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.

 

Who is a good person?

When I saw this cheesy meme appear on my Facebook news feed the other day, it got me thinking about the nature of this ‘goodness of people’. What compels a person to perform a Good act? What makes someone a Good Person? Is it because there exists some fundamental, irreducible ethical impulse that throbs in our hearts whenever we see an injustice and feel moved to rectify it? Is there some primordial force of moral Goodness within us, that manifests in the world whenever we perform a Good Deed?

I don’t know. And when I ask this question, I’m not sure whose answer I trust more- the reasoned formulation of an ethical philosopher like Emmanuel Levinas, or the straightforward, commonsense proclamation of a 6 year old. But regardless, what interests me about this meme is that it cares little for this holy moral spark that supposedly exists in the heart. It concerns itself, instead, with the socially constructed ideal of the Good Person.

None of us are saints. Our days are passed, mostly, in the pursuit of tasks that our self-interest places before us. Most of the time we try to get by in the world, while doing the least harm possible.

Nonetheless, in some moments, we are compelled by circumstances to do a Good Deed. In these moments we try, as the meme says, to ‘be the reason someone believes in the goodness of people’. We try to be a Good Person- that is, we strike the pose, we perform the image of the Good Person before the gaze of the Other.

In public, we do good deeds so that others may believe, not only that the Good Person exists, but that we, in fact, are one of these Good People. And even in an anonymous Good Deed, we strive inwardly to embody, before our own gaze, the ideal of the Good Person we wish to become.

In this roundabout way, the human race presents and re-presents to and for itself, through the generations, the image of the Good. Each of us strikes a pose of Goodness designed to convince the mass of others, and ourselves, that the Good has not vanished from the world, that we, in this moment of the Good Deed, are the embodied ideal of the Good Person.

None of us are saints. Really, we are all flawed, partial beings- we cannot claim that, in all or even most of our moments, we walk the earth with none but the Good on our minds.  But like the whispered rumor of an impending Messiah, that, passed from person to person, keeps religious faith alive through the generations, so do human beings strike the pose of the Good, so that another may ‘believe in the goodness of people’- so that the image of the Good may not vanish from this world.

The ideal of the Good reveals itself in us in those brief moments- or rather, our actions gesture towards it. In this way the Good, the ethical principle, flits about the human world. It does not exist in and for itself, but rather it is reflected, like a play of mirrors, between humans through gesture, word and deed. We speak of it when we lie down and when we arise; we bear witness to it, together. Like a spark between stones, it appears when our action, driven by our will, strikes the hard surface of given reality. It is that self-evident sensation of justice and righteousness which, when it appears, needs no explanation, though from our different perspectives, each of us offers no shortage of conflicting and competing interpretations as to the shape and form it takes in any given moment, choice or deed.

But if the Good is socially constructed in this way, we must then ask- where did this image of the Good originate? Who started the rumor that the Good Person exists? Who implanted the idea of the Good in our hearts? This is Kant’s argument for the existence of God- humans, he said, have manifest access to only partial, incomplete, relative truths in this world. Nonetheless, we find, in our heads, the idea of an absolute, transcendent truth.  From where did we get this idea? Surely not from the partial fragments of this world! This ideal of absolute truth must have been gifted to us from a transcendent source that lingers beyond our perception, a hidden source that we, gesturing blindly, call God.

Who is a Good Person? One who is convinced that the belief in the existence of the Good must not vanish from this world, one who, therefore, resolves time and again to strike a pose.

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.

 

 

Lighting the Candles

When Rabbi Schmelke and Rabbi Phinaes came to the Mezeritzer Maggid, they were already great students of the Torah, but they gave little attention to the study of ethics. The Mezeritzer convinced them of the importance of devoting adequate time to these studies as well. After they had left him, the Maggid turned to his Disciples, and said:

“I found a house full of candles that were unlit. I have kindled them, and the house is filled with light.”

  • Hasidic Anthology, ‘Moral Instruction’

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.

‘And You Are Faithful to Resuscitate the Dead’- Towards a Torah of Radical Remembrance

“And You are faithful to resuscitate the dead. Blessed are You, Hashem, Who resuscitates the dead.”

                 – from ‘Gevurot’, ‘God’s Strength’, a daily Jewish prayer

“The class struggle, which is always present to a historian influenced by Marx, is a fight for the crude and material things without which no refined and spiritual things could exist. Nevertheless, it is not in the form of the spoils which fall to the victor that the latter make their presence felt in the class struggle. They manifest themselves in this struggle as courage, humor, cunning and fortitude. They have retroactive force and will constantly call into question every victory, past and present, of the rulers. As flowers turn toward the sun, by dint of a secret heliotropism the past strives to turn toward that sun which is rising in the sky of history. The historical materialist must be aware of this most inconspicuous of all transformations.”

