On Racism and Antisemitism

To understand racism and how it relates to us as Jews, we should begin at its beginning, namely as a scientific branch in the 19th century, at the end of the slavery. Nowadays we should say "pseudo-scientific", but the point is that it wasn't "pseudo" back then.

Like Marxism or Eugenics in the 20th century, racism used to be an academic field of knowledge. It was based on what we (still) consider nowadays linguistic knowledge: The division of humanity into categories such as "Indo-Germanics" (nowadays: "Indo-Europeans") or "Semites" based on their languages is a valid academic position in the 21st century - as long as its contained to linguistics, i.e. to the research of languages.

One could say that racism thought of languages as the tip of a much deeper iceberg, arguing that, for example, Slavic languages constitute a family because the peoples who speak them share an ancient common origin, whose meaning goes much beyond a originally common language. So the similarity of Slavic languages was interpreted as indicating a much deeper similarity of the Slavic peoples, thus forming a category that (supposedly) determines not only their use of language but also their culture, characteristics, abilities, morality etc. Hence the determinism inherent to racist thought.

It might seem odd to us to think of it as an academic field, but academia in its current sense only began in the 19th century with many new fields, one of which is history, researching our past to gain insights on the present. So basically, academia and the notion of what is academic have changed a lot and still are. Our own ideas seem as natural and obvious to us as water to fish, but when we imagine a different era in the past as having had our current notions, we act anachronistically, that is to say: we project terms and notions from one time onto a different time, thus messing up our perception of the past (a.k.a. "history") and our ability to understand it.

The greatest difficulty in understanding racism as a modern 19th-century philosophy at the end of slavery is probably the transatlantic triangular trade in the 18th, 17th, and 16th centuries - i.e. before racism. We tend to automatically assume that the greatest slave trade in history was the result of racism - why else would millions of people be shipped in horrible conditions across the Atlantic ocean from Africa to America on European ships?

Yet this first impression is actually wrong, because the horrible journey from Africa to America was indeed just one leg in a triangle:

A simple depiction of the Atlantic Triangle
(from Wikipedia)

In order to buy slaves from African kings, European merchants had to ship European goods to the trading posts along the African coast. And in order to pay for the European goods, the same ships came back to Europe bearing goods from America. Hence the triangular trade. As long as it benefited all partners in Europe, Africa and America, there was no reason to change anything.

That meant, until the 19th century, no reason for the European partners to go beyond their trading ports along the West-African coast into the center of this huge continent, thus making Africa the last project of European imperialism, centuries after the Americas, Asia and Oceania had been colonized. From a racist point of view categorizing Africans as an "inferior race", one would actually expect Africa to have been the first continent to be devoured by European imperialism - and yet it was the very last (one of the explanations for the relative success of post-colonial statehood in Asia and the Americas in comparison to Africa, is actually the latter's relatively late and short exposure to Western colonialism, meaning that the colonial pre-state infrastructure was much more established in other continents than in Africa).

So if the slave trade in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries wasn't about racism - how come only African people were shipped as slaves in the triangular trade? The reason is as simple as it gets: Africans were the only people living in African kingdoms, at the disposal of African kings. That is to say: Africans were the population that could be enslaved within the continent, brought to trading ports along the coast and sold to European merchants in exchange for European goods. Had African kings ruled over other (non-African) people, they could have enslaved them too - but their kingdoms didn't stretch so far, so they could only enslave the people they ruled over in, well, Africa.

Sometimes these African kings would send their children on the same ships heading to America and then to Europe, so they would be educated in European universities. From a racist point of view, none of this makes sense, but the people on those ships - the European merchants and crew, the African royals and slaves - lived much before racism. The African slaves on the ships were treated very badly not because they were African, but because they were slaves; goods of an emerging global capitalism. And at the same time, the same European crew treating so badly the African slaves, was serving the just as African royal guests. It all makes sense if you remember that unlike us, nobody back then could apply 19th-century categories such as "races".

It might be worth mentioning that the very unfortunate human institution of slavery didn't begin (or end) with the Transatlantic Triangle. So in other times and other places, other people were enslaved. In fact, the English word "slaves" does not originate from anything African but from Slavs - people speaking Slavic languages. In late antiquity and the middle ages, slaves were so frequently Slavs that slavery - or rather avoiding it - was a major motivation in Slavic adoptions of Christianity.

But if slavery isn't the result of racism, what do racism and slavery have to do with each other? To understand this link, we need to question the beginning of racism in the 19th century: Why then? Why not before? Of course, pejorative notions that in hindsight seem "racist" to us did exist well before, but projecting a 19th-century philosophy on much earlier eras would be, as we now know, anachronistic. People simply had (and still have) prejudice about each other without any scientific theories and conceptualizations of "races". All of that - the research, the thick books, the academic conferences and teaching - only began in the 19th century; one notable example is the French scholar Arthur de Gobineau, who published in 1853 a four-volume study "on the inequality of human races":

Cover of the first edition (from Wikipedia)

De Gobineau wasn't the first one, but his publication was a milestone, marking racism as a proper field of knowledge (let us not forget, again, that Marxism and Eugenics were also thought of as "science").

So why not earlier? Why after the biggest slave trade in history and not before it? In short: Because of the philosophical discourse known as Enlightenment in the 18th century and its political and social implications in the 19th century, specifically in France and then elsewhere.

In 1789, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen proclaimed that "Men are born and remain free and equal in rights", an outcome of enlightened thought in the decades before the revolution (based in turn on earlier ideas of Christian Humanism). This first declaration of human rights lead in 1794 to the abolition of slavery in France, and in 1807, the slave trade was abolished in the British Empire. This included - that's really important - a British ban on the transatlantic slave trade by any party (perhaps the beginning of "International Law").

