A Spot at the Kotel Won’t Save Us: A Crisis in American Judaism

(originally published in Tikkun)

“Remember the days of the world; understand the years of each generation” (Devarim, 32:7)

“…that [we] may turn the heart of the fathers back through the children, and the heart of the children back through their fathers” (Malachi, 3:24)

Last month, the eyes of the liberal American Jewish world were fixed on the Kotel. In a rare display of unity and resolve, leaders of the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements banded together to demand a mixed-gender space at the Western Wall, in a clear pushback against the institutional power of ultra-Orthodoxy in Israel. So deep were we stung by this bitter betrayal, that for the first time in living memory, prominent liberal American Jews even threatened to boycott Netanyahu’s government over its refusal to recognize the liberal diaspora.

And yet, even as we are united in condemnation of ultra-Orthodox fundamentalism, the liberal American Jewish world remains more divided than ever. Day after day, the establishment sounds the alarms- rates of intermarriage are skyrocketing, and more and more American Jews are publicly opposing Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Many cease to identify with Zionism at all, as the rift between Israel and diaspora Jewry widens daily[1]. For the establishment, the idea that masses of Jews are embracing intermarriage and abandoning Israel rings the death-knell of Jewish peoplehood in America. Such gestures, according to common-sense logic, threaten to dissolve the very ties that make a Jew a Jew.

Liberal American Jewry is utterly transfixed by these crises. In the same week that the Kotel crisis made headlines, a leading Conservative rabbi shocked the Jewish world by announcing his intention to officiate at intermarriages[2], while a new report warned of a massive drop-off in support for Israel among American Jewish college students[3]. Prominent liberal columnist J.J. Goldberg evokes this creeping malaise in his recent piece, “The Rise and Fall of American Jewish Hope”, where he laments the “strange metamorphosis of the Jewish spirit over the past century, from hopeful optimism in the face of great suffering to bitterness and suspicion amid plenty…[if], for a half-century after 1917, the dominant mood among Jews in America and Israel alike was one of optimism…in the half-century since 1967, the mood has been increasingly gloomy and cynical.”[4]

My contention is that these crises signify not the end of liberal Jewish identity in America, but its new beginning. Put simply, we are in transition towards a future where our communal identity will not be defined by support for Israel, nor will it rest primarily upon markers of blood. This is progress- in fact, far from combatting assimilation, our decades-long fixation on Israel and endogamy has sapped American Jewish identity of the vitality and dynamism it needs to survive.

For too long, mainstream Jewish America has turned the dictum of Rabbi Hillel on its head- “make Jewish babies and support Israel”, we tell our children; “the rest is commentary, and little need to study it.” We are beginning to shake loose these inherited normative frameworks, and evolve in exciting new directions. The establishment is in panic precisely because, in its gut, it knows these tremors announce the birth-pangs of a new American Jewish identity, breaking through the stultified crust of the old.

– – –

Growing Up Assimilated

As Campus Coordinator with Jewish Voice for Peace, I see these transformations play out every day. I work with hundreds of Jewish college students who support BDS and, in many cases, identify as anti- or non-Zionist. Beyond these students, there are thousands more, in organizations like IfNotNow and Open Hillel, who publicly and proudly oppose Israel’s occupation as Jews. Mirroring trends across the Jewish world, many of us come from mixed families, and many ourselves have non-Jewish partners. We are no less Jewish than our predecessors.

I see these transformations play out in my family history as well. I am a product of American Jewish assimilation. I come from a middle-class, Ashkenaz, suburban family. I was raised by loving parents who married within the tribe, but didn’t really bring much Jewish substance into our home. We ate bagels and lox and watched Seinfeld; we had chanukiahsand Kiddush cups on a shelf in a living room cabinet. But these superficial expressions of identity represented the full extent of our domestic Jewishness.

I am grateful for the Jewish upbringing my parents provided me. I belonged to a Conservative synagogue, went to Hebrew school, had a Bar Mitzvah and even went to Jewish sports camp for two weeks every summer. On the level of institutions, my parents checked all the right boxes. But in my house, we celebrated only Passover and Hannukah, never Shabbat, and usually went to shul only for the High Holidays, where we sat bored and sleepy through the service. My parents were not religious, and did not have a strong connection to the many secular strands of Jewish politics and culture forged in the modern era. Basically, we knew that we were Jews, and did the basics with pride- more than many families!- but on the level of our daily lives, we didn’t much notice or care.

In college, I began to encounter Jewishness anew. At first, as a philosophy major, I found myself drawn to ideas and themes deemed, by academics, to be quintessentially ‘Jewish’ in the works of philosophers like Emmanuel Levinas, Jacques Derrida, Walter Benjamin and Karl Marx. Over the next few years of self-education, I steadily assembled the pieces of a radical Jewish identity. When two of my secular friends became ultra-Orthodox and nudged me to join them at a yeshiva in Israel, I went with a mixture of curiosity and suspicion. My two-month introduction to Torah and Talmud at yeshiva, though brief and not without its faults, exposed me to a depth of Jewish life immeasurably richer than anything I remembered from the dry and emotionless synagogue of my childhood.

During these years, as my love of Yiddishkeit grew, my views on Israel/Palestine began to change as well. I was born during the First Intifada, and became Bar Mitzvah during the Second. To my memory, my family celebrated Israel the same way we recognized our Jewishness- automatically, by default, without much fanfare or attention. My parents and grandparents bought Israel Bonds for me, and spoke warmly of the state from time to time, but my parents never visited, never encouraged me to visit, and seemed to know very little, in fact, about the actual history or politics of the country. While I drank, without questioning, the standard serving of hasbara Kool-Aid in shul and Hebrew School, strong Zionism was not a constituent part of my upbringing.

Perhaps for this reason, it was relatively easy for me, in college, to re-educate myself around the conflict, hear alternate perspectives, and come to support the burgeoning grassroots movement for Palestinian rights. After my time at the yeshiva, I crossed over to the West Bank, saw the occupation with my own eyes, and decided to spend several months there as a journalist and activist. I felt angry, and betrayed, to discover that behind the idyllic image of Israel presented to me in Hebrew school, there lurked the brutality of the apartheid wall, the cruelty of home demolitions, the terror of tear gas, and the thousand small humiliations faced daily by millions of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.

Today, like many other American Jews, I support the BDS movement, identify as anti-Zionist, and dream of a decolonized Israel/Palestine where all live equal and free. Also like many others, this identity awakens in me a still greater need to understand Judaism, Zionism, and the complex, entangled histories that have brought our people to this moment. I continue to develop my Jewishness, in the many secular and spiritual forms it takes, guided by a deep love for the journey itself- a love that, had I not searched for it on my own, I may never have found.

My family’s story, and my own, is by no means universal- across liberal American Jewish life, there is great diversity in the way we relate to Jewish ritual and culture, to Israel, to each other and ourselves. Nonetheless, my family’s story, rooted in the particularities of our white Ashkenazi experience, traces an arc common across much of mainstream American Jewish life. In the latter half of the 20th century, American Jewish assimilation, and support for Israel, went hand in hand.

– – –

Zionism, Assimilation, and American Jews

My parents became b’nai Mitzvah in 1967, the year of the Six Day War. At this time, their families, like those of many American Jews, had comfortably assimilated into white middle-class American culture. The process of identification with the mainstream was, for these generations of American Jews, a complex phenomenon- at once adopted willingly, and enforced upon us by the many social pressures of post-war America; at once a means for our communal empowerment, and a response, so soon after the Holocaust, to the ever-present fear of persecution[5]. And as with many other groups, our assimilation came at a price- over the course of the 20th century, the more we became American, the more we lost many of the spiritual and secular[6], modern and pre-modern expressions of Jewish ritual, culture and community that had sustained our people’s existence for centuries.

As my parents strode across the bimah to enter Jewish adulthood, Israel strode to the forefront of the American Jewish psyche. After its victory in 1967, Israel was embraced with pride by my parent’s generation as a tangible symbol of Jewish safety, success and self-determination. Living under the long shadow of the Holocaust, Israel came to symbolize, for American Jews, the dynamic epicenter, the forward-looking vanguard of Jewish existence. As older religious and secular Jewish identities became dulled by assimilation, suppressed by McCarthyism, and otherwise diluted in the American melting pot, Zionism became an acceptable mold in which to cast our civic identities as Jews.

To be clear, these processes of assimilation and secularization were underway well before Israel’s victory in 1967[7]. Nonetheless, it can be said that for the generations of American Jews raised after 1967, Israel became “the new Torah, the new Judaism,” said JJ Goldberg at the recent ‘Israel at the Crossroads’ conference. “It used to be if you kept kosher and you kept shabbos, you were Jewish. Now it doesn’t matter what you do on Saturday as long as you support Israel….”[8] Zionism bolstered American Jewish assimilation by offering, to its believers, the allure of Jewish nationalism as an easy substitute for abandoned forms of Jewish identity and practice. By the time my generation came around, American Jewish identity had long since become doubly displaced- vanished from the home, it was outsourced to institutions like the synagogue and Hebrew school; and these institutions of Jewish life, in turn, imported much of their substance and content ready-made from Israel.

This by no means meant that American Jews grappled rigorously with Israel in its actuality, as a real country with whose details they were deeply acquainted. The Israel towards which the congregants at my shul prayed every Saturday dwelt, within many of them, more as an emotion, a safe haven, a symbol of Jewish perseverance and self-determination forged by Paul Newman in Exodus, Birthright, the JNF and B’nai Brith. This is why, during the Kotel crisis, liberal American Jewry seemed shocked, blindsided to discover that Netanyahu’s Israel, dominated by the Orthodox, actually had no desire to appease our liberalism. It was as if, in return for buying Israel Bonds and sending our kids on Birthright, we expected this country to remain truly our own, to faithfully reflect the contours of our progressive Jewishness back at us.

This willful ignorance of the real Israel also means that, day after day, the bulk of American Jewry remains willfully unaware of the suffering of the Palestinian people. While our communal eye was fixed on the Kotel, few of us knew of the brutal blackout imposed on the Palestinians of Gaza as a result of Israel’s decades-long blockade. We’ll write the state a check, defend its policies in the public sphere, and send our kids there on Birthright, but Israel remains for us, as Noam Scheizaf wrote in +972 Magazine, suspended “in a plane thatis separate from politics, and therefore shielded from the nativist and xenophobic ideological trends that have come to dominate Israel in recent years.” Taken together, our outcry over the Kotel crisis, and our silence around the crisis in Gaza, show that we remain blind to the moral rot steadily decaying a country founded and maintained upon the displacement and subjugation of its indigenous population, and given over increasingly to religious fanaticism.

