BBC World Histories Magazine

The ancient template of antisemitism

Recently, a well-educated man – the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, one of America’s most successful corporate entities – attended a seminar I gave on antisemitism. After my presentation, he asked in a perplexed tone: “Jews are so smart… How is it that they have not been able to solve this problem of antisemitism?”

I told him that his question was aimed in the wrong direction. He should not be asking the victim of prejudice to solve the problem – he should be asking the perpetrator. The purveyors of this hate and hostility should be the ones who bear the onus of having to resolve the issue. Of course, the perpetrators would have a ready answer: they would fall back on the stereotypes they use to justify their prejudices. Ultimately, they would blame the victim.

But that was not the only thing wrong with his query. There is no easy solution to prejudice because it is an irrational sentiment. The etymology of the word itself is testimony to its irrationality: to pre-judge, to decide what a person’s qualities are long before meeting the person themself. The purveyor of prejudice encounters the stereotype even when the actual person is not present. Stereotypes exist independently of an individual’s actions. That does not mean that a member of the group in question is immune from possessing the negative characteristics ascribed to the entire group. But when an individual’s wrongdoings are seen as characteristic of an entire group, because ‘that is how they are,’ we have entered the realm of prejudice.

The futility of trying to debunk prejudicial claims with rational explanations was illustrated for me when I was co-teaching a course on the Holocaust. I was enumerating for the class

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