A-Semitism is not a new word. It was used almost a hundred years ago, in 1919, by the Jewish writer and politician V.E. Zhabotinskii, as a precursor to anti-Semitism. He defined it as a “disinterested desire to be free of the unwanted element in one’s own social circles.” Later, in 1949 it appeared in an article about a study of anti-Semitism in Russia. The author of the study, Gregor Aronson, was quoted as saying “A-Semitism is not Jew-hatred in the usual sense of the word.” Rather, he says, “It seems to be characterized by indifference to the Jews and any matter in which they, as Jews, are involved.”
In my life A-Semitism manifested in things such as holding public meetings on Jewish holidays and the organizers not being aware of that fact (Jewish holidays weren’t always listed on mass-produced calendars) or in serving only ham and cheese sandwiches on school outings.
But my first real brush with A-Semitism was when I was a freshman at Carnegie Mellon University in 1965. My very first test as a college student – my very first test – was in freshman chemistry and was scheduled for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, no doubt the holiest of Jewish holidays. And while I wasn’t particularly devout, at that time in my life my family generally observed the holiday by going to services and fasting. I found myself in a dilemma. Do I take the test and deny my heritage or tell the professor that I would be honoring the Jewish holiday and would need to take a makeup test. I feared that second option because I had been told that makeup exams were notoriously much harder. I don’t think the professor was anti-Semitic. I think he just had no notion that there was a Jewish holiday called Yom Kippur and that it was on that same day.
I wound up taking the exam. And I don’t think in my four years there were any more conflicts with Jewish holidays. No doubt someone pointed this out to the professor and word spread.
Nowadays, of course, it would be very unlikely for a person to unknowingly organize an event on an important Jewish holiday. Or on a Muslim holiday. Those events are printed on calendars and there’s widespread awareness. And if an event was mistakenly scheduled, the conflict would quickly be pointed out and the event rescheduled. We know that organizers would never schedule an event on a Christian holiday because, of course, most of the Christian holidays have become national holidays.
So I can honesty say that even in the most remote areas of our country, there is probably no more A-Semitism. There’s still plenty of anti-Semitism, as we’ve just witnessed. But the notion that there’s no awareness of Jewishness, our holidays or customs, is ludicrous. Is there still a desire to be free of an unwanted element? Certainly. That’s Anti-Semitism. But “unawareness?” Or as Aronson called it, “Indifference?” I don’t think that’s possible in this country anymore. Jews and Jewishness have permeated society and reached everyone. The key, now, is to harness that interest and get rid of the “anti” part of the word.