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How the Jews Ruined Anti-Semitism

Why Jewish self-determination is inconvenient to the aims of hate

Keith Kahn-Harris
August 08, 2019
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine

The “new left” that emerged in the 1950s and ’60s was inspired by the multiple struggles for liberation from colonial rule that broke out in the post-war period and by other revolutionary movements outside the industrialized West. From Algeria to Vietnam, from Cuba to China, could the global struggle against imperialism provide the redemption that the Western proletariat were rejecting?

There was—and is—a lot riding on this struggle. If these liberation movements failed, were co-opted or ossified, who else was there to turn to, given that the Western proletariat was usually a dead loss? This desperate hope has meant that it has been very difficult to face up to inconvenient realities of what these liberation movements really consisted of or turned into. Too often, the heroic liberation fighter became a repository for Western fantasies and desires. Those, like Sartre, who found hope in Maoism found it difficult or impossible to confront the atrocities of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. The undemocratic outcomes of revolutionary regimes in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua are explained as the result of their continuing imperialist subversion. The kleptocracies that were born out of decolonialization in Africa are received similarly, or in embarrassed silence. Desperately, selected Islamist movements are treated as if they are anti-imperialists with unfortunate rhetoric in the “red-green” alliances that were forged in the 2000s. So strong are the hopes that there is precious little recognition that, while imperialism exists and must be opposed, those at the sharp end of revolutionary transformations are not simply the creatures of Western leftist fantasies.

Amidst this unstable dynamic of hope and disappointment, Israel-Palestine has become a central preoccupation for much of the left. This was not always the case—for many years the anti-Apartheid struggle took priority—but it had certainly come to be so by the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000.

As Joel Schalit has argued, so intense is the interest in Israel-Palestine that it becomes “a figure of speech” and “a metaphor for the world.” That lives are being lost, that Palestinians are being oppressed, does not on its own account for the centrality of Israel-Palestine in the imagination of much of the global left—there are too many other, and often much worse, examples of similar situations that are largely ignored. In fairness, as Israel defines itself as a democracy, it must expect to be judged to the standards of other democracies, rather than the standards of autocracies. Even here though, there are plenty of other democracies that perpetrate horrors greater or equal to those of Israel’s.

The significance of Israel–Palestine is that it represents the point where disappointment meets hope. In the same small piece of the world, the heirs to the worst genocide of modern times have demonstrated their failure to learn its lessons and their victims have the opportunity to erase that failure, to show what victims really are and should be.

The Zionist and Palestinian causes have to be framed as categorically different for this hope to be upheld. Zionism must be treated as a species of chauvinist nationalism at best and straightforward imperialism at worst. The Palestinian cause must be treated as wholly different from nationalism. Somehow, Palestinian liberation must be understood as a yearning for an egalitarian state in which Jews and Palestinians would be equal, the chauvinistic qualities of the Palestinian struggle being purely transient and epiphenomenal (where they are recognized at all).

It is only by treating the Jewish embrace of national sovereignty as exceptional, as a pathological response to the Holocaust and previous persecution, that all kinds of disturbing questions can be kept at bay. If Zionism is comprehensible, if the Jewish experience is relatable, if victims can be perpetrators, what does that say about other peoples? Could the tendency of other national liberation movements to lead to their own forms of oppression be similarly routine? Could most victims be ill cast in their redemptive role? And might Palestinians prove a similar disappointment when and if they achieve their own liberation?

My pointing out that national liberation movements often become new kinds of oppressors is not an argument against Palestinian liberation. Rather, it is an argument for seeing Palestinians and Jews as what they are—flawed human beings who can rarely bear the weight of expectation that they are expected to carry. By decoupling victimhood from redemption, by recognizing that the line between victimhood and perpetration is frequently unclear, we can recover the humanity of Jews/Zionists/Israelis and Palestinians.

