The Left and the New Fight against Antisemitism
With the publication of Understanding Antisemitism, a 44-page pamphlet from Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, following closely on the heels of Jewish Voice for Peace’s controversial book On Antisemitism, we can observe a shift from discussion of “the new antisemitism” (in whatever form that is meant by those who use it) to discussion of the new fight against antisemitism.
The two are intertwined, of course. Like antisemitism itself, any fight against antisemitism highlights political, social, and economic dynamics that are both venerable and of long standing as well as current and specific to this particular historical moment. In particular, broad differences exist between the coalitions gathered under the headings of “left” and “right,” which demonstrate the continued viability of those categories and the prematurity of attempts to declare them dead or irrelevant. I will attempt to say something about what “fighting antisemitism” means to each of these coalitions, inevitably speaking reductively and simplifying internal differences within each camp for the sake of getting the point across.
When the right talks about “fighting antisemitism,” it means “frustrating particular schemes of certain individuals or groups to do physical or psychological harm to (some) Jews.” Since it construes the State of Israel as the institution most prominently and permanently constituted for this purpose, its program of “fighting antisemitism” tends to be restricted to defense of that state and of its security policies, as well as of its oppression of the Palestinians insofar as that oppression is defined as a necessary part of state security. This means that the right’s claim to “fight antisemitism” necessarily entails two corollaries: 1) The oppression of Palestinians; 2) An inability to confront or sometimes even to see antisemitism if it emanates from quarters that vocally proclaim support for the State of Israel (e.g. Steve Bannon at the ZOA gala). Finally, because the right broadly subscribes to conservative understandings of human nature which view not only hierarchies of difference (i.e. of gender, race, nationality) but also attitudes towards those differences as inherent to the species, the right typically sees bigotry as perennial and ineradicable. This view, which has its origins in counter-Enlightenment reaction and Romanticism, is the origin of all nationalist appeals to the superiority of separate nations living separately, whether those of nineteenth-century Zionists or of contemporary white nationalists. Therefore, when the right speaks of “fighting” antisemitism, it does not and never can mean eliminating or overcoming antisemitism. Instead, it takes the perennial existence of antisemitism for granted as the foundational justification for Zionism.
By contrast, when the left talks about fighting antisemitism, just as when it talks about fighting racism, cis-heteropatriarchy, and capitalism, it envisions a world in which these phenomena do not exist. This is the source of its utopian energy, and this is why conservatives have always been skeptical of the left. Nonetheless, it is a pivotal difference that emerges immediately from any reading of left treatments of antisemitism. Thus, when the left speaks of fighting antisemitism, it does not stop with “frustrating particular schemes of certain individuals or groups to do physical or psychological harm to Jews.” It means that, but not only that. Rather, as with other oppressions the left seeks to combat, it defines antisemitism as a set of relations that is at work across a particular, patterned, historical configuration of civilization, neither permanent nor inevitable, even if it spans centuries and continents. This means that for the left, fighting antisemitism entails the possibility of defeating it.
Progress toward such a victory, however, is primarily measurable not by the number of guns in Jewish hands, but by the level of felt solidarity between Jews and other groups struggling for recognition and survival. The more Jews are able to work together with others for shared liberation, the more it becomes clear that a world in which Jews and non-Jews live, love, and work together is possible, and the less necessary the gloomy vision of separatist nationalism will seem for all involved. That necessarily includes Palestinians, and therefore the left must commit to a strategy for fighting antisemitism that also entails Palestinian liberation. This is a source of confusion for many, especially those who are new to the complex history of Zionism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the right takes advantage of this confusion to drive a wedge between progressive Jews and a left that they often justifiably see as committed to the liberation of everyone except them (see: the litany of “does intersectionality include Jews” articles). Such alienation experientially reinforces the fundamental right-wing narrative of perennial antisemitism, creating an intuitive sense of the correctness of the conservative vision, potentially creating a vicious spiral that drives these Jews further to the right. At the same time, both Jews and non-Jews committed to justice and democracy in Israel/Palestine, insofar as they lack the ability to convince Jews more broadly that Palestinian liberation is necessary not just as a matter of human rights or charity but as part of the very “solution to the Jewish question” itself (the solution that Zionism was supposed to provide but could not as long as it meant embroiling scarred and traumatized refugees in a generational armed conflict to defend a fortress state), they will also lack the ability to confront the charges of antisemitism directed at them.
