This essay appears in our Summer 2019 issue, out now! Subscribe to receive a copy of this issue in your mailbox.
WHEN I FIRST ENCOUNTERED April Rosenblum’s pamphlet The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere: Making Resistance to Antisemitism Part of All of Our Movements in 2012, I was two years out of college, part of a vibrant activist community in Tucson, Arizona. I was spending most of my time with a group called No More Deaths, doing solidarity and relief work with migrants crossing the treacherous US–Mexico desert borderlands into southern Arizona.
Reading the pamphlet for the first time was transformative. In its pages, I longingly glimpsed what it would look like to show up to my political work as my full Jewish self. That’s not to say that I hid my Jewishness in leftist spaces—I expressed pride in histories of Jewish radicalism; in response to Israeli human-rights violations, I unapologetically proclaimed, “Not in my name!” But in my day-to-day political work, I showed up as an ally to other people’s struggles, and little more. In fact, I sensed that it would have been taboo to advocate publicly for anything like “Jewish liberation.” Among my friends on the left, the common assumption was that Jews are no longer oppressed as Jews—if anything, Jews are among the oppressors; to suggest otherwise was at best embarrassingly naive and, at worst, racist.
The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere articulated what I had long felt in my gut: that Jews have our own stake in the struggle; that antisemitism remains real—embedded, like all other oppressions, in the fabric of our society, including in our movements. Rosenblum’s pamphlet proclaimed that we deserve a left that fights for Jewish liberation, too.
And yet, when I looked up from the pages of the pamphlet, I found myself unsure how to proceed. Should I approach my non-Jewish comrades, hand them the text, and ask them to stand with me against antisemitism? That sounded terrifying—they might roll their eyes, tell me to “check my privilege” and stop whining about an oppression that didn’t exist—so I made no such request. I showed the pamphlet to the one other Jewish comrade I knew well, but he wasn’t interested. Instead, I kept it on my bookshelf, returning every six months or so to drink quietly from its waters, grateful for its existence and empowered to continue wrestling with these questions.
At once a visionary manifesto, historical treasure trove, and practical activist handbook, The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere comes out of the underground zine culture of recent decades, where members of punk, anarchist, and other alternative communities have long been self-publishing and circulating creative, often handmade pamphlets on a variety of topics. Each of The Past’s 36 pages is full to bursting with the urgency of its message. Bold headlines in a handwritten font set the pace. Photos of diverse Jewish activists and communities, disturbing antisemitic cartoons, scenes of early 2000s war and protest—these and other images jostle for space alongside blocks of text in a jagged patchwork tapestry as rich and messy as its topic.
Upon its release in 2007, the pamphlet was circulated through a few small-scale distribution businesses, offered at independent bookstores, and sold at events. But I found my copy five years later the old-fashioned way: tattered and well-worn, on the shelf of a makeshift zine library in the living room of an anarchist co-op.
The core assertion of The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere, which is addressed to both Jewish and non-Jewish activists, is this: Antisemitism remains a real, active force in our society, and progressive movements, tasked with ending oppression and improving the world, must work harder to understand and fight it, including—and especially—when it appears in our own ranks. In support of this central thesis, the pamphlet leads readers through a winding array of historical deep dives and movement anecdotes, and provides commentary on topics like Jews and whiteness, internalized oppression, Islamophobia, Israel/Palestine, and the Christian right.
Perhaps The Past’s most enduring contribution—and a lynchpin of its structural understanding of antisemitism—is its theory of “middle agent” oppression. While “many oppressions rely on keeping a targeted group of people poor, uneducated, designated nonwhite, or otherwise ‘at the bottom,’” Rosenblum writes, “the 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.” Thus, European-derived antisemitism functions by locking Jews into middle agent roles: once some Jews have climbed to the middle rungs of society’s ladder of race and class privilege, then, during times of economic downturn and social instability, Jews as a group “can be perceived as the ones ‘in charge’ by other oppressed groups,” who are encouraged to “fix [their] gaze on an imagined group of greedy, powerful Jews at the root of the world’s problems.”
