How To Not Fight Antisemitism
Throughout the four years of the Trump administration, the rising threat of right-wing antisemitism, and the broader exclusionary ethnonationalism of which it was a core part, spurred a wave of organizing and discussion across the Jewish Left- and for good reason. But what about under Biden?
The first issue of Jewish Currents– today’s hip, prominent Jewish Left magazine- to hit our doorsteps in the Biden era promised to tackle this question head-on. Provocatively displaying a glaring, juicy, Jewy nose on the front cover, this issue of Currents sought to make an intervention, at once edgy and politically relevant, in the anti-antisemitism debate.
The editors of Currents are astute, perceptive, well-admired Brooklyn literati, holding well-deserved clout in the Jewish and broader Left commentary world for their powerful work. Their Responsa, a collectively written editorial opening the magazine, was entitled ‘How Not To Fight Antisemitism’– a play on ‘How To Fight Antisemitism’, a campaign website tracking antisemitic statements and far-right connections among right-wing leaders maintained by the progressive Jewish group Bend the Arc- and amounted to a sharp critique of Jewish Left organizing against antisemitism in the Trump era.
As a researcher at a progressive think tank, Political Research Associates, who monitors and trains on antisemitism and white nationalism, I was angered and saddened by how backwards and wrong-headed the thrust of the Responsa was. I take its title literally- indulging its contrarianism, its aloofness, its subtle both-sides-ism, its undercurrent of shaming, is a great way to not fight antisemitism. While it elicited hearty approval from a vocal subset of the Jewish Twitter commentariat, it was panned by the leaders of Jewish justice organizations such as Bend the Arc, IfNotNow, Jews Against White Nationalism, and others who had been leading on-the-ground campaigns fighting antisemitism in the Trump years (full disclosure- I work closely with many of them).
Calling Out Conspiracy Theories is Important
First I should say- there were some parts of the piece I agreed with. I have long concurred that a certain overfixation on coded or implicit antisemitic ‘tropes’ in right-wing discourse, risks diluting a nuanced understanding of antisemitism and blunting a deeper comprehension of our political moment. For example, the word ‘globalist’, uttered so frequently on the Right, can surely evoke the contours of a Protocols-esque international cabal- but if our analysis stops at ‘antisemitism!!’, we risk missing deeper lessons.
Right-wing anti-globalism expresses a stunted and partial critique of the perils of neoliberal globalization, entrenched inequality and U.S. interventionism, taps into the real resentment felt by millions of suffering Americans against political elites, and channels all this into the politics of cultural grievance and chauvinist, xenophobic nationalism. The Left must remain attuned to this appeal of anti-globalism and offer up our own liberatory alternatives to neoliberalism- and a simple charge of antisemitism, true though it may sometimes be, doesn’t get us all the way there.
But this is hardly indicative of some specifically Jewish pathology. Broad sectors of liberals and leftists risk a similar overreach, in my opinion, through overuse of the word ‘fascism’ when describing every reactionary phenomenon under the Trumpian sun. This can be frustrating for journalists, academics and activists yearning for a more nuanced analysis- and I get it- but calls for such analysis shouldn’t be used to stigmatize or dampen the energy of those working on the ground to fight the rising racist Right. That’s what happened here.
Moreover, the Jewish Left organizers mentioned in the Responsa knew this tension and this risk. They debated these questions as they crafted a calculated strategy, informed by close collaboration with non-Jewish movement partners, to meet the Jewish community where they were at, and block the strategic barrage of bad-faith antisemitism accusations against the Left by redirecting outrage onto the racist Right, where it belongs. Bend the Arc’s How to Fight Antisemitism website, from which the Responsa cherry-picked one of hundreds of posts, was one part of a broader and successful campaign to expose the connections between the far right and Republican candidates. Many organizers are correctly frustrated that the Responsa, despite positioning itself ‘alongside’ the movement, provided readers with only a sloppy, surface-level engagement with the actual work.
It’s easy to roll your eyes sometimes at the ‘trope detector’ game- in some of its excesses I have too. At the same time, the long-term threat posed by the proliferation of antisemitic and conspiratorial rhetoric across the Right to Jews, and to the Left, should not be minimized now that Trump has left the White House. Conspiracies pitting ‘we, the people’ against a fetishized image of global elites- sourced from the playbook of modern antisemitism, whether or not every such image takes on explicitly Jewish contours- are now the beating heart of the populist Right, helping fuel an ideological assemblage of paranoia, demonization, scapegoating, apocalypticism and militant aggression.
They helped motivate thousands to storm the Capitol, and thousands more to attack Black Lives Matter on the streets in 2020, flout COVID-19 public health safety measures, and more. They motivated millions to vote twice for Trump, and motivated a few to attack synagogues, mosques, Black churches, Latinx communities, and more. There’s nothing ‘ephemeral’ or secondary about them- they are a material force.
Those of us who monitor white nationalists know how excited they are that millions of Trump supporters across the US now view George Soros as a sinister puppet master, and enthusiastically long to punish ‘globalists’ and ‘New York liberals’. The proliferation of these implicitly antisemitic tropes, gives dedicated antisemites ample opportunities to redpill Trump supporters towards explicit Jew-hatred, and recruit them into their movements.
