Days after the synagogue shooting outside of San Diego, I wrote in Religion Dispatches about the antisemitic ideology that helped motivate the shooter. Conspiracy theories about George Soros, ‘globalists’ and ‘cultural Marxists’ are on the rise in today’s far-right movements, imagining Jews as the hidden engineers of white dispossession, the arch-enemies of white nationalism. Progressives need to understand this resurgence of antisemitism in order to show up for Jews, protect all our movements from attack and stamp out the steady rise of white nationalism in America.
by Benjamin Balthaser
Originally published on Jewschool, November 19, 2016
The electoral college victory of Donald Trump sent the progressive Jewish community reeling, not least because of his campaign’s naked deployment of anti-Semitic imagery and rhetoric. Just days before the election, a Trump ad linked Clinton to “global structures of power” that featured the faces of Janet Yellen, George Soros, and Lloyd Blankfein; another meme featured piles of money with a six-pointed Star of David; he told a group of Jewish GOP supporters that he “doesn’t want your money.” Steve Bannon, a well-known anti-Semite, is now Trump’s chief policy adviser.
After two decades of both major parties courting Jewish voters with support for Israel and appointing Jews within top cabinet positions, it was tempting to believe, along with Max Blumenthal and many others, that anti-Semitism as an organizing force in American life and politics was over. Surely, there may be a small neo-Nazi group holed up in the mountains of Idaho and occasional blowhards from the UFO wing of the Aryan Nation, but nothing like what our parents or grandparents experienced with the rise of Father Coughlin and the anti-Semitic Gotterdammerung of the red scare and Rosenberg trial. And after years of hearing Likudniks, even liberals, wielding anti-Semitism as a crude political weapon against Jewish critics of Israel, rolling one’s eyes at the yearly Yom Kippur handwringing about the rise of anti-Semitism and the precarious position of global Jewry became a kind of left-wing right-of-passage. Leave the shtetl horror stories to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL); we have real work to do fighting injustice.
While I’ve never counted myself among the Jews who see Cossacks riding down from every hilltop, I’ve also never been very sanguine about friends’ frequent assurances that all is fine in our American Zion. Unlike the majority of my progressive Jewish friends and family, I did not grow up in the city or even in the suburbs. My small town in rural California was at the time (transformed now utterly by the wine industry and California real estate speculation) white, lower middle-class, evangelical. My friends’ parents and neighbors worked construction, drove busses, climbed utility poles, sold used cars. Many were prison guards.
Structural racism was the built architecture of my hometown. I remember the one row of “slums” off the main street – ramshackle houses and trailer parks – where Mexican-American and Filipino farmworkers lived. The college twenty miles away was planned as a “sundown town,” in which African Americans were expected to leave by dark, right up until the 1970s. Yet anti-Semitism was also part of the texture of town life – if not the chorus, at least the melody. It was common for my school chums to talk about “Jewing someone down” on price; if you cheated someone or stole something, friends would ask if you’d “like a bagel with that”; a swastika was carved into my locker in high school, and swastikas were regularly spray-painted on the Central Coasts’ sole temple. One of my first girlfriends asked me blankly why Jews were so greedy, and there was of course the annual ritual humiliation, as the only Jew in my classroom, to explain both Chanukah and the Holocaust. When my right-wing social studies teacher forced us to listen to free-market lectures by Alan Greenspan, he prefaced them by saying “now that’s a smart Jew.” A white nationalist spat in my face; another chased after me with a baseball bat (although I was never certain if the Nazi chased after me because I was known to be Jewish, or frequently assumed to be queer).
My first inkling that the anti-Semitism of my hometown had an origin point was the day my older brother came home from a friend’s evangelical church to announce that the Jews deserved the Holocaust for rejecting Jesus. My bother’s announcement prefigured what was my mother’s strange twenty-year odyssey as the only Jewish church organist in town — maybe any town — playing in a dozen churches before she retired. How she came to be a Jewish church organist is, as they say, a long story – put simply, she liked baroque organ music, it was a small town, and churches pay. She had a choir loft seat to small town American religious life that few outside that world have. And she experienced that world as a Jewish woman, one with a particularly well-tuned ear for anti-Semitism, having grown up in the conservative sunbelt of the outer San Fernando Valley in the 1950s.
She related to me a Sunday-after-Sunday barrage of anti-Semitic sermons. The sermons did not relate the Jews’ rejection of Jesus as simply a debatable historical fact; rather the rejection was something essential to Jewishness. A Catholic priest said we must “pray for the perfidious Jews”; “Jews were bind and stupid for rejecting Jesus” a Lutheran pastor argued; another Lutheran day school repeatedly sung the verse “the Jews are the Pharisees and the Pharisees are hypocrites;” my mother was asked by a priest if “Jewish fingers” could play “Christian hymns.” The sermons were “week after week” she said. When she asked one parishioner why the pastor repeated the same sermon about the Jews, the parishioner responded, “it brings in converts.”
Quickly she learned to keep quiet about her ethno-cultural identity. When pressed, she would give a sly smile, a side-eye, and respond that she was a “lapsed Zoroastrian.”
As April Rosenblum writes in her influential pamphlet “The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere,” anti-Semitism can be hard to spot and talk about, as it doesn’t look like other forms of racial and religious oppression. Eighty to ninety percent of the U.S.’s six million Jews are Ashkenazi; many members of this community are white, middle class and do not face the forms of state violence, environmental racism, underemployment, displacement, and incarceration faced by people of color and the poor. There is a palpable confusion one faces as both an object of discrimination and an object of privilege. Anti-Semitism often describes Jews as clever, even powerful. Yet as insightful as Rosenblum’s pamphlet is, it doesn’t help much to describe the sudden rise of Trump’s anti-Semitism; indeed, she treats it as a kind of transhistorical fact.
As racial theorists Michael Omi and Howard Winant propose in their classic Racial Formation in the United States, racism is the product of institutions and political coalitions, from the state violence of ethnic cleansing to legal regimes of Jim Crow to segregated labor markets. Using the work of Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci, “racial formations” are hegemonic blocs that seek to take power through racial projects, whether progressive in the name of affirmative action and antiracism, or reactionary, in the name of white supremacy and mass incarceration. In other words, racism is not primary a psychological issue as it’s often discussed, a question of hate or fear (the phase “Islamophobia” has always bothered me, as if anti-Muslim acts are a primarily a question of affect). The production of race is a question of shifting power blocs and political projects that allow such fears, feelings, affects, to harden into public acts and legal codes as a means of and a cause for seizing power.
Many of my friends who grew up in “blue America,” in big cities or central suburbs, have told me they’ve never experienced an anti-Semitic slur. Growing up in rural America, I experienced them constantly. I have no animus against Christianity, and applaud the many churches that have been on the frontlines of the struggle for racial justice since America’s violent foundation. Yet my experience with conservative Christianity in rural America was to observe an institutional site of anti-Semitic thought, or at least a space in which such thought is considered normal and acceptable. This extends to other institutions in which right-wing Christianity holds hegemonic power. In what Stephen Glade refers to as the “Christianization of the army,” specifically the officer corps, Christian anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim bias pervades the military, affecting everything from performance reviews, promotion, and assignments. To paraphrase a recent internet meme, anti-Semitism may not explain Trump voters, for evangelicals, who were a major part of Trump’s electoral coalition, it wasn’t a dealbreaker, either.
Which is to say, right-wing anti-Semitism never went anywhere. It may have been buried under a consensus between traditional liberal and conservative parties that support Israel; it was quieted by the always-louder voices of anti-black racism; dampened by the sheer architectural terror of border fences, prison walls, and police sirens. And yet it should be understand as a central part of Trump’s message.
