Letters to the Editor: How Not to Fight Antisemitism

Readers respond to the editors’ responsa on trends in left strategies for fighting antisemitism and building power.

Jewish Currents
April 30, 2021
Photo: Masaaki Komori via Unsplash

The following letters were received regarding the Spring 2021 issue responsa by the editors titled “How Not to Fight Antisemitism,” which argued that the Jewish left’s appropriation of the right’s strategy regarding antisemitism has further muddled the discourse while reinforcing the idea of Jews as paradigmatic victims, thus inhibiting coalition work.

“How Not To Fight Antisemitism” presents readers with a false dichotomy, suggesting that the Jewish left must choose between combating antisemitism or working in solidarity with other targeted communities against other forms of systemic oppression. In fact, we have learned over decades of organizing that the two are inseparable: Any strategy to dismantle white supremacy that does not include taking down antisemitism is bound to fail.

Antisemitism has been increasingly used by the right to undermine progressive movements, manipulate voters, attract new recruits to white nationalist movements, and target Black, brown, and immigrant communities. Fighting antisemitism is not only necessary for the safety of Jews—it is also necessary to strengthen progressive movements, counter disinformation, defend Black and brown leadership, build power, and win elections. The fight against antisemitism is a fight for collective liberation.

Bend the Arc’s website HowToFightAntisemitism.com, referenced in the responsa, was part of our multifaceted campaign in 2020 to drive white nationalism—and the antisemitism and racism which animate it—out of the halls of power and the mainstream. Our work broke major news stories, including Kelly Loeffler’s appearance with a former KKK leader, and led to the first time Facebook removed one of Trump’s posts for violating its hate policy

The core of our work during the Trump era embodied precisely the solidarity-based politics the responsa calls for: These efforts included a number of direct actions against Trump’s immigration policy and Muslim ban which dovetailed with our support for calls to end ICE and defund the police. Our local leaders of all racial backgrounds in Minneapolis, Louisville, and elsewhere worked to support Black-led organizing in the wake of the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and we organized hundreds of Jewish organizations expressing unequivocal support for the Black Lives Matter movement with a full-page ad in The New York Times. Although your responsa made much of Jewish opposition to the Movement for Black Lives platform in 2016, it sadly omitted this major shift, which was the result of years of organizing, particularly by Jews of color. Rather than gazing at “our own navels,” as you warn against, our strategy was to push the Jewish community to see our own targeting in connection to the targeting of other communities, to choose solidarity instead of isolation.

As we support our members in the ongoing fight against white supremacy, our movement partners will continue to rely on us to lead the fight against antisemitism. We welcome all who want to join us in this fight. 

Stosh Cotler
New York, NY

The letter writer is the CEO of Bend the Arc: Jewish Action.


If Jewish Currents’s position is that the Jewish left could be more selective in which tropes we push back on, or that our efforts shouldn’t be limited to debating tropes and defining antisemitism, I’d wholeheartedly agree. But your responsa makes broader, shakier arguments: using viral tweets as a stand-in for “the left” writ large, implying that confronting antisemitic tropes is rooted in a desire to claim “victimhood,” and acting as if Bend the Arc’s list of antisemitic incidents represents the entirety of the left’s strategy to combat antisemitism. 

Effectively fighting any oppression requires an understanding of how that oppression serves the ruling class in present historical conditions, as well as the language and logic undergirding it. A trope doesn’t need to be a “track laid to Auschwitz” to uphold and further antisemitic beliefs or be worth confronting. Tropes are the shorthand scaffolding of any oppressive system or ideology; leaving them unanswered leaves their logic unchallenged. 

The danger posed by antisemitism in the 21st-century US lies in the cover it provides to white supremacy, scapegoating Jews for everything from immigration and economic inequities to resurgent movements for Black liberation. Antisemitism represents both a false explanation for non-Jews’ oppression and a flashpoint where potential relationships of solidarity can break down. It’s a dangerous cocktail that upholds racial capitalism, disrupts efforts for justice, and sometimes erupts in violence against Jews. If we don’t fight to shape understandings of what antisemitism is and isn’t, we cede that ground to dangerous actors.

