The massacre of eleven Jews at Etz Chaim (Tree of Life) Synagogue in Pittsburgh by white-supremacist Robert Bowers last Saturday sent shock waves through the American public, the American Jewish community, and the Left. In the wake of the deadliest antisemitic terror attack in US history, vigils have been organized across the country, support has poured into the reeling Jewish communities of Pittsburgh, and progressives are grappling anew with the question of antisemitism.
Even before the Pittsburgh massacre, antisemitism was on the rise, with the startling wave of far-right, ultranationalist movements across Europe and the US. In America, alt-right antisemitism burst into public view with social media attacks on Jewish journalists and institutions during the 2016 elections, and took to the streets with tiki torches and chants of chants of “Jews will not replace us” in 2017. Across Europe, the United States, and Israel, ultranationalist leaders and political parties demonized billionaire Hungarian Jewish philanthropist and Holocaust survivor George Soros with frightening vitriol, scapegoating him as the supposed mastermind behind migration, refugee resettlement, and other humanitarian causes.
But even as its power grows, far-right antisemitism remains a poorly understood phenomenon for much of the Left. How are we on the Left to understand antisemitism? Why is it rebounding, with renewed vigor, in the era of Trump? And most importantly, how do we fight back?
Never Fully Extinguished
Anti-Jewish oppression has a long and complex history. In medieval Christian Europe, Jews were scapegoated and attacked, often bizarrely, as Christ-killers, murderers of Christian children, poisoners of Christian water-wells, and more. With the dawn of the Enlightenment, Jews were promised acceptance, only to be accused of “dual loyalty” and treason by newly existent nation-states. Anti-Jewish sentiment reached a fever pitch with race-based theories of innate, biological Jewish wickedness developed and perfected by Nazi fascism in the twentieth century.
While Jews living in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and elsewhere around the world often lived in relative security and peace, in Europe, periods of Jewish coexistence and even prosperity alternated with episodes of intense persecution, violence, and exile, leading, over centuries, to deeply ingrained collective feelings of vulnerability, anxiety, and trauma.
After the horrific slaughter of one-third of the world’s Jewish population by German fascism, it may have seemed that centuries of persecution might come to a close, as before long, Jews came to experience unprecedented empowerment in America and Israel. In the United States, the majority of Jewish communities were lifted into the beckoning arms of middle-class suburbia by the same post-World War II economic and social policies that kept black people and other minorities in poverty. The creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and its military victories in the decades following, at the expense of displaced and dispossessed Palestinians, offered to the world the spectacle of militarily powerful Jews protected by their own nation-state.
Largely banished from the public sphere, antisemitism became synonymous with unthinkable evil. It seemed, finally, that Jews were safe. But from the fringes to the mainstream, antisemitism never truly disappeared from American society.
In the 1950s, Cold War McCarthyism carried clear antisemitic undertones, with the execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg and the frenzied witch hunt against disproportionately Jewish communists in unions and progressive organizations across the country. Beginning in the 1980s, neo-Nazi skinhead movements trafficked in Holocaust denial and later circulated ideas of “white genocide” that, as we shall see, put Jews at the center of a vast conspiracy to exterminate the “white race.” The dawn of the internet greatly bolstered white-supremacist organizing, sowing the seeds for the antisemitic alt-right, which would burst into wider public view with the rise of Trumpism.
Always the Hidden Puppeteers
Minutes before storming into Etz Chaim Synagogue on Saturday, Robert Bowers wrote on social media that the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), a Jewish immigrant and refugee support agency, “likes to bring in invaders that kill our people … I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered … I’m going in.” Bowers thought that, by targeting a synagogue involved in refugee relief, he was striking at the root cause of the migration which threatened his white race.
For white supremacists like Bowers, left-wing Jewish activists are the hidden masterminds behind immigration, Black Lives Matter, feminism, LGBTQ rights, political correctness, and all the other assorted “evils” of progressive politics that hinder the creation of their hoped-for white ethnostate. Alt-right theorists argue that throughout the twentieth century, American Jews mobilized hyper-focused networks of political and social capital to loosen the country’s immigration policies; orchestrated the Civil Rights Movement, integration, and other ills of “race mixing”; and engineered multiculturalism, relativism, sexual liberation, and other fronts of “cultural Marxism.”