Amid the economic populism that fueled the campaign, the image of the Jewish financier, on piles of money, chairing the Fed, as CEO of Goldman-Sachs became not only a nod to the prejudices of Trump’s right-wing base, it served as part of its affective infrastructure. Lacking a critique of capitalism, anti-Semitism serves, the pre-War German left was fond of saying, as the socialism of fools. That Steven Bannon is both the Trump administration’s most vocal critic of the U.S. financial sector and it’s most visible anti-Semite should come as no surprise; indeed, it’s almost a wonder it’s taken this long for anyone to notice.
If there is any silver lining to the Trump campaign’s naked anti-Semitism, my hope is that it may help to disentangle many of myths around anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. For the last twenty years it’s been taken as an article of faith in both liberal and conservative circles that the strongest currents of anti-Semitic thought and action in the U.S. are part of the campaign to boycott, divest, and sanction (BDS) Israel for its ongoing occupation of Palestinian land and blockade of Gaza. In Hillary Clinton’s most recent speech before AIPAC, combatting anti-Semitism was synonymous with combatting the BDS movement and other critics of Israel. As Roger Cohen wrote in the New York Times, it is the internationalist left that is currently responsible for the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe and an imagined scourge of anti-Semitism on college campuses. For the last two decades, the image of the anti-Semite has not been a right-wing evangelical or an “alt-right” white nationalist; it has been a campus anti-Zionist activist wearing a Keffiyeh.
As a long-time veteran of progressive social movements and also of the BDS movement, I have never experienced the kind of anti-Semitism there that I experienced in my hometown. Are there sometimes crazy conspiracy theories about Israel? Yes. Do people say insensitive things? Of course. However, whatever anti-Semitism I experienced in my years in Students for Justice in Palestine did not compare to the many years of verbal, and sometimes quite literal, violence I experienced as one of the few Jews in a rural, conservative, evangelical community. SJP is a human rights organization dedicated to the liberation of all peoples. There is no comparison between it and the political project of white nationalism or Christian supremacy.
For progressive Jews, reconnecting anti-Semitism to the intellectual and political infrastructure of global white supremacy is one the many tasks ahead. There are ample examples of directions not to take. As pro-Israel critics and organizations refuse to attack to Trump over his selection of Bannon, we are beginning to witness a real split in the Jewish community, as it decides whether its support for Israel will outweigh its resistance to white supremacy. Even as the ADL lashes out at Trump’s anti-Semitism, it recently ruptured its ties with African American activists over their stance on Israel – condemning the Movement for Black Lives’ embrace of Palestinian rights and their critique of Israeli policy. As one African American Jewish writer noted, “I naively assumed that…a civil rights organization which presses for equal treatment under the law would have problems with a nearly 50 year illegal occupation in defiance of UN resolutions. ”
Rather than side with Israel over our allies of color in the U.S., it is Jewish alliances with activists of color that will defeat white supremacy in all its forms — whether in the U.S., or in Israel and Palestine. Linking Jewish fate with a racial state that engages in what looks like apartheid to most of the world does more than corrode “Jewish values,” it isolates us from our natural allies in the U.S. The decision to support a democratic state in the lands west of the Jordan River is not anti-Semitic – it is quite the opposite. It is to recognize that it is in long-term Jewish interest to defeat forms of racist power wherever they may exist. It is not a question of progressive Jewish tradition or Tikkun Olam, it is a question of long-term continued survival. As Israel is itself born out of a racially defined nationalist project, it seems there is a little question which direction AIPAC and other groups like it will take. Their ongoing support for Israel is not only reactionary and unethical, we need to understand it as short-sighted and dangerous as well.
In that sense, Jews need to rethink the passive politics of “allyship,” which assumes that Euro-American Jews should align with the struggles of people of color out of a desire for justice, perhaps the goodness of our hearts. As one activist said to me, “that’s fine if you’re a good person, but I want to know what skin you have in the game.” To fight anti-Semitism we are going to need an intersectional analysis. Intersectionality often sounds easy on paper but in practice it is difficult and complicated. Not all oppressions look the same, feel the same, have the same structural and institutional features. To many in movements for racial justice, Jews with European ancestry will be understood, quite rightly, as white people with all the social and legal benefits that go with it. It may be difficult and even embarrassing to insist on including an analysis of anti-Semitism when hate crimes are being committed against Muslims on the street and undocumented immigrants are threatened with deportation. But anti-Semitism is part of the cultural and political formations of white supremacy, and we need to acknowledge that defeating it is in our self-interest as well. It is also in the self-interest of any group fighting injustice. Anti-Semitism obscures the real sources of economic and political power. The Rothschilds are not the reason the banking sector collapsed in 2008; “New York values” do not explain a skyrocketing divorce rate; Israel is not the puppet-master guiding the strings of U.S. imperial policy in the Middle East, however much their interests may align. Unless we can address these twin facts openly and honestly, we will neither be able to defeat a Trump presidency – or bring peace to Israelis and Palestinians.
But even as its power grows, far-right antisemitism remains a poorly understood phenomenon for much of the Left. How are we on the Left to understand antisemitism? Why is it rebounding, with renewed vigor, in the era of Trump? And most importantly, how do we fight back?
Never Fully Extinguished
Anti-Jewish oppression has a long and complex history. In medieval Christian Europe, Jews were scapegoated and attacked, often bizarrely, as Christ-killers, murderers of Christian children, poisoners of Christian water-wells, and more. With the dawn of the Enlightenment, Jews were promised acceptance, only to be accused of “dual loyalty” and treason by newly existent nation-states. Anti-Jewish sentiment reached a fever pitch with race-based theories of innate, biological Jewish wickedness developed and perfected by Nazi fascism in the twentieth century.
While Jews living in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and elsewhere around the world often lived in relative security and peace, in Europe, periods of Jewish coexistence and even prosperity alternated with episodes of intense persecution, violence, and exile, leading, over centuries, to deeply ingrained collective feelings of vulnerability, anxiety, and trauma.
After the horrific slaughter of one-third of the world’s Jewish population by German fascism, it may have seemed that centuries of persecution might come to a close, as before long, Jews came to experience unprecedented empowerment in America and Israel. In the United States, the majority of Jewish communities were lifted into the beckoning arms of middle-class suburbia by the same post-World War II economic and social policies that kept black people and other minorities in poverty. The creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and its military victories in the decades following, at the expense of displaced and dispossessed Palestinians, offered to the world the spectacle of militarily powerful Jews protected by their own nation-state.
Largely banished from the public sphere, antisemitism became synonymous with unthinkable evil. It seemed, finally, that Jews were safe. But from the fringes to the mainstream, antisemitism never truly disappeared from American society.
In the 1950s, Cold War McCarthyism carried clear antisemitic undertones, with the execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg and the frenzied witch hunt against disproportionately Jewish communists in unions and progressive organizations across the country. Beginning in the 1980s, neo-Nazi skinhead movements trafficked in Holocaust denial and later circulated ideas of “white genocide” that, as we shall see, put Jews at the center of a vast conspiracy to exterminate the “white race.” The dawn of the internet greatly bolstered white-supremacist organizing, sowing the seeds for the antisemitic alt-right, which would burst into wider public view with the rise of Trumpism.
Always the Hidden Puppeteers
Minutes before storming into Etz Chaim Synagogue on Saturday, Robert Bowers wrote on social media that the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), a Jewish immigrant and refugee support agency, “likes to bring in invaders that kill our people … I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered … I’m going in.” Bowers thought that, by targeting a synagogue involved in refugee relief, he was striking at the root cause of the migration which threatened his white race.
For white supremacists like Bowers, left-wing Jewish activists are the hidden masterminds behind immigration, Black Lives Matter, feminism, LGBTQ rights, political correctness, and all the other assorted “evils” of progressive politics that hinder the creation of their hoped-for white ethnostate. Alt-right theorists argue that throughout the twentieth century, American Jews mobilized hyper-focused networks of political and social capital to loosen the country’s immigration policies; orchestrated the Civil Rights Movement, integration, and other ills of “race mixing”; and engineered multiculturalism, relativism, sexual liberation, and other fronts of “cultural Marxism.”
