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Antisemitism and the Crisis of Liberalism

Contemporary antisemitism must be confronted. Yet liberals who insist on equating leftists like Jeremy Corbyn with the open antisemitism of right-wing figures like Donald Trump are not only blatantly dishonest, but prevent us from fighting anti-Jewish bigotry.

Hundreds of white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and members of the "alt-right" march down East Market Street toward Emancipation Park during the "Unite the Right" rally August 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. Chip Somodevilla / Getty

These are strange times to be Jewish in the US. We have a president attacking progressive representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib with false claims of antisemitism. Only a short time before, the same president ran the first openly antisemitic presidential campaign in living memory.

Strange as it seems, such gestures are hardly new. The mastermind of what was arguably the greatest antisemitic purge in US history, McCarthyism, also characterized himself as a great defender of Jews: J. Edgar Hoover blamed antisemitism not on his own anticommunist witch hunts, which disproportionately targeted Jews and relied on antisemitic imagery, but on the very communists he targeted.

In an incredible act of chutzpah, Hoover claimed in his book on the communist menace, Masters of Deceit, that Nazism borrowed its antisemitism from Marxism, that the Soviet Union tacitly supported the Holocaust, and worst of all sins, the communists did not support Israel. Hoover said this while simultaneously hiring former Nazis as informants, sending two Jews to the death chamber on dubious conspiracy charges, not to mention sending countless other Jewish people to jail under the Smith Act. He finally concluded that Jews who support communism are not real Jews.

Hoover’s defense of Jews against the supposed threat of communism took place at a particular moment in Jewish history: when, as historian Paul Hanebrink writes, the notion of a “Judeo-Christian West,” with Israel as its ideological anchor, came to serve as a bulwark against a rising “Asiatic” tide of communism. Jews, once thought to be inherently foreign and prone to communism, could be enlisted in this Western crusade, if only they would swear their loyalty and side with the West over the Soviet Union.

Thus Trump’s praising Nazis as “very fine people” while attacking Democrats for “advancing by far the most extreme, antisemitic agenda in history” makes sense only if one understands the far-right’s love affair with Israel’s ethnonationalism. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who vowed to “take action” on Omar’s tweets, also accused Jewish billionaires of trying to buy the 2018 midterm elections. McCarthy is not simply a hypocrite for leveling accusations of antisemitism against Omar and making blatantly antisemitic remarks himself; he articulates a popular and coherent right-wing ideology, in which Jewish financier and philanthropist George Soros and Palestine resistance movement Hamas are part of a global conspiracy to undermine the West.

While all this might just seem like nutjobs overheating in their tinfoil helmets, the rhetorical attacks against Omar and Tlaib stick because they are staged in what otherwise might be thought of as a liberal Jewish press. The latest controversy over Ilhan Omar was started by the Jewish Forward’s opinion editor, Batya Ungar-Sargon, who later opined that Omar and AOC’s critiques of Israel will make her choose between Jewishness and the Left, describing what she sees to be a growing and intractable rift between Jews and a multicultural left. Equally, another Jewish, (rather less) progressive journal, Tablet, takes as a given that Omar and Tlaib are antisemites, and frequently implies the “intersectional left” is, if not antisemitic, at least unsympathetic to Jews.

These Jewish voices are part of a “both sides” discourse popular among mainstream pundits, one that assumes we can conflate advocacy for Palestinian rights with burning down synagogues in upstate New York. Such convergence between Jewish and a supposedly liberal establishment press and the growing far-right was recently given a sense of gravitas by prominent Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt, whose book Anti-Semitism: Here and Now, grants these theories a dangerous academic legitimacy.

Finding Antisemitism on the Left Only

Emerging shortly after the Tree of Life massacre this past fall, Lipstadt’s book seems to be everywhere. It has been praised by the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the Washington Post; she has given extended interviews on NPR and the CBC since its release; the book is being used in high school classrooms in Michigan as part of its curriculum on race and racism.

Since the rise of the far right, such a book would seem welcome: there are many liberals and leftists who desperately need a readable, scholarly work to help make sense of resurgent antisemitism. And yet, despite the Nazi on the book’s cover, it does little to explain the resurgence of the far right and its connections to antisemitic thought. If the book is useful, it is only as a guidepost for the contemporary collapse of liberal Jewish thought on Israel and the rise of white nationalism.

