The left and our fight against anti-Semitism

November 29, 2018

The massacre in Pittsburgh was committed by an avowed white supremacist, but plenty of political and media figures blame “both sides,” writes Jonah ben Avraham.

AFTER THE massacre of 11 Jews in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue in late October, people flocked to social media and to the streets with messages of unity and collective opposition to the anti-Semitism behind the killing.

It didn’t take long, however, for the forces of racism and reaction to turn their outrage on the main people capable of mobilizing opposition to the rising tide of anti-Semitism: broadly speaking, the left and the social movements.

After the 2017 neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, during which anti-racist protester Heather Heyer was murdered, people around the world responded with horror to Trump’s comment that there were “good people on both sides.”

The left argued — rightly — that it is unconscionable to equate whatever violence might take place on the anti-fascist/anti-racist left with the violence of a movement rooted in calls for ethnic cleansing and genocide. But people in the political center were taken aback by Trump’s apologia for white supremacy.

Marching in Pittsburgh against the anti-Semitic massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue
Marching in Pittsburgh against the anti-Semitic massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue (Mark Dixon | flickr)

Yet after last month’s shooting, much of the mainstream response was cut from the same cloth as Trump’s.

Less than two weeks after the shooting, the Los Angeles City Council was already trying to weaponize Jews’ pain and deploy it against the Palestine solidarity movement — by calling on UCLA officials to cancel the National Students for Justice in Palestine conference planned for mid-November at the UCLA campus.

Thankfully, grassroots pressure from students successfully pressured the university stand up to this blatant attack on free speech.

At the same time, right-wing and not-so-right-wing hit pieces, most notably in the New York Post, have argued that the biggest threats to Jews today are left-wing activists like Tamika Mallory and Linda Sarsour — who have both been asked to step down as co-chairs of the Women’s March.

In Britain, the war against the anti-Semitism supposedly inherent in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party rages on. As groups like the Anti-Defamation League and Jewish Community Relations Council try to reassert themselves as the Jewish community’s “leaders” in the fight against anti-Semitism, they continue to demonize as anti-Semitic some of the most basic forms of advocacy for Palestinian human rights.

It’s almost as if the voices of mainstream politics forgot exactly what happened at a Shabbat service — a bris, or baby naming, no less — just a few weeks ago. So let’s review what did happen:

A Nazi — an avowed white supremacist who critiqued Donald Trump for being too influenced by powerful Jews — entered a synagogue and murdered 11 Jews while yelling, “All Jews must die.”

He was not a crusader for Palestinian liberation. He was a sworn enemy of the Black freedom struggle. And yet, politicos and pundits from across the political spectrum have jumped at the opportunity to attack leftists by calling out anti-Semitism on “both sides.”

TO BE sure, there are some leftists — and even more reactionaries who fancy themselves leftists — who fall into the trap of upholding anti-Semitism, just as there are leftists who fail to fully uproot other oppressive ideas, attitudes and prejudices from their thinking.

Anti-Semitism, like any form of oppression, is a complex structural, institutional and interpersonal phenomenon that lives in the air we breathe. Harmful stereotypes about Jews are reproduced in our language, our media and our politics, and so of course, mistakes will be made.

Zionism — the political movement to establish a Jewish state in Palestine — itself feeds one of the most pervasive anti-Semitic attitudes on the left, namely the assumption that the state of Israel has some innate authority over or connection to Jews living around the world.

Given the longstanding campaign by Israel to foster this illusion, it’s hardly surprising that some on the left stumble when it comes to understanding the necessity of treating the fight against anti-Semitism in the United States and the fight against white supremacy and settler-colonialism in Palestine as distinct political questions.

The left must consider the fight against anti-Semitism as a critical part of its anti-racist agenda, and all the more so in an era in which anti-Semitic hate crimes are increasing faster than those targeting any other group in the United States.

But at the same time, the left must also reject Zionism as well as the spurious charges of anti-Semitism that Zionists use to silence critics of the state of Israel. Neither fight can be reduced to the other. And it is critical that we do not make common struggle in the fight against anti-Semitism contingent on Jews’ rejection of Zionism.

The problem is that the liberal-to-right-wing outcry against supposed anti-Semitism on the left has nothing to do with calling out and ending genuine instances of anti-Semitism. Whether intentional or not, its aim is first and foremost to instrumentalize the fight against anti-Semitism as part of capitalism’s war on Black and Brown people.

Accusations of anti-Semitism in the political mainstream are, more often than not, a tool — a weapon to be used against those engaged in the struggle against white supremacy. As Judith Butler writes in her introduction to the essay collection On Antisemitism: Solidarity and the Struggle for Justice, “It does not matter [to the accuser] whether [an accusation of anti-Semitism] is true, because the accusation is meant to cause pain, to produce shame, and to reduce the accused to silence.”