It is in this sense that we can understand why JFREJ has chosen to call their pamphlet An Offering to Our Movement. The authors hope to provide both Jews and non-Jews on the left a means to theorize antisemitism that will allow them to confront it confidently in both speech and action, without worrying that they are running afoul of “good leftist” understandings of privilege and intersectionality, or falling into right-wing traps. I think they succeed in this necessary and admirable goal to a great degree, and therefore any criticisms I offer should be understood in reciprocal fashion, as an offering to their offering, for the strengthening of their efforts. As they themselves write, “it is not an exhaustive or academic examination of any subject . . . It is only one resource and one perspective in a complex and ongoing conversation. It is not the last word—or the last word from JFREJ—on this topic.” In this spirit, I address my remaining remarks to just a few aspects of their text, highlighting a few areas in which I see potential for the conversation to evolve in useful directions or in which I think it important to accept the authors’ invitation to supplement what they have written with additional dimensions. I have grouped these aspects as follows: 1) What Antisemitism Is; 2) Religion; 3) Geopolitics.
I. What Antisemitism Is
Understanding Antisemitism follows in the footsteps of April Rosenblum’s now-classic 2007 pamphlet-zine, The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere: Making Resistance to Antisemitism Part of All of Our Movements. It is open about this debt, citing Rosenblum in its epigraph and thanking her in its acknowledgments. Coming ten years later, it clearly responds to a felt need for a renewed and updated version of that text, as well as to the Trump moment specifically; however, I do not think it fully supplants it or renders it obsolete. For one thing, The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere was a radical zine; its fonts, illustrations, and tone were appropriate to that format. Understanding Antisemitism, on the other hand, notwithstanding the occasional typo, has the design and feel of a professional brochure issued by a well-heeled NGO. It is for group readings around conference tables, rather than for surreptitious passing under them. Secondly, it largely maintains and expands upon the analysis of antisemitism offered by Rosenblum.
This analysis, to put it briefly, is that antisemitism is a cyclical oppression that flares up during times of economic hardship. Unlike some other oppressions, which seek to keep their targets (women, POC) in subservient positions performing unwanted labor for low pay, antisemitism allows some Jews to rise to middle-managerial-professional positions, as doctors, lawyers, journalists, academics, bankers, or landlords. When times are good, this creates the perception that antisemitism has disappeared, since Jews appear to be doing relatively well. At the moment of downturn, however, when the masses begin to express their ire against the ruling classes or even the capitalist system itself, Jews are put forward as the visible, particular, and “foreign” face of the system and its flaws. Thus, public ire is directed away from the ordinary, regular functioning of the system, which always necessarily involves boom and bust cycles, and towards a conception of “bad actors” who have somehow corrupted what ought to be the just order of society. If antisemitism operates as intended, even left-oppositional movements will see their justified anger channeled towards a middleman target, presented as all-powerful and in charge, and the real, largely non-Jewish elites will escape each crisis unscathed.
