Blog post

Jewish Currents Goes Back to Brunch: On Antisemitism and Left Strategy

When the Jewish left targets antisemitism it is an act of solidarity, not solipsism. 

Benjamin Balthaser12 April 2021

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

Shortly after the execution of the Rosenbergs one of the rising stars among the New York Intellectuals offered a strange defense of their murder in Commentary, the then-liberal magazine of the American Jewish Committee (AJC.) The Rosenbergs, Robert Warshow argued, weren’t victims of antisemitism, because they weren’t really Jews – in fact, they weren’t victims of anticommunism, because weren’t really even Communists in a moral sense of the term: they were merely the “spiritless echoes” of liberal cliches that they first thought they lived for, then thought they died for.

It’s a cruel essay, even if some of the criticism is not entirely false: after all, the Rosenbergs were not smart writers like Warshow, they were cafeteria Commies from the Lower East Side, and many of their ideas were, indeed “clichés,” even performatively so: “nothing really belonged to them, not even their own experience.” But one has to ask: after perhaps the most antisemitic trial in American history, it is the Rosenberg’s cliches that troubled Warshow? Given that the Rosenbergs were not tried specifically as Jews, how can we say it was antisemitism, he responded. Even in death, Warshow argued, we must have literary standards.

The editors of Jewish Currents–now the most prominent magazine on the Jewish left–appear to be in a similar mood. For the latest issue they penned a collective editorial entitled How Not to Fight Antisemitism and seem peeved that the Jewish left, since the Unite the Right Rally (2017) and Tree of Life massacre (2018), have decided to focus their energies on combatting antisemitism. They cite the by-now standard critique of the “tropeification” of antisemitism discourse, as in recent years Zionists have framed everything from Ilhan Omar’s use of the word “hypnotize” to her use of Yiddish as antisemitic based on metonymy and allusion, regardless of context or intent.

But in this case, Zionists are not the Currents’ target. In a move made often in our fine-people-on-both-sides world, they say, the left does it too: in fact, that is where they begin their piece. First in their sights is a progressive Jewish coalition, Jews Against White Nationalism (JAWN), an organization specifically created to target and expose the far-right, offering among other resources, a list of hundreds of antisemitic tweets by right wing lawmakers and celebrities. Picking one sour pickle from the bushel, they ask if Georgia Governor Brian Kemp really means Jews when he refers to coastal elites; if it matters Chuck Schumer is Jewish when he is called out; if after all, can it be antisemitism when coastal elites are pouring tons of money into the race? I mean it’s not as if the Republican Party regularly presents Democratic candidates with Stars of David on heaps of money or alludes to George Soros funding the left, so how can we say?

This however, seems to be their larger point: the tropes on the right and left exist because antisemitism, as a structural force, does not. When Jews are no longer literally being rounded up ghettos or denied seats in Ivy Leagues through quotas, all antisemitism is a series of quotes, tweets, and the regrettable, but in their words, “rare” act of violence. Leaving aside for a moment how “rare” such acts of violence are, Currents argues reading antisemitic statements or even collecting them on a website constructs a fantasy that every utterance, even every massacre, is a track “laid on the way to American Auschwitz.” Organizing against antisemitism they argue, is a victim-centered reading of Jewish history that mistakes the “shed skins” of “venomous snakes” for still living beasts.

As the Responsa seems to imply, there is a kind of narcissism to Jewish attention to antisemitism that hides our own complicity with power, the normative middle-class whiteness of the majority of American Jewry, to say nothing of wealthy and often quite conservative Jewish institutions. Indeed, witnessing antisemitic attacks in Charlottesville one critic wrote offers Jews a “strange solace” as it affirms our narrative about ourselves that we are victims, and assures our protection by a putatively benevolent state. For many Jews, the mass murder at the Tree of Life Temple, argues Jewish Currents was “invigorating.” Rather than the “lachrymose” view of Jewish history Salo Baron derided, we have new Jewish supermen: our wounds only make us stronger. If only the IDF had such Jews.

Of course, any understanding of the role of antisemitism in American life needs to account for what Karen Brodkin refers to as the “racial reassignment” of European-descended Jews. Through a process of class ascension, the lifting of immigration restrictions, university quotas, and restrictive covenants history has, like a gentle Moses, lifted our once racially liminal group and placed us if not within the literal halls of power, at least solidly among the white middle classes.