The chant “Jews will not replace us,” heard at last year’s Unite the Right white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, embodies the alt-right fear that the all-powerful Jew remains the hidden puppeteer of progressivism, hell-bent on using liberal causes to keep whites outnumbered, emasculated, and demoralized.
More and more, these sentiments move, in both explicit and coded forms, from the margins to the mainstream of right-wing discourse. In the two weeks leading up to the massacre, a chorus of right-wing pundits, amplified by Trump’s Twitter account, insisted that the hand of George Soros lurked behind the migrant caravans, while prominent GOP voices claimed Soros was sneakily helping ensure Democratic wins in the midterm elections. Meanwhile, Soros’s home was the first to receive a bomb package on October 22 from alt-righter Cesar Sayoc, and earlier this month, flyers popped up on campuses across the country claiming that Jews were secretly behind sexual assault allegations against then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
Paradoxically, the far right blames Jews, not only for the progressive social movements of the Left, but also for the neoliberal austerity of the Right. Days before the 2016 election, Trump’s final and most prominent campaign ad beamed into millions of homes across the country the faces of Soros and other prominent Jewish figures, alongside condemnations of the “global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations and political entities.” The term “globalist” captures perfectly this bizarre assertion that the same “Jewish power” hoists upon dispossessed whites both the economic agenda that exports jobs and forecloses upon homes, and the social agenda that emasculates men, diversifies white communities, and mixes the races.
In short, according to the alt-right, Jews are “the principal enemy — not the sole enemy, but the principal enemy — of every attempt to halt and reverse white extinction.” 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.” Only by expunging the Jewish root can whites successfully reverse-engineer their dispossession, ensure their survival, and chart the course of their future. Antisemitism posits a vast Jewish conspiracy that can be deployed, both on the fringe and mainstream right, to obfuscate not only the true voices, faces, and demands animating progressive movements for social change, but also the true interests and actors behind neoliberal exploitation.
Antisemitism is a key pillar of white-supremacist thought, helping reinforce and repackage anti-immigrant sentiment, Islamophobia, patriarchy, and other reactionary ideas by lending the overarching veneer of a comprehensive, totalizing reactionary worldview. One always finds antisemitic conspiracy theories entangled with other oppressive ideologies, transcending and including them to offer a final meta-explanation: “it’s the Jews.”
Still the Socialism of Fools
Antisemitism is given this universal explanatory power at time when neoliberal capitalism has immiserated vast numbers of people. Framing their rule as a revolution against the “globalist agenda” of neoliberalism, today’s neofascist leaders promise to reestablish strong, sovereign nation-states, rooted in blood and soil, cleansed of “foreign infiltrators,” delivering longed-for stability and prosperity.
The last dramatic resurgence of antisemitic ideology in the 1930s, took root in similar circumstances, in the wake of a global financial crisis, when working- and middle-class whites from Germany to the US were desperate to understand and respond to their dreadful predicament. Like today’s alt-right, twentieth-century fascism blamed Jews, not only for the specters of communism, homosexuality, and other “left-wing ills” but also for the depredations of predatory finance capital.
But today, as in the 1930s, this “revolution from the right” is no revolution at all. Nationalists from Trump to Hungary’s Viktor Orban critique “the globalist elite” in theory, while in practice, plunging ordinary folks deeper into poverty and deepening the pockets of the ultrarich. Antisemitism, then and now, is a “foreshortened anticapitalism,” a “socialism of fools” promising false emancipation from illusory oppressors.
While many forms of oppression keep oppressed groups on the bottom rungs of society’s ladder, modern, European-derived antisemitism works when some Jews have moved up a few rungs, securing a relative degree of visible prosperity and power in society. During times of economic downturn and popular discontent, the anger of oppressed and exploited people gets redirected, like a pressure valve, away from capitalists as a class and onto the image of the conniving, all-powerful Jew.
“Peasants who go on pogrom against their Jewish neighbors” serving as the nobleman’s tax collectors, writes Puerto Rican Jewish poet and activist Aurora Levins Morales, “won’t make it to the nobleman’s palace to burn him out and seize the fields.”
Today, antisemites use the very fact that, over the twentieth century, some Jews entered visible positions in portions of the privileged and owning classes, while some others enthusiastically embraced progressive causes, as proof of the correctness of their conspiracies. The overwhelmingly white and Christian titans of heavy industry, big business, finance, oil, and the weapons industry are happy to support Trump, and while Soros gets scapegoated, happy to remain behind the scenes in their corporate boardrooms peacefully collecting mega-profits.
