Sunday, 26 May 2019

Why do we need to define anti-Semitism?

The Political Uses of Anti-Semitism



There is an excellent article today (for once) in Tuesday's ‘i’ – by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, one of Britain’s few decent mainstream columnists. Defining Islamaphobia is dubious. (the online version is We need to be able to criticise Islam – any definition of Islamophobia must recognise that) argues against the adoption of an Islamic version of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of ‘anti-Semitism’. Following the debate on the IHRA a mixture of religious reactionaries, misguided liberals and Baroness Warsi have combined to demand that there should be an Islamic version of the IHRA hoping that it would curtail discussion of things like religious coercion.
For the past 2 years there has been a wholly artificial debate around the need to define anti-Semitism. This involved a concerted attempt by the mainstream press, the Zionist movement and the Labour Right (including Jon Lansman) to get the Labour Party to adopt a definition of anti-Semitism that could be used to attack supporters of the Palestinians and opponents of Zionism. 

The IHRA definition has been around, in one guise or another, since 2005. The definition has been contested by academic researchers such as Brian Klug, David Feldman, and Antony Lerman; jurists including Hugh Tomlinson QC, Stephen Sedley, Geoffrey Bindman QC, and Geoffrey Robertson QC and even the original drafter of the IHRA, Kenneth S. Stern.
It is worth recalling these critiques had no effect whatsoever on the determination of the Right to push the IHRA because the IHRA was never about combating anti-Semitism. First adopted by Theresa May, Corbyn thought be was being clever in rushing to mimic her, oblivious to the consequences not least for himself.
Paul Besser of Britain First and a signed up Zionist is a dedicated supporter of the IHRA definition of antisemitism
Lerman, a former Director of the Institute of Jewish Policy Research stated that
‘Not only is there now overwhelming evidence that it’s not fit for purpose, but it also has the effect of making Jews more vulnerable to antisemitism, not less.’
Sir Geoffrey Bindman described the 38 word IHRA definition as
‘poorly drafted, misleading, and in practice has led to the suppression of legitimate debate and freedom of expression.
Being accused of 'racism' by racists is an occupational hazard on Twitter - it is the go to form of abuse for (usually non-Jewish) members of the Labour Right
Sedley, a Jewish former Court of Appeal Judge said the IHRA ‘fails the first test of any definition: it is indefinite. He also described it as restricting criticism of Israel and
placing the historical, political, military and humanitarian uniqueness of Israel’s occupation and colonisation of Palestine beyond permissible criticism.’
David Feldman, Director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Anti-Semitism described it as ‘bewilderingly imprecise” Hugh Tomlinson QC said the IHRA ‘lacks clarity and comprehensiveness’ and that it hasa potential chilling effect on public bodies’
There is a very simple definition of 'anti-semitism' it comprises all of 6 words
Geoffrey Robertson QC stated that it would ‘chill free speech’ and was  not fit for purpose’  
Kenneth Stern, in testimony to Congress, said:
‘“The definition was not drafted, and was never intended, as a tool to target or chill speech on a college campus.,”. “It was never supposed to curtail speech on campus.”
What the proponents of the IHRA lacked in argument they made up for in political muscle. Britain’s delegate to the IHRA, an inter-governmental body consisting of 31 countries, was the right-wing ex-Conservative MP and government minister, Eric Pickles, a former Chairman of Conservative Friends of Israel. 
We can gain some idea of Pickles’ devotion to anti-racism by the decision of the High Court, in 2015 to rule that Pickles had unlawfully discriminated against Romani Gypsies who wanted pitches in the Green Belt. When, in 2009 David Miliband condemned the Tory Party’s alliance with anti-Semitic parties in the European Parliament, it was Pickles who leapt to their defence. He denounced the attacks on Roberts Zile, a Latvian MEP who marched with veterans of the Latvian SS each March.  Apparently they had only been ‘following orders’ a defence which was thrown out at the Nuremburg Trials.
As befits most Islamaphobes, Katie Hopkins is also a dedicated Zionist
During the whole debate about the IHRA there was one question that was conspicuous by its absence.  Why the need for a definition of anti-Semitism at all?  For sure it satisfies a psychological need to define things on the basis that if you don’t define something then it doesn’t exist.
However there were already adequate definitions. The Oxford English Diction defines anti-Semitism as ‘hostility to or discrimination against Jews.’ Brian Klug, an Oxford academic, in his lecture at the Jewish museum in Berlin on the 75th anniversary of Kristalnacht proposed that anti-Semitism was
a form of hostility to Jews as Jews, where Jews are perceived as something other than what they are’ which for all its academic subtlety begs the question, what are the Jews? [1] but still the question that keeps knocking on the door.  Why a definition?