Our fixation on an imaginary Israel also blinds us to ourselves. In a way, the American Jewish identity crafted by our mainstream institutions, and internalized by many of us, has existed in a state of perpetual displacement, a dislocated, split Jewishness fixated more upon Israel as scene of Jewish self-actualization, and less upon our own American Jewishness on its own terms, as its own entity. We are encouraged to assume that Jewish life in Israel is the center, the vanguard of world Jewry, while our own communities are secondary and peripheral to the modern Jewish narrative[9]. For too many of us, our Jewish hearts throb when we regale ourselves with tales of David Ben-Gurion, illumined with the glow of the ancient King David- but we neglect to commit ourselves to the hard work of building vibrant Jewish communities here in America, where we actually live[10].

To be sure, Zionism is not the sole force behind the emptying-out of post-war American Jewish identity; nor can we overlook the many vibrant movements, from Reconstructionism and Renewal to the Havurah movement, New Jewish Agenda, and more, that grew firmly from American Jewish soil. But such movements have tended to flourish in the margins, while the mainstream, trapped in multiple layers of displacement and self-deception, has steadily stagnated. Our communal discourse around intermarriage reveals another side to the crisis.

– – –

A Judaism of Blood and State

“It wasn’t so important to me to practice Judaism in the home,” my father once told me, “or to learn much about it- but it was very important for me to marry a Jewish woman. And not a convert, a Jewish woman by birth. After the Holocaust, I wanted to do my part to keep Judaism alive.” Thankfully, my parents always made sure to empower my brother and I to marry whomever we loved, regardless of religion. But over the years, the problematic strangeness of my father’s statement became more apparent to me. The irony is that, while endogamy has clearly been an important part of Jewish survival through centuries of diaspora, with real roots in text and tradition, this racialized conception of Jewishness- as primarily an ethnic tribe, bound together irreducibly by blood quanta- has more in common with the ‘eternal Jew’ of modern anti-Semitism, than with the ‘nation of Torah’, grounded in communal worship and practice, that our ancestors fought to preserve[11].

Clearly, my parents, and many others like them, wanted to marry Jewish in order to preserve Judaism. My father was named for a relative who perished in the Holocaust, and was taught, from an early age, to ‘keep the blood line going’, as he describes it. But the deeper irony is that, in ‘marrying Jewish’ while neglecting to really dig deep into the substance of Jewish life, mainstream American Jewry has raised kids who don’t really care about Jewishness, and won’t pass it on. Had I not rediscovered Jewishness anew in college, my Bar Mitzvah could easily have marked, as it does for many, my exit from Jewish life. Under the guise of preserving Jewishness, families like mine, by disengaging from the depth of Jewish experience, help create the conditions for its disappearance.

Why did American Jewishness ground itself in ties of blood and state, and little else? The reasons are many. As scholars like Noam Pianko have pointed out[12], the ethnocultural notion of ‘Jewish peoplehood’ was crafted as a proto-Zionist identity in the 1930s, as a tool to allow Jews to fit comfortably into a post-war America which saw itself increasingly as a patchwork of ethnicities. Living under the shadow of the Holocaust, the impulse of Jewish survival became the all-important ’614th commandment’, as Reform rabbi Emil Fackenheim put it in 1965- and for many, especially the secular, making Jewish babies and defending the Jewish state became the primary ways to fulfill this commandment.

Today, Birthright Israel embodies perfectly the biopolitics of blood and state Judaism. Created to combat assimilation in America, Birthright Israel flies young Jews to Israel and encourages them to fornicate with each other[13] there. ‘Make Jewish babies and support Israel’- this central message of Birthright ensures that values of blood and state will underlie what, for many, will be the formative Jewish experience of their adult lives[14].

According to the logic of the establishment, ‘make Jewish babies and support Israel’ is the very formula that can assure the survival of American Jewry in a fast-changing world. Of course, this logic dictates, endogamy is the obvious way to preserve communal boundaries in the vast American melting pot; and, of course, only a Jewish ethno-state can ensure Jewish safety, continuity and self-determination in a world marred by the permanent threat of persecution. Taking this logic to its conclusion, the same right-wing, fundamentalist Israeli Orthodoxy that denied us a spot at the Kotel insists, with smug satisfaction, that we are doomed to vanish in the ‘second Holocaust’ of intermarriage and assimilation[15]. And so long as liberal Jewry is bound by the same logic, it can provide no real rebuttal to its interlocutors; it can only view its present condition as one of catastrophe, anxiously awaiting the next Pew study to confirm its self-pity and despair.

Today, however, we see that this strategy for combating assimilation has backfired, that the values of blood and state only serve to accelerate the emptying-out of Jewish identity and community in America. A Jewishness reduced to the simple imperatives to preserve a blood line that is increasingly intermingled, and to defend a nation-state whose policies are increasingly indefensible, cannot last- its children will quietly drop the torch. And why would they do otherwise? What is exciting, energizing, enlivening about a Jewishness framed solely as a defensive struggle against extinction, a Jewishness lived in the shadow of death?

What is lost, for a Jewishness that rests easy within the ready-made containers of nation-state and blood-tribe, is the ritual and song that made our ancestors tremble; the texts they pored over by candlelight; the values that girded their footsteps; the secular Jewish theatre, dance, and poetry that enflamed their hearts; the proud traditions of radicalism that gave direction to their days. What is lost, most of all, is a sense of Jewishness as struggle and commitment, as the hard work of being klal Yisrael, those who wrestle with God. This is the deep crisis faced by liberal American Jewry- and traveling halfway around the world, to beg the ultra-Orthodox for a spot at the Kotel, won’t save us.

To maintain a robust Jewishness in a modern world of distraction, it is not enough to hold Jewish identity merely as a feature of blood or genetics, or to root for a nation-state as if it were a football team. Even as, today, we are relatively free from persecution, we still must say, as did our ancestors, that shver tzu zein a yid, ‘it is hard to be a Jew’- our Jewishness must be molded, shaped, questioned, held before our eyes, and on our lips, again and again, the length of our days.

– – –

A Way Forward

How to renew a Jewishness dismembered by assimilation, dulled by overemphasis on blood, warped by worship of state? This hard work will take many forms. Some will work to revitalize neglected spiritual traditions; some will work to remember forgotten histories; some will work to build new institutions of learning and community; some will fight to end our communal complicity in Israel’s occupation and apartheid, and our own complicity in systems of oppression here in America. My intention is not to legislate any of the myriad ‘paths of return’ as more authentic than any other, nor even to insist that every Jew must do this hard work to win their badge of authenticity. But the future of liberal American Jewishness will be secured when more of us put in this hard work, and stitch together new collectives bound by revitalized myths, rituals, beliefs, histories, radicalisms that will again sit at the center of our shared existence, illumining our comings and goings with meaning, beauty, purpose and transcendence.

And in truth, deep changes are already afoot in American Jewry. As more young Jews join movements like JVP, IfNotNow and Open Hillel to fight Israeli apartheid, challenge the hegemony of Zionism and confront the moral vacuity of our communal leadership, we are fortifying our commitment to Jewishness, even as we call for its radical transformation. In questioning Israel, our Jewishness itself becomes a question for us. In dislodging Zionism, that which it had submerged comes again to the surface. We discover anew our forgotten histories, our discarded modes of practice and ritual, our long-neglected muscles of activism and organizing. And what terrifies our elders, anxious to maintain their grip on the only Jewish identity they know, is precisely that, in saying ‘no!’ to Zionism, we are saying ‘yes!’ to Jewishness.

In the same sense, whenever a Jewish community commits to welcoming into the communal tent intermarried couples, patrilineal Jews and all others excluded by our narrow fixation on endogamy, that community is asserting that the Jewishness they share is no longer founded chiefly upon blood. What, then, will sit at the center of their collective Jewish experience? As more of us ask this question, we are shaping the contours of an American Jewry bound, as a community, by ties deeper, holier and more lasting than that of an ethnic tribe. It is no coincidence that in these diverse and pluralistic Jewish communities, one is more likely to find Jews critical of Israel’s occupation, Jews who no longer identify as Zionist. For taken together, these twin trends are at the cutting edge of what 21st-century liberal American Jewishness will look like.

To be sure, the work of progressive Jewish communal renewal in America runs deep, and the battles raging in our communities over endogamy and Zionism can only mark the beginning of this work. Without a larger revitalization of liberal American Jewish practice, culture and community, these battles may be mere epiphenomena for a community en route to extinction. But the angst of the establishment shows that we have hit a nerve, that by rattling the shaky foundations of yesterday’s Jewishness, our movements can open the floodgates for the most profound transformation American Judaism has experienced in decades.

– – –

Watching the grainy ’90s home movies of my childhood in suburban Maryland, one moment in particular warms my Jewish heart. My parents and grandparents stand over my brother and I as we light Hanukkah candles, in the dark kitchen of our middle-class home. I was 10, my brother 8. Our faces are lit by the candles while the dim outlines of two generations are faintly visible behind us. The voices of my late grandmother and grandfather, my mother and father, my brother and me, merge as we sing together: ‘Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melech ha-olam…

Even as I trace the shortcomings of their generation, I cannot blame them for what has come of Jewishness in America. I can only thank my grandparents, may their memories be a blessing, for raising a family, helping found a synagogue, navigating the currents of post-war America as best they could; I can only thank my parents for doing all they could, in ways large and small, to raise us with love and blessings, as Jews, into this time. I can only offer to their generation, not anger for what was lost, but gratitude for what remains; not scorn, but tochecha (compassionate rebuke) for the shortcomings that, between then and now, have led our communities astray.

May we merit the strength to mourn that which was lost, and to remember that which was forgotten; to smash that which has obscured, and to lift that which was submerged; to confront that which has grown harmful, and to preserve that which remains strong; to inherit it all as one piece, the good and the bad, and to build, with love and with gratitude, the American Jewishness of tomorrow.

I’d like to thank my parents, Jonathan Gelernter, Lex Rofes, Benjamin Powell, and everyone else who provided feedback and support around this piece.

[5] As we assimilated, we assumed the many privileges of race and class enjoyed by the white middle class then flourishing under mid-20th century American racial capitalism. These privileges, past and present, must be entangled and confronted as we build a new Jewish identity in America. Though this writing focuses on the crises of endogamy and Zionism, the crisis of our communal complicity in white supremacy is closely related.

[6] For more on the disappearance, through assimilation, of the rich traditions of secular American Jewishness, see April Rosenblum’s piece, ‘Offers We Couldn’t Refuse’, in Jewish Currents- http://jewishcurrents.org/offers-we-couldnt-refuse/.

[7] On a deeper level, the secularization of American Jewry continues the ambivalent legacy of Jewish Enlightenment, which began in 18th-century Europe.

[9] In his book A Traveling Homeland: The Babylonian Talmud as Diaspora, professor Daniel Boyarin writes that in the early centuries of the 1st millenium CE, “the Babylonian center” of world Jewry, “notwithstanding a certain degree of residual self-doubt, considered itself fully the equal, and even the superior, of the Palestinian center” (65)- that is to say, Jewish communities in the Babylonian diaspora viewed themselves on an equal footing, spiritually and culturally, with Jewish communities in Eretz Yisrael. Can we say the same regarding the modern relationship between American Jewry and the state of Israel?

