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Anti-Racism Erases Anti-Semitism

Do Jews enjoy ‘white privilege,’ paradoxically making them targets for hatred? Talib Kweli, Black Lives Matter, and a strange argument over contemporary victimhood.

John-Paul Pagano
June 22, 2016
Illustration: Tablet magazine
Illustration: Tablet magazine
This article is part of Black Israelism.
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We live in a time of populism and resistance. With the rise of disruptive radicals like Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn, and the suspicion of government power—urgent but philosophically vapid—stoked by figures like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, we have entered an era of easy answers and oppositional nihilism whose political keynote is wild paranoia. It’s no wonder then that anti-Jewish agitation is on the rise. In the UK, the center-Left Labour Party is melting down in a series of anti-Semitic scandals. Here at home, supporters of Donald Trump use social media to launch anti-Semitic attacks on Jewish reporters, while there is a notable quickening of anti-Jewish agitation in a setting where we expect liberal values to flourish most—the American university.

Fogging the windshield for Americans when it comes to examining the rise of anti-Semitism is the subject of racism—or more precisely, the widespread discussion on the left about the experience of “privilege” and the desire to reevaluate racism in light of the dynamics of power. The present thinking on the left has important negative consequences for Jews—mainly to erase, excuse, and even encourage the age-old and often murderous bigotry against them.

A good place to begin is with an experience I had online a few weeks ago. Those who grew up in the ’90s listening to rap must remember Talib Kweli, who along with Mos Def made up Black Star, one of the seminal acts in “conscious” hip-hop. Kweli is active on Twitter and well-known for epic bouts of bickering with his followers. I’m not one of them, but a couple of weeks ago I happened to notice him engaged in debate about racism and white privilege. I was drawn in by this tweet, where he asserted that ethnic groups can be the target of discrimination but still enjoy the privilege of having white skin.

Yes. Sounds like white supremacy is shitty. Just like Irish & Jews had it bad, but still enjoy skin privilege.
— Talib Kweli Greene (@TalibKweli) March 25, 2016

Kweli is right: White privilege is real. Yet when discussing racism I often challenge people who blithely saddle Jews with privilege, because it’s clear to me that they don’t understand anti-Semitism. For one, color bias is an insignificant factor in the history of Jewish persecution, so foisting “white privilege” on Jews is parochial—it shoehorns centuries of Jewish suffering into the particular American experience of racism, which centers on anti-black bias. But more important, anti-Semitism doesn’t work like most forms of racism, which denigrate their victims as inferior. Anti-Semitism is special in that it often perceives its target—Jews—as having too much privilege and assails them for it.

Unlike racism, whose modern versions stem from 19th-century pseudo-science, anti-Semitism is a conspiracy theory and at root all conspiracy theories envision a demonic elite oppressing and exploiting the common people. They may alight on eclectic topics—war, UFOs, weather and climate, food, medicine, the authorship of Shakespeare’s works, to name just a few—but if you delve deeper, you will find that every conspiracy theory is a narrative in which a secret society of the rich and powerful controls the banks, the media, schools, and governments in order to enslave and exploit the rest of humanity. Anti-Semitism is a name for the conspiracy theory which holds that “the Jews” are this evil elite. To the anti-Semite, Jews are the ultimate bearers of privilege.

Accordingly I tweeted at Kweli that “Jews don’t ‘enjoy’ privilege”—by which I meant that among white-skinned people, the Jewish experience of “privilege” is fraught by the peculiar nature of anti-Semitism.

@TalibKweli But look more deeply: Jews don’t “enjoy” privilege – Jews are attacked because anti-Semites think the have too much of it.
— John-Paul Pagano (@johnpaulpagano) March 25, 2016

In response, he sent a freshet of tweets that were remarkable for the tenacity with which he insisted on eliding whites and Jews. Here are just three:

Jews enjoy skin privilege WORLDWIDE. In London. In Japan. In Israel. In Africa. Shit even in today’s Germany.
— Talib Kweli Greene (@TalibKweli) March 25, 2016
There are many Jews with white skin. Globally. They dont enjoy “Jewish” privilege. They enjoy “white” privilege.
— Talib Kweli Greene (@TalibKweli) March 25, 2016
There’s nothing problematic abt truth. Truth is the majority of Jews have white privilege. Only racists deny this
— Talib Kweli Greene (@TalibKweli) March 25, 2016

