‘Primitive, Diseased Invaders’ Threatening America: How Scapegoating ultra-Orthodox Jews for Coronavirus Mirrors Islamophobia

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My latest at Haaretz.

“On April 29, New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio claimed “the Jewish community” is disobeying social distancing orders enforced during the coronavirus lockdown, condemning a crowded Jewish funeral, in a Satmar Hasidic community of Williamsburg, in a tweet many have since derided as anti-Semitic.

De Blasio’s tweet is the latest chapter of a persistent mainstream narrative that disproportionately focuses on Haredi Jews as carriers of disease, uniquely responsible, due to presumed cultural deficiencies, for recklessly spreading COVID-19 to the broader public.

Select instances of noncompliance in Haredi communities, while certainly real, are given outsized attention in news media and internet discourse, creating a sensationalist public discourse that falsely suggests that Haredim, as a homogenous bloc, refuse to practice social distancing.

The scapegoating of Haredim is increasing alongside parallel rhetoric against Asian-American, immigrant and other marginalized communities in our tense and volatile political moment.

For Haredim in the NYC region, this troubling discourse isn’t new. Long before the COVID crisis, Haredi communities in Brooklyn and Long Island, and across the Hudson Valley and Ocean County suburbs, have faced escalating anti-Semitic rhetoric. Facebook pages like Rise Up Ocean County, banned twice from Facebook since January 2020, have reconfigured their longstanding litany of inflammatory accusations, to deploy anew during the COVID crisis.

What are the specific tropes being levied against Haredi Jews, and where did they come from? I’ve spent countless hours studying white nationalist anti-Semitism, as a researcher with Political Research Associates, a think tank that studies right-wing movements. I’ve also spent months tracking the rhetoric of anti-Haredi pages like Rise Up Ocean County, and tracing its evolution before and during the COVID crisis.

I’ve found that anti-Haredi anti-Semitism often looks different than the white nationalist anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and rightwing scapegoating of “globalists” and George Soros, that many are used to encountering. In many ways, the tropes that, time and again, demonize Haredim as backwards invaders, are similar to the xenophobia and Islamophobia we see on the rise across America, in the era of Trump.”

Read more at Haaretz.  

 

A New Mishkan in a New Desert: Coronavirus and Community

This is the first Shabbat since, idk, the Black Plague (??!!) when Jews all around the world are not gathering together in synagogue or for Shabbos meals (hopefully), but are engaging in the massive collective effort of staying-home.

It’s remarkable that this week’s Torah portion is devoted to detailing another massive collective effort- when wandering in the desert, we all pooled our resources to build the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary that would serve as our spiritual core throughout those rough years. וַיָּבֹ֕אוּ כָּל־אִ֖ישׁ אֲשֶׁר־נְשָׂא֣וֹ לִבּ֑וֹ וְכֹ֡ל אֲשֶׁר֩ נָֽדְבָ֨ה רוּח֜וֹ אֹת֗וֹ- “everyone whose heart uplifted them came, everyone whose spirit inspired them to generosity” brought their own offering to support the work. The parsha laboriously details the different goods each Jew had to offer- silver and copper; wool, linen and goat hair for spinning; spice and oil for lighting and incense…

Ironically enough, this gigantic in-person work party holds up a poignant mirror to our own moment of social distancing. Now, as then, “everyone whose heart lifted them up to approach the work to do it” is taking action- setting up mutual aid networks; devising new ways to build virtual community; holding each other close, even and especially across distance; taking care of the home, and the inner work of the soul.

In this unprecedented time, we are building a new Mishkan in a new desert- each of us recommitting, in our own way, to the work of reaching out, showing up, reaffirming being-together, co-creating the collective spiritual anchor that will guide us through this tough time.

וִיהִ֚י נֹ֨עַם | אֲדֹנָ֥י אֱלֹהֵ֗ינוּ עָ֫לֵ֥ינוּ וּמַֽעֲשֵׂ֣ה יָ֖דֵינוּ כּֽוֹנְנָ֣ה עָלֵ֑ינוּ וּמַֽ֘עֲשֵׂ֥ה יָ֜דֵ֗ינוּ כּֽוֹנְנֵֽהוּ: May the pleasantness of my Lord our G-d be upon us- may he establish our handiwork for us; our handiwork, may he establish!!

