If you think structural Antisemitism no longer exists, when do you think it ended?
The Missoulian recently reported that American Nazi literature is being leafleted at homes throughout Missoula, Montana and shows us two sample pieces of the propaganda. The first promises “free healthcare for the white working-class,” made possible by “tax[ing] the bankers, tax[ing] the rich.” The second piece, which is entitled “The Jewish Run Media,” lists a number of prominent Jewish media executives and proclaims that “Jews make up only 2.5% of the population and controls [sic] 98% of the media” and warns, in dire tones, that “the Jews’ purpose is to destroy us and our families from the inside out, slowly and gradually perverting us with their own special kind of poison.”
Resist the urge to dismiss these ideas as isolated and the authors as fringe crazies.
Their classic National Socialist (Nazi) political ideology is in fact a function of structural and interpersonal Antisemitism, a system of oppression that targets Jews. It permeates our society and is often normalized. Antisemitism is finding increasingly bold rhetorical and material expression at this moment in the mainstream political sphere — along with other oppressions such as white supremacy, racism, Islamophobia, nativism, and misogyny.
Don’t believe me yet?
Let’s start by breaking down some of the ideas in the propaganda distributed last week in Missoula. These leaflets display classic National Socialist political ideology, an ideology that incited the genocide of 6 million Jews; the murder of 1 million queer people, disabled people, Roma, political dissidents, and members of other targeted groups; and the deaths of millions of soldiers across the world.
Let’s examine the central claims in this propaganda and see how they connect to a larger, more normalized system of Antisemitism in American society.
How does structural Antisemitism work?
Antisemitism violently shifts blame for the ravages of capitalism from the white Christian male ruling class (where it rightfully belongs) on to Jews, attempting to leverage working-class suffering into violence toward Jews.
The first leaflet begins with the promise of a fundamental human right that too many working-class Americans have been denied–healthcare–but rather than framing it as a universal human right, it instead frames healthcare as a racialized entitlement for white people. That is, it addresses a fundamental wrong in our society — the denial of healthcare to many working-class people — and harnesses the moral power of crying out against that injustice within a framework of white (Christian) entitlement. White working-class people are indeed suffering from capitalism’s disregard for their human right to healthcare and many are angry about that injustice. The framework of white entitlement directs white working-class rage toward people of color, indigenous people, and undocumented people — who, from legalized slavery to the Trail of Tears to Jim Crow to our mass-incarcerated present day, have always suffered the most violently from the American white Christian ruling-class’ divide-and-conquer tactics.
How do American Nazis propose to fund this racialized healthcare effort? By taxing “the rich” and “the bankers.” This approach begins by harnessing persuasive moral power with a call to repair structural wealth inequality.
But who do we think white nationalists are really talking about when they say “the rich and the bankers”?
Thanks to the Trump campaign, we can simply turn on our televisions to find out. A recent, Antisemitic Trump ad portrayed Jews like George Soros (billionaire), Janet Yellen (Fed Chair) and Lloyd Blankfein (Goldman Sachs CEO), as leaders of “a global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working-class, stripped our country of its wealth and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations and political entities.” This brand of dog-whistle rhetoric finds an eager response in the second American Nazi leaflet, which, with its claim that “Jews control 98% of the media” and are trying “poison” and “destroy” “our [white Christian] families,” refreshes an old Antisemitic trope of Jews as conspiring social parasites or sources of contagion. White Christian working-class people are indeed suffering from structural wealth inequality and many are angry about that injustice. Antisemitism takes that rage and redirects it toward Jews, away from the white Christian ruling class who control the vast majority of American wealth.
How does contemporary structural Antisemitism lend this American Nazi rhetoric a frightening weight?
First, let’s start with the historical context. Male Christian Antisemitic violence and terror has been directed at Jews for over a millennium, in everyday ways and in catastrophic, state- or church-sponsored events, from early Medieval England and France, to 1492 Spain, to 17th century Ukraine, to American police violence towards Jews in 1902, to the European Holocaust, to Stalin’s murder of Yiddish poets in 1952, to the American state’s public execution of the Rosenbergs in 1953.