Conspiratorial antisemitism benefits the class interests of the 1 percent, and is rooted organically in far-right, white-nationalist movements. However, strands of the ideology also appear elsewhere. Conspiracy theories of nefarious Jewish control championed by figures like Louis Farrakhan serve to obfuscate the real capitalist relations behind the history of slavery, present-day racialized poverty, and more. Fringe voices claiming to support Palestinians — though shunned by the mainstream Palestinian rights movement, which stands against antisemitism — portray Jewish Zionists as conspiratorial infiltrators of the American government, single-handedly steering US foreign policy to support endless war in the Middle East. Marginal voices on the Left resurrect antisemitic Rothschild conspiracy theories to fashion half-baked, shoddy caricatures of neoliberalism, financial speculation, and other symptoms of capitalism.
How to Fight It
Wherever antisemitism rears its head, it steers people away from truly liberatory movements. Here, in its seductive explanatory power, lies its danger. It’s also where the Left can intervene.
If, as Walter Benjamin once said, “every rise of fascism bears witness to a failed revolution,” it is equally true that the spread of antisemitic conspiracism means that the Left has not yet succeeded in capturing the narrative. To fight antisemitism, socialists and progressives need to offer clear, compelling analyses showing who really profits from the systems of exploitation that assail working people in this country.
We need to remind people that, as one Twitter user put it, there is a small minority of elites who control the world’s political and economic systems at the expense of the world’s population, but it’s not the Jews — it’s the bourgeoisie.
The Left also needs to understand better how antisemitism really operates: to redirect popular anger onto a convenient scapegoat, leaving the real enemies of the people unscathed. The obstacles to this understanding are many. Too often, our culture presents antisemitism as an inexplicable, unfathomable prejudice; a baseless hatred unconnected to broader structures of power and oppression we see around us. For example, the chief takeaway from much mainstream Holocaust education is that some people just hate Jews — no further explanation needed. Or, it’s seen as a tragic holdover from the 1940s, with little relevance to today’s world. Too often, false charges of antisemitism are used to batter Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims, and any progressive movement that stands up for Palestinian rights.
In order to combat these obfuscations, progressive movements need to trace antisemitism’s often complicated forms, illuminating the specific, material ways it benefits those in power and intersects with other oppressions. We need to give a clear analysis and condemnation of antisemitism, not only to defend Jews but also to ensure our broader movements remain rooted in sober, material comprehension of the forces against us.
Non-Jewish progressives need to support Jews facing antisemitic attacks in the United States without preconditions, expectations, or assumptions. Bringing up Israel when Jews get attacked simply for being Jews is ignorant at best and antisemitic at worst. But while the gesture of direct, unmediated solidarity is simple, grappling with the real-world, messy relationships between Jews and other minoritized groups can be anything but. Precisely because antisemitism functions by elevating some Jews and Jewish communities to positions of relative power or privilege vis a vis other minority groups, serious seeds of discord have been sown between groups that should be allies in the fight against white supremacy.
Tensions around a host of issues — Israel/Palestine, mistrust between white Jews and non-Jewish people of color, or across other fault lines — create mutual suspicion, resentment, and hostility between Jews and other groups, leading to a “divide and conquer” effect that ultimately weakens the Left and strengthens the Right. This leads many Jews to conclude that only allying with the powerful — for example, putting cops in synagogues, uncritically supporting Israel, and in some cases, even embracing Trumpism — will truly keep us safe. Progressive Jews must continue working to move our communities away from complicity and towards solidarity, while vocal non-Jewish solidarity against antisemitism will help do the same.
Unfortunately, after antisemitic attacks like Pittsburgh, mainstream narratives often dictate that only Israel will truly keep Jews safe, and that to show solidarity, non-Jews should support Israel. However, Israel has allied itself squarely with fascist regimes the world over — including regimes that are overtly antisemitic — and its policies vis a vis Palestinians, African migrants, Jewish dissidents, and others have long bore more than a passing resemblance to the far-right authoritarianism now plaguing our world. Until Palestinians are free, supporting Israel ultimately will not help Jews or anyone get truly safe or free. Progressives and leftists need to make this clear.
The way forward is familiar, though the path windy. We must fight antisemitism with solidarity. This alone can defeat white supremacy, keep us all safe, and get us all free.