The chant “Jews will not replace us,” heard at last year’s Unite the Right white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, embodies the alt-right fear that the all-powerful Jew remains the hidden puppeteer of progressivism, hell-bent on using liberal causes to keep whites outnumbered, emasculated, and demoralized.
More and more, these sentiments move, in both explicit and coded forms, from the margins to the mainstream of right-wing discourse. In the two weeks leading up to the massacre, a chorus of right-wing pundits, amplified by Trump’s Twitter account, insisted that the hand of George Soros lurked behind the migrant caravans, while prominent GOP voices claimed Soros was sneakily helping ensure Democratic wins in the midterm elections. Meanwhile, Soros’s home was the first to receive a bomb package on October 22 from alt-righter Cesar Sayoc, and earlier this month, flyers popped up on campuses across the country claiming that Jews were secretly behind sexual assault allegations against then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
Paradoxically, the far right blames Jews, not only for the progressive social movements of the Left, but also for the neoliberal austerity of the Right. Days before the 2016 election, Trump’s final and most prominent campaign adbeamed into millions of homes across the country the faces of Soros and other prominent Jewish figures, alongside condemnations of the “global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations and political entities.” The term “globalist” captures perfectly this bizarre assertion that the same “Jewish power” hoists upon dispossessed whites both the economic agenda that exports jobs and forecloses upon homes, and the social agenda that emasculates men, diversifies white communities, and mixes the races.
In short, according to the alt-right, Jews are “the principal enemy — not the sole enemy, but the principal enemy — of every attempt to halt and reverse white extinction.” In the words of neo-Nazi leader Victor Gerhard, “to rail against blacks and Hispanics without mentioning Jews is like complaining about the symptoms and not the disease.” Only by expunging the Jewish root can whites successfully reverse-engineer their dispossession, ensure their survival, and chart the course of their future. Antisemitism posits a vast Jewish conspiracy that can be deployed, both on the fringe and mainstream right, to obfuscate not only the true voices, faces, and demands animating progressive movements for social change, but also the true interests and actors behind neoliberal exploitation.
Antisemitism is a key pillar of white-supremacist thought, helping reinforce and repackage anti-immigrant sentiment, Islamophobia, patriarchy, and other reactionary ideas by lending the overarching veneer of a comprehensive, totalizing reactionary worldview. One always finds antisemitic conspiracy theories entangled with other oppressive ideologies, transcending and including them to offer a final meta-explanation: “it’s the Jews.”
Still the Socialism of Fools
Antisemitism is given this universal explanatory power at time when neoliberal capitalism has immiserated vast numbers of people. Framing their rule as a revolution against the “globalist agenda” of neoliberalism, today’s neofascist leaders promise to reestablish strong, sovereign nation-states, rooted in blood and soil, cleansed of “foreign infiltrators,” delivering longed-for stability and prosperity.
The last dramatic resurgence of antisemitic ideology in the 1930s, took root in similar circumstances, in the wake of a global financial crisis, when working- and middle-class whites from Germany to the US were desperate to understand and respond to their dreadful predicament. Like today’s alt-right, twentieth-century fascism blamed Jews, not only for the specters of communism, homosexuality, and other “left-wing ills” but also for the depredations of predatory finance capital.
But today, as in the 1930s, this “revolution from the right” is no revolution at all. Nationalists from Trump to Hungary’s Viktor Orban critique “the globalist elite” in theory, while in practice, plunging ordinary folks deeper into poverty and deepening the pockets of the ultrarich. Antisemitism, then and now, is a “foreshortened anticapitalism,” a “socialism of fools” promising false emancipation from illusory oppressors.
While many forms of oppression keep oppressed groups on the bottom rungs of society’s ladder, modern, European-derived antisemitism works when some Jews have moved up a few rungs, securing a relative degree of visible prosperity and power in society. During times of economic downturn and popular discontent, the anger of oppressed and exploited people gets redirected, like a pressure valve, away from capitalists as a class and onto the image of the conniving, all-powerful Jew.
“Peasants who go on pogrom against their Jewish neighbors” serving as the nobleman’s tax collectors, writes Puerto Rican Jewish poet and activist Aurora Levins Morales, “won’t make it to the nobleman’s palace to burn him out and seize the fields.”
Today, antisemites use the very fact that, over the twentieth century, some Jews entered visible positions in portions of the privileged and owning classes, while some others enthusiastically embraced progressive causes, as proof of the correctness of their conspiracies. The overwhelmingly white and Christian titans of heavy industry, big business, finance, oil, and the weapons industry are happy to support Trump, and while Soros gets scapegoated, happy to remain behind the scenes in their corporate boardrooms peacefully collecting mega-profits.
Conspiratorial antisemitism benefits the class interests of the 1 percent, and is rooted organically in far-right, white-nationalist movements. However, strands of the ideology also appear elsewhere. Conspiracy theories of nefarious Jewish control championed by figures like Louis Farrakhan serve to obfuscate the real capitalist relations behind the history of slavery, present-day racialized poverty, and more. Fringe voices claiming to support Palestinians — though shunned by the mainstream Palestinian rights movement, which stands against antisemitism — portray Jewish Zionists as conspiratorial infiltrators of the American government, single-handedly steering US foreign policy to support endless war in the Middle East. Marginal voices on the Left resurrect antisemitic Rothschild conspiracy theories to fashion half-baked, shoddy caricatures of neoliberalism, financial speculation, and other symptoms of capitalism.
How to Fight It
Wherever antisemitism rears its head, it steers people away from truly liberatory movements. Here, in its seductive explanatory power, lies its danger. It’s also where the Left can intervene.
If, as Walter Benjamin once said, “every rise of fascism bears witness to a failed revolution,” it is equally true that the spread of antisemitic conspiracism means that the Left has not yet succeeded in capturing the narrative. To fight antisemitism, socialists and progressives need to offer clear, compelling analyses showing who really profits from the systems of exploitation that assail working people in this country.
We need to remind people that, as one Twitter user put it, there is a small minority of elites who control the world’s political and economic systems at the expense of the world’s population, but it’s not the Jews — it’s the bourgeoisie.
The Left also needs to understand better how antisemitism really operates: to redirect popular anger onto a convenient scapegoat, leaving the real enemies of the people unscathed. The obstacles to this understanding are many. Too often, our culture presents antisemitism as an inexplicable, unfathomable prejudice; a baseless hatred unconnected to broader structures of power and oppression we see around us. For example, the chief takeaway from much mainstream Holocaust education is that some people just hate Jews — no further explanation needed. Or, it’s seen as a tragic holdover from the 1940s, with little relevance to today’s world. Too often, false charges of antisemitism are used to batter Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims, and any progressive movement that stands up for Palestinian rights.
In order to combat these obfuscations, progressive movements need to trace antisemitism’s often complicated forms, illuminating the specific, material ways it benefits those in power and intersects with other oppressions. We need to give a clear analysis and condemnation of antisemitism, not only to defend Jews but also to ensure our broader movements remain rooted in sober, material comprehension of the forces against us.
Non-Jewish progressives need to support Jews facing antisemitic attacks in the United States without preconditions, expectations, or assumptions. Bringing up Israel when Jews get attacked simply for being Jews is ignorant at best and antisemitic at worst. But while the gesture of direct, unmediated solidarity is simple, grappling with the real-world, messy relationships between Jews and other minoritized groups can be anything but. Precisely because antisemitism functions by elevating some Jews and Jewish communities to positions of relative power or privilege vis a vis other minority groups, serious seeds of discord have been sown between groups that should be allies in the fight against white supremacy.
