If Trump Loses, Then What?

For the magazine of the UK anti-extremism group Hope Not Hate, I co-wrote a piece on the state of the U.S. far-right in the 2020 presidential election, alongside PRA colleague Steven Gardiner.

“In the months and years following a Trump loss in November, the American far right will find ample opportunities for growth, recruitment, and propagation of their ideology.”

Understanding White Nationalism and Antisemitism in the Era of COVID-19

This is a transcript of a talk I gave at Bend the Arc’s 2020 Conference, Pursuing Justice, on rising white nationalism and antisemitism in the era of COVID-19.

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I’m going to tell you a story about white nationalism in the era of COVID-19.

On Saturday, April 18, one of the first protests against coronavirus public health measures was held in front of the state house in Columbus, Ohio. 

The protests attracted many demonstrators, including white nationalists. 

One white nationalist held an openly antisemitic sign with an offensive caricature, saying that Jews are “the real plague”.

A journalist later identified the white nationalist as 36-year old Matt Slatzer of Canton, Ohio, from the organization National Socialist Movement. The N.S.M leads the Nationalist Front, an umbrella organization that consists of neo-Nazis, traditional white supremacists, and racist skinheads.

Slatzer told journalist Nate Thayer that “The Jews are responsible for the Corona virus” and continued with a series of conspiracy theories blaming Jews for forcing political leaders, from behind the scenes, to enforce the shut down and quarantine. He claimed all COVID vaccines are a Jewish conspiracy to poison people. 

He complained that even as he and many Ohioans were unable to work, the federal government was spending $2 trillion to bail out the rich and powerful. In Slatzer’s antisemitic interpretation: “Why are these Jewish controlled corporations getting all the money and those of us who work for a living getting nothing? How much are the CEO’s of the big companies being paid? We are both not allowed to go to work and getting no support from the government.”

How much sympathy was he able to generate from others at the rally by framing his antisemitism in language that taps into the widespread misery of working people and anger at corporate greed in this moment? Why did nobody at the rally stop him? And how many other white nationalists like him were out there spreading antisemitism, racism, and twenty-first century civil war narratives? 

As the coronavirus crisis unfolds, white nationalists are increasing their recruitment and radicalization efforts, hoping to tap into suffering, resentment and uncertainty to build their movements. 

Online, far-right social media leans into anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. In their groups and forums, Jews “invented” the coronavirus to secure world domination and financial profit. They claim that the virus is a bioweapon funded by Jewish philanthropist George Soros, who has become the target of choice for right-wing conspiracy theories in the U.S. and Europe.

Nor is far-right bigotry limited to sign-making and spreading offensive memes. Earlier in April, a white nationalist was arrested on suspicions of planning an attack on a Missouri hospital. He also had plans to attack a mosque and a synagogue. His justification: the federal government was using the pandemic as an “excuse to destroy our people”, meaning the white race. For him, the pandemic is a “Jewish power grab”.  Words and ideas have consequences. We can only be thankful that the call by white nationalist groups to intentionally try to spread the coronavirus to Jews has, so far it seems, gone unanswered. 

Nor is antisemitism in the time of the pandemic limited to internet provocateurs and would-be mass murderers.  Mainstream right-wing leaders are drawing on the familiar language of conspiracy and scapegoating, to deflect blame from their anti-science, anti-human policies and pet causes. 

Trump’s newly appointed spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, among others, has claimed George Soros is behind the COVID pandemic in some form. Trump himself, along with right-wing politicians like Florida Representative Matt Gaetz, and popular Fox News anchors like Tucker Carlson have blamed ‘globalists’, another antisemitic dog whistle, for the unfolding crisis. Pastor Rick Wiles, whose TruNews network still holds White House press credentials, said God is spreading COVID in synagogues to punish “those who oppose his son, Jesus Christ”.

This rise in white nationalism and antisemitism is occurring alongside a rise in anti-Asian racism and anti-immigrant xenophobia, which we’ll discuss. 