The Right Wants to Keep Jewish and Black Non-Jewish Communities Divided. We Can’t Let That Happen.

Written at Political Research Associates, with Leo Ferguson and Dove Kent

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“Jews and allies have drawn thousands to demonstrations following separate antisemitic attacks by members of Black communities against orthodox Jews in Jersey City, Crown Heights, and Monsey. The White nationalist movement, meanwhile, has applied antisemitism and racism to strategically exploit tensions between Jewish and non-Jewish Black communities in service of their broader goal of White racial dominance. By examining these developments, we can gain insight into the endurance of antisemitism as a political ideology that harnesses popular grievances for reactionary ends, and we can understand its increasing appeal, in our volatile era, to far-right nationalist movements and aggrieved individuals across different communities.”

Read more at Political Research Associates.

Taking Aim at Multiracial Democracy: Antisemitism, White Nationalism, and Anti-Immigrant Racism in the Era of Trump

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My report on antisemitism and white nationalism in America, with Political Research Associates.

“The last thing White nationalist Robert Bowers posted to social media before his deadly attack on the Tree of Life synagogue was, “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.” That was October 27, 2018. Bowers’ killing of 11 Jewish worshippers at the Pittsburgh synagogue sent shock waves through both the U.S. Jewish community and all those concerned with the violence of bigoted politics. As shocking as it was, it is important to understand that Bowers’ attack was driven by an explicitly White nationalist ideology—an ideology that imagines that U.S. Jews are manipulating policy to use non-White immigrants as a weapon against White people.

As this extremist ideology moves from the fringes to increasingly influence the Republican Party, all the way up to the White House, it is important to understand how antisemitism and anti-immigrant racism are core mobilizing strategies of the Right in the Trump era. Make no mistake, it is the White nationalists and their dog-whistling allies in the Trump camp who pose the principal threat to U.S. Jews, alongside a nationalist policy agenda that targets immigrants and communities of color with bigotry and exclusion.”

See more at Political Research Associates.

‘May Memories Rise’: On the Meaning of ‘Yaaleh Ve-Yavo’

A year ago I had occasion to write on Torah themes. I recently got my drash published on the site Lehrhaus- ‘May Memories Rise’: On the Meaning of ‘Yaaleh Ve-Yavo’. It’s about Rosh Hashanah and the power of remembrance, collective memory charged full to bursting with the fierce hope of redemption- a theme that first drew me back to Yiddishkeit, a theme that for me is also deeply political. I ended with a Walter Benjamin quote (of course), to gesture towards this.

“On Yamim Tovim, High Holidays, and Rosh Chodesh, we include the Ya’aleh ve-Yavo prayer in our davening. Commentators suggest that this prayer was added to the liturgy as a substitute for the Temple sacrifices once offered to Hashem during these hagim. In this prayer, evoking our ancestral virtues and Messianic aspirations, we ask God to have mercy upon us, save us, and treat us with compassion and lovingkindness.

But what exactly do we mean when we ask God, in Ya’aleh ve-Yavo, to “remember” us and our ancestors, Jerusalem, and Messiah? Why not simply pray for God to “save us,” “redeem us,” etc? What is added by evoking, in flourishing detail, the uprising of memories before God’s consciousness?…

“As flowers turn toward the sun,” wrote Jewish Marxist philosopher Walter Benjamin in his Theses on the Philosophy of History, “so, by dint of a secret heliotropism, the past strives to turn toward that sun which is rising in the sky of history.” Ken yehi ratzon!”

L’shanah tovah!

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.

 

Cultivating Jewish “Ecotheology”

My new review of Rabbi David Seidenberg’s book “Kabbalah and Ecology” is up at Protocols magazine!

Nearly all modern Jewish thinkers, including Orthodox, adopt a Westernized perspective that elevates humanity as superior to animals and the natural world. In our era of climate crisis, ‘Kabbalah and Ecology’ asks- how can we draw from Kabbalah and rabbinic sources to craft a Jewish ecotheology where the image of G-d is celebrated in all of creation?