Tensions around a host of issues — Israel/Palestine, mistrust between white Jews and non-Jewish people of color, or across other fault lines — create mutual suspicion, resentment, and hostility between Jews and other groups, leading to a “divide and conquer” effect that ultimately weakens the Left and strengthens the Right. This leads many Jews to conclude that only allying with the powerful — for example, putting cops in synagogues, uncritically supporting Israel, and in some cases, even embracing Trumpism — will truly keep us safe. Progressive Jews must continue working to move our communities away from complicity and towards solidarity, while vocal non-Jewish solidarity against antisemitism will help do the same.
Unfortunately, after antisemitic attacks like Pittsburgh, mainstream narratives often dictate that only Israel will truly keep Jews safe, and that to show solidarity, non-Jews should support Israel. However, Israel has allied itself squarely with fascist regimes the world over — including regimes that are overtly antisemitic — and its policies vis a vis Palestinians, African migrants, Jewish dissidents, and others have long bore more than a passing resemblance to the far-right authoritarianism now plaguing our world. Until Palestinians are free, supporting Israel ultimately will not help Jews or anyone get truly safe or free. Progressives and leftists need to make this clear.
The way forward is familiar, though the path windy. We must fight antisemitism with solidarity. This alone can defeat white supremacy, keep us all safe, and get us all free.
[Ben Lorber is the campus coordinator for Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). He talked with about the declining support for Israel and Zionism among Jewish Americans. In this interview, he is speaking as an individual, and not for JVP.]
IT’S NO secret that Zionism and support for settler-colonialism in Palestine are strong in the institutional Jewish community. How strong do you think those politics are? What impact do you think this has on American Jewish life?
I THINK the most important thing to say about those politics is that they’re weakening. The stranglehold, not only of support for Israel’s increasingly right-wing policies towards the Palestinian people, but of Zionism itself, is really slipping in the American Jewish community, especially when you look at younger generations of American Jews like you and I.
It seems like every day now, there are more and more reports and headlines that young American Jews don’t support Israel’s increasingly racist and xenophobic policies, and don’t hold the state at the center of their Jewish identities.
Especially with the rise of the Trump administration and the phenomenon of Trumpism in America, American Jews as a whole have seen Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu being great buddies with Trump, and that’s disturbing to the majority of American Jews who define themselves as liberal or progressive and are shocked by the policies of the Trump administration.
Every time Israel does something terrible–like the latest massacres in Gaza or the deportation of African refugees, to name two recent examples–we see many different sectors of American Jewry speaking out in new ways, with increasing intensity.
I also think that in the long term, it’s a fundamentally unnatural and unsustainable project to tie American Jewish identity to a nation-state halfway around the world, and to put the program of supporting its policies at the center of American Jewish identity. Many of us are actively concerned at Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and are working hard to broaden and deepen our Jewish identities beyond Zionism.
What impact has Zionism had on American Jewish life? First of all, it puts us on the wrong side of history.
Driven partly by inherited fears and traumas about anti-Semitism, the need to unconditionally support Israel means many of us end up allying with right-wing Christian Zionism and supporting reactionary U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. This leaves our institutional leadership and many in our communities alienated from progressive allies and divided from the left.
This is a very old tactic in Zionism, and it’s why during the early 1900s, Zionism was supported by European powers. They were worried about the strong phenomenon of European Jewish support for revolutionary movements, and they supported Zionism as a divide-and-conquer alternative for the Jewish community.
Over and over again today, you see these things like the Movement for Black Lives being attacked for being anti-Israel, or the Women’s March being attacked because of Linda Sarsour’s supposed anti-Semitism.
Unfortunately, many American Jews basically tend to be scared away from supporting these progressive causes because of the wedge issue of Israel, while false charges of antisemitism are weaponized to batter and weaken progressive movements.
It’s also a question of our community’s resources. Birthright raises tens of millions of dollars every year from American Jewish donors and institutions. What if that money was being used to make our synagogues affordable or to provide enriching, accessible, affordable Jewish life in America?
Imagine if, instead of putting defense of Israel’s illiberal policies at the top of its priorities list, our American Jewish communal institutions were committed with the same public vigor to supporting calls for social security, Medicare for all and affordable housing, to stopping Trumpism’s attacks on vulnerable minorities, and other progressive causes.
Finally, it’s a question of identity. There’s been a long process of assimilation of American Jewish identities–basically a similar phenomenon that happens with many cultures and identities under capitalism, where there’s a constant pressure to forget our traditions and to assimilate into consumer culture.
Contrary to popular belief, Zionism has helped a lot with that. For too many American Jews, the chief way we have been taught to express our Jewish identity is to support Israel’s policies. Forget learning in depth about our histories, forget religious practices–the way to show you’re a good Jew is to attack BDS.
In this way, despite presenting itself as an anti-assimilationist Jewish identity project, Zionism has paradoxically helped further American Jewish assimilation.
WHEN YOU look at young Jews in America today, what kinds of alternatives to that kind of navigation of Jewish identity are you seeing them put forward?
I THINK we’re at the beginning stages of a revolution in Jewish identity in America. I see young Jews on campuses all over the country creating and building alternative Jewish institutions.
For some of them, it’s organizations specifically advocating for Palestinian human rights as Jews, and for others, it’s simply a space outside of their Hillel–which has become overwhelmingly Zionist–where they just get together and enjoy and celebrate being Jewish.
More and more American Jews on college campuses are being alienated by the mainstream pro-Israel support they see in their Hillels, and so they’re building alternative institutions.
WHAT DO you see in these alternative institutions? What’s exciting about them?
ONE EXAMPLE I can think of is at Tufts University. They’ve had for a while this space called Alt-J, which is basically a monthly potluck Shabbat at someone’s house.
Each month, a different person is responsible for uplifting a different cause as far as the social justice work they’re doing, and it gives an opportunity for other people to get involved. Many similar non-Zionist Jewish spaces have formed on other campuses, outside of Hillel.
Here in Chicago, we have a space called Cool Chicago Jews–which started as a Facebook group, just a way for young non-Zionist Jews of Chicago to connect.
We have monthly Shabbats in people’s houses. Some folks gathered together and put on a Purim shpiel recently that had Yiddish and Ladino. And we have Passover seders that draw on ancient themes of liberation and imbue them with new radical messaging. At our recent Passover Seder, we had 50 young Jews in a room yelling ‘Free Palestine!’ and cheering. This is the future!
We also have Tzedek Chicago, a non-Zionist congregation with folks of all ages. Across the country, there are non-Zionist havurot (mini-congregations) springing up all over the place. Rabbinical schools are filled with non-Zionist and anti-occupation rabbis-to-be. The future of American Jewry’s relationship to Israel is an open question.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. For decades, especially since the 1960s, there have been a lot of grassroots progressive Jewish movements in America that combine radical politics and radical spirituality, to differing degrees.
But I think today, it’s bubbling up and growing stronger, and we’re seeing a proliferation of spaces for radical Jews who are involved with different organizing initiatives to connect and to share in community.
The common trope that you hear repeated again and again is that Zionism and support for Israel is the core way for Jews to connect with their Jewishness, and if we didn’t have support for Israel, our identities would be lost to assimilation. We would disappear as Jews if we didn’t all have support for Israel to unite us.
But I think these communities are proving that’s bogus. There are young Jews who are strongly anti-Zionist, but are just as strongly devoted to developing a strong Jewish identity. These DIY spaces and shuls are made by young Jews who are taking our Judaism into our own hands, and we’re building our Jewish future with our own sweat and hard work, and that’s what makes it so powerful.
WHY ORGANIZE as a Jew? Why is there a growth in interest in doing social justice work as Jews?
THIS IS a question that confronts a lot of leftists who happen to be Jews: Should I just organize as a worker and a human being, or as a white ally [if they’re a white Jew]? Or should I specifically attach a Jewish label to my activism?
