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Nov
10
2023

Mari Cohen (associate editor): Last year, when I reported a profile of US State Department envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism Deborah Lipstadt, I had a useful conversation with the historian David Feldman, who helped me understand the debate in the field of Jewish studies between “eternalist” and “contextualist” theories of antisemitism. As I wrote at the time, “ ‘eternalists’ . . . understand antisemitism as a phenomenon united by persistent features across geography and time” while “ ‘contextualists’ . . . caution against drawing broad connections between historically distinctive periods of anti-Jewish activity.” This isn’t just academic hairsplitting; these distinct approaches have a host of political consequences. When major Jewish organizations and figures like Lipstadt take an “eternalist” view of antisemitism—seeing it as an enduring virus that will always be with us—they seem to abdicate responsibility for actually figuring out how to fight it. And for such leaders, the logical conclusion of such a view is often that Jews need to have a strong nation-state. “If one accepts antisemitism to be eternal, and not a consequence of social or historical factors, then it is a fact of life that will forever push Jewish people into defensive postures. It will make us more nationalist, more reactionary, more militaristic, and more closed off from the rest of the world,” the historian Barry Trachtenberg told me at the time.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this historical debate since Hamas’s October 7th attacks. I’ve frequently heard Hamas’s massacres described as a “pogrom,” and thereby just another manifestation of the same antisemitism that has dogged Jews for centuries. While Hamas has at times espoused antisemitic ideas that draw from other antisemitic contexts, such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, is the October 7th attack akin to the violence in the Pale of Settlement that targeted my ancestors? And should it prevent us from understanding the specific context of October 7th, including the 16-year siege on Gaza, the longtime delegitimization of Palestinian nonviolent resistance to occupation, and Israel’s historic efforts to cultivate Hamas as a counterweight to the Palestine Liberation Organization?

I was pleased, then, to see an interview this week between Feldman and The New Yorker staff writer Isaac Chotiner. Feldman challenges those who say that contextualizing instances of violence—both antisemitism around the world that has spiked since October 7th and Hamas’s attacks themselves—is the same as condoning them.“Either we give up or we try to understand why people are acting the way they’re acting. Otherwise, the humanities are not really serving a useful purpose,” he said.

Feldman then considers Jewish relationships to state power in order to offer a useful corrective to the dominant narratives around Hamas’s attacks and the current climate of fear among Jewish minorities worldwide. He challenges the aforementioned “pogrom” framing: In Russia and Poland, he explains,“Jews were a racialized minority, relatively powerless,” whereas the “awful” violence against Israelis on October 7th took place in a “state in which Jews are a majority, in which they have state power.” By this logic, Feldman says, settler violence in the West Bank town of Huwara earlier this year is a more fitting example of a “pogrom.” Feldman also uses this frame to discuss the situation of the Jewish diaspora, where Western governments have been both institutionally supportive of Israel and vocally committed to opposing antisemitism. The Jewish community, it seems, is mostly taking issue not with our leaders or state policy, but with broader public sentiment. Feldman sees this in part as a result of the fact that since the post-Holocaust era, mainstream Jewish communities in the US and Europe have successfully made “vertical alliances” with governments, while “alliances with other racialized minorities . . . have often suffered and frayed.” Paradoxically, Feldman argues, this governmental protection could actually bring “danger if people think that Jews are being protected in ways that the other groups are not. And it brings danger because it angers people who are against the state or against the system, however they conceive it.” For a sober, thoughtful model of how to understand this complex dynamic, Feldman’s interview is a must-read.

Daniel May (publisher): Several days after October 7th, I was speaking with a Palestinian friend about how to understand the response to Hamas’s attacks among some of our mutual friends on the left. “Our language in the Palestinian diaspora has moved so quickly over the last decade,” she reflected. “From occupation, to apartheid, to settler colonialism, and now to decolonization. But we haven’t done the work of defining what we mean. Do we mean the end of a state of Jewish supremacy? Do we mean reparations? Do we mean the right of return? Do we mean ‘the colonists’ leaving…?”

In the weeks since our conversation, as hundreds of thousands have mobilized in the streets of the US and Europe to oppose Israel’s killing and dispossession, I’ve been replaying my friend’s questions in my mind. To some, the protests reflect the emergence of a broad and genuinely anti-imperial left; to others, and even to some Jewish progressives opposed to Israel’s war on Gaza, the language present in these demonstrations evinces something more troubling. Whatever one’s reaction, what is clear is that today’s left is explicitly “anti-colonial.” Those of us invested in that left must begin to wrestle through what that might mean.