Obviously, many—if hardly all—Jews in America are white. As such, white American Jews share advantages with white gentiles that are unavailable to black people. But it reveals a poverty of perspective to emphasize this fact alone, to the exclusion of other, countervailing and sometimes much more powerful facets of the historical experience of anti-Semitism. As Americans we see the world through the lens of our own historical experience, which is shaped by the enormity of African-American slavery and oppression. We are conditioned to focus on racism that mimics the form of anti-black bigotry, which is to say we are tuned to detect and deplore racism in which an incumbent group victimizes a weak minority. When racism has another trajectory, we tend to react less strongly or dismiss it altogether. And this can be a real problem for Jews.

The West has distanced itself from the Holocaust to such a degree that it’s tempting to close the book on anti-Semitism, not as a form of bigotry that might surface from time to time, but as a meaningful political actor. It feels natural that Jews should disappear into the crowd of whites, check their privilege, and be called out when they refuse. Yet, at the very same time, anti-Semitism is burgeoning throughout Europe where it has produced a series of mass murders over the last four years, even as Jew-hatred has attained medieval proportions in much of the developing world: Major media in Egypt and Saudi Arabia run claims that Jews harvest human blood for ritual purposes, and more than 60 percent of Malaysians hold anti-Semitic beliefs in a country that has never had a significant Jewish population. Iran, a revolutionary state that sponsors Holocaust-denial, is pursuing a nuclear program. In its shadow ISIS, a totalitarian group for which genocidal anti-Semitism is foundational, holds substantial territory in Iraq and Syria and seeks to establish a caliphate by jihad. Jews in most parts of Europe attend fortress-like synagogues protected by layers of security and are warned not to wear identifying symbols of their faith in public.

Even in the United States, the last decade has seen three attempted mass murders of Jews, two stymied synagogue bombings, and a stream of religiously motivated hate crimes, nearly two-thirds of which were anti-Semitic. Yet our American view of racism, with its myopic lens of privilege and power, keeps all this mostly out of frame. Like any social phenomenon, anti-Semitism doesn’t simply turn on or off; there’s a long, incremental process by which a group of trees becomes a forest. So when do we decide that Jews have lost enough of their privilege to merit concern?

For Kweli, the blinders are so thick that he can’t even recognize it. I mean, the very word anti-Semitism means something different to Talib Kweli than it does to most people.

That is white supremacy at work. Allowing you to believe brown Arabs are less Semitic than white Jews.
— Talib Kweli Greene (@TalibKweli) March 25, 2016

To Kweli “anti-Semitism” doesn’t describe a form of racism; the term is a form of racism, inasmuch as its definition excludes “Semites” of color and privileges white Jews! His thinking suggests that we shouldn’t tarry on a form of racism that, for Jews, has meant centuries of persecution and mass murder—including the worst mass murder in human history, which occurred in living memory. Rather we must refashion the reality of Jewish oppression to address color bias. To observe the color-blind meaning intended by the word’s inventor—Wilhelm Marr, a 19th-century racist who worried that Judenhass (“Jew-hatred”) sounded too vulgar—that is an assertion of privilege.

Populism—elevating the needs of the general public over entrenched interests—is a bedrock political value in the United States. The American Revolution was driven by it and populist movements have surfaced throughout our history to champion common folk against elites who—at best—are deaf to their concerns. So it is not strange that black populism would resurface now, with the anti-banker ferment of Occupy Wall Street giving way to Black Lives Matter. Ostensibly a reaction to racist police brutality, BLM is more ambitious, eschewing “narrow nationalism” in favor of a black populism mediated by intersectionality. The movement has had a positive effect, shining light on law enforcement and exposing dynamics and abuses that have remained largely outside public awareness. But populism is oppositional: It frames anyone it perceives to be against the collective consciousness of the people as undemocratic and alien. In short, populism finds enemies.

