What we can learn when confronting anti-Semitism

We likely have all experienced hearing a close friend say something anti-Semitic. You probably start to do the calculations in your head: is it worth addressing? How exactly do I dissect this comment to reveal the implicit anti-Semitism? Will it make things weird between us? How will others react? What would my zadiewho came to this country as a young child fleeing Nazi-occupied Europethink if I don’t stand up for myself, and my people. 

This spring, a co-worker who I consider my best work friend, said he wanted to convert to Judaism to win favour with some of the higher-ups at the office. Implying that Jews had it easier at the firm and were looking out for each other. While the comment was problematic, the nature of it is one we’ve all heard before. He might as well have asked, “Maybe you are making up holidays to get off work” or “aren’t all Jews rich?” 

I became unsure if my friend truly felt this way about Jewish people or if he didn’t realize what his remark suggested. Even if there was a chance I was overeacting, I could not disregard the discomfort I felt witnessing a close friend casually make an overt anti-Semitic comment. 

In the past I have let similar transgressions made by others slide. This was either due to the  insecurities that arose from the power dynamics of the situation, not wanting to come off as difficult, or just not having the energy to confront the transgressor.

But this time was different. Namely because my close relationship with the individual made me comfortable enough to explicitly tell him, if we do not discuss the severity of his egregious comment, I could no longer carry on with our conversation. 

Initially my friend rejected my evaluation of his comment being anti-Semitic, and said they were complementary. But I had to try to make him understand that by insinuating Jewish employees’ achievements are based on their religion, diminishes all of their accomplishments. It also propagates the idea Jewish members of our senior management were favouring Jewish employees—furthering the stereotype that there is an advantage to being Jewish in the workplace.

My message was somewhat coolly received. My colleague was still hesitant to accept his prejudicial remarks. He became guarded, claiming it was just a joke. A likely deflection from being labeled an anti-Semite for what he thought was an innocuous remark. But I stood my ground and reiterated that I took offence to the “joke”. I told him that I was there to check him on his comment. Listening to how deeply I was affected by his statement made my friend actually reflect on what he had said. He came to understand how problematic his words were, and apologized. I think this is when he clued in that while the conversation was uncomfortable (for both parties) the confrontation was actually a learning opportunity, rather than an indictment on his character.

In the end, he thanked me for educating him on the problematic nature to his way of thinking and apologized. He recognized the anti-Semitic undertones that are pervasive in our everyday lives. Not only that, but he agreed to let me write this piece to help others navigate a similar situation.

The takeaway is that having these tough conversations with our non-Jewish colleagues, friends, or schoolmates, does not need to be a painful experience. Rather it can be enlightening for non-Jews, and can make them more aware of what anti-Semitism is, which can only lead to more inclusive work and social environments, even if it’s just one person at a time. 

Feature image from Shutterstock. 

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