There were indeed long periods where Jews thrived (or at least experienced stability) in Christian Europe, yet in none of these periods were Jews liberated from Antisemitism. Contemporary Antisemitic rhetoric, such as the “sieg hiel” that was graffitied last week in Philadelphia, or the swastika painted a few days ago on a Jewish student’s dorm room at the New School in New York City, is designed to invoke that long history of violence and terror.
The Western Christian ruling class has kept Jews safe, with a low background hum of violent rhetoric and action, to the extent that we have been useful to them. They terrorized and incentivized us into positions as middleman lenders in medieval southern Europe, so the Medicis and other Catholic bank owners who were making the real profits could direct poor Christian borrowers’ anger at Jews; as middleman arrendators in pre-modern Eastern Europe, managing businesses owned by local Christian noblemen, so the noblemen could make the real profits while directing periodic Christian peasant consumers’ anger at Jews; or today in America as professionals, middle managers, and landlords (more on that below). When it served their purpose, the ruling class would offer up Jews as scapegoats, as a publicly visible face at which they could direct the legitimate moral anger of the disenfranchised Christian peasantry or working-class. Even in periods of relative peace, Jews were often second-class members of society or completely disenfranchised. In 19th century Poland, for instance, it was illegal for Jewish men to marry unless they passed a Polish-language exam or were over 30 years of age; and Jews were forbidden from joining the Polish war for independence, for the explicit reason that Jews might, by participating, gain a legitimate claim to equal citizenship in the incipient Polish state.
In the 1920s and ’30s, rising Antisemitism in Europe was matched by a rise in Nativist sentiment in America that targeted Jewish, Italian, and East Asian immigrants, Native Americans, and Black Americans. American white Christian ruling class icons like Charles Lindbergh, Walt Disney, and Henry Ford led the charge, normalizing Antisemitic sentiment in mainstream discourse. My own great-grandfather, Abe, survived the xenophobic closure of American borders, escaping from Europe shortly before the Holocaust, because my great-grandmother Zisl returned to Poland with her American citizenship to go marry him and bring him back. His mother, Esther Malka (my own mother’s namesake) was soon after murdered by the Nazis. Meanwhile, America was rounding up Japanese-Americans in its own internment camps.
Jewish people in the late 1940s and early 1950s (particularly Ashkenazim) were by that point absolutely terrorized by European Christian Antisemitism. Cherie Brown vividly describes the moment in 1953 when the Rosenbergs were publicly executed for allegedly spying for Russia:
The barely masked anti-Semitism so embedded in the McCarthy period, with its red-baiting and blacklisting of so many Jews…added a whole new layer to the terror already internalized by so many Jews so shortly after the Holocaust. Jews in the United States were asked to simply ignore the fact that their hero, Franklin Roosevelt, had refused to bomb the train tracks to the death camps or to save lives by opening U.S. borders to Jewish refugees seeking asylum. Instead, Jews were invited to fully embrace their new home with total loyalty and fervor…anti-Communist fearmongering undoubtedly contributed to Jews’ abandonment, soon thereafter, of a long and proud history of Jewish radicalism.
It was in this very moment, facing the “stick” of Christian Antisemitic terror, that Christian white American offered light-skinned Jews in America the ultimate carrot within America’s racist hierarchy, the opportunity to move from non-whiteness to whiteness. Our people who had fought alongside Italians and others to give this country trade unions, the 40 hour workweek, and workplace safety protections; who had participated in mass droves in the Bundist Socialist Party and the Communist Party; who had been denied entrance to most American colleges; who had died countless deaths from the ravages of poverty; who had perished in the millions under Nazi German hands–our people were offered the opportunity to be safe, as long as we assimilated and conformed to the dominant system.
As newly whitened people, light-skinned Jews in the post-War years were given opportunities denied to people of color; these opportunities tended to be constrained to highly visible “new-money” roles within the dominant white Christian power structure. We were allowed to become professionals (doctors, lawyers, investment bankers); to work within broken systems as progressively-spirited teachers, social workers, or nurses, set up to fail the working people of color we served; to produce music created by African Americans; to start a new, highly visible industry in Hollywood; or to serve as landlords for working-class people of color. All of these roles served to discipline formerly radical or revolutionary Jews within racist and capitalist structures, at the continued expense of poor people of color. These middleman-roles also continue to mark and highlight Jewish participation and middleman power within capitalism, while invisibilizing the dominant white Christian character of the ruling class, of the 1%, who own this country’s banks, oil companies, and weapons companies.
