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More ‘Anti-Zionist’ Insanity Your Kid Will Learn at NYU

Sonali Thakkar’s grotesque new book about Jewish ‘whiteness’ shows that the oldest hatred is also the most plastic

David Mikics
January 09, 2024

Oct. 7 was a wake-up call for anyone still confused about anti-Zionism. No longer could the truth be dodged: If you want to dismantle Israel, you will need the old terror of the pogrom—murdering parents in front of their children, raping women until their pelvic bones break, tearing bodies to pieces and burning them. “Respectable” anti-Zionism is no different than “respectable” antisemitism—a request for a license to maim and kill Jewish bodies.

Yet there is something puzzling about the atrocities themselves, which have been sometimes celebrated, sometimes euphemized by the pro-Hamas left. On Oct. 7, Hamas tortured, murdered, and kidnapped not only Jews, but many foreign nationals and Israeli Palestinians. How, one might ask, do these acts make sense as manifestations of Jew-hatred?

The answer lies in the always elastic definition of the Jew. Anyone on Israeli soil was symbolically Jewish and therefore worthy of being genitally mutilated, hacked to pieces or burned alive. The terrorists fired 40 bullets into the body of a Bedouin woman—even a devout Muslim could be tainted by Zionism and righteously murdered. Arab Israelis, it seems, serve for Hamas as symbolic Jews, since, not surprisingly, they have displayed complete solidarity with Israel’s efforts to defend itself since Oct. 7. Muslim Israelis do not want to be slaughtered by maniacs any more than their Jewish neighbors do.

The disastrously flexible definition of the Jew on Oct. 7 has precedents in the history of antisemitism. Since Jewishness is not always readily visible, non-Jews can become Jews in the eyes of antisemites. For white Russian nationalists, Lenin was a Jew, and Bolshevism a Jewish movement. Some opponents of the New Deal called it the “Jew Deal,” and said FDR was a Jew.

Jewishness is deceptive, says the antisemite: A Jew could be lurking under a gentile façade. In 16th-century Spain, the third- or fourth-generation New Christian might still be a secret Jew. In present day Israel, Jewish identity gets passed on even to non-Jews contaminated by the Zionist entity.

Anyone on Israeli soil was symbolically Jewish and therefore worthy of being genitally mutilated, hacked to pieces or burned alive.

The fact that Jews can hide their identity, and have often been forced to do so in order to survive, means that they are “plastic”—the term used by NYU professor of literature Sonali Thakkar in her new book, The Reeducation of Race: Jewishness and the Politics of Antiracism in Postcolonial Thought. Thakkar sees plasticity as proof that Jews, like Asians, are a “model minority,” “educable,” and ripe for assimilation. These are, for the progressive academic, dirty words. For Thakkar, Jews’ plasticity means that, unlike Blacks, they can become “white” and so climb the ladder of success.

For Thakkar, Jewish plasticity goes in only one direction: toward assimilation, success, and whiteness. She denies that plasticity has its tragic side for Jews; because Jewishness can be hidden, it can also seem insidious to the non-Jew.

Thakkar ignores completely these undersides of plasticity. Antisemites claim Jews are poisonous because they can disguise themselves, and so manipulate hapless non-Jews. The Jew is charged with dual loyalty—he seems to be your average loyal citizen but is really the agent of a foreign power. Pretending to be a non-Jew is a double-edged sword, since vigilant antisemites are ready to unmask the Jew beneath the gentile masquerade.

Many nonobservant Jews do in fact conceal their Jewishness in public. They are, in Thakkar’s terms, plastic. But they may still feel Jewish when facing antisemites who tell them Israel is a genocidal white settler colony that delights in killing children. As Sartre pointed out, the encounter with antisemitism is basic to Jewish identity. We are now mobbed by non-Jews, like the U.N. secretary general, who explain that the inhuman slaughter of Oct. 7 “didn’t occur in a vacuum.” Chanting the word cease-fire, they deny Israel the right to defend itself, a right that is ready given to every other nation. Israel is blamed for casualties that ensue when its enemy commits large-scale atrocities and gleefully broadcasts them, then kidnaps Israeli citizens, including small children, and promises to do so again and again.

Thakkar’s thesis about Jewish whiteness ignores the fact that more than half of Jewish Israelis come from Middle Eastern families, driven out and persecuted by Arab countries and Iran. Jews who lived in Arab lands for thousands of years are called white, while Palestinians are people of color. Such is the plasticity of the Jew, who can instantly be converted into a colonial oppressor after having been oppressed for centuries. Ashkenazi Jews faced a genocide committed by European whites who designated them an inferior race; but now that “whiteness” is bad, Jews are white.

Like all racism, the left’s neo-racist essentialism relies on imaginary slots that can be manipulated at will—the power of the postcolonial theorist is that he or she decides who gets to be a person of color and who is condemned to whiteness, who is the oppressor and who is the oppressed. Muslims, members of history’s most successful group of conquerors, are of course permanently oppressed; the victims of Muslim empires are of course oppressors. In Thakkar’s telling, the plasticity of the Jews means that they are uniquely suitable to move—or be moved—from victim to persecutor status in the blink of an eye. Even when they are murdered and kidnapped, it is somehow their fault.

Thakkar is a student of Marianne Hirsch and Nadia Abu El Haj, two ardent promoters of the boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) movement, and like them, she aims to delegitimize Zionism. She lists her areas of research as “race science” and “Jewish studies/Holocaust studies,” though no knowledge of Jewish culture or tradition is evident in her work.

You might be tempted to think that her book is just another near-unreadable academic treatise. But she is at the forefront of the new wave of anti-Israel propagandists and teachers at elite universities whose graduates will populate America’s government and leading institutions. Her theories—muddled, bizarre and obscure as they may seem—are therefore significant. Thakkar is where Jewish studies is headed, toward a fierce antipathy to the existence of Israel, which has become the epitome of evil white colonialism.