I think the first answer to the question of “Why organize as a Jew?” is really simple: it’s just because it’s who we are. No matter how different folks who call themselves Jews came to their Jewish identities, if you identify as a Jewish person, and that identity is important to you, then you have every right to bring your identity to your organizing, just as we bring all of our identities to the work we do.
People throw around the phrase tikkun olam [repair of the world] a lot to say, “There is something inherently Jewish–something deep within our millenia-old tradition–about striving for justice.” Sometimes I think that’s true, and other times, I’m a little skeptical of that.
But one thing’s for sure–millions of American Jews in the modern era have put radicalism at the deep core of their Jewish identities.
For many American Jews who came of age in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, going on strike with your union and fighting for racial justice was the most deeply Jewish thing one could do. This was a core part of American Jewish identity in the first half of the 20th century, and it was suppressed mainly by anti-Semitic McCarthyism and assimilation (for many) into whiteness and the middle class.
I also think that today our institutional leadership is, for the most part, deeply reactionary, and a lot of people are outraged by that. So there is an especially strong impetus today to organize as Jews to tell our communal leadership, “Hey, we’re reclaiming our heritage that you’ve forgotten and you need to wake up.”
I think we’re seeing a surge in Jewish social justice organizing today because we’re looking at our communities, which are deeply embedded in white supremacy in a lot of ways, and we’re saying, “This needs to change.”
WHAT ROLE do you see the fight against anti-Semitism playing in the radical Jewish spaces that we’ve talked about? Do you think that these kinds of communities of Jews bring anything special to the fight against anti-Semitism, and with it, the fight for collective liberation of all people?
TOTALLY. I think a lot of Jewish folks have been rightly shocked to see the rise of the anti-Semitic alt-right, to see the white nationalist marchers chanting, “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville, and a lot of these folks are joining left-Jewish organizations. Being in community with other leftist Jews at scary times like this is deeply therapeutic and deeply empowering, and it makes these spaces even stronger.
The other side of the coin is that we see our institutional leadership getting the fight against anti-Semitism wrong. We see our mainstream Jewish organizations raising their voice to attack Linda Sarsour or the Movement for Black Lives, while, meanwhile, they aren’t spending enough time fighting the rise of the white nationalist alt-right.
So even more so, there’s this impetus to come together and build radical Jewish community that will get the fight against anti-Semitism right, and that will actually know who our enemies are.
This is a matter of our own long-term safety. In this moment, as anti-Semitic fascism is rising in this country, we’re concerned that our leadership is trying to harm and subvert grassroots movements like the Movement for Black Lives and leaders like Linda Sarsour–forces of progressive struggle, which are building the power to beat fascism.
Our community’s mistaken priorities are actually a colossal mistake that could be putting our bodies in danger in the long run. The BDS movement is one of the most powerful and vibrant people-of-color-led intersectional movements for justice, and false charges of antisemitism are being used by our government, by Christian Zionist leaders in America and, sadly, some leaders in our own community to harm this movement.
So we are very concerned that false claims of anti-Semitism are hurting the left right now, and we need to be strengthening the left. So it’s even more important for us to build these genuinely left-wing, progressive Jewish spaces that are on the right side of history.
History is heating up right now, and we’re not sure what the future holds in America. We need to get on the right side of the barricades, and to get as much of our community on the right side of the barricades as possible.
I also think radical Jews and radical communities have a lot to offer the left around its analysis of anti-Semitism, because there are times when anti-Semitism does appear on the left, and other times when the left simply lacks an understanding of what anti-Semitism is and how it functions.
I think it’s up to us as Jewish allies on the left who have built close relationships and who show up for struggle–it’s up to us to lovingly call in our allies and do education around anti-Semitism, in the context of our deep relationships, and to develop a progressive movement that can passionately fight against anti-Semitism alongside all forms of oppression.
UNDERSTANDING ALT-RIGHT ANTISEMITISM: what the new white supremacy means for American Jews, and why it matters
(Note- This article references many alt-right/white supremacist websites. All hyperlinks to these web pages go to ‘cached’ replicas of the pages, not the website itself.)
For the American Jewish community, these are strange and frightening times. With a wave of bomb threats to Jewish community centers*, attacks on Jewish cemeteries, and antisemitic graffiti on college campuses, American Jews face the largest grassroots surge of antisemitism in living memory. Yet, while over 75% of American Jews did not vote for Trump, the state of Israel has rushed to his side. Stranger still, the white supremacist alt-right movement seems to simultaneously hate Jews, and love Israel. Steve Bannon, Trump campaign mastermind and former architect of the antisemitic and white nationalist Breitbart News, shows firm support for the Jewish state, while neo-Nazi hipster Richard Spencer compares himself to Theodore Herzl, and calls his movement ‘white Zionism’.
This confusing reality has scrambled the coordinates of the American Jewish community, whose leaders have spent decades painting criticism of Israel, and more recently the BDS movement, as ‘the new antisemitism’. Even though it is well-known that the same forces of white supremacy put all our communities in danger, many Jews and non-Jews still struggle to understand exactly how this new anti-Semitism fits in with other forms of bigotry in the far-right, such as Islamophobia, anti-Arab racism, anti-blackness, and anti-immigrant racism.
This article examines the ideology of antisemitism on the alt-right, and its intersection with alt-right Zionism, in comparison with anti-Jewish ideologies of the 20th century. By unearthing the inner logic of fascist mentality, we do not seek to grant legitimacy to their beliefs, or pretend they can be defeated through reasoned debate alone; rather, by situating these anti-Jewish ideologies in their historical context, past and present, we hope to orient ourselves in our current political moment, in order to understand how to transform it.
For years, the online white nationalist movement has been obsessed with the ‘Jewish Question’, or ‘JQ’. Dredging through the swamps of the alt-right internet, on sites like the Daily Stormer, forums like 4chan and podcasts like the Daily Shoah, it is common knowledge that, alongside all sorts of racist and sexist drivel, one is inundated with raw, in-your-face neo-Nazi memes, slurs and clickbait recycling the crude anti-Jewish tropes of the last century.
Rather than attempt to glean a coherent ideology from Pepe-the-frog memes or angry white dude trolls, it is more worthwhile to turn to the ‘suit-and-tie’ white supremacists, who wrap their hate in a pseudo-intellectual veneer. In online publications, like Alternative Right, CounterCurrents, Radix Journal, and the Occidental Observer, that appear, at first glance, more like academic journals than hate sites, the alt-right attempts to develop a coherent American white nationalist ideology, grounded in 20th-century anti-modern, anti-liberal thought and situated alongside other far-right movements across Europe. Epitomized by clean-cut, upper-middle-class ‘hipster intellectual’ fascists like Richard Spencer, this new movement seeks, in the words of one anti-fascist blogger, to make neo-fascism “just as much of a philosophic project as Marxism and anarchism…using jargon and rhetoric that feels more like the Frankfurt School than like the [neo-Nazi group] National Alliance.”
Most attempts, on the alt-right, to ‘theorize’ antisemitism rely heavily on the work of Kevin MacDonald, a retired evolutionary psychology professor who still collects a pension from California State University, Long Beach. Dubbed ‘the neo-Nazi movement’s favorite academic’ by Southern Poverty Law Center and ‘the Marx of the anti-Semites’ by conservative writer John Derbyshire, MacDonald began his academic forays into the ‘Jewish Question’ in the late 90s, by claiming, in books like ‘A People That Shall Dwell Alone’, that Judaism represents a ‘group evolutionary strategy’, developed and perfected over two millennia of Jewish adaptation in the diaspora, whereby a tight-knit Jewish ‘ingroup’ embeds itself, like a virus, within the pores of its host nation, siphoning off resources, rising to the elite and disarming all defenses against their invasion. Once the formal legal structures separating Jews and gentiles were dissolved in the 18th-century European Enlightenment, MacDonald argues, liberal ‘emancipated’ Jewish activists “construct[ed] highly focused ethnic networks in politics, the arts, the media, and the social sciences—all the critical centers of power in the modern world”, building progressive movements for multiculturalism and universalism within Gentile society while, hypocritically, maintaining covert ‘hyperethnocentric’ networks of support among fellow Jewish activists.
