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fALL 2004  
Vol. 33, No. 1

FOCUS: Navigating Antisemitic Encounters

Sander L. Gilman, distinguished professor of Liberal Arts and Medicine and director of the Jewish studies program at the University of Illinois-Chicago, is the author or editor of more than seventy books, including Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Hidden Language of the Jews. He was interviewed by RJ editor Aron Hirt-Manheimer.

How do you know when someone is engaging in antisemitism?

A blanket statement about Jews, such as "Jews control the media," is antisemitic. It's important, however, for us to distinguish between this kind of global stereotyping and criticism of the actions of individual Jews or of the Israeli government that may or may not be motivated by antisemitism.

How should we respond to someone who makes a blanket antisemitic statement in our presence?

It is often difficult to tease out the difference between a statement by an antisemite that is intended to be a taunt and a statement that employs antisemitic vocabulary and imagery but is not necessarily antisemitic. In either case, I would advise the affronted person to engage in a dialogue with the accuser. Ask him/her: "Are you saying this about me as an individual?" In most cases, this response causes the accuser to retreat. People who are quite willing to say nasty things about "the Jews" are often not willing to do so in the face of a self-identified Jew. In essence, the effective response is to ask: "Who exactly are you talking about?"

What if the statement is made in a social context?

In a social situation the best strategy is not to confront the person publicly, but to draw him or her aside for a private conversation. This person might have no idea that his/her comment was offensive or hurtful. There is often a cultural factor at work in such situations. Until recently, for example, what was considered to be an antisemitic comment in New York might not have registered as such in London, as the level of public toleration on the part of British Jews seems to have been higher. It struck Philip Roth quite directly when he lived in London a decade ago. In his novel Deception (1990) his protagonist sees a commercial on British television in which a "youngish middle-aged, rather upper-class English actor" removing his makeup comments on the quality of his cigar. He ends the commercial by turning to the audience with an insinuating leer and says in a "thick, Faginy accent": "And best of all, they're cheap." When the protagonist complains to an Anglo-Jewish friend about this, he is criticized for making "such a fuss about being Jewish." Today, however, Britain has become multicultural and British Jews are no longer so complacent.

Are American Jews more assertive today in confronting antisemitism?

Yes. Up until the 1930s, the general Jewish response to antisemitism was avoidance--don't scare the horses, don't make a public fuss. One notable exception occurred at the end of the 19th century, when the New York banker Joseph Seligman, a German-Jew, was refused a room in the Grand Union Hotel at Saratoga Springs. The owner, Judge Henry Hilton, explained that he had no objection to the Sephardic elite, who had lived in America since the 17th century and whom he believed to be the refined, "true Hebrews." By contrast, Hilton claimed, the German immigrant "Seligman" Jews were dirty and greedy, and thus unfit for society. The incident received widespread press coverage, and the issue of "pushy" Jews took on the mantle of cause célèbre. At that moment, Jews became the object of exclusion from public accommodations, and eventually limitations were set on their attendance at universities. They were simply "too smart" in an unhealthy way! After the 1950s and during the Civil Rights movement, avoidance became a less acceptable strategy. How one responded to an antisemitic insult was now left up to the individual, and public action that identified one as a Jew became acceptable.

Are Jews with a strong Jewish identity or Jewish education better able to deal with antisemitic comments in social situations?

I am not sure that a strong Jewish education or identity are the only factors at work. Often it is the antisemitic act that triggers a Jewish identity, and I can think of cases in which such acts caused well-educated Jews to doubt their Jewish identity. A prime example of the latter is the case documented in Henry Bean's film The Believer, about a Jewish-educated boy who becomes an American Nazi.

Are there also regional or demographic variations, say within the US, in how Jews respond to antisemitic insults today?

When I grew up in the South, Jews there tended to shy away from confrontation in the presence of an antisemitic statement or act. This has changed radically over the past forty years. I would contend that the "PC" culture in the US has made antisemitic statements less acceptable in most contexts, and therefore southern Jews today are much less "genteel" about antisemitic remarks.

Is there a correlation between Jewish pride and willingness to defend against antisemitism?

We have seen evidence of such a correlation since the 1967 Six-Day War. In the 1940s and '50s, one would be more likely to respond in the name of humanity and reason rather than particularly as a Jew. After Israel's overwhelming defeat of the Arab armies in 1967, self-identified Jews started to view themselves as members of a collective empowered to defend itself. This shift parallels the way Blacks generally viewed themselves after the successes of the 1960s Civil Rights movement. In general, the earlier view, which held that all human beings have to abhor racial segregation, changed to the notion that a self-identified member of the group who is directly impacted--e.g., an African American--must respond when confronted with racism.

Ethnic pride is "in" these days. What do you think is behind the popularity of Jon Stewart, who clearly feels comfortable proclaiming his Jewishness on The Daily Show, and the "Jewish Cool" movement, represented by Heeb magazine and Jewcy?

I think these examples are telling us that in the 21st century there's an acceptance, rather than a defensiveness, of being Jewish in the public eye. It's similar to the kind of ethnic cool that's associated with the "ghetto African American" identity represented in hip-hop culture. Among young Jewish writers such as Jonathan Safran Foer, Myla Goldberg, and Gary Shteyngart, being Jewish is hip-multicultural. T-shirts that read "Yo Semite" and Heeb's homage to the big-hipped, big-nosed appeal of "the Jewess" are simply the Jewish parallels to "Black is Beautiful" in a postmodern, ironic voice. The same phenomenon is at work among Hispanic and Asian Americans in their writing and films--the novels of Oscar Hujelos and the comedy of Margaret Cho echo much of the same sensibility. Among all these groups, self-ironical comedy, taking comic advantage of stereotypes, has become cutting-edge. The great irony is that this form of comedy was already being practiced by Jewish comedians in the 1920s-'40s. Catskill Jewish humor poked fun at society's inane presuppositions about the Jews--but whereas the Jewish comics of the past joked about being Jewish in the presence of other Jews, today's comedians satirize their own groups before the world. Today's ethnic humor isn't niche humor; it's general American humor. Everybody can (and does) laugh at these stereotypes.