Zach Weinstein
El Cerrito, CA

As a historian researching how Jewish institutions built power, everything I write is deemed a trope, so I read “How Not to Fight Anti-Semitism” with relief. Twenty years ago, as Jews Against the Occupation (JATO) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) rekindled Jewish resistance to Zionism, Jewish institutions revived the playbook regarding antisemitic tropes they’d once used against the New Left. It worked. Many Jews were outraged about Israel, but few would speak out; they feared feeding tropes about Jewish power.

The rise of a strong Jewish left should have tamed the trope discourse. So far, however, we’re still struggling inside the framework built by the Jewish right. Left movements have generated crucial insights into the way racist, colonial power works: how it flows from states and capital, how it cloaks itself in discourses of “standing against hate.” But those ideas are still controversial in Jewish progressive spaces. In the wake of Charlottesville and synagogue shootings, we haven’t collectively insisted that questions of power—who has the state behind them? Who has control over us?—guide our thinking about antisemitism. When we do, it will be much harder to abuse charges of antisemitism against Black, Palestinian, and Jewish activists, and so much easier to give the solidarity we owe to other movements.

Emmaia Gelman
New York, NY

As a researcher who studies antisemitism and white nationalism and works with progressive organizers, I was frustrated by the responsa. As I wrote in a longer response, right-wing antisemitic tropes aren’t disembodied ghosts, and calling them out isn’t shadowboxing with the past. Antisemitic conspiracies are a material force, a linchpin of the ideological assemblage at the heart of the populist right, and they pose a grave threat not only to Jews but to all marginalized groups and social movements—indeed, to multiracial democracy itself. 

It’s easy to downplay the threat of antisemitism because, in some ways, it works differently from other forms of bigotry and oppression the left is used to fighting. It’s a political ideology that scapegoats Jews—or a synecdoche like George Soros, or an analogue like “globalists” or “cultural Marxists”—as the root, elite conspiracy behind the world’s problems. Its rise in our era is structurally connected to the deep crises of neoliberalism shaking the foundations of our political system. And like the broader far right, it’s not going away just because Trump left the White House. 

If we want to win a just and liberated world for all, it’s vital that the left continue to work to understand and fight antisemitism while countering bad-faith accusations of antisemitism from the right, and it remains appropriate for the Jewish left to lead in this capacity. This emancipatory horizon of Jewish left anti-antisemitism work is obscured, in the responsa, by self-flagellation—“We’re centering ourselves too much!” This move, in turn, can evoke an anxiety that it’s cringey or embarrassing to emphasize fighting antisemitism, or to ask for allyship, that’s all too familiar to anyone who’s hung around the Jewish left for a while, and that has long outlived its usefulness. Don’t get confused: Fighting antisemitism is still a vital part of our work.

Ben Lorber
Boston, MA

The letter writer researches antisemitism and white nationalism at the progressive think tank Political Research Associates.

Jewish Currents’s editors have not done their homework. The leading magazine of the Jewish left needs a solid sense of what movements are doing on the ground. Reading this piece, you’d never know what incredible organizing has risen up to meet the Trump years, fueled by a liberatory understanding of antisemitism: the outstanding intersectional work of Bend the Arc (BTA) and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice’s (JFREJ), groundbreaking contributions by IfNotNow and JWOCMarching, valuable new additions by JVP and others. You wouldn’t know that Black Jewish organizers have led much of the most powerful theory and practice in that fight. 

Currents’s editors misread today’s political landscape dangerously, making mistakes too substantial to answer here. My full response is forthcoming, but suffice it to say, Currents’s editors have tried to substitute a textual analysis of one website for a meaningful critique of today’s groundbreaking organizing. Tellingly, they miss the genius of that website in the process. HowToFightAntisemitism.com artfully redirected center-liberal Jewish voters seeking answers to real and present concerns about antisemitism. BTA recognized these Jews—who are being courted by the right and are not, in fact, affiliated with the “left”—as crucial to beating back the threat of a 2020 consolidation of power by the far right. Why did BTA understand this, while Currents’s editors imagined the site as part of some nebulous “left”? Because BTA trains organizers, and thinks like them: They know how to discern audiences, they know the unique strengths of different constituencies, and they know how to win political victories by meeting people’s needs. 

In contrast, Currents’s new editors are still getting their bearings. They are determining who their audience is, what their role is, whether they are amused observers commenting on the left, or engaged journalists playing a communal role in the left. If it’s the latter, we’ll need their critical thinking—but we’ll need it practiced with respect for organizers, with humility and a spirit of investigation, and with dedication to our shared goals.

