What Anti-Semitism Is—And What It Is Not
Two Jewish activists discuss the place of anti-Semitism in contemporary movements for social justice.
April 3, 2019
Apr 3, 2019
22 Min read time
Two Jewish activists discuss the place of anti-Semitism in contemporary movements for social justice.
As Jewish activists invested in antiracist and anti-colonial movements from the United States to Palestine, we have been following, with interest and concern, progressive Jewish discussions of anti-Semitism. These discussions have been brought on in part by the horrors of the Tree of Life synagogue massacre last October, and in part by larger concerns about the rise of racial violence in the Trump era.
We acknowledge the real causes for alarm behind these discussions, but we also find a great deal to be concerned about. It is now commonplace for slanderous accusations of anti-Semitism to be leveled against Palestinians and supporters of Palestine, especially against black leaders and other activists of color. Many progressives have criticized the conflation of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, but narratives about anti-Semitism persist that feed into the same rhetoric used to derail movements for justice in the United States and in Palestine. In questioning these progressive analyses of anti-Semitism, we look to the wider context of global systems of injustice. We are concerned that a lack of clarity about what anti-Semitism is—and isn’t—allows false equivalencies and elisions to be weaponized against movements for social justice.
We acknowledge the real causes for alarm behind progressive discussions of anti-Semitism. But we also find a great deal to be concerned about.
We recognize that some will think that we are dismissing or minimizing anti-Semitism at a time when it is crucial to stand up to anti-Jewish ideologies. But of course we aren’t interested in dismissing the reality of anti-Semitism, past or present. Instead our goal is to contribute to a careful analysis of the threats of anti-Semitic ideology, without downplaying or minimizing the very tangible structures of racism, colonialism, and imperialism under which people of color live every day. Our back-and-forth has challenged our thinking about how we can be as effective and thoughtful as possible in our organizing and our work for justice. We hope that, in sharing our conversation, it will serve that purpose for others as well.
Donna Nevel: I’m troubled by a common refrain I see expressed by progressive Jews on social media, directed toward social justice communities. They say, in effect: those who aren’t Jewish need to believe us when we talk about anti-Semitism, when we say we’re vulnerable.
On the one hand, that makes perfect sense: we should listen to Jews who say they are the victims of anti-Semitism, just as we would listen to those impacted by other injustices. But we also need to look more deeply at this particular call and its consequences, given how routinely false accusations of anti-Semitism are hurled at Palestinians and those who support Palestinian rights, at Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim, and at others—most often people of color—involved in antiracist movements.
False accusations have done real harm to people’s lives and careers. The threat of such consequences has a pernicious chilling effect on what people say and do.
Many people hesitate to engage with these issues because of the well-substantiated fear that they will be falsely accused of anti-Semitism—and bullied and intimidated in the process. These false accusations generally get a lot of air time and have done real harm to people’s lives and careers. The threat of such consequences has a very real and pernicious chilling effect on what people say and do. We need to take this reality into account when statements are made regarding who is “entitled” to speak, and to be listened to.
We all have a lot to learn by engaging honestly and thoughtfully about anti-Semitism, both its history and its current manifestations. The rise in white nationalist anti-Semitism in this country should be addressed, but that reality should not be used to buttress overzealous, reckless accusations of anti-Semitism. We must acknowledge how deeply the conflation between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism has become normalized, including within some progressive Jewish circles.
Mark Tseng-Putterman: I also see this admonition—to trust Jews when we talk about anti-Semitism—as problematic. Of course we need to consider Jewish experiences and analyses. But there is a tendency in “social justice” spaces to defer to individual subjectivity over substantive institutional critique that becomes especially dangerous in the context of discussions of anti-Semitism. Is “trust” politically efficacious given that criticisms of the state of Israel or of U.S. Jewish institutions like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) or the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) are so frequently shut down by Jews claiming anti-Semitism? In order to think critically about Zionism and white supremacy, we must all have the nuance to recognize and call out bad faith claims of anti-Semitism when we see them.
There is a tendency in “social justice” spaces to defer to individual subjectivity over substantive institutional critique.