[10] The recent words of Haaretz columnist Ofri Ilany come to mind- “it’s easy to be swept up by the propaganda of Benjamin Netanyahu and Naftali Bennett and to think that Israel is the center of Jewishness today, while the liberal Americans are just a pain in the neck,” he writes. “But that’s a biased picture. Even though there are nearly seven million Jews in Israel, it’s American Jewry that concentrates the meaningful Jewish cultural, economic and political clout in our world.” http://www.haaretz.com/us-news/.premium-1.799606

[11] In his work Some Aspects of Rabbinic Theology, Solomon Schechter, architect of Conservative Judaism, outlines the classical Rabbinic view that “[the Jewish people] is not a nation by virtue of race or of certain peculiar political combinations. As R. Saadya expressed it, ‘Because our nation is only a nation by reason of its Torah’.”

[14] It should also be noted that blood and state Judaism, by valorizing the Jewish womb as the chief anchor of Jewish continuity, helps reinforce patriarchy at the deepest levels of Jewish identity- though a full consideration of these matters is beyond the scope of this essay.

[15] As one columnist put it, “Netanyahu’s circle sees liberal Jewry as a transient phenomenon that will disappear on its own in another generation due to intermarriage and lack of interest in Jewish tradition or Israel.” http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/1.802602

 

Our Relationship to the Land

‘Every Jew has a stake in the Land of Israel, and therefore what is done in Israel is the business of every Jew.’ – the Lubavitcher Rebbe, 1970

In the above quote, the Lubavitcher Rebbe was responding to criticism that, from his home in Brooklyn, he was too involved in the state affairs of Israel. His involvement, it should be noted, was very right wing– for decades, he counseled Netanyahu and the many other leading Israeli politicians who visited him in Crown Heights to hold on to every inch of land in the West Bank, to see Israel’s wars as wars of expansion, to see all Palestinians as Amalekites, etc.

But this quote resonated with me, ironically, as an American Jewish BDS activist. While the Rebbe, were he alive today, may recoil in horror to hear me say so, I actually share his sentiment. It drives the work I do, to advocate for an end to occupation and apartheid, and for the return of Palestinian refugees. I do this firstly, not as a white person fighting American empire and global white supremacy, but as a Jew (and yes, as a white Jew specifically), as a Jew with a stake in the affairs of his people, and with a concern, today, for what we’re doing in the holy land. I think the Rebbe’s quote can serve as an effective model to help Jews doing anti-occupation/BDS work articulate a healthy self-interest in our work, and a healthy relationship to that land, wherever we live around the world.

When we ask ‘what is the future of Judaism beyond Zionism?’, or ‘what will the new Jewish identity look like?’, another question is folded within these- ‘how should we conceive of our relationship to Eretz Yisrael, outside a Zionist framework?’ Thankfully, many different answers exist to this question, as they should- you have the secular ‘doikayt’ diasporists on the one hand, attached only to ‘Zion’ as a symbol for the future liberation of humanity, and those who gravitate towards some form of ‘old time religion’ on the other, grounded in apolitical devotion to the living stones of the land. And, of course, you have many shades in between, within and around these two points I have chosen, somewhat arbitrarily, amidst many others in the rich tapestry of Jewish experience.

Mostly, I have drifted around the former camp, with at least one toe in the latter. My family is rooted in America and, before, that Europe; I am a Marxist spiritual agnostic, I have a pious rabbi and a fiery radical jostling within me in sometimes uneasy, but always creative, tension. And while I cling to a fierce diasporism, I see alot of beauty in directing our prayers towards Jerusalem, as a compass for our souls; I resonate with the idea of Eretz Yisrael as a throbbing in the heart of every Jew in exile in an unredeemed world.

In many ways, this dream of Zion has always been a deeply diasporist one for our people, steeped, for every Jew who has muttered it three times a day throughout the centuries, in the yearnings, sorrows and joys of their experience in history. For so many Jews across the spectrum of observance and identity, the hegemony of political Zionism, among other forces of modernity, has erased from our memory this sensibility of a relationship to Zion suffused with the travail of exile, an exile at once spiritual and physical, personal and collective, signifying the incomplete redemption of the soul, the Jewish people, and the world. Instead, Zionism has taught too many Jews to hear the cries of our sages for Zion, as little more than an injunction to pray today for the political victories of the modern nation-state of Israel, as one would cheer for a football team.

I feel drawn to this larger idea of Zion as a modality of exile, but I feel a connection to the physical Eretz Yisrael as well, one made all sorts of complicated by the two months I spent in yeshiva in Jerusalem, followed by four months doing activist work in the West Bank, in 2011. My time at the yeshiva, during which I occasionally traveled to religious sites (including occupied Hebron), was in many ways problematic- from the politics and the patriarchy, to the very fact that I, as a Jew, could visit there while Palestinians couldn’t (which applies, also, to my time in the WB)- but many of my religious experiences were very beautiful. And while some of these experiences- like the study of Torah and Talmud in a spiritually charged community- could also occur with equal force elsewhere, many were not wholly unrelated to that land, and the centuries of Jewish yearning somehow calcified in its stones. In many ways I’ve repressed the joy I felt, unable to let myself fully re-embrace those experiences, to let myself dream of them occurring again in that place, because of the reality of the occupation, the awareness of the continuing Nakba that remains unrecognized.

It’s as if my activism now is driven, at the end of the day, by a desire to see justice in that land, so that my- our- spiritual relationship to it, as an idea and as reality, can be authentic again, without blood on our hands. I don’t need my people, in the present day, to constitute a nation-state there, atop someone else’s land, driving another people from their homes- but I want to be able to make holy pilgrimage there, as my ancestors did for generations, to sing and cry at its holy places. Until we have repented for and ended occupation and apartheid, and allowed the refugees to return, I don’t want to excise from my prayer book all the words about Eretz Yisrael, Yerushalayim, the Temple- I pray most fervently during those parts of the service, sometimes. ‘May our eyes behold Your return to Zion with compassion’- may we understand that the return of the holy presence to Zion may occur through none other than the attribute of compassion, and may we act accordingly.

In truth, our personal and collective relationship to the Eretz Yisrael, Zion and Jerusalem in our prayer books cannot be separated from our relationship to those actual locations in the world, and never has been, for any period in Jewish history. When our ancestors prayed for the holy land, they prayed partially, but not solely, towards an idea- their prayers were charged with the energy, full to bursting, of what they were experiencing in their own time, caught as they were, in their unique historical moment, in the tension between the travails of exile and the desire for liberation. And, their prayers were also directed towards a very real place, one they may have visited themselves or heard from other pilgrims about, one they may have hoped to be buried in. And today, Jews continue to pray for Zion with words charged with the passions of our historical moment, words related, viscerally and imminently, to a real place on the earth’s surface. Just as some Jews on the right today, sadly, read prayers about the rebuilding of the Temple and think literally of the shattering of the Dome of the Rock, Jews on the left should, and do, read the words in their Siddurim about peace and mercy in the holy land quite literally, and pray, wholeheartedly, for a just peace in Israel/Palestine.

 

But whereas yesterday, we looked towards Zion and dreamed of being liberated from exile, today, we claim to be liberated, as a people, in Zion, but in truth we remain deeper in exile. Zionism has helped us forget that, all along, exile for us meant much more, as a concept, than the simple dispersal of Jews across the earth’s surface- it meant the unredeemed sorrows of an unjust world; the continued existence of oppressors and oppressed; the incomplete process of redemption embedded within creation itself. Today, as the exile of the world continues, the exile of the Jewish people assumes a new and wholly unprecedented dimension. On the surface of things, we appear to be reconstituted, as a people, on our land- we appear to have miraculously ended 2000 years of Galut. We’ve even written this proud declaration into our very prayer books, alongside the pleas to Zion that made our ancestors tremble! Or at least the non-Orthodox prayer books have been altered in this way- these loftiest of claims made by Zionism upon the very core of Jewish history and identity were never accepted by traditional Jewry, including the predecessors of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, though he cheered on the conquests of the Zionist state.

But with Zionism, just as we have driven another people into physical exile, so have we driven ourselves deeper into spiritual exile as well. When we pray towards Jerusalem today, we must fervently pray for this exile to end; we must pray, in an old-and-new way, for justice, mercy and peace to dwell upon that land; and we must reaffirm that ‘every Jew has a stake’, as the Rebbe said, in demanding an end to Israeli occupation and apartheid, in demanding the right of return for refugees, in rectifying our relations, as a people, with the Other, with Hashem, with the land and with ourselves.

As the Rebbe showed in his life’s work, it is foundational to Jewish being-in-the-world that we remain invested, concerned, implicated in the affairs of the Jewish people, the affairs of the world at large, and the relation between the two. In this way, Jewish being-in-the-world has always been ‘political’ in the broad sense, long before that word came to connote the affairs of modern nation-states. And as the Rebbe said in the quote above, this ‘political’ sense of Jewish being-in-the-world has always somehow involved the land of Israel, whether as yesterday’s futural promise or today’s political nightmare. May we pray today, with the thoughts of our heart and the work of our hands, that this nightmare come to an end.

 

‘Never Again’, Again

There is no question that Jews tried to enter into a dialogue with Germans, and from all possible perspectives and standpoints: now demanding, now pleading and imploring; now crawling on their hands and knees, now defiant; now with all possible compelling tones of dignity, now with a godforsaken lack of self-respect. . . . No one responded to this cry. . . .and today, when the symphony is over, the time may be ripe for studying their motifs and for attempting a critique of their tones.” – Gershom Scholem, 1962, speaking of German Jewry in the decades before the Holocaust

Deep in the heart of the Zionist dream, which has long since turned into a nightmare, is wedged the Jewish people’s response to that dark midnight of their 20th century. For both its defenders on both the right and left, Zionism remains as it was in the years before and after the Holocaust- the determination that Jews must stand up for ourselves and be counted among the nations, must straighten our backs and walk proudly, must work to transform our conditions, throw off the yoke of our oppressors and create our own history on our own terms.

This emotional core of Zionism did not descend fully-formed from heaven, to implant itself in the waiting hearts of Jews worldwide. Rather, it grew from the specific soil of 20th-century Europe, from the constellation of ideas and conditions that defined that time period; and like Marx said of the communist idea a half-century earlier, the Zionist idea was “in every respect, economically, morally and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it comes”. The many movements that animated the word, thought and deed of early 20th-century European Jewry- not only Zionism but also Bundism, Yiddishism, territorialism and more- were attempts at Jewish self-determination broadly defined, attempts by Jews to define and determine anew their collective identity in a modern world that flung all traditions, social groupings and identities of the past into upheaval.

After the Shoah rendered most other Jewish self-determination movements in Europe null and void, Zionism came to embody the essence of Jewish pride, Jewish continuity, Jewish identity in the hearts of most Jews worldwide. And considered in the abstract, apart from its actualization on the ground in Palestine, there is nothing in this emotional core of Zionism to be condemned. Were it not ensnared, inextricably, with a settler-colonial project, the emotional underpinnings of Zionism- the Jewish people’s defiance in the face of our oppressors- are no different from those passions that fueled other liberation movements of the time that, from the US South to the Third World, brought the taste of freedom and self-determination to the lips of oppressed peoples across the earth.