White nationalists have been waiting for a crisis like this to organize, and right-wing politicians are adept at using a crisis like this to advance rhetoric and policies of bigotry and exclusion. But we can use this crisis as well, to advance our own transformative vision of a better world. 


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So today, WNs are organizing in the streets and online, and committing mass shootings- 

We remember the 11 Jews martyred at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, the one Jewish victim at a synagogue in Poway California, the 23 members of the Latinx community murdered in El Paso Texas, the 51 Muslims murdered in Christchurch, the 9 black worshippers killed in a Charleston SC church in 2015, the at least 28 people murdered by misogynst anti-feminist and incel shooters since 2014, and more. 

Now, white nationalists are not just a marginal, exotic movement. They’re a well-organized political force that played a critical role in the election of President Trump in 2016. 

From 2017 to 2019, SPLC reported a 50% increase in white nationalist groups. 

The movement is growing, even as many movement leaders have been driven underground due to deplatforming, doxxing, lawsuits, infighting and more.

White nationalism enjoys an expanding potential base of support across the U.S. landscape. Studies indicate that millions of White Americans hold a strong attachment to a sense of White identity and grievance politics, and millions also fear that the effects of the country becoming majority non-White by 2045 will be mostly negative.

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White nationalism is on the rise. 

And when we say white nationalism, we’re not just talking about online trolls, white power groups and mass shooters, terrible as those things are. Today, in the Trump era, we’re seeing white nationalism spread from the periphery to the center of mainstream right-wing politics in America. White nationalists are part of the Republican coalition, alongside the Christian Right. This gives them a pipeline into national politics and leadership positions.

  • We’ve seen many white nationalists run for elected office and attempt to embed themselves in local Republican party infrastructures, and campus conservative groups, across the country. 
  • Often they rebrand themselves as good old patriotic, Christian “American Nationalists”, selectively downplaying their extreme views on antisemitism and white pride, as part of a strategy to influence movement conservatism from within.
  • White nationalists have been exposed as employees of prominent conservative think tanks and policy outfits, journals, newspapers and other institutions.
  • For them, this is part of a long-term strategy of social transformation, trying to shift the boundaries of acceptable discourse further to the Right, and gradually transform the basic common-sense worldview held by millions of Americans. 

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At the same time, prominent conservative leaders are meeting them halfway- dancing further to the Right, and increasingly sounding like white nationalists. 

The core belief of white nationalism is that the ‘white race’ in America and Europe is undergoing a gradual extinction, through massive non-white immigration. White nationalists call this the great replacement or white genocide.  They’re opposed to any and all immigration of non-whites, as a demographic threat which spells in their eyes the physical, biological survival of the white race, is core to their worldview.  

Prominent right-wing pundits like Fox News’ Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham, who command nightly audiences of millions of people, increasingly adopt “great replacement” rhetoric to claim that ‘real Americans’ are being ‘replaced’ by an “invasion…of illegal immigrants”. This brings white nationalist ideas about immigration and demographics smack dab into the middle of public discourse. 

Mainstream right-wing pundits on Fox and elsewhere also provide cover for white nationalists, downplaying the threat they pose or even their existence while retweeting them, protesting their ‘censorship’ when social media platforms remove their accounts, and even sometimes inviting them on their shows. 

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White nationalism is shaping anti-immigrant policy, as well. 

Throughout the four years of the Trump administration, White House staffers with affinities for white nationalism, from Steve Bannon to Stephen Miller- who, by the way, is a shonda- have pushed draconian anti-immigrant policies- from concentration camps at the border to family separations, rewriting asylum law, continued attempts at a Muslim ban, and moving to suspend immigration entirely in the era of COVID-19.

In public and in private, they mount their anti-immigrant crusade using the white nationalist language of demographic change. 

