Editorial: Unlearning Anti-Semitism: A Few Pointers

By Becky O’Malley
Tuesday September 12, 2006

The Planet has received a second commentary (opinion essay) from Kurosh (Cyrus) Arianpour, a student who is Iranian by nationality, Zoroasterian by religion, used to live in Berkeley and is currently studying physics in Bombay and learning English. Publication of his first letter upset many Planet readers and others who saw it quoted elsewhere. Since his second letter is substantially similar to the first one, we will not print it in full. In summary: he says he’s outraged by Israel’s actions in Lebanon and in Gaza, and that many others throughout the world are also angry. He thinks critics of the Planet’s printing his first letter should instead be condemning Israel because of the civilian deaths in Lebanon. He quotes a writer who believes that Zionists are controlling Americans. He repeats the charges from his first letter: that Israel’s current policies are characteristic of the behavior of what he calls “Jews/Zionists” throughout history and around the world, and as such are the cause of anti-Semitism. We’d like to take the opportunity now to set him straight about a few of his most egregious misconceptions: 


Dear Kurosh, 

As you might know from reading the Planet on the Internet, we have indeed gotten a lot of criticism for printing your first letter, as you suggest in your latest commentary. There’s a big campaign underway to persuade our advertisers to cancel their ads. It threatens to shut down the paper.  

Nevertheless, we still believe in the American principle of freedom of speech and the press, as guaranteed in the First Amendment to our Constitution, and in the right of citizens to hear all points of view. We’re not going to print your second commentary, since it’s substantially the same as your first one. But I think this is a good opportunity for me and our readers to tell you and people like you that blind hatred of all Jews, commonly called “anti-Semitism,” is the wrong response to disliking Israel’s policies. Please read all of the comments our readers have written about this in the last month so that you can see what they think you’ve gone wrong.  

Since you’ve told me that you’re still a student of the English language, I can see one obvious thing I think is wrong with what you say in your letters. You are confusing a lot of different terms, combining them into one category, perhaps because you genuinely don’t understand how they’re used in American English.  

First, you should never use the term “Jews/Zionists” because all Jews are not Zionists, and all Zionists are not Jews. The very term “Jews/Zionists” is an insult to the memory of Rachel Corrie, who was a Jew and perhaps even a believer in the existence of the state of Israel in some form, yet opposed the current policies of the current government of Israel.  

Name-calling is never rational argument. Someone can even be a Jewish/Zionist/Israeli and still oppose some policies of the state of Israel. We have a saying in this country: “two Jews, three opinions,” because American Jews are famous for their lively disagreements with each other about politics and other things. And not all Israelis support the present policies of their government—a growing number, including many Jews, are vocal dissenters. If you want to learn more about the dissent in Israel, you can read the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz on the Internet.  

Here are some more explanations of the meaning of the English words you use incorrectly: 

”Jews” are people who follow the religion of Judaism or whose ancestors did, though there’s a lot of discussion over who qualifies to be “a Jew.” Some Jews do not support the existence of the modern state of Israel; many others do.  

“Zionists” are people who do support the existence of the state of Israel (even some who are not Jewish). “Zionist” is a political term, and does not describe religion, or citizenship. A person can be a Zionist and still think that the government of Israel is doing everything wrong at the moment.  

“Israelis” are citizens of Israel. Most Israelis are Jewish, but some are Christians or Muslims or Druze, and some are not religious at all.  

What has made many of our Jewish readers and others extremely unhappy is the way you keep trying to blame all Jews or even all Israelis for the actions of the government of Israel which you don’t like. That’s called “anti-Semitism”—the name that is given to the practice of blaming all Jews for the deeds or opinions of some individuals. People like me, even though we believe in free speech, hate anti-Semitism because it’s unfair and inaccurate, and was used as the excuse for the Nazis’ mass killings of Jews in the 20th century.  

There’s no such thing as any whole group throughout history being guilty of anything—that’s a category error, and if you’re really a physics student you should be too smart to make that kind of mistake. And by the way, anti-Semitism isn’t the only example of a category error. In the United States, we’re even more likely to hear untrue blanket categorizations of African-Americans or Muslims, and they’re always wrong by definition. 

Your statement that “Jews/Zionists” have been the most hated throughout history is just nonsense. You need to spend more time studying history. Hatred between groups is part of the history of the whole human race, unfortunately—it’s not a special problem about Jews. Christian sects in Europe had bloody wars against one another for centuries. Jews had nothing to do with the recent bloody conflict between groups in ex-Yugoslavia, or with the genocide in Ruanda. I don’t know much about the history of Iran/Persia, but I do know that various religious groups there, including Zoroasterians, have had conflicts throughout history too. Many people from the Bahai faith came to California in the twentieth century because they were persecuted in Iran, and the problem continues. I also know that Jews lived peacefully in Iran for centuries even while they were being persecuted by Christians in Europe.  

I’m glad you’ve learned to appreciate a free press. I hope that you try to make sure that whatever country you end up living in has a free press. India has a lively one which I read on the Internet. I don’t think Iran has a free press at this time, though since I don’t read Farsi I can’t be sure. One of the countries with a very free press is—surprise—Israel. If you are lucky enough to have access to getting your opinions published in a free press, you have a special responsibility for making sure that what you write is fair and accurate.  

As a young person and citizen of the world, you have an opportunity to change the pattern of groups hating groups. You can unlearn your anti-Semitism by getting to know some real Jewish people. You can learn—now—that humans are humans, and they can learn to get along with one another regardless of historical disputes among their ancestors or their governments. Please try.