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Racism, antisemitism and the many faces of discrimination

This online tool focuses on five forms of discrimination: antigypsyism, antisemitism, racism and discrimination against LGBT+ people and Muslims – although different people may use different terms. Why, for example, not say ‘anti-Muslim racism’? Why do we need the terms antisemitism and antigypsyism anyway? Is it not just racism against Jews and Roma? Doesn’t racism cover them all?

Although all these forms of discrimination have essential elements in common, there are also differences that need to be understood if we are to grasp the complex history and deeply rooted traditions of ‘othering’ in our societies.

Construction of groups
What they have in common is that people are targeted because of their appearance, name, birth or perceived identity. Some kind of homogeneous group is constructed (for example Jews, Muslims, Roma, gays, blacks) and people are discriminated against on the basis of what they are imagined to be.

No hierarchy of discrimination
Europe has always been very diverse, with lots of minority groups all interacting in many different ways. Yet most of these minorities share a long history of discrimination. Stories that Move includes interviews with young people today who tell of their experience as someone with physical challenges (Majec from Slovakia) or from a small religious minority (Wioletta, a Jehovah’s Witness from Poland). Importantly, learners should realise that there is no hierarchy in who is discriminated against most and there should be room to consider the many forms of discrimination relevant to their own lives or the society they live in.

Terms and descriptions
In the online tool, learners are presented with various descriptions of antigypsyism, antisemitism, racism and discrimination against LGBT+ and Muslims to give an indication of the contemporary and historical elements relevant to each term. We also refer to other words that are in common use but seen as controversial, such as homophobia or Islamophobia. All these terms can be found in the glossary, for learners who want to know more.

Racism and antisemitism
Antisemitism is often considered a form of racism in which Jews are held to blame for many social, economic and political problems. Like other forms of racism, the created target group is portrayed as inferior. Unlike other forms, antisemitism also creates an image of Jews as all-powerful. This idea forms the basis for conspiracy theories about Jews secretly influencing the media, the banks or the world at large.

Unlike racism, antisemitism nowadays does not show up in social problems like poverty or unemployment. However, hate speech and hate crimes have a big impact on the lives of many Jews. The fact that antisemitism is often not recognised as a relevant problem by mainstream society is experienced as an additional threat, making it seem that antisemitism is the victims’ problem, rather than a problem of society as a whole.

Reversal of guilt
Addressing the topic of antisemitism in the classroom may encounter denial. The relevance may be disputed. Someone might say ‘Jews are surely no longer discriminated against today?’ or refer to ‘what’s going on in Israel nowadays’. Many experts point out that the subject triggers a complex mixture of guilt, defensiveness, and a weariness towards the notion of Jews as victims. The reversal of guilt is a common phenomenon that victims of antisemitism share with others targeted by discriminatory language: if they are ‘still’ suffering from antisemitism there must be a reason for it.

On the one hand, recognition of the importance of commemorating and learning about the Holocaust is strongly anchored in the curriculum across Europe. On the other hand, denial of the Holocaust or minimising its importance are common forms of antisemitism.

Antisemitism in relation to Israel
Antisemitism is often linked to criticism of the policies of the state of Israel or rejection of Zionism. These are particularly intricate, sensitive and political issues.
When considering students’ views the following points might be taken into account:

  • The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians and Israel and surrounding countries in the wider region is complex and many people not very familiar with its long history are keen to have an opinion on who is to blame for the current situation.
  • Israel, as a nation state, can be criticised like any other country. Sometimes, however, the criticism is antisemitic in the language and imagery used. To dispute Israel’s right to exist can be considered antisemitic in the way that it uniquely denies one group the right to form a nation. Often the Israeli government is judged by harsher standards than other governments.
  • Comparing the Israeli occupation policy with the Holocaust is not only extremely offensive, it is also often motivated by anti-Jewish imagery.
  • Antisemitism is most clearly expressed when all Jews are held responsible for Israeli politics.
  • Anti-Zionism is not by definition antisemitic. There are large groups of Jews inside and outside Israel who support a Palestinian state, the division of Jerusalem, and a return to the 1967 borders by means of exchanging disputed territories. However, objective discussion about Zionism is difficult in the current political climate. In practice, a lot of anti-Zionism turns into antisemitic rhetoric.

Racism and antigypsyism
Antigypsyism is another specific form of racism. It is often used in a narrow sense to indicate anti-Roma attitudes or negative stereotyping in hate speech. However, antigypsyism gives rise to a much wider spectrum of discriminatory expressions and practices, including structural manifestations, such as the poor quality of housing and education available to many Roma. As with other forms of racism, the distribution of power and wealth is an important contributory factor in the continuity of the different levels of racism.

What sets antigypsyism apart is its widespread social acceptance in Europe. Antigypsyist attitudes and acts are tolerated without moral stigma in a way other forms of racism are not. To criticise or take discriminatory action towards Roma is all too often perceived as justifiable and legitimate.

Like other forms of racism, antigypsyism has its origin in how the social majority views and treats those it identifies as ‘gypsies’. To combat antigypsyism, we need to examine mainstream societies and listen to those who are affected but usually silenced by antigypsyism.

Each of the five forms of discrimination has its own history that often includes persecution and mass murder. This toolbox does not deal with all of this history of slavery, colonialism, Nazi genocide etc. It does offer learners the opportunity to connect with different forms of discrimination, through stories from their contemporaries and stories of the past. However, we consider it important to not only focus on the denial of rights and the suffering of those who are discriminated against but to also look at the achievements of groups and individuals.

Facing discrimination
The aim of the learning path Facing discrimination, where discrimination is analysed and the different terms are introduced, is not to give easy answers and crisp definitions. We hope to engage learners in an intense conversation and thought process in which they consider similarities and differences between the experiences of discrimination faced by different minority groups.

You can find the descriptions we use here (link to document that has the 2 x 5 texts in one PDF). The first text the learners read is a summary of what we consider the main elements they need to know about. The second text is from an international organisation and illustrates that these topics are important, in everyday encounters in our own society and on a worldwide level.

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