1930s anti-Semitic sign reading, 'Gentiles Only.' Source: Ontario Jewish Archives
Israel, Justice

Lessons on Anti-Semitism From Growing Up in Rural America

The electoral college victory of Donald Trump sent the progressive Jewish community reeling, not least because of his campaign’s naked deployment of anti-Semitic imagery and rhetoric. Just days before the election, a Trump ad linked Clinton to “global structures of power” that featured the faces of Janet Yellen, George Soros, and Lloyd Blankfein; another meme featured piles of money with a six-pointed Star of David; he told a group of Jewish GOP supporters that he “doesn’t want your money.” Steve Bannon, a well-known anti-Semite, is now Trump’s chief policy adviser.

Alt-right semitism in a meme of Hilary Clinton, shared by Donald Trump's Twitter -- and since deleted.
Alt-right semitism in a meme of Hilary Clinton, shared by Donald Trump’s Twitter — and since deleted.
After two decades of both major parties courting Jewish voters with support for Israel and appointing Jews within top cabinet positions, it was tempting to believe, along with Max Blumenthal and many others, that anti-Semitism as an organizing force in American life and politics was over. Surely, there may be a small neo-Nazi group holed up in the mountains of Idaho and occasional blowhards from the UFO wing of the Aryan Nation, but nothing like what our parents or grandparents experienced with the rise of Father Coughlin and the anti-Semitic Gotterdammerung of the red scare and Rosenberg trial. And after years of hearing Likudniks, even liberals, wielding anti-Semitism as a crude political weapon against Jewish critics of Israel, rolling one’s eyes at the yearly Yom Kippur handwringing about the rise of anti-Semitism and the precarious position of global Jewry became a kind of left-wing right-of-passage. Leave the shtetl horror stories to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL); we have real work to do fighting injustice.
While I’ve never counted myself among the Jews who see Cossacks riding down from every hilltop, I’ve also never been very sanguine about friends’ frequent assurances that all is fine in our American Zion. Unlike the majority of my progressive Jewish friends and family, I did not grow up in the city or even in the suburbs. My small town in rural California was at the time (transformed now utterly by the wine industry and California real estate speculation) white, lower middle-class, evangelical. My friends’ parents and neighbors worked construction, drove busses, climbed utility poles, sold used cars. Many were prison guards.
[pullquote align=left] One of my first girlfriends asked me blankly why Jews were so greedy.
[/pullquote]Structural racism was the built architecture of my hometown. I remember the one row of “slums” off the main street – ramshackle houses and trailer parks – where Mexican-American and Filipino farmworkers lived. The college twenty miles away was planned as a “sundown town,” in which African Americans were expected to leave by dark, right up until the 1970s. Yet anti-Semitism was also part of the texture of town life – if not the chorus, at least the melody. It was common for my school chums to talk about “Jewing someone down” on price; if you cheated someone or stole something, friends would ask if you’d “like a bagel with that”; a swastika was carved into my locker in high school, and swastikas were regularly spray-painted on the Central Coasts’ sole temple. One of my first girlfriends asked me blankly why Jews were so greedy, and there was of course the annual ritual humiliation, as the only Jew in my classroom, to explain both Chanukah and the Holocaust. When my right-wing social studies teacher forced us to listen to free-market lectures by Alan Greenspan, he prefaced them by saying “now that’s a smart Jew.” A white nationalist spat in my face; another chased after me with a baseball bat (although I was never certain if the Nazi chased after me because I was known to be Jewish, or frequently assumed to be queer).
My first inkling that the anti-Semitism of my hometown had an origin point was the day my older brother came home from a friend’s evangelical church to announce that the Jews deserved the Holocaust for rejecting Jesus. My bother’s announcement prefigured what was my mother’s strange twenty-year odyssey as the only Jewish church organist in town — maybe any town — playing in a dozen churches before she retired. How she came to be a Jewish church organist is, as they say, a long story. Put simply, she liked baroque organ music, it was a small town, and churches pay. She had a choir loft seat to small town American religious life that few outside that world have. And she experienced that world as a Jewish woman, one with a particularly well-tuned ear for anti-Semitism, having grown up in the conservative sunbelt of the outer San Fernando Valley in the 1950s.
[pullquote align=right] There is a palpable confusion one faces as both an object of discrimination and an object of privilege.
[/pullquote]She related to me a Sunday-after-Sunday barrage of anti-Semitic sermons. The sermons did not relate the Jews’ rejection of Jesus as simply a debatable historical fact; rather the rejection was something essential to Jewishness. A Catholic priest said we must “pray for the perfidious Jews”; “Jews were blind and stupid for rejecting Jesus” a Lutheran pastor argued; another Lutheran day school repeatedly sung the verse “the Jews are the Pharisees and the Pharisees are hypocrites;” my mother was asked by a priest if “Jewish fingers” could play “Christian hymns.” The sermons were “week after week” she said. When she asked one parishioner why the pastor repeated the same sermon about the Jews, the parishioner responded, “it brings in converts.”