The alt-right turns to MacDonald’s later books, particularly The Culture of Critique, to understand the ‘Jewish problem’ underlying basically all progressive legal, political and cultural forces of modern American history. Throughout the 20th century, claims MacDonald, American Jewish political figures, lobbyists, lawyers, journalists, activists, and other ‘opinion makers’ spearheaded, from behind the scenes, both the civil rights movement and the movement for relaxed immigration policies. It was Jewish political and social capital, ultimately, that opened the gates of the USA to millions of non-European immigrants, integrated our schools, cities and neighborhoods, and worked behind the scenes, in various ways, to engineer “the racial reconstruction of America”.
During the same time period, MacDonald insists, a liberal Jewish elite engineered the hegemonic takeover of the humanities and social sciences, using the disciplines of Boasian anthropology, Freudian psychoanalysis, and the Frankfurt School to propagate cultural relativism, sexual liberation, and the deconstruction of all ideologies deemed ‘authoritarian’, respectively. Through movements like the New Left, finally, Jews brought the ‘culture war’ to the streets of America. Today, therefore, Jews have successfully transformed American sensibilities, mainstreaming white guilt, moral relativism, multiculturalism, feminism, LGBTQ rights, political correctness, ‘cultural Marxism’, and the thousand other evils of liberalism.
Another common alt-right trope portrays Jews as the ‘globalist elite’, the secretive cabal that controls global institutions, like the IMF and the EU, to impose an exploitative neoliberal agenda of austerity, deregulation and debt servitude upon the nation-states of Europe. The much-villianized progressive Jewish philanthropist George Soros embodies, for the alt-right, the conviction that the ‘globalist elite’ is ‘socially liberal and fiscally conservative’, or, put differently, that the same ‘Jewish power’ underlies both the economic agenda of the 1% and the social-cultural agenda of the 99%.
All things considered, for the alt-right, “the organized Jewish community,” writes Greg Johnson, editor-in-chief at Counter-Currents, is the principal enemy — not the sole enemy, but the principal enemy — of every attempt to halt and reverse white extinction.” While other hated ethnic and religious groups, such as blacks, Latinos, Arabs and Muslims, represent external threats, Jews, they claim, destabilize White European-American society from within, through the gradual, imperceptible institutionalization of creeping white genocide. The Jews are the master puppeteers, the hidden architects of white dispossession- in the words of neo-Nazi leader Victor Gerhard, “to rail against blacks and Hispanics without mentioning Jews is like complaining about the symptoms and not the disease.”
The Jewish question, accordingly, is the esoteric secret of the alt-right cult, a meta-narrative reserved only for the initiated, those who, through a leap of reason, learn to see beyond appearances to the essence of white dispossession. “I think it is easy to understand black crime, illegal immigrants, that’s in your face,” said Richard Spencer in an interview with the Forward. “But the Jewish question is extremely complicated.” Or as Kevin MacDonald says, “my general impression in talking to Alt Righters is that many begin with an awareness of White decline, race differences in traits like IQ, and minority hostility, and then progress toward an understanding of Jewish influence as they read more widely.”
Only by uprooting the Jews from America, according to the alt-right, can whites successfully reverse-engineer the social, cultural and political processes of their own dispossession, ensure their survival, and chart the course of their future. From this perspective, bomb threats and cemetery desecrations represent the sickening attempt of American white supremacy, not only to chase away what today will corrode the foundations of the white ethnostate of the future, but also to uproot, from the soil itself, all that corroded the white ethnostate in the past.
Before we move on, let’s be clear- Jews did not covertly orchestrate the racial and social justice movements of the 20th century! This argument, while grossly antisemitic (more on that soon), is demeaning to the communities of color, LGBTQ folk, working people and others who fought, and still fight, for their own liberation. Moreover, this narrative erases the existence of Jews of color and non-European Jews, monolithically portraying all Jews as ‘white-passing’ descendants of European Ashkenazim (even while it strenuously denies, obviously, that these Jews are in fact white Europeans).
THE JEWISH ETHNO-STATE
For years, many white nationalists demonized Israel’s oppression of Palestinians as the manifestation of a uniquely Jewish power, Jewish evil or Jewish influence. ‘Old-school’ white supremacists like David Duke still depict Israeli leaders as Satanic baby-killers, thirsting for Palestinian blood, and still claim that Israel controls media, banks and ‘Zionist occupied governments’ the world over. These motifs are remakes of the ‘blood libel’ myths of the Middle Ages, and the ‘Jewish world conspiracy’ myths of the 20th century, respectively. Clearly, they are far removed from the principled anti-Zionism of the Left, which views Israel’s oppression of Palestinians not as a ‘Jewish problem’ but through the structural lens of settler-colonialism, apartheid and white supremacy.
Recently, however, the alt-right has changed its tone. Many now call for a pragmatic acceptance of the existence of Israel, arguing that the only way to end the parasitic, destabilizing force that diaspora Jews exert upon Western nations is to relocate those Jews to Israel. “As ethnonationalists, we believe in the “Ein Volk, ein Reich” principle,” explains Greg Johnson, in ‘White Nationalism and Jewish Nationalism’- “one people, one state…[an] ethnic self-determination of all peoples…a kind of classical liberalism for all nations, in which each people has a place of its own”. Israel, for Johnson, is not the symbol of the wicked ’eternal Jew’, but the sign, rather, of its overcoming. “I do not oppose the existence of Israel,” explains Johnson in a chilling passage. “I oppose the Jewish diaspora in the United States and other white societies. I would like to see the white peoples of the world break the power of the Jewish diaspora and send the Jews to Israel, where they will have to learn how to be a normal nation.”
Johnson is hardly the first antisemite to reason that pesky, subversive diaspora Jews have no business in the European nation-state, and need some blood-and-soil nationalism of their own. A hundred years ago, in the heyday of European state-building, it was common for white Europeans and Americans to believe that, as Henry Ford’s early-1920s pamphlet ‘The International Jew’ put it, “in a world of completely organized territorial sovereignties, he [the Jew] has only two possible cities of refuge: he must either pull down the pillars of the whole national state system or he must create a territorial sovereignty of his own.” Early Jewish Zionists shared this view. In fact Theodore Herzl, in a diary entry, articulated a vision that, disturbingly enough, could today make him Greg Johnson’s business partner- the Zionist movement, he proposed, could work with ‘respectable anti-Semites’ willing to liquidate Jewish property in the diaspora, reimbursing these folks for their assistance in the colonization of Palestine. In the completion of this task, Herzl reasoned, “the anti-Semites will become our most dependable friends, the anti-Semitic countries our allies”.
Perhaps to the delight of Herzl, other alt-right theorists view Zionism as an ethnonationalist project worth emulating in itself. Richard Spencer, who once referred to his movement as ‘a sort of white Zionism’, dreams of an ‘ingathering of the exiles’ of white Europeans into a new white ethnostate built in North America. Striking a Herzlian pose, he explained in a 2013 speech that “our project would be a new kind of political and social order. It would be a state for the 21st century—or 22nd…a home for Germans, Latins, and Slavs from around the world…a reconstitution of the Roman Empire…the Ethno-State would be, to borrow the title of a novel by Theodor Herzl (one of the founding fathers of Zionism), an Altneuland—an old, new country.”
