You are now entering the Jewish Currents archive.

Some Notes on Anti-Semitism from a Progressive Jewish Perspective

Lawrence Bush
March 1, 2007

Resisting the Alienation

by Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz
I am already late with this article, and if I am to keep up with developments relevant to my topic, I will never finish. Anti-Semitism is on the rise — and progressive Jews are to blame, according to a recent report published by the American Jewish Committee (“ ‘Progressive’ Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism”). Its author, Alvin Rosenfeld, argues that sharp criticism of Israel is equivalent to arguing that Israel shouldn’t exist — which means Jews shouldn’t exist.
I am named as one of these anti-Semitism-causing progressive Jews, although I would never say something so (in my humble opinion) stupid as that a nation that exists shouldn’t. Many of the other Jews named by Rosenfeld are my comrades and friends, people I like and admire: Tony Kushner, Adrienne Rich, Alisa Solomon, Esther Kaplan, Irena Klepfisz, Daniel Boyarin, Sara Roy. They are hardly what you’d call ‘self-hating Jews.’ Many have — as I have — devoted decades to building Jewish community, culture, and radical Jewish politics. Many of us are strongly connected to the Israeli and Palestinian peace camps, whose perspective Rosenfeld never mentions, even at a time when growing numbers of Israelis clamor for peace, academics support boycotts, high school students resist the draft, soldiers refuse to serve in the occupied territories. They ask for our help in isolating and pressuring their government to negotiate an end to this grotesque occupation of Palestinian communities by the IDF, including border checkpoints where children in need of medical care have died waiting; the wall, dubbed with some accuracy “apartheid wall”; the house demolitions; the destruction of Lebanon’s infrastructure; not to mention the precariousness and desensitization of Israeli lives.
Photo of Sign at RallyAgainst this backdrop, the American Jewish Committee might best be remembered for refusing to endorse the 1933-41 boycott of German goods organized largely by the Women’s Division of the American Jewish Congress and joined by, among others, the Jewish Labor Committee and the American Jewish War Veterans, and The Pittsburgh Courier (an African-American newspaper). AJCommittee also argued against holding a mass rally to protest the ratcheting up of Nazi Jew-hating. In both cases, AJCommittee was presumably acting out of fear of triggering an anti-Semitic backlash. It’s the well known “Shhh, you’ll make it worse.” Some people never learn.

A progressive Jewish perspective on anti-Semitism begins by disavowing, “Shhh, you’ll make it worse.” We are activists, and we do not keep silent. We recognize the huge range in what gets categorized as anti-Semitism: from ignorance to extermination and everything in between, including conspiracy theories, stereotypes, hate crimes, Christian Zionism, rampant Christianism, and ridicule of Jewish identity or culture. We believe —and act accordingly —that it is both possible and essential to resist anti-Semitism and simultaneously to oppose suffering, abuse, and injustice inflicted on others.
Could it be that simple?
Hardly. For example, as a Jewish leftist opposed to the right wing on a plethora of issues, it’s a breeze to oppose their Jew-hating, whereas it’s painful, debilitating, and complicated to deal with anti-Semitic comments or attitude from supposed comrades. Moreover, anti-Semitism in the early 21st century does not look like Auschwitz or exclusionary clauses. Instead it might look like this:
Shira Katz is a public school teacher in her early thirties, with dual U.S.-Israeli citizenship. She was living in Jerusalem in the mid-1990s when, in the face of “the unbelievable settler violence happening in Hebron,” she helped found the Hebron Solidarity Committee. Their group of Jewish Israelis, U.S. Jews living in Israel, and Palestinian citizens of Israel paid solidarity visits to Hebron families “who had pogroms visited on them. We helped Palestinian residents across from a settlement build a fence — then we were beat up by settlers. When people were killed by the military, we’d attend funerals and we’d visit people in their homes.”
I ask Shira if she encountered anti-Semitism, either there or in solidarity work she’s been involved with in the U.S.
“You have to understand Palestinian anti-Semitism in the context of the occupation,” she says. “The occupation is the biggest factor in the lives of Palestinians. The people I work with, they’re internationalists and Marxists. They distinguish between being Jewish and supporting a certain political ideology. But we participated in some events where people were chanting who knows what — I have the blissful ignorance of not understanding Arabic. At one meeting, some Hamas people wouldn’t look at us because we were women, and I’d think, ‘Our grandparents are rolling in their graves right now!’
“But there was such a lack of action and awareness even among leftist Jewish Israelis that we felt like someone needed to stand up and take risks. And we actually felt like our going to Hebron was going to break some anti-Semitic stereotypes.”
“Did you feel afraid?”
“My dad’s a Holocaust survivor, so Jewish fear is part of who I am. I have to shut down to it; to act in spite of it. Only once a rock was thrown at a taxi we were in. Really, our fear of violence from settlers or from Hamasniks was equal. And doing this work, it’s like a dance: having the fear and having the convictions. If I had let my fear control me or stop me from acting — look what I would have lost: connections with Palestinians; a deep sense of working for what’s right and — this may sound corny — seeing what’s true. Moving through the fear has enriched my life.”

