Antisemitism and the White Supremacist Imaginary

Conflations and Contradictions in Composition and Rhetoric

by Mara Lee Grayson (Author)
©2023 Monographs X, 224 Pages


In Antisemitism and the White Supremacist Imaginary: Conflations and Contradictions in Composition and Rhetoric, Mara Lee Grayson calls attention to the complicity of academic institutions and the discipline(s) of rhetoric, composition, and writing studies in the simultaneous perpetuation and denial of anti-Jewish racism. Despite the persistence of antisemitism and Christian hegemony in the United States and its academic institutions, and despite a growing body of antiracist and anti-oppressive scholarship, antisemitism remains largely unaddressed in disciplinary scholarship, curricula, and pedagogy. This book begins to fill that gap by exploring how the rhetoric through which Jewish identity is conceptualized and weaponized by the white supremacist imaginary essentializes Jewish identities and obscures the racist aims and character of antisemitism. Drawing upon rhetorical analysis, personal narrative, and original phenomenological research, Grayson highlights how deeply embedded antisemitic ideologies impact the lived experiences of Jewish teachers, students, and scholars, and perpetuate white supremacy. This book illuminates the experiential, rhetorical, historical, political, and racial dynamics of antisemitism, exposes the limitations of existing discourses of whiteness and (anti)racism, and gestures toward a future in which, through more nuanced and productive discourse, we can better support Jewish educators and students and better engage Jewish members of the discipline as accomplices in antiracism.

"I take this book personally. Grayson’s theoretical framework, historical overview, personal anecdotes, and phenomenological research locate antisemitism nestled in the heart of the white supremacist imaginary. I felt such sadness, anger, and pain reading this book—recognizing myself as a Jew in its stark reflection—and yet her words also charge me, explicitly in my Jewishness, with the urgent need to join others in imagining a more just world through cooperative action and frank dialogue. It’s a powerful and vibrant contribution to our field."
—Eli Goldblatt, Co-Author, with David Jolliffe, of Literacy as Conversation: Learning Networks in Urban and Rural Communities

"In this timely and important monograph, Dr. Grayson adroitly explains the impact of antisemitism not only for rhetoric, composition, and writing scholars and students but also our contemporary moment. In lucid and engaging prose, she unpacks thousands of years of history and tropes, making this book a must-read for anyone engaged in antiracist work."
—Janice W. Fernheimer, Zantker Professor of Jewish Studies, Professor of Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Studies, University of Kentucky

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 1 Jewish Whiteness, Christian Hegemony, and Disciplinary (Mis)Representation
  • 2 The Antisemitic Imaginary
  • 3 The Racialization of Jewish People in the United States
  • 4 On Being Jewish: Existing and Original Research
  • 5 Difference and Defense: Experiences of Jewish Identity in a Christian Hegemonic Society
  • 6 Antisemitism in the Profession: Contemporary Manifestations and Microaggressions
  • 7 The “Bizarre” Absence of Jewish Discourse in Rhetoric and Composition
  • 8 Talking about Israel, (Anti)Zionism, and the Politicization of Jewish Identity
  • 9 Resisting the Whitewashing of Jewish Identity: Finding Our Space(s) and Place(s) in the Field
  • Index

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First and foremost, my thanks go out to the Jewish teachers and scholars who participated in the study that informed this book. I am very grateful for your generosity and the trust you put in me to listen and to share your stories. I hope that I have done justice to your experiences.

My gratitude also to: series editor Alice Horning, without whom this book might still be an idea in my head; the members of the CCCC Jewish Caucus, the NCTE Jewish Caucus, the CCCC Committee on Critical Whiteness, and the CCCC Committee for Change for creating and maintaining spaces where I have felt both safe and brave; the scholars, mentors, friends, and colleagues who have talked through some of these ideas with me in brief or at length (or who have just listened to me rant), including Judith Chriqui Benchimol, Nancy Bleakley, Jennifer Brodmann, Frankie Condon, Maureen Daniels Akerib, Paulina Frias, Brooke Hotez, Alexandria Lockett, Annemarie Perez, Iris Ruiz, Brett Shanley, Cheryl Hogue Smith, and Tenisha Tevis; my spouse and “darling husband,” Alex Doyban, for encouraging and supporting me and for tolerating my shouting at the television; my mother, Pearl Kornberg, for the conversations and for sharing with me the family stories that made their way into this book; Sheridan Blau, who once told me, after I complained about a situation at work: “Write about it;” and, finally, my father, Martin Kornberg, who, so many times, so many years ago, told me the very same thing.