But when a Zionist Jewish student, on a college campus, closes their eyes and cries ‘never again’ to a divestment resolution- it is this emotional core of Zionism which further blinds them, the tighter they cling, to the reality of Israel’s human rights violations. When a defender of Israeli settlements calls the 1967 borders ‘Auschwitz borders’, it is this core which has atrophied into a blind arrogance, a machismo, a heart turned cold. While right-wing Zionists close their eyes to reality and the Other and ferociously cling to a toxic ‘us against the world’ notion of Jewish self-determination, liberal Zionists are caught, against their will, in a paralyzing self-deception, unable to reconcile their idea of Zionism as Jewish liberation from oppression with the reality of Israel as oppressor, unable to answer to the present or chart a path to the future.

For Jews like Gershom Scholem, who searched for identity in an early 20th-century Europe in upheaval, Zionism may have been, for a time, an authentic response to their historical moment (though the reality of political state-building in Palestine would quickly come into sharp conflict with the lofty cultural Zionism of dreamers like Scholem, as he came to realize after he actually moved there in 1923). But Zionism today, in both its left and right variations, leaves us unequipped to face our present moment in history authentically.  Zionism was the Jewish people in dialogue with its European Other, an Other which, as the 20th century progressed, turned, as Scholem described, into a demon- which is perhaps why, on the ground in Palestine, Zionism was never able to meaningfully enter into anything resembling a ‘dialogue’ with the decidedly non-European Others who inhabited the land. Now, in the 21st century, Zionism rots, like many other ideologies forged in the crucible of European modernity, long past its expiration date.

But in a way, Zionism was also the Jewish people in dialogue with itself. For Scholem and so many other European Jews, movements like Zionism represented a break with the tepid, assimilated institutional Jewish establishment; with the ossified strictures of religious orthodoxy; with a Jewish mainstream which, in a thousand ways, had lost (or had never possessed) authenticity, an awareness of itself, an ability to stand up for itself and determine its own destiny. Becoming a Zionist, or a revolutionary, or a Yiddishist, or any other of the newly minted Jewish identities was, for these rebels, a way to bring the Jewish people to self-consciousness, to an alignment with the currents of the historical moment, to a proper response to the challenges and travails of the modern world.

In fact, in many ways, today’s anti-Zionist and anti-occupation Jewish movements bear an uncanny resemblance to these early 20th-century Jewish gestures of auto-emancipation. Just as, a century ago, the Zionist youth said to their politically passive, religiously pious parents ‘do not submit to the yoke of oppression, do not close your eyes to the storm clouds gathering around you, stand up! Demand our right to self-determination!’- so today, a new movement of pro-BDS and anti-occupation youth says to our parents ‘do not passively support the oppression of Palestinians, do not close your eyes to the injustices being committed in our name- speak out! Demand our community choose justice!’

In a dialectical inversion, then, yesterday’s assimilated, acquiescent German Jews become today’s guilty, angst-ridden American Jewish liberal Zionists. And just as Jews of the last century built a new Zionist identity by fighting against mainstream Jewish assimilation and self-deception, so Jews today are beginning to gesture towards a new anti-Zionist identity, by fighting against mainstream Jewish complicity in Israel’s occupation and apartheid (and, parallel to this, against American Jewish complicity in structures of white supremacy in the USA).  Echoing yesterday’s injunction to ‘fight against our oppression as Jews!’, today’s moral injunction to ‘fight against our complicity in oppression as Jews!’ traces the contours of a new Jewish consciousness that, as storm clouds of fascism gather, may yet form.

Today, the Zionist dream, which once gave a sense of orientation in history to our ancestors, has spiraled into our nightmare of endless occupation, and American Jewry gazes helplessly, careening into the 21st century with no historical compass to guide us, caught between a fascist America and a fascist Israel, both of which, in their ugliness, have become unrecognizable to us. Like the ossified, reactionary institutional Jewish leadership of a century ago, our American Jewish leaders, and their mainstream institutions, have again become mired in self-deception, unmoored, disoriented, rudderless, unable to comprehend the historical moment or act to transform it. Tethered to a Zionism which spirals into fascism, we are in danger of becoming strangers to the world, and to ourselves. Over and against this ossified leadership, young American Jews are beginning to say ‘No!’ to endless occupation and apartheid, ‘No!’ to complicity in global white supremacy, ‘No!’ to a politics of fear.

In order to evolve a new Jewish identity beyond Zionism, we will have to answer anew, as a people, to our changing conditions, to face our position in history and give an authentic response to what these times demand of us. We will again have to awaken, but this time, from a different self-deception. This time, it is a matter not of emancipating ourselves from an oppressor which faces us, or even, primarily, from an oppressive ideology within- it is first and foremost a matter of renouncing, as a people, our role as occupiers and oppressors of the Palestinians, and of rejecting our communal leadership’s unholy alliance with the oppressors of the world, the global structures of white supremacy and empire.

This renunciation should not be misunderstood, for the collective psyche of our people, as a return, from the strength and independence of our self-determination, to a weakened state of passivity and servitude. In truth, this renunciation can be a different, and equally powerful, kind of self-determination. Today, the Zionist movement is not independent- it is ensnared, from without, by an addictive obsession with conquering land and subjugating the Other; and ensnared, from within, by a crippling trauma which sees a new Shoah around every corner, which fears annihilation lurking behind every peace deal. Gathering the strength, courage and self-awareness to collectively renounce occupation will actually evolve our people to a new, heightened kind of self-consciousness and intregity, indeed, a new kind of self-determination. 

But before the new Jewish identity can awaken and stand on its own two feet, there will be much in thought, word and deed for the Jewish people to unpack, to untangle, and ultimately, to atone for. In many ways, this is uncharted territory- the nature and scope of this atonement is unprecedented in Jewish memory, for not since the time of the Prophets have we as a people built a kingdom, and watched it crumble from the weight of its internal contradictions. 

But we are no strangers to these sentiments- our inherited tradition gives us many tools and technologies well-tailored to assist us in collective mourning and repentance. On Yom Kippur, for example, we mourn and atone for our collective sins as a people. One can easily imagine, in the not too distant future, the great bulk of the Jewish people fasting and doing teshuvah, in a way similar to Yom Kippur, for the sins committed by Israel against the Palestinians- a powerful image indeed! Perhaps, in answering the Prophetic call to repent, to atone, to give an accounting and a reckoning, we may yet find for our people’s flesh a new heart, for our lungs a new breath, for our souls a new spirit.

Of course, such paradigm shifts in a people’s consciousness and identity never occur solely through acts of will and decision- or as an abstract ‘dialogue’ with past and future,  unfolding in the rarefied air of the spirit- but always evolve alongside, in reaction to and acting upon, the myriad political conditions of the present. Zionism seized the king’s palace of Jewish peoplehood not solely because its prime movers fulfilled, in thought, word and deed, Herzl’s injunction that ‘if you will it, it is no dream’, but also because fascism intervened to clear Europe of those millions of Jews who, for many different reasons, opposed the Zionist project. G-d willing, may we evolve today as a people beyond Zionism not, as before, in frenzied response to a terrible catastrophe, but as a conscious moral decision grounded in peace, justice and safety.

As we build our Jewish future, we have much to unlearn from the many injunctions of Herzl and his acolytes. As Zionism imposed a system of colonial violence upon the land and people of Palestine, the ‘New Jew’ it created in the self-image of its followers reeked of patriarchy, internalized anti-Semitism, Eurocentrism, Orientalism, and other oppressive structures of thought. But as we work to overcome Zionism and build a new Jewish identity, we must share with its founders a fundamental belief in the open-endedness of Jewish history, the capacity of our people to break with the old and begin anew.

 

Today, as a newly rising global fascism tips the inherited political structures, communal institutions, and hegemonic systems of yesterday’s world closer to catastrophe, American Jewry is in unprecedented existential crisis, as is the Zionist project to which it has too long been intimately bound. A rising generation of young anti-occupation and anti-Zionist Jews is gathering the courage to say ‘No!’ to the conditions of the present, and taking the first step towards the Jewish future.

The new Jewish identity will have been born when we, as a people, can say ‘never again’, again- this time, not ‘never again shall we allow another to be dominant over us’, but ‘never again shall we mistake dominance over another for our own liberation’.

“[Gershom Scholem] used to say that we will pay for all this, since there is no people, even bigger than the Jewish people, who could survive those two events- Holocaust and independence- without paying an extremely high price. And the price would be not only in blood but also in spirit.” Fania Scholem, Gershom’s widow, 1987, speaking of Gershom’s evolving views on Zionism

Understanding Alt-Right Antisemitism

UNDERSTANDING ALT-RIGHT ANTISEMITISM: what the new white supremacy means for American Jews, and why it matters

(Note- This article references many alt-right/white supremacist websites. All hyperlinks to these web pages go to ‘cached’ replicas of the pages, not the website itself.)

For the American Jewish community, these are strange and frightening times. With a wave of bomb threats to Jewish community centers*, attacks on Jewish cemeteries, and antisemitic graffiti on college campuses, American Jews face the largest grassroots surge of antisemitism in living memory. Yet, while over 75% of American Jews did not vote for Trump, the state of Israel has rushed to his side. Stranger still, the white supremacist alt-right movement seems to simultaneously hate Jews, and love Israel. Steve Bannon, Trump campaign mastermind and former architect of the antisemitic and white nationalist Breitbart News, shows firm support for the Jewish state, while neo-Nazi hipster Richard Spencer compares himself to Theodore Herzl, and calls his movement ‘white Zionism’.

This confusing reality has scrambled the coordinates of the American Jewish community, whose leaders have spent decades painting criticism of Israel, and more recently the BDS movement, as ‘the new antisemitism’. Even though it is well-known that the same forces of white supremacy put all our communities in danger, many Jews and non-Jews still struggle to understand exactly how this new anti-Semitism fits in with other forms of bigotry in the far-right, such as Islamophobia, anti-Arab racism, anti-blackness, and anti-immigrant racism.  

This article examines the ideology of antisemitism on the alt-right, and its intersection with alt-right Zionism, in comparison with anti-Jewish ideologies of the 20th century. By unearthing the inner logic of fascist mentality, we do not seek to grant legitimacy to their beliefs, or pretend they can be defeated through reasoned debate alone; rather, by situating these anti-Jewish ideologies in their historical context, past and present, we hope to orient ourselves in our current political moment, in order to understand how to transform it.

 

ALT-RIGHT ANTISEMITISM

For years, the online white nationalist movement has been obsessed with the ‘Jewish Question’, or ‘JQ’. Dredging through the swamps of the alt-right internet, on sites like the Daily Stormer, forums like 4chan and podcasts like the Daily Shoah, it is common knowledge that, alongside all sorts of racist and sexist drivel, one is inundated with raw, in-your-face neo-Nazi memes, slurs and clickbait recycling the crude anti-Jewish tropes of the last century.

