Not Just a Smear Tactic

In July of 2006, Bluestockings bookshop in New York City announced it was hosting a workshop for social justice activists on “opposing anti-Semitism in the movement.” The announcement sparked a heated online discussion on New York’s Indymedia website. Some people asked if the workshop was going to be “some Zionist bullshit” and why it wasn’t going to address other forms of discrimination, such as “Zionist anti-Semetism [sic]” against Palestinians. Critics doubted the existence of any real anti-Semitism on the left, or they suggested that it was caused by “right-wing Jews” having “cried wolf too many times.” One charged that “whining about anti-Semitism is like whining about ‘anti- white,’ or ‘reverse racism.’” They added that “Jews are one of the wealthiest groups in the world with the most privilege.”

Other participants countered by providing accounts of anti-Jewish comments made by leftists: “I’ve seen accusations made that Jews control the US government, media, economy, and so on.” One person wrote, “I’m Palestinian, and for some reason every freakin’ Tom Dick and Harry I meet thinks he can bitch to me about ‘the Jews’.” Another commented, “the virulence with which critics have attacked this workshop illustrates how needed it is.”

As this brief survey suggests, talking about anti-Semitism on the left is a complicated business. The Zionist right has systematically misused the charge of anti-Semitism to smear critics of Israel, while glossing over anti-Jewish attitudes and policies among some of Israel’s allies and even within the Zionist movement itself. However, leftists have sometimes trivialized or dismissed concerns about anti-Semitism. This dismissive attitude has the effect of bolstering real anti-Jewish tendencies and supporting the myth that Jews will find their true friends on the right.

For confused leftists looking for help in navigating this mess, ausefulstartingpointisAprilRosenblum’snewpamphlet,ThePast Didn’t Go Anywhere: M aking R esistance to Anti- S emitism P art of All of Our Movements. Rosenblum, a Philadelphia activist, was a panelist at the Bluestockings workshop, and she is familiar with both the reality of anti-Semitism and the ways in which the term has been abused. Rather than focusing on Jewish concerns in isolation, she emphasizes how countering anti-Jewish oppression should be integrated into other struggles and “has to come from a perspective of justice for all people” (1).

Rosenblum argues that anti-Semitism is a serious issue for two mainreasons.First,it’sdangerousforJews.InThePastDidn’tGo Anywhere, she recounts recent examples of anti-Jewish propaganda and violence in many parts of the world from a kidnapping and murder in France to a wave of street assaults on rabbis in Ukraine, and from a hate-filled speech by the Malaysian Prime Minister to police cover-ups of an anti-Jewish bombing in Argentina. Second, anti-Jewish scapegoating represents a major kind of fake radicalism – “the socialism of fools,” in August Bebel’s classic phrase – that has a poisonous effect on leftist analysis and is central to neo-fascist visions of revolution.

Rosenblum argues that the left needs to do a much better job of fighting anti-Semitism both in society at large and within its own ranks. Although in her estimation “the number of Leftists with real anti-Jewish beliefs is tiny,” voicing concerns about anti-Semitism often elicits “silent, uncomfortable, defensive, and even accusatory” reactions by people and organizations on the left (12). To counter this culture of silence, Rosenblum breaks down common myths about Jews and provides an outline of the history of anti-Semitism and the mixed record of the left’s response to it. Although the discussion sometimes focuses on anti-Semitism to the neglect of other historical dynamics, for many readers it will offer a helpful corrective and guide for further study.

Above all, The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere offers a radical take on the dynamics of anti-Jewish oppression. Whether fomented by elites or bubbling up from below, Rosenblum argues that “anti-Semitism’s job is to make ruling classes invisible” (1). Scapegoating Jews deflects popular anger away from real systems of exploitation and power. In medieval Europe, where anti-Semitism as we know it began to take shape, this scapegoating began to take on structural attributes:

Rulers used Jews for ‘middlemen’ jobs that put Jews in direct contact with the exploited, disgruntled peasantry, shielding rulers from the backlash for their unjust policies. A peasant might live a lifetime without seeing the nobleman who decided her fate; it was Jews [who] were the face of power at her door collecting taxes and rent, Jews who seemed in control, and Jews who faced the violence when peasants in poverty decided to resist (9).

For centuries, Christian Europe forcibly marginalized Jews, subjected them to the constant threat of expulsion from towns and whole countries, and barred them from most trades, while allowing a few to prosper as bankers or as “Court Jews” close to the king. These patterns provided the material preconditions for stereotypes that persist today. Anti-Semitic narratives portray Jews as perpetual outsiders disloyal to the larger society, and as a mysterious and super-powerful group of greedy evildoers who manipulate events behind the scenes.