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The idea for this book arose in part from a need to make sense of my own experiences as a Jewish woman teacher and scholar whose work examines racism, antiracism, and whiteness in academic and educational spaces. Like memoirist Melissa Febos (2021), I have always found writing to be “a way to reconcile my lived experience with the narratives available to describe it (or lack thereof)” (p. xiv). I began researching antisemitism a few years before I even imagined this book, initially seeking some sort of reconciliation between two of my identities: white and Jewish. Despite the white privilege of my skin, throughout my life I’ve experienced antisemitism and I’ve always had a general feeling of marginalization borne of my positionality in a Christian hegemonic society. For most of my life, however, antisemitic sentiment, which long has lingered beneath the surface of racial and political discourse in the United States, was covert, and, given my other privileges, its impacts were easy to ignore.

But there’s something about realizing on a campus visit, never a totally pleasant experience under the best of circumstances, that, despite your white skin, you’re the so-called diversity candidate. Something about having the same realization at multiple campuses you’ve flown out to, having agonized over positions you were always intended to interview for and never intended to get. There’s something about finally landing that tenure-track job and leaving New York City, ←1 | 2→where, though there was antisemitism, at least there were Jewish communities, synagogues, and delis to remind you that being Jewish wasn’t so unusual. There’s something about moving to the other side of the country and realizing you’re the only Jewish person in your department and one of very few on your campus.

There’s something about the university president’s brief, empty statement two months later about the mass murder of eleven Jewish congregants in a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Something about the omission of the word antisemitism or its variants from the statement, and the president’s comparison of the massacre to other acts of violence, including “drive-by shootings” and bomb threats against “high-ranking” politicians. There’s something, too, about the absence of any statement at all after a similar shooting at a synagogue in Poway, California, less than a two-hour drive from where you now work. Something about learning that “a recognizable symbol of hate” was found on a school building, receiving no additional information, and never hearing about it again. Something about wondering if it was a swastika or if it was a noose, then wondering if you’d feel safer if it turned out to be the latter – wondering, that is, if you’d feel safer knowing it was your students being targeted instead of you. Something about how grotesque that thought seemed and how, when you tried to push it out of your mind, it settled in the lining of your stomach.

There’s something about being told by your fellow professors of composition, rhetoric, literature, and linguistics – people who study language, even some who rally against linguicism – that the culturally situated way you speak is a problem. Something about being positioned by those colleagues as, to use their word, the scapegoat for the department’s well-documented racism and sexism, because it was you, the outsider, who called them out (Grayson, 2022). And there’s something about hearing the word kike as the punchline to a joke spilling from your coworker’s mouth, the subsequent laughter from your other supposed colleagues, and the feeling as your stomach knots around itself that tell you: You don’t belong here.

At the Intersection of Whiteness and Jewishness

I know antisemitism in my skin and viscera. Yet, outside of my own body, most of the messages I’ve encountered in academia have told me that antisemitism isn’t that bad, that it doesn’t exist anymore, or that, if it does, it doesn’t matter because, well, I’m white.

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Given the focus of my research and teaching, I spend a lot of time thinking about whiteness: How it is constructed and interpellated, how it is reified and reproduced, and how I benefit from it. I have joined, founded, chaired, and facilitated committees, task forces, working groups, and workshops on whiteness, white privilege, and the necessity of critical reflection around individuals’ own white racialization. Yet, when I have spent time in many of these spaces, virtual or otherwise, I have still felt different.

Often, I have been the only Jewish woman in these groups; the other members have been predominantly white, Christian women. They did not talk the way I talked, and their experiences were not the same as my experiences. They didn’t describe being told by grade school classmates that they were going to Hell because they celebrated Chanukah. They didn’t talk about being called a “Jew bitch” and a “kike.” They guiltily confessed to automatically clutching their purses in Black neighborhoods, but they didn’t share stories of being terrified in certain white neighborhoods too. They didn’t talk about realizing as a child that churches didn’t have security guards stationed out front the way that synagogues did. Even those whose families had instilled in them a critical view of whiteness didn’t recall learning early on, like I did, that two seemingly contradictory realities could co-exist: Some Jewish people were white, but white people weren’t Jewish.