On Twitter, Franz Fanon is most commonly cited in what passes for discussion on these matters. His most often-quoted work is the first chapter of the 1956 The Wretched of the Earth, which is generally taken to endorse the necessity of violence in decolonial struggle. Fanon suggests that anti-colonial violence is “de-intoxicating” (or, in the English mistranslation, a “cleansing force”) which liberates “the native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction.” By some, Fanon is taken to explain Hamas’ violence; by others, he is taken to justify it.

In his superb essay in the London Review of Books, “Vengeful Pathologies,” Adam Shatz troubles these cursory nods to Fanon. Shatz, whose book on Fanon, The Rebel’s Clinic, will be released in January, points out that Fanon was above all a clinician who both participated in the anti-colonial struggle and sought to diagnose its pathologies. As Shatz explains, Fanon understood that violence was at the very center of colonial rule, and necessarily produces violence in response. But this was not, Shatz insists, meant to be an endorsement of this violence: Fanon notably lamented the devastating results of violence on those anti-colonial fighters that participated in it and warned against a politics that becomes defined by the “resentments” that violence produces and unleashes.

Shatz’s reading of Fanon challenges both those who justify or defend Hamas’ horrifying atrocities, as well as those who think that Hamas’ brutality can be stopped through military force. As Shatz writes, “the inescapable truth is that Israel cannot extinguish Palestinian resistance by violence, any more than the Palestinians can win an Algerian-style liberation war: Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs are stuck with each other, unless Israel, the far stronger party, drives the Palestinians into exile for good.” Amidst such overwhelming loss, it is helpful, even essential, to be reminded of that basic truth and that dark warning. The warning describes what must be stopped; the truth points towards the only future worth striving for, together.


Jonathan Shamir (JC fellow): The liminal identity of Palestinian citizens of Israel has always been fertile ground for creative work, but few artists have come to define a milieu quite like the musician Faraj Suleiman and the writer and lyricist Majd Kayyal. While their first hit collaboration in 2020, Better Than Berlin, unpacked the lure and alienation of migrating to Europe, their 2023 album Upright Biano powerfully expresses the double consciousness of middle-class Palestinian citizens of Israel who stay behind. In the song “Wtf,” for example, each refrain of “our story” is followed by absurd vignettes—“our story is Charmander wanting to work as a firefighter/And Ashkenazis in Haaretz reviewing knafeh”—in what feel like maxims for their whole generation.

The opening song, “Down With London Bridge,” almost warrants a recommendation of its own. The hilarious 13-minute epic is told from the perspective of a son narrating the long-simmering tension that emerges between his parents due to their divergent responses to Princess Diana’s death: As tears stream down his mother’s face, his father becomes increasingly obsessed by the pursuit vengeance against Queen Elizabeth II for the British role in “destroying our homes.” The stripped-back piano—also the album’s titular symbol of bourgeois comfort—turns into a high-tempo, anthemic call for something beyond the relative comfort of their lives as Israeli citizens, as the father tells his son: “We were created to hope . . . that Elizabeth will fall off her horse and crash.” The son gradually comes to embrace his father’s righteous, addictive anger: “I thought I’d turn out different . . . Like my dad, I want to erase the entire works of Shakespeare . . . For Alice to never come out of the rabbit-hole/For Tony Blair to be bitten by a cobra . . . And for the empire on which the sun never sets to be eaten up by global warming.” Although the narrator’s father never drops his conviction, his parents reconcile after Queen Elizabeth’s death, and the heavy burden of political grievance on domestic life is lifted. Still, other straightforward love songs on the album—such as the tender “Never After” and “Little Thought”—serve as reminders that mundane romantic strife will soon rush into the vacuum. In the sardonically titled “Anthem of Arab Israel,” a chorus of voices sing about an ever-elusive “happiness at home,” yet the fact that “time never puts out the fire” could equally refer to the injustice itself, or the self-sustaining grievance—much like a father in the song who makes “excuses.”


Since October 7th, Palestinian citizens of Israel have been forced into silence by mass arrests, dismissals from jobs and universities, and incitement and mob violence against them. One far-right Israeli news presenter’s indictment seemed to speak to the sentiment underlying this repressive wave: “The age of the ‘Israeli-Palestinian’ is over. It’s Israeli or Palestinian.” While the songs on Upright Biano geographically span an area that stretches from the Mediterranean coast to the Sea of Galilee (it’s more “from the sea to the sea” than “from the river to the sea,” capturing the isolation of Palestinian citizens of Israel from their own people), the final song “If Only I Could,” resists this divided geography, even if the only unity it finds is hypothetical: “If only it would rain in Gaza and the Galilee/We will build your kingdom and take down our tents.”

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