While on a group tour in Austria, Hitler’s homeland, unsurprisingly a Holocaust conversation arose. A participant asked if anyone could explain what the Nazis goal was once the “Jewish race” was obliterated. Without missing a beat, immediately I calmly and loudly enough to be heard clearly by the group, stated that Judaism was a religion not a race, and calling it a race perpetuates antisemitism. This nonplussed the asker and many others. And I was startled that my response was unfamiliar to them. These were what are commonly defined as well-educated people, most with bachelor’s degrees, and many with graduate and postgraduate degrees.
Over the next few days, I was engaged in private conversations by several fellow tourists, including the one who had asked about the ultimate goal of the Nazis. They wanted to pursue why the term “Jewish race” was antisemitic. During these chats some told me they were not antisemitic and had neighbors, colleagues and friends who were Jewish (another trope, which I did not pursue). It was unsettling to them to be confronted for having made an antisemitic remark that had not been meant as such.
Lately, the term “microaggression” has helped me to look at my own behavior with black people, and other marginalized groups about whom I was sure I harbored no prejudice, just as my tour mates probably believed that they were not antisemitic. I asked myself how had I committed microaggressions without meaning to. When I stated that saying “Jewish race” perpetuates antisemitism, some were upset maybe because they had to face that maybe they did do or say some antisemitic things even without meaning to do so.
Education begins with a question, and some of the best education outcomes derive from questions that lead to introspection. The good news is that it seems that my statement prompted a few people to ask themselves, “why does saying ‘Jewish race,’ which I thought to be harmless, perpetuate antisemitism?” This is a powerful question.
*Name has been changed.