Given the fascist imagery on the book’s jacket, one might expect Anti-Semitism to delve into the paranoid intellectual bunkers of neofascism. Yet while the book gives quick lip service to the rise of the Right, less than a fifth of the way in, it gets down to its real work: equating the Left with the rise of fascism.

Focusing her first case study on the figures of Trump and British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, Lipstadt equates the two by saying they “both have facilitated the spread of antisemitism.” Corbyn, “like Trump,” Lipstadt argues, has “emboldened antisemites.”

To anyone even casually following the news across the pond, the idea that Corbyn is an antisemite has been accepted as truth only among the chattering classes; the claim’s circumstantial evidence is incredibly weak.

To give credence to the idea that Corbyn is a facilitator of antisemitism, one would have to equate occasional antisemitic statements by anti-Zionist activists in England with the far-right’s clear antisemitic doctrine. According to an extensive inquiry by OpenDemocracy and statements by Jewish Voice for Labour, the Labour Party can only be considered to be “institutionally” antisemitic if one considers anti-Zionism a form of antisemitism, or one finds any expression of solidarity with Hamas or Hezbollah prima facie expressions of deep-seated bias against Jews (which if one accepts, one would then have to say every expression of support for Israel is fundamentally anti-Arab — or, more saliently, ignore that Palestine is under military occupation).

Lipstadt instructs the reader to divorce Corbyn and Trump from whatever personal feelings the two may have about Jews, going so far as to say we cannot know how Trump “intended” his comments on white nationalists or his antisemitic campaign ads. And while depersonalizing racism can be helpful to illuminate larger structures, in this instance, it seems strangely perverse: Corbyn, who has never uttered an antisemitic comment, can then be rationally compared to Donald Trump, who told a crowd of Jewish Republicans he “doesn’t want their money,” retweets neo-Nazis, and so on. This is why personal statements by Trump matter: he says and tweets antisemitic images and phrases because he is broadly aligned with an ideology for which antisemitism is a core part of its structure.

As a reactionary ideology, political antisemitism is not merely or even necessarily an aversion toward Jews; it is a theory of power. Capitalism’s workings can often seem dictated by shadowy, alien forces that are in charge of the political economy, even daily life. Borrowing on medieval Christian tropes of Jewish “devilry,” right-wing nationalists repurposed this figure to explain what may appear as an obscure globalized bourgeoisie and modern, bureaucratic state power.

As the late Marxist theorist Moishe Postone wrote in his essay on antisemitism and Nazism, antisemitism functioned for the Third Reich as a “foreshortened anticapitalism” that offered a bracing critique of the liberal economic system, explaining how this mysterious system worked and for whom. When Trump critiques Hillary Clinton for serving “global special interests” over an image of Janet Yellen, George Soros, and Lloyd Blankfein, or features Clinton superimposed on piles of cash under a Star of David, he signifies on centuries of reactionary antisemitic ideas of Jewish economic power.

To argue that the conflation of Trump and Corbyn is absurd is not to say Corbyn is perfect: he, like many leftists I’ve encountered, does not incorporate antisemitism into their analysis of oppression. As some British Jewish leftists have articulated, Corbyn should have been faster to condemn an antisemitic mural, or to understand how his introduction of John Hobson’s Imperialism could have better contextualized Hobson’s own personal antisemitic worldview.

Yet the British press in this case acts as if Corbyn wrote the introduction for Mein Kampf. Hobson’s book remains a groundbreaking study of the financialization of Western imperialism, a book that generations of Marxist writers have built on in foundational ways. No one calls Vladimir Lenin an antisemite for citing Hobson; it would be like denouncing the National Endowment of the Arts for introducing The Great Gatsby without first reminding us that F. Scott Fitzgerald was also a garden-variety antisemite.

But this is different both in quality and kind to the antisemitic project of the far right. When Trump blames Jewish financier George Soros for funding a migrant “invasion,” it is not a sin of omission: he signifies on entire body of reactionary thought that equates Jews with the subversion of the West. It is coherent and consistent.