Rather than attempt to glean a coherent ideology from Pepe-the-frog memes or angry white dude trolls, it is more worthwhile to turn to the ‘suit-and-tie’ white supremacists, who wrap their hate in a pseudo-intellectual veneer. In online publications, like Alternative Right, CounterCurrents, Radix Journal, and the Occidental Observer, that appear, at first glance, more like academic journals than hate sites, the alt-right attempts to develop a coherent American white nationalist ideology, grounded in 20th-century anti-modern, anti-liberal thought and situated alongside other far-right movements across Europe. Epitomized by clean-cut, upper-middle-class ‘hipster intellectual’ fascists like Richard Spencer, this new movement seeks, in the words of one anti-fascist blogger, to make neo-fascism “just as much of a philosophic project as Marxism and anarchism…using jargon and rhetoric that feels more like the Frankfurt School than like the [neo-Nazi group] National Alliance.”

Most attempts, on the alt-right, to ‘theorize’ antisemitism rely heavily on the work of Kevin MacDonald, a retired evolutionary psychology professor who still collects a pension from California State University, Long Beach. Dubbed ‘the neo-Nazi movement’s favorite academic’ by Southern Poverty Law Center and ‘the Marx of the anti-Semites’ by conservative writer John Derbyshire, MacDonald began his academic forays into the ‘Jewish Question’ in the late 90s, by claiming, in books like ‘A People That Shall Dwell Alone’, that Judaism represents a ‘group evolutionary strategy’, developed and perfected over two millennia of Jewish adaptation in the diaspora, whereby a tight-knit Jewish ‘ingroup’ embeds itself, like a virus, within the pores of its host nation, siphoning off resources, rising to the elite and disarming all defenses against their invasion. Once the formal legal structures separating Jews and gentiles were dissolved in the 18th-century European Enlightenment, MacDonald argues, liberal ‘emancipated’ Jewish activists “construct[ed] highly focused ethnic networks in politics, the arts, the media, and the social sciences—all the critical centers of power in the modern world”, building progressive movements for multiculturalism and universalism within Gentile society while, hypocritically, maintaining covert ‘hyperethnocentric’ networks of support among fellow Jewish activists.

The alt-right turns to MacDonald’s later books, particularly The Culture of Critique, to understand the ‘Jewish problem’ underlying basically all progressive legal, political and cultural forces of modern American history. Throughout the 20th century, claims MacDonald, American Jewish political figures, lobbyists, lawyers, journalists, activists, and other ‘opinion makers’ spearheaded, from behind the scenes, both the civil rights movement and the movement for relaxed immigration policies. It was Jewish political and social capital, ultimately, that opened the gates of the USA to millions of non-European immigrants, integrated our schools, cities and neighborhoods, and worked behind the scenes, in various ways, to engineer “the racial reconstruction of America”.

During the same time period, MacDonald insists, a liberal Jewish elite engineered the hegemonic takeover of the humanities and social sciences, using the disciplines of Boasian anthropology, Freudian psychoanalysis, and the Frankfurt School to propagate cultural relativism, sexual liberation, and the deconstruction of all ideologies deemed ‘authoritarian’, respectively. Through movements like the New Left, finally, Jews brought the ‘culture war’ to the streets of America. Today, therefore, Jews have successfully transformed American sensibilities, mainstreaming white guilt, moral relativism, multiculturalism, feminism, LGBTQ rights, political correctness, ‘cultural Marxism’, and the thousand other evils of liberalism.

Another common alt-right trope portrays Jews as the ‘globalist elite’, the secretive cabal that controls global institutions, like the IMF and the EU, to impose an exploitative neoliberal agenda of austerity, deregulation and debt servitude upon the nation-states of Europe. The much-villianized progressive Jewish philanthropist George Soros embodies, for the alt-right, the conviction that the ‘globalist elite’ is ‘socially liberal and fiscally conservative’, or, put differently, that the same ‘Jewish power’ underlies both the economic agenda of the 1% and the social-cultural agenda of the 99%.

All things considered, for the alt-right, “the organized Jewish community,” writes Greg Johnson, editor-in-chief at Counter-Currents, is the principal enemy — not the sole enemy, but the principal enemy — of every attempt to halt and reverse white extinction.” While other hated ethnic and religious groups, such as blacks, Latinos, Arabs and Muslims, represent external threats, Jews, they claim, destabilize White European-American society from within, through the gradual, imperceptible institutionalization of creeping white genocide. The Jews are the master puppeteers, the hidden architects of white dispossession- in the words of neo-Nazi leader Victor Gerhard, “to rail against blacks and Hispanics without mentioning Jews is like complaining about the symptoms and not the disease.”

The Jewish question, accordingly, is the esoteric secret of the alt-right cult, a meta-narrative reserved only for the initiated, those who, through a leap of reason, learn to see beyond appearances to the essence of white dispossession. “I think it is easy to understand black crime, illegal immigrants, that’s in your face,” said Richard Spencer in an interview with the Forward. “But the Jewish question is extremely complicated.” Or as Kevin MacDonald says, “my general impression in talking to Alt Righters is that many begin with an awareness of White decline, race differences in traits like IQ, and minority hostility, and then progress toward an understanding of Jewish influence as they read more widely.”

Only by uprooting the Jews from America, according to the alt-right, can whites successfully reverse-engineer the social, cultural and political processes of their own dispossession, ensure their survival, and chart the course of their future. From this perspective, bomb threats and cemetery desecrations represent the sickening attempt of American white supremacy, not only to chase away what today will corrode the foundations of the white ethnostate of the future, but also to uproot, from the soil itself, all that corroded the white ethnostate in the past.  

Before we move on, let’s be clear- Jews did not covertly orchestrate the racial and social justice movements of the 20th century! This argument, while grossly antisemitic (more on that soon), is demeaning to the communities of color, LGBTQ folk, working people and others who fought, and still fight, for their own liberation. Moreover, this narrative erases the existence of Jews of color and non-European Jews, monolithically portraying all Jews as ‘white-passing’ descendants of European Ashkenazim (even while it strenuously denies, obviously, that these Jews are in fact white Europeans).

 

THE JEWISH ETHNO-STATE

For years, many white nationalists demonized Israel’s oppression of Palestinians as the manifestation of a uniquely Jewish power, Jewish evil or Jewish influence. ‘Old-school’ white supremacists like David Duke still depict Israeli leaders as Satanic baby-killers, thirsting for Palestinian blood, and still claim that Israel controls media, banks and ‘Zionist occupied governments’ the world over. These motifs are remakes of the ‘blood libel’ myths of the Middle Ages, and the ‘Jewish world conspiracy’ myths of the 20th century, respectively. Clearly, they are far removed from the principled anti-Zionism of the Left, which views Israel’s oppression of Palestinians not as a ‘Jewish problem’ but through the structural lens of settler-colonialism, apartheid and white supremacy.

Recently, however, the alt-right has changed its tone. Many now call for a pragmatic acceptance of the existence of Israel, arguing that the only way to end the parasitic, destabilizing force that diaspora Jews exert upon Western nations is to relocate those Jews to Israel. “As ethnonationalists, we believe in the “Ein Volk, ein Reich” principle,”  explains Greg Johnson, in ‘White Nationalism and Jewish Nationalism’- “one people, one state…[an] ethnic self-determination of all peoples…a kind of classical liberalism for all nations, in which each people has a place of its own”. Israel, for Johnson, is not the symbol of the wicked ’eternal Jew’, but the sign, rather, of its overcoming. “I do not oppose the existence of Israel,” explains Johnson in a chilling passage. “I oppose the Jewish diaspora in the United States and other white societies. I would like to see the white peoples of the world break the power of the Jewish diaspora and send the Jews to Israel, where they will have to learn how to be a normal nation.”

Johnson is hardly the first antisemite to reason that pesky, subversive diaspora Jews have no business in the European nation-state, and need some blood-and-soil nationalism of their own. A hundred years ago, in the heyday of European state-building, it was common for white Europeans and Americans to believe that, as Henry Ford’s early-1920s pamphlet ‘The International Jew’ put it, “in a world of completely organized territorial sovereignties, he [the Jew] has only two possible cities of refuge: he must either pull down the pillars of the whole national state system or he must create a territorial sovereignty of his own.” Early Jewish Zionists shared this view. In fact Theodore Herzl, in a diary entry, articulated a vision that, disturbingly enough, could today make him Greg Johnson’s business partner- the Zionist movement, he proposed, could work with ‘respectable anti-Semites’ willing to liquidate Jewish property in the diaspora, reimbursing these folks for their assistance in the colonization of Palestine. In the completion of this task, Herzl reasoned, “the anti-Semites will become our most dependable friends, the anti-Semitic countries our allies”.

Perhaps to the delight of Herzl, other alt-right theorists view Zionism as an ethnonationalist project worth emulating in itself. Richard Spencer, who once referred to his movement as ‘a sort of white Zionism’, dreams of an ‘ingathering of the exiles’ of white Europeans into a new white ethnostate built in North America. Striking a Herzlian pose, he explained in a 2013 speech that “our project would be a new kind of political and social order. It would be a state for the 21st century—or 22nd…a home for Germans, Latins, and Slavs from around the world…a reconstitution of the Roman Empire…the Ethno-State would be, to borrow the title of a novel by Theodor Herzl (one of the founding fathers of Zionism), an Altneuland—an old, new country.”

While the alt-right may see Zionism as an ethnonationalism much like their own, this does not mean that they see Israel as a sign that, finally, the Jews are becoming ‘a nation like all other nations’. A key motif of alt-right antisemitism holds that in the modern era, Jews act duplicitously by, as MacDonald puts it, championing “the idea that Western countries have no ethnic core…while supporting Israel as a Jewish ethnostate”. Using the specter of the Holocaust, Jews in the post-World War II era, according to the alt-right, demand that Israel remain a ‘Jewish state’ while pathologizing as ‘fascist’ or ‘racist’ any attempts by whites to champion ethnonationalism in Europe and America. Thus, echoing old antisemitic motifs of the ‘deceitful Jew’, the alt-right sees the liberal Zionist Jew, progressive on all issues except Palestine, as no different than the Jewish reformer of post-Enlightenment 1800s Europe, who preached universalism by day and practiced ethnocentrism by night, or the Jewish anti-war activist of the 1960s, who preached universal brotherhood while covertly maintaining belief in Jewish superiority (a phenomenon MacDonald claims to have encountered firsthand, during his hippie years).  

The alt-right watches in rage while, as one writer expressed in classic Freudian formation, the Jew fulfills, for himself, the white race’s desire for ethnocentrism, while castrating the white race with “the double standards of political correctness that condemn whites for even daring to think about the subject [of ethnonationalism], but freely allow Jews not only to express their desires for, but to actually have, their own ethnostate.” And the same fetishistic glance which Spencer casts upon Herzl, is cast by Kevin MacDonald, of all people, upon the very diaspora Jews he despises. “I have at times been accused of being an anti-Semite,” MacDonald grants in a 2004 speech entitled ‘Can the Jewish Model Help The West Survive?’, “but the reality is that I greatly admire Jews as a group that has pursued its interests over thousands of years, while retaining its ethnic coherence and intensity of group commitment…Taking seriously the idea of Judaism as a model for [white] ethnic activism is a tall order indeed.”