When Republican evangelicals (often anti-Semitic themselves) passionately call out the alleged anti-Semitism of the pro-Palestine movement, it’s simply unfounded to think that they do so out of a passion for Jewish liberation. They are invested in using righteous outrage at anti-Semitism to further their reactionary, racist agenda.

PERHAPS THE most egregious examples of this tactic in practice are when Jewish activists in solidarity with Palestine are targeted — for as Butler points out, the accuser knows “that the Jewish critic of the State of Israel also loathes anti-Semitism.”

But these are trickier cases; more often, the targets of these silencing tactics are Black and Brown non-Jews who, in the racist’s imagination, are simply more prone to anti-Semitism anyway.

This trend goes beyond the obvious case of the mainstream reaction to Palestinian liberation. To take one of the most immediately relevant examples, accusations of “anti-Semitism in the Black community” have been used for decades to demobilize and delegitimize radical Black folks.

Black freedom fighters and right-wing Black nationalists have both been victims of smear campaigns, which, at their most generous, overemphasize a particular harmful statement or view out of proportion to a broader set of politics — and at their worst, simply traffic in racist tropes and out-and-out mischaracterizations to score political points for white supremacy.

Anti-Semitism — like homophobia, misogyny and any number of other oppressions that racists and orientalists like to imagine as inherently pervasive in this or that minority community — does not emerge first and foremost from the oppressed. It is part of a violent network of ideological systems that serve to reproduce capitalism.

Its primary perpetrators are the ruling elite of society, and they — in particular, the WASPy, cis-gender, heterosexual, male ruling elite — are the people who stand to profit off anti-Semitism and other forms of oppression.

As a consequence of the long history of false accusations of anti-Semitism — in particular as a tool by white racists, Jewish and non-Jewish alike — the political terrain around anti-Semitism is fraught. Genuine anti-Semitism does exist in all communities, and must be condemned — but there is also a history of fraudulent and misleading accusations of anti-Semitism.

IT CAN therefore be challenging to forge solidarity between Jews and other oppressed and exploited communities — in particular, non-Jewish communities of color and socialists at large, who at this point are wary of accepting accusations of anti-Semitism after decades of cynical, baseless baiting by pro-Israel currents.

But despite this political minefield, one fact remains central to our assessment and response to the anti-Semitic attacks that are becoming only more and more frequent: it was a Nazi, a foot soldier of white supremacy, who pulled the trigger in Pittsburgh. It was a foot soldier of white supremacy who shot two Black people in a Kentucky grocery store that same week.

And it is the system of white supremacy that produces and reproduces anti-Semitism, racism and the many racial and religious oppressions that confront non-white people, as well as white people who are members of minority religious communities.

Backward attitudes and unexamined assumptions among the ranks of the exploited and oppressed are symptoms — but white supremacy is the disease.

It is Donald Trump’s war on George Soros, the “fake news” media and “powerful globalists” that is fueling the spread of anti-Semitic hate crimes, not Louis Farrakhan’s nonsensical ravings about fake Jews.

We must keep this in mind, even as we hold our movements accountable to putting forward a full critique of all oppressive and backward ideas, including the reactionary anti-Semitism of Farrakhan, of the Hamas charter, of conspiracy theories about Rothschilds and the Jewish lobby, and the like.

In the wake of the most recent tragedies experienced by the Jewish community, we must be able to distinguish our friends from our enemies. And most importantly, we must keep building solidarity with those who are our friends, with ever-increasing urgency.

If Jews are to put up a meaningful fight against our oppression, we must do so by joining in the fight for the liberation of all peoples.

Racist scapegoating, tribalism and the politics of seclusion are not only unjust and misplaced. They are profoundly counterproductive to the creation of precisely the kind of social movement that is our only hope against the growing fascist far right.

When the Charlottesville Nazis combine chants of “Jews will not replace us” with “White lives matter” and “Fuck you, faggots,” it’s clear that the struggles against all oppressive systems are linked.

And this link between capitalism’s various oppressive and exploitative systems creates a material basis for a unified, anti-racist movement — which has as its end goal not the elimination of this or that oppressive policy, but the abolition of the entire apparatus of white supremacy and Christian hegemony.

In the months ahead, right-wingers and liberals alike will continue attempting to pin responsibility for anti-Semitism on those fighting for a just world. We can beat them back by proving them wrong — and by building a movement that is truly the tribune of the oppressed, a movement that brings people together across all identity lines to fight for liberation for us all.

Maryam Abidi contributed to this article.

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