Thakkar spends much time analyzing the 1950 UNESCO statement on race, which declared that race is not a scientific fact, but a poisonous ideology. The UNESCO statement argued that inherited genetic factors cannot account for “the differences between the cultures and cultural achievements of different peoples or groups.” No group has a superior or inferior culture. Moreover, ethnic groups do not have a shared character, since individual differences override group identity. There are no “inborn differences” among humans, UNESCO claimed, perhaps wishfully.

Since three of its eight authors were Jews—Ashley Montagu, Claude Lévi-Strauss and Morris Ginsberg—Thakkar implies that the UNESCO declaration is somehow “Jewish.” (Another author, Franklin Frazier, was African American.) While the UNESCO declaration briefly alludes to the Holocaust, its focus is general: “The myth ‘race’ has created an enormous amount of human and social damage. In recent years it has taken a heavy toll in human lives and caused untold suffering. It still prevents the normal development of millions of human beings ...”

The bone that Thakkar has to pick with the UNESCO statement is a strange one. She bizarrely says that its authors prize plasticity above human equality, and that this is a covert plea for colonialism: “The eclipse of equality by ‘plasticity, educability’ exposes the statement’s ideological investment in managing the pressures generated by anticolonial freedom struggles and insurgent antiracisms.” But the UNESCO text upholds “equality as an ethical principle.” Equality is nowhere “eclipsed.” UNESCO also insists that all ethnic groups are equally plastic. Thakkar says that Jews produced the concept of plasticity and applied it to themselves. But all she shows is that she herself regards Jews as plastic, and by doing so she confirms a familiar prejudice.

“Plasticity was theorized in the early twentieth century through Jewishness,” Thakkar argues. Here she relies on articles from the early 1920s by the pioneering anthropologist and anti-racist crusader Franz Boas, who argued that Jews were assimilated to their surrounding populations, so that at times it was hard to tell the difference between Jews and gentiles. Blackness was less plastic, since it is obvious to the “man on the street” who is Black and who isn’t. Boas believed that only racial mixing could thwart the vicious power of white racism in America. “If conditions were ever such that it could be doubtful whether a person were of Negro descent or not, the consciousness of race would necessarily be much weakened,” he wrote. Thakkar comments, “Antiracist discourse that relies on the plasticity of racial form as the solution to racism ... has already assumed and naturalized the prevailing terms of race thinking.”

But it is Thakkar who sees race as natural. For Thakkar, like Ibram X. Kendi, race is fixed, not plastic: Blackness is a permanent stigma. Like Kendi, Thakkar “naturalize[s] ... race thinking”—which is what she accuses Boas of doing. In other words, Boas wanted to liberate individuals from the prison of race, while Thakkar wants to keep them there.

Thakkar invokes Frantz Fanon to support her essentialist reading of Blackness. For Fanon, she says, “Blackness is both the target of plasticity’s imperative and that which frustrates and resists it, never plastic enough.” Blackness is never “plastic enough,” for Thakkar, because it is an inescapable stigma—Blacks, unlike Jews, cannot assimilate; their race is visible evidence that they have been forever cursed by society. But she misreads Fanon, who was describing a pathology, not espousing a fact. Fanon wanted to free Blacks and whites from the sickness of racial essentialism, but Thakkar, like the other new racialists, wants him to confirm that essentialism. Fanon wrote in Black Skin, White Masks that the Black person who sees Blackness as a stain that can never be eradicated resembles “the schizophrenic or the sexual cripple,” captive to the sickness that Fanon wants to heal. Fanon argued for plasticity, not against it. Black people, he thought, should be free to interpret Blackness from their own experience, rather than being imprisoned by the white gaze.

Thakkar’s strangest chapter concerns the writer Caryl Phillips, who grew up Black in Britain. Phillips wrote The Nature of Blood, a novel that depicts Shakespeare’s Othello visiting the Jewish ghetto of Venice. Thakkar objects to this—since Othello was born a Muslim, and, as we know, every time someone denounces antisemitism, Islamophobia must be denounced too, in the same breath. Venice, it may be noted, did not imprison its Muslims in a ghetto. Yet surely Phillips could have described its bias against Islam! Phillips pinpoints anti-Jewishness and ignores Islamophobia, a sin against the progressive conscience.

The parallel that Thakkar asserts here between anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim prejudice flies in the face of historical fact. Islam was attempting to conquer Renaissance Europe and convert its Christians; it was an aggressive, and very often successful, enemy of the Christian West. Jews, who lacked political power, were a purely imaginary danger to both parties. To call something a phobia implies unreality; the Islamic threat was quite real.

The antisemite produces the Jew’s plasticity, by seeing Jewish influence everywhere (the “Jewish lobby,” Starbucks). When they raise fake bloodstained hands, pro-Hamas protesters are not merely or even primarily accusing Biden and company of enabling the IDF’s child-killers—they are vicariously taking part in the Oct. 7 pogrom. They wish they had Jewish blood on their hands, too—proof of which is that they name their riots after that infamous day’s “Al-Aqsa flood” (“flood Grand Central for Palestine”).  

Israel’s continued existence drives the protesters crazy. They also despise America, the second-most Jewish country on Earth. Yet they insist they don’t hate Jews, only Zionism—and they clothe their hatred from the river to the sea, in every form of gobbledygook. Which prompts a sudden thought: The oldest hatred is also the most plastic.

David Mikics is the author, most recently, of Stanley Kubrick (Yale Jewish Lives). He lives in Brooklyn and Houston, where he is John and Rebecca Moores Professor of English at the University of Houston.