When my father and thousands of Jews like him demonstrated in Cable Street on October 4th 1936 against Oswald Moseley and the British Union of Fascists, in defiance of the Jewish establishment, they didn’t need a definition of anti-Semitism to know what they were fighting.  Do you really need to define a brick hurtling towards you or a boot in the face because you are Jewish?
If the proponents of the IHRA were being honest then they would admit that the real reason for the definition is an attempt to redefine the traditional understanding of what anti-Semitism in order to substitute Israel for Jews. That they have been able to get away with this is a consequence of changes in the Jewish community itself.
When Moseley attempted to march through the Jewish East End of the 1930’s the Police and the Conservative establishment were hostile to what they saw as a communist infested, left-wing minority ethnic community. All sorts of revolutionary, anarchist and socialist groupings competed for support amongst the Jews of Whitechapel.
The elephant in the room of the debate over the IHRA and anti-Semitism is that the Jewish community has changed out of all recognition in the past 80 years. The Jews of the East End have migrated to Golders Green, Hendon or further out still.  They have also risen up the socio-economic ladder.
As William Rubinstein, a past President of the Jewish Historical Society, wrote [The Right, Left and the Jews, p. 51, 1982]:
the rise of Western Jewry to unparalleled affluence and high status has led to the near disappearance of a Jewish proletariat of any size: indeed the Jews may become the first ethnic group in history without a working class of any size.’
In short as the Jews changed so did anti-Semitism and this was exactly Rubinstein’s conclusion:
It has rendered obsolete (and rarely heard ) the type of anti-semitism which has its basis in fears of the swamping of the native population by a limitless horde of Yiddish speaking aliens, and it has made Marxism, and other radical doctrines, irrelevant to the socio-economic bases of Western Jewry, and increasingly unattractive to most Jews
Dr Geoffrey Alderman, a right-wing Jewish academic wrote that:
By 1961, over 40% of Anglo-Jewry was located in the upper 2 social classes, whereas these categories accounted for less than 20% of the general population.[Jewish Community in British Politics, p. 137]
In other words the fatuous argument of the Right that Jews are not voting for the Labour Party because of Israel simply has no basis. Jews began voting Conservative long before the issue of Israel even raised its head.  The reasons why Jews today vote overwhelmingly for the Conservative Party has everything to do with their own perceived economic interests.
Of course there will be some middle class Jews who may be put off voting Labour because of its perceived support for the Palestinians, the Maureen Lipman’s of this world, but they will be few and far between.
When Jonathan Freedland defines anti-Semitism as being in opposition to the perceived self-identity of today’s Jews with Israel then what he is saying is that anti-Semitism is no longer hatred of Jews as Jews but disagreement with their political views. It is this, more than anything, which explains the hypocrisy that lies at the heart of the debate over anti-Semitism today and also explains why anti-Semitism has been used as a crude weapon against the Left.
Below is a very interesting conversation from the Boston Review on What is and is not anti-Semitism.
Tony Greenstein
Boston Review - A Political and Literary Forum

Two Jewish activists discuss the place of anti-Semitism in contemporary movements for social justice.

As Jewish activists invested in antiracist and anti-colonial movements from the United States to Palestine, we have been following, with interest and concern, progressive Jewish discussions of anti-Semitism. These discussions have been brought on in part by the horrors of the Tree of Life synagogue massacre last October, and in part by larger concerns about the rise of racial violence in the Trump era.
We acknowledge the real causes for alarm behind these discussions, but we also find a great deal to be concerned about. It is now commonplace for slanderous accusations of anti-Semitism to be leveled against Palestinians and supporters of Palestine, especially against black leaders and other activists of color. Many progressives have criticized the conflation of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, but narratives about anti-Semitism persist that feed into the same rhetoric used to derail movements for justice in the United States and in Palestine. In questioning these progressive analyses of anti-Semitism, we look to the wider context of global systems of injustice. We are concerned that a lack of clarity about what anti-Semitism is—and isn’t—allows false equivalencies and elisions to be weaponized against movements for social justice.
We recognize that some will think that we are dismissing or minimizing anti-Semitism at a time when it is crucial to stand up to anti-Jewish ideologies. But of course we aren’t interested in dismissing the reality of anti-Semitism, past or present. Instead our goal is to contribute to a careful analysis of the threats of anti-Semitic ideology, without downplaying or minimizing the very tangible structures of racism, colonialism, and imperialism under which people of color live every day. Our back-and-forth has challenged our thinking about how we can be as effective and thoughtful as possible in our organizing and our work for justice. We hope that, in sharing our conversation, it will serve that purpose for others as well. 


