What makes Jews so special? Indians, Roma, Poles and Caribbeans are all subject to racial discrimination. So why don’t they each get a term of their own? The specific character of racial bias differs for each group, the slurs, stereotypes and assumptions are different. What marks out prejudice against Jews as worthy of having its own nomenclature?
It is not just that it is a prejudice with a particular pedigree. It is very old in Europe. But then prejudice against the Roma is similarly historically entrenched. Neither is it that the discrimination it engenders is of a level of virulence, and violence that marks it as separate from others. Other hatreds have provoked incidents of genocidal violence that are, at the very least analogous. We can debate the relationship of the holocaust to other genocidal events, and to the wider history of racial discrimination, but regardless the term predates the Nazis by decades.
There is an argument to be made that the nature of Jewish identity is sufficiently unique that it justifies separate identifiers for prejudice. One can be religiously Jewish, or Jewish without being religious; both require Jewish parentage. Though one can convert to Judaism, it is rare and Jews do not proselytise. The nearest comparison to this is probably Sikhism, while culturally very different, Sikhs are legally recognised as both a religious and an ethnic group. There is no Sikhophobia or Antisikhism.
There is an Islamophobia however. And the reason this exists provides a clue as to the value of maintaining a specific term for racism against Jews. Islamophobia identifies a form of discrimination against a religiously defined group, that operates like a racial prejudice. Islamophobia does not, or at least mostly does not focus on a condemnation of specific religious doctrines. Instead, practising Muslims – or those identified (rightly or wrongly) as being Muslim are ascribed fixed and inherent characteristics. These traits mark them as inherently “other”, incapable of fitting into a Western culture envisioned as arising out of an idealised Enlightenment, notable for respect for democracy and individual rights. Though a modern phenomenon, Islamophobia often hinges on a simplified, idiosyncratic or actively distorted interpretation of historical interactions between Islam and “the West”. The history of the Crusades being the archetypal example.
Similarly, antisemitism is a creation of the 19th Century, but it draws on myths and distortions that are much older. However, it mixes them with a depiction of the role of Jews in the financial system based of a few prominent families in the Victorian era. it co-opts left-wing critiques of global banking and blends them with age old suspicions of the Jewish community as occult outsiders to fashion the ur-conspiracy theory. Antisemitism is marked by the way it fashions Jews not only as inferior, but in someways as superior (politically, organisationally): sophisticated and ingenious as well as diabolical and corrupt. The way it positions the Jewish community as hegemonic, the way it often hides itself within broader statements about banking and finance. Compare this with the way that other forms of racism often depict the subject as an underclass.
If we call Islamophobia racism, we leave it open to dismissal on the basis that Islam is not a race. But we also miss something specific about the way in which it operates; the way it covers a range of ethnic groups, the way it labels a belief but ascribes traits that are fixed as if genetic, the way it latches on to apparently progressive, democratic ideals not to argue for greater emancipation but simply to stigmatise a group it considers fundamentally incompatible with them.
Similarly, if we simply place all anti-Jewish prejudice under the rubric of racism we miss the very particular ways in which antisemitism operates. In doing so, we blunt our ability to analyse and resist forms of discrimination and abuse at a time when both are making dangerous incursions into the mainstream of political life.