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David Brooks Was Right: Anti-Semitism Is a Different Evil

But it's not worse than other bigotries

Abid Katib / Getty Images

David Brooks's New York Times column Tuesday on anti-Semitism took an interesting turn when he implied that of all the forms of prejudice, anti-Semitism is the most dangerous: "There are others [in America] who see anti-Semitism as another form of bigotry. But these are different evils. Most bigotry is an assertion of inferiority and speaks the language of oppression. Anti-Semitism is an assertion of impurity and speaks the language of extermination. Anti-Semitism’s logical endpoint is violence."

That part got a lot of pushback.

Indeed. Brooks' suggestion that anti-Semitism is unique in inspiring violence is strange, to say the least. It’s impossible to think of a form of bigotry whose logical endpoint isn’t violence. 

It’s unfortunate Brooks included that passage, because the point he was on the cusp of making is an important one. Addressing anti-Semitism and identifying instances of it does require the use of a different framework than makes sense for, say, racism or sexism. Not because anti-Jewish bigotry is worse than other forms, but because it plays out differently. 

Specifically, the privilege framework—the now-default one used for addressing marginalization—fails to be of much use when challenging anti-Semitism. If anything, it can make matters worse. This is in part because anti-Semites have hijacked the framework: A glimpse at the #JewishPrivilege hashtag on Twitter reveals white supremacists embracing a warped version of privilege theory, according to which non-Jewish white people are systematically marginalized by Jews. Theirs is a form of bigotry that presents itself as an anti-oppression movement. Whereas other bigotries are, as Brooks aptly observes, an “assertion of inferiority,” anti-Semitism situates the bigot—the anti-Semite—as the one lower on the privilege hierarchy. 

So on the one hand, anti-Semitism manifests itself as a belief that there’s such a thing as “Jewish privilege.” On the other, it’s all but impossible to address anti-Semitism because many American Jews are—according to contemporary definitions of the term—privileged, or at least not un-privileged. Does being Jewish increase one’s chances of being shot by the cops? Are there states where Jewish people can’t marry? American Jews may face discrimination—as actor Michael Douglas’s son evidently did—when vacationing in Europe, but citing such concerns risks classifying anti-Semitism as a first-world problem. Which is how anti-Semitism is often viewed in this country. As Brooks writes, “America’s problem is the number of people who can’t fathom what anti-Semitism is or who think Jews are being paranoid or excessively playing the victim.” 

David Schraub explored the legal aspects of this tension at length in an essay for Tablet, “Privileged Yet Unequal,” about the challenges of prosecuting anti-Jewish hate crimes. Powerful entities like the courts, he explained, “insist that [Jews] are anti-discrimination winners, a group that can always count on the law to have its back, a people who if anything are abusing the beneficence of its neighbors and who maybe need to understand that society will not forever be suckered and pushed around, by the last group of people who have any rightful claim to be the targets of unequal treatment.” Schraub found that in the U.K. and, to a lesser extent, the U.S., courts treat claims of anti-Jewish discrimination as implausible. 

In an Atlantic piece about a recent anti-Semitism controversy at UCLA, David A. Graham interviewed Trinity College professor Barry Kosmin: 

"It's not animus, it’s ignorance," Kosmin said, arguing that part of the problem is a blind spot in the complex of political correctness. "The message has gone out [on campuses] that certain types of victimization, or victims, are privileged. The young people have picked up that Jews aren't on the list of protected species." One reason for that is assimilation: "The Jewish community is regarded as part of the privileged white community," just as other ethnic groups have become part of an undifferentiated white mass.

A popular perception of Jews as haves—the result of a mix of cherry-picked evidence and the existence, in the U.S., of more definitive have-nots—makes it difficult to even conceptualize how a bigotry born of resentment could even exist. It’s not, then, that anti-Semitism requires more attention than other bigotries. In some instances, it may indeed require less. There might have been a better way to get that point across, but Brooks was right in suggesting that anti-Semitism is a different—not worse—evil.