Donna Nevel: I’m troubled by a common refrain I see expressed by progressive Jews on social media, directed toward social justice communities. They say, in effect: those who aren’t Jewish need to believe us when we talk about anti-Semitism, when we say we’re vulnerable.
On the one hand, that makes perfect sense: we should listen to Jews who say they are the victims of anti-Semitism, just as we would listen to those impacted by other injustices. But we also need to look more deeply at this particular call and its consequences, given how routinely false accusations of anti-Semitism are hurled at Palestinians and those who support Palestinian rights, at Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim, and at others—most often people of color—involved in antiracist movements.
False accusations have done real harm to people’s lives and careers. The threat of such consequences has a pernicious chilling effect on what people say and do.
Many people hesitate to engage with these issues because of the well-substantiated fear that they will be falsely accused of anti-Semitism—and bullied and intimidated in the process. These false accusations generally get a lot of air time and have done real harm to people’s lives and careers. The threat of such consequences has a very real and pernicious chilling effect on what people say and do. We need to take this reality into account when statements are made regarding who is “entitled” to speak, and to be listened to.
We all have a lot to learn by engaging honestly and thoughtfully about anti-Semitism, both its history and its current manifestations. The rise in white nationalist anti-Semitism in this country should be addressed, but that reality should not be used to buttress overzealous, reckless accusations of anti-Semitism. We must acknowledge how deeply the conflation between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism has become normalized, including within some progressive Jewish circles.
Mark Tseng-Putterman: I also see this admonition—to trust Jews when we talk about anti-Semitism—as problematic. Of course we need to consider Jewish experiences and analyses. But there is a tendency in “social justice” spaces to defer to individual subjectivity over substantive institutional critique that becomes especially dangerous in the context of discussions of anti-Semitism. Is “trust” politically efficacious given that criticisms of the state of Israel or of U.S. Jewish institutions like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) or the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) are so frequently shut down by Jews claiming anti-Semitism? In order to think critically about Zionism and white supremacy, we must all have the nuance to recognize and call out bad faith claims of anti-Semitism when we see them.
There is a tendency in “social justice” spaces to defer to individual subjectivity over substantive institutional critique.
Consider an example. The assertion that white Jews reap white privilege—and, like all white people, play a role in upholding white supremacy—is now being denounced by reactionaries wielding social justice language as anti-Semitic, Jewish erasure, and even gaslighting. I worry that a consequence of this “trust Jews on anti-Semitism” language is to silence the criticisms and analyses of people of color—including Jewish people of color—about racism and complicity in Jewish communities.
Many Jews do indeed refuse to accept, or even sit with, such criticisms. They also raise the specter of supposed “left anti-Semitism,” claiming that Jews are being excluded from progressive spaces. And many progressive Jews have been too quick to accept the premise that there exists a unique “left anti-Semitism” that must be engaged. The result, I worry, is a vacuum where Jewish communities and institutions can cover their ears and block out critical conversations about white supremacy and Zionism happening on the left.
Of course anti-Semitism exists in pockets of the left, as does ingrained racism, misogyny, and transphobia. But, to me, the way we talk about “left anti-Semitism” reeks of a smear campaign designed to block critiques of Zionism. These admonitions aren’t about seeking greater Jewish inclusion or participation in the left; they’re about delegitimizing some of the most important social justice movements of our time, from Black Lives Matter to the global call by Palestinian  civil society for Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS). As Jews on the left, we need to ask ourselves how our deference to the sensitivities of some Jews is enabling this rhetorical violence.
DN: I think we always need to ask whose voices are being promoted and why, whose voices are being silenced and why, whose interests are being served and whose aren’t. At this moment, particularly, we need to be welcoming critical, challenging conversations about these issues, not trying to shut them down.
The rise in white nationalist anti-Semitism in this country should be addressed. But that reality should not be used to buttress reckless accusations of anti-Semitism.
Take the ADL’s biased analysis of anti-Semitism. Their “research” and data reflect a broader anti-Arab, anti-Palestinian agenda. Yet, we see people uncritically citing the ADL as “the” expert on what constitutes anti-Semitism, and who is being anti-Semitic. And when their authority is challenged due to their troubling record, many claim it is further evidence of the left’s anti-Semitism. That was the accusation made, for example, when the ADL was dropped from a high-profile Starbucks “anti-bias training” following many substantive concerns expressed by leaders of the Women’s March and Black Lives Matter as well as by left Jewish activists.
