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.



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).



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.”



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?



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.  



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.


Looking Back At New Jewish Agenda: An Interview with Ezra Berkley Nepon


From an article published by Jewish Currents

Ezra Berkley Nepon’s book, Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue: A History of New Jewish Agenda, published in May by Thread Makes Blanket Press, is the first serious attempt to document the history of this progressive Jewish organization of the 1980s and to weigh its accomplishments and shortcomings. NJA was a multi-issue, national membership organization with local chapters in many cities. It worked for a dozen years to advocate for Middle East peace, nuclear disarmament, rights for lesbian and gay Jews, economic and social justice, peace in Latin America, an end to South African apartheid, Jewish feminism, and a variety of other issues in a climate of increasing Reagan-era neoliberalism and Cold War conservatism. Twenty years after the organization’s official dissolution, Nepon seeks to draw inspiration from Agenda’s dedication to what the book describes as “participatory (grassroots) democracy and civil rights for all people, especially those marginalized within the mainstream Jewish community.”

Nepon is a writer, performer and political organizer who was featured in the 2006 documentary filmYoung, Jewish and Left. Nepon has written about gender identity, Jewish identity, and queer culture for Zeek and Tikkun, and has co-created and performed in the annual Purimspiels organized since 2004 by Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring, and the Great Small Works puppet troupe.

Ben Lorber is a Jewish activist in Tucson, Arizona and a journalist who worked with the Israeli-Palestinian Alternative Information Center in Jerusalem. His articles have appeared in The Abolitionist, Common Dreams, The Palestine Chronicle, Links, Green Left Weekly, The Earth First Journal, and many other outlets. Currently he works with the migrant justice organization, No More Deaths, delivering food, water, and medical aid to migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona’s Sonora Desert, and advocating on behalf of undocumented immigrants.

Ben Lorber: This summer you took your book on tour. What was it like to see former New Jewish Agenda activists and the next generation of Jewish radicals reflecting together on the past, present and future of progressive Jewish organizing in America?

Ezra Berkley Nepon: It was spectacular. For the most part we would have a great group of NJA veterans and a room full of younger activists. Sometimes there were also people who came from the same generation of Agenda activists but hadn’t been part of the organization, so there was more than one dynamic — but there was consistently this exchange happening between Agenda activists and a younger generation, which was very interesting and moving to witness.

In the book, I focused on the organization at the national level, because I was trying to give an abbreviated version of a very long and complex history. The book tour events gave us all a chance to learn the juicy local organizing stories. People shared what on-the-ground organizing for Agenda looked like, with specific details about local issues and the flavor of each community.

BL: In your introduction to Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue, you write that in 2003 you were reading “all the Jewish feminist writing I could get my hands on, and references to NJA kept showing up,” which led you to be “curious about this organization that so many profound movement builders, writers and thinkers had been part of.” But when you went “looking for a book or good long article to learn more,” you found “a strange lack of record.” How do you explain this amnesia that the present Jewish progressive movement displays towards its past?

EBN: I’m in my mid-30s, and I find people of my age to be hungry for stories of people who have done really radical work, yet I’ve met very few  who have heard of Agenda — and that’s just very strange, because it was an influential element in Jewish Left history. One explanation is that NJA was so exhausting for people, especially at the end, because of the rigors of having direct democracy on a national scale, with international allies, but without e-mail, without easy conference-calling, without Skype — people, I think, were drained when the organization ended and were happy to move on to other things. In the ensuing years, Agenda didn’t get talked about that much because people kept doing and thinking about their new work.

But people’s eyes light up as they learn about Agenda, and it has been very powerful to create a space for activists from Agenda to witness the joy that younger people have in learning about their work. We have enthusiasm for critically engaging the details of Agenda platforms and the dynamics of its democratic process. People are excited to think about the theoretical questions Agenda was immersed in: multi- vs. single-issue organizing, the place of identity within organizing, the diversity of tactics,the intersection of issues, etc.

BL: One of the defining things about Agenda was its success as a multi-issue organization. When it closed up shop in 1992, it was replaced by a multitude of single-issue organizations, some of which formed in its wake, others of which were offshoots organized during its existence. One point you bring up is that today there is no unifying force such as Agenda to articulate and coordinate a mass progressive movement among American Jews.

EBN: Many single-issue organizations came out of Agenda, and some were led by leaders of Agenda, but the multi-issue model has been somewhat lost, especially that model of nationwide, membership-based, grassroots organizing. NJA helped a lot of different groups join each other’s struggles. It can be very valuable to have an organizational context through which Jewish groups can stand with other left groups and say, “We are in solidarity with what you are doing,” and to stand together in common resistance against oppression — and to promote that kind of visibility on the left for radical Jewish organizing. Agenda made that possible. Many of the qualities Agenda was known for could today inform the way we build organizations and the way our organizations can align with each other.