                 – Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’

For modern secular Jews, the ‘resuscitation of the dead’ can be one of the more alienating aspects of our tradition. Techiat HaMeitim, codified as one of the 13 foundational principles of Judaism by Maimonides in the 12th century, dictates that when Moshiach (Messiah) returns and redeems the world, the bodies and souls of the faithful will be resurrected to live again in a perfected world, this world, a world which will be at once fully ‘earthly’, and fully ‘divine’. Most of the time, I see Reform or Reconstructionist prayer books change this daily prayer from ‘blessed are you, Hashem, who resuscitates the dead’ to something like ‘blessed are you, Hashem, who gives life to all that lives’. Says the Enlightened Jew to himself- ‘of course, my dead body will not rise, fully intact, from my grave one day when a Messiah comes, and walk upon the earth again for all eternity, as the rabbis promised’. So we discard this notion completely, and regard the resuscitation of the dead as a quaint, magical notion, ill-suited to the rational world of today.

I would like to resuscitate this dead notion of the resuscitation of the dead, through a Marxist lens. I think, in discarding it completely, we are losing one of the most compelling aspects of our tradition. I would like to reinterpret it as referring, not to the literal reawakening of the human body, but to a way of relating to memory, animated by a passionate fidelity to the living past. Moreover, the memory in question is inherently radical and revolutionary. According to Rabbinic tradition, the resuscitation of the dead will occur only once the Messiah has come- and the Messiah comes to end all wars and oppression, and usher in an era of tranquility and peace upon the earth. It is no coincidence that, for the rabbis, the dead will awaken when the earthly bonds of oppression are shattered.

In 1940, the German Jewish philosopher and Marxist cultural critic Walter Benjamin wrote his ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ as he was trying to escape Nazi-occupied France. He committed suicide one stormy night on the border, unwilling to be delivered by the French to the Germans. Fellow theorist and German Jew Hannah Arendt managed to smuggle his ‘Theses’ on scraps of paper out of Europe, and to publish it as his last work.

Benjamin’s ‘Theses’ are suffused with a Jewish spirit of radical remembrance, a quality that Benjamin himself, within the 18 Theses and in his larger life’s work, makes no effort to hide. For Benjamin, the Marxist historian is commanded to remember the struggling, oppressed peoples of the past, and to continue their struggle in the present. Echoing Howard Zinn, the ‘official’, textbook history of the past is most often the history of the victors, the gilded, hegemonic narrative crafted by the rulers of society, the story that fits their interests, portrays their rule as benevolent, inevitable, natural and divine. And why would we expect any different? Today, those with the power and resources write the textbooks and control the narrative; yesterday, the kings had the scribes, the rich had the parchment. Everyone else- the 99% of past and present, the overwhelming majority of the human race- could not as easily transmit their stories and histories to future generations. Of course, the historical memory of any suffering people is long- in rituals, in customs, in stories, in rich oral traditions, cultural memory is preserved and transmitted by all oppressed peoples as a means of survival. But this memory rarely builds monuments to itself; it is rarely recorded diligently, in great detail, and guarded closely in the king’s palace. It is not broadcast to millions of living rooms on the nightly news; the state produces textbooks glorifying its leaders, not exposing their barbarism.

It is the task of the radical historian to tear away the textbook ‘bourgeois’ version of history, and to listen, underneath, for the narrative and perspective of the oppressed. From this perspective, it is clear, writes Benjamin, that “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” To uncover the history of the oppressed is to learn that they lived, suffered, and died under oppression, and to realize that their struggle against that oppression, in their lifetime, was not completed. This memory is a work of mourning, a realization that the textbook version of history is dripping with blood, and that the suffering of the oppressed has not yet been avenged. And because “all rulers are the heirs of those who conquered before them”, the radical historian realizes that yesterday’s king left the seat warm for today’s president; today’s America is the Roman Empire reincarnate; we confront the very same oppressor our ancestors faced.

When we uncover this hidden truth of the past, we clarify the past, we bring it from a place of obscurity, hiddenness and falsehood- for example, ‘Israel was a land without a people for a people without a land, and the Israel/Palestine conflict is caused by antisemitism’- into a light of truth- ‘actually, Zionists drove the Palestinians off of their land, and that has caused the conflict today’. This clarifies, not only the past, but the present as well. Growing up, we are taught that the suffering of our situation is ‘natural’, or inexplicable, arbitrary and beyond our control; later, we realize this is actually the oppressor’s narrative, and that systemic inequality, not blind chance, structures our world through a series of traceable processes, in the past, that create and condition our suffering in the present.

In his ‘Arcades Project’, Benjamin describes this illuminating, clarifying power of radical memory as a form of awakening, as the ‘dialectical, Copernican turn of remembrance’. It is an awakening, because once we awaken to the root causes of our situation, we realize, like Neo leaving the Matrix, how asleep we once had been. “The tradition of all dead generations”, writes Marx, “weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” As long as oppressive structures are not overthrown, humanity remains in a kind of sleep, in an incomplete process of shrugging off the yoke of the past, of overcoming systemic inequities that are outmoded, reactionary, that prevent humanity from achieving its full potential. The existence of Donald Trump as president mocks us, like a sick joke, a rotting remnant of a capitalist world-system on life support, surviving only through the worst crisis-ridden speculations of finance capital, a nightmare which should have died long ago.

