I think I speak for many millennial American Jews when I say that a sense of suffering is part of my Jewish inheritance. From Passover’s tales of bondage in Egypt to family stories of my great-uncle resettling Jewish refugees during the Holocaust, Jewish liturgy and European diasporic histories breed a hypervigilance to persecution. But the centrality of suffering to contemporary American Jewish identity brings with it contemporary contradictions: what does it mean to center the suffering of Jewishishness when the majority of us are white, U.S.-born, and middle- or upper-class? And when the purportedly Jewish state is a global power, armed with a multi-billion-dollar military and nuclear weapons?
These contradictions have animated long, but often overlooked, conversations amongst Jewish thinkers and activists. The 1969 collection of essays Black Anti-Semitism and Jewish Racism marks one early interrogation of Jewish whiteness and its implications for race and Jewish identity in the United States. In introducing the volume, Nat Hentoff concedes that despite a deeply ingrained sense of Jewish difference, to black Americans, “We [white] Jews are like the rest of those outside their ghetto…We are all goyim—with power.” And yet, fifty years after its publication, the Jewish psyche remains, as Albert Vorspan wrote then, “Raw and acutely sensitive.” Amidst an increasingly diverse American Jewish community and highly visible racial justice movements such as Black Lives Matter, questions of Jewish complicity in white supremacy remain mostly silenced, obscured by fears of the “new antisemitism” (i.e. anti-Zionism) and a deep attachment to an exceptionalist narrative of Jewish persecution.
Questions of Jewish complicity in white supremacy remain mostly silenced, obscured by fears of the “new antisemitism” (i.e. anti-Zionism) and a deep attachment to an exceptionalist narrative of Jewish persecution.
For progressive white American Jews grappling with the contradictions of historical Jewish suffering and contemporary access to privilege and power, 2017 may have offered a strange solace. The Trump Administration, and the white nationalist factions it has emboldened, have made antisemitism in America more palpable than in recent memory—perhaps refuting familiar anxieties that young Jews will never understand antisemitism the way our grandparents do. Today we are facing anti-Jewish flashpoints that seem anachronistic to many Jews across the political spectrum: Steve Bannon and Breitbart’s war on “globalists”; the destruction of Jewish cemeteries and waves of Jewish Community Center bomb threats; a CNN banner text reading “Alt-Right Founder Questions If Jews Are People” displayed on live television; repeated vandalisms at Boston’s Holocaust museum; the proliferation of neo-Nazi imagery and chants at marches from Charlottesville to Berkeley. These images bring me back to moments of my own childhood that once cemented my sense of Jewish history and identity: imagining the crack of the Egyptian slave-driver’s whip while reading the Haggadah; peering through the glass display of a tattered Torah at the Holocaust Museum; recounting the Roman empire’s violent executions of the ten martyrs each Yom Kippur….
There is an odd familiarity in the space of fear and isolation these moments trigger, as if this is indeed what it means to be Jewish. And yet, this is not a place in which I feel powerful. Here, I am looking over my shoulder constantly, suspicious of would-be allies. I am frozen, not galvanized, by this fear. And as isolating as this place feels, I know I am far from alone. Indeed, I can’t shake the feeling that this space defines contemporary Jewish politics.
A conservative consensus on antisemitism
Given the consistent experience of oppression across time and space, it makes sense to conclude that antisemitism is a permanent feature of Jewish life—a virus that will inevitably infect any society in which Jews find themselves. This story of the “unbroken continuity” of anti-Jewish persecution, as Hannah Arendt scornfully described it, remains hegemonic across the political spectrum. The story has undoubtedly proven its efficacy in safeguarding a collective Jewish sense of self in the face of a millennia-old diaspora, weaving a narrative thread from the Roman Empire to Medieval Europe to Nazi Germany and into the 21st century. Yet Arendt’s warning in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951)—that this “fallacious” narrative ignores the specific forms and functions that, for instance, differentiate medieval religious persecution from Nazi racial pseudoscience—seems to have been largely forgotten, or perhaps never truly learned.
The well-worn metaphor of antisemitism as virus reflects the understanding that anti-Jewish prejudice is transhistorical—infecting communities across time, place, and nation. In its early iterations in 1959, as the “swastika epidemic” shocked post-war Western Europe and the United States with its sudden public proliferation of antisemitic iconography, groups such as the American Jewish Congress popularized the notion of antisemitism as a “dangerous infection… always ready to flower into ugly violence at the drop of a cue.” Today, Jewish communal leaders and political pundits continue to invoke the metaphor in service of a range of political interests from condemnations of antisemitic attacks by Muslim extremists in Europe (“the virus of anti-Semitism has infected the British Muslim community”), to reactionary anxieties around the growing influence of the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions movement (“the mutating virus”) and fears of the antisemitic undertones of the Trump Administration (“Anti-Semitism has ‘infected’ Trump administration”).
