Friday, February 5, 2010

The missing word in the dictionary

Among contrarian commenters at this and other anti-Zionist blogs I have recently noticed an increased use of the argument, "Judaism is not a race; therefore, Jews can't be racist, and Israel, which is the Jewish State, can't be a racist country." To me, this claim has always sounded similar to the one that Arabs can't be antisemitic because they themselves are semites. I.e., the superficial appearance of a word, its intuitive meaning, are taken to represent the actual concept involved in that word.

Now, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary,

Main Entry: rac·ism
Pronunciation: \ˈrā-ˌsi-zəm also -ˌshi-\
Function: noun
Date: 1933
1 : a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race
2 : racial prejudice or discrimination

It all boils down to the meaning of race. Which is:

Main Entry: 3race
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle French, generation, from Old Italian razza
Date: 1580
1 : a breeding stock of animals
2 a : a family, tribe, people, or nation belonging to the same stock b : a class or kind of people unified by shared interests, habits, or characteristics

As can be seen, there is a broader meaning to the word race than people usually think. We tend to only consider features that can be genetically passed on; but a community with shared interests can also be counted as a race.

Israel apologists tend to point out that Judaism is not a race by the criterion involved in defninition 2a. After all, Ashkenazis tend to be whitish, Sephardis tend to be brownish and the Ethiopian Beta Israel are outright black. True, but Judaism is above all a genetic concept, in that you're Jewish if your mother also is. In response to this, it is frequently claimed that you can join Judaism through conversion, and if you can join it it's not a race. Also true, but converts are asked to become fanatical subscribers to the myriad Jewish superstitions, which is not required of "genetical" Jews. These newcomers (which, anyway, are statistically almost irrelevant) become part of the Jewish race as per definition 2b above.

Some will still be unconvinced that Judaism is a race. But you can belong to a group that is not a race and still be racist. This happens in several layers in Israel. In the first place, Jewish groups hate each other. The Ashkenazim hate the Sephardim, the Sephardim hate the Ashkenazim (to the point of shouting "Hitler was right" at them), they both hate the Ethiopians, etc., with very specialized hates playing a particularly important role among the haredim (the Litvak hate Chabad, etc.). But all these groups are cemented by a common hate of the Arabs (do I have to clarify that this is a statistical statement, that allows for numerous individual  exceptions?). And latent in the latter is a generalized hate of people not Jewish -- which is not explicitly promulgated by most Israelis, but is widely tolerated by the society. This hate can be perceived in the frequent assertions, by the Jewish clergy and West Bank settlers, that Jews are more sacred, more valuable or, simply, more worthy of life than non-Jews. As Shmuel Neumann, who describes himself as a "Ph.D. (...) actively involved in (...) an emigration program for Palestinians," put it recently in the settler organ Arutz Sheva:

One Jew named Chai is worth more than the two million so called Palestinians who inhabit Judea and Samaria. Barak may give the order to evacuate Jews, but the Almighty gave the order thousands of years ago to evacuate the gentiles[.]

The big, the enormous advantage that Zionists have is that there is no word to describe this hate of neighbors who are not Jewish. There is no horrible-sounding counterpart for the term "antisemitism." There exists a specialized word for the hate of Jews, but there's none for the symmetrical hate of non-Jews.

So that, until "antigentilism" or "goyophobia" gain currency, we will have to stick with "racism" to describe the mistreatment and abuse of the non-Jewish citizens of Israel and the occupied territories -- a fact which, itself, is beyond dispute.


thankgodimatheist said...

"anti-Gentilism", "Goyphobia" both coined terms should gain due currency under the banner of 'Semito-fascism'( not sure if befitting, just trying)..
Thank you for this blog. A wonderful and thought-provoking source.

Gert said...

Personally I think you're making this a bit more complicated than it is. I'm more with Ernie Halfdram's explanation of racism on this.

The 'race' (of 'Jews', 'Whites, 'Blacks' etc etc) exists only in the mind of the racist. It's the racist who essentialises a social group by attributing some perceived 'essential' traits to the group. These traits may be biological, cultural or religious (or a combination thereof) and are transmitted through the generations of group either by genetic or cultural transmission.

Islamophobia is a good example because clearly Islam is a religion and not a biologically defined group but the belief of Islam is usually passed on from one generation to the next. By essentialising the 'trait' of a very few members of the group, in this case terrorism, to the entire group, terrorism becomes in the eye of the racist the defining trait of Islam and Muslims, 'biologised' into a 'racial trait' because inevitably passed on through the generations. Et voila, all Muslims MUST be terrorists!

In the case of Jewry it really doesn't matter much to the perception of the anti-Jewish racist whether that group is biologically or culturally (or both) defined: the bad traits the racist attributes to all Jews become biologised all the same.