Just as our ancestors were unable to vanquish the enemy, it is by no means guaranteed that their stories of struggle, and our own, will be remembered. “In every era,” writes Benjamin, “the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism which is about to overpower it”. In every era, the ‘truth’ of the past threatens to be forgotten. The false version of events, told by the oppressor, is largely accepted as fact; the stories of the oppressed threaten to be buried under the weight of this oppression, to slip permanently from our collective memory. It is incumbent upon us to attempt, over and over again, to re-awaken and clarify subterranean history, to overcome the gravity of forgetting, to do continuous, circuitous and always-novel battle, with pen and sword, against the persistent effort of the rulers to maintain hegemony, to restore illusory narratives, to destroy radically subversive institutions of cultural memory.

“And you are faithful to resuscitate the dead”. With this plea, the rabbis begged God not to forget, but to fulfill, the tradition of the oppressed. Though we oppressed Jews may die today, they said, God will not forget our suffering, as He will not forget those who came before; one day, the Messiah will come, this earth will know peace, and we all will dwell anew and free in this kingdom of peace. This is not a heaven or afterlife, occurring on some other plane or dimension- our bodies are restored on earth, the promised kingdom is created politically, here, as a harmonious human society, at once earthly and divine but in the flesh, immanent, interpersonal, within our grasp.

In the future messianic kingdom, according to rabbinic tradition, all the faithful, oppressed Jews who have existed across all moments of history will be resurrected; they will dwell together, in harmony, in the land of peace towards which, in the suffering of their former lives, their prayers had always turned. Says Chabad.org– “In this dark and imperfect world, we cannot yet behold and enjoy the fruits of our labor. But in the Era of Moshiach, the accumulated attainments of all generations of history will reach their ultimate perfection. And since ‘G‑d does not deprive any creature of its due’, all elements that have been involved in realizing His purpose in creation will be reunited to perceive and experience the perfect world that their combined effort has achieved.” In the same way, the Marxist historian believes that in the future, all the oppressed of the past will be remembered; the enemy that oppressed them will be finally vanquished; the world for which they struggled will come to fruition; they will be redeemed. The spirit dwelling behind both these Messianic visions is the same.

“The Era of Moshiach is not a supernatural world; it is the very same world we know today–without the corruptions of human nature. Man will have conquered his selfishness and prejudices; a harmonious world community will devote its energies and resources for the common good and the quest for continued growth in wisdom and perfection. In short, the Era of Moshiach represents man’s attainment of the peak of his natural potential.”

Neither the radical historian nor the religious Jew prays for the liberatory force of history, or for God, merely to ‘remember’ the dead, but to bring the dead back to life. The latter is much more radical. It is not that in the promised stateless classless society, the great, definitive history book will finally be written, and all oppressed narratives of the past will be remembered fully, in a grand apotheosis of knowledge- this fantasy of pure knowledge, of total accuracy in and for itself, is in fact closer to the bourgeois fantasy of total history. Rather, it is that the better world, for which our oppressed ancestors struggled, will finally come to fruition; their vision will be actualized; their arrow will reach its target; their oppressors will have not won. Freedom, which for them was only partial, a distant, longed-for vision, becomes actual, confirming their faith in its inevitability. By avenging their oppression, by vanquishing their oppressor, we bring to fruition that which, for them, slumbered in potentiality. Their struggle was not for naught- just as the end of a sentence bestows meaning upon its beginning, the meaning of their struggle is retroactively confirmed, made apparent, vindicated by our success in the present. They are brought back to life in victory, and their death- that is, their defeat by the oppressor- was in fact a falsehood.

When we struggle, in the present, we struggle also for the past; we fight for those before us, who were vanquished, who pray now, from beyond the grave, for our success. We bring with us their hope, it animates and sustains us. We avenge their deaths and we redeem their lives. So in the present, we pray for them to give us strength; we pray for the spirit of resistance that animated their bones, to animate ours as well; we pray that the liberatory spirit of God which guided their hands, will guide ours to victory. We have faith that their struggle was not in vain- that the movement of history towards justice ‘is faithful to resuscitate the dead’.

‘You will resuscitate the dead’- for the religious Jew or radical historian who mutters these words, the memory is turned toward the past, but the promise is futural. Suspended in this dislocated temporality, the religious Jew is comforted by the promise, not just that yesterday’s dead will be revived, but that we too, one day in the future, will be revived as well. Similarly, when we remember the struggles of oppressed peoples in the past, we know that they expected this of us; we ourselves pray that one day, some future radical will remember our struggle. The torch of struggle is passed between the generations, casting a glow into past and future with a flame that scintillates within this imperfect world, and gestures beyond, toward the half-glimpsed promise of the world’s perfection.

‘And You are faithful to resuscitate the dead’- may we merit, in our own day, to see humanity awaken from its sleep, unshackle the cords of oppression, and complete the process of liberation that animated our ancestors in struggle, and animates us today.

angelus-novus-paul-klee

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.”