And talking about ‘anti-Semitism’ is part of the problem.
After the Holocaust, the American Jewish community, like most liberals, reduced the mass murder of millions of Jews to a problem of intolerance and prejudice. A massive effort was undertaken to educate about what had happened rather than what was happening.
While the first Holocaust museums were being built, the persecution and killing of Jews had mostly shifted over to the Soviet Union and its allies in the Arab Muslim world. American Jews failed to grapple with this shift much as they failed to come to terms with the reality that black nationalist groups were quickly eclipsing the KKK when it came to the domestic hatred of Jews.
These are the key ingredients that led to the current open climate of Jew-hatred in America.
Instead of talking about what the hatred of Jews looked like today, American Jewish liberals insisted on dwelling on what it had looked like decades earlier in America and in Europe. Like the generals who are always refighting yesterday’s war, they were not dealing with the present.
They relied heavily on “antisemitism”: a term invented in the 19th century by a German socialist bigot, Wilhelm Marr, to emphasize the race of the Jews. But post-Holocaust hatred of Jews on the Left was more often cultural than racial. Karl Marx, the progenitor of Marxism, had been of Jewish descent from a Christian family, and had spread poisonous antisemitic venom. Lenin, who had one Jewish grandfather, oversaw the oppression of Jews while denying they were a distinct people. The Soviet expectation was that the Jews would disappear as a people, but, aside from Stalin’s final years, avoided any plans for the racial extermination of the Jews.
The Marxist and the Islamic position, unlike the Nazi racial position, did not require the physical extermination of the Jews at a genetic level, only a cultural genocide. Jews would be allowed to exist under Communism or Islam, as long as they abandoned their religion and national identity. The liberal focus on fighting racial antisemitism left it unprepared to fight such cultural hatred.
Even though the Soviet persecution of the Jews as a people had been underway for generations, American liberal Jews never developed a vocabulary for describing it. Or showed much particular interest in it until a new generation of young activists in the USSR and America finally made it a burning issue that rose to national and international attention in the 1970s.
The Communist persecution of Jews was manifested in many of the same ways as the contemporary leftist hatred of Jews. The party and the regime claimed to oppose ‘antisemitism’, even passed laws banning it, while suppressing Judaism and Zionism as ‘reactionary’ and ‘nationalistic’. The Soviet Union could point to examples of high-ranking Jewish figures who had rejected Zionism and Judaism, and represented the Communist ideal for the Jews.
As Lenin put it, “whoever, directly or indirectly, puts forward the slogan of Jewish national culture is (whatever his good intentions may be) an enemy of the proletariat… he is an accomplice of the rabbis and the bourgeoisie… on the other hand, those Jewish Marxists who mingle with the Russian, Lithuanian, Ukrainian and other workers in international Marxist organizations, and make their contribution… towards creating the international culture of the working-class movement… uphold the best traditions of Jewry by fighting the slogan of ‘national culture.’”
Jews had to be culturally, but not racially eradicated. Those Jews who joined with non-Jewish Marxists in the rejection of Judaism and Zionism were praiseworthy Marxists. Those who did not were an “enemy of the proletariat” to be executed like a number of my great-uncles.
Like most Soviet implementations of Communist ideology, this was a ‘Potemkin village’ of lies. Jews, regardless of their religious observance or interest in Israel, had been explicitly targeted for persecution and mass murder, were specially designated as being Jews in government documents, and the government’s formal anti-Zionism and anti-Judaism was just the same old ‘antisemitism’, complete with hook-nosed cartoons, dressed up in progressive clothing.
Much the same is true of contemporary leftist Jew-hatred which is based on Marx’s stereotypes of Jews as capitalists, but draws heavily on the Soviet playbook of substituting anti-Zionism for antisemitism, and trotting out model Jewish socialists to defend the persecution of Jews.
The liberal Jewish failure to meaningfully confront the Soviet hatred of Jews left them unprepared for the leftist movements that mainstreamed the same hatred in America.
