A crude joke asks: What is a k-ke?
Answer: A gentleman of the Hebrew persuasion who just left the room.
I have no trouble recognizing this genteel anti-Semitism.
My standard for what is (or isn’t) anti-Semitism emanates from a phrase in an opinion issued by Associate Justice Potter Stewart of the U.S. Supreme Court in a 1964 pornography case: “But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”
I know anti-Semitism when I see it, when I hear it, when I feel it.
So do you. We each have our own standard.
Though anti-Semitism has a roughly 2,000-year history, the term itself was coined in 1879 by Wilhelm Marr — a German social agitator and, well, anti-Semite — to describe Judenhass (Jew-hatred) in Europe.
A poll suggests that three-quarters of American Jews believe it to be a problem in this country.
My children have grown up in the South, in Atlanta, with occasional exposure to bias based on their religion. This year’s presidential campaign has prompted us to have numerous conversations about what constitutes anti-Semitism.
We are not alone.
“For a long time we were told that anti-Semitism was everywhere, and we rolled our eyes at that,” a 24-year-old woman, prominent in a left-leaning group, told the website Politico. “This feels like the closest thing to the type of anti-Semitism that my grandparents talk about experiencing in Poland.”
Much of it has been “dog whistles,” language that is innocuous to most people but stings a particular audience.
The dog whistle rang in my ear when Donald Trump said Hillary Clinton “meets in secret with international banks in order to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty,” phrasing reminiscent of an old anti-Semitic trope.
This is not to suggest that the Republican nominee is an anti-Semite, but that such language is music to the ears of a segment of his supporters.
There was an “it is/it isn’t” debate when Trump’s campaign posted on Twitter a depiction of Clinton alongside a pile of money and a six-pointed star (a graphic taken from a white-nationalist message board).
His reposting Twitter comments from white supremacists is dismaying.
Across the aisle, politics may be “war by other means,” but when the chief financial officer of the Democratic National Committee suggested that the Clinton campaign weaponize Bernie Sanders’ relationship with his Jewish heritage, that sounded like whistle-blowing.
Meanwhile, there are American Jews who believe that the fate of Israel and the fate of the Jewish people are so closely linked that criticism of Israel is, therefore, anti-Semitic.
Israel’s government should not be exempt from criticism, including from American Jews, though it sometimes appears that Israel receives more than its share compared with nations whose offenses draw less condemnation than they deserve.
Anti-Defamation League National Director Jonathan Greenblatt has written: “When a person conflates Jews, Israelis and the Israeli government, it is anti-Semitic. When all Jews and all Israelis are held responsible for the actions of the Israeli government, it is anti-Semitic. When Jews would be denied the right to self-determination accorded to all other peoples, it is anti-Semitic.”
Jews are well-regarded by their fellow Americans. We comfort ourselves that what is happening to the Jews of Europe cannot happen here, but we are taken aback when swastikas and slogans are spray-painted on the walls of Jewish institutions or we hear reports of Jewish students harassed on college campuses.
There may be less in-your-face anti-Semitism than in decades past, but the dog-whistle variety proliferates. Our personal standards alert us when we see it, when we hear it, when we feel it.