This leads me to one last correction. Currents’s editors repeat a now common, but incorrect, presumption about my 2007 pamphlet, The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere. Referencing Ben Lorber’s 2019 essay published in these pages, they suggest that the “middle agent” theory is key to my work. It is not. But the fact that this has become a popular interpretation says something about Jews and class—and how unchallenged classism inhibits not only mainstream Jewish communal endeavors but also Jewish thinking about social change. I’ll explain further in my upcoming response, but meanwhile, anyone who wants a sense of my work may want to now go and study the real thing

It was out of respect for Lorber’s courageous work that I did not publicly voice my opposition to that interpretation at the time. I was raised by radicals to know that in a healthy movement, we guard each other cautiously. We know who our partners are and how to debate generatively to propel each other forward. We don’t publicly scorn the work of our partners. Public denunciation is for situations of imminent harm, to protect ourselves or others—never to boost one’s image. Dividing movements is what governments do, not radicals. If Currents’s editors absorb this lesson, they will equip themselves to play a far more powerful, and necessary, role.

April Rosenblum
Philadelphia, PA

The letter writer is the author of the zine The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere: Making Resistance to Antisemitism Part of All of Our Movements.

The responsa aims at the right targets, but falls short by sharing their premises and omissions. Like those it critiques, the essay conflates antisemitism—a specific political movement and ideology—and the structural forces that target Jews alongside others, including Christian supremacy and xenophobia. The term “antisemitism” was coined by 19th-century European “integral nationalists” as they refined the modern idea of a nation as an “eternal unity” defined by blood, soil, and language, whose purity must be policed. In their innovative vision, Jews were a likewise bloodline-based unassimilable group threatening this national purity. This new “antisemitic” ideology and movement drew on tropes (including blood libel) from the Christian supremacist repertoire, none of which were originally or exclusively aimed at Jews (and which are now aimed largely at trans folks). 

Antisemitism can only be fought as the specific political movement and ideology it is. When, instead, it is treated as a structural phenomenon, we lose sight of how to counter it and can be lured into dead ends, like the psychologizing model you critique. Further, it becomes harder to understand and challenge the actual structural forces, like Christian supremacy, that affect Jews alongside the many others who today often serve as their primary targets. 

The essay also follows its targets in refusing to name Zionism’s centrality to contemporary antisemitism. Like all European integral nationalisms, Zionism shares the basic premises of antisemitism: Jews as a bloodline-based group owing loyalty (wherever they may “temporarily” live) to the state the Zionist movement created, which has the exclusive right to speak for all Jews. We need to name this in order to understand, for example, the behavior of liberal organizations like the Anti-Defamation League that happily ally themselves with groups who share their form of nationalism (from South Africa’s apartheid regime to the US Christian far right) against liberation movements. When we don’t, we allow the further expansion and entrenchment of antisemitism’s premises within Jewish communities, and thus further legitimize antisemitism on both the left and right.

Similarly, the essay fails to name nonprofit structures as the source of the individualized and psychologized approach being critiqued. The rapid growth of prison/police abolitionism is a grassroots response to nonprofits’ blatant failure to effectively combat anti-Blackness and other aspects of white supremacy through institutionalized “anti-bias trainings” and the like. We shouldn’t wait for decades of failure to reject that approach to antisemitism. Acknowledging the primacy of nonprofits in developing and promoting this dead end allows us to seek alternatives; we can’t consultant our way to defeating antisemitism any more than we can reform our way to abolition.

Rosza Daniel Lang/Levitsky
Brooklyn, NY

As a movement artist, organizer, and healer, I’m always reading political discussions of cultural trauma through the lens of the body. So, I got curious reading this article: What’s going on with the collective Jewish body in the patterns you’re describing? 

Have you ever listened to someone tell the story of a trauma, and you can tell it’s not quite integrated for them yet? Their blood pressure rises, their tone may change, they may appear paranoid or disproportionately upset. They may not be making complete logical sense. It’s likely that you, the listener, aren’t just listening to their words; you’re experiencing them trying to make sense of what has happened to them. 

The examples presented in the responsa of supposedly misguided charges of antisemitism strike me as exemplifying an unintegrated trauma response. On a cultural level, we are still in the relatively short window of time, post-Holocaust, in which asking Jews to deliver a coherent, empowered discourse on antisemitism is akin to asking an assault survivor for a detailed crime report hours after the traumatic incident. 

