A policewoman rifles through my purse. “You’re good,” she says, politely excusing me as she moves on to the next person in line. I am not at an airport, a concert, or a secured building. I am waiting in line to see Straight Outta Compton at a majority-black theater, and eight police officers are holding everyone up. I made it through the line much quicker than others.
Eventually I make my way into the theater. I get some glances, but none are hostile. I take my seat, becoming engrossed in the outstanding political and racial commentary before me. Then the movie takes a comedic turn: Ice Cube offends Jerry Heller, NWA’s manager, and in return Heller calls Ice Cube out for antisemitism. Heller eventually calls in the Jewish Defense League to “protect” himself and Eazy-E.
Laughter fills the theater as I slouch into my seat. I am the only white Jewish-American woman in attendance, and I know that the audience’s amusement is well founded.
The film presents a world where blacks have little support from an often racist government and hostile police system. It’s a world where blacks can only enter the music industry with the support of a white man; where gangs, drugs, and violence are a part of everyday life; and where poverty is institutionalized and cyclical.
Heller’s complaint? Ice Cube’s “No Vaseline” singles Jerry out for taking advantage of NWA. Ice Cube spits, “You can’t be the N**** 4 Life crew with a white Jew tellin’ you what to do.”
The members of NWA are not safe in their own country because of discriminatory laws and overwhelming racism. But Heller feels so threatened and oppressed by Ice Cube’s lyrics that he requires the Jewish Defense League’s “protection.” (According to FBI documents, it later became known that the JDL’s involvement in the lives of West Coast rappers went beyond providing defensive muscle to straight extortion.)
The contrast between the two minorities is painfully funny, and like all great comedy, it’s based in truth. While black Americans struggle with the law, Jewish Americans use the law to become a protected class of people.
Americans largely view Jews favorably. A 2011 study from the Anti Defamation League found that 64% of Americans believe that Jews have “contributed much to the cultural life of America.” Additionally, the rate of “antisemitic propensities” among the general population has nosedived from 29% in 1964, to only 15% in 2011. “Antisemitic propensities” include believing that, “Jews have a lot of irritating faults,” “Jews are more loyal to Israel than America,” and “Jews have too much power in the U.S. today.”
Studies on racism differ greatly. A 2013 Pew study, for example, found that 61% of Americans believe that African-Americans face “a lot” or “some” discrimination. Studies on the effects of that racism range from wealth inequality, to sentencing, to employment opportunities, and to violence against blacks.
In other words, racism and antisemitism are on two completely different planes.
One manifests through violence and institutionalized persecution—the other boils down to the policing of thought crimes: If you support the Iran nuclear deal, you’re an anti-semite. If you criticize Goldman-Sachs, you’re an anti-semite. If you condone the treatment of Palestinians in Gaza, you’re an anti-semite. It’s clear that any negative assessment of any situation involving Jews is immediately deemed antisemitism.
At this point, we’re crying wolf.
To be sure, true antisemitism does exist. FBI data from 2013 confirms that 10.5% of all hate crimes are anti-Jewish. William Lewis Corporon and his 14-year-old grandson, Reat Griffin Underwood, were killed at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City because of their heritage. Before Levi Yitzchok was stabbed in the neck in New York last year, his assailant cried, “Kill the Jews.” These are just a few examples of real American antisemitism. Documented American incidents of antisemitism included 36 assaults, 363 vandalism incidents, and 513 harassment or threat events in 2014 alone.
The term “antisemitism” should be reserved for these acts of bigotry. Instead, it’s being used as a de facto political gag order. It’s time to examine the detrimental effects of conflating antisemitism with foreign policy beliefs and criticism of Jewish companies. If we don’t, the word will lose its meaning, and it’s ability to elicit change when it’s really needed.
As I exit the theater, I feel embarrassed. I am embarrassed that the term “antisemitism” has become such a mockery. Almost half (43%) of Jews believe Jews face “a lot” of discrimination, in spite of being dramatically better educated and better off than the rest of the country. Let’s stop and reassess. It’s not 1964, it’s 2015. It’s time to shift our focus away from our imagined bullies to other groups that are in far more need of our help.
Rachel Burger is a Jewish political commentator and Young Voices Advocate based out of the nation’s capital. Her work has appeared on the BBC, The Hill, Forbes, and The Washington Times.