Consider an example. The assertion that white Jews reap white privilege—and, like all white people, play a role in upholding white supremacy—is now being denounced by reactionaries wielding social justice language as anti-Semitic, Jewish erasure, and even gaslighting. I worry that a consequence of this “trust Jews on anti-Semitism” language is to silence the criticisms and analyses of people of color—including Jewish people of color—about racism and complicity in Jewish communities.
Many Jews do indeed refuse to accept, or even sit with, such criticisms. They also raise the specter of supposed “left anti-Semitism,” claiming that Jews are being excluded from progressive spaces. And many progressive Jews have been too quick to accept the premise that there exists a unique “left anti-Semitism” that must be engaged. The result, I worry, is a vacuum where Jewish communities and institutions can cover their ears and block out critical conversations about white supremacy and Zionism happening on the left.
Of course anti-Semitism exists in pockets of the left, as does ingrained racism, misogyny, and transphobia. But, to me, the way we talk about “left anti-Semitism” reeks of a smear campaign designed to block critiques of Zionism. These admonitions aren’t about seeking greater Jewish inclusion or participation in the left; they’re about delegitimizing some of the most important social justice movements of our time, from Black Lives Matter to the global call by Palestinian civil society for Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS). As Jews on the left, we need to ask ourselves how our deference to the sensitivities of some Jews is enabling this rhetorical violence.
DN: I think we always need to ask whose voices are being promoted and why, whose voices are being silenced and why, whose interests are being served and whose aren’t. At this moment, particularly, we need to be welcoming critical, challenging conversations about these issues, not trying to shut them down.
The rise in white nationalist anti-Semitism in this country should be addressed. But that reality should not be used to buttress reckless accusations of anti-Semitism.
Take the ADL’s biased analysis of anti-Semitism. Their “research” and data reflect a broader anti-Arab, anti-Palestinian agenda. Yet, we see people uncritically citing the ADL as “the” expert on what constitutes anti-Semitism, and who is being anti-Semitic. And when their authority is challenged due to their troubling record, many claim it is further evidence of the left’s anti-Semitism. That was the accusation made, for example, when the ADL was dropped from a high-profile Starbucks “anti-bias training” following many substantive concerns expressed by leaders of the Women’s March and Black Lives Matter as well as by left Jewish activists.
Here’s another example. I read numerous accounts after the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute rescinded Angela Davis’s human rights award, arguing that Jews were being unfairly blamed for what happened to her—that it was unfair, even anti-Jewish, to focus on local Jewish organizations that had applied pressure on the Museum to rescind the award. They argued that it was white evangelicals, not Jews, in Birmingham, who have the power to make those things happen.
But Jewish organizations, including the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center and the Birmingham Jewish Federation, did play a key role in pressuring the museum to rescind the award. That doesn’t mean all Jews opposed her talk; they didn’t. And it is true that efforts to thwart supporters of the Palestinian movement for justice extend far beyond Jewish groups. It also true that sometimes the decision makers may not have consisted of many, if any, Jews, and that some Jewish groups oppose these kinds of actions when they happen.
To say that Jewish groups applied pressure on the museum—and were likely listened to—is consistent with what Jewish groups have done across the country to supporters of BDS applying for jobs, seeking tenure, and more. I just can’t see it as anti-Jewish to hold these organizations accountable. It’s not anti-Jewish to point out that many Jewish organizations have power to exert their influence in damaging ways.
It’s not anti-Jewish to point out that many Jewish organizations have power to exert their influence in damaging ways.
MTP: Absolutely. When activists, including many Jews, confront the bad politics of so-called “liberal” Jewish organizations like the ADL, they end up getting tarred as anti-Semitic. I’m thinking of the ridiculous allegations (many from leaders of left-of-center Jewish groups, including T'ruah’s Jill Jacobs, who has also falsely accused Palestinian activists of anti-Semitism) against the Deadly Exchange campaign by Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). They claimed the campaign, which sought to end police exchanges between Israel and U.S. municipalities, was perpetuating an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that Israel was responsible for racist policing in the United States. JVP and other activist groups exhibited very tangible evidence of the exchange of repressive policing tactics, and the links between racist state violence, in both nations. But this overzealous analysis of anti-Semitism distorted the campaign into a case of Jew-blaming.