I agree the Jewish left is rather stuck when it comes to an effective and empowering discourse on antisemitism that moves us toward deeper healing and stronger solidarity. I also agree that it won’t do to overstate the current threat in order to validate our pain. And yet we still have to be able to say to our movement siblings, “Please take an interest in this with us as we all work to tear down white supremacy. Antisemitism still hurts. We are still grieving. We still aren’t sure how to feel safe, but we want to learn and try with you all.” My hope is that we can slow down and address our own cultural trauma more intentionally with one another—in small community containers, away from social media and public discourse, at least for now.

Laura Levinson
Minneapolis, MN

In “How Not to Fight Antisemitism,” the Jewish Currents staff points out the tautological nature of the trope identification tactics of the US Jewish left, noting that there has been a counterproductive or even dangerous reclamation of the “the immutable, transhistorical figure of the Jew-as-sufferer.” Unfortunately, many of the political educational resources defining antisemitism in recent years—April Rosenblum’s zine The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere, but also JFREJ’s Understanding Antisemitism booklet, articles in Tikkun, and trainings offered by IfNotNow and other groups—have pushed the notion of a “cycle of antisemitism” as key to understanding how antisemitism functions. This ahistorical and geographically unspecific framework means that even a time of relative safety can only be interpreted as a precursor to an inevitable antisemitic resurgence, and, by extension, that every dogwhistle is an inevitable harbinger of antisemitic violence. 

Without specificity of place and time, we are losing the complexities of how antisemitism functions today as a form of racism. For American Jews, that means reckoning more directly with settler colonialism, the racial labor regimes of late capitalism, and systems of state violence built on anti-Blackness. Without this analysis, the cyclical theory of antisemitism simply replicates what the scholar Ella Shohat has called a “homogenous, static Jewish History of persistent persecution,” one that relies on the “Zionist ‘proof’ of a single Jewish experience” in which the Jewish subject has always been and will always be oppressed, in flight, and therefore deserving of ethnonationalist self-determination to protect them from extermination. 

Gabi Kirk
Oakland, CA

Agreed that every trope is not “a track laid on the way to Auschwitz,” but must the harm be draconian before we acknowledge American antisemitism? This responsa gives barely a nod to American Jewish experience preceding more recent decades of safety. This is not about victimization; it’s about history. 

European antisemitism penetrated the US in the 1890s and was present in the racist anti-immigration laws of the 1920s, when godhead Henry Ford catapulted the Protocols of the Elders of Zion into American culture and the KKK ran whole states. As European Jews evaporated, antisemitism coursed through American society. Persecution of liberal and leftist Jews was central to postwar anti-Communism, with the Rosenberg state murders acting as a warning to American Jews.

That takes us only up to the 1950s, but you get the point. There’s an American Jewish history that ought not be swept aside. It is not “centering ourselves” or indulging a sense of “victimhood” to examine what has happened and to mine that knowledge for its uses in our own time.

Anna Wrobel
Westbrook, Maine

As a graduate worker at Northwestern University, I played a minor role in supporting both Black and Jewish students who sought to respond to and reject President Morton Schapiro’s egregious smear that Black abolitionist protestors had been antisemitic when they called him “piggy Morty” during a protest outside his residence. President Schapiro’s accusation stoked discomfort and outright division among students, both Jews and non-Jews, who were otherwise supportive of the Black-student-led abolitionist group, NU Community Not Cops. For me, it was a textbook case of how claims of antisemitic “harm” could be cynically deployed to materially crush and malign radical movements for liberation. It’s not just that basic context clues demonstrated that the word “piggy” referred to Schapiro’s alignment with NU police, or that there is scant historical basis for reading “piggy” as an antisemitic term. It’s that we as a Jewish left are not positioned to reject—without qualification—flat portrayals of contemporary antisemitism that willfully obscure the material, often concretely harmful outcomes of its deployment. 

