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.
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.
The Talmud tells a remarkable tale of the conversion to Judaism of a prominent Roman general named Onkelos, and the futile attempts by the outraged Roman Emperor Hadrian to dissuade him from his conversion. In this little story, we get a glimpse of a Judaism that lights a spark of resistance against Empire, a revolutionary Judaism that strikes at the heart of unjust power, and offers a vision of what truly just, safe, and liberated human being-together looks like.
First, the story, from Avodah Zarah 11a-
The Gemara mentions other Romans who converted to Judaism. It relates: Onkelos bar Kelonimos converted to Judaism. The Roman emperor sent a troop [gunda] of Roman soldiers after him to seize Onkelos and bring him to the emperor. Onkelos drew them toward him with verses that he cited and learned with them, and they converted. The emperor then sent another troop of Roman soldiers after him, and said to them: Do not say anything to him, so that he cannot convince you with his arguments. The troops followed this instruction, and took Onkelos with them.
When they were walking, Onkelos said to the troop of soldiers: I will say a mere statement to you: A minor official [nifyora] holds a torch before a high official [apifyora], the high official holds a torch for a duke [dukasa], a duke for the governor, and the governor for the ruler [koma]. Does the ruler hold a torch before the common people? The soldiers said to Onkelos: No. Onkelos said to them: Yet the Holy One, Blessed be He, holds a torch before the Jewish people, as it is written: “And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud, to lead them the way, and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light” (Exodus 13:21). They all converted.
The emperor then sent another troop of soldiers after him, to bring Onkelos, and said to them: Do not converse with him at all. The troops followed this instruction, and took Onkelos with them. While they grabbed him and were walking, Onkelos saw a mezuza that was placed on the doorway. He placed his hand upon it and said to the soldiers: What is this? They said to him: You tell us.
Onkelos said to them: The standard practice throughout the world is that a king of flesh and blood sits inside his palace, and his servants stand guard, protecting him outside; but with regard to the Holy One, Blessed be He, His servants, the Jewish people, sit inside their homes and He guards over them outside. As it is stated: “The Lord shall guard your going out and your coming in, from now and forever”(Psalms 121:8). Upon hearing this, those soldiers also converted to Judaism. After that, the emperor sent no more soldiers after him.
First, some context- the story unfolds in the Roman Empire around the 1st century CE. During this time period, the Emperor Hadrian, who appears in this story, destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem, built a pagan temple on its ruins, and passed other harsh anti-Jewish decrees, including a ban on circumcision and a special tax on Jews throughout his empire. Before and after the destruction, Jewish communities had spread throughout the Roman Empire, developing a syncretic Hellenistic Judaism that blended the ways of Torah with elements drawn from the Platonic tradition, Roman paganism, and other aspects of surrounding cultures. The vast Roman Empire, though still the politically and culturally hegemonic force, was in a state of decay, with immorality, decadence, violence, and the other vices of materialism rampant and widespread. In this context, many Romans were drawn to Judaism as an attractive, ethical alternative to the Roman Empire. Some, like Onkelos, converted to Judaism, while others adopted many Jewish practices.
Described as the nephew of the Emperor (some sources say this emperor was Hadrian himself), a prominent high-ranking Roman official, an expert on the world’s religions and a commanding figure in the marketplace, Onkelos decided to leave the state-sponsored pagan religion and join the Jewish people- the same minority tribe which had only recently mounted a vicious rebellion, in Jerusalem, against Hadrian’s rule. This decision enraged Hadrian, who perceived it as a further threat to his unstable rule over the hearts and minds of his empire. By the end of the story, it is clear that indeed, Hadrian has something to be afraid of. Onkelos uses the discourse of Torah itself as a weapon against Empire, with the power to corrode and destabilize its machinations, to transform the hearts and minds of its soldiers away from complicity and towards resistance.
How does Onkelos’s Judaism present an alternative to the status quo so radical, that the soldiers are compelled to drop their weapons and convert? While the Talmud does not record the first set of ‘verses that he cited and learned with [the first troop of soldiers]’, it shows that, when Hadrian sends his second troop to capture him, Onkelos makes explicit, to these soldiers, the coercive, hierarchical norms of their social order- one where those of low rank must ‘hold a torch’ before those above them, in a chain of subservience leading up to the highest sovereign, who wields absolute authority. Then, Onkelos contrasts this earthly model of sovereignty with the divine sovereignty of G-d, a King who, rather than demanding obedience from atop a chain of hierarchy, wields his power to liberate the downtrodden, captive Israelites from slavery in Egypt, and to protect them in their journey towards freedom. Struck by the force of this revelation, the soldiers can no longer perform their role as cogs in the state machinery and, like the first troop of soldiers, drop their weapons and join Onkelos as part of the Jewish people.