And it is no mystery to me why many Jews have excelled in these fields. Try out this recipe: take a people with high literacy, portable trade and crafts skills (portable because Jews faced periodic expulsion), terrorize the hell out of them on and off for a thousand years, and then all of a sudden give them a way out via whiteness, the G.I. bill, and college degrees–and see what happens. It is important to demystify this process because one of the more common forms of Antisemitism we hear, in the form of “prejudice as praise,” is that Jews are exceptionally successful and smart, a “model minority.” Yet this formulation of an essentially Jewish character to what is in fact white Jewish upward mobility obscures the processes of whitening and assimilation of our people, as well as the enveloping racist and Christian hegemonic systems that bring the terrible costs of poverty, incarceration, and other suffering to poor people and people of color, including poor Jews and Jewish people of color. When most of our people were terribly poor, within living memory, we were stigmatized as criminals or parasites for our poverty and suffering; now we are stigmatized for our perceived wealth. Yet Jewish suffering continues under capitalism: one in four New York City Jewish households is currently living in poverty.
These systems also cause a significant harm to those of us who are white Jews with upward mobility, who are faced with a devil’s bargain: we can become safe for the meanwhile by giving up who we are and being partially assimilated into a racist power structure, placed in the precarious position of presenting the most visible face of capitalism to working-class people. All Jews–white or people of color, wealthy or poor–have a right to be safe and to continue our people’s ways, and a responsibility to stand in solidarity with working people of color, who systemically suffer from dire poverty, mass incarceration, pressures to assimilate and other oppressive features of American society.
There’s also an interpersonal piece, the everyday glue of Antisemitism. In pre-modern Catholic Europe, that looked like blood libels, like Sunday sermons accusing Jews of killing Jesus, like caricatures of Jewish physical otherness/sickliness/alienness, etc. What might it look like today? One of my Jewish high school students recently told me a joke: “Why do Jews have such big noses? So we can smell the money in the air.” I felt immense pain in witnessing his internalized Antisemitism. His joke, while crass and literally sophomoric, was deeply and painfully familiar. I recall another moment some years ago, when I was sitting and listening while a former partner (a white Christian woman) and her family spoke about how she had needed glasses as a child. My former partner’s mother said to her, “Right, and Jessica Goldblatt [name changed] was the only other kid with glasses in kindergarten.” Her brother snorted out a laugh and said, “Of course it was Jessica Goldblatt”–he emphasized the last name–“who had glasses.” To their credit, my former partner and her mother challenged him and asked him what he meant by that, until he abashedly backed down; yet they didn’t name it as Antisemitism, and they didn’t call him in to work on undoing his Antisemitism.
We all knew what he meant; we are all familiar with the stereotypes of Jews as physically weak and sickly. Many of us are not conscious that these stereotypes are used to demonize Jews by portraying us as parasitical sources of contagion, like in the American Nazi leaflet that accuses us of “poisoning” Christian families. Few non-Jewish allies stand up to interrupt such stereotypes and explicitly name their connection to Antisemitic structural violence. Where is the organized non-Jewish movement to resist Antisemitism within a collective liberation framework?
We also see how much disproportionate attention George Soros gets for his wealth and how wealth gets marked as Jewish despite its dominant white, Christian character. Jewish landlords in working-class people of color neighborhoods get called out, often quite rightly, for exploitation while the white Christian ruling class keeps on quietly owning the banks, offering subprime mortgages, foreclosing on working people, and owning the land in rich white suburbs where their profits are made discreetly, far away from the public eye. Even when the Occupy movement arose and called out the exploitative greed of the 1% ruling class, the movement generally failed to name the whiteness of the ruling class, and certainly failed to name its Christian character. Christianity remains almost totally naturalized and invisible in our society, including in leftist people’s movements. The normalization of Christianity enables the continued, unchecked exercise of abusive power by Christian people while marking and demonizing the character of Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and other non-Christians.
