How Not to Fight Antisemitism

By appropriating the right’s strategy on antisemitism, the Jewish left has trapped itself in an empty discourse—and a counterproductive pose of victimhood.

The Editors
April 5, 2021
Photo: Masaaki Komori via Unsplash

Responsa is an editorial column written by members of the Jewish Currents staff and reflects a collective discussion.

IN MAY OF 2020, the Jewish social justice group Bend the Arc partnered with organizers working under the name Jews Against White Nationalism to launch a new website, Pointedly borrowing the title of the pundit Bari Weiss’s 2019 book-length jeremiad, which is preoccupied with the specter of left-wing antisemitism, the project was clearly intended to invert a prevalent discourse around antisemitism that had been manufactured by the American Jewish establishment and adopted by the right writ large. By creating “a comprehensive timeline tracking antisemitism from far-right extremists & politicians,” dating back to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, the activists behind aimed to gather a body of irrefutable evidence in support of a thesis the Jewish left has long advocated—that it is overwhelmingly the right, not the left, where American antisemitism arises, festers, and spreads.

There’s no doubt that antisemitism is a meaningful force in American politics—the 2018 Tree of Life shooting, for example, was motivated by conspiracy theories repeated by the White House, which makes it hard to simply laugh it off when Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene identifies Jewish space lasers as the cause of California wildfires. An inventory of these incidents and their dominant forms, then, is an admirable project. But as one scrolls through the website’s chain of entries—293 and counting—it becomes apparent that many of them rely on a capacious, or even paranoid, understanding of antisemitism. For instance, the site includes an entry on a fundraising pitch, tweeted last December by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp during that state’s senatorial runoff election, that reads: “California and New York liberals are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into Georgia in an attempt to buy our state for Chuck Schumer. We must defend Georgia to save America.” According to the site, Kemp’s tweet was “laden with antisemitic tropes.” But what are the tropes in question? The answer is somewhat circular: The website points out that Schumer, who is Jewish, “was frequently cited in Republican Senate campaigns during the 2020 general election cycle, which often portrayed him as a shadowy and nefarious figure”; it goes on to say that the “language about the Jewish Senator trying to ‘buy’ the election” carries an antisemitic valence, as does the phrase “New York liberals.”

To be sure, the images referenced here—the Jew as powerful figure in the shadows, as cash-wielding influencer, as coastal elite—are staples of the antisemitic lexicon. But does that automatically make this tweet an antisemitic statement? After all, liberals, including those from the coasts, were pouring money into the Georgia races to win control of Congress for the Democrats, led in the Senate by card-carrying New York liberal Chuck Schumer. For better or worse, Kemp’s tweet is simply true. One wonders whether its intended audience knew or cared about Schumer’s Jewishness—after all, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been the frequent object of similar attacks—or the Jewishness of many of the Democratic donors in question. But the website’s analysis of the incident isn’t grounded in the material reality of US politics; it’s interested in the presence of “tropes”—words, phrases, or images that have historically evoked antisemitic ideas. Again and again, tropes appear on the site’s timeline as key indicators of antisemitism: Republican emphasis on Jewish donors to Democrats, especially George Soros, is antisemitic; so is Trump’s use of the phrase “puppet master”—whether deployed to describe Bernie Sanders or simply used on its own, unattached to a particular person, Jewish or not. 

Though some may regard every oblique—or even straightforward—trope as a track laid on the way to an American Auschwitz, it’s difficult to point to a contemporary state-backed or structural regime of antisemitism to stake it in the ground.

