Where Did The Past Go?

Check out my feature article for the summer 2019 issue of Jewish Currents, ‘Where Did The Past Go?’, on current progressive Jewish debates about the nature of antisemitism, and the ongoing legacy of April Rosenblum’s influential zine ‘The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere’.

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Are Jews ‘middle agents’, caught between ruling elites and oppressed peoples, from America to Israel/Palestine? Is antisemitism ‘cyclical’? How do we make sense of Jews as both oppressors and oppressed? I try to unpack these live and vital debates animating Jewish progressive movements today.

Things have moved quickly since I finished this article back in January. Back then, the weaponization of antisemitism charges by Trump and the Right against Ilhan Omar and ‘the Squad’ hadn’t yet erupted so glaringly onto the national stage. Today, it’s clear to many that a middle-agent framing can help us understand these attacks. By slamming ‘the Squad’ repeatedly as antisemitic and anti-American, the Right positions Jews as a cudgel, shield and buffer with one hand- claiming to protect us, like feudal lords, while in fact isolating us from our natural allies- while deploying antisemitic rhetoric to inflame their base with the other hand, putting us in danger (tirades targeting Soros and ‘globalists’, accusations of ‘disloyalty’, etc). While this situation contains many novel elements, in other ways, it’s not so new- American Jews end up wedged in the ambiguous middle, a setup that ultimately positions us for scapegoating, and benefits the white Christian elite.

I also regret that, solely for reasons of space, I wasn’t really able to address Israel/Palestine. Many claim that the state of Israel is another middle-agent setup- positioning Jews as a front-line buffer for the West in its ‘clash of civilizations’ against its global enemies, situating the Jewish state between the primarily white Christian elites of the world-system and its restless masses, absorbing the rage of the latter while shielding the former from view. Others think this is deeply problematic, deploying the same criticisms listed in the article for the American context. It’s a really complex question that deserves its own article, and I hope others write about it.

In case it isn’t clear from the article, I ultimately like ‘middle agent theory’ (if we can even speak of it as a single unified theory), and for that reason I gave voice to its valid criticisms. It’s one among many frameworks we can inherit from our Jewish pasts, to understand antisemitism today. No one schema we inherit is sufficient, all have shortcomings if we try to understand the present solely through one lens. (And ‘middle agent theory’ is itself a hodgepodge, assembled from bits and pieces of the Jewish past, from the Central European Middle Ages to 19th-century eastern Europe to 20th-century Algeria.) But at its best, when used carefully and critically, seeing Jews as middle agents can help us understand antisemitism by grounding Jewish positionality in concrete and particular structures of race, class and colonial relations. There are clear patterns there that we need to trace, to understand the complex phenomenon which is antisemitism.

Veha’ikar- the main thing is, it’s possible to hold our people accountable for active complicity in oppression, while also acknowledging middle-agent dynamics at play that ultimately oppress us, too (for some this is obvious; it took me awhile to internalize!). We can combat our communal embrace of race and class privilege in America, while *also* seeing how this embrace ends up trapping us as the moving target of ‘punching up’ scapegoating in the era of Trump and white nationalism. We can hold similar nuance when acknowledging Israel’s complex positionality at the volatile fault lines of world imperialism, while calling for Palestinian freedom and return. We can see these contradictions as moments of dialectical tension, and we can be compassionate towards our people. I’m as little interested in a liberal discourse which sees antisemitism as ‘always cyclical’ because Jews will always and forever be victims, as I am in an ultra-left discourse which anxiously disavows any notion that antisemitism may be structural, out of a myopic fixation on *only* chastising our communal complicity in systems of oppression.

Today the American Jewish community is positioned to understand our middle agent setup and to interrupt it, in a way that our ancestors weren’t. May we continue to build the grounded understanding of antisemitism, within our communities and in broader movements, that can fuel our action and help get all of us free.