Here’s another example. I read numerous accounts after the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute rescinded Angela Davis’s human rights award, arguing that Jews were being unfairly blamed for what happened to her—that it was unfair, even anti-Jewish, to focus on local Jewish organizations that had applied pressure on the Museum to rescind the award. They argued that it was white evangelicals, not Jews, in Birmingham, who have the power to make those things happen.
But Jewish organizations, including the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center and the Birmingham Jewish Federation, did play a key role in pressuring the museum to rescind the award. That doesn’t mean all Jews opposed her talk; they didn’t. And it is true that efforts to thwart supporters of the Palestinian movement for justice extend far beyond Jewish groups. It also true that sometimes the decision makers may not have consisted of many, if any, Jews, and that some Jewish groups oppose these kinds of actions when they happen.
To say that Jewish groups applied pressure on the museum—and were likely listened to—is consistent with what Jewish groups have done across the country to supporters of BDS applying for jobs, seeking tenure, and more. I just can’t see it as anti-Jewish to hold these organizations accountable. It’s not anti-Jewish to point out that many Jewish organizations have power to exert their influence in damaging ways.
It’s not anti-Jewish to point out that many Jewish organizations have power to exert their influence in damaging ways.
MTP: Absolutely. When activists, including many Jews, confront the bad politics of so-called “liberal” Jewish organizations like the ADL, they end up getting tarred as anti-Semitic. I’m thinking of the ridiculous allegations (many from leaders of left-of-center Jewish groups, including T'ruah’s Jill Jacobs, who has also falsely accused Palestinian activists of anti-Semitism) against the Deadly Exchange campaign by Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). They claimed the campaign, which sought to end police exchanges between Israel and U.S. municipalities, was perpetuating an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that Israel was responsible for racist policing in the United States. JVP and other activist groups exhibited very tangible evidence of the exchange of repressive policing tactics, and the links between racist state violence, in both nations. But this overzealous analysis of anti-Semitism distorted the campaign into a case of Jew-blaming.
Most recently, we’ve seen the attacks by both progressive and conservative Jews directed at Representative Ilhan Omar, denouncing as anti-Semitic her demonstrably true assertion that AIPAC and the Israel lobby influence U.S. policy in the Middle East. What’s worse, the coordinated attack on Omar was catalyzed by Batya Ungar-Sargon, an editor at The Forward, a supposedly progressive Jewish platform with a rich socialist history. After Ungar-Sargon went so far as to write that Omar “won the approval of the KKK,” The Forward used the smear campaign as a fundraising email talking point.
A number of progressive Jews responded to the Omar smear by balking at the assertion that the Israel lobby has anything to do with Jews. Similarly to the troubling dynamic you saw in Birmingham, many were quick to excise Jewish agency from pro-Israel lobbying, instead pointing to Christian evangelical groups and claiming that AIPAC is not a Jewish organization—despite its U.S. Jewish base and participation in various Jewish institutional constituencies such as the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. We are seeing an impulse, often coming from progressive Jews, to deny the agency and influence of Jews and Jewish institutions, which I think really limits our capacity to foment effective antiracist change.
This hesitance to confront Jewish institutional complicity in structures of violence may be rooted in a particular analysis of anti-Semitism: the idea that Jews are perpetual “middlemen” caught between the masses and the power elite. I’ve written elsewhere—and Tallie Ben Daniel has a wonderful essay tackling similar questions from a Mizrahi perspective in JVP’s recent book On Anti-Semitism (2017)—about how this notion that Jews are “allowed success” in order to be made “useful” as scapegoats later inevitably freezes our ability to call out Jewish complicity. It has us seeking to absolve bad-acting Jewish institutions by looking for the “man behind the curtain.” By that logic, Jewish organizations can’t have the power and influence to blacklist Angela Davis or defame academics such as Steven Salaita; right-wing evangelicals must have done it. And yet we know very clearly that there are numerous influential Jewish groups that are successfully leading smear campaigns against pro-Palestine activists and funding anti-Muslim hate groups.
According to “middlemen” logic, Jewish organizations can’t be blamed; right-wing evangelicals must have done it.
As Ben Daniel implores, we need to understand the privileges and powers granted to white American Jews not as an inevitable symptom of anti-Semitism, but as a symptom of whiteness, white supremacy, and the ability (and willingness) of many white American Jews to align themselves with both a fundamental American anti-blackness, as well as an imagined “Judeo-Christian” West that serves the imperialist project of Western Islamophobia. We must confront head on how institutions that purport to speak in the name of U.S. Jews are so deeply implicated in perpetuating racism and Islamophobia.
