Identities and Solidarity

— David Finkel

On Anti-Semitism
Solidarity and the Struggle for Justice
Essays curated by Jewish Voice for Peace
Foreword by Judith Butler
Haymarket Books, 2017, 224 pages plus notes, $19.95 paperback.

THE RAPID GROWTH of Jewish Voice for Peace has seen its emergence as a major force in the U.S. Palestine solidarity movement. JVP is certainly the leading Jewish organization embracing the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, initiated by Palestinian civil society organizations, against the Israeli occupation and the racist laws and practices inside the Israeli state (see http://bit.ly/1jShjkE).

The organization’s dynamism and national outreach over the past few years is a reflection of the breakdown of unquestioning Jewish loyalties to Israel, which sees many Jewish young people checking out and the Jewish establishment leadership freaking out and lashing out.

JVP confronts multiple issues in this collection of essays discussing not only the history of antisemitism and Jewish persecution, but also “how to talk productively about anti-Semitism when so often the accusation of anti-Semitism is used as a cudgel to repress substantive discussion, and whether criticizing Israel is anti-Semitic.” (Rebecca Vilkomerson, Introduction, 3)

Its response is a resolutely forward-looking project of re-forging a social justice mission in today’s larger context where Jewish oppression, although it must be fought wherever it exists, cannot be viewed in isolation. JVP seeks to define its role as a Jewish (although not exclusively so) organization in the Palestine solidarity struggle, where Palestinian voices must have the central position in telling their own story.

In so doing, JVP sees the need to deconstruct the prevailing Ashkenazi-centric perceptions of Jewish identity. It is concerned with recognizing the perspectives of generally silenced non-European Mizrahi, Sephardic and Jews of color, as well as feminist and queer voices.

It recognizes the importance of confronting the reality of antisemitism as it actually is — not the caricatured establishment construct that identifies denunciation of Israeli practices, let alone any call for a fundamental transformation of the Israeli “Jewish state,” as inherently antisemitic.

That’s particularly important now, when identifying BDS with anti-Semitic hate speech is on the verge of becoming entrenched in the U.S. criminal code. (On Senate Bill 720/H.R. 1697, the “Israel Anti-Boycott  Act,” see http://bit.ly/2tWONTW.)

Most important perhaps, opposing antisemitism is viewed here not as resisting a unique and perhaps incurable civilizational disease outside the rest of history and politics, but as part of a movement against racism in its multiple entangled forms.

As Chanda Prescod-Weinstein puts it in the context of her own experience as a Jewish activist of Afro-Caribbean and Ashkenazi heritage:

“One day I might be listening to white Jewish members of my temple condescend to a Black visitor who has spoken to us about Black community struggle, the next I am arguing with some Black people about inappropriate comments and assumptions about Jewish people…Black Jews uniquely know well that anti-minority prejudice of any kind is a danger that can translate into deadly violence.” (31, 32)

It’s not possible to adequately summarize the ground covered in these contributions — 20 separate pieces plus Judith Butler’s Foreword and the Introduction by JVP executive director Rebecca Vilkomerson, grouped into categories of “Histories and Theories of Antisemitism,” “Confronting Antisemitism and Islamophobia,” “Fighting False Charges of Antisemitism,” and “Conclusion.”

The focus is on contemporary issues and the complications of identity. Several of the contributors come from left activist family backgrounds, but aside from brief references the historic tradition of Jewish revolutionary internationalism (Communist, Socialist, Bundist, Trotskyist, anarchist) isn’t treated here. This tradition was one important feature of what historian Enzo Traverso calls “Jewish modernity” (in his recent book The End of Jewish Modernity, which I’ll review in a future issue of ATC).

There are scholarly pieces on historical and present-day features of antisemitism, although these do not dominate the collection.

Wide Ranging Discussion

Shaul Magid’s “On Antisemitism and Its Uses” is a leading example. Presbyterian minister Walt Davis takes up the challenge of “Palestinian Activism and Christian Antisemitism in the Church,” outlining the dual realities of the Jew-hatred embedded in historic Christianity, and how “guilt and shame for the Christian contribution to the Holocaust” have produced “(a) liberal Protestant form of Christian Zionism” that “provides uncritical theological and political support for the State of Israel.” (26)

Professor Magid is an important figure in Jewish studies (he’s identified as not a member of JVP or supporter of BDS). In “Antisemitism and Its Uses,” he observes:

“Comments suggesting that Israel, or perhaps the Jews, live in a perpetual state of 1938 made by some Israeli politicians only perpetuate a state of trauma that is used to excuse otherwise problematic behavior...Thus to criticize the nation-state — even without fully delegitimizing it — can be counted an expression of anti-Semitism “in effect if not intent” because it is an act that threatens not only the nation-state but the entire Jewish people. For those who advocate this position…the works of Daniel and Jonathan Boyarin and Judith Butler are viewed as a modern form of identitarian heresy precisely because they undermine the very equation that serves as the cornerstone of the identity of many American Jews.” (64)

Rabbi Brant Rosen in “European Antisemitism: Is It ‘Happening Again’?” looks at the alarming developments in Europe where Jews are targeted, but not as a phenomenon in isolation from attacks on Muslims and a general rise in racism: “maybe it is happening again, but not in the way most people would ordinarily assume.”  (136) In view of the persistence of institutional racism in the United States, Rosen suggests, we should be looking at policing in cities like Baltimore and Chicago, and in prisons and immigrant detention centers.