The well-worn metaphor of antisemitism as virus reflects the understanding that anti-Jewish prejudice is transhistorical—infecting communities across time, place, and nation.
Conservative Jewish politics in Israel and North America reflect the dangers of flattening diverse instances of antisemitism into a singular narrative of recurring disease. Research conducted by leading Israeli political scientist Daniel Bar-Tal pinpoints the political challenges that arise from a communal Jewish identity defined by suffering. Surveying a representative sample of 500 Israeli Jews, Bar-Tal found in 2008 that stronger identification with “past persecution of Jews” was correlated with a misunderstanding of facts surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Bar-Tal’s research implies that a narrative of perpetual Jewish suffering precludes opportunities for many Israelis to recognize Israeli culpability in the so-called conflict.
The efficacy of Israeli state propaganda, besides its ominous implications for the ongoing occupation, are also troubling for those concerned with the safety of Jews in the diaspora. The Israeli government deems antisemitism abroad a threat only when doing so bolsters its Zionist agenda. Through this state-sanctioned lens, extremist attacks on Jewish communities in Europe “prove” an anti-diasporic narrative that Israel can be the only home for Jews. Meanwhile, pro-Israel governments that peddle antisemitic canards, such as Hungary’s far-right campaign against George Soros and Donald Trump’s Jew-baiting retweets, are absolved in deference to their Zionism.
An examination of mainstream American Jewish politics suggests that Bar-Tal’s findings aren’t just applicable to Israelis. For decades, American Jewish pillars from the American Jewish Congress to the Anti-Defamation League have redoubled Israel’s efforts to brand anti-Zionism as the “new antisemitism.” Through a myopic lens of eternal victimhood, the American Jewish establishment is working overtime to criminalize Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions, painting the nonviolent movement as an antisemitic assault on Jewish existence itself. This weaponization of antisemitism has shut down many opportunities for Jewish participation in movements for social justice. From branding Palestinian American civil rights leader Linda Sarsour an antisemite, to cutting ties with the Movement for Black Lives over its condemnation of the Israeli occupation as “genocide,” reactionary interpretations of Jewish suffering have eroded a history of American Jewish civil rights activism.
These twisted political priorities are attributable in part to a transhistorical reading of antisemitism that is not finely attuned to differentials in power. Conservative political agendas cynically exploit what Hentoff, from Black Anti-Semitism and Jewish Racism, described as the ease with which Jews “fantasize ‘crises’ of anti-Semitism.” Such fantasies arise, for instance,when people conflate recent antisemitic attacks in Western Europe by individual Muslims with the top-down state violence of the 1930s and 40s. Similarly, the American Jewish establishment’s inability (or unwillingness) to acknowledge hierarchies of power in its invocations of anti-Jewish threats builds on longstanding anxieties of so-called “black antisemitism” that misrepresent who has access to structural power in the United States. As Chanda Prescod-Weinstein writes in On Antisemitism, “Black anti-Jewish sentiment may be prejudiced, but white Jewish anti-Blackness comes with the full force of white supremacy at its back.” Today’s fantasized crises of antisemitism have prioritized punching down at activists of color over challenging the ascendance of antisemitic conspiracy theorists into the upper echelons of Washington D.C. The presumption that antisemitism is a universal, permanent condition has left many American Jews unwilling to grasp the specificities of “New World” chattel slavery and genocide—the very systems that have positioned European Jews as white in North America. Honestly confronting these power differentials means dispensing with the myth that attacks on systems of white supremacy, which inevitably implicate white Jews, are antisemitic. This reframing is a prerequisite for real mass Jewish participation in racial justice movements.