As a Marxist, I am drawn to neat materialist arguments. Race, as ethnic studies scholars Michael Omi and Howard Winant point out, is material project, constructed as a means to legitimate and organize slavery and Indian Removal, while simultaneously enfranchising a white body politic. And Brodkin follows this thesis: in the meta-organization of capital, as Jews ascended from the proletarian ranks of immigrant labor to the middle class, like other white ethnics, so too did their racial classification. In this post-war context, organizing as Jews makes as much sense as organizing as Slovaks or Russians; one misses the forest for the burning crosses.   

The trouble of course, with this materialist analysis is the stubborn persistence of antisemitism, its discursive nature, its location in political rather than strictly economic projects. Just as “American Jews celebrated the postwar consensus,” enjoyed their “integration into the suburbs” and found “common ties” with their new often white, Christian neighbors as historian Marc Dollinger describes, the greatest antisemitic purge of the 20th century was taking place in the United States–the Second Red Scare.

Discourse–even tropes shall we say–of the Judeo-Bolshevik aside, the proof is in the numbers: two-thirds of those questioned in the 1952 McCarthy hearings were Jewish, despite Jews accounting for under 2 percent of the American population. Congressman John Rankin delighted in “unmasking” the Jewish names of Hollywood actors and directors while under HUAC investigation, and of course, the only two people ever executed on federal espionage charges during the Cold War, the Rosenbergs, were Jewish. My own grandparents, Jewish members of the Communist Party, referred to the Red Scare as an American pogrom.

I bring up the history of HUAC, ending only in the mid 1960s, not to undermine Brodkin’s analysis of changing Jewish racial assignment, but rather to point out that antisemitism does not follow the neat historical tracks laid out by the Currents’ Responsa: after Auschwitz we are all Americans now. As Theodore Adorno notes in a speech about fascism in the late 1960s, “in spite of everything, anti-Semitism continues to be a ‘plank in the platform.’ It outlived the Jews, one might say, and that is the source of its ghostly nature.” The skin of the snake it seems, to quote one of the Responsa’s own tropes, is more alive than we might think, even if particular Jews may not feel its bite.

As the Red Scare suggests, antisemitism does not always look the same, it does not have the same structure, but it does follow a singular pattern. It is as Hannah Arendt notes, a political formation, whose fortunes track the rise and fall of the far-right. If the 1920s witnessed the rise of the Northern Klan, along with it came the explicitly antisemitic immigration restrictions; if the 1950s witnessed the anticommunist counter-revolution, we saw explicitly antisemitic purging of leftwing Jews from film, unions, and federal employment; if we are now in a moment of far-right resurgence, we are seeing a rise in conspiracy theory, stochastic violence, and hate crimes.

We should remember that during the second Red Scare, major liberal Jewish organizations such as the AJC and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) were quick to distance themselves from Jews accused of being communists, often providing cover for the Eisenhower administration. Warshow was not a hypocrite–his indifference was a function of his class position and his politics. “Proto fascism” as Herbert Marcuse frames it, is not a totalizing form of violence in late capitalism–it is selective, and conforms to the rules of political liberalism, even rule of the law. One can have an anticommunist purge sweep Jewish communists from Hollywood, while other Jews are also moving en mass to the suburbs.

This brings me to perhaps the most troubling part of Jewish Currents’ Responsa: the question of “Jewish power…we’ve built over the last century” and now “successfully wield.” The Responsa continually conflates statements about antisemitism from sources that range from the right-wing ADL to increasingly Zionist Forward to activist groups such as IfNotNow and JAWN. Suggesting that IfNotNow and the ADL are engaged in the same project not only flattens the notion of power, as though power is held by a discourse and not institutions. It also mistakes how antisemitism is being fought over and redefined by these organizations on unequal terrain.

Perhaps the most seismic shift in Jewish politics in the last decade has been the rise of a Jewish left that is explicitly critical of Israel and willing to support candidates such as Ilhan Omar, Jamaal Bowman and Rashida Tlaib who back the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. These candidates have been opposed by organized Jewish power–such as it is wielded in magazines like the Forward and in institutions such as the ADL. Both continually smear anti-Zionist candidates like as Omar and Tlaib as antisemitic, using the language of “tropes” to find intent where there is none.

