Anti-Semitism and Heterosexism: Common Constructs of Oppression

Moshe Rozdzial, PhD

All oppressions have common roots. Born out of misinformation and directed toward the "other," the goal of any oppression is the unjust, destructive, and unequal distribution of power to the advantage of one group over another. And although there is no specific hierarchy of oppressions, the context in which they manifest themselves - history, economics, or politics - makes some types of oppressions more closely related than others.

I propose that anti-Semitism and heterosexism (which manifests as homophobia) are directly analogous to one another. To disregard anti-Semitism while claiming to understand heterosexism is to overlook the most potent of historical lessons. I believe that these two oppressions share many elements that are deeply rooted in the psyche of our culture and, as anti-Semitism has gone underground and heterosexism has become institutionalized, the open hatred and scapegoating of Jews has almost effortlessly been transferred to homosexuals.

Homosexuals and Jews are feared and despised not because they can be identified as outwardly different but precisely because of the relative ease with which both can be disguised. Both groups share the capacity to "pass" as either straight or gentile respectively and therefore are viewed as objects of suspicion and sources of conspiracy. The unfounded belief that homosexuals are not only furtive perpetrators of pedophilia but proselytizers of a gay "agenda" directly echoes the blood libel and kidnapping charges of historical anti-Semitism when Jews were accused of ritual slaughter of Christian children and "international conspiracy" theories had Jewish bankers surreptitiously controlling the world. This was seen in this country in the trial of the Rosenbergs and in the recent murder of Dr. Schlepian.

Within the psychology of group hatred both Jews and homosexuals are viewed as having unique political and economic power. Under the scrutiny of the prejudiced eye both groups are charged with promoting "special rights" and are blamed for a variety of social ills and misfortunes. The same accusing voices that cry out to exclude these minority groups, who have no real power in the political arena, would never question the political voice of the societal majority. Institutionalized Christianity and heterosexuality wield power through legislation that defers to Christian religious sensibility and morality in a nominally secular state and to heterosexual privilege through the denial to homosexuals of marital, parental, estate and civil rights that have been normalized as majority rights.

Similarly, religious attacks on homosexuals, defended under biblical precedent, echo the vilest forms of anti-Semitism. The slander of "sodomites” has replaced "Christ-killers" in the vocabulary of hatred and heaven's retribution against a minority community has, once again, become the excuse to justify victimizing the victim. Even the promise of "salvation" through "conversion" (Jews to Christianity; homosexuals to heterosexuality) reflects the common perception that both minorities are "outcast in the sight of G-d." And the stereotype of stubborn adherence to a despised lifestyle even in the shadow of salvation is another common accusatory theme. After all, how can the "other" want to be who he is and stubbornly hold on to a life of deprivation when the doors are, figuratively, opened to a life of safety, privilege, and saving grace?

To look at the similar language of marginalization of these two groups without noticing the historical connection would mean yielding to ignorance. Common weapons of oppression include the emasculation of Jews and stereotyping of homosexuals to perpetuate an excuse for dehumanization and a perception of facile targeting for violence. Thus, Jewish men are labeled Hymies, nerds, weaklings, just as gay men are the sissies and pansies - to mention only a few of the epithets hurled at them. Jewish women and lesbians are, respectively, bitches and princesses, or butches and dykes. The modern propaganda of hatred that equates AIDS to homosexuality echoes Hitler's racial anti-Semitism that accused the Jews of spreading disease, contagion and contamination and are reminders of past genocide and the excuses for a present violence. The recent push to find a biological origin for homosexuality has a frightening parallel to the Nazi's eugenics response to the "Jewish problem."

So, what are the lessons in this mirrored image of oppressions? That the defense against fundamentalism is openness, confidence, and passion against injustice. That there must be vigilance against the erosion of civil rights. That it takes commitment and work to undo external and institutionalized oppression and to unlearn internalized oppression. That equality comes through coalition building and alliance with all who struggle against oppression in social and legal arenas and by supporting leaders, leadership, and institutions that work towards shared power and resources and against the weapons of oppression; against violence, disenfranchisement, and marginalization.

Reprinted from BROTHER Winter 2000