The case of the Palestinians demonstrates the perversity of the expectations that the non-Western oppressed are expected to carry by their Western supporters. On the one hand, little or nothing is expected from them today: suicide bombs directed at Israeli civilians and anti-Semitic rhetoric are sometimes seen as unfortunate, but they are largely treated as understandable. On the other hand, Palestinians are also expected to be standard bearers for the wider project of human liberation. Palestinians themselves are often bit-part players in their own story. In the United Kingdom, for example, they were never at the forefront of Palestinian solidarity movements until relatively recently. Even the preoccupation with Palestine in the Muslim world can engulf the Palestinians themselves under the weight of competing agendas.

In the work of the post-colonial theorists who supposedly inspire much of the political action in favor of the Palestinians, we find a much more realistic account of the humanity of those who suffer. For Frantz Fanon, to be colonized is not to automatically be a hero, but to be someone who must go through a strenuous process of reinvention. Liberation is not simply a material act; it is a thoroughgoing attempt to see oneself in one’s own terms, rather than through the prism of whiteness. Arguably, to be cast as the standard bearer of Western anti-imperialism is to fail to escape the yoke of white expectations. The implication of Fanon’s work is that true liberation is a liberation into otherness, rather than into being a carrier of others’ hopes.

There are also readings of Jewish tradition that draw attention to the difficulty of truly leaving behind victimhood. As Michael Walzer has argued, the book of Exodus depicts leaving Egypt as only being the beginning of a painful process of liberation, one full of dangers and reverses. While Walzer uses this reading to ground a liberal wariness of revolution, it is also possible to conclude that while revolutionary change may be preferable to alternatives, it is rarely sufficient to achieve true liberation on its own.

The contingencies of political activism can leave little room for a consideration of the more troubling questions of what liberation requires, and the disturbing tendency for oppressed to become oppressor. The violence Fanon saw as a step towards the remaking of the wretched of the earth can become an end in and of itself. The strenuous attempts that Edward Said made to understand the Jewish condition can be abandoned in favor of stereotype and hate. And years spent in the trenches fighting for a cause intensifies the personal investment in the struggle to the extent that it can be hard to avoid seeing the world in zero-sum terms.

Ironically though, it is only through limiting expectations of what the oppressed should be that we can truly grasp the horrors of victimhood. If the colonized, the persecuted and the deprived are automatically cast as carriers of liberating insight, then we risk seeing the Holocaust, the Naqba and countless other forms of suffering as ultimately positive in some way. Perhaps we might forgive this tendency as a very human search for consolation, but too often the result is expectations that cannot be met. If Jews today can be seen as victims, then they are victims of this failure to accept that the long history of anti-Semitism did not turn us into anything other than human beings.


It may seem as though disappointment is a particularly left-wing response to today’s Jews. Certainly, the postwar rapprochement between the political right and Jews is evidence that we have largely redeemed ourselves from our previous non-white otherness and radical history. Jewish upward mobility and the achievement, for some Jews at least, of white privilege is precious evidence of the ability of capitalism to respond to the aspirations of minority groups and provides a useful reproach to other minorities. Whereas Israel is the primary source of disconnection between the left and the Jews, it is the opposite on much of the right. With Israel’s statist economy now liberalized, with its suspiciously obstinate and strongly accented early leaders replaced by smooth talkers with fluent English like Benjamin Netanyahu, and with its status on the frontline against the Islamist threat, what’s not to like?

Yet sections of the right are as capable of putting particular peoples on pedestals as the left, and as susceptible to the disappointment that so often follows. Poor people who refuse to beatifically accept their fate have never been liked by Catholic conservatives. The noble Pashtuns who resisted the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s became a severe disappointment in the 1990s. Tame tyrants such as Saddam Hussein proved a letdown in the long term.

There is a similar undercurrent of disquiet when Jews do not fulfil the roles they are assigned. Sections of the U.S. evangelical Christian right give a redemptive role to Jews in their eschatological visions. With Israel playing a central role in the end times, “love” of the Jewish state is a central theme in Christian right politics. While some U.S. Jewish organizations have returned the love, the political center of gravity of American Jewry remains, for the moment, solidly liberal. That has led to frustration from the Trump administration when the majority of American Jewry refuses to support it, despite policies such as moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem in 2018.