As theorists of race and racism have shown, there is significant value in understanding the power of words and images to engender harm, regardless of intent. The language we use is bequeathed to us by histories of violence that reverberate in the present; antisemitic tropes have their origins in grisly periods of Jewish suffering like medieval Europe and Nazi Germany. But we do not live in 13th-century France or 1930s Germany. In fact, some discussions of Jewish power describe institutions we’ve built over the last century to successfully wield it. Even accounting for instances of overtly malicious intent, from offensive internet memes to horrific (but still relatively rare) eruptions of antisemitic violence, it is evident that the antisemite’s ideology has not dominated white Jewish experience in 21st-century America. Though some may regard every oblique—or even straightforward—trope as a track laid on the way to an American Auschwitz, it’s difficult to point to a contemporary state-backed or structural regime of antisemitism to stake it in the ground. In this context, antisemitic tropes seem to function largely as vacant signifiers—the shed skins of venomous snakes. 

The Jewish left is well-acquainted with the dangers of exploiting accusations of antisemitism for political gain. We have witnessed the ugly results of such specious and cynical charges leveled by both the Jewish establishment and the American right against progressive politicians and organizers (see: Ilhan Omar). Given the success of bad actors—from Weiss to AIPAC to the Republican Party—in employing this method, it’s not surprising that left-wing organizers have come to appropriate it rather than challenge its underlying structure. 

Yet this form of counterattack has only helped proliferate the number of dubious and incoherent claims from all sides. A catalogue of recent antisemitism charges against liberals and leftists—including some leveled by left-leaning sources—reveals the utterly confused state of the discourse: A Forward article accuses Andrew Yang’s campaign manager of invoking an antisemitic trope, revealed several paragraphs down to consist simply of the appearance of the word “money” in a tweet about Israel/Palestine. A Jewish communal leader’s Twitter joke about Stephen Miller’s Covid-19 diagnosis, saying the virus had “jumped species,” is likened to Nazi propaganda linking Jews to lizards. In other animal news, it turns out the storied labor icon Scabby the Rat is antisemitic if deployed against an abusive (Jewish) boss. So is the epithet “piggy” when applied to a (Jewish) pro-police university president; so is the act of comparing Israeli snipers who gunned down unarmed Palestinian protesters to “birds of prey.” In many cases, the references are arcane enough that we, the staff of a Jewish magazine, had to look them up, which raises the question of whether the average gentile can keep up. Is an image of an octopus in a (later deleted) Democratic Socialists of America tweet about landlords an antisemitic canard, or just an apt visual metaphor for pervasive, structural greed? Is Ilhan Omar’s tweet including the phrase “SHUT IT DOWN” a reference to an obscure neo-Nazi meme about Jewish power, or just a commonplace protest chant? 

In short, if heightened sensitivity to tropes has created new opportunities to tar the right as antisemitic, it has also left us covered in feathers. The discourse is now an ouroboric trap, a giant Spiderman meme; no one is any closer to winning the argument, and if anything our understanding of antisemitism as it appears in contemporary American life has been further obscured. In the left’s attempt to fight the right’s smears, and to bolster our anti-antisemitic bona fides, we have unintentionally helped validate a rhetorical weapon as destructive as it is imprecise. At the same time, it seems that the reappropriation of the right’s obsession with antisemitism has inadvertently entrenched a worldview that positions Jews as humanity’s ultimate and unrivaled victims. Needless to say, this kind of Jewish exceptionalism poses a substantial obstacle to meaningful coalition work with those facing much greater marginalization and violence than white Jews do today. As we leave the Trump era behind, the American Jewish left must seize this moment to reevaluate its tactics and find a path forward that doesn’t require us to play our opposition’s game. 

THE CONTEMPORARY JEWISH LEFT’S working analysis of antisemitism can be traced back to a self-published 2007 pamphlet called The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere by the writer and organizer April Rosenblum. Noticing the destructive nature of incidents and charges of antisemitism within liberation movements, and a gap in the vocabulary for discussing them, Rosenblum sought to provide a framework for understanding Jewish positionality regarding oppression, trauma, and social change. The pamphlet popularized the “middle agent theory” of anti-Jewish oppression as a unified explanation for the perception of outsize Jewish power. “Many oppressions rely on keeping a targeted group of people poor, uneducated, designated nonwhite, or otherwise ‘at the bottom,’” Rosenblum wrote. “[T]he point of anti-Jewish oppression is to keep a Jewish face in front, so that Jews, instead of ruling classes, become the target for peoples’ rage.” In the global iteration of this phenomenon, Israel served as the “Jewish face” of US imperialism, providing an outlet for widespread antipathy to US empire.