Coupled with a narrow pro-Israel agenda, a vacuous understanding of antisemitism has led the American Jewish establishment towards a reprehensible alliance with the pro-Israel antisemites of the Trump administration. While Jewish progressives demanded that groups like the Jewish Federations of North America denounce Trump’s post-election appointment of noted antisemite Steve Bannon, the Federations were silent, erstwhile rallying behind legislation to outlaw BDS (and hosting Chanukah parties at a Trump Tower). And while Jewish progressives have rallied to hold mainstream Jewish institutions accountable, the American Jewish left has failed to offer a compelling alternative to the idea that antisemitism is an eternal marker of Jewish existence. This is not a matter of theory: our understandings of antisemitism have deep ramifications for progressive Jewish approaches to political activism. As Jewish progressives struggle to find a clear analysis of the place of antisemitism under an administration that has openly embraced Islamophobia, antiblackness, settler colonialism, and nativism, the question is worth revisiting: Are our frameworks for understanding antisemitism hindering progressive efforts to push mainstream Jewish politics from a place of reactionary isolationism and towards solidarity?
Our understandings of antisemitism have deep ramifications for progressive Jewish approaches to political activism.
Can Jewish exceptionalism be progressive?
The contemporary American left’s articulation of antisemitism as an inherently cyclical phenomenon reiterates the dominant framework that Arendt had criticized. April Rosenblum’s influential pamphlet “The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere” is emblematic of this frame (though far from alone in its analysis). Unlike all other forms of oppression, Rosenblum argues that antisemitism is often invisible because it “allows Jews success” in times of comfort in order to fulfill their role as “useful Jews” (i.e. scapegoats) later. Paralleling conservative articulations of antisemitism as a virus prone to unpredictable outbreaks, Rosenblum writes that anti-Jewish “attacks come in waves.” She cites Jewish comfort and integration just before their expulsion and murder in medieval Spain and modern Germany as proof that Jewish safety can never be more than a quiet moment in an inevitable cycle of Jewish persecution. Published in 2007, Rosenblum’s analysis of cyclical antisemitism has been canonized in the Jewish left, frequently cited in workshops on antisemitism and leftist Jewish reading lists and heavily referenced in new progressive resources like Jews for Racial and Economic Justice’s “Understanding Antisemitism.”
It may seem odd to advance a critique of cyclical antisemitism in a moment at which its premise appears to be vindicated by contemporary neo-Nazi marches in the United States, anti-Jewish terror attacks in Western Europe, and antisemitic political campaigns in Hungary. Yet it’s never been clearer that antisemitism is not exceptional: it is part of larger forces of racism, nativism, and Christian hegemony. A monolithic interpretation of antisemitism offers an imprecise frame for confronting American neo-Nazi myths that black progress is the result of a Jewish conspiracy. Making sense of that canard means recognizing how North American antisemitism is given power through the specific structures of antiblackness. Likewise, we must parse how anti-Muslim nativism fuels Hungary’s claims that Jews like George Soros are to blame for the European Union’s influx of Muslim refugees, or how expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank helps motivate individual attacks in France or Britain by Muslims with extremist ideologies. These manifestations of antisemitism are difficult to fight when they are abstracted as “natural consequences of an eternal problem,” divorcing them from the systems of imperialism and white supremacy that give them power.
Yet it’s never been clearer that antisemitism is not exceptional: it is part of larger forces of racism, nativism, and Christian hegemony.
Meanwhile, the entrenched belief that Jewish safety and integration is itself a symptom of antisemitism (after all, privileged Jews do make “useful Jews”) makes it difficult to ask necessary questions about Jewish complicity with structural power. In Jewish Voice for Peace’s recent book On Antisemitism, Tallie Ben-Daniel compellingly questions the insidious notion that the privilege afforded to white, middle-class American Jews is a function of antisemitism rather than of whiteness. If the privileges and power some Jews enjoy under white supremacy in the United States are simply a function of antisemitism—of being made to be “useful” later—is there no room to hold Jewish actors accountable for their bad acts? By such logic, the vibrant Jewish community of antebellum Charleston, which owned slaves at the same rate as their white Christian counterparts, were merely pawns in the scheme of a ruling class. While anti-Jewish tropes like the “greedy Jewish landlord” misattribute his capitalist function to his Jewishness, an oversimplified “middleman” narrative risks absolving the violence he enacts in deference to his Jewishness.