The whitening and political and cultural assimilation of light-skinned American Jews wasn’t the only thing to happen to Jews in that moment of deep terror in the 1940s and 50s. We also created a Jewish state in Palestine. The Christian West did not work to end Antisemitism and to provide Jews with opportunities for safety and cultural self-determination within their own borders. Instead, they encouraged and ultimately supported us to gain our safety and self-determination at the expense of the Palestinian people–and to thereby become the global scapegoat for moral anger against colonialism, a system of abusive power which the Christian West is primarily responsible for creating and controlling. Some call it ironic that we Jews who had been subjected to such terrible systemic violence and dehumanization have now subjected another people, Palestinians, to terrible systemic violence and dehumanization. In fact, it is not ironic at all, it is tragically causative, as Aurora Levins Morales explains:
So how do we move forward in this moment?
Trauma doesn’t make people into better human beings. Most of the time, trauma just makes people terrified and easier to manipulate. It makes starving Irish tenants fleeing a devastating famine willing to own slaves or homestead Native American land or police the ghettos they used to live in. It makes the formerly kidnapped and enslaved willing to set up shop in Liberia and hold their African kin in contempt. It makes the survivors of Hitler’s Final Solution be willing to…bulldoze the villages of Palestinians to make Jewish settlements, torture and kill those who resist, and still insist they are the victims here. People who have faced destruction don’t necessarily know better.
We find ourselves in scary times, with the white supremacist alt-right finding increasingly mainstream platforms for its racist, Christian hegemonic, xenophobic, misogynist ideology, including Trump’s recent appointment of Stephen Bannon, a misogynist, homophobic, Islamophobic, Antisemitic white nationalist, as his chief strategic advisor. American Nazis are finding more room for their hateful rhetoric and taking more license to harass or violently attack Muslims, Latinos, Jews, and others.
[alert] Alt-right confab in DC cheers Trump election with “Heil Trump” and Nazi salutes.
[/alert] We Jews have been terrorized and incentivized into middleman positions by abusive white Christian systems of power. These precarious positions make us vulnerable to structurally violent Antisemitism and scare us off from sticking our necks out in support of groups who are directly targeted. It is by resisting those systems, in solidarity with those who are continually targeted–with indigenous peoples, people of color, Muslims, queer people, immigrants and others–that we can all become safer together. And when we organize as Jewish communities, we can work most effectively by following the leadership of Jews of color, Jewish women, poor Jews, queer Jews and others who have gained personal experience and developed political insight from being multiply targeted.
We currently face the frightening possibility that Trump will enact his proposed national registry for Muslims. First of all, it is important for white Jews to understand that while we are certainly threatened by Trump, Bannon, and rising Antisemitism, we are not at this point front-line targets. And we need to see that this moment is in many ways simply a heightened expression of continuing state violence against people of color; those of us who have been apathetic or even reactionary have an obligation to transform and take action. We have an opportunity to step up in solidarity with Muslims, immigrants, women, people of color, and other targeted groups who have been leading this work for years.
I have been gratified to see a number of leaders in our community (including from the ADL) stepping up and declaring that should such a registry be created, we as Jews will be the first to sign up. This reminds me of the wartime bravery of the Greek Orthodox bishop and mayor of the Greek island of Zakynthos, who, when instructed by the Nazi commander of the island to produce a registry of all of the island’s Jews, arrived the next day with only two names on the list: their own. Every single member of Zakynthos’ population of 275 Jews survived.
May we merit the bravery of these two men and of all the members of the Greek resistance. May we be spared the apathy and bigotry of the majority of the Greek Christian population, who acquiesced with silence as 90,000 of their 100,000 Greek Jewish neighbors were extinguished by the Nazis.
Which brings me to my final point. While Jews absolutely should put our names down on a Muslim registry, we also carry a great deal of trauma and vulnerability to ongoing Antisemitism. Where is the mass movement of allyship from those who are safest in Trump’s America — white Christian American citizens, particularly cis-gender men? Put your name down, brothers. Disrupt the registry, protest the appointment of the white nationalist Bannon, and resist.
Join collective liberation with me.
- “The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere,” by April Rosenblum
- “[email protected], Israel and Palestine: Understanding Anti-Semitism,” by Aurora Levins Morales
- Hope Into Practice, Jewish Women Choosing Justice Despite Our Fears, by Penny Rosenwasser
- “Jews for Racial Justice Move the Conversation About Police Brutality Into White Communities,” by Dove Kent
- “Unhealed Terror,” by Cherie Brown