As a Jew opposed to both circumcision and political zionism, I am often privy to discussions that verge on the antisemitic. This creates horrible rifts within the activist community which both impedes progress and wastes precious energy. Some people react by doubling down and defiantly continuing to make potentially offensive statements. Others steer clear of ever talking about anything related to Jews or Judaism for fear of being shouted-down as antisemites. The situation is further exacerbated by the fact that political correctness has become a deeply embedded social norm which discourages discussion of ethnic difference. As it happens, my commitments to humanism in general and to universal human rights in particular are rooted in my ethnic identity as a member of the Jewish people. I would like, therefore, to try to bring some conceptual clarity to this issue in the hope that it will create a space for more productive discussions going forward.
The term “anti-Semitism” actually comes from 19th century Germany where a journalist named Wilhelm Marr published pamphlets arguing that the Jewish race was the root of his nation’s problems. In fact, anti-Jewish sentiment had long been a feature of Christian theology, but during the course of the 19th century, it went from being a religious animosity to one that was based on the new biological concept of race. Antisemitism is used today as an umbrella term to include all forms of hostility or prejudice against Jews. Much of the confusion that people feel around this issue comes from the fact that defining the word “Jew” is a somewhat complicated issue. Judaism is, of course, one of the world’s oldest surviving religions, but being Jewish isn’t simply a matter of adhering to the Jewish religion. There are three overlapping components to Jewish identity: Jewish ethnicity, Jewish peoplehood, and Jewish religiosity.
Jewish ethnicity is a concept that exists historically in the Jewish tradition where according to Halakha (religious Jewish law), a person born to a Jewish mother is automatically and irrevocably considered Jewish (in the Reform movement, this ethnic definition was extended to include anyone born of a Jewish father as well). Incidentally, Hitler also had an automatic and irrevocable definition of Jewish ethnicity which was somewhat more inclusive. During the years of the Third Reich, anyone with a single Jewish grandparent was considered a member of the “Jewish race” and therefore a legitimate target for Nazi elimination. Jewish peoplehood is a much looser non-ethnic concept which is closer to the Muslim concept of the “Ummah”. It encompasses those around the world who practice the Jewish religion as well as converts. Jewish religiosity refers to all of the different forms of Jewish religious practice.
For our purposes, it is important to keep in mind that the vast majority of Jews alive today are NOT religious, although they do see themselves as ethnically Jewish and also define themselves as part of the Jewish people. In fact, the only group of Jews who do not fall into the ethnic Jewish category are converts though they are, of course, still part of the Jewish people and the Jewish religion.
It is important to note, that these three components of Jewish identity operate more as a venn diagram than as separate categories. While most Jews are not religious, they do occasionally engage in religious practice as a way of reaffirming their ethnic identity. To make matters slightly more complicated, political Zionism grafted Jewish ethnic identity and peoplehood on to the 19th century European concept of ethno-nationalism. Zionism was a secular movement which argued that Jews were a nation like any other and were therefore entitled to a state. This is the concept upon which the modern State of Israel was built.
Abuse of the Term Antisemitism
In recent years, there has been a concerted effort by some Jews to cast anyone who would criticize the State of Israel as an antisemite. The same strategy is used against vocal opponents of circumcision. The problem with these efforts is that it is quite possible to be critical of both Israel and circumcision without being an antisemite. But beyond the disturbing fact that good people have been unjustly besmirched by these smear campaigns, two serious and disturbing consequences of this strategy have emerged: First, the term “antisemite” has lost its bite and as a result, the world is less sensitive to the actual phenomenon. Second, they have shut down legitimate criticism on these issues and given the impression that Jews are incapable of listening to anyone outside the tribe.
Nevertheless, genuine antisemitism does exist. I have experienced it personally and it is on display in the comments section of my YouTube channel. Here is just a sample of the comments that I get on a daily basis:
"jews like money....one more "service" regardless if that means to mutilate a child"
"who said we want their opinion lmao , jews will vanish . the time near . really really really near , the khilafa is near , be prepared be a muslim and you will win be with any other side and you will lose , the final battle is near."
"Fucking jew, Shouldn't he be killing Palestinian infants back at israel or what?"
"Dirty.... DIRTY Jew."
These comments are not particularly subtle in their antisemitism and though some of them have a thin veneer of quasi-criticism, they are all obvious examples of hate speech. I call this classical antisemitism. But what about something a little more subtle? Take a look at the following comment that was part of an email conversation I had with an activist who is opposed to circumcision:
“These practices are so ingrained in Jewish culture and are encouraged so widely by Jews to the point of imposing on non-Jews, that I can understand why people throughout history have believed that all Jews are enthusiastic about these practices. Is it a long stretch from this place of being disgusted by Jewish practices to becoming anti-Semitic?”