There were plenty of warnings. Decade after decade, academics pushing these positions on college campuses, journalists embedding them in magazines, and fringe politicians making these arguments grew in power and influence while the liberal establishment talked of ‘antisemitism’ purely in terms of far-right racial supremacism or small town prejudices.
The rise of black nationalist antisemitism in the seventies, which was often explicitly racialist in nature, produced flailing responses. The American Jewish liberal establishment held up faded pictures of Heschel marching with MLK, failing to grasp that this made black nationalists despise MLK rather than like Jews, and prattled about the Jewish contribution to civil rights. The liberal establishment was so committed to a model of top-down persecution that it was unable to defend Jews against antisemitism that appeared to be coming from a minority on the bottom.
When various forms of critical race theory made the formula official that black people and minorities could not be racist toward anyone with more privilege than them, a position that legitimized a general hatred of white people, Asians and Jews, there was little response. The formal understanding that Jews could now be freely hated was ignored by liberal Jews.
Some outnumbered figures launched a struggle for the soul of liberalism, but they had little and fleeting support from an establishment that was still influential enough to make a difference. The liberal Jewish establishment was more interested in being in the vanguard of civil rights than in protecting Jews from the emergence of an ideology that deprived them of their civil rights.
Only after the Hamas mass murder of over 1,000 Jews and the statements of support for it at major universities, did some donors and community leaders wake up enough to push back. It took the worst massacre of Jews since the Holocaust and the widespread acceptance of it by their friends for them to realize how bad the situation had gotten, but not to realize why.
And that is the crucial issue.
The pro-Hamas Left insists that it is not ‘antisemitic’ and most of it probably believes that’s true because while traditional bigotry and hatred created the Islamic obsession with killing Jews and the conviction in the old Marxist Left that the Jews were not a legitimate people, the final product is cloaked in talk about liberation, decolonization and an end to privilege and oppression.
It may support the mass murder of Jews, but it doesn’t culturally ‘feel’ like ‘antisemitism’.
The Leftist hatred of Jews doesn’t fit the liberal model in which there is a continuity of oppression. A downtrodden minority faces prejudice, which escalates into political repression and then violence. First there are the jokes, then laws and then bullets. Leftists cheering for Hamas would argue that since they don’t tell ‘antisemitic’ jokes, they can’t be considered antisemitic even while they’re calling for the mass murder of Jews.
This is why the traditional model of talking about antisemitism has failed so badly.
The liberal insistence on teaching tolerance by addressing the roots of bigotry rather than its outcome has been a disastrous failure because where far-right bigotry is a continuity, left-wing bigotry is a discontinuity of ideological abstractions leading indirectly to mass murder. The ideological detachment from reality can be measured in the fact that inmates in Nazi camps did not shout, “Heil Hitler” before dying, but those in Soviet gulags were known to shout, “long live Stalin” before being executed. The Nazis knew what they were doing, Communists often did not. They existed and still exist in an ideological haze of slogans rather than people.
‘Antisemitism’ is an ideological abstraction that leftists reject because it appears to refer to a certain type of person and behavior that their ideological purity tells them that they couldn’t be. They’re not the sorts of people who talk about ‘jewing down’ or believe in the inferiority of races and therefore, even while they’re smashing Jewish store windows and attacking a Holocaust museum, they can’t be ‘antisemites’. They know ‘antisemites’ are ‘right wing’ and when they’re assaulting Jews in the street, they, like the Soviet Communists, are fighting against ‘Zionism’.
The emphasis on antisemitism, on the roots of bigotry rather than their outcomes, makes such moral evasiveness easy for leftists. Focus on the mass murder of Jews, the broken glass and a mob outside the doors of a Holocaust museum, and then you’re talking about hateful outcomes.
Those are much harder to evade than abstractions.
