Why I Always Engage in Conversation with Anti-Semites
I bumped into him on campus a few weeks later. In a completely calm and even somewhat apoligetic tone he said:
“The stuff you told me about most of the Jews in Israel being non-white and from Arab countries, I looked into it and you were right. It doesn’t change my overall opinion but it definitely gives me something to think about.”
Just two weeks prior we had been hosting an Israeli cultural fair on campus. Educational booths providing history of and glimpses into lesser known aspects of Israeli society, different interactive activities, and various Israeli foods were served in an attempt to introduce the campus to the cultural side of Israel, as opposed to the highly polarized political aspect ubiquitous throughout the university.
That’s when SJP arrived. Coming with signs calling us “thieves of history”, “genocide sympathizers”, and other usual hardcore anti-Israel slanders, blocking the front of our tables and display. Some of our students and I were even physically threatened by one of their leaders.
But one Palestinian student (unclear if he was connected to the protest) actually approached our display, yelling about our “lies” and talking about how Zionism is an outgrowth of White Supremacy, but also pausing to listen to my response. We talked for about 30 minutes and then he had to run to class.
In my daily life as a Jewish and Israel educator across college campuses (and, with my Kippah, a visibly public one at that) I get to talk to a lot of people from all walks of life. People across religions, ethnicities, political affiliations, and most interesting of all - people with negative or conspiratorial views about Jews - otherwise known as anti-Semites.
And, whether it’s an elderly Christian man telling me why the Jews killed Jesus and are deserving of eternal punishment unless they convert, a young progressive student trying to explain to me why Israel is Nazism 2.0 and the early Zionists were simply continuing the work of Hitler, or an awkward teenager regurgitating classical anti-Semitic tropes in the form of modern, alt-right meme culture - all of these occurrences happening in just the past month alone - I never miss an opportunity to speak to an anti-Semite.
Why, you might ask. Today our polarized public sphere is moving towards a place where people usually don’t even want to hear out people on opposite sides of the political spectrum, let alone talk to someone whose very beliefs and actions fundamentally disaffirms your existence. Why would I purposely and consciously engage in a discussion with someone openly professing anti-Semitic views?
It is the nature of strong worldviews to give rise to the psychological trap of confirmation bias. Anti-Semites, whether in the form of the alt-right, fundamentalist Christians, or radical anti-Israelists, generally feel like they hold this great secret or truth and the rest of society is bent around silencing them. Continuing to yell anti-Semitism at them, while perhaps therapeutic for us, will only further convince them that they have uncovered this truth and should continue disseminating these ideas to which the only rebuttal is to call them racists.
In other words, no one has ever stopped being anti-Semitic because someone called them an anti-Semite.
I believe that anti-Semitism is fundamentally irreducible. The multifaceted nature of anti-Semitism speaks to the very essence of Jewish identity. Given that we are a religion, ethnicity, and a nation all at once - anti-Semitism has and can attack any one of these types of our Jewishness. Anti-Semitism doesn’t discriminate between religious and secular, young and old, rich and poor, or progressive and conservative. By that I mean that any type of person, regardless of their worldview, is susceptible to becoming an anti-Semite. We can all give countless examples to this effect.
This is because anti-Semitism is purely ideological and cannot be reduced to more elementary blocks such as economics, politics, or culture. Therefore the only way to defeat anti-Semitism is by fighting the ideology at the core, without shortcuts or band-aid solutions.
The importance of this point cannot be overstated.
Most anti-Semites in the world, whether now, the mid-twentieth century, or in medieval Europe did not hate Jews because they were evil or predisposed to racism due to social or economic circumstance. Rather anti-Semitism is borne out of pure ideology, and the only way to beat a bad idea is to display its flaws while presenting a better worldview alternative.
This is why I strongly urge every Jew to read up on anti-Semitism. Give yourself the intellectual foundation to allow your to have real and serious conversation with anti-semites and people perpetuating anti-semitism (there is a difference), where you can speak in their language, quote their sources, and slowly begin a process of creating a relationship with them.
Spend time researching anti-Semitism in early and medieval Christian literature. Log onto and read through the notorious website 8chan, an anti-Semitic breeding ground deep inside the dark-web. Understand the history of the books Mein Kampf and Protocols of the Elders of Zion, books frequently quoted as gospel in these circles (you may end up on some government watch list at this point). And, check radical anti-Israel websites and public figures whenever any news breaks.
And next time you hear something anti-Semitic - instead of simply hurling personal attacks at the other person - try and engage in conversation. I know it’s tough and difficult and often scary - but I truly believe that it is the only way to eradicate Jew hatred from our midst.
Often you may be surprised at their openness to listen, just as they might be surprised that a Jew is willing to engage them on these topics.
Moshe Daniel Levine is a regular contributor of blog postings on Jewish Values Online.
Please note: All opinions expressed in Blog Postings and comments on the Jewish Values Online site and through Jewish Values Online are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views, thoughts, beliefs, or position of Jewish Values Online, or those associated with it.
Is there a value in continued interfaith dialogue with Christian institutions that organize boycotts of Israeli products and divestment from Israel. This seems to be a blatant act to try to deny Israel the right to defend against threats by terrorist organizations that seek Israel’s destruction. [Administrator's note: This issue seems to have arisen again in recent news (June 2014) with the vote for divestment from companies doing business in Israel by the Presbyterian Church USA.]
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