These policies are being pushed by radical anti-immigrant organizations closely aligned with white nationalists, like the Federation for American Immigration Reform and Center for Immigration Studies, who echo white nationalist talking points of demographic change. For years these think tanks were considered fringe, but they now enjoy a direct pipeline to the White House and mainstream politicians and media outlets. 

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White nationalist antisemitism is moving mainstream, as well. Trump and other right-wing politicians like Matt Gaetz, Josh Hawley, Kevin McCarthy, Louie Gohmert and more, as well as media outlets like Fox News, use dog-whistle antisemitic conspiracy theories, scapegoating liberal Jewish philanthropist George Soros or “globalist elites” as the hidden puppeteers of left-wing causes. 

In the past few years, they’ve claimed Soros is the hidden puppeteer of so many liberal causes- like non-white immigration into the U.S.; protests against the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh; black lives matter; antifa; the impeachment proceedings against Trump; and more. 

This all creates a call-and-response type of feedback loop, between mainstream right-wing leaders and white nationalists. 

Right-wing leaders like Trump and Fox News use white nationalist conspiracies about Jews, immigration and demographics as a powerful tool, helping them consolidate support for their racist and nationalist policy agenda.

White nationalists are thrilled, because their ideas are granted legitimacy and a massive public forum, giving them more opportunities to win new recruits and pull mainstream discourse even further to the Right. 

They become inspired to commit more attacks against Jews, immigrants and other minorities, as Dove explained earlier in the Pittsburgh example.  

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So what about today, in the era of COVID-19?

To quote veteran antifascist researcher and organizer Scot Nakagawa- “For white nationalists, this pandemic may be right on time. Because when it comes to sheltering in place, white nationalists are the experts.” 

In this moment, our political and economic systems are being exposed as fragile and unsustainable, and the future feels radically uncertain. White nationalists are intent on capitalizing on this uncertainty, hoping to tap into widespread suffering and resentment to build their movement. 

Many white nationalists dream of using this crisis to further their accelerationist vision of collapsing government, inciting a civil war, and fomenting revolution (not the good kind). 

Others hope to further their goal of transforming mainstream conservatism, pulling it even further in the direction of exclusion, expulsion and a drastically constricted sense of who is rightfully part of the nation–who is the “We.” 

As I discussed earlier, white nationalists are increasing their recruitment and radicalization efforts in online spaces, and spreading antisemitic conspiracy theories. They’re helping organize anti-lockdown protests across the country, and showing up, alongside adjacent movements like the Patriot and militia movements. 

Much like Trump rallies, they see these anti-lockdown protests as prime spaces to win new recruits and spread their messaging. 

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Right-wing leaders like President Trump, meanwhile, are staring down a mounting groundswell of popular unrest, as we’re entering the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression. They know that millions of people facing widespread immiseration will be looking for someone to blame, and they’re eager to provide scapegoats, in order to distract blame from themselves. 

They’re doubling down on anti-China scapegoating, spreading racist rhetoric, like ‘Chinese coronavirus’ or ‘Wuhan flu’, to scapegoat China as a ‘backwards’ primitive country, and a menacing, powerful rival, uniquely responsible for the spread of coronavirus around the world. 

Across the country, mounting anti-China rhetoric has driven a spike in harassment and physical attack against Asian American-Pacific Islander communities. Since its launch on March 19, the Stop AAPI Hate Reporting Center has received almost 1500 reports of verbal harassment, shunning and physical assault from Asian Americans. 

Right wing leaders also are using the crisis to bolster the scapegoating of immigrants, the closing of borders and a broader America First nationalist agenda. Channeling fascist impulses, Trump places himself above science and expertise, deploying motifs of the cult of a leader and the myth of national greatness- a greatness that has supposedly been ‘compromised’ by internationalism and liberalism. 

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As things get worse, the Right will also need an image of the ‘elites’ to blame. They will need to point the finger at a caricature of a powerful, subversive internal enemy who is responsible, from behind the scenes, for what went wrong. Otherwise, who else are people going to blame for what went wrong at the top- Trump?!? 