On one point alone, the Left agrees with Richard Spencer- Zionism is a form of ethnonationalism, racism and white supremacy. Just as Bibi and Trump, on the diplomatic stage, look like they were born for each other, Herzl and Richard Spencer do indeed strike a parallel pose in history. While we also hold liberal Zionism as hypocritical for condemning racism in America but overlooking it in Palestine, we see this, not as some mythical ‘Jewish deceitfulness’, but as a fairly typical blind spot held by liberal non-Jews and Jews alike. Perhaps liberal advocates of the two-state solution would be embarrassed to find that white supremacists like Greg Johnson support their policy proposal, albeit through the overt, rather than covert, logic of racial separatism.“I do not favor the destruction of Israel,” he says, “because I want the Jews to live there, not among my people. I favor a Palestinian state, because I want the Palestinians to live there, not among my people.”

 

20TH-CENTURY FASCISM

When fascism last appeared on the stage of history, the economic, cultural and political institutions of the world were, like today, in deep crisis. After the Great Depression hit a Europe still emerging from the ravages of the First World War, millions of people faced poverty, dislocation and a world of shifting borders, unstable identities and an uncertain future. Meanwhile, rapid changes in technology, media communications, and industry were revolutionizing the scope and texture of human society, and the competing world-systems of capitalism and communism proposed very different models for the human future.

Over and against what Corey Robin has called, in a different context, “the social vertigo induced by modern industrial society”, fascism articulated a vision of populist ethnonationalism centered around the certainty of blood, the constancy of soil, the honor of the nation, the valor of war and the heroism of the leader. To the modern citizen searching for rootedness in an age of abstractions, fascism offered the tribe, the people, the Volk as a concrete counterpoint to the shallow individualism of liberalism, the hedonistic consumerism of capitalism, and the bureaucratic heathenism of Stalinism. These, fascism asserted, were the only true realities, stable enough to weather the storm of modernity and propel its people into the future.

To the titans of industry, fascism promised, not only the destruction of unions and left-wing movements and, therefore, an end to worker militancy and class conflict, but also massive profits through rearmament and the permanent war economy. To the petty bourgeoisie hit hard by inflation and unemployment, angry at the exorbitant wealth of those above them and eager to avoid the desperate poverty of those below them, fascism offered the myth of belonging, not to a vanishing class, but to a master race. To the working class, too, fascism substituted, as an antidote to Communism, the allure of nationalism and the comfort of a scapegoat.

According to Nazi ideology, the Jew was at once the ruthless profiteer of capitalism, and its opposite, the fiery radical of communism. It was the Jew-as-banker, argued Hitler and Henry Ford, who sought to starve nation-states of their natural resources, industry and manpower through the rootless, parasitic networks of global finance capital. It was also the Jew-as-communist, moreover, who taught the workers and peasants of the West to occupy their factories, march through their city streets and seize the landed estates of their countryside, demanding reform and revolution. It was the Jew-as-modernist, finally, who dominated new media like film, television and radio, and introduced new art-forms like Surrealist painting and jazz music, to corrode the traditional, family values of white Christian Europe with the transgressive sensibilities of the modern world.

In his essay ’Anti-Semitism and National Socialism’, Moishe Postone, a Marxist political theorist, argued that in the ‘international Jew’, the Nazis found a way to concentrate, into a single image, the entirety of the destabilizing forces of a modern world in tumult and transition. More complex than the Othering typical of most racism, the worldview of antisemitism offered, for those enthralled by Nazism, the illusion of a total revolution against these immense, ungraspable forces, a ‘foreshortened anticapitalist movement’, where “the abstract domination of capital, which—particularly with rapid industrialization—caught people up in a web of dynamic forces they could not understand, became perceived as the domination of International Jewry.” The image of the ‘international Jew’- at once the greedy financier suffocating the globe in a parasitic grasp, the sneaky agitator lighting fires of rebellion in the streets, the arch-media mogul clogging the airwaves with emptiness and filth, the master puppeteer dictating the motions of heads of state- all this, and more, framed in grotesque caricature the very historical processes that the new ultranationalism needed to set into reverse, in order to will itself into existence.

“What characterizes the power imputed to the Jews in modern anti-Semitism”, writes Postone,

     “is that it is mysteriously intangible, abstract, and universal. It is considered to be a form of power that does not manifest itself directly, but must find another mode of expression. It seeks a concrete carrier, whether political, social, or cultural, through which it can work… It is considered to stand behind phenomena, but not to be identical with them. Its source is therefore deemed hidden—conspiratorial. The Jews represent an immensely powerful, intangible, international conspiracy…centered in the “asphalt jungles” of the newly emergent urban megalopoli…behind “vulgar, materialist, modern culture” and, in general, all forces contributing to the decline of traditional social groupings, values, and institutions. The Jews represent a foreign, dangerous, destructive force undermining the social “health” of the nation.”

It is not hard to see the parallels between the ‘international Jew’ of 20th-century fascism and the ‘diaspora Jew’ of the contemporary alt-right. What are we to make of these unsettling parallels? Why has this modern antisemitism re-emerged today, at the burning core of a right-populist movement that, in a little over the year, rose from the slimy pits of 4chan and stormed the White House?

 

THE ANTI-GLOBALISM OF FOOLS

Our present historical moment, in which the ideology of the alt-right takes its root, bears more than a passing resemblance to the world-crisis of the 1930s. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the prophets of neoliberalism promised that the ‘end of history’ was upon us, that the twin systems of liberal democracy and free-market capitalism would render national borders increasingly irrelevant, and bring rising incomes, falling inequality, and liberal tolerance to an interconnected planet. Perched atop institutions like the IMF, the World Bank and the Treasury Department, ruling elites of liberal and conservative persuasions alike promoted a ‘Washington Consensus’ of multinational trade deals like NAFTA, and pan-European institutions like the EU, that bolstered the profits of large corporations and the super-rich while hurting workers, gutting public services, and destroying communities around the world.

Like the 1930s, neoliberal capitalism has today triggered a worldwide financial crisis, throwing millions into poverty and dislocation. In countries across Europe, welfare protections have been scaled back, unemployment is high, unions have been undermined and millions are desperate for change. In America and across Europe, the centrist parties of neoliberalism are collapsing, while millions of refugees- the greatest number of stateless people since World War II- knock desperately at the gates of a West gripped by xenophobia and panic, the very West whose endless ‘war on terror’ has created the refugee crisis.

The eyes of the world watch transfixed as, from Brexit in Britain to Trump in America, Wilders in Denmark to Le Pen in France, a new wave of right-populist leaders emerges to offer a way forward for the frightened and fed-up peoples of Europe and America. Framed as a revolution against the ‘globalist agenda’ of neoliberalism, today’s neo-fascist leaders promise to re-establish strong, sovereign nation-states, rooted in blood and soil, cleansed of ‘foreign infiltrators’, driven by the conviction, as Steve Bannon said recently of the United States, that “we are not just an economy in some global marketplace with open borders, but a nation with a culture and a reason for being”. While liberals feel smothered by the paralyzing sense that history has careened off course, these ultranationalists feel, to quote Le Pen, that “what seemed impossible is now possible”, and that now is the time to declare, in the words of right-populist Russian intellectual Alexandr Dugin, “the 21st century has finally begun…swamp-drainers of the world, unite!”

But today, as in the 1930s, this ‘revolution from the right’ is no revolution at all. Economic nationalists like Trump and Bannon offer a hearty critique of ‘the globalist elite’ in theory, while building an administration that, in practice, plunges the country deeper into the ‘globalist agenda’ of privatization, tax cuts for the rich, Wall Street mega-speculation, and community disinvestment. For all his fiery populism, Bannon is a self-professed ‘hard-nosed capitalist’, a former Goldman Sachs executive who, as Jacobin puts it, “like every rich, right-wing asshole…plays GI Joe in public- or Julius Streicher, if the mood is right- before settling in with a nice bottle of Amarone in a climate-controlled beachfront property”. While Bannon blames the ‘globalists’ for the 2008 economic crisis that threw millions into poverty, he envisions, not a world free from the system of capitalism that ultimately caused the crisis, but a return to the 1980s, which he sees as  a long-lost golden age when ‘enlightened capitalism’ reigned free from government regulation, ruled by men with ‘Judeo-Christian values’ of family, faith and tradition.

Indeed, the ideology of antisemitism appealed so strongly to 20th-century ultra-capitalists like Henry Ford because, in the image of the Jew-as-banker, it singled out one aspect of capitalism- the system of international finance- for condemnation, while portraying other strongholds of exploitation- like large landowners, and the titans of big industry- as patriotic defenders of the national interest. As Postone explains, modern antisemitism- which, four decades before Hitler took power, was already called ‘the socialism of fools’ by worker’s movements in Europe- was a “particularly pernicious fetish form” because it tricked people into believing that, by uprooting the Jews from Europe, they were actually liberating themselves from capitalist exploitation. The “power and danger” of such meta-scapegoating, in any era of ultranationalism triggered by rapacious capitalism, is that it offers the mirage of a ““comprehensive worldview which explains and gives form to certain modes of anticapitalist discontent in a manner that leaves capitalism intact, by attacking the personifications of that social form.”

Like their fascist forebears, Bannon & co offer a ‘revolution from the right’ that repackages the emancipatory spirit of the left in diluted form, wrapping in the flag of family, faith, blood and soil what is, essentially, a colossal power grab by rich, white men. Just as Hitler’s ‘international Jew’ functioned, in fascist mythology, as a catch-all symbol of the million symptoms of modernity, so the ‘diaspora Jew’ of today’s alt-right condenses within itself all the symptoms of a postmodern, post-neoliberal world in tumult and transition- with a hint of anti-capitalism thrown in to sweeten the deal.

“Every rise of fascism,” wrote Walter Benjamin, “bears witness to a failed revolution”. The alt-right, bearing witness to the failed promises of neoliberalism, is able to strike two poses in history- the sneering hipster-cynicism of Milo Yiannoupolis, and the mythic hipster-fascism of Richard Spencer. Neither pose is actually emancipatory, by any stretch of the imagination. Yet unless the Left can articulate a truly emancipatory vision for a future beyond neoliberalism- and can build a movement that gets us there- the continued rise of neofascism, and the horrific forms it will take, will bear witness to our ‘failed revolution’, too.  