If these attacks have not been successful, it is precisely because groups such as IfNotNow and JAWN have not only defended such candidates, but have built organizations and broad-based social alliances that have successfully challenged three decades of Zionist propaganda that equates all criticism of Israel with antisemitism. And we need to be clear: it is activists and organizations such as the Women’s March, Dream Defenders and Democratic Socialists of America that have asked Jewish groups to confront the discourse of antisemitism when it is wielded against anti-imperialist internationalism. Their success in neutralizing these attacks from Zionists depends in part on their moral clarity and ongoing struggle over the definition of antisemitism. Attention to its pernicious effects is not a detour from solidarity but may in fact be a condition of its effectiveness.

As Director of Justice is Global Toby Chow tweeted, his experience with IfNotNow participating in multi-racial coalitions did not feel like navel gazing: “The charge” he writes, that focusing on antisemitism “is ‘solipsism’ constructs an “unfortunate picture of zero sum competition between a focus on one's own oppression and building solidarity with others. This…should be rejected, and I see no reason to attribute it to the orgs in question.” That the Reponsa sees fight over definitions as mere confusion reminds me of someone who sees cops chasing protesters and imagines they are all the same because they are running in the same direction.

We are in a new historical moment. The normative liberalism that has governed American politics for the last seven decades is falling apart at the seams due to the gaping inequality of neoliberal capitalism, the shredding of the welfare state, mass incarceration, a global pandemic, and climate chaos that will upend everything from food production to availability of drinkable water. The Far Right that is rising globally from Brazil to Hungary to Israel to the United States is an emergent part of this conjuncture.

We should remember that fascism is often a foreshortened form of anti-capitalism. Unlike socialists who represent the “movement of the immense multi-racial majority,” the far-right imagines a white ethno-state will overcome the contradictions of capital. Antisemitism allows fascism its dream-logic: the internal dislocations of a system as a force imposed from without by a sinister other, the “globalist,” the Judeo-Bolshevik, the “paid Soros agitator” importing immigrants to “replace” white people, or stirring feminists to disrupt the home.

This is a form of antisemitism dissociated from actual Jews. It speaks the hyper-text of conspiracy, Q-Anon allegory, and cryptic symbol. Indeed, post-modern antisemitism may not even need Jews to function, as the rise of antisemitism in Poland and Hungary attest–nations so ethnically cleansed that Jewish gravestones are used to pave streets. It may come as some surprise to the authors of the Responsa, but the far-right has not gotten the memo regarding our Seinfeld-and-split-level assimilation.

Ironically is precisely the disassociated nature of contemporary antisemitism that makes Tablet Magazine’s bizarre accusations against Omar and Tlaib plausible. Simply refusing the discursive flights of antisemitism does not make them fall to earth. In this sense, even if not a single Jew were physically harmed by this discourse, the violence both antisemitism and its manipulation legitimates–from anti-immigrant politics to the January 6th Insurrection to Israeli apartheid–would be cause alone for leftwing Jews to shoulder some if not most of the burden in fighting it.

But this brings me to my final point, which is rather personal. Jews are physically harmed by this discourse. While the Responsa claims that antisemitism is “rare,” one wonders for whom. I did not grow up in a big city or central suburb. As one of the few Jews in my small California town, I heard antisemitic slurs on a regular basis, swastikas were routinely painted on the one area temple, I had a swastika carved into my locker. I was chased by baseball bat wielding skinheads and saved from a certain beating by white nationalists only when the cops happen to bust up the illegal club I attended, scattering the crowd. The FBI tracked nearly 1000 antisemitic hate crimes in 2019, the last year for which there are easily accessible records. As an adolescent in rural California in the 80s and early 90s, antisemitism did not seem “rare” to me at all. But perhaps as Robert Warshow would have said 70 years ago, this is just another cliché.

Ultimately however, this not an academic, or even personal, debate: it’s a debate on movement strategy. Perhaps the writers of the Responsa are correct, and the Trump era is over, and the rise of the far-right was merely a blip on the orderly march toward liberalism. Perhaps we should all just go back to brunch. I would be happy if that were the case. But I am not so sure. Such predictions as Adorno warned toward the end of his life, are far “too contemplative.” This way of thinking he writes, “which views such things from the outset like natural disasters about which one can make predictions, like whirlwinds or meteorological disasters…already shows a form of resignation whereby one essentially eliminates oneself as a political subject.” We are political subjects in a world undergoing massive transformation–and the stakes are too high to be wrong. Targeting antisemitism is the work the Jewish left needs to be doing and is uniquely suited to do. The organizations doing so understand that it is intersectional, in coalition, building power on the left. It is an act of solidarity, not solipsism.