Avoiding questions of complicity also ignores the ways in which European Jews have defined themselves negatively against other minorities, as in their opposition to African Americans during Jim Crow. As Eric Goldstein explores in The Price of Whiteness, public displays of Jewish racism—through minstrel shows staged by Jewish social clubs or mobilizing behind segregation laws—reveal the ways in which American Jews attempted to evade the prejudices of the “old country” by adopting the lingua franca of American politics: antiblackness. Like the Irish, Italians, and other “ethnic” white immigrants, this ongoing history of Jewish antiblackness echoes Toni Morrison’s thesis that “a hostile posture towards resident blacks must be struck at the Americanizing door before it will open.” Yet, a narrow lens of Jewish exceptionalism frames ongoing American Jewish participation in antiblackness as the simple fulfillment of a predetermined middleman role. While resources such as “The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere” and “Understanding Antisemitism” help to explain the usefulness of the figure of the Jew in the perpetuation of racial capitalism, they leave limited room for confronting the ways actual Jewish people can act as willing (if sometimes coerced) agents in its persistence. Far from progressive, the absolution of Jewish participation in white supremacy by the dominant understanding of antisemitism halts opportunities to challenge Jewish complicity.
Cyclical framings of antisemitism also attempt to universalize European histories of Jewish persecution, weakening a global perspective on antisemitism and erasing the experiences of Mizrahi and Sephardi Jewish communities. The Eurocentric lens of cyclical antisemitism, Ben-Daniel argues, flattens Mizrahi histories “by attempting to ‘discover’ the equivalent of a pogrom or a ghetto in Mizrahi history.” Instead, these long histories of “integrated and indigenous” Arab Jewish life, as groundbreaking Mizrahi scholar Ella Shohat describes, ought to challenge our assumption that antisemitism is by nature a permanent condition of Jews the world over. This conceptual pivot also challenges the Zionist narrative that the expulsion of Jewish communities from Arab nations following the founding of the state of Israel is simply another transhistorical antisemitic event, rather than the consequence of British and Israeli settler colonialism. Destabilizing this hegemonic understanding of antisemitism thus serves to depower the right’s weaponization of the term that functions both to shield criticisms both of the Israeli state (and its violence against Palestinians, African refugees, and Mizrahi and Ethiopian Jews) and American Jewish participation in white supremacy. A new understanding of antisemitism will create openings for progressive Jewish resistance to white supremacy and colonialism.
This is not to ignore the political and analytical utility of Rosenblum’s analysis. Rosenblum is right that antisemitic European histories—such as the fabrication of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion meant to tear apart the Bolshevik left—are useful for understanding contemporary manifestations of anti-Jewish thought. But the American left is ultimately limited by the notion that these histories must map perfectly onto contemporary institutions. In part, this leads to an incomplete understanding of how scapegoating manifests in American politics. Jewish exceptionalism tells us antisemitism operates uniquely as a pressure valve, diverting mass resentment away from the ruling class and towards Jews. Yet, we must recognize that Jews by no means hold a monopoly on scapegoating. From white labor unions that blamed Chinese immigrants for their economic woes in the 1870s, to the myth of the welfare-exploiting black woman behind the bipartisan dismantling of social safety nets, Jews have not been the only, or even the primary, targets of white America’s scapegoating. Though conspiratorial notions that a Jewish lobby manipulates U.S. politics abound on the far-right (and to a lesser extent, the far-left), we must be clear in understanding that they do not animate policy in the way that stereotypes of the black welfare queen or the Mexican drug lord do. In the midst of a White House administration that rose to power on the heels of a campaign that blamed Muslims, Mexican immigrants, black “criminality” and Chinese saboteurs for America’s woes, we would do well to see American Jewish scapegoating less in a vacuum of Jewish exceptionalism and more as one of many conspiracies that animate what Richard Hofstadter once termed the “paranoid style” of American politics.
In the midst of a White House administration that rose to power on the heels of a campaign that blamed Muslims, Mexican immigrants, black “criminality” and Chinese saboteurs for America’s woes, we would do well to see American Jewish scapegoating less in a vacuum of Jewish exceptionalism and more as one of many conspiracies that animate what Richard Hofstadter once termed the “paranoid style” of American politics.
Insisting on the singularity of Jewish scapegoating also erases the fact that it is precisely through Jewish participation in other American traditions of scapegoating that white Jews have built upon their legal whiteness to secure social acceptance. As Julius Lester wrote: “In America Jews became white because there existed a people called blacks.” Today, we continue to see the power of oppositional identification through expressions of Jewish Islamophobia. As Jewish fascists march at “anti-Sharia” rallies and mainstream Jewish institutions funnel contributions to Islamophobic hate groups and smear Muslim civil rights leaders, we might add to Lester: in America, [white] Jews can remain white (and part of an invented “Judeo-Christian” tradition) because there exist a people called Muslims.
