would be Islamic and national Palestinian holidays, the official language would be Arabic and their kids would learn about the history of the Palestinian people. The same rights other people enjoy all over the world.

      I don’t support the “right” of return to the descendants of Palestinian refugees en-masse (meaning, over a symbolic number) since: A. This means Jews will become a minority in Israel – no self determination. B. There is no “right of return” according to international law (no treaty, no precedent, no sense of legal obligation by states – opinio juris), and therefore it makes no sense to grant Palestinians this “right” when it is not recognized anywhere.

      1. Elizabeth, didn’t Jews want this right of return for their own descendants who had not lived in the land for hundreds of years? I read your last paragraph here and was confused. So you think what the Jews did coming to Palestine en masse was wrong?

  8. almostclever

    Sure there are people here who support Zionism, and they support racism. I disagree with government backing Israel to the point of the oppression of others. Like I said, we disagree on a term, let’s agree to disagree.

    As far as J-Street goes, there are growing groups of people who are trying to take J-Street down the progressive path and those are the people I support.

    The “two-state” solution is the reason Palestinians have been locked in an open air prison for years upon years. It isn’t working. Israel will have a tough future regardless, it will be like America when it integrated peoples of color into society. There is no peaceful end to this, it will be violent regardless. You can’t lock people up for that many years and expect a peaceful outcome. Israel is an oppressor and I feel no more bad for them than I do for slave masters in American history.

    What happened to the self determination of the Palestinian peoples? Oh yea, that’s right, they have none. With the furthering of settlements a two state solution would equate to Palestinians being placed on reservations. Just look at the map! It already looks like that. There are no “two states” anymore. There is simply occupation. Do you really think all those illegally placed settlers are going to just up and move? No, they are going to keep their land. And the majority peoples will have a little shit land to live on because theirs was usurped and the the UN did nothing about it.

    Like I said, there is no peaceful solution.

  9. I enjoyed this post and the comments. I’ve heard before that more Israelis are critical of Israel than are Americans.. at least in the media and among politicians. I actually like Ron Paul’s stance on not funding Israel or any other country. It’s not in our constitution that we prop up countries or dictators so we should stop.


      Again, I stand by my argument that the people who say they are against Jews, mean Israel (and the neo-cons who support Israel in the west). How else would you explain the fact that before Israel, people in Palestine (Jews, Muslims, Christians) were living relatively peacefully together? The issue is political, not religious. When people make it religious, they make it even harder to resolve.

  10. almostclever

    I am so annoyed by the throwing around of the word anti-semite, which totally relates back to what sara is talking about! Being against occupation is not anti-semitism!! Are you seriously trying to push that 95% of Egyptians are anti-semitic!??? PLEASE!! Give me a break, your argument has been completely discredited.

    I don’t give a shit what that poll says, claiming that 95% of Egyptians are anti-semitic would make me question the people interpreting the polls, and it would also make me question the wording of the poll. The last thing I would do is believe that insanely disproportionate number! Even during slavery in America there were not that high of numbers of people who were racist.

    Ok, I am done now because I have devolved to swearing. My apologies.

  11. almostclever

    Also, I think it is great how we blame others when WE are the ones occupying the territory of another peoples, taking away their human rights, and stealing away their dignity and the future of their children. Or is that ok, since 95% of Egyptians are racist? Does that help you sleep at night knowing Israel HAS to do this because everyone is an anti-semite?

    Ok now I am becoming harsh, so I’ll stop.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s