New book looks at antisemitism through lens of different concepts

April 20, 2021 by Department for the Study of Religion Staff

Sol Goldberg is an associate professor, teaching stream in the Department for the Study of Religion and the Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies in the Faculty of Arts & Science. He co-edited and contributed to the recently published book, Key Concepts in the Study of Antisemitism (Palgrave, 2021).

DSR: You write in Key Concepts in the Study of Antisemitism that you are trying to look at antisemitism not from a strictly historical point of view, but through the lens of different concepts. Tell me about that.

SG: Antisemitism is often taught from its earliest manifestations, beginning in ancient Alexandria, Egypt, till today. The picture this gives is essentially chronological. And historians are prone to wanting to go into all the details that explain what antisemitism is in a particular historical setting, outlining all the contextual details. No one wants to deny that that historical stuff is really important, and you want to study all these cases and contexts. But there's a difference between knowing the details about what antisemitism is, and understanding the reasons or causes for its occurrence. So the move to concepts was meant to be a different way of helping students make sense of the phenomena, to let them see antisemitism in ways that its history from its beginning to its end doesn’t show.

DSR: When people think of antisemitism they often think of the Holocaust, as the defining act of antisemitism.  Do you find that to be problematic?

SG: The Holocaust is one of the things in particular that makes the study of antisemitism seem so urgent, right? How is it that this event happened in the middle of European civilization? And why couldn’t something like it happen again? This concern, though understandable, can have a distorting effect. Now when we talk about antisemitism, people are confused because they think of Nazis and they think of this radical fringe extreme. But antisemitism sometimes takes less extreme forms, and it is hard to reconcile that idea with the thought that all anti-semites are like Nazis. 

When you teach about antisemitism chronologically, then you end up suggesting that the whole history of antisemitism leads to Nazism and the Holocaust.  But there are contingent aspects to it so that the outcome shouldn’t be regarded as inevitable. The history of antisemitism often looks to people like a long, but certain, march towards a catastrophic end of the Jews. So I think it’s important to realize both that there are different aspects and forms of antisemitism and that they emerge in different sort of ways for different sorts of reasons.

DSR: Your chapter is called Jewish Self-Hatred, can you explain that concept? 

SG: There are three versions of this concept. First, it is used by social psychologists to analyze a phenomenon more widely understood as internalized racism. This occurs when members of a minority group adopt a negative perspective of them from a socially dominant group. That is, one reaction to not being perceived as a “normal” or representative member of a society is to internalize the idea of what “normal” is and to judge, from that perspective, your own group, whose members fall short of social norms. If the dominant social group views your group negatively, then you might come to regard your identity as a member of this group somewhat negatively too. That's the phenomenon described as self-hatred, and it's relatively well documented in members of different minority groups as well among Jews.

The second version is basically an accusation of betrayal. For instance, what it means to be a self-hating Jew is that “we” members of the Jewish community have expectations of “you” as a member of our group. And when you fail to meet those expectations, then we will use a term meaning something like betrayal to describe you. The third use of the term is related to the second in a way, but it thinks more positively about the phenomena of self-criticism. Some Jews called themselves self-hating (rather than being accused by other Jews) to counter excessive pride or self-love to which, in their view, many Jews were prone.   

DSR: Why edit this book now?

SG: I wanted to try something new for the field. A volume organized around concepts hadn’t been done. Another big reason is because the instances of antisemitism and other forms of prejudice and discrimination are clearly on the rise in our society and in the world. It's natural to want to understand why that's the case.

I was teaching a course on antisemitism when all the #MeToo stuff was happening and at the same time these terrible cases of Black men being killed by police. All this related stuff is going on, and I realized in talking to my class that part of the reason I'm motivated to explore the topic is that I don't think we have a good way of talking to each other about the society we want to have or the problems that we do have. Those questions and challenges are on my mind. I don't have a great explanation or answer for all of it myself, so I tried to give my students a sense not only of the already daunting task of understanding these phenomena, but also, to me, of the even greater challenge of being able to talk effectively with each other about them.