At our Baltimore event, at Red Emma’s Bookstore and Coffeehouse, former NJA members related that their organizational model was, “Every issue is a Jewish issue!” Definitely, I want to talk to other people who think that way! I want to talk about how our feminist politics and our Middle East politics relate to each other. I want a space where intergenerational Jewish activists can learn and work together. I want to work on Israel/Palestine, but I also want a broader range of Jewish issues. I want our ethics and our politics to intersect with all our work. There’s a conversation to have about whether the current political moment could support an organization like Agenda — and if not, what options do we have for at least bringing some of those qualities to the work we do now.

BL: Today’s political moment, in many ways, does remind me of the one in which Agenda took root. Two months before the NJA Founding Convention, Ronald Reagan was elected president, ushering in an era that would become known, as you write in Justice, Justice,  “for brutally cutting resources for the U.S.’s poor and low-income, breaking unions,” and concentrating “wealth in what we now call the ‘1%’; for supporting military terror in Central America, the Middle East, Argentina, Grenada, and around the globe; for the Iran-Contra scandal and the Savings and Loans crisis; for an obsessive battle against Communism; and for staying silent as the AIDS pandemic swept the nation and the world.” Since then, the failure of the Oslo Accords, the violence of the second Intifada and Operation Cast Lead, have increased the disillusionment many American Jews feel towards Israel; wealth has become further concentrated; and a neo-imperialist global war on terror has pushed the American political climate further right.

EBN: And we have plenty of organizations to say, “As Jews, we oppose this,” or “As Jews, we stand in solidarity with this” — but I would like to see the different pieces of our Jewish work for justice brought together through dialogue, so we can build wisdom. It’s a Midrashic version of activism, in which different kinds of Jewish work add complexity and nuance to each other.

There’s this story about a khasid who’s lost walking in the forest, and he’s saying to God, “Oh, it’s been days, I’ve been lost for too long, I don’t know if it’s shabes. I want to say the shabes prayers, but I’m so hungry and thirsty and out of my mind, I don’t even remember them. I’ll tell you what, God. I’ll say the alef-beys, and you, in your wisdom, can put the letters together.” I love that story so much: It’s like, we have all the pieces, and our work would be really enhanced by having more opportunities to talk about how those pieces fit together.

BL: In one of the afterwords to your book, Daniel Rozsa Lang/Levitsky speaks of the complicated question of Israel and Zionism in NJA. Agenda broke huge ground within the Jewish mainstream by getting a resolution for a West Bank settlement freeze brought up in the General Assembly of the Council of Federations in 1983, even though the proposal was tabled. And Agenda succeeded in balancing the work of the Middle East Task Force with the work of many other sub-committees devoted to other local and national issues.

EBN: It was a huge balancing act for Agenda, and I argue that they were successful in important ways. Agenda people had to work really hard to get their voices into the mainstream and not to be isolated by their Israel politics. They did that through committed, on-the-ground organizing in their local chapters, and by making opportunities for people who shared their politics —and even those who didn’t — to join in. In our session in Seattle, someone recalled the time in 1985 when Reagan laid a wreath at the Bitburg Military Cemetery in West Germany, which included the graves of members of the SS. The Seattle NJA chapter organized a protest about that, which attracted people who did not have the same politics about Israel but still connected with Agenda about this outrageous thing that Reagan was doing!
Agenda also had activists who were very involved in Jewish communal life and knew people who were “insiders” within the Jewish mainstream. The organization didn’t simply walk around outside the Federation with a sign saying “We’re against settlements” — they created an opportunity to present it to the Federations by finding allies inside. A group pushing hard from the left allows some that are closer to the center to make changes. Part of Agenda’s legacy is found in the changes that other people were able to make because of Agenda’s advocacy.

BL: Still, the Jewish Federation is unabashedly supportive of Israel’s policies, is extensively connected to America’s corporate-political establishment, and represents middle-class and upper-class Jews, marginalizing the voices of queer Jews, Jews of color, and working-class Jews.

EBN: Many things haven’t changed that much ­— but some have! I keep seeing reports of how few women are in leadership in the biggest Jewish organizations. It’s like, “What year is this?” It’s not as if there’s a shortage of amazing and capable Jewish women to be in leadership roles! On the other hand, in the course of my research, I’ve come to realize how many more opportunities I have as a queer Jew today, opportunities that were created by NJA’s generation. Many of the people pushing for those changes built analyses and gained influence together in Agenda — like Avi Rose and Christie Balka, who were national NJA co-chairs together and co-authored Twice Blessed: On Being Lesbian, Gay and Jewish, which was a groundbreaking publication in 1989.

BL: You end your book by saying that “the new Occupy Judaism movement, and the Occupy movement as a whole, have reinvigorated strategies of mass mobilization and direct action that challenge the trend of professionalization in social-change work, and bring new voices from the margin to the people’s mic every day.” What do you think Occupy Judaism takes from the legacy of Agenda?