Right-wing supporters of Israel can be as unabashed at telling Jews what anti-Semitism consists of and what Zionism means as left-wing supporters of the Palestinians. Left-of-center Jewish-founded groups such as J Street (which campaigns against the occupation but still affirms Zionism), have been described as anti-Semitic and anti-Israel by right-wing non-Jewish supporters of Israel. One common conservative talking point in the demonization of the Hungarian-Jewish investor and philanthropist George Soros—which often includes anti-Semitic tropes—is the spurious accusation that he was a collaborator with the Nazis in Hungary during the Second World War.

For now, the actions of Israel are enough compensation for the often lukewarm relationship between Diaspora Jews and the far right. That situation may or may not continue, but should Israel adopt a more liberal direction (however unlikely at the moment), it is quite possible that a similar sense of betrayal that the far left feels from the Jewish people could arise. This would also impact on Jewish liberals in the Diaspora if they are seen as supportive of a turn away from the right in Israel.

Jewish tendencies towards centrist liberalism are frustrating to both ends of the political spectrum. In the post-war period, liberalism was the best political bet for Jews to place. Centrist politics enabled Jews to enjoy the fruits of upward mobility while still allowing some level of commitment to and empathy towards the disadvantaged and the oppressed. Liberal Zionism would similarly reconcile the dual desires for a Jewish and a democratic state. In recent years though, not only has centrist politics been increasingly ineffective in achieving this reconciliation, it has not satisfied those on the right and left who are no longer content with its compromises. The result has been to leave many Jews stranded, politically incomprehensible, and subject to selective anti-Semitism.


Returning to that controversial space outside what I call “consensus anti-Semitism,”—the anti-Semitism that is universally recognized as anti-Semitism by Jews and non-Jews alike—the hotly contested question of whether the likes of Ken Livingston are “really” anti-Semitic, should give way to a much clearer conclusion: those accused are invariably uncomprehending, baffled, enraged and flummoxed by certain kinds of Jews (often the majority of Jews). The perceived lack of fit between Jews and what their politics “should” be is a mystery that must be solved one way or another. And all too often the solution is to ram Jews into a narrative that rides roughshod over how Jews see themselves.

Jews today are caught between competing definitions of who we are and who we must be. We are not convenient. According to taste we are colonizers and liberators, belligerents and victims, a religion and a state. The post-war obsession with the Nazis has inevitably corralled Jews into a place of significance that flatters us but that we cannot ultimately bear. That significance turns Israel-Palestine into the struggle, an object of fascination, horror and support across the world. The world can pick and choose the Jewish state that it imagines: Israel as the symbol of Western oppression, the symbol of resistance to Islamic supremacy, the symbol of redemption, the symbol of irredeemable violence.

However much the world wants to settle on the image of the Jew of their choice, something always escapes control. Some or all of us refuse to be what is required of us, causing frustration and disappointment. And that means that we have inevitably ruined anti-Semitism too, building on the Nazi’s sterling work in doing the same.

We ruined anti-Semitism for consensus anti-Semites by seeking to take control of our existence, by building up worldly power.

We ruined anti-Semitism for those who do not wish to be consensus anti-Semites by ceasing to be defensible.

We ruined anti-Semitism for Jews, by not taking the easy route, by refusing to be “Jews.”

Given the now inescapable fact that Jews as an entirety cannot be assimilated into narratives about what anti-Semitism is, non-Jews are increasingly being selective: choosing the Jews they damn and the ones they save. And we are playing along, telling the world who the real Jews are, the Jews that are worth defending. This has not only contributed to the ruination of any kind of understanding that can encompass Jews as a whole, it has contributed to our own fragmentation as a people.


This is the second of two excerpts from Strange Hate: Anti-Semitism, Racism, and the Limits of Diversity, by Keith Kahn-Harris. Published by Repeater Books. Reprinted with permission.

Keith Kahn-Harris, a writer and sociologist, is senior lecturer at Leo Baeck College and an associate lecturer at Birkbeck College. He runs the European Jewish Research Archive at the Institute for Jewish Policy Research. He is the author, most recently, ofStrange Hate: Antisemitism, Racism and the Limits of Diversity.