Rosenblum highlights two distinctive features of anti-Jewish oppression that sometimes make it hard to see. First, unlike many oppressions, anti-Semitism doesn’t necessarily mean keeping Jews in poverty or otherwise “at the bottom” of society. “Because the point of anti-Jewish oppression is to keep a Jewish face in front, so that Jews, instead of ruling classes, become the target for people’s rage, it works even more smoothly when Jews are allowed some success, and can be perceived as the ones ‘in charge’ by other oppressed groups” (8). The carrot of success and relative privilege – coupled with a deep longing for safety from popular violence and hatred – has seduced many Jews into collaborating with local rulers.

Second, anti-Semitism operates cyclically, with waves of persecution alternating with periods of calm and relative safety for Jews. Rosenblum writes, “In some of the most famous examples of anti-Jewish expulsion and mass murder (e.g. medieval Spain or modern Germany), just prior to the attacks, Jews appeared to be one of society’s most successful, comfortable, well-integrated minorities” (8).

This is a useful model for understanding anti-Jewish oppression. But like any theoretical model, unless it is combined with other pieces of the picture, it runs the risk of simplifying and distorting history. For one thing, anti-Semitism sometimes arises in forms that have nothing to do with protecting a ruling class. German Nazism didn’t just scapegoat and persecute Jews; it made the extermination of European Jewry an overriding priority that trumped all other political, economic, and military considerations. Far rightists who seek to overthrow – rather than protect – global capitalist elites are some of today’s leading proponents of anti-Semitism.

Rosenblum’s model of anti-Semitism is also inadequate when applied to the United States. She notes in passing that Jews in the US “have had 200 years of exceptional physical safety” (3) but never addresses the key question of why this is so. The omission implies that US Jews have just been lucky, and that we’ve simply experienced an unusually long down-turn of the anti-Semitism cycle that could swing upward at any time. This weak historical analysis leaves Rosenblum open to attack by some leftists. Matthew Richman, for example, counters that Jews in the US sometimes face anti-Semitic prejudice but are not oppressed as Jews. I don’t agree with his claim that US anti-Semitism has no structural dimension, but Richman has a point when he writes that “judeophobia never served as an ordering principle for American society and politics in the way that racism against Black Americans has for hundreds of years.”1

Our analysis must integrate arguments from both sides of this debate. The United States inherited anti-Semitic traditions from Europe but refracted them through the lens of white supremacy. As a system of social control, the combination of white skin privilege for European Americans and the terroristic subordination of people of colour has been highly effective in defusing class struggle. In this context, the traditional relegation of Jews to the role of scapegoat for the crimes of rulers has been less important.

In the US, the severity of anti-Semitism has depended above all on the shifting status of Jews within the larger racial hierarchy. The US racial order has usually mitigated anti-Jewish persecution by defining most Jews as white. The only exception was the period between the 1880s and the 1940s, when millions of Southern and Eastern Europeans temporarily formed an intermediate group in the racial hierarchy above people of colour but below native-born whites. During this period – and in none other – Jews in the US faced a wave of systematic discrimination in jobs, schools, and housing, and anti-Jewish propaganda, organizing, and violence reached record levels.

But white supremacy never completely subsumed anti-Semitism. Right-wing Jew-hatred has been a fixture of US politics for more than a century and has experienced a resurgence in recent decades. In the 1980s, many Ku Klux Klan-style groups shifted toward a neo-Nazi ideology that defined Jews as the main enemy. After the collapse of the Soviet bloc between 1989 and 1991, parts of the conservative right moved from Cold War anti- communism toward Pat Buchanan’s racial nationalism or the anti- government conspiracy theories of the Patriot Militias – both of which had strong anti-Jewish undertones. Meanwhile, the Christian right, which has gained tens of millions of followers since the 1970s, has used pro-Zionism to mask an anti-Jewish ideology in which the drive to “Christianize” every area of life coexists with an apocalyptic vision where all those who don’t embrace Christianity will be destroyed.