 

CONCLUSION

In this brief analysis, much has been left out, including the complex relationship between antisemitism and Islamophobia on the alt-right. Indeed, many anti-Muslim tropes today- such as the myth of a global Muslim conspiracy that has covertly infiltrated American society- are taken straight from the playbook of modern antisemitism. It also should not be forgotten that, although American Jews experience a new sense of vulnerability in Trump’s America, white Jews still enjoy a safety, privilege and comfort that most other minority groups in the crosshairs of the alt-right do not. Indeed, the white American Jewish community has been deeply complicit in the race and class privilege, the oppression of black and brown people, and the institutionalized Islamophobia that plagues this country.

These times are made even more strange and frightening, for the American Jewish community, by the fact that the state of Israel, far from serving as a progressive ‘light unto the nations’ or protecting Jews against antisemitism, stands in full support of Donald Trump and, increasingly, the forces of right-populism sweeping the world. Israel lends to the new fascism a valuable public relations tool, allowing leaders like Trump to deny charges of antisemitism, on the one hand, and to lend a ‘kosher’ stamp of approval to the ‘Judeo-Christian’ war against Islam, on the other. And while the institutional leaders of American Jewry lay awake at night, worrying about the latest campus plot to delegitimize Israel, the fastest-growing white supremacist movement America has seen in decades sets its sights, not on Israel, but squarely on American Jewry itself.

American Jews must take to the streets, alongside other marginalized groups, against the rising fascist menace in our country. Rather than seek the protection of kings, we must show up for all who are under attack, and trust that they will show up for us as well. In the long run, only this solidarity can save us. To our institutions that dwell close to positions of privilege and comfort, and remain complicit in white supremacy, we must say what the proud Mordecai, in the recent holiday of Purim, said to Queen Esther as she waited nervously in that same palace, unsure whether to use what influence she had over King Ahasuerus to try to protect the marginalized in his kingdom- “Do not think that you will escape [the fate of] all the Jews by being in the king’s palace. For if you will remain silent at this time, relief and salvation will come to the Jews from another source, and you and the house of your father will be lost. And who knows if it is not for just such a time that you reached this royal position!”

Seven decades ago, in conditions not terribly different from our own, my great-grandfather was making his home (thank g-d) in America, while in Europe, his parents and siblings, along with millions of other Jews, were labeled as Other, stripped of their rights, and murdered because some fascist managed to convince enough people that these strangers in their midst- this motley crew of impoverished peddlers, small craftsmen and traders, rabbis, factory workers, and a few intellectuals and businessmen- were somehow orchestrating a grand conspiracy to destroy their nation from within. Let us all do everything in our power to prevent this from happening again to any people.


*- Since the time of writing, it has become clear that many of the recent bomb threats to American Jewish community centers were not perpetrated by white supremacists. Still, I do not believe that this lets Trumpism off the hook, or that we can conclude with certainty, as Peter Beinart claims, that ‘Anti-Semitism isn’t central to this spasm of American nativism in the way it was a century ago.’  While we should not imagine that American Jews, as Jews, are the primary targets right now- and certainly, the white American Jewish community needs to show up, without exception, for Muslims, immigrants, and communities of color who are the primary targets (including within the Jewish community)- we should also recognize that in the long term, the future is uncertain. Anti-semitic ideas percolated for decades in Europe before Hitler seized upon them as an organizing principle, and the reappearance of these ideas as prominent features of a new and fast-growing ethnonationalist, populist movement in America should be taken seriously.

 

For American Jews, The Era of Trump Marks the End of the Zionist Dream

Originally published at +972Mag

For most American Jews, the regime of Donald Trump has ushered in the most profound and destabilizing existential crisis since the Holocaust. We watch in horror as President Trump launches a full-frontal assault on the institutions, and the very principles, of the liberal democracy upon which we have built our lives for generations. We stand aghast as his administration tramples the civil liberties of our Muslim, immigrant and refugee neighbors, and we brace ourselves as a potent anti-Semitism simmers at the edges of the alt-right movement that helped propel him to power.

American Jewish establishment and legacy institutions, which already possessed little relevance for many of us, seem ill-equipped to guide us through this new reality. And the state of Israel, far from standing with us against this fascist menace, appears to be egging it on. As we all weather the short-term shocks Trump inflicts upon the political and civic institutions of American life, the full reverberations of this longer-term shock have yet to be felt by American Jewry. In the future, the era of Trump will be remembered as the end of the Zionist dream.

The internal crisis the mainstream Jewish American community faces is far more profound than we are willing to admit. For almost a century, the tradition of democratic liberalism in America has provided the bulk of white Jews in the US with safety, prosperity, and a stable modern identity. Across the country, we have built a vibrant network of communal institutions, and poured our energies into strengthening the fabric of American civic, cultural and political life. After the Holocaust, the democratic values of religious and political freedom, and civic equality, were central to our orientation in a changing world. Today, though a growing portion of our community has moved to the right on political and social issues, a sizeable and disproportionate majority of American Jews retains liberal and progressive values.

Now, seemingly overnight, Trump’s attacks on the press, judicial institutions, human rights groups, and other organs of democracy threaten to erode the foundations of the world that has been comfortable for many of us. And our well-established, amply-resourced communal and legacy institutions, like the Jewish Federations, have raised barely a tepid voice of protest against this onslaught. They were unable to anticipate, comprehend, or combat the startling surge of far-right populism and neo-fascism in this country, and the unprecedented resurgence of anti-semitism brewing in its wake. Though they appear calm, our leaders, like most others in the country’s establishment political and civic landscape, tremble behind their doors.

And where is Israel to protect the Jews of America? Trump’s words and actions on International Holocaust Remembrance Day were a double affront to American Jewry. Not only did his administration’s statement fail to name the Jewish identity of the Holocaust’s primary victims, or the ideology of anti-Semitism that fueled their annihilation- on the very same day, he signed into law a Muslim ban chillingly reminiscent of America’s rejection of Jewish refugees that, in the 1930s, helped seal the fate of so many European Jews. Not only did Prime Minister Netanyahu fail to speak out against any of this- the next day, he praised Trump’s decision to build a border wall, with a bombastic Tweet meant to emulate the swagger of Trump himself.

After the Holocaust, Israel came to be seen by many Jews the world over as an insurance policy, sworn to defend us forevermore against the reappearance of fascism in world history. But seventy years later, the world is divided anew into ultra-nationalist statesmen and stateless refugees, into powerful tyrants and defiant rebels. While a few American Jews back Trump, most of us strive to stand against this tyrant of our time. But what the US Jewish community still has to confront is the reality that the government of Israel, along with a majority of its Jewish citizens, actively supports the Trump administration, which seems poised to legitimize Israel’s fever dreams of settlement expansion and annexation, and to crush any remaining hope of Palestinian statehood.

A few notable exceptions notwithstanding, most American Jewish Zionists, since the days of liberal leaders like Louis Brandeis and Stephen Wise, would place their Zionism squarely in the same tradition of American liberalism that has structured the rest of their lives. For years, these progressive Zionists have watched nervously as anti-democratic, illiberal forces have consumed the center of Israeli politics. Regardless of whether this idea of a progressive Zionism actually reflects the reality unfolding in Israel/Palestine- I would argue that it never has- the point is that, in order to remain morally consistent, American Jews must see their Israel as not only a Jewish state, but a democratic state as well. In the mainstream American Jewish imaginary, Zionism is akin to the civil rights movement of the Jewish people. It must offer the world, in the shape of Jewish liberation, a testament to the promise of universal human emancipation as well.

That’s why, as democratic norms have steadily eroded in Israel, American Jews have inwardly wrestled with an impossible contradiction. Over the years, more of us have chosen to speak out against Israel’s brutal occupation in the West Bank, its relentless bombardment of Palestinians in Gaza, its discriminatory two-tiered legal structure within its borders, and its denial of refugee rights. But the bulk of us have remained silent, because we were taught to trust that, somehow, Israel’s troubling actions were necessary to protect the safety of Jews around the world.

But when Israel backs a regime, here in America, that threatens our liberty as humans and our safety as Jews, the claim that Zionism protects Jews no longer holds. An Israel that cheers on Goliath, as it raises its hand against the Davids of our world, is an Israel that has become startlingly unrecognizable to us. While mainstream American Jewry could choose to ignore the spread of ultra-nationalism and xenophobia in the far-off ‘Jewish homeland’, when these same forces wash now upon our own shores, the familial resemblance, and active collaboration, between Trump and Netanyahu becomes impossible to ignore. We enter the new fascist era with communal institutions that are unable to speak truth to power, and with a Jewish state that stands among the forces arrayed against us, one whose attacks on political dissent and denial of basic rights to Palestinians serve as a disturbing roadmap to where the US may be headed. Though the bulk of liberal American Jewry has, up till now, remained silent, in the era of Trump, there grows in their gut a dizzying disorientation.

By the time the Trump nightmare finally crashes into flames- as all such nightmares eventually do- and these liberal American Jews get up, rub their eyes and look around, their gaze will turn in despondence towards Jerusalem. Where once stood their progressive Israel- their ‘light unto the nations’, symbol of the holy values of democracy and human freedom, spiritual rock of resistance against all tyranny and oppression- they will now face a state that, from their vantage point, looks no different than the monster they just helped chase out of their American homeland. The realization that, two generations after the Holocaust, the state of Israel allied itself with the forces of global fascism will be too much for liberal Zionism to bear.

As more and more American Jews face this reality, their sense of betrayal will be immense. As a community, our process of collective mourning and teshuvah (repentance) will be difficult. Our identity as American Jews, supported so long by the foundation-stone of liberal Zionism, will be in crisis. It will take some of our elders awhile to admit it- some never will- but in our hearts, we will know that a state that cheered on the tyrant that raised his hand against us can no longer be our Jewish state, indeed, can no longer be Jewish at all. With the Zionist dream dead, what Jewish vision will guide us into the future? How will we rebuild?

Over the next few years, the twin barbarisms of the Trump and Netanyahu regimes will continue to dovetail, and the rift between Israel and the bulk of American Jewry will continue to widen. While a few American Jews will cast their lot with Trump, Netanyahu and the rising global forces of fascism, hundreds of thousands more will overcome the inertia of our mainstream institutions, and take to the streets to defend our lives and communities against tyranny. Through this experience of struggle, American Jews will reconnect to the social movements from which, for too long, too many of us have been estranged. We will re-learn the muscles of tzedek (justice) and tikkun olam (healing the world) which, for too long, too many of us had failed to put to use.

The old dream of a liberal Zionism will not survive to carry us through the 21st century. But out of the fire of our reborn commitment to our principles, a new diaspora Jewish identity can be formed, founded on prophetic values of social justice, solidarity and love. We will again bear witness to ‘mi-melech malche ha-melachim’, to a ‘king who rules over kings’, a force of divine righteousness greater than earthly power. Let us cleave to this vision, and this work, without fear, with a clear head and a strong moral compass. It is our only hope.

 

 

In the US, we need a Muslim-Jewish alliance …

… but one that does not silence discussions on justice for Palestine.

by Ben Lorber and Taher Herzallah

Originally published in Al Jazeera

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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.