Most recently, we’ve seen the attacks by both progressive and conservative Jews directed at Representative Ilhan Omar, denouncing as anti-Semitic her demonstrably true assertion that AIPAC and the Israel lobby influence U.S. policy in the Middle East. What’s worse, the coordinated attack on Omar was catalyzed by Batya Ungar-Sargon, an editor at The Forward, a supposedly progressive Jewish platform with a rich socialist history. After Ungar-Sargon went so far as to write that Omar “won the approval of the KKK,” The Forward used the smear campaign as a fundraising email talking point.
A number of progressive Jews responded to the Omar smear by balking at the assertion that the Israel lobby has anything to do with Jews. Similarly to the troubling dynamic you saw in Birmingham, many were quick to excise Jewish agency from pro-Israel lobbying, instead pointing to Christian evangelical groups and claiming that AIPAC is not a Jewish organization—despite its U.S. Jewish base and participation in various Jewish institutional constituencies such as the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. We are seeing an impulse, often coming from progressive Jews, to deny the agency and influence of Jews and Jewish institutions, which I think really limits our capacity to foment effective antiracist change.
This hesitance to confront Jewish institutional complicity in structures of violence may be rooted in a particular analysis of anti-Semitism: the idea that Jews are perpetual “middlemen” caught between the masses and the power elite. I’ve written elsewhere—and Tallie Ben Daniel has a wonderful essay tackling similar questions from a Mizrahi perspective in JVP’s recent book On Anti-Semitism (2017)—about how this notion that Jews are “allowed success” in order to be made “useful” as scapegoats later inevitably freezes our ability to call out Jewish complicity. It has us seeking to absolve bad-acting Jewish institutions by looking for the “man behind the curtain.” By that logic, Jewish organizations can’t have the power and influence to blacklist Angela Davis or defame academics such as Steven Salaita; right-wing evangelicals must have done it. And yet we know very clearly that there are numerous influential Jewish groups that are successfully leading smear campaigns against pro-Palestine activists and funding anti-Muslim hate groups.
According to “middlemen” logic, Jewish organizations can’t be blamed; right-wing evangelicals must have done it.
As Ben Daniel implores, we need to understand the privileges and powers granted to white American Jews not as an inevitable symptom of anti-Semitism, but as a symptom of whiteness, white supremacy, and the ability (and willingness) of many white American Jews to align themselves with both a fundamental American anti-blackness, as well as an imagined “Judeo-Christian” West that serves the imperialist project of Western Islamophobia. We must confront head on how institutions that purport to speak in the name of U.S. Jews are so deeply implicated in perpetuating racism and Islamophobia.
DN: This is an issue of real concern for me and for many others. Elly Bulkin and I have been working with different groups for many years to challenge Islamophobia within our communities. We created Jews Against Anti-Muslim Racism (JAAMR) as a resource because we didn’t feel anti-Muslim racism, and particularly structural Islamophobia, the “war on terror,” and the Islamophobia-Israel connection, were being prioritized enough within Jewish communities, including within many progressive Jewish spaces. More recently, after you brought to our attention some research about the New York Jewish Communal Fund (JCF) and its complicity in funding virulently Islamophobic groups, we continued that research, and recently published a report, together with Jews Say No! and JVP-NYC, detailing this funding and calling on the JCF to defund Islamophobia now.
While there has been some outrage expressed within Jewish communities about the JCF’s funding of Islamophobia, vocal opposition to it—or making it a real priority—hasn’t been as widespread as it surely would be if grants and financial resources were going to support anti-Semitic, neo-Nazi groups.
Institutions that purport to speak in the name of U.S. Jews are deeply implicated in perpetuating Islamophobia.
