The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

Perspectives on Racism:
Anti-Semitism in Canada
Realities, Remedies & Implications for Anti-Racism
Dr. Karen Mock

Many involved in anti-racism work would say that anti- Semitism is not racism and that it is not systemic in our society; they argue that Jews, though they can be from many different racial backgrounds, are primarily white and members of the power structure, and thus cannot be victims of racism. While most Jews would acknowledge what can be called their 'white privilege' in a racist society, I believe that there has been, and is currently, a powerful racist component in anti-Semitism, and that anti-Semitism must thus be on the anti-racism agenda.

In addition to dealing with the present manifestations of anti-Semitism, and possible responses to it, this chapter will attempt to trace its history and its change from a primarily religious to a primarily racist phenomenon. An understanding of the meaning and evolution of anti-Semitism, and of its current expression in Canada, should help make clear the relationship of anti-Semitism to other expressions of racism in our community.

The Historical Evolution of Anti-Semitism
What Is Anti-Semitism?

Anti-Semitism can be defined most simply as hostility directed at Jews solely because they are Jews ( Anti-Defamation League 1989). In spite of what anti-Semites profess, anti-Semitism is not caused by the actions or beliefs of Jews, but rather is a result of attitudes and behaviour that arise regardless of what Jews do or believe. Anti-Semites are antagonistic to Jews for who they are and what they represent, and this antagonism has an ancient history.

The roots of anti-Semitism go back to ancient times, when the religion of the Jews first began to distinguish them from their neighbours (Patterson 1982). Indeed, the roots can be found in the Hebrew Bible itself. According to Schoeps (1963), 'the anti-Semitic polemic of the nations of the world goes back to early antiquity - to be exact, to Haman's vexation that here was a nation with laws differing from the law of every nation.' While the other peoples of the ancient Near East worshipped many gods, the Jews (first called Hebrews, then Israelites) had only one god, who was invisible, had delivered them from slavery in Egypt to their land, and created the laws by which they lived. Unlike those around them, the Jews regarded their God as so holy that they refused to make statues or images of God, and dared not speak God's name.

Although the term 'anti-Semitism' is only about one hundred years old, the prejudice it describes was clear in writings dating from as early as 300 BCE [Since BC means 'before Christ,' and AD 'anno Domini,' the year of our Lord, it has become inclusive practice to use the abbreviations BCE (Before the Common Era) and CE (the Common Era)] Patterson (1982) points out that one Alexandrian writer of that period even challenged the claim of the Jews that they had escaped from slavery in Egypt, writing that they had been expelled because they were lepers. Alexandrian writers accused Jews of every imaginable offence, claiming they were traitors for not worshipping the city gods, and even accusing them of killing human beings for religious reasons (a practice strictly forbidden in Judaism, even during the times of sacrificial cults). Apion, living in the third century BCE, was the first to accuse the Jews of ritual murder, a charge that was to be repeated, often with disastrous effects on Jewish communities, in later centuries.

Jewish monotheism continued to clash with the polytheistic practices of Rome and other cultures. When Jews were granted certain rights to practise their religion, resentment would often increase, many in the population labelling them 'clannish' or even 'hostile.' Foremost among Roman anti- Semites was the historian Tacitus. Patterson notes that Tacitus called Jewish religious practices 'rites contrary to those of all other men' and claimed that they were 'sinister, shameful and have survived only because of their perversity' (1982: 6). Patterson goes on to suggest that 'like most anti-Semites then and later, [Tacitus] did not seem to know very much about Judaism, and was certain that Jews worshipped donkeys which they consecrated in their temples.' In 135 AD (CE), Jews were barred from their holy city, Jerusalem, and could only approach as far as the outer wall of the temple (the Wailing Wall, now known as the Western Wall). The Roman emperor banned circumcision, and passed laws to isolate the Jews even further, just as Christianity was beginning to spread through the empire.


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