Quickly she learned to keep quiet about her ethno-cultural identity. When pressed, she would give a sly smile, a side-eye, and respond that she was a “lapsed Zoroastrian.”
As April Rosenblum writes in her influential pamphlet “The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere,” anti-Semitism can be hard to spot and talk about, as it doesn’t look like other forms of racial and religious oppression. Eighty to ninety percent of the U.S.’s six million Jews are Ashkenazi; many members of this community are white, middle class and do not face the forms of state violence, environmental racism, underemployment, displacement, and incarceration faced by people of color and the poor. There is a palpable confusion one faces as both an object of discrimination and an object of privilege. Anti-Semitism often describes Jews as clever, even powerful. Yet as insightful as Rosenblum’s pamphlet is, it doesn’t help much to describe the sudden rise of Trump’s anti-Semitism; indeed, she treats it as a kind of transhistorical fact.
Screenshot of Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen from a dog-whistle Antisemitic campaign ad featuring high-profile Jews in financial positions.
Screenshot from an antisemitic Trump campaign TV ad featuring high-profile Jews in financial positions, such as Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, financeer George Soros, and Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen.
As racial theorists Michael Omi and Howard Winant propose in their classic Racial Formation in the United States, racism is the product of institutions and political coalitions, from the state violence of ethnic cleansing to legal regimes of Jim Crow to segregated labor markets. Using the work of Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci, “racial formations” are hegemonic blocs that seek to take power through racial projects, whether progressive in the name of affirmative action and antiracism, or reactionary, in the name of white supremacy and mass incarceration. In other words, racism is not primary a psychological issue as it’s often discussed, a question of hate or fear (the phase “Islamophobia” has always bothered me, as if anti-Muslim acts are primarily a question of affect). The production of race is a question of shifting power blocs and political projects that allow such fears, feelings, affects, to harden into public acts and legal codes as a means of and a cause for seizing power.
Many of my friends who grew up in “blue America,” in big cities or central suburbs, have told me they’ve never experienced an anti-Semitic slur. Growing up in rural America, I experienced them constantly. I have no animus against Christianity, and applaud the many churches that have been on the front lines of the struggle for racial justice since America’s violent foundation. Yet my experience with conservative Christianity in rural America was to observe an institutional site of anti-Semitic thought, or at least a space in which such thought is considered normal and acceptable. This extends to other institutions in which right-wing Christianity holds hegemonic power. In what Stephen Glade refers to as the “Christianization of the army,” specifically the officer corps, Christian anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim bias pervades the military, affecting everything from performance reviews, promotion, and assignments. To paraphrase a recent internet meme, anti-Semitism may not explain Trump voters, for evangelicals, who were a major part of Trump’s electoral coalition, it wasn’t a dealbreaker, either.
Which is to say, right-wing anti-Semitism never went anywhere. It may have been buried under a consensus between traditional liberal and conservative parties that support Israel; it was quieted by the always-louder voices of anti-black racism; dampened by the sheer architectural terror of border fences, prison walls, and police sirens. And yet it should be understand as a central part of Trump’s message.
[pullquote align=right] Reconnecting anti-Semitism to the intellectual and political infrastructure of global white supremacy is one the many tasks ahead.
[/pullquote]Amid the economic populism that fueled the campaign, the image of the Jewish financier, on piles of money, chairing the Fed, as CEO of Goldman-Sachs became not only a nod to the prejudices of Trump’s right-wing base, it served as part of its affective infrastructure. Lacking a critique of capitalism, anti-Semitism serves (the pre-War German left was fond of saying) as the socialism of fools. That Steven Bannon is both the Trump administration’s most vocal critic of the U.S. financial sector and it’s most visible anti-Semite should come as no surprise; indeed, it’s almost a wonder it’s taken this long for anyone to notice.