This is where antisemitism comes in. We’re already seeing Tucker Carlson, Trump and other right-wing leaders scapegoat ‘globalists’ for the mounting public health crisis, and economic fallout, brought on by COVID. 

We know this is how antisemitism functions- getting people to blame a familiar stereotype of a shadowy, powerful elite conspiracy operating behind the scenes, in order to deflect blame from the failed systems, policies and leaders responsible for widespread suffering. 

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As many others have said, we can’t hope to block the rising climate of bigotry and intolerance by wishing for a return to ‘normal’. We’re living through a moment of profound transformation. The center cannot hold, and a political realignment is inevitable. 

An influential right-wing economist named Milton Friedman once said that “only a crisis produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.”

It’s up to us to use this coronavirus crisis to advance our powerful, transformative vision of a better and more just world, a multiracial democracy where everyone can thrive. For the radical right, too, has their own ideas lying around. 

‘Murder Most Foul’: Bob Dylan, Walter Benjamin, and Radical Remembrance in the Era of COVID-19

The events surrounding the historian, and in which he himself takes part, will underlie his presentation in the form of a text written in invisible ink. The history which he lays before the reader comprises, as it were, the citations occurring in this text, and it is only these citations that occur in a manner legible to all. To write history thus means to cite history…

We have to wake up from the existence of our parents. In that awakening, we have to give an account of the nearness of that existence.

– Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project

If you wanna remember, you gotta write down the names

– Bob Dylan, ‘Murder Most Foul’

At midnight on March 27, Bob Dylan suddenly released a new song to the world. ’Murder Most Foul’- his first original song in 8 years and, at 17 minutes, his longest song ever recorded- is ostensibly about the assassination of President Kennedy, ceaselessly probing the details of that event with the urgency of a conspiracy theorist. Along the way, Dylan unfolds before the listener a dizzying array of references to popular musicians, films and other cultural artifacts, stretching across the 20th-century and beyond- from Nat King Cole to the Beatles, Stevie Nicks to Nightmare on Elm Street, Charlie Parker to Harry Houdini, the Dead Kennedys to 1880s gospel classics, and more.

But ‘Murder Most Foul’ isn’t only about the JFK assassination, and it isn’t just a trip down memory lane. As the U.S. reels from the mounting public health and economic crisis brought on by coronavirus, Dylan released this song with the cryptic message that his listeners “may find [it] interesting…stay safe, stay observant and may God be with you.” He seems to signal to us that his decision to release the track at this moment of world-historical chaos was, as he says of JFK’s assassination in the opening verse, “a matter of timing, and the timing was right”. He seems to hope that we interpret its winding verses closely, in light of present conditions. 

Like JFK’s assassination, the coronavirus has shocked the U.S., plunging us, seemingly overnight, into an uncharted future. Now as then, as Dylan croons in the opening verse, “thousands were watching, no one saw a thing/ it happened so quickly, so quick, by surprise/right there in front of everyone’s eyes”. In a flash, our world has changed irrevocably. Now as then, history has polarized itself into a ‘before’ and ‘after’; our lives will never be the same.  

Most reviews of ‘Murder Most Foul’ have suggested that Dylan assembled the vast montage of 20th-century American culture in order to suggest that this legacy may provide “comfort in troubled times”. But I’m not convinced it’s that simple. 

While Dylan’s voice is born aloft by gentle, airy swirls of piano and violin tracing pleasant major chords in the air, his evocation hardly feels light and sweet. Interspersed with morbid details of JFK’s murder, what may have been pleasant reminiscence of 20th-century popular culture feels instead unsettled, rife with tension, brewing with threat of decay, political urgency lingering beneath the surface. “Put your head out the window, let the good times roll/there’s a party going on behind the Grassy Knoll”, Dylan croons, merging, in a single breath, the youthful abandon of ‘60s idealism with an ominous JFK conspiracy theory. “I’m going to Woodstock, it’s the Aquarian Age/then I’ll go over to Altamont and sit near the stage”, he sings, juxtaposing the ecstatic highs, and violent lows, of ‘60s counterculture. 

