How to Understand and Challenge Antisemitism

Sue Hughes Operations Officer at Challenge Consultancy

In this blog, Sue Hughes, Operations Officer at Challenge Consultancy, discusses what antisemitism is and shares her family’s history and her personal experience of antisemitism. Exploring some of the language commonly used, Sue also shares a useful exercise to help increase your knowledge and confidence to challenge antisemitism when you see it.

What is antisemitism?

Antisemitism is discrimination, prejudice, hostility or violence against Jewish people as Jews (or Jewish institutions as Jewish).

There is a strong narrative that says that it’s antisemites who are the problem. I believe it is important to make the distinction between antisemites and antisemitism.  Antisemitism is part of a historical and current culture which has accumulated over time and from which people draw from, intentionally or not.

The Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR) report from 2017 , shows that the number of ideology-driven antisemites in Britain is small: less than 5% of adults. However, a much larger minority, more than 30%, will readily agree with negative and stereotypical ideas about Jewish people: for example, that Jewish people get rich at the expense of others or that their interests are very different from those of non-Jewish people. To really fight antisemitism effectively individuals and groups need to examine how susceptible they can be to those negative and stereotypical ideas.

My personal background and experience with antisemitism

My parents and paternal grandparents were all refugees from Nazi Germany in the late ‘30s, weeks before Kristallnacht. Had they still been in Germany on the night of 9th November 1938 they would eventually have been transported to a concentration camp. My aunt, uncle and cousins in Czechoslovakia (pictured below) were transported and murdered in Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen.

Sue's relatives - Clara and Edwin

I find it hard to listen to people in the media saying how generous Britain was to those fleeing Nazi Germany when it was so hard for refugees to be allowed to enter the country. I’m glad of course that children were able to come over on the Kindertransport, but why couldn’t their parents be rescued too?

My mother, aged 25, arrived in Britain as an ‘illegal alien’ in 1938. The article below was in the Daily Mail at that the time when antisemitism was still rife in Britain. In 1945, an antisemitic petition was drawn up by residents of Hampstead. It requested ‘that aliens of Hampstead should be repatriated to assure men and women of the Forces should have accommodation upon their return’ from World War II.

Daily Mail Antisemitic Article

By the time I was born in the 1950s things hadn’t improved much. We lived near East Finchley and in 1957 ‘prominent Conservatives’ who were in control of the Finchley Golf Club were barring Jewish people from joining, and grammar schools in areas with Jewish populations had a ‘Jewish quota’.

Is antisemitism different from other forms of racism?

Of course, antisemitism has distinct differences, and they can be acknowledged. More importantly, if we are going to be able to challenge antisemitism effectively, we need to recognize that our fight is part of the general fight against all forms of discrimination.

Whether that means educating people, changing hearts and minds, dismantling discriminatory systems and practices, or dealing with rising levels of physical and verbal attacks in Britain and elsewhere, it cannot be done without an understanding that antisemitism can only be fought in solidarity with other targeted groups – that what is true of racism in general is true of antisemitism in particular. The Jewish Community’s ability to challenge antisemitism depends on solidarity and shared interests with other minority groups.

Misconceptions about the Jewish Community

You will have heard people talk about the Jewish Community as though it is a homogenous whole with only one opinion. Secular Jews, like me, can feel excluded from that whole when religious leaders make pronouncements about what the ‘Jewish Community’ feel about this or that. For me, the Jewish Community is everyone born as a Jewish person (regardless of whether it’s from the maternal or paternal line) and those who convert. Though I am an atheist I am ethnically and culturally Jewish.

How can you better understand and challenge antisemitism?

I know how hard it is for many people to be able to express their views about antisemitism for fear of getting it wrong. I deeply regret that. This situation has been created by blurred lines about what is ok to say about the situation in Israel / Palestine. We must be able to identify real anti-Jewish prejudice while upholding free speech on Israel, Palestine and Zionism.

To help prevent antisemitism in the workplace, HR should have clear policies in place regarding religious accommodations, including who to contact with any queries or concerns. Some useful questions to ask yourself:

  • Do you know what those religious accommodations might be?
  • Would you be able to advise and point a Jewish member of staff in the right direction for support if they asked?
  • Do you feel confident in knowing what might be an anti-Jewish micro-aggression/ inappropriate statement in relation to Jewish people in the workplace especially in relation to what is happening in Israel / Palestine?

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