This scapegoating of Jews, Rosenblum explains, redirects the vision of other groups past capitalism and other unjust systems, ultimately shielding the (mostly non-Jewish) people in power who benefit. According to this theory, Jews’ ability to “move up” in society leads to a cyclical experience of antisemitism: “Attacks come in waves; but each time things calm down and Jews are able to blend in or succeed in society again, it gives the appearance that antisemitism is ‘over.’”
This analysis has proven influential. Over the last dozen years, the framework has been integrated into trainings and programs throughout the American Jewish left. It is a pillar of political education for the anti-occupation group IfNotNow’s member trainings. Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ) has incorporated it into trainings for Jewish members and non-Jewish allies across New York City since 2012 and includes it in their influential Understanding Antisemitism pamphlet, released in 2017. Tzedek Lab, a grassroots national network of Jewish activists, uses a middle-agent lens as a tool to help activists strengthen cross-movement anti-racist work. The reach of Rosenblum’s pamphlet extends beyond the progressive Jewish world, as well. Last year, it was circulated among activists in the British Labour Party seeking to resolve internal tensions around questions of antisemitism, and organizers recently gave a copy to Women’s March leader Tamika Mallory, who reportedly used it to sharpen her own understanding of antisemitism amid recent controversy.
It’s no surprise that a resource articulating a progressive analysis of antisemitism has been useful lately. Today, far-right, ultranationalist, and openly antisemitic movements are again gaining traction in America and around the world. Right-wing politicians increasingly espouse thinly veiled antisemitic conspiracies involving “globalists.” The deadliest attack against Jews in US history, at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, followed by another synagogue shooting six months later outside of San Diego, illuminated the ways in which antisemitism fuels white nationalist movements. Meanwhile, questions of antisemitism on the left polarize public discourse, with false charges against critics of Israel routinely muddying the waters.
The topic is further obscured by the liberal understanding of antisemitism, dominant in mainstream discourse within and beyond the Jewish community. Here, antisemitism is presented simply as a strange, inexplicable hatred—a kind of historical measles, cured one era, back the next—equally likely to infect social movements on the left or the right. When the virus is diagnosed on the left—sometimes accurately, often tendentiously—many Jewish institutions respond by circling the wagons, leaning into fear and distrust, and joining with non-Jewish political actors in a chorus of condemnation, which can seriously weaken progressive movements.
In this highly charged environment, debates about antisemitism are routinely propelled into the spotlight as writers, politicians, and activists in Jewish and non-Jewish spheres attempt to define and delineate antisemitism, parse true from false, draw lines in the discursive sand. Jewish progressives are hungry for an understanding of antisemitism grounded in solidarity and oriented toward building common cause against white supremacy. Many Jewish activists feel a sense of urgency to critically evaluate the middle agent theory, which has grown influential in progressive Jewish spaces, due in part to the popularity of Rosenblum’s pamphlet. What’s at stake in this debate, after all, is nothing less than our liberation.
ROSENBLUM GREW UP in a working-class, largely black Philadelphia neighborhood in the 1980s. Her family had long been involved in the civil rights movement, the anti-nuclear movement, and other progressive struggles. While “Jewishness had always been very important to my sense of what shaped me,” Rosenblum told me in an interview, “I grew up with a much stronger sense of belonging to the left.” In college and beyond, Rosenblum’s activism focused on anti-black racism, criminal justice, and black–Jewish solidarity—causes that continue to animate her work today.
After 9/11, Rosenblum organized against rising Islamophobia in the US and, with the escalation of the Second Intifada, got involved in the fight for Palestinian freedom. As her engagement in this work deepened, the Israeli government’s actions felt to Rosenblum “like a slap in the face to the values that had animated every generation I knew of in my Jewish family.” She found herself drawn to Jewish history as a way of understanding how the historically oppressed had become oppressors. “I just had to make sense of these contradictions,” she said. “I felt so much for my people. How had this happened to us? And of course, the more I studied of Jewish history, the more obvious it was how much the wider left did not understand about Jews.”
Seeds for The Past were planted in 2001, when delegates returning from the United Nations’ World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, shared their experiences with a crowded room in Philadelphia. Friends told Rosenblum that a black Pan-Africanist activist had made shockingly blatant antisemitic comments from the podium, attributing the oppression of black people to nefarious Jewish control and invoking Hitler’s “resistance” as a stance worth emulating. Many present applauded these statements, and few in the room challenged the antisemitism on display. “Some of my closest white, anti-racist activist friends and colleagues were there,” Rosenblum told me. “These were people who understood how racism works, and should have been able to resist the open promotion of scapegoating and genocide against Jews. I came away from hearing about this experience thinking that something was missing from activist education on the left.”
