Global, Identity, Politics

On The Paranoid Style in Jewish American Politics

I opened Deborah Lipstadt’s guest essay in the New York Times this past week, and as someone familiar with her work, I fully expected left-wing anti-Zionists and/or Islam to receive blame for the attack on the Colleyville synagogue.  What I read in some ways was far more disturbing: instead of a list of Israel’s enemies to target for sanction, she constructed a portrait of Jewish life so beleaguered, so beset with violence from all corners, its effect may have been even more damaging:  it would be hard to imagine leaving one’s bunker without a Galil rifle and flak vest.

“Jews have learned to be afraid” she writes, listing a long series of attacks against Jewish neighborhoods, Jewish institutions, and Jewish gravestones.  She writes of car caravans moving through London neighborhoods shouting “death to Jews,” Jews being assaulted in restaurants, assaulted on the streets in front of their homes.  She writes that Jews are in hiding, concealing their identities, afraid to walk in public with visible markers of their ethnicity or observance.

“Jews are contemplating going underground,” she intones, imaging six million Jewish Americans living like partisans in Hungary during World War II.  To look for a Jewish institutions in a new town, she mourns, look for the soldiers guarding it with submachine guns.

For Lipstadt, this terror goes to the heart of Jewish life from its inception in the U.S. to the present, noting how Protestant churches in New England are “right on main street” with “their doors open,” suggesting that at no time in U.S. history, have Jews felt they could observe freely in public.

In one thousand words, Lipstadt offers a vision of Jewish life drenched in fear and loathing, an image of an antisemitic juggernaut, connected over time and space and history.  Her short essay links aggression on the street to coordinated far-right movements that advocate the murder of Jews.  Armed guards, secret hiding cellars, carloads of Cossacks in London – it is all there: the days leading up the Holocaust we watched in slow motion and did nothing to stop.

I call this the paranoid style of American Jewish politics, after Richard Hofstadter’s famous mid-century essay.  While the essay is a kind of oblique critique of the John Birch Society and the second red scare, Hofstadter links the basic structure of political paranoia to something far deeper in the American grain, a kind of privatized xenophobia mobilized by a constant state of fear generated by all-powerful, pervasive threat.  “The enemy,” for the paranoid, “is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history,” but outside it, pulling its levers and moving its pieces in a way that is “ubiquitous, powerful, and cruel” for no reason than their own will.

Lipstadt’s portrait of a pervasive, all-powerful and transhistorical threat is described much in the way the John Birchers understood their Communist menace and, ironically, not unlike the way Nazis understood Jews.  Writing in her 2019 book, antisemitism is an “infection” and in other places a “virus,” rendering it a mindless, ever-present, malevolent force that invades an otherwise healthy body politic.  Where does it come from?  How shall we distinguish different kinds of antisemitism, in different moments of history?  Impossible to say.  Better to create a quarantine state such as Israel and seal off the borders.

And while treating Covid as a deadly public health crisis makes sense, as it is simply a force of our very industrialized natural world, antisemitism is a human creation and obeys not the laws of nature, but politics.  Neither Lipstadt’s book nor her guest essay attempts to explain why in the 21st century, antisemitism has re-emerged violently into the public sphere, how to differentiate far-right wing conspiracy theory from anti-Zionism, or what, if anything, assaults against frum men in Brooklyn have to do, or do not have to do, with synagogue shootings and the desecration of Jewish headstones.

It is this slipperiness that allows organizations such as the Academic Engagement Network to release a guidebook on antisemitism on campuses that solely targets critics of Israel; it is what allows Professor Ayal Feinberg to assert that Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine are the primary threat against Jews, even when one cannot link a single antisemitic incident to either organization.  Indeed, it is this kind of analysis that allows one to believe that a supporter of Israel who is also an anti-Semite is a better friend of Jews than a leftist who might treat Israel like a normal country and expect it to uphold human rights:  supporting the quarantine state is all that matters in such a world.

To be clear, antisemitism, in a politically Christian country with a long history of violent and racist social movements, is an institutional part of U.S. life.  One can point to antisemitic pogroms during the U.S. Civil War, the antisemitism of the 1917 and 1924 immigration acts, the antisemitism of the first and second red scares, and the moment we are currently in – with the rise of the far right and resurgence of conspiracy theory.  Yet one has to be careful and specific to disentangle the fact that most Jews in the U.S. experience their lives as white people by and large, and that not all forms of antisemitism are equivalent, have equal potentials for mass violence, or are a threat to Jews in the universal way that Lipstadt describes.

Antisemitic comments by poor tenants in Jewish owned buildings in Brooklyn (which I have heard first hand) are not the same as well-funded right-wing pundits such as Tucker Carlson, who weekly peddles antisemitic conspiracy theories about the threat George Soros poses to the Christian West.  The former is a refracted, racialized expression of very localized power a small number of Jews have in one city, uttered by an individual; the other a national campaign to deploy antisemitism in order to take state power.  When Baldwin wrote “Negroes are Anti-Semitic Because They Are Anti-White,” he did not, as some imagine, intend to excuse antisemitism by Black people. Rather, one needs to be reminded that Carlson has the force of the GOP, a major network, and a legacy of white nationalism behind him; a random poor tenant in NYC does not.

One needs further to clarify that even in moments of antisemitic upsurge, Jews are not universally affected.  During the second red scare, two-thirds of those questioned in the 1952 McCarthy hearings were Jewish, despite Jews accounting for under 2 percent of the American population. State-sponsored antisemitism was constitutive of what Ellen Shrecker referred to as the “most widespread and longest lasting wave of political repression in this country.”  Yet this repression occurred at the same time Jews were moving en masse into Ivy League institutions and previously all-white suburbs:  many Jewish organizations also participated in calls to ban the Communist Party, even to execute the Rosenbergs.  Deborah Lipstadt, we can assume, would have been fine in 1952.