In 1940, the Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote his final work, Theses on the Philosophy of History, while fleeing fascism in Nazi-occupied France. “A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’,” he described,

shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.  

Why is Dylan inviting us to reminisce about the Who and the Beatles, Woodstock and Altamont, as a deadly plague sweeps the land, bodies pile at under-resourced hospitals, and millions more suffer from an economic system reeling towards collapse? Dylan sings, “the day they killed him, someone said to me, ‘Son, the age of the Antichrist has just only begun… the soul of a nation’s been torn away, and it’s beginning to go into a slow decay.… It’s 36 hours past judgement day.” Perhaps Dylan invites us to bear witness, like Benjamin’s angel of history, to the past 50 years as a kind of wreckage, piling before our gaze in a present of political emergency. 

“For the last fifty years” since JFK’s murder, Dylan cryptically croons, we’ve “been searching for” his soul, which Dylan seems at times to identify with the civil rights movement, the “new frontier” of hope and possibility represented by the 1960s, and more. It is tempting to conclude that Dylan performs a kind of liberal boomer nostalgia, suggesting that a certain strain of 20th-century optimism and progress, embodied by Kennedy, ultimately failed to deliver on the change it had promised, with Trump and Trump’s coronavirus crisis as the result. But it seems a deeper work of mourning is also at play. 

Like the Angel of History, Dylan seems to watch helplessly as the events, not only of JFK’s assassination, but the 20th century itself unfold inexorably before his eyes. In both cases, a hidden truth seems to lurk beneath the surface; justice waits to be delivered. Walter Benjamin hoped that a certain kind of remembrance could ‘rescue’ the phenomena of our past from a kind of entrapment. “What are phenomena rescued from?” he asked. 

Not only, and not in the main, from the discredit and neglect into which they have fallen, but from the catastrophe represented very often by a certain strain in their dissemination, their “enshrinement as heritage”. They are saved through the exhibition of the fissure within them. There is a tradition that is catastrophe.

Perhaps Dylan is subverting the mainstream enshrinement of ‘60s counterculture as ‘timeless heritage’, suggesting that beneath the glossy, commodified surface of ‘The Sixties’ as our culture remembers it, a catastrophe was long brewing— one that flared up briefly in Kennedy’s murder and has erupted, in full force, in our present moment. Rather than inviting the listener to derive comfort from 60s nostalgia, perhaps he’s throwing the rose-colored glasses aside, imploring us to awaken to the realization that, as Benjamin puts it, “the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.”

As the ghost of Hamlet’s father returns to cry ‘murder most foul’, revealing to his son the true circumstances of his untimely death and asking for revenge, Dylan seems to warn us that our entire society has blood on its hands, and is due for a reckoning. The coronavirus crisis deepens in our midst- a crisis, not only of microbes, but of mass unemployment, lack of health care, a social safety net in tatters, rampant structural inequality, administrative incompetence, xenophobia and fearmongering, and myriad other contradictions of neoliberal capitalism. In this moment, Dylan parades the names and faces of 20th century music, film and radio stars before our eyes, and one almost feels a sense of vertigo, as if what-has-been careens, with its full, crushing weight, toward the abyss of the now. 

In what Benjamin calls “the prophetic gaze that catches fire from the summits of the past”, these historical figures seem to haunt us, implore us, call us to account for the moral crisis unfolding in our midst, awakening us to the barbarism of our condition. Dylan, meanwhile, delivers lines like ‘don’t worry Mr. President, help’s on the way’ with a sneer, suggesting to our ears President Trump’s ‘murder most foul’, the mounting death of thousands due to his administration’s mismanagement of the crisis. Elsewhere, Dylan’s lines evoke the injustices of slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and racism more broadly, while lines like “don’t ask what your country can do for you” and “business is business, it’s a murder most foul” seem to criticize an entire economic system that puts profit over people.

