Antisemitism isn't a set of tropes – and thinking about it that way helps nobody

The outrage over Michael Che’s SNL joke is everything that’s wrong with our fight against antisemitism.

Antisemitism isn't a set of tropes – and thinking about it that way helps nobody
Michael Che appears on 'Saturday Night Live' on Saturday 20 February.

On 20 February, Saturday Night Live’s Michael Che joked that Israel was only vaccinating its Jewish population. The ensuing outrage from the Zionist Jewish establishment was predictable. The Anti-Defamation League issued a statement claiming the joke “crossed the line”. While Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, tweeted that the joke was in poor taste, former NYC assemblyman Dov Hikind led a protest outside NBC’s New York City studios, chanting “antisemitism is not funny!” The American Jewish Committee created a petition urging broadcaster NBC to retract the joke and apologise. 

These critics focused on the alleged similarity between Che’s joke and the antisemitic trope that Jews spread disease. The trope originated in medieval Europe during the Plague; Christians blamed its spread on the Jews, inspiring pogroms across the continent. Critics of Che’s joke rarely specified exactly how it corresponded to this trope or to its history – but still, the accusation stuck.

This incident typifies something I like to call the “tropeification” of antisemitism. Rather than thoughtfully considering whether a statement really evinces hatred of Jews or upholds oppressive systems that harm Jews, a tropeified understanding of antisemitism compares suspect statements to the catalogue of established tropes: blood libel, dual loyalty, world domination. According to this logic, if a statement appears similar to one of these tropes, it constitutes antisemitism – regardless of context, regardless of truth. It assumes that antisemitism is inherent to tropes, rather than expressed by them. 

Yet similarities between a statement and a trope are not always meaningful or intentional. The similarities between Che’s joke and the trope that Jews spread disease are merely coincidental and do not evince the hatred of Jews. Instead, Che’s joke touches on the real pain that Palestinians are experiencing as the settler-colonial Israeli government dictates their access to the vaccine during a deadly global pandemic. Eschewing empathy, the condemnations of Che’s joke overlooked that pain, acting as if alleged antisemitism invalidated the experiences of others. 

This formulaic understanding of antisemitism is most routinely used to neutralise criticism of Israel. In debates, it emboldens Zionists to scan anti-Zionists’ arguments for tropes then, by alleging antisemitism, to shift the conversation from their arguments – in this case, Israel’s refusal to vaccinate Palestinians – to their alleged animus toward Jews. This happened to Rashida Tlaib in November, when the Palestinian-American congresswoman tweeted apprehensively about Biden’s plan to appoint Tony Blinken – a Jewish, pro-Israel politician – as secretary of state. Disregarding her valid concerns (Blinken has since gone on to oppose the International Criminal Court’s investigation of Israeli war crimes), many claimed Tlaib was parroting the antisemitic trope of dual loyalty by implying that Blinken might be supportive of Israel because he is Jewish. The conversation quickly shifted from one about Blinken’s support for Israel to one about Rashida Tlaib’s alleged antisemitism. 

This deflection has been made even easier by Zionists’ conflation of Zionism with Judaism, and the consequent extension of the tropified understanding of antisemitism to statements about Israel and Zionism that do not even mention Jews. In this view, criticising the settler-colonial violence of the IDF is considered blood libellous; Palestinians honestly describing their lived experience is treated as antisemitic. 

One of the clearest examples of the tropeification of antisemitism being used to suppress opposition to Israel is the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism. Despite widespread criticism, including from the definition’s author, the IHRA definition has been endorsed by 29 countries and recently received support from President Biden. The definition itself is comically vague: the statement “Jews make good food” technically meets it. More relevant to this essay, however, are its accompanying 11 “contemporary examples of antisemitism”.

Seven of the 11 examples are explicitly related to expression about Israel. One is “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.” Another example prohibits drawing comparisons between the Nazis and contemporary Israeli policy – a prohibition that relies on the idea that Israel is synonymous with Jews, and that prevents Palestinians from highlighting the commonalities between their experiences during the ongoing Nakba and the experiences of those targeted during the Holocaust. 

The functioning of the examples within the IHRA definition mirrors the functioning of tropes within the contemporary tropeified understanding of antisemitism. With the main definition so abstract and obtuse, the attendant examples appear all the clearer and more precise. While ostensibly intended to “serve as illustrations,” applied “taking into account the overall context” of a situation, the examples have more commonly served as an extension and even replacement of the definition. The AMCHA Initiative, a Zionist organisation dedicated to stifling Palestinian organising on campus, exemplifies this dynamic: their own definition of antisemitism overlooks the uselessly vague main definition, instead copy-and-pasting from the examples.

Even when mobilised in good faith, efforts to “combat antisemitism” that centre on tropes are necessarily ineffective. At best, they can materialise as reactive campaigns which condemn an unceasing supply of statements, for their apparent similarities to a trope, and ask for apologies. In reality though, tropeification manifests as a political bludgeon applied on a case-by-case basis, when its usage might be politically convenient. 

When Ted Cruz tweeted that Jewish presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg “owned the media”, Jonathan Greenblatt of the ADL condemned the tweet as perpetuating a harmful antisemitic trope. The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) disagreed. Casting aside the tropeified understanding of antisemitism they would pick up to denounce Che’s joke, the ZOA released a statement defending Cruz’s tweet and claiming that the ADL was smearing a “friend of israel” as antisemitic.

The ADL has attempted similar mental gymnastics. When Trump invoked numerous antisemitic tropes about money, influence, and dual loyalty to a crowd of Jewish republicans, Greenblatt defended his comments, stating: “context is everything”. Unsurprisingly, Zionist organisations are more lenient about the use of antisemitic tropes in the mouth of a Zionist. While it is clear that many only employ tropeification when it’s politically convenient, the answer is not to condemn tropes more consistently. 

The tropeification of antisemitism does not protect Jews. Its oversimplification makes understanding antisemitism difficult and dismantling it impossible. It produces one-dimensional conversations that centre Jewish comfort and leave no room for the experiences of others. It obscures not only the colonial systems that produce antisemitism, but also the power dynamics at play where it is alleged. It enables Jewish leaders to compare those fighting for Palestinian liberation to Nazis while excusing the antisemitism of the president. If we sincerely hope to defeat antisemitism, we must abandon tropeification in favour of an understanding of antisemitism that situates it within global colonialism and treats oppressed people with empathy, not suspicion. ▼  

Em Cohen writes about Jews, Zionism, philosemitism and antisemitism