DN: This is an issue of real concern for me and for many others. Elly Bulkin and I have been working with different groups for many years to challenge Islamophobia within our communities. We created Jews Against Anti-Muslim Racism (JAAMR) as a resource because we didn’t feel anti-Muslim racism, and particularly structural Islamophobia, the “war on terror,” and the Islamophobia-Israel connection, were being prioritized enough within Jewish communities, including within many progressive Jewish spaces. More recently, after you brought to our attention some research about the New York Jewish Communal Fund (JCF) and its complicity in funding virulently Islamophobic groups, we continued that research, and recently published a report, together with Jews Say No! and JVP-NYC, detailing this funding and calling on the JCF to defund Islamophobia now.
While there has been some outrage expressed within Jewish communities about the JCF’s funding of Islamophobia, vocal opposition to it—or making it a real priority—hasn’t been as widespread as it surely would be if grants and financial resources were going to support anti-Semitic, neo-Nazi groups.
Institutions that purport to speak in the name of U.S. Jews are deeply implicated in perpetuating Islamophobia.
MTP: Another thread here is that in the United States, the most visible forms of racism and other forms of oppression tend to be these spectacular iterations—hate violence, mass shootings, police brutality—and not the profound mundanity of everyday, structural state violence. While the terrors of the Tree of Life and Christchurch massacres have rightly inspired global outpourings of solidarity, I think it is important to recognize the underlying institutional Islamophobia (which doesn’t elicit the same kind of bipartisan condemnation anti-Semitism does). It doesn’t minimize the tragedy to acknowledge that the Tree of Life shooting is not an instance of routine state violence against American Jews. Indeed, admitting this is a prerequisite to building the sort of coalitions necessary to take on the forces we’re confronted with today.
It seems to me we suffer from a lack of clarity about the meaning of structural, state-sanctioned violence. This lack of clarity in turn muddies the waters when it comes to understanding anti-Semitism. Some Jewish progressive organizations argue that anti-Semitism is structural in the United States today. What are the structures and institutions that uphold it?
This is where I find the analysis murky. My sense is that many would respond along these lines: Anti-Semitism is different from other forms of oppression. Rather than depriving Jews of resources and power, anti-Semitism thrives by allowing Jews success so that they can be made scapegoats in the future.
My issue with this answer, which was perhaps most popularly encapsulated in April Rosenblum’s pamphlet The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere (2018), is that it exonerates, or at least overlooks, Jewish participation and relative success in racial capitalism. The strategy thus evades questions of Jewish complicity with state power and the global racial hierarchy and instead freezes us in a perpetual state of victimhood, or potential future​ victimhood. Besides chalking up American Jewish power and assimilation to anti-Semitism’s predetermined “middleman” role (rather than to whiteness, antiblackness, or Islamophobia), it also assumes a cyclicality to anti-Semitism that makes it impossible to take Jewish power or safety at face value—instead seeing these as symptoms of a future, inevitable scapegoating. Rosenblum’s ideas are being amplified in this political moment, in countless news articles, Twitter threads, and resources that lean heavily on her analysis, such as Jews for Racial and Economic Justice’s “Understanding Anti-Semitism.”
We suffer from a lack of clarity about the meaning of structural, state-sanctioned violence.
I also take issue with the claim that anti-Semitism doesn’t work like other systems of oppression, because anti-Semitism positions Jews as a powerful threat to be eradicated rather than a weak minority to be exploited. Anti-Semitism is certainly not unique in this regard. Take the Yellow Peril tropes that have galvanized anti-Asian racism—from immigration exclusion to U.S. military intervention—since at least the turn of the twentieth century. These mechanics also invoke Asians as a powerful, external threat. The same can be said for “clash of civilizations” rhetoric about Muslims and the so-called “East” that is central to the “War on Terror.”
I worry that the tendency to render anti-Semitism as abstract, cyclical, and permanent (language of anti-Semitism as a “virus” or an “ancient prejudice” abound) prevents us from looking closely at our current political conditions and from understanding anti-Semitism in relation to the escalation of racist state violence we are seeing in this moment.
DN: It is true that negative stereotypes of Jews differ qualitatively from those about some other groups. But that doesn’t speak to the structures at work, nor is it a reason to exceptionalize anti-Semitism or to assume nobody but Jews can possibly understand it or its seriousness. Promoting that view has real consequences: it distracts us from the impact of white supremacy on targeted communities.