Rosenblum’s framework assumed importance in the Palestine solidarity movement of the early 2010s, which was a point of entry to solidarity work for many millennial Jews, but also sometimes a site of alienation: The reality of Jewish dominance on the ground in Israel/Palestine and Israel-advocacy groups’ influence in the American foreign policy sphere sometimes gave rise to antisemitism in the form of bad analysis and sloppy rhetoric. The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere, which remains a fixture of left-wing Jewish activist trainings, encouraged Jews not to withdraw from liberation movements even when they experienced such instances of antisemitism, but rather to stay and educate allies about the dynamics at play. 

When the Black Lives Matter movement gathered momentum in the middle of the decade, many white Jews turned to Rosenblum’s analysis for language to reconcile their vulnerability to antisemitism with their racial privilege, and to reckon with the historically fraught relationship between Black activists and the Jewish communal establishment. It proved useful in the summer of 2016, when the Movement for Black Lives came out with a wide-ranging political platform that drew the ire of Jewish groups across the political spectrum for describing Israeli treatment of Palestinians as an act of “genocide.” As debates about Black–Jewish relations flared, Yotam Marom, a veteran left-wing activist who had recently helped found the Jewish anti-occupation group IfNotNow, published a long reflection on antisemitism on the left, positioning the reluctance of left-wing Jews to speak about the subject as itself a product of internalized antisemitism and assimilation. “We must also acknowledge that we are an oppressed people,” he wrote, “not so that we can evade responsibility for the ways we are empowered, or use our victimhood to shame and tear others down—but so we can align ourselves deeply and authentically with the titanic struggles for collective freedom before us.” The essay became a kind of rallying cry for a Jewish left that could claim oppression and privilege together.

With the rise of Donald Trump and the antisemitic white nationalists who rode his coattails, the question of contemporary Jewish victimhood became pressing beyond existing Jewish activist circles. A surge of antisemitic violence—in particular the Tree of Life massacre in Pittsburgh—fueled an anxiety that, under Trump, the place of Jews in the US was shifting for the worse. The appearance on the scene of undeniable right-wing antisemitism was, for many, clarifying and invigorating: White Jews could now show up in anti-racist organizing spaces on their own behalf, as partners instead of just “allies.” This realignment also presented strategic opportunities for leftists, who hoped that highlighting connections between right-wing Zionists and Trumpworld white nationalists could help build bridges with Jewish liberals, who felt newly insecure about their place in American life. New organizations emerged to provide progressive Jews with avenues to fight antisemitism, while existing groups, like IfNotNow, attempted to shift their mission to meet the needs of the moment. 

The leaders of this increasingly visible Jewish left took pains not to “center themselves” in struggles for racial justice or immigrant rights. They spoke out loudly and often when Jewish establishment leaders tried to center narrow Jewish concerns at moments when others were in greater and more immediate danger. Yet the unintended effect of using Jews’ historical suffering as the basis for political organizing was that Jewish victimhood continually threatened to take center stage. This took both benign and insidious forms, especially on social media, where hamfisted theories of contemporary Jewish victimization appropriated language from anti-colonial and Black liberation movements. Among very online lefty Jews, “Christian hegemony” became a buzzword that could be listed among the various oppressions plaguing American society, and named as the cause of supposed microaggressions like the singing of “Amazing Grace” at vigils held after Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death or psychic injuries stemming from exposure to Christmas. There was also an undeniable catharsis to be found in calling out Trump’s wink-and-nod relationship to the far right and futilely demanding public apologies, much like the famously vituperative Abe Foxman had done as CEO of the Anti-Defamation League. Such power to name and shame is not easily surrendered. 