If there is any silver lining to the Trump campaign’s naked anti-Semitism, my hope is that it may help to disentangle many of myths around anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. For the last twenty years it’s been taken as an article of faith in both liberal and conservative circles that the strongest currents of anti-Semitic thought and action in the U.S. are part of the campaign to boycott, divest, and sanction (BDS) Israel for its ongoing occupation of Palestinian land and blockade of Gaza. In Hillary Clinton’s most recent speech before AIPAC, combatting anti-Semitism was synonymous with combatting the BDS movement and other critics of Israel. As Roger Cohen wrote in the New York Times, it is the internationalist left that is currently responsible for the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe and an imagined scourge of anti-Semitism on college campuses. For the last two decades, the image of the anti-Semite has not been a right-wing evangelical or an “alt-right” white nationalist; it has been a campus anti-Zionist activist wearing a Keffiyeh.
As a long-time veteran of progressive social movements and also of the BDS movement, I have never experienced the kind of anti-Semitism there that I experienced in my hometown. Are there sometimes crazy conspiracy theories about Israel? Yes. Do people say insensitive things? Of course. However, whatever anti-Semitism I experienced in my years in Students for Justice in Palestine did not compare to the many years of verbal, and sometimes quite literal, violence I experienced as one of the few Jews in a rural, conservative, evangelical community. SJP is a human rights organization dedicated to the liberation of all peoples. There is no comparison between it and the political project of white nationalism or Christian supremacy.
[pullquote align=left] It is not a question of progressive Jewish tradition or Tikkun Olam, it is a question of long-term continued survival.
[/pullquote]For progressive Jews, reconnecting anti-Semitism to the intellectual and political infrastructure of global white supremacy is one the many tasks ahead. There are ample examples of directions not to take. As pro-Israel critics and organizations refuse to attack to Trump over his selection of Bannon, we are beginning to witness a real split in the Jewish community, as it decides whether its support for Israel will outweigh its resistance to white supremacy. Even as the ADL lashes out at Trump’s anti-Semitism, it recently ruptured its ties with African American activists over their stance on Israel – condemning the Movement for Black Lives’ embrace of Palestinian rights and their critique of Israeli policy. As one African American Jewish writer noted, “I naively assumed that…a civil rights organization which presses for equal treatment under the law would have problems with a nearly 50-year illegal occupation in defiance of UN resolutions. ”
Rather than side with Israel over our allies of color in the U.S., it is Jewish alliances with activists of color that will defeat white supremacy in all its forms — whether in the U.S., or in Israel and Palestine. Linking Jewish fate with a racial state that engages in what looks like apartheid to most of the world does more than corrode “Jewish values,” it isolates us from our natural allies in the U.S. The decision to support a democratic state in the lands west of the Jordan River is not anti-Semitic — it is quite the opposite. It is to recognize that it is in long-term Jewish interest to defeat forms of racist power wherever they may exist. It is not a question of progressive Jewish tradition or Tikkun Olam, it is a question of long-term continued survival.   As Israel is itself born out of a racially-defined nationalist project, it seems there is a little question which direction AIPAC and other groups like it will take. Their ongoing support for Israel is not only reactionary and unethical, we need to understand it as short-sighted and dangerous as well.
[pullquote align=right] It may be difficult and even embarrassing to insist on including an analysis of anti-Semitism.
[/pullquote]In that sense, Jews need to rethink the passive politics of “allyship,” which assumes that Euro-American Jews should align with the struggles of people of color out of a desire for justice, perhaps the goodness of our hearts. As one activist said to me, “that’s fine if you’re a good person, but I want to know what skin you have in the game.” To fight anti-Semitism we are going to need an intersectional analysis. Intersectionality often sounds easy on paper but in practice it is difficult and complicated. Not all oppressions look the same, feel the same, have the same structural and institutional features.
To many in movements for racial justice, Jews with European ancestry will be understood, quite rightly, as white people with all the social and legal benefits that go with it. It may be difficult and even embarrassing to insist on including an analysis of anti-Semitism when hate crimes are being committed against Muslims on the street and undocumented immigrants are threatened with deportation. But anti-Semitism is part of the cultural and political formations of white supremacy, and we need to acknowledge that defeating it is in our self-interest as well.
It is also in the self-interest of any group fighting injustice. Anti-Semitism obscures the real sources of economic and political power. The Rothschilds are not the reason the banking sector collapsed in 2008; “New York values” do not explain a skyrocketing divorce rate; Israel is not the puppet-master guiding the strings of U.S. imperial policy in the Middle East, however much their interests may align. Unless we can address these twin facts openly and honestly, we will neither be able to defeat a Trump presidency — nor help bring peace to Israelis and Palestinians.