An exceptionalist framing of antisemitism entrenches a type of Jewish fear that ultimately serves to isolate Jews from the left and police the bounds of racial justice movements. Though Yair Netanyahu (the Israeli Prime Minister’s son) drew headlines for a Facebook post describing Black Lives Matter and U.S. anti-fascists as a bigger threat to Jews than the neo-Nazis that marched at Charlottesville, a wide segment of Jewish conservatives and liberals in Israel and the U.S. alike have cosigned a similar narrative—that the anti-racist left is the “real” threat to Jews. To be sure, the left is not immune from antisemitic thought (which is after all the “socialism of fools,” as founding German socialist Ferdinand Bebel described). But when real, pernicious manifestations of leftist anti-semitism—like 9/11 “truther” Christopher Bollyn’s 2016 appearance at radical Brooklyn community space the Brooklyn Commons—are met with multi-racial, multi-faith protests, it becomes obvious that wild invocations of the dangers of “left antisemitism” function primarily to silence the concerns of black, Palestinian, and other activists of color who challenge the American Jewish consensus on Israel. What mainstream Jewish critics consider a culture of “left antisemitism” has less to do with incidents like that at the Brooklyn Commons and everything to do with growing anti-Zionist, anti-racist alliances on college campuses and expressions of Palestinian solidarity from highly visible progressive platforms like the Vision for Black Lives and the Women’s March.
And Jews on the left are not safe from accusations of left antisemitism either: when Jewish Voice for Peace launched a campaign in July 2017 to end Israeli-American police exchanges that share “worst practices” that criminalize black and brown communities from Ferguson to Gaza, they were accused of veering into antisemitism for pointing out that many are sponsored by Jewish organizations like the Anti-Defamation League. Widely circulated, and lauded as “thoughtful critique” by one leader in the progressive Jewish community, this derailment exemplifies how the American Jewish establishment conflates criticisms of Jewish participation in white supremacy with old antisemitic tropes of Jewish conspiracies, silencing challenges from the left.
Increasingly, even the simple argument that white American Jews are white is rejected as proof of the “culture of antisemitism on the antiracist left.” Deeply held beliefs in the permanent nature of antisemitism create a sort of cognitive dissonance for many white Jews faced with antiracist critiques of Jewish participation in white supremacy and colonialism, leading to a perverse fetishization of antisemitic instances that “prove” Jewish perpetual suffering. In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, a Times of Israel article argued the “silver lining” to the wave of antisemitic incidents that followed was that it was challenging the notion that “Jews are privileged and white,” in the words of one college Hillel director. This conflation of Jewish identity with victimization, combined with the white fragility endemic to white Americans unfamiliar with confronting their own racial identity, leads to the rhetorical use of antisemitism as a shield against calls for white Jews to confront their own whiteness. Even more, it facilitates a sort of smug satisfaction in the face of legitimate threats to Jewish safety (e.g. Charlottesville) that mirrors the Israeli government’s own abatement of antisemitism when it fits its agenda. When many Jews across the aisle are preoccupied with the leftist bogeyman of the week (whether it’s the Chicago Dyke March, Black Lives Matter, or the March for Racial Justice), even the most violent incarnations of far-right antisemitism are considered useful insofar as they confirm beliefs that the left’s insistence on confronting Jewish whiteness means it doesn’t take antisemitism seriously. So long as our framings of antisemitism serve to police the work of racial justice and veil white Jewish access to structural power, progressive Jewish efforts will be doomed to the same political stalemate as the Israeli-American Jewish establishment they seek to dislodge.
The liberal repudiation of anti-semitism
In a spirited exchange in Tikkun responding to Yotam Moram’s widely-shared 2016 essay “Towards the Next Jewish Rebellion,” Moram and activist Wendy Elisheva Somerson discuss the uses (and misuses) of transhistorical readings of antisemitism. The back-and-forth articulates an often unspoken disagreement about how Jews on the left understand antisemitism in our movements for justice. Where Moram cites the work of April Rosenblum, Cherie Brown, and Harvey Jackins to frame antisemitism as inherently cyclical, Somerson criticizes a “static [Jewish] victimhood” that compels us to “reenact trauma by constantly searching for signs that the ground might collapse at any moment.” In response, Moram poses a question: if “Somerson thinks the cycle has been broken, why does she think that? How did antisemitism become so benign and why is Somerson so sure that the ‘relative stability’ experienced by some Jews is not as temporary and conditional as it has been in other periods of our history?”