I don't think 'racism' is such a bad term, although obviously a misnomer in most cases as well as an anachronistic term, its meaning is well understood. We'd make progress if we considered all forms of racism as equally dangerous and damaging instead of awarding special status to this form or that form.

"True, but Judaism is above all a genetic concept, in that you're Jewish if your mother also is."

That would still not make Jews necessarily a race in the strict, older, eugenicist's sense of the word. For the group to be a 'race' it would have to be significantly genetically different from other 'races'.

Most research shows that if you take two perceived 'races, e.g. 'Black' and 'White' that the 'inter-racial' (between 'races') genetic variation is about the same as the 'intra-racial' (within the same 'race') genetic variation. A mathematical statistician would claim rightly that there are no statistically significant genetic differences between these races. In plain English: there are no 'races'.

Ibrahim Ibn Yusuf said...

You miss my point, Gert; namely, that it's just a problem of nomenclature. We don't have a word to describe the open discrimination against residents of Israel and the West Bank who are not Jewish. We use the word "racism" for want of a more precise term; but the mechanisms involved are the same that were operative in the Jim Crow south.

Gert said...

That anti-Semitism is being promoted to 'special status' is none more evident than in the EUMC 'Working Definition of anti-Semitism':

This sloppily written document, if ever adopted into Law, may effectively make many forms of criticism of Israel illegal, because 'anti-Semitic'.

At CiFWatch (a website devoted solely to detect anti-Semitism on the pages of The Guardian's 'Comment if Free' pages!) goes a bit further by encouraging criticism of Israel:

"In utilizing the EUMC definition, it bears emphasizing that at CiF Watch we support open and honest debate about the Israel/Palestinian conflict including harsh criticism of Israel as long as the criticism of Israel is similar to that leveled against any other nation of the world."

This is a bit like demanding that a report on a sandstorm in Israel must be accompanied by a report on a sandstorm in Finland.

Hardly surprising that CiFWatch's detection rate of anti-Semitism is extremely high...

Gert said...

I agree that Zionism has a linguistic advantage because the term anti-Semitism was coined to describe a specific form of racism. But if we were to fight ALL racism equally with an open visor and call racism just that, that advantage would become smaller.

Rakiah said...

Couple things.

This type of nonsense was also recently argued to me regarding Libertarianism. I was arguing that Libertarian presidential candidate Ron Paul was racist, and the person defending him said, "Libertarians can't be racist, because race is a collectivist ideology and libertarians are individualists." So there is nothing special about this ridiculous arguement.

Second, I think you are a bit stereotypical and simplistic in your statement: "The Ashkenazim hate the Sephardim, the Sephardim hate the Ashkenazim (to the point of shouting "Hitler was right" at them), they both hate the Ethiopians, etc., with very specialized hates playing a particularly important role among the haredim (the Litvak hate Chabad, etc.)."

I think that the present state of Mizrahi/Ashkenazi relations are much less contentious then is talked about in some circles. It was definitely a issue through the 1980s, but I don't think that there is much Anti-Mizrahi racism among the present generation in Israel. Many of my friends are "mixed" marriages (me included) and I don't even think people blink twice about it. There is still the residual issues due more I think to class issues in the center/periphery contentions.

Yitzchak Goodman said...

Litvak hate Chabad

I used to have a book about argumentation, maybe a book on humor, actually--I can't remember--that talked about blanket generalizations. The example it gave, which I always liked, was "Nuns sweat alot." Litvish people display a wide range of attitudes about Chabad. It depends on who and about what.

Anonymous said...

"every day the sun rises on the Jewish state of Israel is the ultimate rebuke to the ignorance and hatred of Auschwitz."

-- President Barack Obama, 27 January 2010

Anonymous said...

16 million Jews. 6 billion gentiles. We really need a word to identify hate against the vulnerable gentile minority LOL.

Ibrahim Ibn Yusuf said...

Litvish people display a wide range of attitudes about Chabad. It depends on who and about what.

So do the Arabs, yet I don't see you on Zionist blogs complaining about the caricature of the Palestinian people presented on those sites.

But, in general, I believe it's hard to argue against the reality of an intra-Jewish racism that is more prevalent as religiosity increases. Thus, the secular Israeli society sees a lot of Ashkenazi-Mizrachi intermarriage, but in the yeshiva world such couples are rare. Not to speak, of course, of the shameful Haredi attitude towards the Beta Israel.

I have heard of Litvak-Chabad violence in NYC, although I must confess I wouldn't be able to tell one from the other.

Yitzchak Goodman said...

I don't see you on Zionist blogs complaining about the caricature of the Palestinian people presented on those sites

I spend very little time these days on any sort of blogs complaining about anything. I'd like to do some more posting to my own blog, but I doesn't seem to be happening. Anyway, you made a specific claim about Litvaks. Are you disputing my correction?