In The Age of Trump, Progressive Jews Can Learn From the 20th Century’s Radical Yiddish Tradition

(first published at In These Times)

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The official, textbook history of any nation or group of people, writes radical historian Howard Zinn in A People’s History of the United States, can be sure to conceal “the fierce conflicts of interests, sometimes exploding, often repressed, between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated. … In such a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people not to be on the side of the executioners.”

Acording to Zinn, it is the task of the radical historian not merely to recount the events of the past with the disinterested, depoliticized gaze of an “objective” academic. We need a history, rather, that lets the marginalized and oppressed voices of the past speak, that listens to these voices so as to distill new lessons, perspectives and imperatives urgently needed to face the political reality of the present.

Revolutionary Yiddishland: A History of Jewish Radicalism, written by Alain Brossat and Sylvie Klingberg, attempts to write such a subversive and relevant history. First published as Le Yiddishland révolutionnaire in 1983 and re-released this November in a first-ever English translation by Verso with new editorial notes, references and an introduction by the translator David Fernbach, the book deals with the generation of Jewish radicals in Eastern Europe who, in the first half of the 20th century, helped raise the banner of world revolution against the terrifying forces of capitalism and fascism. A haunting, inspiring and often tragic book, Revolutionary Yiddishland uses first-hand interviews, deep archival research and sharp analysis to bring to life a complex landscape of factory workers, partisans, poets, party leaders, refugees, ghetto fighters and movement intellectuals.

Released on the day of Donald Trump’s election, the book’s timing of could not be more appropriate. Today, we see clouds of fascism disturbingly analogous to those of a century ago darkening our own political landscape, driven by a toxic and too-familiar collusion of xenophobia and scapegoating, authoritarianism and far-right nationalism, liberal capitulation and corporate mega-profit.

The Radical Jews of Yiddishland

In the late 1800s, millions of Jews living across Eastern Europe left their rural villages, called shtetls, and sought work in the new industrial factories crowding cities like Minsk and Vilna. Before long, this Jewish proletariat birthed a militant trade union movement with messianic intensity. The largest of these mass organizations, the Algemeyner Yidisher Arbeter Bund, or the Jewish Workers Bund, sought to unite all Jewish workers into a socialist party that demanded, in a revitalized Yiddish tongue, equal civil rights and freedom from discrimination for Jews and all workers, an end to class oppression, and a new Russia founded upon democratic socialism and cultural and religious freedom.

As the book recounts, these radical Jews created a new, socialist Jewish culture that brought secular Yiddish theatre, literature, discussion groups, educational systems and other vibrant and democratic institutions to a Jewish world in upheaval. This is the beating heart of Yiddishland—a word which, for the authors, conjures at once the region of Eastern Europe, the Yiddish culture and radical spirit of the Jews who lived there, and the historical moment itself, the dynamic and terrifying 20th-century arc upon which their lives unfolded.

Revolutionary Yiddishland traces how, as the Russian Revolution overthrew the tsar and brought the Bolsheviks to power in 1917, many Yiddishland radicals helped drive the wave of revolutionary enthusiasm that swept Western and Eastern Europe. They helped build left parties, socialist governments and, in many cases, Jewish wings of these and other movements across the continent.

Meanwhile, the nationalist ideology of Zionism, popular among middle-class Jews in Western Europe, also began to make inroads in Yiddishland. The book unearths the passionate arguments between, on the one hand, those Jewish Communists and Bundists who insisted on staying and fighting as part of broad-based grassroots movements in Europe, and, on the other hand, those left-wing Zionists who struggled to fuse their aim of world revolution with their attraction toward a Jewish national home in Palestine.

Later, the book shows how, as fascism spread across Europe, the revolutionaries of Yiddishland fought falangists in 1930s Spain, formed self-defense militias in Nazi-occupied countries like France, organized underground networks of resistance in ghettos like Warsaw, and launched covert campaigns of sabotage and attack as partisans hiding deep behind enemy lines. Finally, we witness the utter liquidation of Yiddishland in the ovens, battlefields and mass graves of Nazi terror. We see its few survivors struggle, and often fail, to maintain their revolutionary spirit in a post-war world that was too quick to suppress and stigmatize the trauma of their destruction, and too eager to denounce their radicalism in the name of realism, or Zionism, or liberalism.

Though Yiddishland traces dense political trajectories across a broad historical arc, it is grounded in a fabric of human experience that makes these narratives anything but abstract. The authors, who in the 1980s conducted extensive interviews with survivors, offer vivid, intimate glimpses into the beating heart of a vanished world.

In the grueling sweat of the factory, we see young workers replace Torah and Talmud with the Communist Manifesto, and convince their religious parents to join them in the fight for a new Messiah. In the crowded working-class neighborhoods of Białystok, we see struggling Jewish families rejoice in the discovery of new literature and theatre that speaks to their own troubles and aspirations, in their own proud Yiddish tongue. On the frenzied streets of revolutionary Russia, we watch patrols of Jewish workers battle tsarist soldiers and chase spies away from meeting houses. On a Yom Kippur night in early 1940s Moscow, we listen as worried Jewish refugees from Poland huddle with their Russian Jewish comrades outside a synagogue, trading terrifying rumors of the ovens at Auschwitz, narrating heroic tales of resistance from the Warsaw Ghetto.

These stories, and so many others, jostle together in the crowded pages of Yiddishland, the faces of the protagonists gazing from the past asking us, if not to avenge their death, at least to remember their life. And Yiddishland does just that, in a stark, refreshing prose that does not glorify these fighters in any “cult of great Heroes,” or idealize them as larger-than-life martyrs.

Rather, the book portrays what it calls a “resistance of the shadows” made of ordinary people who, in extraordinary times, dedicate themselves “without hesitation” to a gritty, uncertain struggle to survive with dignity. The texture of their resistance is not romantic but brutal, often marked by “hunger and fear, missed encounters, tiresome tasks, boredom and greyness, pain and anguish.” And while Yiddishland tells a specifically Jewish story, it opens a first-hand window into the larger movements for political emancipation, working-class empowerment and resistance to fascism that made the 20th century so momentous, and terrifying, for the whole human race.

Why Study Yiddishland Today?

As the authors of Yiddishland detail, a vast, seemingly unbridgeable gulf separates the world of these radicals from our world today. Put simply, German fascism erased their existence from the face of the planet, and uprooted the language, customs, history, cuisine, institutions, religion and economic life of the world that they called home.

How does the Left as a whole view its own past today, ninety-nine years after the Russian Revolution helped usher in a near-century of powerful socialist, leftist, anti-imperialist and other movements that shook the planet? We view these movements mostly as anachronisms of a bygone era—flawed and failed, if well-intentioned and inspiring.

But we have yet to find new forms of resistance capable of challenging and dismantling a rapacious and rampant 21st century global capitalism. As the authors of Yiddishland make clear in their introduction, the larger Left today, like radical Jews, has yet to process and mourn the twists and turns of its recent history. We cannot help but look upon the passionate, almost messianic optimism of early-20th century radicals with a strange sense of dislocation and longing.

In the Jewish imagination today, the memory of the revolutionary Jews of Yiddishland is suppressed, or at most, consumed as a pale imitation. In its absence, the ideology and historiography of Zionism places the creation of Israel at the pinnacle of Jewish history, and portrays the millennia that Jews lived in diaspora, amongst the peoples of the world, as a cycle of permanent suffering, plagued by an eternal anti-Semitism.

In the hegemonic narrative shared and co-created, to some extent, by most Jewish communities in both America and Israel, the memory of the revolutionary Jew of Yiddishland is an image held dimly, and with warmth and pride. But, so the narrative continues, this history’s bitter lesson is that Yiddishland values of solidarity and revolution did not protect even these Jews from Hitler, and that only the Jewish state of Israel can provide the haven of safety, security and identity needed for Jews to exist in the world today.

Even most Jews on the radical left today scarcely remember the names of the radical Jews of Yiddishland. With mere traces of remembrance, we have yet to give them a proper burial, to learn what they yearn to teach us, to know exactly what we, today, have inherited or have yet to inherit from them. Meanwhile, the state of Israel’s 68-year old assault on Palestinian land and life continues at a dizzying rate, and American Jewish support for the Israeli regime continues to lure us onto the wrong side of history, like a collective nightmare from which our community cannot yet awaken.

A New Yiddishland?

It is highly fitting that Revolutionary Yiddishland appears today in English, just as a new radical Jewish movement is emerging here in America, the largest global Jewish population center since Yiddishland itself (slightly edging out Israel by some estimates). Today, more American Jews than ever are joining and building movements against Israel’s occupation and apartheid. Meanwhile, across a thousand spheres of Jewish communal life, progressive movements are forming which seek to hold our many institutions and leaders accountable to the racial and economic justice struggles around and within which we as Jews live. In my work as Campus Coordinator with Jewish Voice for Peace, a national organization inspired by Jewish tradition to stand for justice in Palestine and against all forms of racism, I see this new Jewish identity being built by student activists on college campuses every day.

One hundred years later, with the state of Israel and its right-wing allies in the U.S. finding clear common ground with Donald Trump and neofascist forces worldwide, little has changed since the radicals of Yiddishland organized against capitalists and fascist collaborators in their own community, and denounced Zionism as a bourgeoisie, nationalist movement that allied itself with imperial interests and ruling elites, and cared little for the real struggles of poor and oppressed Jews and non-Jews around the world.

But if this burgeoning movement may be symbolically called here a “new Yiddishland,” it must be stated that this new movement is hardly Yiddish. In a porous, multicultural America, while many Jewish radicals trace their roots to the shtetl, many others inherit traditions from the many non-European Jewish communities of the Middle East, North Africa, Asia and elsewhere, and from non-Jewish ancestors as well. There are other important differences between past and present: While the radical Jewish identity of Yiddishland was forged in direct struggle against class exploitation and violent anti-Semitism, many, though certainly not all, American Jews today benefit from some degree of race and/or class privilege. While yesterday’s Jewish radicals were staunch atheists, today many of us embrace prayer, ritual and spiritual identity infused with, and inseparable from, our radical politics and lives.

It is also appropriate that Revolutionary Yiddishland appears today as a resource for the Left as a whole. As neoliberal capitalism maintains its destructive grip and delivers misery to most inhabitants on the planet, the Left faces a terrifying fascist threat unseen since the era of Yiddishland, with the rapid embrace of far-right politics engulfing Europe and culminating, last week, with the startling seizure by Donald Trump of the most powerful political position in the world. As we combat mounting attacks on Muslim and Arab communities, black folks, immigrants, Jews, women, LGBTQ folks and more, we have much to learn from the boundless optimism, the fearless advances and the terrifying retreats of those who struggled before.

We need to draw hope from this previous generation of radicals who believed, against all odds, that a new sun was dawning in the sky of history. Revolutionary Yiddishland lets this generation speak, and helps us to listen. Through this radical act of remembrance—and through continuing, in our own time, the struggles they were not able to see to victory—we inherit their fight, we redeem their loss, we ensure their death was not in vain. And we relearn, in a new way, that vital lesson expressed in a saying of the ancient rabbis: “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.”