Answering this question requires placing Arendt’s “unbroken continuity” alongside the particularities of liberal and “post-racial” thought in the post-WWII era. In 1967, James Baldwin decried the use of historic European Jewish suffering to dictate the bounds of black American liberation, writing that while “the Jew’s suffering is recognized as part of the moral history of the world…this is not true for the blacks.” But the United States and the West writ large do not recognize Jewish suffering out of good will or moral imperative. From the U.S. rejection of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany to 1930s rhetoric that successfully limited immigration of “low-grade Jews” on eugenicist grounds, the explicit antisemitism of the early 20th century is in sharp contrast even to the “plausible deniability” antisemitism deployed by contemporary right-wingers like Steve Bannon.
This contrast forces us to grapple with how the U.S.’s repudiation of German Nazism helps maintain a facade of U.S. liberalism that erases the country’s original (and ongoing) sins of slavery and genocide (and Western Europe’s history of imperialism and colonialism more broadly). As Barnor Hesse has explored, early critiques of racism emerged to “pathologize” Nazism’s white supremacy in contrast to the liberal Allies’ own colonial projects. The United States in particular maintains a narrative that its righteous opposition to German and, later, Soviet antisemitism was motivated by a moral commitment to anti-racism rather than geopolitical interests. This self-serving historiography obscures, for instance, the fact that the United States maintained an isolationist stance towards Nazi Germany until after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, and consistently evaded calls from American Jewish leaders to bomb Nazi infrastructure at Auschwitz and other death camps. Thus, the supposed disavowal of antisemitism, such as Trump’s insistence that he is “the least anti-semitic person you’ve seen,” comes not out of a genuine concern for Jewish safety, but in order to bolster a facade of liberal inclusion—a facade built on the ideological partition of U.S. settler colonialism, slavery, and segregation from Nazism. The disavowal of antisemitism then becomes the moral high ground through which other forms of racial violence are maintained. That American liberals see Donald Trump as an aberration to the American tradition, more Adolf Hitler than Andrew Jackson, reflects the ongoing hegemony of this facade of American inclusivity.
What we are left with is a political landscape in which a “Jewish Question” reverberates in sizable factions of the far-right, but as Somerson writes, does not “have the power of the state behind it” in North America and Western Europe. While analyses such as Eric Ward’s unpack the crucial role of antisemitism in contemporary white nationalist movements, we must be careful not to equate the antisemitism of the “alt-right” with the movement’s antiblack, anti-Muslim, anti-indigenous, and anti-immigrant overtones, which come with the full endorsement of a white supremacist state that disavows racism in word but perpetuates it in policy. While the Trump administration is certainly guilty of peddling antisemitic canards, the notion that “it’s happening again” belies the reality that the state’s righteous stance of anti-antisemitism (bolstered by its unwavering support of Israel’s far-right government) remains a crucial source of power for discourses of American liberalism. To throw (white) Jews under the bus would mean confronting Hitler’s ideological ties to the U.S. eugenics movement and the reality that the Trail of Tears, Jim Crow, American sterilization laws, and Progressive Era New York eugenicists helped establish the policy grounds on which Hitler’s Nuremberg laws were built. It would mean admitting that the bright line separating Nazism from Americanism was never really there.
That a Charlottesville synagogue was forced to exit through its back door to avoid neo-Nazi protesters is more than enough to trigger a return to an immobilized place of Jewish fear and isolation. And yet, the very real threats facing American Jews of all backgrounds is not an excuse for falling back on familiar tropes of Jewish exceptionalism. As Jonah Boyarin writes in a mournful reflection on Charlottesville: “Jewish fear is the risk of white Jews feeling so triggered and alone that we forget that the neo-Nazis marched on Charlottesville to defend the memory of Black slavery, or that Charlottesville itself sits on land haunted by white genocide and expulsion of indigenous people.” Now is not the time to let Jewish fear overwhelm a realistic analysis of white supremacy and Christian hegemony. As in Martin Niemöller’s canonical poem “First They Came…”, there is an order, a logic to state violence. Despite contemporary fears we must remember that past decades of white American Jewish safety do not mean they have not been long coming for Black, immigrant, Muslim, Native, and queer people within and beyond our Jewish communities. Indeed, more than we would like to admit, American Jewry have been part of that very “they.” We must be clear that white American Jews are not the first or primary targets of today’s political crises, while remembering Niemöller’s warning: if and when they come for you, there will be no one left to speak.
The very real threats facing American Jews of all backgrounds is not an excuse for falling back on familiar tropes of Jewish exceptionalism.