An atheist Jew distinguishes between religious and racial anti-Semitism

April 27, 2023 • 10:15 am

The Times Literary Supplement has an excerpt from David Baddiel’s new book The God Desirewhich was just published. I’d previously criticized one of his ideas raised in that book: a criticism of the New Atheists who, he says, can’t really comprehend the comforts of religion because they’re all goys. (Well, he admits Sam Harris is half Jewish, as was Christopher Hitchens, and I’m 100% full-blooded Ashkenazi. And of course there’s David Silverman.)  Baddiel is an atheist, and, like many of us secular Jews, is proud to belong to the tribe. (He’s a lot prouder of it than I am.) He argues that being a cultural Jew absolutely depends on the religion, which itself is a kind of cushion that, though we reject it, confers on us membership in the tribe.  Goyische atheists like Dawkins, he asserts, don’t have that comfort. (I would disagree, for Dawkins has written eloquently about the awe he feels before stuff like evensongs and cathedrals.)

And I’ve also praised Baddiel’s movie on “progressive” anti-Semitism, “Jews Don’t Count,” which I saw.

But now, after reading this lovely extract from the TLS, I have to back off on criticizing the book, which of course I haven’t yet read. For the long extract contains a percipient analysis of the difference between anti-Semites who hate Jews because of their religion, and anti-Semites who hate Jews because of their “race” (i.e., just because they’re Jews).

Unless you have a subscription, or make a judicious inquiry, you won’t be able to read it, as the TLS is paywalled. If you want to try, click below:

Apparently Tom Stoppard, who himself is Jewish but doesn’t make a big megillah out of it, just wrote a play, “Leopoldstadt” about being Jewish, a play that brought Baddiel, the atheist, to tears. It also got him thinking about the nature of anti-Semitism. I’m going to give a long quote from his piece, but if you can, do read the whole excerpt—or better yet, the book. Baddiel’s decided that racial anti-Semitism has always been inextricably connected with religious anti-Semitism, though the latter form was more dominant in earlier days, the days when Jews were despised as Christ-killers.  I love the bit below about his stroll to Clifford’s Tower:

Because, in a way that I’m not sure is entirely graspable to the majority, being in a minority will always be part of your identity. In a TV interview that I did recently with Miriam Margolyes, she talked about her need publicly to condemn the actions of the State of Israel, and about how that urge arises partly from her sense of connection to that country, because she is Jewish. A sense, that is, that she needs to say, “Not in my name”. I pointed out that when a white Christian man in America goes on a gun rampage, I never see white Christians – even if they may express horror about the atrocity itself – feeling any need to express that horror as white Christians. It would not occur to them, because the shooter’s actions, or, say, Putin’s, do not, it seems, reflect on them. The majority is felt as a vast sea, whereas minorities are a series of islands on which all members of each minority are felt to live, and each individual’s behaviour threatens the possibility of judgement, a judgement that will be cast on the entire island.

In my writings about antisemitism, I have always made it clear that I believe antisemitism is racism, rather than simply religious intolerance. This is a cornerstone of my argument about what modern antisemitism is.

But I have inserted an adjective there that I don’t – and didn’t in Jews Don’t Count– normally apply to the word antisemitism: modern. It is arguable that the idea of racial antisemitism only really began in the late nineteenth century, when the word antisemitism was coined by the German journalist Wilhelm Marr, and various fashionable ideas of racial stratification coincided with the theory of eugenics, creating a host of really very bad philosophies and movements. Obviously, it – racial antisemitism, as opposed to religious – became dominant in the twentieth century, culminating in the Holocaust, and similarly I have no doubt that antisemitism is now predominantly racial.

However, sometimes, when I’m talking about the way in which antisemitism is overlooked or demoted in the present high-trigger awareness of discrimination in general, I do say, “Despite, y’know, two thousand years of persecution.” So if I was to force myself under my own linguistic microscope, I’d point out that there is a flaw in my argument here, or at least a bifurcation. Because Jews, you might say, have not been subjected to two thousand years of racial persecution. Most of that time, it would have been religious. Most of it was entirely about them praying to the wrong God.

Or was it, in truth? I played York Opera House in 2021 with my comedy show about trolls (a fair bit of which is about antisemitism). Before the show, I walked, as I have done before, to Clifford’s Tower, where, in 1190, 150 Jews – fathers, mothers and children – committed suicide rather than convert to Christianity, as a baying mob outside were demanding. The tower was set on fire. (The one I was looking at – described, interestingly, as a “beloved” monument – was built on the same site soon afterwards.)

That’s religious antisemitism, right? Well. Not exactly. Because a few Jews did decide, rather than die, to go outside and accept conversion. (I would’ve been one of those Jews.) They were immediately murdered by the mob. Which expresses the same point I’ve made before, many times: that I’m an atheist, but the Gestapo would shoot me tomorrow. The issue for the mob was not really that these Jews inside the tower didn’t believe in Jesus. The issue was that they were Jews – a race portrayed as devils on every church wall, resented as moneylenders and suspected of the blood libel. I would contend that Jews have always been positioned as alien and monstrous and vampiric by the various majority cultures they have tried to live within.