MTP: Another thread here is that in the United States, the most visible forms of racism and other forms of oppression tend to be these spectacular iterations—hate violence, mass shootings, police brutality—and not the profound mundanity of everyday, structural state violence. While the terrors of the Tree of Life and Christchurch massacres have rightly inspired global outpourings of solidarity, I think it is important to recognize the underlying institutional Islamophobia (which doesn’t elicit the same kind of bipartisan condemnation anti-Semitism does). It doesn’t minimize the tragedy to acknowledge that the Tree of Life shooting is not an instance of routine state violence against American Jews. Indeed, admitting this is a prerequisite to building the sort of coalitions necessary to take on the forces we’re confronted with today.
It seems to me we suffer from a lack of clarity about the meaning of structural, state-sanctioned violence. This lack of clarity in turn muddies the waters when it comes to understanding anti-Semitism. Some Jewish progressive organizations argue that anti-Semitism is structural in the United States today. What are the structures and institutions that uphold it?
This is where I find the analysis murky. My sense is that many would respond along these lines: Anti-Semitism is different from other forms of oppression. Rather than depriving Jews of resources and power, anti-Semitism thrives by allowing Jews success so that they can be made scapegoats in the future.
My issue with this answer, which was perhaps most popularly encapsulated in April Rosenblum’s pamphlet The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere (2018), is that it exonerates, or at least overlooks, Jewish participation and relative success in racial capitalism. The strategy thus evades questions of Jewish complicity with state power and the global racial hierarchy and instead freezes us in a perpetual state of victimhood, or potential future victimhood. Besides chalking up American Jewish power and assimilation to anti-Semitism’s predetermined “middleman” role (rather than to whiteness, antiblackness, or Islamophobia), it also assumes a cyclicality to anti-Semitism that makes it impossible to take Jewish power or safety at face value—instead seeing these as symptoms of a future, inevitable scapegoating. Rosenblum’s ideas are being amplified in this political moment, in countless news articles, Twitter threads, and resources that lean heavily on her analysis, such as Jews for Racial and Economic Justice’s “Understanding Anti-Semitism.”
We suffer from a lack of clarity about the meaning of structural, state-sanctioned violence.
I also take issue with the claim that anti-Semitism doesn’t work like other systems of oppression, because anti-Semitism positions Jews as a powerful threat to be eradicated rather than a weak minority to be exploited. Anti-Semitism is certainly not unique in this regard. Take the Yellow Peril tropes that have galvanized anti-Asian racism—from immigration exclusion to U.S. military intervention—since at least the turn of the twentieth century. These mechanics also invoke Asians as a powerful, external threat. The same can be said for “clash of civilizations” rhetoric about Muslims and the so-called “East” that is central to the “War on Terror.”
I worry that the tendency to render anti-Semitism as abstract, cyclical, and permanent (language of anti-Semitism as a “virus” or an “ancient prejudice” abound) prevents us from looking closely at our current political conditions and from understanding anti-Semitism in relation to the escalation of racist state violence we are seeing in this moment.
DN: It is true that negative stereotypes of Jews differ qualitatively from those about some other groups. But that doesn’t speak to the structures at work, nor is it a reason to exceptionalize anti-Semitism or to assume nobody but Jews can possibly understand it or its seriousness. Promoting that view has real consequences: it distracts us from the impact of white supremacy on targeted communities.
At the same time, there is the entrenched narrative of Jews as the “chosen people.” Many progressive Jews have rejected it, but many have not as clearly rejected notions of Jewish exceptionalism with which we were inculcated in Hebrew school and in other Jewish spaces—that Jews have higher ethical standards and are smarter than others, and that nobody has suffered as much as we have. (For many of us, who have power and privilege as members of white, affluent communities in the United States, these claims of exceptionalism perhaps have greater potential to do harm today than in the past.)
Many progressive Jews still think that nobody has suffered as much as we have.
We must genuinely grapple with these beliefs. They impact how we treat communities we perceive as not “our own.” They foster our sense of entitlement. They shape how we move in social justice spaces and in the political worlds we inhabit, and how we may come to understand and center our own suffering. (This is not to assert that there is one fixed Jewish value system. There are many Jewish histories, experiences, and lived realities; we all navigate multiple identities.)