8 thoughts on “Lessons on Anti-Semitism From Growing Up in Rural America

  1. Isn’t it hypocritical to promote boycotts and sanctions of Israel because of concerns over racism there when white supremacy is resurging in America?

  2. Dear Electoral College Voters:
    There is still time to stop Donald Trump from becoming President by changing Electoral College voters’ minds. Many agree that Donald Trump has narcissistic personality disorder. His actions indicate that he may also have the much more dangerous borderline personality disorder. I spent ten years studying borderline personality disorder and wrote a book about it; I tell the stories of numerous notable people to illustrate the impact of the condition. Princess Diana, Marilyn Monroe, Mao Zedong, and Adolf Hitler had this mental illness.
    There are nine diagnostic criteria for borderline personality disorder (also called emotionally unstable personality disorder); a person must display five of the nine to be diagnosed. President-elect Trump appears to display seven of the signs of borderline personality disorder:
    1) Extreme faultfinding. The most important symptom is constantly finding faults in others and themselves. They see everything in black-and-white, all-good or all-bad terms. Those who disagree with them are all-bad. Borderlines inwardly criticize themselves but won’t admit it. Many of their actions are aimed at countering their poor self-image. This may include aggressive self-promotion and putting others down. They often blame all their problems on others while playing the role of victim. Borderlines rarely if ever apologize for their hurtful actions.
    2) Reckless impulsivity in spending, sex, or other areas. Trump’s businesses have declared bankruptcy four times and he has been a plaintiff or defendant in some 3,500 lawsuits. In the area of sex, his comments about his sexual assaults are revealing. He has gone through three wives. He has owned the Miss USA Pageant, alternately oogling naked contestants while they were dressing and later criticizing them.
    3) Intense mood swings. When Borderlines are questioned about their beliefs or actions they take it to be a personal attack. So volatile are these individuals that dealing with them is called “walking on eggshells.” Twitter rants!
    4) Intense and even uncontrolled anger. This was a defining theme of Trump’s campaign. He frequently expresses it and thrills in provoking it in his audiences.
    5) Serious identity disturbances. Borderlines often change their personalities and beliefs to match the people around them in order to be accepted or to gain an identity. It is hard to know what Trump really believes. He espouses different beliefs almost as often as the seasons change. For example, his political affiliations have been Democrat, Republican, Reformed Party, Democrat, Republican, Independent and now Republican. These individuals are often control freaks, feeling so out of control themselves that they try to bring stability to their lives by controlling others. Borderlines can also be hard to distinguish from sociopaths because they feel entitled to do whatever they want to others.
    6) Chronic feelings of emptiness. In order to fight these feelings Borderlines can become obsessed with seeking unending stimulation, possessions, love and admiration. No matter what you do for them, they are never satisfied. They can never have enough. Observe Trump’s bottomless pit of neediness for attention and ostentatious displays of wealth. Does he really care about others? Trump has been called “The least charitable billionaire in the world.”
    7) Transient stress-related paranoia or unreality episodes. Trump’s utterances display his paranoid ideas about all the bad people he imagines. His statements about how Congress and the world will run when he is President extend into the realm of unreality as do his tweet rants and conspiracy theories. Borderlines are notorious for lying and operating on the premise that their feelings make facts instead of facts making facts. This is emotional reasoning instead of logical reasoning. They accept delusions over facts in order to believe they don’t make mistakes and to confirm their view of the world.
    I cannot speak to whether or not President-elect Trump has displayed the last two symptoms of borderline personality disorder – suicide attempts/self-mutilation and frantic efforts to avoid abandonment – as I have not seen these on public display. Nevertheless, he seems to exhibit seven of the nine criteria for borderline personality disorder while only five are required for the diagnosis.
    Six percent of the population have this hard to recognize mental illness while only one in four is diagnosed. Many of the seventy-five percent who are never diagnosed are “high-functioning” and can be very successful as doctors, lawyers, professors and CEOs of companies. Unfortunately, they can make the lives of those who have to live or work with them miserable. And, borderline personality disorder is the deadliest mental illness in all of human history. The two psychological biographies of Adolf Hitler, The psychopathic god: Adolf Hitler and Hitler’s psychopathology both agree that he had borderline personality disorder. He was responsible for at least twenty-one million killed. Mao Zedong was diagnosed as Borderline by his physician of twenty-two years. He was responsible for seventy million killed.
    The thought of Adolf Hitler having nuclear weapons is terrifying. If Donald Trump has the same mental illness as Hitler, the terror is orders of magnitude greater. He could start a war that would destroy humanity and render our planet virtually uninhabitable. We need to know Donald Trump’s true mental health status. You can learn more by talking to psychologists who specialize in treating “high functioning” Borderlines, through my book Faultfinders: The impact of borderline personality disorder or by contacting me directly. I would be happy to discuss my observations of President-elect Trump’s mental status.
    I encourage you to share this information with others, including members of the Electoral College.
    Mark Osterloh, MD, JD, RPh
    P.O. Box 4310
    Palm Desert, CA 92261
    [email protected]