In the global perspective, rather than concentrating on traditional anti-Semitism, Rosen argues that “it would be far more appropriate to focus our concern on the rising popularity of far-right political parties throughout Europe, whose racism is directed at Muslims and Jews alike.” (132)

There are statements on multiple aspects of Jewish identity and the need to overcome Ashkenazi-centered understandings of Jewish history and culture, and how Jews of differing backgrounds experience issues of anti-Semitism and nationalism, and Palestine (Ilise Benshushan Cohen, Tallie Ben Daniel, Aurora Levins Morales).

From an African-American perspective, Reverend Graylan Hagler explores how “these Black eyes have perceived the issues of race and power” (111) in the conflict over narratives in the United States, and how in particular:

“European Jews who were victims of anti-Semitism-as-racism before and during World War II in Europe, and in the former Soviet Union under Communism, as well as their descendants find that within the American culture of race and racism, being of European origin affords acceptability, privilege, and white power.” (120)

This contribution is significant inasmuch as JVP is among the few Jewish organizations (and certainly the largest) to fully embrace the Movement for Black Lives.

There are strategic discussions of various movement issues, including Palestinian perspectives by Omar Barghouti, Linda Sarsour and Dima Khalidi; Donna Nevel on the importance of Jewish activism in combating Islamophobia; Kelsey Waxman, Ben Lorber and Orian Zakai on charges of “anti-semitism” as a tool for suppressing campus activism; Arthur Goldwag on confronting Trump and the Alt-right; and Rachel Ida Buff on immigrant and refugee rights organizing in the Jewish community.

Strategic Interventions

Are these essays narrowly focused on anti-Semitism as traditionally defined? Obviously not, and that’s part of the point: The object of the exercise is to broaden the discussion, expand the range of issues and voices, and explore the totality of questions posed by the history and persistence of anti-Semitism and racism in general.

Among the many topics covered in the collection, I’d like to draw attention to a couple of strategic importance. Ilise Benshushan Cohen (“Intersection of Antisemitism, Racism, and Nationalism: A Sephardi/Mizrahi Perspective”) and Tallie Ben Daniel (“Antisemitism, Palestine, and the Mizrahi Question”), take up the reasons why today’s movements can’t afford to remain locked into Ashkenazi-centered accounts of Jewish history and its tribulation.

(“Ashkenazi” refers to Jews of primarily Central and Eastern origin, who formed the great majority of the world Jewish population by the beginning of the 20th century but not throughout earlier history. “Mizrahi” and “Sephardic” refers to Jewish populations rooted in the Middle East, North Africa and the Muslim Spanish period. These are not exact categories of course, and the ancient Jewish populations of Ethiopia and Yemen, predating rabbinical Judaism, are stories of their own.)

As Ben Daniel reminds us, “Mizrahi Jews are told that the history of European Jews is the history of all Jews everywhere” (73) — erasing the history that the actual formation of classical religious Judaism was centered in the territory of today’s Iraq, where a 2500-year Jewish community and civilization lasted until the disasters of the mid-twentieth century.

As a scholar and activist concerned with the parallel colonial-settler dynamics in Palestine and the United States, including how they affect queer communities, she argues that all the progressive movements “must take collective action, and work to produce an analysis and a language to address our heritage, histories, and inheritance in ways that fight back against the exploitation of Palestinians.” (80)

The other strategic interventions critically important right now, when Palestinian activists on U.S. campuses are being literally terrorized and the Israel Lobby is pushing congressional legislation to criminalize participation in BDS, are the five pieces in the section “Fighting False Charges of Antisemitism.”

I particularly recommend BDS leader Omar Barghouti’s careful and detailed discussion of how the campaign actually works, and why it adamantly refuses “to essentialize or homogenize Jewish persons and communities” as anti-Semites and Zionists both do. (143)

The power of BDS is shown, I believe, in the fact that while its actual impact on the Israeli economy is less than marginal, the Israeli government and the American Jewish establishment are going berserk over it. That suggests its power as a nonviolent mass organizing and educational tool around the unfolding catastrophe in Palestine.

Points of Controversy

There are of course points that are open to debate, and I’d like to briefly explore a couple of them.

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, who says “I identify as a Black queer ciswoman” (http://bit.ly/1mheu8F), is a theoretical physicist specializing in the cosmology of the early universe, and a powerful advocate of honoring and advancing the position of women in science. (You can watch her lecture “Field of Cosmological Dreams” at http://www.cprescodweinstein.com/.)