Ernie Halfdram said...

It's probably not such a good idea to rely on dictionary definitions in an argument of this kind. An obvious illustration is Webster's Third New International Dictionary which includes a definition of antisemitism as, "opposition to Zionism: sympathy with opponents of the state of Israel." Now, I'm a little conflicted about this, as I see the role of a dictionary as to document current, and in some cases historical, usage of lexical items. And it is unquestionably the case that this contentious definition not only exists, but is probably the principal current usage. But it's still deeply objectionable for a reference work to dignify such a politicised distortion.

I can't think of an example of the use of race in sense 2b. You may be able to find one and I may not be able to argue that it's metaphorical, but the point remains that when we discuss racism, that definition is utterly irrelevant.

What I think is going on is the exploitation, sometimes deliberate, of the polysemy of the term Jewish, which describes people both as members of an ethnic group and as adherents of a religion. Apart from the Zionists themselves, actual antisemites are not concerned about converts. They discriminate against Jews without closely interrogating our religious affiliation. If you 'look like a Jew' or have a Jewish name, that is sufficient. It has nothing to do with definition 2a.

If we defıne a race as a group targeted for discrimination by racists, as I do, there is simply no question that Jews as an ethnic group constitute a race. I reckon it's important to remember that racism is first and foremost a form of discrimination with concrete effects on the targeted group. Whether those perpetrating the racism believe they are motivated by feelings of hatred or love, inferiority or superiority, is secondary and derivative from the discrimination and ultimately irrelevant to whether those attitudes are racist or not. From this perspective, philosemitism is no different to antisemitism. Zionism is therefore racist not just in constructing 'the Arabs' as a race, but also in buying in to the construction of Jews as a race and discriminating in favour of Jews as an ethnic group. That the 1970 amendment of the Law of Return incorporates converts under the definition of a Jew does not change this. It just muddies the waters somewhat.

I might add that Jews are not the only group in this situation. Muslims have been converted into a race through much the same process. Nobody cares whether or how often you pray, etc. if you 'look like a Muslim' or have an identifiably Muslim name. And there are situations where 'Catholics', 'Protestants', and other ostensibly religious groups have been racialised.

The hasbaristas do exploit the existence of this special term to try to divorce the fight against antisemitism from the fight against racism, but I agree completely with Gert that the most important task is to combat every manifestation of racism, and that that is the best way we can undermine the privileging of antisemitism.

Ibrahim Ibn Yusuf said...

I'm clearly not building my case on definition 2b. I point to that definition as proof that the need to describe the hate of someone who doesn't belong to one's group (even if it's not a genealogy-based group) hasn't gone unnoticed. However, my main point is that there exists a word to describe the hate of Jews (however you define the group), but there's none to describe the hate of non-Jews as practiced by both Jews and self-hating Gentiles.

With regard to the Webster's definition of "antisemitism," as you may remember it caused some stirr when the dictionary appeared. The dictionary's editor did not claim that the meaning of antisemitism as opposition to Zionism stemmed from current usage. He rather argued that it was a relic usage that had had some currency in the 40s and 50s. He concluded: "In any case, unless there is a return of the 1950s use that is not in prospect at present, the second sense will most probably disappear from the next edition of the International." In other words, although the Zionists succeeded in sneaking the bogus meaning into Webster's Third, it caused enough embarassment to the publishers as to publicly repudiate, sort of, the definition. Your comment that "it's still deeply objectionable for a reference work to dignify such a politicised distortion" does not, thus, apply here.

I must take issue with your assertion that "this contentious definition not only exists, but is probably the principal current usage." Words don't acquire meanings through political manipulation, or through deliberate use by a well-defined group of speakers. They acquire them through consensus among the language community. The phrase "Indian giver" may sound offensive to Native Americans, but even they recognize what it means. This is not true of the definition of "antisemitism" as opposition to Zionism, which is not recognized by any speaker, and certainly not by the Zionists themselves.

Ernie Halfdram said...

That's interesting about the dictionary's including the contentious definition. I wasn't aware of that usage, or probably any usage, of antisemitism in the 40s or 50s, but I'm quite sure that it's current now. Obviously, meanings result from widespread adoption among the relevant speech community. But it needn't be the entire community to score a place in the dictionary. More to the point, while I agree that 'Words don't acquire meanings through political manipulation, or through deliberate use by a well-defined group of speakers', those are factors that can contribute to wider adoption, as in this case.

If I understand you correctly, the issue is that you aren't aware with a suitable expression for discrimination against non Jews. In the context of Palestine, I'm perfectly content to call it 'racism', largely because for all practical purposes, it targets Arabs, constructed as a race. But in principal, of course, it's more widely applicable, and in any event, a lot of Jews really do look down on goyim, a phenomenon I think we can capture quite adequately with an expression like 'Jewish chauvinism'.

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