Even before the nineteenth century, religious antisemitism had always contained elements of racial antisemitism. Which might partly explain why I responded as I did to watching Leopoldstadt. I don’t believe in God. That perhaps is clear by now. But it is simplistic to imagine that because I don’t believe in God, my Jewish identity can be easily excised from Judaism.

Jews are not, of course a “race” in any sense, for what unites them is not genetic similarity (which is the basis of ethnicity) but an association with religious belief, even if you don’t share that belief. “Race” is just a shorthand for “being Jewish”.

As I’ve said before, it’s not just that you’re in a minority that makes being Jewish—regardless of whether you’re religious—like being a member of a club. It’s also the history of that minority, which for Jews has been persecution everywhere they’ve ever lived. It’s the constancy of that persecution, and the feeling that the next pogrom is right around the corner, that gives you your Jewish card.  Muslims may be persecuted in some places now, but they weren’t everywhere and in every time.

That’s also the case for Catholics, Hindus, Muslims, or just about any other religion. Their history is not an unrelenting history of persecution.

And, as I think about it, yes, it’s the religious trappings that also make you feel like you’re in the club: the feeling that you have a deeper understanding of Yiddish and especially of the guilt and pessimism, combined with dark humor, that is part of the “Jewish character”. (Why else do you think the majority of great comedians were Jews?) So I suppose that, while I completely reject Jewish religious belief, I still feel a twinge in my DNA when I see an old bearded guy with a tallis and a fur hat.

There are not cultural Catholics, Muslims, or Hindus in the way there are cultural Jews. Yes, there may be some ex-Catholics who eat fish on Fridays because it makes them feel like a member of the Vatican Club, but these people are much, much rarer than cultural, secular Jews. (Which, by the way, include most of the residents of Israel: 65% of whom are nonbelievers. It’s one of the most secular countries in the world.)

Given this, if you are an “anti-Zionist”, you must be criticizing people not because they’re religious, but because they are “racially” Jewish. It’s been clear to me for some time, though it took a while to realize it, that Baddiel is right: at bottom, most people who are opposed to Israel feel that way not because of its government policies, or because of Netanyahu (after all, there were far more liberal Prime Ministers than he , like David Ben-Gurion or Golda Meir, but Israel has remained constant as the special object of opprobrium. Now, it seems, almost all anti-Semitism is racial anti-Semitism, as the “Christ killer” trope has simply lost its force.

So why is there so much racial anti-Semitism?  There are the stereotypes of money-grubbing, power-hungry Jews, of course, but I don’t think that explains it.  Perhaps it’s because it’s simply taught from one generation to the next, as the song in South Pacific attests. But why did it get started this way?

I’m not expert on this, but I will read Baddiel’s book, and perhaps Bari Weiss’s book How to Fight Anti-Semitism has more analysis.  It’s when I see people go after Israel without knowing anything about its history or even the issue they’re discussing, and when I see academics flock to embrace the BDS movement, which is explicitly anti-Semitic, or hear people shout, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” (which of course means “no more Jews in Israel”; it’s an encouragement for genocide”), that I realize that many, many people simply don’t like jews because they’re Jews. They can’t say that openly, of course, so they gussy up their bigotry with a lot of ignorant political arguments and slogans, idiotic statements about “apartheid”, and adherence to a movement whose roots they know nothing about. It is clear that, among countries of the world, Israel is held to standards much different from any other land. UN resolution after UN resolution condemns Israel, but is largely silent on North Korea or Iran. Why do you suppose that is?

In the end, I guess I don’t really understand anti-Semitism. The rationale for it changes over time: originally religious, then racial, and now morphing into issues of human rights. But the end, Jews will always be the scapegoats—even more so now that they have their own country.

21 thoughts on “An atheist Jew distinguishes between religious and racial anti-Semitism


    Douglas Murray wrote a piece on Anti-Semitism recently that I think answers some questions.
    I too think it will always be here sadly enough.

    I think I remember something about Christopher Hitchens pointing out that Jews turned down Jesus and Mohammed as the Messiah and that seemed to excite the hate.

    I also think religious Jews in the long distance past, dressed differently and spoke differently and ate differently.

  2. From my perspective, there are four perspectives here interwoven into one, in order of increasing importance: cultural, religious, ethnic, and political.

    With the ‘political’ there is power.

  3. I always find your posts on antisemitism by atheists against Jews (atheist or not) deeply thought-provoking. I think it’s mostly down to resentment by the feckless against the oppressed who became successful everywhere they weren’t murdered. Even if not all Jews are individually successful they are still heirs to a cultural tradition that values the underpinnings for success. And it isn’t grievance.