A prominent member of JVP’s Academic Advisory Council, Dr. Prescod-Weinstein writes of her own experience as well as the broader issues of Black-Jewish relations in her challenging essay “Black and Palestinian Lives Matter: Black and Jewish America in the Twenty-First Century.” I’d like to examine one of her contentions, which I believe is fairly widespread in the movement today:

“(I)t is impossible to describe the relations between Jewish and Black people without making Israel and Palestine a major point of reference…any discussion of aJP [non-Jewish Black American anti-Jewish prejudice] must recognize that Jewish supremacy — in the form of Zionism applied to the State of Israel — enables the reproduction of anti-Jewishness.” (33)

Speaking of Jewish incorporation in “the tent of whiteness,” she posits that the “assimilation of white Jews is inextricably tied to the rise of the Zionist State of Israel, and therefore is also tied to the Palestinian struggle and Israeli policy toward Jewish and non-Jewish Black immigrants.” (35)

I believe that these connections tend to be exaggerated. Among activist and intellectual circles Black-Jewish relations certainly are strongly influenced — as they should be! — by people’s views of Palestine and Israel. Among the broader population, however, these are fairly remote considerations.

Rather, the material roots of Black-Jewish antagonism lie in the longstanding fact that the Black community does not control its own economic life.

That’s the main factor behind the history of strained relations between African Americans and Jewish-owned businesses, or the well-known hostility of many Black Detroiters toward Arab merchants, Black resentment in Los Angeles toward Korean store owners, etc. For better or worse, Israel and Palestine have little to do with it.

Further, American Jews’ entering the “tent of whiteness” was well underway before Israel happened, and was certainly consummated by the time Israel emerged from the 1967 war as a major U.S. strategic ally, and a central factor in U.S. Jewish communal life — which it hadn‘t previously been.  (On the latter point see Peter Novick’s study The Holocaust in American Life. Let’s also note that not only Ashkenazi Jews can identify as white; light-skinned Sephardic Jews can also assimilate into this fictional “race.”)

It’s true enough that several retrograde developments occurred around this same time. Israel’s smashing conquests in the 1967 war propelled a huge wave of Jewish chauvinism in the United States; a flood of fundamentalist Christian pro-Zionism, viewing Israel’s “miraculous” triumph as a sign of messianic end times; and a big rightward swing among Jewish intellectuals, some of them former liberals, seeing the U.S.-Israeli partnership emerging as a bulwark of imperial power and their own road to prestige and influence.

Many of these figures, supporters of Civil Rights while that movement was mostly happening down South, turned sharply hostile to Black Nationalism and especially the demand for affirmative action, calling it a system of ”quotas” threatening “equality” and the fruits of Jews’ academic and professional achievements (although in fact Jewish women benefited enormously from it).

It’s obviously tempting to see this deterioration of the Jewish-Black alliance — which as James Baldwin observed perhaps never was all it was cracked up to be — in the light of Jewish-supremacist Zionism in Israel. I suspect, however, that much the same would have occurred if Israel were out of the picture.

Probably the most tragic event of the period, the 1968 New York teachers’ racist strike against Black community control of schools, illustrates the point.

Certainly the Albert Shanker leadership of the United Federation of Teachers was strongly Zionist, and the union’s apparatus became one breeding ground of neoconservative Cold Warriors. But at its heart, this was a made-in-America bitter conflict between an oppressed community and a (heavily Jewish) layer of white workers, relatively privileged but by no means affluent.

Prescod-Weinstein is certainly correct that “white supremacy is a danger to us all because it justifies violent hatred,” and white Jews also live under this threat. (40) I am simply dubious about drawing too tight a connection between Zionist Jewish supremacy and American racism, which is more than powerful enough to have a life of its own.

At the same time, there are problems in mapping classic dynamics of anti-Semitism onto our current situations.

For example, in Aurora Levins Morales’ powerful statement of her experience as a Puerto Rican of mixed Jewish-Catholic and also communist parentage, she posits the function of anti-Semitism:  “its purpose is to protect the Christian elites from the outrage of the oppressed by throwing Jews under the bus, for redirecting their outrage toward Jews…” (104)

This is an apt cryptic summation of the function of anti-Semitism from medieval Europe to well into 20th century America, but it doesn’t quite match our present realities — where the U.S. capitalist ruling class, majority but far from entirely Christian, now comfortably includes a layer of Jewish billionaires, and perhaps even a few Muslims and Hindus.

To be sure, not everything is new. The chants of white supremacists in Charlottesville, morphing from “You will not replace us” to “Jews will not replace us,” are a reminder that the old-fashioned forms of Jew-hatred have not disappeared, even as new questions of anti-Semitism, real and imagined, and its uses and misuses become ever more complex.

All the better time, then, to continue the discussion and expand it — as this vital book does in a most timely fashion.

November-December, ATC 191

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <b> </b> <br> <br /> <a> </a> <em> </em> <strong> </strong> <cite> </cite> <code> </code> <ul> </ul> <ol> </ol> <li> </li> <dl> </dl> <dt> </dt> <dd> </dd> <div> </div> <img> <style> <font> </font> <blockquote> </blockquote> <hr>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

More information about formatting options

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.