Though I have spoken and written about the necessity of understanding one’s own white racialization, understanding my skin privilege didn’t explain all of my experiences of racialization. Whiteness didn’t explain why, when I was walking through Washington Square Park two weeks before I left New York, a light-skinned man jumped in front of me and sneered: “Nice nose.” Whiteness didn’t explain why a dark-skinned stranger on the FDR Drive rolled down his window and called me a “hook-nosed bitch.” White aesthetic ideals may explain why I, like so many Jewish women, spent my teen years dreaming about getting a nose job, but it was my Jewish face, not my whiteness, that made me want one. As Jewish writer and activist Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz (2007) noted of the Jewish woman’s desire for this particular plastic surgery: “Nose jobs are performed so that a Jewish woman does not look like a Jew… Tell me again Jewish is just a religion” (pp. 29–30).

If my nose has marked me as Jewish, my skin has marked me as white. But the more time I have spent in white spaces with white people, the more I’ve felt I am back in the theaters of my childhood, playing a character whose backstory and view of the world differ dramatically from my own. If I’ve been acting, my white skin is a costume that has enabled me to enter such spaces – and many, ←3 | 4→many, many others – but it has also required that I cover the body and subjectivity I actually inhabit.

Though some scholarship from the late twentieth century, such as anthropologist Karen Brodkin’s How Jews Became White Folk and What That Says about Race in America, has explored the racialization of Jewish people and, specifically, Jewish absorption into whiteness, I have rarely seen my identity fully accounted for in scholarship on race or whiteness. Until I began working with the Jewish Caucus of the Conference on College Composition and Communication, I found few places in rhetoric, composition, and writing studies (RCWS) where I could talk to other Jewish people about being Jewish. Since connecting with other Jewish scholars and since conducting the research that I describe in this book, I have learned that, if I have felt alone, at least I am not alone in those feelings of isolation or my frustration with the lack of critical discourse around academic antisemitism and disciplinary Christian hegemony. Whatever comfort this solidarity has provided me, it pales in comparison to the sadness of knowing that so many Jewish educators feel isolated and unacknowledged, especially at a time when antisemitic sentiment and violence are on the rise.

The Reemergence and Mainstreaming of Antisemitism

I began this research in early 2021, while working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic still spreading, virtually unchecked, across the U.S., amid an increasingly white nationalist social and political landscape. I must admit that writing this book at this time was emotionally challenging for me. One weekend of writing was derailed when I learned of a hostage crisis at a synagogue in Texas. An afternoon I had intended to spend writing was spent reeling from an email sent by my union representative in which she described my ongoing experiences with misogyny and antisemitism as “personality disputes.” Many, many more of my planned writing times became thinking time, mourning time, and grieving time, when the weight of reflection or the weight of the present became too heavy to keep writing.

In the first half of 2022 alone, we have seen multiple mass shootings inspired by racist, antisemitic conspiracy theories; the banning of books about racism, gender, and the Holocaust; the passage of anti-abortion laws grounded in a bastardized fundamentalist Christian theology; and widespread antidemocratic, racist voting legislation. These are the fruits of white supremacy. Yet, though antisemitism is a shared characteristic among right-wing and white supremacist ←4 | 5→movements (Bronner, 2020; Subotic, 2022), when we talk about white supremacy in popular and academic discourse, too often antisemitism is unaddressed. Recent events have demonstrated that we lack a comprehensive discursive strategy for discussing antisemitism or how it functions in our institutions, let alone a comprehensive strategy for combating it.

Consider, for example, a February 2021 complaint by two Jewish students against Brooklyn College, a City University of New York campus that serves one of the largest Jewish student populations in the U.S. and which happens to be the school from which both of my parents graduated, becoming the first in their families to finish college. The students criticized the school for “advancing the narrative that all Jews are white and privileged” (quoted in Redden, 2022) after a series of events in the counseling program. During an identity development activity, information was provided on multiple racial and ethnic identities, but “the only reference to Jewishness was in the worksheet for ‘White Racial Identity Development’” and a Jewish student who expressed frustration was told they were “in denial” of their whiteness (Redden, 2022). Apparently, the professor was unaware of the existence of social justice educator Christopher MacDonald-Dennis’s (2006) Jewish identity model; the model is also unmentioned in accounts I have read of the incident.