Rosenblum suspected that her friends did not agree with the speaker’s views but that they lacked the language with which to speak out on the issue. Her hunch was confirmed the following year, when she led a yearlong training and focus group called Allies to Jews with that same group of white, non-Jewish activists. “It was challenging for them to face their fears about breaking the left’s silence on antisemitism,” Rosenblum said. Part of the difficulty, she discovered, was that Jews were also having a hard time figuring out how to stand up for themselves: “You have to see role models doing something in order to learn confidence in doing it, and Jews on the left had been quiet about this issue.”
Dove Kent, senior strategy officer at the progressive Jewish political advocacy group Bend the Arc, has played a pivotal role over the last decade in sharpening understanding of antisemitism in progressive Jewish communities and broader movement spaces, including as former Executive Director of JFREJ and co-creator of Tzedek Lab. In an interview, Kent recalled going to anti-racism trainings in the early 2000s where, “without fail, a white Jewish woman left in tears,” due to facilitators’ inability to recognize her family’s lived experience of racialized oppression. “The argument went back and forth—‘You’re not accepting your whiteness!’ ‘You’re not understanding that my grandparents weren’t considered white!’ ” she said.
Similarly, Tzedek Lab co-director Helen Bennett recalled the confusion of being a white Jew living in an anarchist co-op in Seattle in 2009. “I loved living there,” she said, “and as a 22-year-old, I was figuring out how to be a political person and a Jew in a community that wasn’t sure what to make of my Jewishness. I didn’t know anyone who was doing what I was trying to do.”
For Kent and Bennett, Rosenblum’s pamphlet was like a life raft in stormy waters. “April’s work was really helpful in articulating why this phenomenon kept happening, of the left being confused about Jews and Jews being confused about their role on the left,” said Kent. Bennett experienced the pamphlet’s insights about Jews being both oppressor and oppressed as a kind of relief, even if she wasn’t quite ready to talk about it with her friends in the co-op. “It helped me put my experience into perspective—I was no longer by myself with the questions I had about where I fit in,” she said.
“Overwhelmingly, the response [to the pamphlet’s publication] was of profound gratitude from Jews who had needed this for a long time and didn’t know quite what they were looking for until they found it,” Rosenblum told me. She still regularly receives correspondence from Jews who claim the pamphlet “gave them grounding, and a sense of how to use their voice on this issue.”
In recent years—due to shifting political realities and the work done by Rosenblum, Kent, and many, many others—Jewish activists have indeed found firmer footing in the baseline assertion that antisemitism remains a real, active force in our society. These activists are now faced with attending to the specifics of the middle agent analysis, striving for deeper understanding and more effective organizing strategies.
THROUGHOUT THE 20TH CENTURY, activists and intellectuals have investigated the often complex dynamics behind antisemitism by tracing various “middleman” roles that Jews have held in local economies, group hierarchies, and other social structures. Contemporary discussions of Jews as middle agents emerged from circles of Jewish feminist and anti-racist activists in the 1960s and ’70s. For decades, a middle-agent lens has been used in Re-Evaluation Counseling (or co-counseling), a peer-based therapeutic process aimed at healing from accumulated trauma caused by racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression, which has long been popular (and often controversial) in activist circles.
Thousands of Jews and allies have attended co-counseling trainings and workshops on antisemitism since the mid-’70s. Cherie Brown, who has spearheaded Jewish identity work in co-counseling since 1976, described to me the lessons learned during that era, lessons which she believes remain deeply relevant today. “It’s important,” she said, “to work through any feelings that we don’t have a right to have people take our issues seriously, that we don’t have a right to find our voice on them, that our oppression doesn’t matter.” That is “how antisemitism gets internalized,” she said.