US society has replicated some of the structural dynamics that have long fueled anti-Jewish scapegoating. Although white Christians still dominate the capitalist class, some Jews have risen to prominent positions in entertainment, the media, and investment banking. Overall, Jews have been concentrated in middle-level roles as shopkeepers, landlords, white-collar workers, and administrators, or in professional echelons that – to many poor and working-class people – represent the most visible kinds of status and power. Seeing Jews in these roles – similar as they are to those of tax collector or moneylender in medieval Europe – can reinforce the myth that Jews are the main oppressors. In public policy, Jewish neo-cons have served as highly visible agents for a section of the mostly non-Jewish ruling class. Dependent on patrons like Rupert Murdoch, Richard Mellon Scaife, and the Olin and Smith Richardson foundations, the neo-cons have been useful not only for their skills but also for their potential as expendable scapegoats in times of need.

Rosenblum does a better job addressing historical complexities in her discussion of Israel and Palestine. As she points out, “in an issue where some Jews do have real power, it can get hard to tell what’s an accurate observation of unjust actions they have done, and what’s anti-Semitic thinking.” In order to address this problem, she offers some helpful guidelines (such as “critique actions and policy as unjust – not people or nations as evil”) and a chart that delineates clear criticisms of Israel (“Israel has a repeated and ongoing record of human rights offences”), versus anti-Semitic statements repeated without anti-Jewish intent (“Israel is a worse human rights violator than most or all other countries”), and lines directly peddled by neo-Nazis and other anti-Semites (“Israel is the root of the world’s problems”). She argues that it is legitimate to criticize Zionism, but cautions that many people do so in simplistic ways that unintentionally fuel anti-Semitism (20-21).

Although she supports Palestinian self-determination, Rosenblum is pointedly noncommittal about Zionism. She acknowledges that “Zionism as a whole has had racist and oppressive results for the Palestinian people” but claims that Zionism “stands for a huge range of beliefs and believers,” from those who call for mass expulsion of all Palestinians to those who are “open to living in a bi-national, Palestinian-Jewish state” (21, 22). This is misleading. Certainly, there are important differences between right-wing and left-wing Zionists, but virtually all Zionists agree that Israel is and should be the state of the Jewish people. That core principle is incompatible with bi-nationalism and inherently discriminates against non-Jews, including those who hold Israeli citizenship. It is embodied in Israel’s system of legal racism that spans everything from immigration to development funding to the ownership of land. The Past Didn’t GoAnywhere makes no mention of this.

Rosenblum is also silent about the strong anti-Jewish current in Zionism itself. The Zionist movement’s leading forces have repeatedly attacked Jewish cultures in terms that vividly embody internalized oppression. Theodor Herzl, founder of political Zionism, denounced Yiddish-speaking Jews as cowardly, profit- hungry, treacherous, scheming, dirty, and repellent. The Israeli state has developed close ties with anti-Semites like those in the US Christian right and – most notoriously – Argentina’s former military junta, which conducted systematic terrorism against Jews in the 1970s and 1980s. Far from offering Jews an escape from anti- Semitism, Zionism has simply internationalized the dynamics of scapegoating. Many Arab governments, for example, have used Israel to draw popular resentment away from their own role in imperialism, capitalism, and even anti-Palestinian repression.

ThePastDidn’tGoAnywherealsofallsshortinitsaccountof the historic relationship between Jews and revolutionary politics. Rosenblum says little about the history of leftists combating Jew-hatred, and focuses one-sidedly on anti-Semitism as a factor driving Jews away from the left. Although she mentions 1950s revelations about Soviet persecution of Jews, she is silent on the Communist movement’s struggles against Stalinism. Similarly, the New Left’s “ignorance of Jewish oppression” is explored but its overall fragmentation and decline after 1969 is not. Rosenblum critiques “tolerance of anti-Jewish rhetoric” in recent movements but glosses over the general ups and downs these movements have faced for many reasons (16).

Even more troubling is Rosenblum’s claim that anti-Semitism makes Jews “a reserve of revolutionary potential – in all classes, at all times.” Put more fully, “Jewish oppression… cannot be ended without fighting and transforming social injustice as a whole,” and any Jew who understands this “cannot help but become a radical” (17).

But why should we think that (awareness of) anti-Semitism trumps all of the complex and intangible factors that shape a person’s political outlook? The idea that Jews as a group have some kind of special affinity for revolutionary politics sounds like a leftist version of the “chosen people” myth. It also ignores an important lesson of the anti-Semitism model Rosenblum herself presents – that people can be both privileged and oppressed at the same time, that political consciousness often blends contradictory impulses. ThePastDidn’tGoAnywhereisatitsbestwhenitremembersthis lesson.


1 politics-on-the-left.