Charlotte Rosen
Chicago, IL

“How Not to Fight Antisemitism” contends that the “antisemite’s ideology” has not dominated white Jewish experience in the contemporary US, and that it is difficult to point to a structural regime of antisemitism. But this overlooks the fact that anti-Jewishness is embedded within white supremacy—for example in conspiracies that posit Jews as agents undermining white Christian dominance. Claims that Jews are behind activist movements, for instance, have been applied to Black Lives Matter and transgender advocacy, simultaneously undermining these movements and spreading anti-Jewish sentiment. Given the article’s call for coalition building, why the focus on the utility of accusations of anti-Jewishness, which is essentially beside the point? In the future I hope for articles that provide insights about what we can learn from others’ analyses of the challenges of coalition work, and models for coalition activism drawn from the work progressive Jewish organizations are already doing.

S.J. Crasnow
Kansas City, MO 

The letter writer is an assistant professor of religious studies at Rockhurst University.

We applaud and appreciate Jewish Currents’s mission, sensibility, and much of what it publishes, but as American Jews who have lived abroad in the UK and Germany, we were nonetheless disappointed by your recent responsa. You write that it is “difficult to point to a contemporary state-backed or structural regime of antisemitism,” a claim that we believe to be inaccurate in a global context. Poland’s 2018 Death Camp Law and Hungary’s Stop Soros Law, which legally enshrined the vilification of George Soros, are just two examples of nationalist and, yes, antisemitic Eastern European policies. These are state-backed examples of Holocaust denial and violent Jew-hate as tangible legislation, not empty tropes. 

Even if we grant that the responsa is accurate about America—and we suspect it may fail to some extent to account for the diversity of experiences of antisemitism in some pockets of the nation—we believe that our country does not exist in isolation from global developments, especially as far-right groups create international coalitions online and as many tropes and laden images begin to derive their significance abroad. Invocations of Soros in America, for instance, take on a more sinister cast when viewed in light of his scapegoating in Hungary.

Emma Jude Harris
London, UK

Becca Rothfeld
Cambridge, MA

Two articles in the Spring 2021 issue—the editors’ responsa on antisemitism and Aaron Freedman’s examination of IfNotNow—have triggered my concern about how the Jewish left is being implicitly defined by Jewish Currents through omission.

The antisemitism responsa outlined a set of problems in the Jewish left’s approach to antisemitism, centered around organizations and coalitions that take April Rosenblum’s The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere as a central theoretical text in defining the concept of antisemitism. In so doing, it erased the fact that there are more radical parts of the Jewish left that have consistently been putting forward a different conception of antisemitism. The result was a flattening of the conception of who and what constitutes “the left,” leaving the reader with the impression that the Jewish left is limited to this particular approach, and obscuring the fact that there was already a dynamic conversation between these approaches.

Similarly, the article about IfNotNow lacked crucial political context that would have framed its place in the movement ecology, both historically and currently. This is in no way to understate the importance of the emergence of IfNotNow, which powerfully expanded the options for Jewish activism on Palestine—a mark of a healthy ecosystem. But Freedman spent just one dismissive sentence summing up JVP’s presence when IfNotNow emerged in 2014: as a “small but active group . . . many of [whose] members were older radicals estranged from mainstream Jewish communal life.”  

In 2014, JVP already had about 5,000 members, and about 40 chapters, including a rabbinic council and between 5–10 campus chapters. “small but active” is a pretty serious erasure of the largest and most dynamic organization in this sphere, especially since 1,300 trained members is the number cited in the piece to illustrate IfNotNow’s impressive growth. 

Over the course of 2014–2021—the period covered in this article—JVP continued to grow as a multigenerational movement now numbering about 20,000 members. Concurrently, we were being pushed by Jews of color and Mizrahi/Sephardi Jews to face the racism behind our Ashkenazi-centric and white-led structures; to do a better job of recognizing our intersectionality with and responsibility to Black, Indigenous, and immigrant-led movements; and to sharpen our politics accordingly, which we did by endorsing the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement in 2015 and taking an anti-Zionist position in 2019. To omit this context is a serious distortion of what was driving the Jewish left on Israel/Palestine.

These two pieces taken together seem to indicate an unwillingness to place those with more radical politics (a convenient shorthand being overt support for BDS and anti-Zionism) as a central and driving force in today’s Jewish left, and instead reinforces the idea that the left is solely represented by those that are actually more timid in their politics, at least on Israel/Palestine. 

I think the first draft of history is being written here, which is a tribute to the persuasive power of Jewish Currents. But that makes it all the more important to ask how Jewish Currents defines the left it purports to represent.

Rebecca Vilkomerson
Brooklyn, NY

The letter writer was the executive director of JVP from 2009 to 2019.