In the 17 minutes of ‘Murder Most Foul’, one senses that Dylan is both assembling evidence in the trial to convict JFK’s true assassin, and putting our civilizational history itself on trial for the barbarism unfolding in our midst. But all is not necessarily doom and gloom, either. In the song’s final minutes, Dylan implores the ghost of a popular 60s DJ to ‘play, play, play’ the songs of the 20th century, in what amounts to an incantation, a requiem for the treasured artifacts of a civilizational heritage, rhapsodized in the dark days of its decay. Even as we bear witness to the wreckage, he seems to suggest, we must not despair, but rather play, play the beauty of this imperfect world.

“Pick up the pieces and lower the flags,” he tells us, inviting us to perform mourning itself as a redemptive act, to hold with resolve the immensity of the past, in all its beauty, pain, and promise- and concluding, in the song’s final line, with the affirming hope that ‘Murder Most Foul’ itself may be inscribed within the ragged fabric of our stubborn inheritance. 

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.

 

The Resurgence of Right-wing Antisemitic Conspiracism Endangers all Justice Movements

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.

“We’ve seen this before. Throughout the 20th century, insurgent far-right movements deployed conspiracy theories about shadowy socialists, cosmopolitan financiers, and covert culture-manipulators in order to win support for their authoritarian agendas. Most of the time, these theories were overtly anti-Semitic, with Nazi Germany and its obsession with “Judeo-Bolshevism” serving as the starkest example of the consequences of these theories—for Jews and for the world.

Today, it is can no longer be doubted that from San Diego and Pittsburgh to Charlottesville, Virginia, and the pages of Breitbart, anti-Semitism is resurgent in the Trump era. But how it operates—and why it’s on the rise—can be unmasked. What role do these conspiracy theories play in right-wing ideology? How are they related to discourses and policies that target other marginalized groups? How do they endanger Jews—and harm other justice movements?…

Anti-Semitic conspiracy theories substitute an imagined revolt against illusory oppressors for a clear analysis of who really profits from societal structures of exploitation. While other racist tropes tend to “punch down” at an allegedly inferior target group, anti-Semitic conspiracism “punches up” at a target it imagines as inordinately powerful, seemingly standing above or behind social movements and political forces, pulling the strings.

In a world of dizzying social and political change, these conspiracy theories furnish a meta-explanation—for confused and alienated individuals such as Earnest and Pittsburgh shooter Robert Bowers, but also for right-wing media figures, politicians and other influential players—of how the world got this way and for who is responsible. In Europe and the United States, virtually any conspiracy narrative acts as an antisemitic dog whistle (or fog horn), even when Jews are not directly named.

This is why anti-Semitism is so dangerous, not only for Jews but for all movements for social change; because it’s such a powerful tool in the right-wing ideological arsenal, providing a scaffolding for sweeping attacks against progressive movements and perhaps sending some of the most vulnerable, who might otherwise benefit from those movements, down the dead end of conspiracism.”

Attacking Antisemitism

Originally published in Jacobin

Even before the Pittsburgh massacre, antisemitism was on the rise, with the startling wave of far-right, ultranationalist movements across Europe and the US. In America, alt-right antisemitism burst into public view with social media attacks on Jewish journalists and institutions during the 2016 elections, and took to the streets with tiki torches and chants of chants of “Jews will not replace us” in 2017. Across Europe, the United States, and Israel, ultranationalist leaders and political parties demonized billionaire Hungarian Jewish philanthropist and Holocaust survivor George Soros with frightening vitriol, scapegoating him as the supposed mastermind behind migration, refugee resettlement, and other humanitarian causes.

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 PalestiniansAfrican migrantsJewish 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.