To compare Corbyn’s silence to an active project to dehumanize and occasionally assault and even kill Jewish people is like the difference between a colorblind liberal and an actual white supremacist: The former can be “called in” as part of a progressive political project; the other needs to be obliterated for a progressive society to exist. To equate them is to erase the violence of white supremacy.

If You Feel It, It Must Be True

The rhetorical sleight of hand necessary to equate Trump and Corbyn can only be achieved by Lipstadt’s refusal to have a functioning definition of antisemitism. Saying that “antisemitism is difficult to define,” she resorts to, in her own words, “Justice Potter Stewart’s famous comment about hard-core pornography … we know it when we see or hear it.” “Jews can feel antisemitism in their bones,” Lipstadt writes, meaning that it is something Jews — and presumably no one else — can define by pure, affective feeling (like porn, I suppose?).

This slipperiness is further exacerbated by a later description of antisemitism as an “infection” — something that is just there, dormant until the host is sufficiently weakened. This lack of a structural analysis of antisemitism — what its roots are, what kinds of organizations promote it, why it rises and then falls at particularly historical conjunctures — is what allows for Lipstadt to compare Jeremy Corbyn failing to swiftly condemn an antisemitic mural with the president of the US aiding and abetting the rise of deadly white nationalism: Lipstadt feels it, so it must be true.

One could say Lipstadt’s book is merely the Trump-era incarnation of what is sometimes referred to as the “new antisemitism,” a label that is supposed to contain within it both a paradox and also an assumption about how anti-Jewish sentiment has changed in the twenty-first century. Yet in this formulation, it is the world that has changed: antisemitism is no longer the domain of the far right and Christian supremacists, but has been picked up by the far left, which is both anti-Zionist and fundamentally anti-liberal.

While the origins of “new antisemitism” are sometimes traced to Alan Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel or Abe Foxman’s Never Again? from the late 1990s or early 2000s, one can trace a longer lineage of Jewish liberal angst over the Left, back to the rise of Palestine solidarity after the 1967 Six-Day War and the New Left’s anti-imperialism.

Nathan Glazer, the prominent liberal Cold War sociologist, wrote in 1970 that the fundamental alignment of the world had changed, with a black left allying with decolonizing peoples — placing Israel on the side of white power. While Glazer and I might actually agree in part on this assessment, he sees this development with horror; it is liberal Jewish “sycophancy toward the blacks,” Glazer writes, that keeps such Jews from pointing out how anti-Zionism is antisemitic.

Echoing this lineage, Lipstadt not only argues that any support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement is inherently antisemitic, she descends into Islamophobia as if by rote. Islam is automatically suspect: “no Muslim state treats its minority population with equality,” she writes — suggesting that antisemitism is an intrinsic feature of Islamic society.

While it’s hard to know what she means by a “Muslim state” — certainly no Christian theocracy treats religious minorities with equality, and there are and have been Muslim majority nations that did not discriminate against Jews — such a statement places her clearly within reactionary defenders of Western civilization such as Samuel Huntington and Dinesh D’Souza. Continuing to say that Muslim racism against Jews in Europe stems from their “problem with integration,” she assumes that antisemitism could be calmed by further exposure to the West. Someone should let Anne Frank’s family know all the Nazis needed was a little more European education. Or perhaps remind Lipstadt that there is a Jewish majority state that seems to have a problem with its minorities, as well.

Further essentializing Islam as “anti-gay” and obsessed with “heretics” such as Salman Rushdie, Lipstadt turns the history, and present, of antisemitism on its head. It is not Christian supremacists and white nationalists who are a threat to Jews, in her view, but the Left and its colonized, backwards, primitive allies.

Like the “new antisemitism” theories backed by Dershowitz and Foxman, it reimagines a world in which socialists and Muslims are in shadowy league with one another to create, in her words, the most antisemitic public culture in Europe since the rise of Hitler. Ilhan Omar, in other words, is the real Nazi.

And yet Lipstadt is present enough to know the rise of the Right has created a crisis in the “new antisemitism” narrative. The Right scrambles the narrative of who is an antisemite and what drives its public reemergence: it no longer seems quite plausible to say that human rights activists are the biggest global threat to Jews.

