Philo-Semitism Is Bad for the Jews

Philo-Semitism literally translates to "love of Jews" — but ultimately, it treats Jews as a different species.

Dammit, I did not want to write an article on this.

Seriously, I didn’t. Public discourse on anti-Semitism, especially anywhere near the subject of Israel/Palestine, is lately and largely a blighted land from which no sojourner can hope to emerge unscathed, let alone edified.

But then Elan Carr, the Trump State Department’s special envoy on anti-Semitism, had to go and claim that the U.S. “needs to educate on philo-Semitism” as a way to combat anti-Semitism, and the whole mess slouched right into my wheelhouse.

As a scholar of Jews and our bodies, let me be absolutely clear: Philo-Semitism is not good for the Jews. Or anyone else.

Why is something that literally translates to “love of Jews” bad? And what does it have to do with Jewish bodies? Both philo-Semitism and anti-Semitism assume that Jews are intrinsically different from other people, in ways that make us fundamentally, unalterably “other.” And this otherness tends to boil down, sooner or later, to supposed differences in Jewish bodies. Philo-Semitism may be superficially friendlier than anti-Semitism, but it, too, ultimately treats us as a different species.

My “favorite” historical example of the ways this has worked with regard to Jewish bodies concerns syphilis in mid-to-late 19th century Europe. As scholars like Sander Gilman and Mitchell B. Hart have demonstrated, at more or less the same time, in the same general cultural context, one finds both the anti-Semitic belief that syphilis was a particularly Jewish disease and the philo-Semitic belief that Jews were somehow immune to syphilis, either through some intrinsic physical quality or because of the practices of circumcision and endogamy.

There are plenty of other examples, though: Jews are cunning and shifty! Or, Jews are smarter than everyone else, look at all their Nobel Prizes! Jewish bodies are different: either they’re weak and unathletic, or they live so much longer! Jews are sexually depraved monsters who mutilate their sons’ penises! Or they’re hygienic with common-sense practices that communicate sexual restraint, fight HIV, and clean your house while they’re at it! (I made that last part up.) Regardless, both the anti-Semitic and the philo-Semitic versions of each example treat the Jewish body, and the Jewish community it exists in, as unalterably different.

It’s in this belief in fundamental, physical difference that philo-Semitism also erases Black Jews, other Jews of color, and converts. If Jewishness is reduced to a particular set of ethno-national, racialized differences, this leaves very little room for the existence of Jews who have already been racialized in other ways. This is especially dangerous in a climate in which, for example, Black Jews find themselves being lumped in with the anti-Semitic Jersey City shooters.

To be sure, this doesn’t mean that all expressions of Jewish particularity are bad. On the contrary: As we recently survived the season of interminable, inescapable Christmas earworms (what demon must I appease, for example, to never again hear “Big Brother,” I mean, “Santa Claus is Coming To Town” again?), it’s important to resist the assumption that white Protestant culture, worldview, and ritual is neutral and universal. Nor is it necessarily bad for Jews to have conversations about ways we may or may not be religiously, culturally, and yes, even ethnically distinct. But having a dynamic and critical internal conversation on the contours of our difference is a very different proposition than signing onto a paradigm of fixed, physical, ethno-national difference embraced and spread by a structurally racist society.

It’s especially important to think critically about this in the Trump era. For me, one of the most convincing analyses of Donald Trump’s attitude toward Jews is that he believes all the classic stereotypes about money-grubbing Jews controlling the world — it’s just, as Yair Rosenberg argues in another article warning of the dangers of philo-Semitism, that he thinks they’re admirable qualities. Certainly this accounts for his recent remarks to the Israeli American Council National Summit. When he told those assembled, “You’re brutal killers, not nice people at all… but you’re not going to vote for the wealth tax,” he thought he was giving them a compliment.

In this way, Trump is an object lesson in the dangers of philo-Semitism. He might think these presumed Jewish differences are admirable, but he also believes they are fundamental, ethno-national differences that fit perfectly within his broader racialized, ethno-nationalist worldview.

And when it comes down to it, ethnic others will be treated in the way he believes all ethnic others will be treated. The ethnic others he admires may be useful to him now. They will not remain so. Jews will not ever be free or safe in such a worldview, and neither will any other marginalized group.

And this is why I wrote this, even though I truly didn’t want to. If Jews don’t stand up against ethnic othering when it comes in an admiring wrapper, it will be that much harder to fight it when the wrapper comes off.

Header Image by Yifei Fang/Getty Images.

Rebecca Epstein-Levi

Rebecca J. Epstein-Levi is the Mellon Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies at Vanderbilt University. She’s an expert on Jewish sexual ethics, and is working on a book project on sex, risk, and rabbinic text. In her copious free time, she enjoys cooking unnecessarily complicated meals and sharpening her overly large collection of kitchen knives.

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