Broadly speaking, this is the same materialist conception long encapsulated by August Bebel’s famous quip that “antisemitism is the socialism of fools.” In other words, antisemitism is not simply a racial or religious prejudice, rooted in a fear of difference and the Other, but has a specific relationship to European capitalism. There are two questions, however, which Understanding Antisemitism leaves somewhat unclear. First, why are Jews the specific objects of this scapegoat strategy, and could they be replaced with any other minority? References to the “middleman minority” theory found in Edna Bonacich and Edward Baptist (p.28) suggest that JFREJ sees the answer to this question in general as “yes,” but that in European Christendom and its secularized successor states, particular historical factors made Jews available to fill this role in an exemplary way—a point I will return to shortly. Second, what is the level of continuity between modern antisemitism and medieval Christian anti-Judaism? Understanding Antisemitism appears to suggest a high level of continuity. Antisemitism is introduced as “originating in European Christianity,” and the targeting of Jews (and Muslims) that has operated “since the emergence of Christianity as Europe’s dominant religious, political, and cultural force” is discussed only a few lines after the claim that antisemitism “has functioned to protect the prevailing economic system and the almost exclusively Christian ruling class by diverting blame for hardship onto Jews” (p.11). The reference to “the prevailing economic system” here is vague, however. Is antisemitism a function of capitalism, or of any “prevailing economic system” in European Christendom, including feudalism, mercantilism, etc.? Is there a specificity to modern antisemitism that must be grasped to understand it, or is a late 19th-century Russian pogrom an expression of more or less the same hatred as the expulsion of the Jews from England in the year 1290?
Here the “scapegoat theory” of antisemitism described above is potentially in tension with a competing idea, which we might call the “modernity theory,” according to which modern antisemitism is qualitatively different from the anti-Jewish policies of Christian kingdoms of the past. Modern antisemitism posits a dynamic whereby Jews are the primary beneficiaries of all the disruptive changes to social life that characterize modernity. Changing roles of women causing a crisis of masculinity? It’s the Jews. Gender confusion and queer sexuality? The Jews again. Racial minorities making aggressive demands for equality and not knowing their place? Also the Jews. Add these in to the political and economic changes wrought by liberal democracy and capitalism, and this form of antisemitism will point to the Jews as the single best answer to the question cui bono [who benefits?]. This dynamic also partially explains why so many antisemites see themselves as genius intellectuals, peering behind a veil to discover a hidden truth. In this theory, while antisemitism draws on the long history of pre-modern Christian antipathy to Jews, it is substantively novel in the modern period in its totalizing worldview. As opposed to the medieval period, which was characterized by a kind of perennialist, cyclical worldview in which nothing ever changes, the modern period is characterized by a sense of linearity, of the perception of significant, global changes. What is novel, then, is not Christians hating the Jews, but Christians seeing the Jews as rigging some significant, intricate operation of history.
It would certainly be possible to reconcile the two theories, and many have done so. Neither the scapegoat theory nor the modernity theory is without problems, however. Mindful of JFREJ’s desire to create a pamphlet that is of immediate use to activists, and not seeking to muddy the waters, it is with some trepidation that I point this out. For the sake of accepting their invitation to conversation, however, and especially insofar as Understanding Antisemitism does a fair job of showing how one of the primary functions of antisemitism is specifically to mislead and misdirect the left, as a way of breaking up oppositional movements, it seems important to highlight a strand of scholarship represented by the figures grouped together at sites like The Critical Theories of Antisemitism Network. One of those figures, Moishe Postone, problematized the scapegoat theory, arguing in his 1986 essay “Antisemitism and National Socialism” that “No functionalist explanation of the Holocaust and no scapegoat theory of antisemitism can even begin to explain why, in the last years of the war, when the German forces were being crushed by the Red Army, a significant proportion of vehicles was deflected from logistical support and used to transport Jews to the gas chambers.” The scapegoat theory requires antisemitism to be useful to its elites, after all. The modernity theory has problems of its own. This theory claims that all contemporary antisemitism, including fascist antisemitism, blames Jews not just for capitalism, but for all the disruptive changes to social life that characterize modernity. However, the factory is an example of high modernism and technology. And while many kinds of conservatism, such as Toryism and Luddism, abhor it as dehumanizing, all forms of right-wing populism, including the antisemitic ones, valorize industrial labor. The idea of the factory, of technical management and of efficient, organized use of technology, is so central to fascism that it forms a glaring exception to the antisemitic condemnation of broad swaths of modernity as the product of Jewish conspiracy. How to account for this exception?