While the alt-right may see Zionism as an ethnonationalism much like their own, this does not mean that they see Israel as a sign that, finally, the Jews are becoming ‘a nation like all other nations’. A key motif of alt-right antisemitism holds that in the modern era, Jews act duplicitously by, as MacDonald puts it, championing “the idea that Western countries have no ethnic core…while supporting Israel as a Jewish ethnostate”. Using the specter of the Holocaust, Jews in the post-World War II era, according to the alt-right, demand that Israel remain a ‘Jewish state’ while pathologizing as ‘fascist’ or ‘racist’ any attempts by whites to champion ethnonationalism in Europe and America. Thus, echoing old antisemitic motifs of the ‘deceitful Jew’, the alt-right sees the liberal Zionist Jew, progressive on all issues except Palestine, as no different than the Jewish reformer of post-Enlightenment 1800s Europe, who preached universalism by day and practiced ethnocentrism by night, or the Jewish anti-war activist of the 1960s, who preached universal brotherhood while covertly maintaining belief in Jewish superiority (a phenomenon MacDonald claims to have encountered firsthand, during his hippie years).
The alt-right watches in rage while, as one writer expressed in classic Freudian formation, the Jew fulfills, for himself, the white race’s desire for ethnocentrism, while castrating the white race with “the double standards of political correctness that condemn whites for even daring to think about the subject [of ethnonationalism], but freely allow Jews not only to express their desires for, but to actually have, their own ethnostate.” And the same fetishistic glance which Spencer casts upon Herzl, is cast by Kevin MacDonald, of all people, upon the very diaspora Jews he despises. “I have at times been accused of being an anti-Semite,” MacDonald grants in a 2004 speech entitled ‘Can the Jewish Model Help The West Survive?’, “but the reality is that I greatly admire Jews as a group that has pursued its interests over thousands of years, while retaining its ethnic coherence and intensity of group commitment…Taking seriously the idea of Judaism as a model for [white] ethnic activism is a tall order indeed.”
On one point alone, the Left agrees with Richard Spencer- Zionism is a form of ethnonationalism, racism and white supremacy. Just as Bibi and Trump, on the diplomatic stage, look like they were born for each other, Herzl and Richard Spencer do indeed strike a parallel pose in history. While we also hold liberal Zionism as hypocritical for condemning racism in America but overlooking it in Palestine, we see this, not as some mythical ‘Jewish deceitfulness’, but as a fairly typical blind spot held by liberal non-Jews and Jews alike. Perhaps liberal advocates of the two-state solution would be embarrassed to find that white supremacists like Greg Johnson support their policy proposal, albeit through the overt, rather than covert, logic of racial separatism.“I do not favor the destruction of Israel,” he says, “because I want the Jews to live there, not among my people. I favor a Palestinian state, because I want the Palestinians to live there, not among my people.”
When fascism last appeared on the stage of history, the economic, cultural and political institutions of the world were, like today, in deep crisis. After the Great Depression hit a Europe still emerging from the ravages of the First World War, millions of people faced poverty, dislocation and a world of shifting borders, unstable identities and an uncertain future. Meanwhile, rapid changes in technology, media communications, and industry were revolutionizing the scope and texture of human society, and the competing world-systems of capitalism and communism proposed very different models for the human future.
Over and against what Corey Robin has called, in a different context, “the social vertigo induced by modern industrial society”, fascism articulated a vision of populist ethnonationalism centered around the certainty of blood, the constancy of soil, the honor of the nation, the valor of war and the heroism of the leader. To the modern citizen searching for rootedness in an age of abstractions, fascism offered the tribe, the people, the Volk as a concrete counterpoint to the shallow individualism of liberalism, the hedonistic consumerism of capitalism, and the bureaucratic heathenism of Stalinism. These, fascism asserted, were the only true realities, stable enough to weather the storm of modernity and propel its people into the future.
To the titans of industry, fascism promised, not only the destruction of unions and left-wing movements and, therefore, an end to worker militancy and class conflict, but also massive profits through rearmament and the permanent war economy. To the petty bourgeoisie hit hard by inflation and unemployment, angry at the exorbitant wealth of those above them and eager to avoid the desperate poverty of those below them, fascism offered the myth of belonging, not to a vanishing class, but to a master race. To the working class, too, fascism substituted, as an antidote to Communism, the allure of nationalism and the comfort of a scapegoat.
According to Nazi ideology, the Jew was at once the ruthless profiteer of capitalism, and its opposite, the fiery radical of communism. It was the Jew-as-banker, argued Hitler and Henry Ford, who sought to starve nation-states of their natural resources, industry and manpower through the rootless, parasitic networks of global finance capital. It was also the Jew-as-communist, moreover, who taught the workers and peasants of the West to occupy their factories, march through their city streets and seize the landed estates of their countryside, demanding reform and revolution. It was the Jew-as-modernist, finally, who dominated new media like film, television and radio, and introduced new art-forms like Surrealist painting and jazz music, to corrode the traditional, family values of white Christian Europe with the transgressive sensibilities of the modern world.
In his essay ’Anti-Semitism and National Socialism’, Moishe Postone, a Marxist political theorist, argued that in the ‘international Jew’, the Nazis found a way to concentrate, into a single image, the entirety of the destabilizing forces of a modern world in tumult and transition. More complex than the Othering typical of most racism, the worldview of antisemitism offered, for those enthralled by Nazism, the illusion of a total revolution against these immense, ungraspable forces, a ‘foreshortened anticapitalist movement’, where “the abstract domination of capital, which—particularly with rapid industrialization—caught people up in a web of dynamic forces they could not understand, became perceived as the domination of International Jewry.” The image of the ‘international Jew’- at once the greedy financier suffocating the globe in a parasitic grasp, the sneaky agitator lighting fires of rebellion in the streets, the arch-media mogul clogging the airwaves with emptiness and filth, the master puppeteer dictating the motions of heads of state- all this, and more, framed in grotesque caricature the very historical processes that the new ultranationalism needed to set into reverse, in order to will itself into existence.
“What characterizes the power imputed to the Jews in modern anti-Semitism”, writes Postone,
“is that it is mysteriously intangible, abstract, and universal. It is considered to be a form of power that does not manifest itself directly, but must find another mode of expression. It seeks a concrete carrier, whether political, social, or cultural, through which it can work… It is considered to stand behind phenomena, but not to be identical with them. Its source is therefore deemed hidden—conspiratorial. The Jews represent an immensely powerful, intangible, international conspiracy…centered in the “asphalt jungles” of the newly emergent urban megalopoli…behind “vulgar, materialist, modern culture” and, in general, all forces contributing to the decline of traditional social groupings, values, and institutions. The Jews represent a foreign, dangerous, destructive force undermining the social “health” of the nation.”
It is not hard to see the parallels between the ‘international Jew’ of 20th-century fascism and the ‘diaspora Jew’ of the contemporary alt-right. What are we to make of these unsettling parallels? Why has this modern antisemitism re-emerged today, at the burning core of a right-populist movement that, in a little over the year, rose from the slimy pits of 4chan and stormed the White House?
THE ANTI-GLOBALISM OF FOOLS
Our present historical moment, in which the ideology of the alt-right takes its root, bears more than a passing resemblance to the world-crisis of the 1930s. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the prophets of neoliberalism promised that the ‘end of history’ was upon us, that the twin systems of liberal democracy and free-market capitalism would render national borders increasingly irrelevant, and bring rising incomes, falling inequality, and liberal tolerance to an interconnected planet. Perched atop institutions like the IMF, the World Bank and the Treasury Department, ruling elites of liberal and conservative persuasions alike promoted a ‘Washington Consensus’ of multinational trade deals like NAFTA, and pan-European institutions like the EU, that bolstered the profits of large corporations and the super-rich while hurting workers, gutting public services, and destroying communities around the world.