This relationship to the state, of course, is one of the more troubling aspects of Lipstadt’s essay.  As author Michael Twitty tweeted, Jews of color, observant Jews, and Jews living outside cosmopolitan cities are far more likely to face antisemitism on the street than white, assimilated Jews in blue states.  These more visible Jews can have a more ambivalent relationship to police, as Twitty describes, reminding us how often far-right members of hate organizations eagerly join local and national police forces. For Lipstadt, however, the state is a guardian of Jewish life:  the soldier with the machine gun, the U.S. support for Israel.  Lipstadt herself is Biden’s “special envoy” nominee on the question of antisemitism, a position no other religious or ethnic group enjoys.

And the U.S. state is not neutral on antisemitism.  Not only in the form of white-nationalists overrepresented in police forces, but in the state’s attempt to define antisemitism on terms that promote U.S. foreign policy.

There has been a wave of bills condemning antisemitism in recent months, and yet rather than target the re-emergence of mass far-right organizations such as Q-Anon, Oath Keepers, and the Proud Boys, the GOP and Democratic Party sponsored a host of anti-BDS laws modeled on the IHRA, to target critics of Israel — many of whom happen to be Jews and antiracist activists.

Which leads to perhaps the most troubling omission of Lipstadt’s essay:  not only does it refuse to offer a source or cause of rising antisemitism, it also ignores the very kinds of solidarity that have historically provided for Jewish safety.  Nowhere in Lipstadt’s paranoid accounting of Jewish life does she mention how it was solidarity with the Muslim community in Dallas, with antiracist religious organizations, that brought people to the synagogue’s aid during the hostage crisis.  Or that it was Rabbi Cytron-Walker’s calmness and compassion that allowed him to take the armed man by surprise.  In the Rabbi’s patient efforts of community building, and his patient waiting out of the gunman, we see a glimpse of the exact opposite of the paranoid style of Jewish American politics.

This is not a call to minimize the threat of antisemitism in U.S. life.  There has been in recent years a counter-turn away from even the term antisemitism, in part or perhaps in whole, as a response to the overheated and inflated claims made by Jewish institutional leaders in last two decades.  David Engel’s influential essay, “Away From a Definition of Antisemitism” argues that because antisemitism changes across time and space that we cannot call the laws in Imperial Russia banning Jews from universities and garden variety country club bigotry by the same name.  To use his own analogy, he argues we should think of debates around antisemitism like debates around Pluto:  however we feel about Pluto, the orbital object has precise, objective characteristics that go beyond our feelings of whether or not it is actually is a planet like other planets in our solar system.

The problem of course is that antisemitism, unlike Pluto, does not have an objective existence – it is not simply just there like an exoplanet or species of fish.  Antisemitism’s meaning is ultimately political.  In moments of crisis, as Hannah Arendt writes, all the crudities of daily life, prejudices and casual conspiracies can cohere into a mass movement and take political form:  do these movements all think about Jews the same way, or imagine their relationship in the same manner, or call for the same sanctions?  Of course not:  what matters is that an idea of the Jew or of Jewishness – fictions to begin with – animates their collectivity.  Antisemitism does not exist because someone discovered it under a microscope but because a form of mass politics came into being in the 19th century and in some ways, owing to the very abstractions such politics creates, has never left us.  As Marx reminds us in his Theses on Feuerbach, to imagine that reality has a separate existence from the way we imagine it is a kind of bad empiricism — abstraction is not apart from our knowledge but constitutive of it and we remake the very concrete world from such abstractions.

In this way Engel and Lipstadt share more than they would care to admit, since both believe antisemitism is simply “out there,” up close and dangerous like a virus for Lipstadt, and far removed and remote, like an exoplanet for Engel.  But either way, just part of the world and one must remain vigilant and always armed, either to stamp out the virus wherever it should emerge, or to be ready to remind everyone:  this murder or hostage situation or political advertisement is not what it appears to be; leave it up to the experts.

Unfortunately, antisemitism, like other forms of racism, neither conforms to academic definitions nor to our best laid plans.  It is political, and currently, is the motivating ideology behind not only far right movements from Viktor Orban’s Hungary to Fox’s News’ most popular anchor, but also more incoherent movements such as Q-Anon and some antivaxxers.  One could even consider the antisemitism of the Colleyville attacker as part of a growing international reaction, even if there is more to be learned about his ideology.  Antisemitism’s presence in our political life requires a political response, in coalition with other organizations and communities that have similar interests.  Which is not to say that if we were to triumph against the Right we would end all antisemitism, but to understand, rather, that the Right may cohere inchoate assumptions about Jews – in our moment of economic and biopolitical crisis – and turn them into a movement that could endanger the security of Jews as a collective.  Most Jews do not experience lives of immediate threat in the U.S., but we should not be so sanguine as to suggest this is not possible.  Of equal importance, we need to understand that antisemitism is a danger not just to Jews, but to a progressive political culture that seeks to find real solutions for climate change, the pandemic, racism, and economic inequality, as it refracts such questions of power and control onto a shadowy other.  And to do that, we need not, as Lipstadt suggests, to run into our quarantine states and Pentagon bunkers, but to come out into the public and seek fellowship with those progressive organizations who would break bread with us.  We need less paranoia and more solidarity.

Benjamin Balthaser is associate professor of multi-ethnic U.S. literature at Indiana University, South Bend.  He is the author of Dedication (Partisan Press 2011), Anti-Imperialist Modernism (University of Michigan Press 2016), and is currently working on a book length manuscript on the U.S. Jewish left and the cultures of anti-Zionism, under contract with Verso.



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