This was a huge change with tremendous implications not only for Africa, but also in the Americas. Nonetheless, the young United States actually accepted the British imposition the following year. The slave trade continued illegally (as it does nowadays), but was now publicly denounced. Other countries followed, and in 1853 Brazil was the last nation in the Americas to accept the prohibition and outlaw the import of new slaves. For the first time in history, the slave trade was now publicly acknowledged as wrong.

This is where racism begins.

The prohibition of the slave trade was a huge achievement of Western civilization, considering that slavery probably began with the agricultural revolution some 10,000 years ago. And yet at the beginning of the 19th century, this was still just a prohibition of slave trade. In the following decades, slavery itself was gradually becoming wrong in Western societies - on both sides of the Atlantic. Indeed, slavery had been criticized much earlier, but now, for the first time in history, serious public and political debates were talking place about ending not only the slave trade, but slavery altogether. What seems obvious to us, in hindsight, was not yet obvious back then. And this means that the existence of slavery was no longer obvious and self-explanatory, but had to be somehow argued for, that is to say: "justified" - indeed, for the first time in history.

While slavery is as old as human civilization, nobody had ever felt an intellectual necessity to establish "scientific evidence" for its legitimacy before its very existence was being seriously threatened. The fact that de Gobineau's racist milestone was published in 1853, upon completion of the trade abolition with Brazil's acceptance of the new rules, is perhaps not a coincidence, but somewhat expectable: 19th-century criticism of slavery created the very need for a "science" that would justify its legal existence (and, later on, justify discrimination even without legal slavery).

These are the circumstances for the birth of racism, whose goal was to justify - so to speak in hindsight - an already existing establishment. Only because the continued existence of this establishment was being questioned, the need emerged to advocate its legitimacy. In other words: Africans were not enslaved because they were thought of as an "inferior race", but the other way around: Africans were conceptualized as an "inferior race" to justify retrospectively their already existing slavery - and later on, their segregation etc.

And let us now forget religion: Slavery in the 19th century meant Christian slaves, whose enslavement was increasingly thought of as particularly outrageous. A the same time though, religion arguments were rapidly losing ground to the new king: science. So supposedly, slavery could be justified in the name of science - namely the (pseudo-)science of racism. Racism stepped in to continue what was about to end with the very institution of slavery. This made 19th-century inventions such as "races" even more appealing after the abolition of slavery itself, by providing "scientific" justification for continued inequality and discrimination. Racism was a useful science, because it could be applied and thus "validated", once legal slavery was long gone with the wind.

Shortly put: Slavery was not the result of racism; racism was the result of slavery. Western civilization brought about, if we follow its own narrative, Enlightenment and human rights, but also racism and a discriminatory world. This is the dialectical nature of modernity, containing both blessings and curses.

So where do the Jews fit it?

We did not! While Jews were massively enslaved time and again in antiquity, in the transatlantic story Jews were not slaves but rather slave traders and owners - so seemingly meant to benefit from racism. Yet racism didn't benefit Jews at all. In fact, in the philosophical framework of racism, Jews were outside of the framework. Not conceptualized as one of the normal human races, not even as a particularly "invaluable" yet proper race, but simply outside of humanity, as an evil and dangerous anti-race.

To put it simply: Africans had a (very unfortunate) place - a purpose - in a racist world, but Jews did not. Our existence couldn't even be justified as slaves. Take a moment and let that sink in. That's why the Nazis wanted to enslave "inferior races", but to eradicate the Jews. This means that hatred against Jews - under whatever label/guise (e.g. Antisemitism) - is not a subcategory or a kind of racism. Indeed, both racism and antisemitism are bad - but this doesn't mean that they are the same thing.

It might be because of Steven Spiegelberg two truly powerful movies - Schindler's List and Amistad - that we (all of us as mental products of our own culture industry) tend to imagine racism and African slavery along the lines of antisemitism and the Holocaust. Indeed, at some level, unbearable pain is unbearable pain regardless of context. But when talking about the ideologies, it is important to remember the huge gap between racism as the main outcome of African slavery on the one hand; and antisemitism as the main cause for the Holocaust on the other hand. In history, chronological order does matter.

Unfortunately, we are witnessing at the moment at lot of anti-semitic speech against racism. Yes, "anti-semitic speech against racism". It sounds like an oxymoron, but it is not. When Berlin's public transportation company explains that Arabs can't be doing anything anti-semitic while "protesting" in the subway because Arabs are "Semites" themselves, it actually applies racist categories that obfuscate the difference between Antisemitism and racism (this scandal is currently being handled by an initiative of the Jewish Welfare Board in Germany).

The only oxymoron is that the same state-owned company can do that while vowing to battle antisemitism. Not as a joke, but as a totally serious press release. This is just one example from Germany, but there's plenty of similar gaslighting going on right now all over the world. How does that work? By conflating racism and antisemitism to create something that is actually neither one, but a 21st-century notion of what racism and antisemitism "ought to be". As if racism and antisemitism describe the same thing about different people. But it's simply not the same thing to begin with.

Conflating antisemitism with racism renders any kind of "non-racist" Antisemitism cognitively impossible. That is to say: It does happen, but isn't acknowledged. In practice, nothing - and more importantly: nobody - can ever be acknowledged as antisemitic within this conflation of antisemitism with racism.

The bottom line is this:

Racism, as the main outcome of African slavery, is not "Antisemitism towards Africans". And Antisemitism, as the main cause for the Holocaust, is not "Racism towards Jews". Racism and Antisemitism, although often conflated, are not two aspects of one phenomenon. Each is very bad in its own way, but conflating the two is actually an antisemitic tactic to deny and negate Jewish experiences of Antisemitism. Hence this page, which we hope many might find helpful in understanding current events.