From a progressive Jewish perspective, anti-Semitism is frequently not the main event but an obstacle to the main event — the main event being some version of what Andrea Dworkin labeled “primary emergency,” that aspect of one’s identity or affiliation that shoves you up against the dehumanizing parameters of violence, shame, or deprivation. In Nazi-occupied Europe, anti-Semitism was a salient category of danger, but for the most part in the U.S., anti-Semitism is not a primary emergency — though it could again suddenly become exactly that. But anti-Semitism doesn’t have to be a primary emergency in order to interfere in two ways with the work of progressive Jews.
First, anti-Semitism can humiliate, isolate, and silence us, especially when we internalize it. Anti-Semitism mutes our loud, proud Jewish energy, make us afraid of seeming too powerful, too. . . well, Jewish. How can we fight injustice powerfully if we fear our power?
Second, anti-Semitism on the left, such as it is, alienates and frightens potential Jewish allies, what I think of as the ‘soft’ Jewish community, liberals: the folks who have risen to the occasion so beautifully on queer rights, on reproductive choice, health care, immigrant rights, labor, civil liberties, even on opposing anti-Arab racism. I don’t want to scare these folks off, yet it’s a delicate maneuver, with many of them continuing to support Israel no matter what, often panicking when Palestinians are acknowledged as people, as if such an observation is dangerous for Jews. When these folks get even a whiff of anti-Semitism, they often back away from the issues — the war on Iraq, for example.

We’ve been hearing a lot lately about anti-Semitism on college campuses, through information largely gathered by Jewish students spying on faculty. Yet in a recent survey, the Anti-Defamation League — hardly a beacon of the left — found on U.S. campuses simultaneously less anti-Semitism and more opposition to Israeli policies than among any other segment of the population. The survey concluded that while five percent of faculty were “hardcore anti-Semites,” a whopping 62-65 percent opposed the policies of the Israeli government. It’s the job of Jewish progressives to understand and broadcast that distinction.
Nevertheless, although Jews who are white, economically comfortable, straight and male are Establishment insiders at this historical moment, history teaches us that this could shift, suddenly or gradually. It’s classic Jewish behavior to worry whether the moment of shift is approaching — Is this it? Is this?
Jewish fear is hardly paranoid. Naomi Klein (writing in Tony Kushner and Alisa Solomon’s Wrestling with Zion) notes that “every time I log on to activist news sites like, which practice ‘open publishing,’ I’m confronted with a string of Jewish conspiracy theories about 9/11 and excerpts from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” Although the internet includes scores of attacks on the Protocols, the revival of this tired old forgery from Tsarist Russia, along with the perceived need for discrediting it, is unnerving.
Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ stirred the pot, coinciding as it did with the Bush presidency’s embrace of a right-wing Christian agenda, and followed more recently by the actor’s Jew-hating tirade drunkenly launched at a Jewish cop — with some Hollywoodites as smart as Jodie Foster defending him. (On the other hand, comedians like David Letterman have gone wild with mockery, a response I find encouraging.)
Some leftists blame all Jews for Israeli brutality, while rightist hate groups blame Jewish money, homosexuality, and garden-variety sinfulness for everything else. Let’s not forget the pro-Zionist Christian Right, the ones who love Jews because the second coming of Christ requires our presence.
Outside the U.S., anti-Semitism steps up several notches. In Pakistan, journalist Daniel Pearl’s throat was cut “partly because” he was a Jew. Anti-Jewish violence is on the rise in traditional sites of anti-Semitism — in Europe and especially France, where Jew-hating tangles with anti-Israel sentiment. Attacks have gone beyond graffiti and desecration, and include at least one torture-murder. Even in places not traditionally anti-Semitic, such as Japan, Indonesia and other parts of Asia, traditional European anti-Semitic tropes appear: our old friends, the blood libel, the Protocols.
Recently I’ve gotten a slew of e-mails saying things like “Hail Hitler” (they don’t even spell heil right!) and “you disgusting Jew cunt why don’t you kill yourself?” I assume these are coming from the non-Jewish right. But there’s also the Jewish right, exemplified by the Masada2000 website, the “self-hating Jew shit list.” I’m on it, along with more than seven thousand others, many with photographs. Then there’s the pleasure of standing in a vigil against the Israeli occupation and having your leaflets knocked out of your hands by a large man in a kippah shrieking in your face that you’re a whore.