In an era when the Left often struggles to grasp the forces we’re up against, we need more campaigns experimenting with creative ways of challenging the Right’s culture of conspiracy. Meeting the Jewish community where they’re at, appealing to our valid concerns about our community’s safety, and speaking the language of identity politics, is a solid and appropriate lane for a progressive Jewish nonprofit to meet this challenge.
Fighting Antisemitism is Important
Moreover, dismissing explicit antisemitic rhetoric as ‘vacant signifiers’, minimizing acts of antisemitic violence as ‘rare’ and downplaying the importance of taking on antisemitism as leftists- all amounts to a dreadful miscalculation. Antisemitism operates and manifests in many ways that are distinct from other forms of oppression (which isn’t to say it’s ‘exceptional’ or ‘special’- every form of oppression carries distinct characteristics).
Broadly speaking, modern antisemitism– with its grand conspiracy narratives of nefarious and demonic elites, pulling the strings of government, the economy, media, social movements, and the like- is a discursive formation and a political ideology that is structurally embedded within, rises with, and helps to fuel right-wing populist, nationalist and fascist movements. It can spread in times of widespread popular discontent and polarization like our own, through the manipulation of symbols, ideas, rumors and conspiracy, in explicit and implicit form. Its emergence and growth doesn’t mean that some or all Jews are immediately politically, economically or socially disenfranchised- though that can certainly happen along the way.
Antisemitic tropes aren’t somehow disembodied ghosts, holdovers from the past, haunting us now and again, but ultimately detached from our 21st-century era of deep neoliberal inequity, rising illiberalism, authoritarianism and exclusionary nationalism. They are an organic feature of our political era, and they aren’t going away anytime soon.
Perhaps most importantly, the Responsa completely misses that on a fundamental level, the Left project of fighting antisemitism isn’t just about us. When capitalism is in crisis, the circulation of antisemitic conspiracy theories helps keep people confused about the true nature of the systems that hold many different forms of oppression in place. Millions of people are convinced a liberal pedophile cabal is running the show, when really, it’s racial capitalism that makes the world so unjust and frightening for most of us, while a few rest easy.
Conspiracies that George Soros is orchestrating Black Lives Matter, immigration, LGBTQ justice struggles, and more are an ideological lynchpin of the many right-wing movements the Left is up against in our era of reactionary nativism. (Antisemitism can confuse the Left, too, which is an important topic beyond the scope of this current debate, though perhaps it shouldn’t be.) The Left won’t win a better world unless we all end antisemitism. This emancipatory horizon of Jewish Left anti-antisemitism work- which stayed front and center for Jewish Left organizing under Trump- is effectively obscured by the Responsa’s portrayal of that organizing as primarily an identitarian reaction to attacks on Jewish communities (though that’s also important, and valid).
Of course we need to remain attuned to realities of material conditions, to the ‘realities of Jewish life’, to the race and class privileges many Jews hold. But the idea that organizing against antisemitism centrally, raising consistent alarm about its tropes, inevitably leads to a disavowal of these ‘real conditions’, and causes us to retreat to a fantasyland of perpetual victimhood, is flat out wrong and disempowering. If we shouldn’t instinctively regard every trope “as a track laid on the way to an American Auschwitz”, as the Responsa puts it, neither should we overlook that the steady circulation of these tropes, and the hegemonic ascent of this conspiratorial mindset, primes broad swathes of the American public to think in categories that were genocidal for our communities in the very recent past, and absolutely puts us in danger today.
We cannot think solely in the categories of, nor be fueled solely by the traumas of the recent past; but neither can we naively assume that the relative privileges and safety Jews have enjoyed over the last 60-odd years of the Western liberal order- an order which is bursting at the seams- are somehow inviolate and immovable. The contemporary resurgence of antisemitism as a political force in our era shows that the modern world has not ‘closed the book’ on its Jewish Question. These are our ‘material conditions’, and in meeting them, we need to remain flexible and vigilant in our thought and action.
Self-flagellation- it gets old
But the Responsa makes few substantive claims on what antisemitism is in our world, or how to fight it. After kvetching that Jewish progressives played ‘fast and loose’ with the trope detector game in 2020, it pivots to a broader grievance that Jewish Leftists who focus their attention on the fight against antisemitism betray a solipsistic narcissism.
Tracing a wobbly and ambiguous arc from widely recognized arch-villains like the Jewish Daily Forward and the ADL, to a few obviously ludicrous antisemitism accusations by university presidents and a bad-faith accusation against then-candidate Raphael Warnock (the type of accusation that, ironically enough, groups like Bend the Arc were on the front lines of blocking), the Responsa claims that Jewish Left groups that take on antisemitism centrally as a political strategy, run a great risk of similarly ‘making it all about the Jews too much’, contributing to broader myopic and bad-faith tendencies of anti-antisemitism discourse in society. Since there’s already a problematic tendency to exceptionalize narratives of Jewish victimhood in our society, they argue, Jewish Leftists should be more circumspect in front-loading the oppression we face, lest we trigger a “reflexive obsession with Jewish victimhood”. At a certain point, it’s just uncouth, they signal. We wouldn’t want to yell about it too loudly- that’s just embarrassing!