At the same time, there is the entrenched narrative of Jews as the “chosen people.” Many progressive Jews have rejected it, but many have not as clearly rejected notions of Jewish exceptionalism with which we were inculcated in Hebrew school and in other Jewish spaces—that Jews have higher ethical standards and are smarter than others, and that nobody has suffered as much as we have. (For many of us, who have power and privilege as members of white, affluent communities in the United States, these claims of exceptionalism perhaps have greater potential to do harm today than in the past.)
Many progressive Jews still think that nobody has suffered as much as we have.
We must genuinely grapple with these beliefs. They impact how we treat communities we perceive as not “our own.” They foster our sense of entitlement. They shape how we move in social justice spaces and in the political worlds we inhabit, and how we may come to understand and center our own suffering. (This is not to assert that there is one fixed Jewish value system. There are many Jewish histories, experiences, and lived realities; we all navigate multiple identities.)
One way this entitlement shows up, for example, is public outrage when social justice movements are accused of failing to center anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism needs to be included as an injustice we challenge, and, in my experience, I’ve not heard social justice groups claim otherwise. Many movements have been focused on challenging the dangerous structural, institutional, state-sanctioned racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and other injustices at the core of U.S. society. As we are seeing a marked rise in white nationalist anti-Semitic violence (as well as violence directed toward other communities) part of our commitment is to address and incorporate it meaningfully into our justice work. But that doesn’t mean that being sensitive and responsive to anti-Semitism requires centering it or believing that—in this country at this time—it is the same as communities targeted daily by the state and by a range of institutions.
MTP: I think this notion that the left, particularly people of color on the left, don’t give anti-Semitism enough air time sets up a problematic savior complex: white Jews swoop in as educators tasked with tackling the supposed ignorance of people of color. This, in turn, perpetuates this patronizing and paternalistic relationship between white Jews and particularly black activists that the often romanticized history of black-Jewish civil rights organizing hinges on. It’s not that activists of all backgrounds shouldn’t learn about anti-Semitism. But when activists of color do anything deemed anti-Semitic (including merely criticizing Israel), they are chastised by the press, forced to apologize, and required to commit to being “educated” on the issue—a ritual that I think receives undue airtime because it reinforces tropes about angry and ignorant people of color.
This sense of “finally people will believe we’re oppressed too” is echoed across the Jewish political spectrum.
Your point about how deep the ideology of the “chosen people” runs, even in liberal secular American Jewish circles, resonates here. Is twenty-first-century American Jewish identity—at least as it is popularly understood and circulated—even possible without anti-Semitism? Can we conceive of “Jewishness” in its modern, often class-privileged and white American manifestation, without a sense of victimization? Certain responses to the anti-Semitism of the Trump campaign, the “alt-right,” and even the Tree of Life shooting seem to indicate that these episodes resolve the crisis of modern white American Jewish identity—by confirming that anti-Semitism is indeed cyclical and permanent. Contemporary American Jewishness has thus become parasitic on victimhood. But retreating to these comfortable narratives about who “we” are is preventing us from building coalitions, challenging institutions, and engaging in self-criticism in effective ways.
This sense of “finally people will believe we’re oppressed too” is echoed across the Jewish political spectrum. This narrative was crystallized in a March 2017 piece in the Times of Israel which described a “silver lining” to rising anti-Semitism: it proved a counter to “intersectional” campus movements that excluded Jews on the basis of their being “white and privileged.” Of course, this narrative of Jewish exclusion from the left conveniently conflates Jewishness and Zionism. But this concept of the “silver lining” speaks to a larger dynamic in which instances of anti-Jewish violence are seen as “useful” insofar as they confirm to Jews and “prove” to everyone else our oppressed status. This seems to me an incredibly cynical and troubling way of approaching anti-Semitism in our current moment.
Jews are implicated symbolically in this scheme, but not materially.
Perhaps one consequence of this ideology is the shifting in emphasis away from white supremacy and toward “white nationalism” when we talk about anti-Semitism in the United States. For instance, Eric Ward has argued to great acclaim in some parts of the Jewish left that anti-Semitism is the central “fuel” of white nationalism, and that white Jews must give up their “fantasy” of white privilege. Ward has written that white nationalism is a “new competitor” to white supremacy, a social movement that is “stand[ing] up” as white supremacy “falls down.” Make no mistake: it is crucial to recognize the growing threat of white nationalism and the role of anti-Semitism within its ranks. But I worry that we are embracing a strand of post-racialism by saying, in effect, that white supremacy was defeated and that white nationalism is a new force rising to fill the void. This frame ignores the deep continuity in structural violence through both the Obama and Trump eras, and of course back even before the founding of the United States.