So it’s not anti-Semitism on the left that scares me. Would that the left were strong enough to scare anybody. But it does hurt and distance me — and it gets in the way of my work.
Now it needs to be said: The left is not exactly Jew-less. So there’s always someone to say in our circles, “I’m Jewish and I don’t think it’s anti-Semitic.” And sometimes it is, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes the incident or response comes from ignorance; sometimes it’s self-hating; sometimes it’s differences of experience reflected in differences of opinion. The point is not to shred each other up, and whoever’s left standing gets to define anti-Semitism. The point is to hear each other and tolerate disagreement; not so different from standing in solidarity across any other differences.

My topic is not Israel/Palestine and yet I keep wandering into it. How can I not? In the U.S., the majority of Jewish anti-racist, anti-poverty groups have sworn off taking positions about Israel and Palestine because the issue is both volatile and consuming, and they want to concentrate on local issues. But there’s no such thing as total distancing, especially not in New York City, the oxymoronic center of the diaspora, where elected officials target the Jewish vote by swearing that Jerusalem will never be divided, or where, in a recent mayoral election, three out of four candidates donated money for bulletproof vests for settlers. Beyond New York is the issue of U.S. aid to Israel, what our tax dollars do and don’t do.
When it comes to Israel, the mainstream U.S. Jewish community has been horrendous, stifling dissent way beyond what goes on in Israel itself. On a personal note, I have been told of two instances in which I was excluded for consideration for teaching positions in departments of Jewish Studies because of my politics on Israel/Palestine. I’m sure there are many people across the country who could say the same thing, and many more instances conducted in secret.
I wish the center of Jewish politics on this issue were not so far to the right. When dissent is stifled, the response to that stifling is not necessarily anti-Semitic — it may well be appropriate — but sometimes anti-Semitism tags along. This creates a vicious cycle of defensiveness, rage, and timidity, making it hard to know when to confront, when to save it for a phone call the next day, when to breathe.