The enraged Hadrian sends a third troop of soldiers, unwittingly confirming the truth of Onkelos’s parable by demanding they obey his orders. As this regiment escorts Onkelos out of his home, Onkelos touches the mezuzah (the source for today’s widely-observed custom of touching or kissing a mezuzah upon entering or leaving a building or room). Surprised, the soldiers ask him what he’s doing, and Onkelos explains that, while the earthly king compels armed guards to stand outside his door and defend his rule, the divine King of the Jewish people stands outside the door of each Jew, guarding and blessing their comings and goings. In truth, all the king’s soldiers ultimately cannot protect him; his show of strength betrays a deeper weakness; true safety comes from trusting a power more exalted and compassionate than anything that can be promised by militarism. Again, these soldiers drop their weapons and convert.
Taken together, these Jewish visions offer a model of human cohabitation, and an analysis of power, that radically subverts any model of state power or any attempt by human beings to rule over another through force or coercion. What type of ‘king’, wondered the Roman soldiers with awe, establishes his reign not by ruling over, but by uplifting and protecting those most oppressed by his social order? What type of ‘sovereignty’ can possibly exist without the use of arms?
While the earthly King rules through hierarchy backed up by the threat of violence, Judaism asserts that there is a deeper power which frustrates the designs of Pharoahs, which protects everyone who bears witness to its wonder, regardless of social standing, not with human weapons of war but with a demilitarized divine promise. While the pagan king rules by the edicts of ‘the weak shall obey the stronger’, ‘follow orders’ and ‘the only true Law is the law of force’, the divine King overturns this barbaric earthly order to liberate the captive, protect the vulnerable and subdue the mighty. This higher power protects an entire collective of people, as it wanders through the in-between space of the desert, with the crushing might of Pharoah’s army behind them and the promise of liberation before them; and it protects a single individual, in the in-between space of the doorposts of his home, guarding his coming and goings.
In short, this parable presents Judaism as an anti-militarist, anti-state, counter-hegemonic force of justice, peace and liberation. Like the best elements in Judaism, the message it delivers is both universal- presenting an emancipatory vision and critique of Empire with broad appeal- and particular- speaking vividly of the experiences, yearnings, and values of a single people.
Seen in its historical context, this parable exemplifies the radical critique directed by post-temple Rabbinic Judaism against the Roman Empire. Rome was the imperial power that destroyed the Second Temple, the hegemonic cultural force of paganism in whose empire the Jews now lived as an often precarious and persecuted minority. The Rabbis, charged in the post-Temple era with the task of developing a diasporic Judaism for a dispersed people, mostly regarded the earthly might of Rome with distrust and suspicion, as the paradigm of human greed, materialism and moral bankruptcy. “Why does he compare it [the Roman State] to a swine?” asks a commentary on the book of Genesis, in one of the many moments of commentary criticizing Rome/Edom. “For this reason: when the swine is lying down it puts out its hoofs, as if to [deceptively] say, ‘I am clean,’ so does this wicked State rob and oppress, yet pretend to be executing justice” (Midrash Rabbah – Genesis 65:1).
Rabbinic Judaism identified Rome with Edom, the spiritual force of materialism rooted in the Biblical character of Esau, hunter, man of the flesh, pursuer of strength and all things earthly and physical; twin brother of Jacob, devotee of things intellectual and spiritual, who later was renamed Israel and became spiritual ancestor of the Jewish people. From within the belly of the beast, the rabbinic critique of Esau/Edom came to symbolize, over the centuries, a polemic against not only the Roman Empire but, later, the oppressive forces of European Christianity and the larger Western world. The dance between Jacob and Esau- which, in the Torah, was mostly one of rivalry, discord and competition- became, for the rabbis in the Talmud and beyond, a parable for the cosmic battle between the forces of justice and the forces of materialism, corruption, extravagant wealth, decadence and state violence.
The story of Onkelos and Hadrian’s soldiers, then, is part of a larger radical strain in Jewish thought which uplifts the emancipatory potential of ethical monotheism against the brutal machinations of Empire, colonialism and militarism as well as the profit-driven forces of greed, corruption, and materialism. The story also serves as an optimistic take on conversion, and on the broad (one might even say, universal) appeal of Judaism. In a decaying empire, rife with corruption, collapsing under the weight of its internal contradictions, Judaism had much to offer Onkelos and his fellow Romans, delivering an earth-shattering, foundational critique of Empire that stirred the hearts of the very noblemen and soldiers most sworn to defend the reactionary regime. After his conversion, Onkelos went on to play a very important role in the Jewish people, translating the Torah into Aramaic so it could be understood by the many Jews who, in the age of Hellenization, no longer understood Hebrew. His vital translation, the Targum Onkelos, is considered so holy that today, it is rabbinically mandated to study the weekly Torah portion twice in the original, and once using Targum Onkelos.