Activists cite a number of historical and contemporary middle-agent dynamics to make their argument. In feudal Poland, nobles fomented peasant pogroms against Jewish tax collectors. As Puerto Rican Jewish writer Aurora Levins Morales describes in her essay “Latin@s, Israel and Palestine: Understanding Anti-Semitism,” the inciters were confident that “peasants who go on pogrom against their Jewish neighbors won’t make it to the nobleman’s palace to burn him out and seize the fields.” In pre-revolutionary Russia, officials propagated rumors of a Jewish conspiracy for world domination via the publication of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, attempting—unsuccessfully—to distract workers from the growing revolt against Tsarist rule. We can see this dynamic play out today, when Trump and his cronies bellow tirades against George Soros and “cultural Marxists.” These invectives create a scapegoat for white gentiles fed up with the system, insinuating that the hidden hand of “Jewish power” foists economic hardship and social alienation on the backs of white middle America.
Middle-agent theories have also been used to explain the fraught and complex dynamics between white Jews and non-Jewish communities of color. According to Levins Morales, as a sector of American Jews assimilated into race and class privilege over the course of the 20th century, they “collaborated in the exploitation of urban people of color, trading an illusion of safety for the powerful alliances we could have built, and often becoming one of the local faces of oppression: landlords, pawnbrokers, public school teachers and administrators, doctors, and the social workers of the welfare machine.” The oft-present simmering animosity between white Jews and non-Jewish black Americans since the mid-20th century—sometimes manifesting as racism on one side and antisemitism on the other—is understood, here, as the tension between a middle-agent group and those positioned directly below them in America’s race and class hierarchy.
Antisemitism is on the rise again, according to those using a middle-agent lens, because this dynamic remains central to our world. Yesterday and today, the cycle repeats itself: Jews become isolated from other groups, who are manipulated into channeling their anger at Jews. In hopes of gaining safety, Jews feel compelled to seek proximity to power, reinforcing their structural role as a pressure valve in society’s unstable hierarchies.
Many Jews have experienced real empowerment in this complicity, from America to Israel/Palestine—a seductive prospect considering our lingering, and legitimate, fears of powerlessness. But activists argue that once Jews understand our position as middle agents, we can move our communities to break the cycle—to divest from complicity in oppressive structures and stand alongside other marginalized peoples for collective liberation. And while Jews must work to combat our complicity, the left must work harder to show up for Jews—to demonstrate, as JFREJ puts it in Understanding Antisemitism, “that we are among friends who won’t be fooled by antisemitic myths . . . that Jews can access safety without reliance on state power.”
However, some activists are skeptical that a middle-agent framework is the best option for understanding antisemitism and Jewish positionality today. Many Mizrahi Jewish activists correctly point out that an understanding of Jews as middle agents, which is based on analyses of European antisemitism, does not reflect the reality of Jewish history in parts of the Middle East, North Africa, and elsewhere outside Europe, where, for many centuries, Jews lived in relatively peaceful coexistence with their neighbors and did not find themselves wedged between ruling elites and the masses or locked into cyclical patterns of scapegoating.
“Part of Mizrahi history and trauma is that [our] experiences are erased,” Tallie Ben Daniel, an Iraqi Jew who works as education and research manager at the left-wing Israel/Palestine advocacy group Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), told me in an interview. “Many Mizrahi people are told Ashkenazi history is their history, that that’s actually the history that matters,” she said, “but there isn’t really a [unified] theory for antisemitism in the Mizrahi world.” Some argue that too often, when middle-agent oppression is held as the definitive Jewish experience, the white, middle-class, Ashkenazi Jewish trajectory is privileged as the norm. This threatens to erase the history and present-day experiences not only of non-Ashkenazi Jews but also of Ashkenazi Jews of color, Jews by choice, and poor and working-class Jews.
While naming the need for greater specificity, Keren Soffer-Sharon, an Iraqi Jew who works as a community organizer at JFREJ, was careful to insist that a middle-agent analysis is still crucial for understanding the condition of Jews in America today. “Of course it makes sense for us to be digging into the history of antisemitism in [the context of] European Christian white supremacy,” she explained, “because we still live in a Christian white supremacist country!” A middle-agent framework, she says, “is the best shot we have to figure out how our own power structure is working.”