The larger issue is the way Israeli politics deforms American Jewish experience.
In Spring, 2006, a New York run of the play, My Name is Rachel Corrie, was cancelled for fear — according to the theater director — of alienating powerful voices (perhaps funders?) in the Jewish community. The details of the controversy were not made public, but whoever automatically accepts the theater’s explanation, which shifted the blame from their fear to the influence of ‘some Jews’ (and their money), is trafficking in anti-Semitism.
It is hard to hear what Rachel Corrie witnessed, hard to listen to some of the actions of the Israel Defense Forces. The facts are bound to arouse anger, disgust and fear. The solution, however, is not censorship. If the voices of progressive Jews had been louder, perhaps the theater people would have recognized the differences of opinion among Jews and been less fearful about venturing onto alien terrain. Progressive Jews have to learn to tolerate, indeed, encourage dissent — and to turn up our own volume. If this scares other Jews, we need to help each other struggle with fear.
I have spoken recently with a number of progressive Jews who find themselves, post 9/11, frightened by anti-Semitism both left and right. Yet if we contrast anti-Semitism in the U.S. with the physical assaults, racial profiling, FBI harassment, workplace discrimination, indefinite detention, expulsion to face torture or death, any of which might confront other immigrant and minority groups in the U.S., we see that the distance between the danger faced by the majority of U.S. Jews and that faced by others is, at this historical moment, increasing. The boundary between Ashkenazi and non-Jewish whites has blurred, while Arabs and Muslims, cast as the “minority from hell,” make Jews look like harbingers of calm and civility. Have Jews ever seemed so normal, so (Judeo)Christian? You could almost say, in your most cynical voice, “Arab-hating is good for the Jews.”
Kathleen Blee, in her book, Inside Organized Racism: Women in the Hate Movement, describes how the Aryan Nation, Ku Klux Klan, Christian Identity, and Racist Skinhead movements share a convoluted world view with three key elements of conspiratorial anti-Semitism at the center: 1) Jews have distorted modern history (one aspect of which is Holocaust-as-hoax); 2) Jews seek world control through a one-world government (that sicko United Nations); 3) Jews manipulate racial strife. According to Blee, the central role played by anti-Semitism in this far right ideology is odd, given that “anti-Semitism in the mainstream culture is at an all-time low.” To Blee, this centrality provides one more example of how peculiar and isolated these hate groups are. She acknowledges the strength of Christian-centrism in the mainstream culture, but she finds that women entering the hate movements have to be taught to hate Jews. They lack specific images or complaints, a vagueness she attributes to the small number of Jews in the U.S. and the level of assimilation and invisibility in which these Jews live.
Equally interesting, and not at all comforting, Blee documents that this lack of Jew-hating characterized many who were drawn to Nazism in Germany in the 1930s. (In England, on the contrary, anti-Semitism was rampant, visceral, and quite specific.)
Islamic conspiratorial thinking similarly distorts reality and scapegoats Zionists/Israel/Jews for the depredations of Western imperialism, and for the oppression of the East by the West. Given the actual role of the Israeli state in oppressing Palestinians, the broad and endless support diaspora Jewry seems to lavish on Israel, and the apparent lack of any Jewish agenda except with regard to Israel, this conspiratorial anti-Semitism can get confused with reasonable rage at the Israeli oppressors.

A sign at a rally: Sharon=Hitler.
Do I groan when I see it, and hope we can keep it from the television cameras? Yes.
Do I feel threatened or attacked? No.
Do I understand if some other Jew feels threatened or attacked? Yes.
Is it my job to police the signs? No.
Is it my job to talk with the freaked-out Jew? Probably.
Is it true that the Israeli government is committing hideous crimes? Yes.
Is it true that Israel is targeted disproportionately? Yes.
Is it true that Israel is paid disproportionately? Yes.

One of our best options in fighting anti-Semitism on the Left and everywhere else is to build progressive Jewish strength. This means in part spreading the word that progressive Jewishness is not only about oppression: we’re about culture and pride. We’re about strengthening aspects of Jewish identity besides the big three: religion, the Holocaust, and Israel, which don’t work for all of us as the center of our identity.
This might mean joining me to promote Diasporism, for those of us who identify with being here, not going there — in the language of the Yiddish-speaking Bundists, doikayt, ‘hereness;’ in the language of the Ladino-speaking Jews of the Ottoman Empire, Haviva Ottomania, beloved Ottoman Homeland.
It might mean working to create and spread radical Jewish content, to reclaim our proud tradition of Jewish radicalism. I don’t only mean the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. I mean now. I mean teacher-activist Shira Katz; I mean diversity educator Yavilah McCoy; I mean my comrade investigative journalist Esther Kaplan; I mean klezmer fiddler Alicia Svigals; I mean Jewish Currents columnist The Rootless Cosmopolitan; I mean Rabbi Susan Talve, who battles racism and sings Ladino songs like an angel; I mean theater genius Jenny Romaine; I mean academic Ella Shohat, who tells what it was like to be an Iraqi Jewish child making aliyah.
At this historical moment it is crucial that progressive Jews not get lost in the limits of identity politics or the lure of innocent victimhood. We face an exceedingly powerful and dangerous empire, and we need to act together and in large numbers. Without ranking oppression, without letting fear derail us — however many flashbacks and Holocaust visions we endure — we need to recognize and seize this almost unparalleled moment of security for Jews in the U.S., and use it well on behalf of the better world we long for.

Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz served as the first director of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice in New York. She is widely published in the feminist, queer and progressive Jewish press, and her newest book, The Colors of Jews: Racial Politics and Radical Diasporism, is due out in April. Earlier versions of this article were presented at an East Coast conference on “Anti-Semitism and the Left” in March, 2006, and as part of a workshop at the Conference of Secular Jewish Organizations’ biennial gathering in May, 2006.

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.