Antisemitism: Beyond Binary Thought

Antisemitism: Beyond Binary Thought

Antisemitism. Apocalypse. Islamophobia. Trauma. Whew! We finished the “Religion and Violence” conference. So much hard stuff! No wonder everyone wanted to talk about nonviolence!

Antisemitism Can Hide in a Slogan

Students who attended the conference for credit did some extra work. They each wrote a response to a conference paper. So, I did the assignment too. I responded to a paper by the linguist Mark SteinThat Brown, Palestinian Jew Jesus and The Obviousness of Antisemitic Discourse.

Mark analyzes the phrase “I stand with that brown, Palestinian Jew, Jesus.” It is, he says, an anti-semitic expression. Christians should be aware of this. They should not use their tradition to further antisemitism. Instead, they should resist it.

Antisemitism in Binary Thinking

Mark identifies three key words. Brown. Palestinian. Jew. He looks at them from four perspectives.

(1) A simple perspective. Each word’s literal meaning is not controversial. Brown is a skin colour. Maybe it refers to Jesus’ mediterranean complexion. Palestine was the Roman province in which Jesus lived. Jew meant a person who lived in the Judean region. And it’s the name of the religion Jesus practiced.

(2) A “synchronic” perspective. A snapshot of deeper levels of meaning. Here, a peek into binary oppositions that structure thought. Each key word is one side of a pair of opposites. Thus, it evokes the opposition, and chooses a side. The oppositions are:




The phrase itself is “I stand with that brown Palestinian Jew, Jesus.” But it also means, “I stand against the White, Israeli, Jews.”

(3) A contemporary theoretical perspective. Looking at each pair through the lens of a social theory.

Brown/White comes from critical race theory. White = representative of a colonial power structure. Brown = person oppressed by the structure.

Palestinian/Israeli calls to mind intersectionality. Real people live at the intersection of multiple oppressions. But, according to some activists, some intersections cannot be thought. Such as the intersection of “Palestinian” and “Israeli.”

Jesus/Jew recalls the Christian theory of supersession. Jesus’s teaching has replaced Judaism. So, there is no need for the old relic. For example, rest in Jesus is the new Sabbath.

Antisemitism Evolves — or Does It?

(4) A diachronic perspective. Looking at historical changes in language.

Brown/White: Most North Americans did not consider Jews “white” until the mid-twentieth century. In the eyes of white supremacists, Jews have never been white.

Palestinian/Israeli and Jesus/Jew: In the 19th century, Christian writers called Jesus a Galilean. Thus they separated him from Judea, the religious centre of outdated, corrupt Judaism.

So, Mark says, the phrase isn’t about Jesus at all. It is about the Jews. And not in a good way. In fact, it’s a summary of centuries of antisemitic discourse. Criticizing Jews for their race, nation-state, and religion.

Thus, Mark quotes Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. One of the enduring facts of history is that most antisemites do not think of themselves as antisemites. We don’t hate Jews, they said in the Middle Ages, just their religion. [And] we don’t hate Jews, they said in the nineteenth century, just their race. We don’t hate Jews, they say now, just their nation-state. (Address to the House of Lords, 2018)

Christians Resisting Antisemitism

So, Mark invites his mostly Christian audience to reflect. Are you a Christian? One who repudiates antisemitism? If so, please look to your tradition. Please make good use of its resources.

(1) Promote Biblical verses that speak against opposition and hostility.

(2) Study Christian theologians who spoke against binary thought. Augustine and his rejection of Manichaeism dualism, for example.

(3) Be humble in studying the historical “facts” of Jesus’ life. Because the scholarship is always changing!

And that is Mark’s thought-provoking conclusion.

Many great anthropologists agree with his premise. Binary thinking is powerful. It operates in many cultures. And it helps structure human thought. It certainly structures great slogans! The phrase Mark analyzes is a great slogan. And Mark has convinced me it can be antisemitic.

Some Complexities of Antisemitism

Still, I’d like to see Mark take one more step. Specifically, to talk about binary thinking. Are we stuck with it? So that people can label something “good” only if they also label something “bad”? Or can facts break the spell? And thus help people see each other more clearly?

Mark’s paper reminds me of our family’s recent two-year discussion. Each Friday, around the Shabbat dinner table, we discussed the same question. Are Jews white? Finally, we came to a consensus. Some Jews are white-passing in some times and places. Why did we agree on so general a conclusion? Because we know realities are complex.

Each binary Mark identifies is challenged by real facts. Brown/white, for example. Fifteen percent of American Jews are non-white. They are black, hispanic, or mixed race. Can they “be thought” using this binary? How do they think of themselves?

Israel/Palestine, for another example. Maybe the intersection cannot be thought. But, it can be lived. In fact, 1.8 million people are literally Israeli Palestinians. Palestinian citizens of Israel, that is. They live in cities and villages, have diverse educations, and sit at different economic levels. And they have multiple views of life at this strange intersection.

And, finally, Jesus/Jew. Mark himself says Christians can escape the dichotomy They can avoid antisemitism.

Beyond Binary Thinking

So, maybe Mark does answer my question. On the one hand, he doesn’t say that facts are helpful against antisemitism. After all, antisemitism is supported with strong myths. But, on the other hand, he does tell us how to disrupt binary thinking. With Biblical poetry and theology, for example. Metaphor and imaginative ideas. Because they can draw us into thinking big. Outside the binary box. So, yes, I appreciate Mark’s teaching. But I don’t yet know how to apply it in response to antisemitism.

So, in the end, I’m just like everyone else at the “Religion and Violence” conference. I’m trying to find hope in nonviolent action. Specifically, in education. And I’ll keep it up, because I don’t know what else to do.


Some helpful reading: Amy Jill Levine, The Misunderstood Jew. George Lakoff, Don’t Think of an Elephant.

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