There was also an undeniable catharsis to be found in calling out Trump’s wink-and-nod relationship to the far right and futilely demanding public apologies, much like the famously vituperative Abe Foxman had done as CEO of the Anti-Defamation League.

Looking back, it’s clear that the strategy of rallying opposition to the Trump ad­ministration’s white nationalist elements was beneficial for leftist movements in the short run. IfNotNow, for example, received a huge boost in enthusiasm after Trump’s election, attracting 3,000 people around the country to protests against the president and his advisor Steve Bannon. And it is not a coincidence that our own publication has grown substantially during this period. But leftists’ hopes of flipping the script on the nature of American antisemitism have proved to be overblown. The liberal position at the end of the Trump years is perhaps epitomized in a recent op-ed by Jodi Rudoren, editor in chief of The Forward

[Y]es, we are deeply worried about right-wing antisemites who shoot up synagogues or wear Camp Auschwitz hoodies while assaulting our democratic institutions, but we’re also not thrilled when leftist politicians or celebrities invoke antisemitic tropes. And we’re not that interested in tallying up how much of each kind there is or which is worse—and we want an antisemitism envoy and Jewish leadership that tackles both. 

In effect, these past few years have only intensified the feeling among Jewish liberals that they are besieged from all sides, regardless of the level of actual threat. 

Leaning all the way into Jewish identity politics has had other unintended consequences, which may be with us for the long term. The heavy focus on antisemitism in the fight against American nativism has inadvertently bolstered a view of Trumpism as a throwback to the Nazi past rather than the continuation of an American tradition of racial fascism. This Holocaust-centric lens has trained many Americans, not all of them Jewish, to view Jews as the proverbial canaries in the coal mine, and treatment of Jews as a barometer for a society’s treatment of minorities more broadly. This symbolic role magnifies the significance of violence against Jews, even when it is rare, while downplaying widespread and outrageous forms of repression and dispossession of others. Thus, in the Trump years, even concentration camps at the border and violence against citizens protesting the police were sometimes overshadowed, in the Jewish press and beyond, by arguments about the use of the phrase “concentration camp” or the presence of Palestine solidarity chants at racial justice marches. The contemporary Jewish left cannot be held responsible for these misuses of Jewish history that preceded them, and which they have vigorously tried to contest. But we can disinvest from a reflexive obsession with Jewish victimhood—real and imagined—that leaves us only organizing with, and for, ourselves, when the world demands otherwise.

Nearly two years ago, speaking to Jewish Currents, April Rosenblum identified the past decade of Jewish left organizing as “a kind of ‘first wave,’” in which the “targeted group [takes] the time to look inwards and strengthen their own voices.” The inward-looking practices developed during this time—the confidence to name antisemitism when it appears on “our side,” the creation of more inclusive Jewish communities, the integration of a compelling analysis of the role of intergenerational trauma in forging modern-day Jewish politics—have better prepared Jews for solidarity work, and have proved particularly important at moments when Jews have been targeted for violence. But the marshalling of these resources toward calling out our opponents’ tweets about “New York liberals” or George Soros—as strategic as it might seem in the moment and as righteous as it might feel—threatens to blunt the force of this project and condemn it to the same type of harmful solipsism as that practiced by our establishment leaders. In attempting to reclaim the mainstream narrative of antisemitism—concerned with the immutable, transhistorical figure of the Jew-as-sufferer—we have lost sight of our actual, and varied, material conditions. There are innumerable paths into the urgent work to be done, work that is perhaps enriched by a collective memory of oppression, but that must not rest upon it. As we exit the Trump era, following a summer of Black-led uprising, we find ourselves called more urgently out of the cocoon of Jewish organizing and into broader coalition politics. This must be the occasion to enter a second wave of Jewish left praxis, one that faces our partners and not our own navels.

An earlier version of this article set “Jewish space lasers” in quotes. In actuality, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene did not say these words, but attributed the wildfires to space lasers linked to “Rothschild Inc.”