Since the destruction of the Second Temple, according to rabbinic tradition, the Jewish people are in the ‘exile of Edom’, the longest, most bitter and final of our exiles before the coming of the Messiah. During this exile of Edom, the Rabbis prophecied, the world will be dominated by forces of materialism, profit-seeking, war, greed and spiritual corruption, under the domineering rule, first of the greedy Roman Empire and then, in more modern times, by the imperial excesses of Western European Christianity. The parallels with today’s world- Trump as Hadrian, America as Edom- are obvious. In our own time- when American Judaism, embedded within a decaying, corrupt, materialist and immoral empire, is finding new spiritual vitality and raising a new moral voice to speak truth to power and express anew our age-old ideals of justice- the story of Onkelos serves to remind us just how revolutionary our voice can be.
[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.
Today, what Hellenization looks like for the Jewish people is Zionism, and complicity in Empire and white supremacy.
The notion that the Land of Israel is real estate, that the Torah is our deed of ownership, that the Jewish people were, for over 2,000 years, little more than a nation-state in waiting, and that now, with the state of Israel and its capital Jerusalem, we have blossomed into our true stature as ‘a nation like all other nations’;
The notion that militarism represents our pride and glory as a people, and that Jewish identity requires little more than cheering on the state of Israel, as one would a football team;
The notion that our self-determination and safety as a people can be won through allying with the Trumps of the world, the might and power of American empire, the white evangelical movement, and the forces of Christian hegemony more broadly-
These, and so much more, are the creeping forces of modern-day Hellenization that have worked to fundamentally warp our identities, our institutions, our communities. This worship of power, of Edom, of survival at all costs; this readiness to forego solidarity, to forget our histories, to mimic the oppressors of the world and inflict oppression upon the powerless.
Unlike the Maccabees, let us not zealously demand a return to any ‘fundamental’, true or pure Judaism- these notions of authenticity are ultimately as oppressive as those which we struggle against.
But like the Maccabees, let us not be afraid to name, call out, uproot and smash the forces of assimilation, self-deception, falsehood and corruption that threaten to destroy the body and soul of the Jewish people, from within.
May we ensure that this self-replenishing flame of justice and internal critique burns brighter in our day, and in days to come, and may the forces of wickedness be banished from the earth!
… but one that does not silence discussions on justice for Palestine.
by Ben Lorber and Taher Herzallah
Since the election of Donald Trump, there has been a renewed interest across the country in Muslim-Jewish partnership. Trump’s ascension to power on a platform of racism and xenophobia has caused many to fear what lies ahead.
From potential policy measures, such as a Muslim registry and the intensification of the Countering Violent Extremism Initiative, to the emboldening of white supremacist groups bent on causing physical harm to both Muslims and Jews, there is an urgent sense that we all need to come together to weather this fascist storm.
This renewed sense of solidarity is welcomed, and after Trump’s inauguration, our communities are ready to take to the streets in unity and strength. But for us to build meaningful and accountable relationships between our communities, we need to also share some principles. Without doing so, we run grave risks of subverting the dignity and freedom of expression for which our communities strive.
Today, many of the groups eager to rush to the frontlines of Muslim-Jewish partnership after Trump’s election – groups like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the American Jewish Committee (AJC) – have for decades been complicit in helping create the climate of Islamophobia they claim to abhor.
The ADL was applauded when, after Trump’s election, its executive director publicly pledged that, he would register as a Muslim if a Muslim registry was created, and the AJC recently announced a partnership with the Islamic Society of North America called the Muslim Jewish Advisory Council.
But how do these actions stand up to their track record?
Living up to reputation
Since 9/11, the ADL has demonised mainstream Muslim community groups as “terrorist sympathisers”, praised far-right Islamophobes for securing federal appointments, opposed the construction of a mosque near Ground Zero, and more.
The AJC lobbied for bills that would drastically expand the state surveillance of American Muslim communities, supported our nation’s first Muslim registry in 2002, and backed anti-Muslim congressional hearings. These are just a few ways these groups, in the last decade alone, have betrayed the principles they claim to uphold.
Far too often, interfaith partnerships with groups like the ADL and AJC create pressure on Muslim organisations to remain silent on Israel/Palestine, or to attack the movement for Palestinian rights, out of fear of being accused of anti-Semitism. In too many interfaith partnerships, Muslims are required to put “relationships before politics” and the “local over international”, effectively stifling their political agency.