  3. Terrific article! Just a note on some phrasing that stood out to me:
    In the 2nd last paragraph where it says, “Jews with European ancestry will be understood, quite rightly, as white people,” maybe it could say “some Jews with European ancestry”? Since there are many Ashkenazi Jews of color. Anyway, thanks for this great piece!

  4. Yes, thanks for the correction. I think many people import Israeli distinctions bet Ashkenazi and Sephardic/Mizrahi/Beta Jews to the U.S. and assume they always break down neatly into categories of “white” and “POC,” when as you point out, many (if not perhaps most?) Jews of color in the U.S. are Ashkenazi Jews with non-white parent(s). Sorry to have perpetuated that myth!

  5. My only response is what Benjamin failed to mention in his tight rope walk between the kind of reductionary, class distinctions made on the Left of those who deserve concern and empathy, and the hatred on the Right he experienced in rural California. He did not bring up the experiment in Russia to achieve equity through Marxism, a political ideology which drew upon the hopes and dreams of non religious Jews, who played a significant role. He did not bring up Marx’s views, or the selective discrimination by the Russian communist party and it’s affiliates throughout Europe, who banked on an political ideology that tossed them out on their ear, for no other reason than they were Jews, even if trying to submerge their identity by changing their names and divorcing themselves in every way from their heritage. That ain’t the Right, and should remain as a reminder to Jews that it’s dandy to care for about the downtrodden throughout the country and the world, unless they want your ass in a sling. Don’t we know by now that Leftist ideology is not exempt from beliefs about who deserves advocacy and protection, and I can tell you, it sure ain’t the Jew, regardless where she/he lives.

  6. This article would have been much more interesting if you stuck to the headline and did not devolve into Israel-bashing (and please stop referring to those who don’t agree with you as Likudniks; I am an American, not an Israeli).
    I grew up in New York City where anti-Semitic remarks were rare. But I have lived in red rural Pennsylvania for 25 years and the phrase “Jew you down” is common. So is the never-ending Christian proselytizing. I’d also like to add that, according to FBI statistics, the majority of hate crimes in the U.S. are aimed at Jews.

  7. I have always known that anti-Semitism is everywhere. When I was 5 I didn’t buy Welches candy because of his support for the Klan. When I was 11 a cross was burned in my front yard. I grew up in the mountains of Pennsylvania. I was frequently beat up there. When I came to Maryland, I didn’t realize that the anti-intellectualism that caused me to not want to be a good student (so as to be more popular) was anti-Semitic. When the Pope finally spoke out and Catholics were told the Jews were not to be blamed for the death of their savior, I didn’t think it ended anti-Semitism. People are always looking for someone or something to blame for their misfortunes. I have always been one of the blamed. And when I became a professional and joined teams I learned that I could gain favor (and increase team productivity and even receive bonuses) by overtly taking responsibility for the errors and problems. Like a priest I absolved my fellows of blame.
    I don’t like what Israel has become nor what it does. And I have no confidence that I can actually go to Israel and belong, even though I speak fluent Hebrew and am a Jew because even Jews hate Jews.
    So, I am for a society in which people are not Jews, Catholics, Muslims or even ascribe to a nationality because those things we label ourselves with become objects to be hated for. I see myself as very lucky to be alive, to never have felt starvation nor some war implement injury nor a horrible sickness. So I try to help the unlucky because it is not their fault and enlightened self interest makes me feel that some day I may be unlucky and need someone to help me. We did not choose to be born who we are. But we can choose to become better.

  8. My brother and sister used to get so dark in the summer that people though they were Puerto Rican. Even in the winter they were darker than the average White person. I take after the pale side of the family.
    “wielding anti-Semitism as a crude political weapon against Jewish critics of Israel,”
    That may be true for some Likudniks, but I believe that most Jews are not using “antisemitism as a crude weapon” they really believe the antisemitism is real. I once tried to convince a right wing Jew that Obama was not an antisemite. He really believed it.

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