We need to talk about the white nationalist movement while recognizing that white supremacy—as a structure—remains in full force, one too often accepted as the status quo. If that’s the case, what are the implications of anti-Semitism supposedly being at the core of white nationalist ideology, if white supremacy remains hegemonic? And why should we restrict our analysis of anti-Semitism to its supposedly central role in white nationalist thought and not consider its more marginal role in systemic white supremacy?
The core of white nationalism is not anti-Semitism, but settler colonialism and antiblackness.
It also seems odd to position white nationalism’s pursuit of a white ethno-state as a new ideology rather than the founding doctrine of the United States. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz has traced (in these very pages) the genealogy of white nationalist thought back to the so-called Indian Wars that founded the United States as a white nation-state. All of this is part and parcel with the liberal amnesia that has folks responding to, for instance, the state-sanctioned violence at the U.S.-Mexico border or the separation of asylum-seeking families with the ahistorical “this isn’t the America I know.” So while anti-Semitism may play an important role in contemporary white nationalist discourses, we need to keep in mind this longer history of white ethno-nationalism. Its core is not anti-Semitism, but settler colonialism and antiblackness.
DN: I had similar concerns reading a recent piece by Tim Wise as those you describe about Ward’s analysis. While Wise correctly rejects “the false equivalence some are trying to draw” between Minister Louis Farrakhan and far right, neo-Nazis, he then makes assertions about the role of anti-Semitism in white nationalism that I question.
“For neo-Nazis and modern white nationalists,” Wise writes, “anti-Jewish bigotry is literally the fuel of their movement, the glue that binds them.” He adds that “Jew-hatred is the thing, bigger than racism against folks of color.” While I’m skeptical that neo-Nazis actually believe Jews are worse than black people or Muslims, I also don’t see that it’s a relevant or useful distinction to make. White nationalists, with great frequency, target people of color, transgender and queer people, and others. At the 2017 Charlottesville march, anti-Semitic chants were indeed frightening, but they were also plainly a part of a broader call to uphold white supremacy and defend the legacy of the Confederacy, which goes well beyond the march, reflecting the day-to-day realities for communities of color. I am concerned that, while surely not his intention, Wise’s assertions about the role of anti-Semitism in the white nationalist movement end up diminishing both the consequences and impact of white nationalism on other communities and the central role of pervasive, structural forms of racism and of white supremacy—with its long and deep foundational history that continues until today.
I’ve also been reflecting upon what Lesley Williams wrote after the Charlottesville march about the swastika and what it means for white Jews versus for Black people. “For Jews, Nazi symbols evoke a terrifying, traumatic past,” she wrote. “For African Americans, they evoke a terrifying, traumatic, unending present. White Jews may be shocked at this undeniable evidence of U.S. racism; African Americans merely see more of the same. Black people did not need to be reminded by hoods and swastikas that we live in a dangerously racist country.”
MTP: I agree. The language that Wise and Ward use about anti-Semitism as the “fuel” of white nationalism decenters the communities most tangibly targeted by the white nationalist agenda. Trump has alluded to anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that George Soros funded the Central American migrant caravan approaching the U.S.-Mexico border. Jewish progressives certainly need to confront that rhetoric. But the tangible impact remains the same: to militarize the border, separate families, and detain and deport asylum seekers, many of whom belong to Indigenous Maya groups. Jews are implicated symbolically in this scheme, but not materially. Clearly, that symbolism has consequences—the Tree of Life shooting being the most chilling example of late. Still, I think it is worth sitting with the distinction between being a symbol in the white nationalist imaginary versus being a target in the crosshairs of the state.
There is a difference between being a symbol in the white nationalist imaginary and being a target in the crosshairs of the state.
The same problem can be seen in responses to the Tree of Life shooting. The Forward ran a telling piece entitled “Is America Still Safe for Jews?” This phrasing—“still safe”—says so much. When has America ever been safe for black people? For Indigenous people? For those living under the boot of U.S. imperialism and militarism abroad? There are truths about this country—truths being exposed in new ways in this moment—that American Jews have not had to fully grapple with, as Jews, in recent U.S. history. So how do we sit with what for many white American Jews is a new, creeping feeling—that the promise of America is in fact built on violence—while recognizing that communities of color have been feeling that violence for centuries?
I think it starts with realizing we don’t need to be the center of attention in order to have a role to play in dismantling the structures of oppression that the contradictions of the Trump era continue to reveal.
