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Unintentional Antisemitism: Even More Damaging than the Calculated Kind

Sara McCleary

There is, I think, a tendency to assume that antisemitism is always a conscious choice. Meaning, for a person to be antisemitic, he/she must be aware of it and intentionally show it in his/her actions and speech. But I’ve come to realize that anti-Jewish rhetoric often also comes in the form of unintentional antisemitism if you will, one that is deeply rooted in ignorance and possibly even more damaging than the calculated kind.

So what do I mean by unintentional antisemitism? It’s what’s on display when tourists take inappropriate selfies at Auschwitz or the Berlin Holocaust Memorial. It’s what leads high school students to draw swastikas on their binders or on bathroom walls despite not fully understanding what the symbol represents. And it’s what leads celebrities to make offensive, distasteful jokes.

Like last month when popular Youtube celebrity PewDiePie made headlines for paying a pair of performers via Fiverr to perform a dance, then unroll a scroll that proclaimed, “Death to all Jews.”  I will concede that the Youtuber apologized and admitted that he only did it because he didn’t think the performers would actually display the message. All the same, he was the one who requested that the performers use that vile and utterly phrase. He was the one who came up with the idea.

I’ve read comments from defenders of PewDiePie who point out that he made the joke because he strongly doesn’t believe in that antisemitic message, and assumed that his viewers would understand that and recognize how horrible it is. But this argument shows a startling degree of ignorance. (page does not exist)

More importantly, his apology makes clear that he understood how offensive his joke was, and that what he did was wrong. Yet, he still chose to upload the video. He chose not to recognize that a vast number of his followers could be offended, and that it spit in the face of millions of people. So no, while I don’t think he was being purposefully and hatefully antisemitic, it is a prime example of unintentional antisemitism and its real dangers.

Similarly, there is a disturbing trend of taking selfies while making inappropriate faces or poses at Holocaust memorials or former concentration camps. The photos are not usually evidence of an outright, hate-based antisemitism, but show that these would-be photographers fail to understand how their actions stomp on the memory of the millions of Jews who lost their lives during the Holocaust.

This trend made the news recently as well, when Israeli-born satirist Shahak Shapira began photoshopping the subjects of the selfies into actual photos of the death camps, in a project called YOLOCAUST. Shapira’s work has helped raise awareness of the offensive nature of these selfies – several of his subjects even contacted him to apologize for their insensitivity.

Shapira’s work is a prime example of the sort of awareness that needs to be promoted to combat such unintentional antisemitism. Awareness and education are key, because what unintentional antisemitism comes down to, above all else, is ignorance. Most will not support an outright neo-Nazi movement, but too many are unaware of the extremity of the Holocaust, too many don’t fully understand the kind of hatred the swastika symbolizes, and too many just don’t see why “Jew jokes” really aren’t funny.

It’s this kind of deeply-imbedded unintentional antisemitism that we need to start fighting, and I would argue that edgy, unconventional approaches like Shapira’s are the way to go.

Sara McCleary has written extensively on a wide range of topics while working as a news reporter and freelancer. She has also completed a master’s degree in history, and further graduate work in interdisciplinary humanities.