EBN: One of the primary positives of the Occupy movement is creating big gathering spaces for people to come together in person and figure out what they want to do together. Agenda did not have social media, and people had to be together physically in a way that built culture, built community, and provided opportunities for synchronicity and spontaneous inspiration. That provides for the kind of relationship building that allows you to go through something hard with somebody and still want to talk to them: You actually know each other, and have actually seen each other grow and change over the course of days or weeks or years.
Another very powerful aspect of Occupy Judaism is the commitment to direct action, including the street-theater element — enacting spiritual ritual in the midst of public space. All the holidays that were celebrated during Occupy Judaism were mobilizing and inspirational, and that was a crucial New Jewish Agenda tactic, to bring Jewish life out into the streets, into public parks, into alignment with protest movements, and to put politics and culture together. It sets a great example for Jews on the left to say, “We are here as Jews in solidarity, we are going to have a public ritual to say why we are here as Jews, we’re going to talk about how Jewish culture has brought us here and about what Jewish culture says about this issue.” That’s what New Jewish Agenda did.

BL: NJA also allowed progressive Jews to ally themselves, as a unified bloc, with social justice movements in the larger community. As we speak, I am sitting in the office of No More Deaths, a humanitarian aid and advocacy organization that fights for migrant rights along the U.S.-Mexico border. No More Deaths grew out of the Sanctuary movement, which counted New Jewish Agenda as a powerful ally.

EBN: The Sanctuary movement started with churches providing sanctuary for refugees fleeing the dictatorships in Latin America, and NJA linked up early on to bring Sanctuary into synagogues. Agenda sent out packets with information on the sanctuary issue to over two thousand synagogues, and many congregations got involved.

This legacy of working with allies continues today. One example is Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ), which over the last decade has allied with the Domestic Workers Union (DWU) to fight for a domestic workers’ bill of rights and advocate for economic justice for domestic workers. JFREJ went to synagogues and did education, reached out to Jewish legislators and community members — many of whom employ domestic workers for childcare and elder care — to raise awareness on issues of fair pay, sick days and other rights.

BL: There are many times throughout its history that Agenda experienced what you describe as “growing pains” — instances when local and national task forces came face-to-face with manifestations of white privilege, racism, and homophobia within the organization. You relate how the Feminist Task Force (FTF), for example, sought in 1985 to convene meetings among African-American, Arab and Jewish women in New York to address the contentious “Zionism equals racism” equation that surfaced at the UN Decade for Women Forum in Copenhagen. FTF received a challenging letter from Carol Haddad of the Feminist Arab Network, identifying the problematic power imbalances inherent in the proposal for meetings, and pointing to the need for FTF members to examine their own white privilege and racism. Your book also brings up the lingering homophobia within NJA that challenged queer Jewish organizers in the mid-1980s, as well as NJA’s last official conference in 1991, which, as you wrote, “received significant criticism, especially for a lack of representation of Jews of color, reinforcing a false dichotomy between white Jews and African, Latino/a or Arab peoples.” How did Agenda deal with these problems within its own organization, and what can we learn from that today?

EBN: Everything that exists in the larger world also exists in activist organizations, and a lot of the time the exact dynamics we are trying to fix in the world show up in our organizations. This is part of what happens when people are building new awareness about the ways that privilege works in a community: people who are able-bodied and can’t imagine otherwise, or men who aren’t aware of all the sexism that’s happening, or white Jews who think all Jews are European. NJA functioned as a space where people could find each other, build power, and make demands. All the conversations and confrontations about the organization’s platforms, over the years, served as a space for analysis to happen, for people to show up and say, “We need to have a position about Jews of color, we need to have a position about economic privilege in the Jewish world.” That’s why that letter from Carol Haddad is so powerful: somebody taking the time to write a letter like that is offering a gift! It’s upsetting to learn that you’ve contributed to someone else’s marginalization, of course, but when people speak up about dynamics that need to change, that’s how we transform.

BL: If there’s one central legacy that NJA can leave to a new generation of progressive Jewish activists, what does that legacy look like?

EBN: As the keynote speaker at one of Agenda’s national conferences, Adrienne Rich asked, “If not with others, how?” Having all of our politics in the same room matters, having a space to show all the facets of ourselves matters. Being able to say “I’m Jewish and queer,” “I’m Jewish and feminist,” “I’m Jewish and working-class,” “I’m Jewish and wealthy,” matters. The ability to create that wholeness inside oneself and together in a room — that matters.

At our Seattle event, one veteran of Agenda  said that “the wins were momentary wins, and the challenges were ongoing — we were always in debt, we were always overwhelmed by the problems of democracy on a large scale.” Why, given that, did the organization last for a dozen years? The thing that was consistent, from chapter to chapter, was that people were in community with each other. They were doing life-cycle events, they were doing holidays with each other, their kids were friends with each other, they were partnering romantically and creatively —  people were in community together. That enabled them for a dozen years to handle the other things that were ongoing, and that was what weathered the storm.

Readers can learn more about New Jewish Agenda and its legacy at www.newjewishagenda.net, where Ezra Berkley Nepon’s book can be purchased.