I’m an opinionated Jew with a PhD in the history of antisemitism, but I find it daunting to weigh in on the debate about antisemitism in the Labour Party. To describe the accusations as disproportionate is to risk being branded an antisemite. But while genuine instances of antisemitism should be tackled, there is no more of it in Labour than in other parties. The sustained offensive by the Labour right and by Conservatives is not only unfairly damaging the party and the left in general, it also unthinkingly reinforces antisemitic motifs.
The populist right’s public enemy number one is the ‘liberal elite’. This phrase deliberately merges two very different entities: metropolitan intellectuals on the one hand, and global capitalism on the other. In her 2016 ‘citizens of nowhere’ speech, Theresa May declared that ‘liberalism and globalisation … have left people behind.’ The elision harnesses public anger at banks and multinational corporations and turns it onto members of the middle-class precariat: academics, journalists and left-wing MPs.
This scapegoating of a relatively powerless ‘elite’ echoes the antisemitic fantasy of the rootless cosmopolitan who is also part of an international financial network. The notion that prejudice is festering among the ‘chattering classes’ of North London unwittingly invokes an antisemitic stereotype. It also undermines qualities that are both vital and under threat in an age of philistine oligopoly: intellectualism, expertise, rationality.
Allegations of antisemitism employ a hermeneutics of suspicion, often uncovering examples recorded in meetings, or buried on social media, even from years ago. This replicates the classic dynamics of conspiracy theory, a common feature of traditional antisemitism. The language of the accusations, too, echoes that of antisemitism – a ‘stain’ or ‘scourge’ that has ‘infected’ the party and must be ‘rooted out’. I’m not arguing that centre-right and right-wing critics of antisemitism are antisemitic, but their campaign has a ferocious hygiene about it that carries unpleasant and ironic resonances, and leads to irrational outcomes. Attempts to reveal hidden hatred are a central feature of the asymmetrical identification of antisemitism with the left. Right-wing antisemitism is assumed to be more blatant, and therefore attracts less scrutiny. The left is held to a higher standard, and ‘gotcha’ moments trump statistical evidence.
On Monday, the Labour MP Siobhain Mcdonagh said on the Today programme that ‘it’s very much part of their politics, of hard-left politics, to be against capitalist and to see Jewish people as the financers of capital, ergo you are anti-Jewish people.’ ‘In other words to be anti-capitalist you have to be antisemitic,’ John Humphrys interrupted. ‘Yes,’ Mcdonagh said. ‘Not everybody but there’s a certain strand of it.’ I could hardly believe my ears, but she is not alone. In the New Statesman last year, Matt Bolton and Frederick Harry Pitts wrote about the ‘deep-seated theoretical underpinnings of left critiques of capitalism that have antisemitism as their logical consequence’.
Such commentators make associations that they would regard as antisemitic if articulated in reverse: the link between Jews and a version of capitalism that is about actors as well as systems. Similarly, they are keen to stress the distinction between Israel’s actions on the one hand and Jews on the other, yet at the same time frequently identify criticism of Israel as at least latently antisemitic.
Unlike political opposition, and because of the Holocaust, the charge of antisemitism has an absolute, unarguable quality, which is exploited by Jeremy Corbyn’s critics for a political end. It’s true that Corbyn and some of his allies are digging their heels in, creating a vicious circle, but many of the accusations are implacable because their aim is to undermine the left. On quitting Labour last month, Joan Ryan MP said antisemitism was ‘never’ a problem before Corbyn became leader: fifteen years ago I reviewed a volume of essays on the perceived rise of ‘a new antisemitism’ on the left.
What is new is Corbyn’s indictment of the financial greed hollowing out our society. An analysis of broader social and economic power was missing from British politics through the decades of New Labour, and is still absent on the right of the Labour Party. Corbyn’s message has resonated profoundly with many people. But it is being muted and drowned out by the antisemitism row.
Some conspiracies – not involving the Rothschilds – are real: the networks of offshore tax havens and shell companies, and the links between Russian money, Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, Trump and the Brexit campaign. Bolton and Pitts criticise Corbyn’s portrayal of ‘a parasitical “1 per cent” draining the vitality from the “real economy”’ and a ‘global elite’ who ‘do not produce anything tangible but merely make money out of money’. But that portrayal rings true.
Viewing power in perspective lays bare the vast and widening wealth gap, and a left that is at a low ebb compared to the neoliberal hegemony and the resurgent populist right. The antisemitism furore is undermining the left still further at a time when we need more than ever to challenge the real financial elites that are wrecking our world. Critics should not feel bullied into silence.



[1]               What Do We Mean When We Say ‘Antisemitsm’? Echoes of shattering glass, 8-9 November 2013.