Discussed in this essay: Whites, Jews and Us: Toward a Politics of Revolutionary Love, by Houria Bouteldja. Semiotext(e), 2016. 152 pages.
In the pages of The Forward and Tablet, in dueling workshops and in new publications, Jews debate: Are Jews white? Are white Jews really white? Do white Jews bear the responsibility of addressing oppression as members of a privileged class or as fellow oppressed? Is antisemitism like other forms of oppression or is it special?
Houria Bouteldja’s short new book, Whites, Jews and Us, is a refreshing, if ultimately unsatisfying, intervention into these debates. Translated by Rachel Valinsky, Bouteldja’s critique of the French/European left is situated in her experience as a Muslim, indigenous, Algerian-French woman, though many of her observations and arguments are relevant to the US context. Her manifesto calls out the left’s internal contradictions and erasure of indigenous, colonized voices with an urgency born of this political moment’s rising fascism. Her focus on Jews and antisemitism, contextualized within the history of European racism, colonialism, the Holocaust, and Zionism, attempts to offer an analysis of whiteness and a path to redemption.
Bouteldja’s writing, addressed directly to “you,” is clearly intended to challenge the reader. That “you” is first addressed to white leftists, then to Jews, then transitions into a more widely defined “we.” Her subtitle, “Toward a Politics of Revolutionary Love,” as well as Cornel West’s introduction, promises to theorize a path towards liberation. Revolutionary love is Bouteldja’s answer, but the vision she offers leaves much to the imagination.
What is necessary for revolutionary love? The clearest answer Bouteldja poses is in her overture to Jews, urging us to renounce Zionism and redeem ourselves from complicity in colonialism and whiteness. Jews occupy a uniquely contradictory role as a people with a long history of oppression who are nevertheless engaged as oppressors in the occupation of Palestine. Antisemitism is a daily reality for many Jews and the trauma of historical violence against Jews remains deeply embedded in the memories and experiences of many of our families, even as many of us succeed economically and gain influence politically. At the same time, for the last seventy years, Jews in Israel have largely been the aggressors, occupying and displacing the indigenous people of Palestine in pursuit of our own sovereignty and supposed safety.
In Bouteldja’s view, Jews and Arabs are cousins, not just because of their biblical ancestry or historical proximity, but because of their similar relationships to white people. Like Arabs, she writes, “you” have been willing to meld into whiteness, to support your oppressor. Hers is a critique of both assimilation and Zionism. She turns that critique of assimilation on herself, sharing a story of asking her Algerian parents to stay home from a school event in France because she was embarrassed by their Arabness. She shares her feelings of shame, and urges the reader to be ashamed, too, of the ways we participate in whiteness. She purports to offer, and perhaps attempts to practice, a form of revolutionary love to overcome this shame.
Bouteldja’s love comes with requirements. With liberation at stake, Bouteldja demands a direct rejection of privilege, a transformation of power relations, a revolutionary praxis, a renunciation of Zionism and more as obligatory conditions for her articulation of revolutionary love. The test she sets up for the left generally, and for Jews specifically, is a high bar, with little room for the processing of trauma, agitation and organizing that many will need to reach the stage of both political awareness and pragmatic action necessary for change. It’s not a strategy so much as a political analysis rooted in the ideal.
Bouteldja’s demand of Jews to reject Zionism comes with an awareness of the political context and the oppressions of Jewish peoples. She mourns both the divorcing of North African Jews from their Arab-Berber identity by the French state while she decries the embrace by Jews of the promise of Zionism. Jews were really “chosen” by the West, she writes, for three missions: to solve the white world’s moral legitimacy crisis after the Nazi genocide, to obscure the racism of the liberal state, and finally, to be the “weaponized wing of Western imperialism in the Arab world.” Bouteldja sympathizes too with the cultural loss experienced by Jews as a result of Zionism. She does not mince words:
they gave you Israel. Two birds one stone: they got rid of you as pretenders to the nation and as historical revolutionaries and made you the most passionate defenders of empire on Arab soil . . . They managed to make you trade your religion, your history, and your memories for a colonial ideology.
For many Jewish Zionists, be they conservative or liberal, the state of Israel has been seen as the solution to antisemitism, both past and present. Bouteldja’s project is to undermine this justification for Israel, by repatriating antisemitism as a European phenomenon. Antisemitism is neither atemporal nor stateless, she contends, but is deeply embedded in the history of Europe, though today often displaced onto the Arab world. While Christian Europe was the site of centuries of oppression, pogroms, expulsions, and eventually the Holocaust, Jews in the Arab world experienced a very different political and social context. Alongside other minorities under Islamic empires, Jews experienced a much more tolerable second-class status. This wasn’t equality, but it was a far cry from Christian Europe’s depiction of Jews as Christ-killers and use as scapegoats to assuage the economic malaise of the masses. While today the Arab world is often accused of being irrevocably antisemitic, often conflated with opposition to the state of Israel, Bouteldja posits that anti-Jewish prejudice had its origins in European history.
This framework indirectly challenges a strand of thinking popular in Jewish leftist circles today. This popular theory posits that antisemitism is cyclical and universal; throughout history everywhere, Jews are persecuted, then things get better and Jews are allowed to succeed politically and economically—though always on the verge of the next pogrom. Mizrahi Jews and others have challenged this analysis as a particularly European-centric view of Jewish history. Like Bouteldja, scholars like Ella Shohat and Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz criticize the cyclical view of antisemitism as an inaccurate and incomplete picture of Jewish experiences. Moreover, this understanding of antisemitism maintains support for the view that the state of Israel is the only possible refuge from the world’s interminable antisemitism.
Bouteldja’s project of re-contextualizing antisemitism is useful and correct, but it fails as an act of revolutionary love. To the extent that persuading Jews to let go of Zionism and to challenge our relationship with Israel is necessary to achieve justice and liberation for Palestinians and everyone in the region, one has to at some point engage with Jewish desires for safety and the fears, both justified and imagined, that led and continue to lead so many Jews to embrace the state. As a child of Algerian immigrants who suffered under colonialism, Bouteldja is not obligated to engage with those who, out of fear and/or prejudice, crave a Jewish-only state at the expense of Palestinian lives and rights. That burden of transforming our community’s fear is not hers, it is ours. Yet if the goal is to build the “decolonizing majority” she desires through revolutionary love, it may be necessary to at least recognize the desires for safety and power, and seek to replace them with frameworks that are generative rather than destructive.
Ultimately, Bouteldja’s work may do more to expose the limits of political love than to paint a loving path forward. She’s correct to suggest direct confrontation with the ideologies that oppress us and that convince us to oppress. But a revolutionary love that does not meet us where we are—in the messy space of redefining our identities and reclaiming our values, imperfectly, with mistakes along the way—is unlikely to take us very far.