Every few years, the Jewish Left self-flagellates for ‘centering ourselves too much’. There’s an “undeniable catharsis”, borrowing the Responsa’s words, to making this charge. I get it. I used to scoff at supposed left Jewish ‘navel-gazing’, ‘obsessing over victimhood’, etc., frequently. One of the worst sins committed by Jewish liberals, my comrades and I told each other, was that they centered themselves as Jews in leftist organizing spaces when really, our primary role is to be allies for others. That shame-ridden voice still echoes in my head, every time I write about white nationalist antisemitism. Am I centering myself too much? Will my non-Jewish comrades think it’s cringey?
Of course, one should actively subvert the tendency towards myopic victimhood that can manifest across Jewish Right, center and liberal anti-antisemitism discourse, clouding clear political vision and foreclosing the possibilities of solidarity. Bend the Arc’s campaign did exactly this by prioritizing an intersectional approach, presenting antisemitism not as an isolated phenomenon but as deeply connected with other kinds of oppression, and mobilizing Jews to stand in solidarity with other marginalized groups.
On the Jewish Left, the charge of ‘navel-gazing’ can function (even if unintentionally) to shame each other for trying to take on principled work against antisemitism, messy and imperfect as all work is. That’s what can happen with this Responsa, regardless of the editors’ intentions.
It tracks with an oft-noted dynamic of internalized oppression, that can appear in any community working to understand, name and mobilize against forms of oppression they face. ‘Don’t make this about yourself,’ folks can signal to each other. ‘You’re making too big a deal, taking up too much space, distracting from more important work at hand’- as if there’s suddenly scarcity in the ways we can show up for each other.
This can manifest acutely for Jews on the Left, because antisemitism often operates differently from the grinding, daily reality of structural race and class oppression the Left is used to understanding. For Jews with white and/or class privilege especially, it’s doubly tempting to feel selfish, and doubt yourself, for even daring to talk about antisemitism. This insidious shame and confusion is reinforced by steady insinuations of ‘navel-gazing’ and ‘obsession over victimhood’ that play on internalized fears, telegraphed to Jews on the Left from a number of sources- fears that we’re too much, we’re taking up too much space, that we have no right to ask our comrades to show up with us, and for us, against antisemitism.
It would be foolish to accuse the Currents editors of malicious intent, and foolhardy to diagnose them with internalized antisemitism. But the finger-wagging in the second half of the Responsa can easily have this impact on a Jewish Left readership that looks to this magazine for political guidance, especially because the piece is suffused with a frustrating ambiguity. The Responsa never deigns to specify which tactics exactly are ‘navel-gazing’; any Jewish Left project centered on antisemitism, they signal, reeks of it.
This is dangerous and wrong-headed. The conditions that produced Charlottesville, Tree of Life, Trump haven’t changed. Trump was not the dying gasp but the opening salvo of a mass rightist politics of scapegoating and violence. In its first four years those mass politics have already produced the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history. It was and remains appropriate for Jews to take on antisemitism centrally in our work.
In these kinds of sideswipes, there’s never a positive vision of ‘how to fight antisemitism’- the charge is simply, you’re doing it wrong. By failing to foreground a substantive alternative, such a posture cedes the fight against antisemitism to the right, for them to lead the fight on their terms, in isolationist and institutionally violent ways. We cannot cede this terrain to them any longer; the last four years of bad-faith accusations against progressive leaders of color demonstrates that it doesn’t strengthen any part of the Left to do so.
Still Leaving Egypt
I agree that under Biden, tracking tropes across right-wing discourse shouldn’t be the whole strategy. (It never was.) The white nationalist movement is in retreat (for now). There’s no consensus on what left antisemitism is or how to fight it. Like the broader Left, the Jewish Left is at a crossroads. But now’s not the time to go ‘back to brunch’ on antisemitism. It remains the task of the Jewish Left to take it on, in all its forms.
The Responsa ends by quoting my 2018 article on April Rosenblum’s pamphlet ‘The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere’. Rosenblum offered the hope that after a long time in the wilderness, Jews on the Left, in taking on antisemitism, are “taking the time to look inwards and strengthen their own voices, gain confidence that they are worth fighting for…it takes a solid core of people in a targeted group being sure of what they want and gaining the courage to reach out and ask [others] to be their allies before a trend of thinking about liberation starts to spread.”
Regardless of the authors’ intent, I fear that the impact of the Responsa’s public takedown of the leading Jewish Left campaign against antisemitism- appearing on our doorsteps, ironically enough, during Pesach- is that it undercuts this confidence, pulling us right back into the Mitzrayim of shame and constriction that we have worked hard, in recent years, to emerge from. Don’t let one subset of “very online lefty Jews” (borrowing their words) confuse you into thinking you’re cringey or shadowboxing for wanting to take on antisemitism centrally in your work. It was vital under Trump and it’s still important.