Others remain unconvinced. The most common criticism of middle-agent discourse argues that focusing on Jews as victim and perpetrator simultaneously and insisting that antisemitism’s nature is cyclical forecloses any acknowledgment of Jewish agency. This, critics argue, amplifies harmful, prevalent notions that Jewish communities today are little more than passive victims of forces beyond our control, and mystifies antisemitism as a permanent, ineradicable force.
In an April 2019 conversation in the Boston Review, activists Mark Tseng-Putterman and Donna Nevel argue that too often, a middle-agent lens risks obscuring the reality of institutional Jewish complicity and participation in oppressive structures, from white privilege in America to Israel’s occupation of Palestine. “This notion that Jews are ‘allowed success’ in order to be made ‘useful’ as scapegoats later,” Tseng-Putterman writes, “inevitably freezes our ability to call out Jewish complicity . . . it exonerates, or at least overlooks, Jewish participation and relative success in racial capitalism.” Ben Daniel agrees. “Jewish success in the United States is not ‘because of antisemitism,’” she said, “it’s because of whiteness, because some Jews figured out a way to assimilate into white power structures. That is something we have to contend with.”
Rabbi Alissa Wise, deputy director at JVP, told me she worried that collapsing current experiences of antisemitism with dynamics faced by Jews in feudal Europe might make it harder to see the present clearly. “The danger,” she said, “is we then don’t have the most relevant, emerging, creative strategies to combat antisemitism.” Similarly, Tseng-Putterman writes that rendering antisemitism as “abstract, cyclical and permanent . . . prevents us from looking closely at our current political conditions” and instead keeps us “in a perpetual state of victimhood, or potential future victimhood”—reinscribing the unhelpful mainstream misunderstanding of antisemitism as an eternal hatred.
Many activists who apply a middle-agent framing agree that it should not be used to absolve anyone of accountability, insisting that there need not be a contradiction between challenging complicity in oppression and combating middle-agent dynamics that may also be at play. At its best, they argue, a middle-agent understanding preserves our ability to recognize the agency of Jews as active participants in structures of class, race, and colonial oppression, and, in turn, highlights our ability to choose solidarity instead.
Dove Kent is herself wary of the determinism implicit in the word “cyclical.” “It implies that [antisemitism] will always happen,” she said, “[but] I believe that we can end antisemitism because I believe we can end racism, we can end capitalism.” Instead of concluding that our middle-agent setup “dooms” us to be the eternal scapegoat, Kent explained, we must remain grounded in the “material conditions that have led to antisemitism being useful as a political tool” in the past and pay close attention to the recurrence of similar “conditions that may make it useful again” in the present.
“If I could articulate what the Jewish left is trying to do,” Kent told me, “we are trying to bring about a turning in our community, to shift our people towards the true solidarity we know we need.” To do this, Kent said, we have to recognize their “full humanity. We need to understand why they made the choices they have if we’re going to be able to turn them [towards] other choices.”
For her part, Rosenblum sympathizes with these criticisms of middle-agent analysis, and agrees that it should not be universalized to erase diverse histories or avoid accountability. To Rosenblum, these passionate debates are vital to the ongoing development of a collective understanding of antisemitism and the movement-building necessary to fight it. “I see the past ten years as a kind of ‘first wave,’” Rosenblum told me:
I think the first stage in a change like this is the people in the targeted group taking the time to look inwards and strengthen their own voices, gain confidence that they are worth fighting for. As you can see with Black liberation, trans issues, disability rights—any group that has gone through [the process of] teaching the left about themselves—it takes a solid core of people in a targeted group being sure of what they want and gaining the courage to reach out and ask [others] to be their allies before a trend of thinking about liberation starts to spread. People who are in the non-targeted groups watch what those people do, they take time to digest new information, and they get on board gradually, after the targeted group has made it clear that this needs to be—this is now—common sense.
At stake today in the Jewish left’s vibrant debates around antisemitism are some of the most pressing questions of Jewish peoplehood in the 21st century. What is our role in building a more just and free world? How do we balance compassion and accountability? How do we build safety and navigate solidarity? One thing is clear: Jewish activists will continue to grapple with The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere as we work to understand our present and chart our future.
Ben Lorber is a writer, organizer, and musician who works as a research analyst at the social justice think tank Political Research Associates researching antisemitism and white nationalism. He lives in Boston, MA, and blogs at doikayt.com.