The analysis of ‘antisemitism’ rather than the concrete reality of Jew-hatred has played into the hands of a leftist culture of hate that uses analysis to disguise the reality of its actions.
Confronting the realities of the assaults on Jews will require taking stock of a cultural war, rather than a racial one, and deal with outcomes instead of motives. Talking about ‘antisemitism’ becomes misleading when confronting a form of antisemitism that hides its ethnic hatred behind cultural and political hostility. And that will require discussing cultural, religious and political differences, topics which liberal Jews are uncomfortable with.
The modern liberal consensus, like that of the Soviet Union, is racially diverse but ideologically unified. The illusion of multiculturalism in the Soviet Union or a college town in America is limited to only those cultural differences that don’t clash with the dominant leftist belief system. This is a comfortable echo chamber for those who agree and a repressive cage for those who do not.
Liberal Jews bought into this system in a big way because they were terrified of feeling different. They shed their religious traditions for non-threatening culturally Jewish versions of liberal Protestantism and stayed silent about the mass murder of Jews during the Holocaust. The rebirth of Israel challenged their theology and their politics, but mostly their anonymity.
While American Jewish anti-zionists lashed out at Israel in resentment for creating tension between their politics and their identity, Israel was just the canary in the coal mine. Black nationalists weren’t attacking Jewish teachers because of Israel. And Marxists weren’t targeting Jews because of the Jewish State. To a liberal establishment that was turning leftist, the existence of a traditional Jewish community was unsustainable in either Israel or America.
Oct 7, like the protests for Soviet Jewry and the defenses of Israel, forced American Jews to break with their political community in support of their religious and ethnic community. It’s a painful and alienating experience, but like any escape from a toxic relationship, also liberating.
Among the unexamined truisms that need to be rethought is ‘antisemitism’.
Antisemitism refers to race and when it comes to the hatred of Jews, culture trumps race. Aside from the Nazis and a few ‘Jewish Question’ obsessed racialists, hardly anyone who hates Jews would propose using genetic screening to track down people of Jewish descent who don’t even know that they are Jewish to exterminate them. Most cultural ‘antisemitism’ has a racial component, but it’s triggered by the idea of the Jews as a community and a people.
The term ‘antisemitism’ conflates someone who doesn’t like Jews, but would never engage in violence or support violence, with those who engage in and support violence against Jews. Furthermore some of those who support the mass murder of Jews don’t believe that they’re prejudiced against Jews, but believe that killing Jewish children is the right thing to do.
Talking about ‘antisemitism’ or even ‘hatred’ is wholly inadequate in such situations.
The idea of a continuity of bigotry often breaks down in the madness of contemporary political discourse. The same term used to describe someone who resents Jews moving into his town should not be used to also describe someone massacring Jews. Calling it all ‘antisemitism’ minimizes it and puts the local jerk on the same level as Hitler or Hamas. And that’s a mistake.
The liberal Jewish establishment has spent too much time fighting ‘prejudice’ and not enough time dealing with ‘eliminationist’ sentiments. The existential threat is not prejudice: it’s genocide.
Fighting the leftist and Islamic hatred of Jews will require developing a new terminology and a new approach than the same old tired ‘fight against antisemitism’ establishment rhetoric. Liberal Jews will have to confront their own fears and rethink their assumptions to take on the threat.
During the Hitler-Stalin Pact, Jews had to confront Communists and their sympathizers who were now suddenly insistent on a friendship with the Nazis. That genocidal alliance crystalized a rejection of Communism by American Jews as “Jewish workers assaulted Communists who tried to defend their alliance with the Nazis, calling them, ‘Communazis.’”
The pact between Islam and the Left manifested once again in the response to the Oct 7 atrocities should be met the same way. The Left should be rejected the same way the Communists were. The ‘Communazis’ have been replaced by ‘Commuhamasniks’, but that is the only thing that has changed. American Jews must relearn how to fight this enemy.
After three generations of failing to confront the leftist hatred of Jews, it’s time to fight.
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