In these and other ways, these relationships tend to be transactional in nature. The Jewish community gains a Muslim friend that won’t mention Zionism, Israel or its politics, and the Muslim gains some perceived level of acceptance in the mainstream United States of America, which touts itself as a land of “Judeo-Christian” values but increasingly sees Islam and Muslims as the enemy other.
As campus organisers with American Muslims for Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, we’ve worked for years to build accountable partnerships between Muslims and Jews, founded on principles of justice, solidarity and love.
These principles animate our vision of a just and democratic peace in Israel/Palestine, where refugees can return to their ancestral homes and equal rights are guaranteed for Palestinians and all other peoples living in the region.
Guided by these principles, the Muslim and Jewish students we work with on campuses across the country stand united, alongside others of all faiths and ethnicities, in support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement for freedom, justice and equality in Israel/Palestine.
Atmosphere of fear
For decades, vocal supporters of Palestinian rights in the US have faced false charges of anti-Semitism from pro-Israel organisations. To name two recent examples, in late 2016, the ADL joined attacks against the first Muslim congressman, Keith Ellison, in his bid for Democratic National Committee chair, because of comments critical of Israel.
And in a move that hits close to home for us, the ADL recently tried, unsuccessfully, to pressure Congress to pass the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, a bill that, by labelling campus criticism of Israel as anti-Semitism, would have empowered the Department of Education under the Trump administration to suppress student activism.
On and off campus, this backlash inevitably hits Palestinian, Arab and Muslim communities the hardest, crystallising the cloud of fear that has far too long limited freedom of speech for the Arab and Muslim community.
|We urge American Muslim groups not to partner with organisations like the ADL and the AJC, so long as they continue to limit discourse on Israel/Palestine, and to oppose the demands of Palestinians for justice and freedom.|
When pro-Israel groups such as the ADL suppress freedom of speech with false anti-Semitism charges, they are furthering US’s climate of Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism.
For decades, pro-Israel advocacy has worked to create a climate where Israel is seen as a faithful ally and frontline defender in the West’s “war on terror”, and Palestinians – and, by extension, all Arabs and Muslims – are seen as antisemitic “terrorists”.
The end result, today, is a Trump administration that blends unflinching support for Israel’s apartheid policies with white nationalism and rabid Islamophobia, and an extremist Israeli government that enjoys an international green light for its deepening violations of international law.
A Muslim-Jewish alliance is needed
Let us not be mistaken: in the age of Trump, it is more important than ever for Muslims and Jews to come together to combat Islamophobia and real anti-Semitism. Today in the US, we are both targets of the white supremacist alt-right movement, which, with the appointment of Breitbart executive Steve Bannon to a powerful position in the Trump White House and the growth of white nationalists in local communities, is emerging as a dangerous force.
A Muslim-Jewish alliance makes historical sense; Jews and Muslims lived together in relative harmony across the Middle East and parts of Europe for millennia, while white Christian Europe subjected our communities, in different ways, to vicious persecution.
We are confident that principled, accountable partnerships between Muslims and Jews can and must be built as we forge a path forward in this frightening time.
But now is not the time to compromise our values out of fear. Support for Palestinian rights is moving mainstream, and the Israel advocacy movement is losing its ability to police discourse in the US.
As the movement for Palestinian human rights is gaining traction, Israel’s defenders, from the incoming Trump administration to the ADL, are anxiously doubling down on their decades-long campaign of policing, silencing and repression of critical discourse.
Our shared vision of justice and collective liberation teaches us that Zionism – the project to maintain an exclusionary state with an enforced demographic Jewish majority on dispossessed Palestinian land – is incompatible with the values of dignity and freedom which any Muslim-Jewish partnership must hold dear.
We urge American Muslim groups not to partner with organisations like the ADL and the AJC, so long as they continue to limit discourse on Israel/Palestine and to oppose the demands of Palestinians for justice and freedom.
We call on these ,and many other American Jewish groups, to end work to suppress the movement for Palestinian rights in the US, renounce their anti-Muslim history and join the movement for a truly just peace in Israel/Palestine.
Then, and only then, can relationships of mutual respect and cooperation come to fruition and have the capacity, structure and commitment to work towards transformative change here in the US and globally.
Now is not the time to cosy up to the powerful elites of this country, as leaders of our communities have done for too long. Now is the time for all our communities to build our power from the ground up. Only solidarity and joint struggle against all forms of oppression can protect Muslims, Jews and all people from the forces of hatred in this world.
Taher Herzallah is the Associate Director of Outreach and Grassroots Organizing for the American Muslims for Palestine.
Ben Lorber is Campus Coordinator at Jewish Voice for Peace.