When I listen to Jon Stewart's somewhat self-deprecating Jewish jokes, I sometimes feel a catharsis--he seems to be detoxifying antisemitism.

Absolutely. And it's not because he's particularly bold or brave; it's that the times have changed radically since the 1950s. While antisemitism does exist in the US, it isn't as prevalent as it was, and the stereotypes Stewart debunks are no longer perceived by most Jews as dangerous. Indeed, one has an odd sense that they are fun because they are harmless--the danger lies beyond the borders of the United States.

Are there any Jewish stereotypes that you would consider dangerous today?

All Jewish stereotypes--from the "too-smart Jew" to the Jew as international manipulator to the Jew as reactionary or radical--remain potentially dangerous. They have all recently appeared in Arab-language films, comics, school texts, and the popular press. Nothing goes away; nothing becomes harmless in and of itself.

Can personally experiencing antisemitism ever play a positive role in shaping one's Jewish identity?

Yes, when we suddenly realize that antisemitism is not about "other" Jews but about all Jews. The obvious case is Theodor Herzl, the Austrian journalist and playwright who had an epiphany while witnessing the public humiliation of Alfred Dreyfus, a completely assimilated French Jew and military officer who was falsely accused of espionage. Herzl, also an assimilated Jew, must have thought, "If this can happen to someone so like me, it can happen to any Jew." His response to antisemitism was to envision a separate world for Jews where they could exert control over their daily lives: a Jewish state. Fast-forward a half-century later in America. In affluent neighborhoods in Arizona and California, a high school student named Steven Spielberg is taunted and insulted by his classmates because he's Jewish. He grows up, becomes a renowned filmmaker, and in preparing to make Schindler's List, he meets some of the Jews Oskar Schindler saved during the Shoah and also has an epiphany. He doesn't suddenly become a religious Jew--anymore than Herzl became a religious Jew--but he realizes that antisemitism is part of his own legacy and that he has an obligation as a Jew to articulate it in public. He then uses the film's profits to fund a foundation, the Righteous Persons Foundation, which documents the real lives of Holocaust survivors. In Spielberg's case, being taunted as a Jew did more than strengthen his Jewish identity; it helped create it.

Given that not every one of us is a Herzl or a Spielberg, can ordinary people like us turn an antisemitic encounter into an opportunity?

Each of us can demonstrate an awareness that a public Jewish identity is not only possible in a multicultural world, but cannot be denied. Often this has to do with the "little things" that we accept so as not to "rock the boat." These add up to a climate of discomfort which we no longer want to tolerate. If we strengthen our resolve, educate others, and work to effect change, even little changes, each of us can make a difference.


While there are no strict rules or right ways for confronting antisemitic or insensitive behaviors, here are some guidelines:

  • Think before you react.
  • Let the other person finish speaking before you respond.
  • Count to ten if you need to calm down.
  • Talk clearly, politely, and deliberately; don't raise your voice.
  • Try to express how the comment or behavior made you feel.
  • Focus on words or actions that offended you, rather than attacking the person.
  • Don't laugh at deprecating jokes.
  • Contemplate: is this something to which I can safely respond or should I walk away?
  • Consider: do I know enough to respond or do I need more information?
  • Weigh if it is better to take someone aside to talk privately.
  • If you aren't sure whether to take immediate action, wait and discuss the incident with people you trust (friends, parents, teachers, rabbis).

Responding to the claim that Jews are greedy or cheap:

  • Question the generalization. Simply asking, "What do you mean by that?" may be effective.
  • Challenge the accuser to provide proof, and counter with the fact that Judaism places great emphasis on charitable giving and that Jews have consistently ranked among the most generous philanthropists in North America, aiding the poor and feeding the hungry.

Responding to the charge "the Jews killed Jesus, they're the Christ killers":

  • Keep in mind that this comment often stems from ignorance; the person who utters it may not be antisemitic but ill-informed.
  • Explain that in 1965 the Vatican Council issued a historic document called Nostra Aetate, which declared that Jesus' death "cannot be charged against all Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today." In addition, the Catholic Church's 1992 Catechism (teaching guide) stated that no one is certain of what happened 2,000 years ago and that Jews as a collective group should not be considered responsible for the Crucifixion.
  • You may wish to add that it is absurd to blame a modern-day person for something that happened 2,000 years ago.

Responding to the claim that Jews control banking & media:

  • State the facts: most US banks are owned by Protestants; Jews comprise less than 1 percent of the top officers and board members of US commercial banks. With respect to the news media, Jews are the principal stockholders or owners of only 3.1 percent of the nation's newspapers.

Responding to the accusation "The Jews think they are better than anyone else":

  • Explain that this misconception derives from a misunderstanding of the phrase "the chosen people," which is not meant to convey that Jews are superior; it means that Jews were "chosen" to live by the precepts of the Torah.
  • Add that the Hebrew Bible makes it clear that Jews are deemed equal to other peoples in the eyes of God. As the Hebrew prophet Amos declares in the name of God: "You are no better to me than the Ethiopians" (9:7).

The information in this article is based on Confronting Anti-Semitism, a publication of the Anti-Defamation League. For more information contact your local ADL or visit

First Place Award Winner for Excellence in Jewish Journalism
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