Is this comment antisemitic? Let’s analyze it rationally. It is true that circumcision is deeply ingrained in Jewish culture. It is further true that individual Jews have played a prominent role in establishing circumcision as a medical practice in the English speaking world. It is not true, however, that Jews have “imposed” circumcision on non-Jews. Moreover, the implication at the end of the statement is that antisemitism comes from people being disgusted by Jewish practices. This is problematic for two reasons. First, it smacks of blaming the victim. Jews are not responsible for the fact that people hate them. Second, it implies that hatred of Jews is rational given the fact that Jews perform circumcision. But hating an entire people group because of a cultural/religious practice is not a rational move at all. That would be like hating Arabs, because of their genital cutting practices, or hating Muslims, because of Ashura cutting practices.
Here’s another example, from the same person:
“As you know, another issue about circumcision practice which concerns me, is that it has come to my attention that a medical doctor in ------, who happens to be Jewish, is performing Brisot Milah and Metzitzah. He might use a syringe rather than his mouth to harvest blood from the circumcision wound, but the fact remains that a child’s blood is being harvested for consumption by adults at a party.”
Some Jews do perform metzizah as part of the Brit Milah ritual in which blood from the circumcision wound is sucked away. A tiny minority of Jews even perform this part of the ritual with direct oral-to-genital suction (Metzitzah B’Peh). But the idea that the circumcision blood is “harvested for consumption by adults at a party” is nonsense that sounds very similar to historic anti-Jewish canards.
Here’s another example from a different person:
“Amnesty International is a Jewish dominated organization that is not going to address the circumcision issue.”
It is true that there is a correlation between being Jewish and wanting to protect Jewish rituals. But correlation is not causation. If there's one essential thing that defines Jews more than anything else, it is that we never agree about anything. The high level of vocal Jewish participation in the anti-circumcision movement is a case in point. So even if it were true that Amnesty International is a "Jewish-dominated organization" (a dubious claim at best) this alone says nothing about its ability to deal critically with the issue of male circumcision. Indeed, being pro-Israel is at least as much of a consensus issue among Jews today as circumcision and Amnesty International makes no bones about harshly criticizing Israel for human rights abuses. Once again, the language is eerily similar to historical anti-Jewish canards: Jewish-dominated banks, Jewish-dominated media, etc. In this instance, I would say that this is an inaccurate statement, but not by itself evidence of antisemitism.
Reading the first two circumcision examples, you might be tempted to assume that the genital integrity activist who composed them is a classical antisemite who has found that the anti-circumcision cause resonates with their racist predilections. If you were being fair, you might grant that this person is not representative of the larger intactivist movement (a fact that I can vouch for), but you might conclude that their hatred of Jews preceded their involvement in the Genital Integrity movement. Nevertheless, I think that what we’re seeing here is actually slightly different than classical antisemitism. I think that it’s possible to arrive at this kind of expression from a place of hating a practice so deeply that you allow yourself to hate anyone who engages in it. I call this regressive antisemitism. Having said that, from the perspective of a Jewish person, it doesn’t matter whether the antisemitism is classical or regressive, it’s still hate and it’s still directed at them.
The Roots of Ethnic Hatred
Ethnic hatred is a pretty constant feature of the human condition. Fundamentally, it comes from that place in our brains that seeks to make order out of the world. More often than not, our ability to abstract from the particular to the general is a useful skill. Indeed, it is at the very core of our capacity to learn. If I eat a berry and it makes me sick, I learn to assume that any berry that looks the same will also make me sick. But when this move is applied to people, to actual human beings, the abstraction fails, because people who look the same, or who belong to the same group, don’t necessarily act or think the same. And yet, the way our minds are structured makes it intuitive for us to generalize about people groups and these generalizations become memes which then propagate out in the world. Antisemitic memes are some of the oldest negative generalizations about people groups in existence. But it’s important to realize that labeling someone as an antisemite is also a form of abstraction. It reduces a human being to a manageable category. This reduction is partly a defense mechanism, but it also means that you don’t have to think of that person as a person. They become “a racist” or “an antisemite”.
So what’s a Gentile to do? How can a non-Jewish person criticize a Jewish practice or the Jewish State without being antisemitic? The first thing to understand is that there are Jews who will accuse you of antisemitism in a knee-jerk attempt to shut you up. I recommend that you ignore these people. As long as you aren’t expressing antisemitism and you can demonstrate that fact when challenged, this tired strategy will backfire. Next, understand the way in which your issue challenges Jews of different stripes. Circumcision is a religious obligation to some and an reaffirmation of ethnic identity to others. This means that criticism of circumcision will sound different to different Jews. Likewise, criticism of Israel sounds different to Zionists than it does to ethnic/cultural Jews and different still to religious Jews. When criticizing circumcision, be clear about the fact that you don’t have a problem with Jews in general. It is the practice of infant circumcision specifically that you find problematic. When criticizing Israel, make it clear that you understand the difference between the State of Israel and the Jewish people. Be clear that your criticism is of the former and not the latter. Know your audience. Familiarize yourself with the history of antisemitism and try to avoid arguments that sound like classical antisemitic canards. Do these things and you’ll be surprised at how receptive people are to having a real conversation with you about your issue. Finally, don’t allow yourself to hate the people who transgress your issue. Remember that they too are imperfect human beings trying to navigate their way through a morally complicated world. Hate the human rights violations, not the human rights violators.