One way this entitlement shows up, for example, is public outrage when social justice movements are accused of failing to center anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism needs to be included as an injustice we challenge, and, in my experience, I’ve not heard social justice groups claim otherwise. Many movements have been focused on challenging the dangerous structural, institutional, state-sanctioned racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and other injustices at the core of U.S. society. As we are seeing a marked rise in white nationalist anti-Semitic violence (as well as violence directed toward other communities) part of our commitment is to address and incorporate it meaningfully into our justice work. But that doesn’t mean that being sensitive and responsive to anti-Semitism requires centering it or believing that—in this country at this time—it is the same as communities targeted daily by the state and by a range of institutions.
MTP: I think this notion that the left, particularly people of color on the left, don’t give anti-Semitism enough air time sets up a problematic savior complex: white Jews swoop in as educators tasked with tackling the supposed ignorance of people of color. This, in turn, perpetuates this patronizing and paternalistic relationship between white Jews and particularly black activists that the often romanticized history of black-Jewish civil rights organizing hinges on. It’s not that activists of all backgrounds shouldn’t learn about anti-Semitism. But when activists of color do anything deemed anti-Semitic (including merely criticizing Israel), they are chastised by the press, forced to apologize, and required to commit to being “educated” on the issue—a ritual that I think receives undue airtime because it reinforces tropes about angry and ignorant people of color.
This sense of “finally people will believe we’re oppressed too” is echoed across the Jewish political spectrum.
Your point about how deep the ideology of the “chosen people” runs, even in liberal secular American Jewish circles, resonates here. Is twenty-first-century American Jewish identity—at least as it is popularly understood and circulated—even possible without anti-Semitism? Can we conceive of “Jewishness” in its modern, often class-privileged and white American manifestation, without a sense of victimization? Certain responses to the anti-Semitism of the Trump campaign, the “alt-right,” and even the Tree of Life shooting seem to indicate that these episodes resolve the crisis of modern white American Jewish identity—by confirming that anti-Semitism is indeed cyclical and permanent. Contemporary American Jewishness has thus become parasitic on victimhood. But retreating to these comfortable narratives about who “we” are is preventing us from building coalitions, challenging institutions, and engaging in self-criticism in effective ways.
This sense of “finally people will believe we’re oppressed too” is echoed across the Jewish political spectrum. This narrative was crystallized in a March 2017 piece in the Times of Israel which described a “silver lining” to rising anti-Semitism: it proved a counter to “intersectional” campus movements that excluded Jews on the basis of their being “white and privileged.” Of course, this narrative of Jewish exclusion from the left conveniently conflates Jewishness and Zionism. But this concept of the “silver lining” speaks to a larger dynamic in which instances of anti-Jewish violence are seen as “useful” insofar as they confirm to Jews and “prove” to everyone else our oppressed status. This seems to me an incredibly cynical and troubling way of approaching anti-Semitism in our current moment.
Jews are implicated symbolically in this scheme, but not materially.
Perhaps one consequence of this ideology is the shifting in emphasis away from white supremacy and toward “white nationalism” when we talk about anti-Semitism in the United States. For instance, Eric Ward has argued to great acclaim in some parts of the Jewish left that anti-Semitism is the central “fuel” of white nationalism, and that white Jews must give up their “fantasy” of white privilege. Ward has written that white nationalism is a “new competitor” to white supremacy, a social movement that is “stand[ing] up” as white supremacy “falls down.” Make no mistake: it is crucial to recognize the growing threat of white nationalism and the role of anti-Semitism within its ranks. But I worry that we are embracing a strand of post-racialism by saying, in effect, that white supremacy was defeated and that white nationalism is a new force rising to fill the void. This frame ignores the deep continuity in structural violence through both the Obama and Trump eras, and of course back even before the founding of the United States.
We need to talk about the white nationalist movement while recognizing that white supremacy—as a structure—remains in full force, one too often accepted as the status quo. If that’s the case, what are the implications of anti-Semitism supposedly being at the core of white nationalist ideology, if white supremacy remains hegemonic? And why should we restrict our analysis of anti-Semitism to its supposedly central role in white nationalist thought and not consider its more marginal role in systemic white supremacy?