      1. Yes envy. But I meant that neither grievance nor envy is found in the underpinnings of successful cultures. The feckless do display envy toward the successful and it keeps them feckless.

  4. ” Dawkins has written eloquently about the awe he feels before stuff like evensongs and cathedrals.” I am entirely non-English, but having lived in England I understand that. Having lived in Scandinavia, I also feel awe before stuff like Viking longboats, pickled herring, and little open sandwiches.
    I wonder whether antisemitism has anything to do with the long Jewish tradition of 100% literacy (at least among males). The ability to read may have seemed demonic to goyim in the middle ages, among whom that ability was confined largely to the clergy. And recall the Church’s long campaign to prevent translation of the bible into the vernacular languages that only a few could read anyhow. Yet Jews read chapters from it aloud every week in their own, demonic language. Very suspicious.

    1. The NY Times has printed articles on the education provided to boys by some of the Yeshivas in New York. They do not provide a competent education. “Literacy” in Hebrew and Yiddish, yes, but no ability to read complex works in English. And no learning of history, geography, basic science.

  5. … Tom Stoppard, who himself is Jewish but doesn’t make a big megillah out of it, just wrote a play, “Leopoldstadt” about being Jewish …

    Also, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern — both Jewish (probably), both dead (definitely). Petards are like C-4 plastique; whether figurative or literal, best handled with care.

  6. I think Baddiel’s comparison of the views of Miriam Margolyes (a great actress & personality by the way) regarding her ‘not in my name’ attitude to the state of Israel, with the actions of misguided white male individuals shooting masses of people, is totally missing her point. They are not states, so I do not think that argument works.

    1. Do we hold Muslims accountable for what their nations do? The Saudi-led coalition against Yemen has killed nearly 100 times as many civilians since 2016 (not to mention displacing over 2 million from and 5 million within the country) as Israel has in its entire history, despite Israel being attacked by its neighbors over and over.

      In fact, I remember that, since 9/11, there has been an active push from the Left to say that we should never ask Muslims to answer for the actions of their theocracies or terrorists, and I agree! But, just as Israel is held by the rest of the world to standards which no other country is, Jews are held to standards which are not applied to anyone else. One of those is constant accusations of “dual-loyalty,” which I think is what really compels Jews to denounce Israel for actions no other people are required to denounce from their own countries, even when they live in them.

      1. Like Roman Catholics in England after the Reformation! Only many of them WERE trying to overthrow the protestant state…

  7. The Baddiel piece did give me a twinge. As a 100% racial Jew atheist who survived the Nazis, I do recall desiring (and marrying) a shiksa in order to dilute the race. And have three successful sons.

    1. Good news, Jews aren’t actually a race. So you could’ve married anyone you liked, which I hope you did anyway.

  8. Diane Abbott, the UK’s first black female MP, has just had her membership of the Labour Party suspended for a letter she wrote The Observer in which she claimed that Jews, the Irish, and Roma/gypsy travellers cannot be victims of racism because they are white:

    She has since apologised and, somewhat implausibly, claimed that a draft was sent to the newspaper by mistake. It’s good to see Labour taking a stronger line on anti-Semitism.

  9. I think you might be surprised at a scandal fresh from the UK, where a longstanding Labour MP has published a letter in last Sunday’s Observer (The Sunday Guardian, in effect) that says certain groups like Jews, Gypsies may have experienced a little prejudice, akin to that directed at redheads, but that doesn’t count as racism. Google Diane Abbott, the thickest person ever to go to Cambridge and become a shadow cabinet minister. She has been suspended from the Labour party and will probably not be allowed to stand again as a Labour candidate.

    1. Ms. Abbott’s mentor Jeremy Corbyn (no doubt busy campaigning to disband NATO) has already been dumped by Labour. The two of them will have to form their own party to run as MPs, inasmuch as they cannot qualify for the imprimatur of the Official Monster Raving Loony Party. The latter body requires that its candidates have a sense of humor, as well as some sense.

  10. Thanks for this column and reference to the TLS piece as well Baddiel’s movie that is in a November 2022 WEIT column that I missed. The movie, just short ofan hour, was both entertaining and informative AND very important to me as a politically left, atheist Jew…much like a number of the players he speaks with.

  11. There is a series of TV PSAs with the tagline “Stop Jewish Hate”. My first reaction was “I don’t know any hateful Jewish people.” How one says it is as important as what one says.

  12. A meta-characteristic of Jews (whether Atheist or religious) is their purposeful separateness. Jews, with some exceptions, have retained their separate character throughout history, much to the resentment of the general population in which they find themselves, which tends to favor uniformity. Jews are different, for which they are hated. Religion, culture, language, genealogy (in some cases), mores, chosen professions, even their comedic quirks, are all different (from the bulk of the culture in which they find themselves), recognizable, and despised. Jewish success makes it even worse, perpetuating conspiracy theories of Jewish power far beyond their numbers. So, it’s more than religion or race.

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