Postone offers a third interpretation of modern antisemitism, employing a complex analysis of Marx’s discussion of commodity fetishism that I cannot summarize here. In Postone’s analysis, for modern antisemitism, in the trajectory that leads to Nazism, the Jews come to symbolize only the abstract, invisible parts of the capitalist system, rather than the concrete, visible parts. Money, in other words, and not the internal combustion engine. Antisemitism, as a misdirected fight against only some parts of capitalism, recoils from the “unreality” of money even as it exalts the concretely exploitative conditions of manual labor and factory labor. Money is the root of all evil, while farm work is the salt of the earth. The necessary connection between the two as part of the complete operation of capitalism as a system is overlooked in this modern antisemitism. Ultimately, for Postone, “The fetishized opposition of the concrete material and the abstract, of the ‘natural’ and the ‘artificial,’ became translated as the world-historically significant racial opposition of the Aryans and the Jews. Modern antisemitism involves a biologization of capitalism—which itself is only understood in terms of its manifest abstract dimension—as International Jewry.”
A detailed explication and defense of the theory of the commodity fetish cannot, and probably should not, be a requirement of a pamphlet serving the function of Intro to Antisemitism. So I do not fault JFREJ for neglecting to include this element in Understanding Antisemitism. Nonetheless, there are ways in which this lesson can be boiled down into a practical recommendation, along the lines of “Don’t ‘compliment’ Jews for being wealthy or ‘good with money’ (p.19), even if we still haven’t resolved our argument about which theory of antisemitism to embrace. For example, it’s not uncommon on the left to hear versions of the complaint that “we don’t make things anymore,” or that financial capitalists “just move numbers around on a screen.” These are manifestations of a tendency to criticize only the “abstract” parts of capitalism, while sparing the “concrete” parts. When combined with a Bannonite critique of “globalists” as a neoliberal cabal rigging the rules of international trade to benefit only themselves, while depriving the individual nations of the “good jobs” (coal, drilling) they deserve, we can see where this goes. Whether their larger discussions are about organizing strategy, electoral strategy, or identity politics, then, left circles should therefore ask themselves, when they find themselves talking about the kernel of truth in populism, exactly what the shape of that kernel is, and where it lies.
Religion is largely absent from Understanding Antisemitism. There is a lot of emphasis placed on the geographical and ethnic diversity of the authors (Black, Mizrahi, white Ashkenazi, etc.), as well as their gender and class diversity. Religious diversity goes unmentioned—are our authors secular? Conservative? Orthodox? Non-denominational? We aren’t told—and it would probably be impolite to speculate as to why.
Instead, I’ll just offer a few comments on the effects of this silence. First and foremost, “Jews” here are a collection of racial and ethnic groups. The emphasis on the internal diversity of these groups distinguishes our authors from antisemites (for whom Jews are really ultimately one group doing one thing) and from Zionists (for whom ethnic diversity is often just a superficiality that makes things interesting but ultimately overlays national unity). Nonetheless, it is striking that by defining Jews in these ways, our authors align with these two groups’ shared playing down of the importance of religion in understanding who Jews are. The section “Who Are Jews?” begins by stating that “Judaism is one of the three so-called ‘Abrahamic’ religions” (p.7), but the next twelve paragraphs (the remainder of the section) focus almost entirely on ethnic, class, and geographic markers of distinction between different Jewish communities. Again, I don’t know how much behind-the-scenes thought went into this decision, but I imagine it will be at least somewhat confusing to the non-Jewish allies who are among the primary audience for the text, and who, if my experience teaching Judaism classes to mostly non-Jewish students is any indication, are likely to initially assume that Jews are a religious group.