The core of white nationalism is not anti-Semitism, but settler colonialism and antiblackness.
It also seems odd to position white nationalism’s pursuit of a white ethno-state as a new ideology rather than the founding doctrine of the United States. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz has traced (in these very pages) the genealogy of white nationalist thought back to the so-called Indian Wars that founded the United States as a white nation-state. All of this is part and parcel with the liberal amnesia that has folks responding to, for instance, the state-sanctioned violence at the U.S.-Mexico border or the separation of asylum-seeking families with the ahistorical “this isn’t the America I know.” So while anti-Semitism may play an important role in contemporary white nationalist discourses, we need to keep in mind this longer history of white ethno-nationalism. Its core is not anti-Semitism, but settler colonialism and antiblackness.
DN: I had similar concerns reading a recent piece by Tim Wise as those you describe about Ward’s analysis. While Wise correctly rejects “the false equivalence some are trying to draw” between Minister Louis Farrakhan and far right, neo-Nazis, he then makes assertions about the role of anti-Semitism in white nationalism that I question.
“For neo-Nazis and modern white nationalists,” Wise writes, “anti-Jewish bigotry is literally the fuel of their movement, the glue that binds them.” He adds that “Jew-hatred is the thing, bigger than racism against folks of color.” While I’m skeptical that neo-Nazis actually believe Jews are worse thanblack people or Muslims, I also don’t see that it’s a relevant or useful distinction to make. White nationalists, with great frequency, target people of color, transgender and queer people, and others. At the 2017 Charlottesville march, anti-Semitic chants were indeed frightening, but they were also plainly a part of a broader call to uphold white supremacy and defend the legacy of the Confederacy, which goes well beyond the march, reflecting the day-to-day realities for communities of color. I am concerned that, while surely not his intention, Wise’s assertions about the role of anti-Semitism in the white nationalist movement end up diminishing both the consequences and impact of white nationalism on other communities and the central role of pervasive, structural forms of racism and of white supremacy—with its long and deep foundational history that continues until today.
I’ve also been reflecting upon what Lesley Williams wrote after the Charlottesville march about the swastika and what it means for white Jews versus for Black people. “For Jews, Nazi symbols evoke a terrifying, traumatic past,” she wrote. “For African Americans, they evoke a terrifying, traumatic, unending present. White Jews may be shocked at this undeniable evidence of U.S. racism; African Americans merely see more of the same. Black people did not need to be reminded by hoods and swastikas that we live in a dangerously racist country.”
MTP: I agree. The language that Wise and Ward use about anti-Semitism as the “fuel” of white nationalism decenters the communities most tangibly targeted by the white nationalist agenda. Trump has alluded to anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that George Soros funded the Central American migrant caravan approaching the U.S.-Mexico border. Jewish progressives certainly need to confront that rhetoric. But the tangible impact remains the same: to militarize the border, separate families, and detain and deport asylum seekers, many of whom belong to Indigenous Maya groups. Jews are implicated symbolically in this scheme, but not materially. Clearly, that symbolism has consequences—the Tree of Life shooting being the most chilling example of late. Still, I think it is worth sitting with the distinction between being a symbol in the white nationalist imaginary versus being a target in the crosshairs of the state.
There is a difference between being a symbol in the white nationalist imaginary and being a target in the crosshairs of the state.
The same problem can be seen in responses to the Tree of Life shooting. The Forward ran a telling piece entitled “Is America Still Safe for Jews?” This phrasing—“still safe”—says so much. When has America ever been safe for black people? For Indigenous people? For those living under the boot of U.S. imperialism and militarism abroad? There are truths about this country—truths being exposed in new ways in this moment—that American Jews have not had to fully grapple with, as Jews, in recent U.S. history. So how do we sit with what for many white American Jews is a new, creeping feeling—that the promise of America is in fact built on violence—while recognizing that communities of color have been feeling that violence for centuries?
I think it starts with realizing we don’t need to be the center of attention in order to have a role to play in dismantling the structures of oppression that the contradictions of the Trump era continue to reveal.
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April 03, 2019
22 Min read time