Like the 1930s, neoliberal capitalism has today triggered a worldwide financial crisis, throwing millions into poverty and dislocation. In countries across Europe, welfare protections have been scaled back, unemployment is high, unions have been undermined and millions are desperate for change. In America and across Europe, the centrist parties of neoliberalism are collapsing, while millions of refugees- the greatest number of stateless people since World War II- knock desperately at the gates of a West gripped by xenophobia and panic, the very West whose endless ‘war on terror’ has created the refugee crisis.
The eyes of the world watch transfixed as, from Brexit in Britain to Trump in America, Wilders in Denmark to Le Pen in France, a new wave of right-populist leaders emerges to offer a way forward for the frightened and fed-up peoples of Europe and America. Framed as a revolution against the ‘globalist agenda’ of neoliberalism, today’s neo-fascist leaders promise to re-establish strong, sovereign nation-states, rooted in blood and soil, cleansed of ‘foreign infiltrators’, driven by the conviction, as Steve Bannon said recently of the United States, that “we are not just an economy in some global marketplace with open borders, but a nation with a culture and a reason for being”. While liberals feel smothered by the paralyzing sense that history has careened off course, these ultranationalists feel, to quote Le Pen, that “what seemed impossible is now possible”, and that now is the time to declare, in the words of right-populist Russian intellectual Alexandr Dugin, “the 21st century has finally begun…swamp-drainers of the world, unite!”
But today, as in the 1930s, this ‘revolution from the right’ is no revolution at all. Economic nationalists like Trump and Bannon offer a hearty critique of ‘the globalist elite’ in theory, while building an administration that, in practice, plunges the country deeper into the ‘globalist agenda’ of privatization, tax cuts for the rich, Wall Street mega-speculation, and community disinvestment. For all his fiery populism, Bannon is a self-professed ‘hard-nosed capitalist’, a former Goldman Sachs executive who, as Jacobin puts it, “like every rich, right-wing asshole…plays GI Joe in public- or Julius Streicher, if the mood is right- before settling in with a nice bottle of Amarone in a climate-controlled beachfront property”. While Bannon blames the ‘globalists’ for the 2008 economic crisis that threw millions into poverty, he envisions, not a world free from the system of capitalism that ultimately caused the crisis, but a return to the 1980s, which he sees as a long-lost golden age when ‘enlightened capitalism’ reigned free from government regulation, ruled by men with ‘Judeo-Christian values’ of family, faith and tradition.
Indeed, the ideology of antisemitism appealed so strongly to 20th-century ultra-capitalists like Henry Ford because, in the image of the Jew-as-banker, it singled out one aspect of capitalism- the system of international finance- for condemnation, while portraying other strongholds of exploitation- like large landowners, and the titans of big industry- as patriotic defenders of the national interest. As Postone explains, modern antisemitism- which, four decades before Hitler took power, was already called ‘the socialism of fools’ by worker’s movements in Europe- was a “particularly pernicious fetish form” because it tricked people into believing that, by uprooting the Jews from Europe, they were actually liberating themselves from capitalist exploitation. The “power and danger” of such meta-scapegoating, in any era of ultranationalism triggered by rapacious capitalism, is that it offers the mirage of a ““comprehensive worldview which explains and gives form to certain modes of anticapitalist discontent in a manner that leaves capitalism intact, by attacking the personifications of that social form.”
Like their fascist forebears, Bannon & co offer a ‘revolution from the right’ that repackages the emancipatory spirit of the left in diluted form, wrapping in the flag of family, faith, blood and soil what is, essentially, a colossal power grab by rich, white men. Just as Hitler’s ‘international Jew’ functioned, in fascist mythology, as a catch-all symbol of the million symptoms of modernity, so the ‘diaspora Jew’ of today’s alt-right condenses within itself all the symptoms of a postmodern, post-neoliberal world in tumult and transition- with a hint of anti-capitalism thrown in to sweeten the deal.
“Every rise of fascism,” wrote Walter Benjamin, “bears witness to a failed revolution”. The alt-right, bearing witness to the failed promises of neoliberalism, is able to strike two poses in history- the sneering hipster-cynicism of Milo Yiannoupolis, and the mythic hipster-fascism of Richard Spencer. Neither pose is actually emancipatory, by any stretch of the imagination. Yet unless the Left can articulate a truly emancipatory vision for a future beyond neoliberalism- and can build a movement that gets us there- the continued rise of neofascism, and the horrific forms it will take, will bear witness to our ‘failed revolution’, too.
In this brief analysis, much has been left out, including the complex relationship between antisemitism and Islamophobia on the alt-right. Indeed, many anti-Muslim tropes today- such as the myth of a global Muslim conspiracy that has covertly infiltrated American society- are taken straight from the playbook of modern antisemitism. It also should not be forgotten that, although American Jews experience a new sense of vulnerability in Trump’s America, white Jews still enjoy a safety, privilege and comfort that most other minority groups in the crosshairs of the alt-right do not. Indeed, the white American Jewish community has been deeply complicit in the race and class privilege, the oppression of black and brown people, and the institutionalized Islamophobia that plagues this country.
These times are made even more strange and frightening, for the American Jewish community, by the fact that the state of Israel, far from serving as a progressive ‘light unto the nations’ or protecting Jews against antisemitism, stands in full support of Donald Trump and, increasingly, the forces of right-populism sweeping the world. Israel lends to the new fascism a valuable public relations tool, allowing leaders like Trump to deny charges of antisemitism, on the one hand, and to lend a ‘kosher’ stamp of approval to the ‘Judeo-Christian’ war against Islam, on the other. And while the institutional leaders of American Jewry lay awake at night, worrying about the latest campus plot to delegitimize Israel, the fastest-growing white supremacist movement America has seen in decades sets its sights, not on Israel, but squarely on American Jewry itself.
American Jews must take to the streets, alongside other marginalized groups, against the rising fascist menace in our country. Rather than seek the protection of kings, we must show up for all who are under attack, and trust that they will show up for us as well. In the long run, only this solidarity can save us. To our institutions that dwell close to positions of privilege and comfort, and remain complicit in white supremacy, we must say what the proud Mordecai, in the recent holiday of Purim, said to Queen Esther as she waited nervously in that same palace, unsure whether to use what influence she had over King Ahasuerus to try to protect the marginalized in his kingdom- “Do not think that you will escape [the fate of] all the Jews by being in the king’s palace. For if you will remain silent at this time, relief and salvation will come to the Jews from another source, and you and the house of your father will be lost. And who knows if it is not for just such a time that you reached this royal position!”
Seven decades ago, in conditions not terribly different from our own, my great-grandfather was making his home (thank g-d) in America, while in Europe, his parents and siblings, along with millions of other Jews, were labeled as Other, stripped of their rights, and murdered because some fascist managed to convince enough people that these strangers in their midst- this motley crew of impoverished peddlers, small craftsmen and traders, rabbis, factory workers, and a few intellectuals and businessmen- were somehow orchestrating a grand conspiracy to destroy their nation from within. Let us all do everything in our power to prevent this from happening again to any people.
*- Since the time of writing, it has become clear that many of the recent bomb threats to American Jewish community centers were not perpetrated by white supremacists. Still, I do not believe that this lets Trumpism off the hook, or that we can conclude with certainty, as Peter Beinart claims, that ‘Anti-Semitism isn’t central to this spasm of American nativism in the way it was a century ago.’ While we should not imagine that American Jews, as Jews, are the primary targets right now- and certainly, the white American Jewish community needs to show up, without exception, for Muslims, immigrants, and communities of color who are the primary targets (including within the Jewish community)- we should also recognize that in the long term, the future is uncertain. Anti-semitic ideas percolated for decades in Europe before Hitler seized upon them as an organizing principle, and the reappearance of these ideas as prominent features of a new and fast-growing ethnonationalist, populist movement in America should be taken seriously.