Secondly, the silence on the “religiousness” of the category “Jewish” arguably has inverse or opposing effects on the way that Christianity and Islam are treated in the text. Muslims, like Jews, are presented as a kind of collocation of geographical origins and ethnicities, under threat from the Islamophobia perpetuated by a globalizing capitalism with its roots in Christian hegemony. Christianity, on the other hand, has a “dogma” that plays a crucial role in the formation of antisemitism, even if the latter ultimately breaks free of it to stand on its own as an independent ideology, and even if many Christians across the centuries put their lives on the line to protect Jews from violence (p. 12). The reader is likely to come away feeling that even if antisemitism is ultimately a materialist phenomenon (Christian nobility “curried favor with their populations” by placing restrictions on economic opportunities for Jews [p.12]), it had its effects for Christians in a way that it didn’t for Muslims (“there was no codified specifically anti-Jewish ideology that bore any resemblance to European antisemitism” in Muslim empires before colonialism, even if Jews were second-class citizens in them [p.14]). This may well be true, but if it is, it requires more explanation and attention to the specificity of those non-materialist ideological elements, especially if it is supposed to help guide our actions today by showing us ways in which those ideologies persist. Whether or not our authors consider themselves secular Jews, the secularity of their discourse presents challenges to any reader’s, but probably especially a Christian reader’s (and perhaps even more so, a secularized Christian reader’s) ability to derive such guidance.
Understanding Antisemitism does a good job, in general, of navigating the tricky territory of the relationships between criticisms of the State of Israel, Zionism, and antisemitism. At this point, however, in my view, it eases up too much on the left. It is not only right-wing propagandists who can see that significant quarters of the left are broadly confused about this and are in need of more specific guidance, of the kind provided by Rosenblum in The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere.
Rosenblum offers a full-page chart distinguishing “clear criticisms of Israeli policy & its backers” from “antisemitic ideas often repeated by activists with no anti-Jewish intentions” from “lines emerging directly from neo-Nazi and antisemitic organizations.” These comparisons are important as illustrations of the general propositions about antisemitism that Rosenblum offers earlier in her pamphlet. For example, in her first column, she writes, “AIPAC, weapons lobbies and others give U.S. politicians incentives to push anti-Palestinian policies, and attempt to silence and intimidate both Jews and non-Jews who raise alternatives.” Someone might disagree with this statement politically, but it is clearly not antisemitism. Its equivalent in her second column is “The ‘Israel Lobby’ is what is pushing America off track and away from its true interests, or caused us to go to war.” This clearly crosses a line by adopting a distorted view of geopolitics in which a small group of Jews, pursuing their own interests, are able to lead a huge global power astray, as if the U.S. was not an imperial hegemon pursuing its own interests (or at the very least, its own perception of its own interests) by making the State of Israel into a client state. Finally, the third column has “Israel/ the Zionists/ the Jews/ the Jewish Lobby… is controlling the U.S. / the world.” The juxtaposition reveals the easy way in which the second idea can stem from or segue into the third.
Understanding Antisemitism eschews this level of specificity for a general lens according to which the State of Israel is an ordinary state run by ordinary elites and pursuing ordinary oppressive policies against minorities it disregards. This is a salutary way, in and of itself, of understanding the region and certainly militates against the kind of outsized and suspicious importance attributed to Israel in some leftist quarters. Understanding Antisemitism further takes the admirable step of reminding its readers that for many Jews who are either unfamiliar with or unpersuaded by postcolonial frameworks in general or their specific application to the Israeli case, Zionism has meant “the right for Jews to have a physical place of self-determined safety” (21). But precisely because it doesn’t name names or give examples of instances in which leftist activists have failed to acknowledge this, such as, say, in the British Labour Party, the point is less strong than it could otherwise be.
I’ll conclude here by reiterating what I see as the crucial importance of a general shift on the left from seeing antisemitism as either “no longer a problem” or as the property of the right to a recognition of the way that antisemitism has historically functioned to weaken and derail movements for justice, and therefore an understanding of how antisemitism, like racism and patriarchy, is everyone’s problem. To that end, we should be thankful that JFREJ took on the task of putting together Understanding Antisemitism, and to the continuing conversation that it will hopefully provoke.