One complainant was a Jewish Latina woman who left the program due to her experiences. She explained:

It’s not like I don’t know what discrimination is, and now to be told all of those experiences don’t matter and your skin color doesn’t matter because now you’re essentially white and privileged because all Jews are white and privileged, which negates all of the history of the Jews, and on a personal level it completely erases my lived experience, and for it to be fortified by the students and the teachers – it’s crazy-making. (quoted in Redden, 2022)

Colloquially, “crazy-making” describes manipulative discursive moves and behaviors, like gaslighting, designed to confuse a person, delegitimize their experiences, or make them believe their experience of reality isn’t real. Such behaviors are commonly weaponized in service of white supremacy, such as when a person is labeled “too sensitive” for identifying racism as racism or antisemitism as antisemitism.

The reality is that Jewish people experience antisemitism. If that wasn’t bad enough, we also have the ongoing experience of being told that we do not experience antisemitism, that Jewish people are all white, that antisemitism is not a ←5 | 6→form of racism, and that, consequently, our voices are irrelevant to conversations about marginalization and oppression, even our own.

What This Book Does and Doesn’t Do

If the relative assimilative success of Jewish people in the U.S. has taught us anything, it’s that inclusion does not equal equity and that representation is not enough to change the structures of white supremacy. The experiences of those who do not identify as Christian are understudied in antiracist research – which is, of course, another form of marginalization that upholds Christian hegemony. This book attempts to fill part of that gap in hopes of eventually developing a more inclusive community of antiracist educators and an even stronger coalition prepared to challenge white supremacy.

This book is about the embedded antisemitism and Christian hegemony of the U.S., its academic institutions, and the field of RCWS, and how those ideologies and dynamics impact the lived experiences of Jewish teachers, students, and scholars. Importantly, because this book is situated in a U.S. context in which Christianity is hegemonic, this is not a book about Islamist antisemitism. (See Kiewe, 2020, for a rhetorical examination of that topic.) This book is about the rhetoric through which Jewish identity is conceptualized and weaponized by the white supremacy imaginary, via popular and academic discourse, for the maintenance of U.S. white Christian cultural hegemony. This book is about how that rhetoric essentializes the diversity of Jewish identities and obscures the racist aims and character of antisemitism. This book is about the complicity of our academic institutions and our own professional spaces in the simultaneous perpetuation and denial of anti-Jewish racism.

This book celebrates being Jewish without a caveat. Such celebration neither requires nor suggests that all Jewish people are good people or that some Jewish people do not enact the same toxic white Christian supremacy that endangers all Jewish people. Like other marginalized and oppressed peoples, Jewish people are not immune to internalized white supremacy. Some light-skinned Jewish people have uncritically accepted whiteness as a racial identity or a set of ideals, and may not even realize they’re doing it at their own expense.

The actions of individual Jewish people are no justification for antisemitism. After all, when a Jewish person embraces and enacts whiteness, it isn’t Jewishness they’re embracing; to the contrary, I would argue that the enactment of whiteness requires to some extent the rejection of Jewishness. And, as I explain whenever I ←6 | 7→hear an antisemitic remark about Stephen Miller, the far-right, anti-immigration, antidemocratic, white supremacist-courting senior advisor to former president Donald Trump: Antisemitism is antisemitism, even if the Jewish target is a shithead.

Surely, more can be said about how Jewish communities, like other marginalized communities, perpetuate whiteness and racism. But this book is not that book. Laboring against racism in academia amidst the mainstreaming of white nationalism and antisemitic conspiracy theories has made clear to me that, in our profession and in our society, we are sorely lacking even the most basic considerations of Jewish identity, history, and experience, and of antisemitism’s construction and functions in contemporary racial discourse.


X, 224
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2023 (February)
Academia Antiracism (or anti-racism) Antisemitism Composition Higher education Identity Jewish Judaism Race Racism Rhetoric Writing studies Antisemitism and the White Supremacist Imaginary Conflations and Contradictions in Composition and Rhetoric Mara Lee Grayson
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2023. X, 224 pp., 1 table.

Biographical notes

Mara Lee Grayson (Author)

Mara Lee Grayson is the author of Teaching Racial Literacy: Reflective Practices for Critical Writing and Race Talk in the Age of the Trigger Warning: Recognizing and Challenging Classroom Cultures of Silence. She holds a PhD from Columbia University and works as an associate professor at California State University, Dominguez Hills.


Title: Antisemitism and the White Supremacist Imaginary
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236 pages