This is why, in a 250-page book with a picture of a Nazi on its cover, only the intro and conclusion mention white nationalism: Lipstadt is aware that her narrative does not cohere, but can’t square the circle. She deploys the Nazi on the cover but never finds a way to connect him to history, or to Jeremy Corbyn. This is why Lipstadt cannot define antisemitism, because if she did, she would realize that one cannot be against antisemitism and against human rights — or one can, but just ends up sounding like an idiot or a very confused reactionary.

Returning to Trump and to J. Edgar Hoover, their statements defending Jews against Muslims and communists are not laughed off the airwaves, because in Trump and Hoover’s antisemitism, it is clear they know the score. Their hatred for Jews is part of their larger worldview in which Jews can be a useful middleman in a war against communism and Islam. As long as Jews align themselves with the “West,” against both Trotsky and Hamas, they will be protected, even as their otherness in the form of Soros or Yellen or the Rosenbergs will be deployed to keep them in line. There is not a contradiction here.

This unacknowledged contradiction explains, however, one of the stranger elements of this book: that it is written as a series of fictionalized letters among the author, a “whip smart” Jewish undergraduate, and a friendly, gentile law professor. The epistolary genre, in the form of a personal letter made public, allows Lipstadt an aura of intimate authority, to trade in affect rather than argument.

When she states that BDS activists make her graduate school–bound, model-minority student “fear for my safety,” this carries an emotional weight that academic argument would not have. The student does not have to define why she “fears for her safety,” or give any evidence why BDS activists would cause such fear (indeed, there have been no attacks by BDS on Jewish students at US universities). Further, the letter-form places the unsourced statement in the mouth of a young student, rather than with a nationally known scholar. To quote REO Speedwagon, you can’t fight a feeling.

In using this form, she borrows from the rich epistolary genre deployed by black writers such as Ta-Nehisi Coates and James Baldwin, in which personal, emotional letters can be powerful weapons for articulating a positive sense of self in a world organized to deny their humanity. When used by a black writer, such affective identity construction can be a radical tool of liberation; when used to defend Zionism, it becomes a kind of emotional blackmail.

I can see why this emotionally manipulative schwarmerei is the appeal of a book targeted to a liberal readership. The book champions liberal values and accurately notes that Jews and other religious and cultural minorities “thrive in liberal and free societies.” And yet the book attacks the Left, demonizes Muslims, and supports banning a nonviolent, global campaign for liberation, the BDS movement in support Palestinian rights.

It is a liberal book for a liberal order that can no longer survive its emerging crises, either economic or cultural. It is a liberal book for a liberalism that can find outrage at Donald Trump, and yet support many of the same policies, from drone wars to deportations, when done under an ostensibly liberal administration. It offers cheap sentiment because it has no moral ballast or honest political framework.

While I agree with Lipstadt that a book on antisemitism should have a neo-Nazi on the cover, personally, I think that Nazi should be Richard Spencer, smirking for the camera, calling himself a “white Zionist” and applauding when Israel, yet again, bombs Gaza, and the Jewish establishment cheers.

Like the calamitous years between the First and Second World Wars, for the nascent Right, Jews have again become secularized “devils,” poisoning the wells of the industrial world. Even as I write this, I am reading about another synagogue set on fire. Antisemitism is indeed here and now. Jews, as with everyone else, have a choice between the Left and Right. That choice is about more than just ethics — it is about survival.

Lipstadt chooses to side with Zionism, even as its representative government shores up its colonial occupation by aligning with fascists from Hungary to Ukraine to the United States. In this, she is little different from mainstream liberals who actually find accommodating the far right easier to swallow than supporting a radical left that might actually challenge the economic and political status quo.

Lipstadt is short on solutions. She prides herself on engaging in dialogue with a university fraternity that hung a Nazi flag; she also enthusiastically supports the ban on BDS. Both her responses are catastrophic in their implications, yet telling: she does not, for instance, call for a ban on white nationalists, only nonviolent Palestinian human rights campaigners.

And yet, there are signs that within the Jewish establishment, like other liberal institutions, cracks are showing: Jewish Voice for Peace, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, the Jewish Solidarity caucus of the Democratic Socialists of America, and other left Jewish groups are growing. It’s groups like these, predicated on global solidarity rather than cheap liberalism or ethnic nationalism, that will save us.