With much rhetorical pomp and little practical relevance to issues faced by African-Americans, last year a group of over 1,100 black activists, including BLM co-founder Patrisse Cullors and Talib Kweli, launched Black Solidarity with Palestine, releasing a statement in which they decried Israeli “slaughter” of Palestinians, repeated lies about Israel sterilizing Ethiopians, endorsed the unmaking of Israel as a Jewish state, and demanded “unified action” against the related evils of “anti-Blackness, white supremacy, and Zionism.” The BLM activist Frank Leon Roberts, who took to Twitter after the Gaza Flotilla raid to complain about “Jewish elites” and their “monopoly” of influence, now teaches the nation’s first “Black Lives Matter” course at his alma mater, NYU.

If attempts to link Ferguson and Gaza seem familiar, that’s because they can be traced to an infamous ’70s vintage—the “Zionism is racism” propaganda of Russian ultra-conservatives masquerading as “Soviet anti-Zionists.” Indeed, Black Solidarity with Palestine disinterred a 1970 open letter by black socialists denouncing Israel as “the outpost of American imperialism in the Middle East” and posted it on their website to support their recent declaration.

Eric Hoffer once noticed that the nearer oppressed peoples get to freedom, the more strident their politics become. And so the tools we use today to analyze oppression have devolved, assuming epistemic features of the poorest man’s revolution: conspiracy theory. Three such features inflect academic writing and social commentary on inequality. The first might be called Manichean morality, after an ancient Iranian prophet who preached that the world is made and remade by warring principles of good and evil. Second is class fatalism. And finally there is false consciousness—the belief that the awareness of the people is dimmed by a caul of propaganda in media, advertising, and education.

We see these cognitive distortions in critical race theory, postcolonial studies, and BLM’s favored “intersectionality,” whose jargon is now becoming colloquial. “Settler colonialism” and extractive “imperialism” are irredeemable original sins—non-Natives in America and Jews in Israel are alien exploiters of stolen land; and whites in the West owe incalculable debt to peoples of color at home and abroad. “Structural racism” and “patriarchy” feudally determine the classes people inhabit—the “system” must be torn down and transformed to make meaningful progress. “Internalized racism” and “Whiteness” are fabricated by the machinery of capitalism—they beguile black and brown police officers and whites or liberals who “don’t see color” to misapprehend and perpetuate the American reality of brutal oppression.

The standard definition of racism as belief in immutable characteristics that dispose a hierarchy of races is no longer adequate. The new thinking is that without systemic power, such as that of the state, racism is toothless and better downgraded to the social irritant of prejudice. Racism equals prejudice plus power: The notion of people of color being racist to whites is derided as the fallacy of “reverse racism” and said not to exist.

But if you believe that racism by the weak against the strong doesn’t exist, then anti-Semitism doesn’t exist, either. It can’t. Why? Because anti-Semitism is a racist conspiracy theory—anti-Semites believe they are victimized by a preternaturally powerful cabal of Jews. And there are plenty of Jews today who enjoy a good measure of economic and social success, especially in relation to many Muslims, among whom the self-exculpating belief in Jewish domination thrives. So how can anti-racist campaigners who believe that racism equals prejudice plus power address—or even notice—a form of racism that disguises itself as an emancipatory politics of the oppressed?

Often they can’t, which is why you find them instead building a fanciful and ornate architecture of rationalization around all but the most rank, unwashed instances of Jew-hatred. All it takes to usher expressions of anti-Semitism into the hall of nuance and question-asking is to fit them with the trappings of left-wing analysis. The suffocating octopus of international Jewry is recast as the Israel Lobby stifling dissent and perverting policy—and we are urged never to confuse anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism.

We saw this peculiar dynamic of self-justification at work recently when Stanford University’s Student Senate debated a resolution to combat anti-Semitism on campus in light of anti-Israel activism. Objecting to language in the proposal that sought to condemn “allegations about … the power of Jews as a collective — especially but not exclusively, the myth about… Jews controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions,” a student senator named Gabriel Knight cautioned against “irresponsibly” stifling what he considered to be “a very valid discussion.” Knight is probably not a malicious person. More likely he’s just a product of his American college education. “Questioning these potential power dynamics,” Knight offered, “I think, is not anti-Semitism.”

Even drooling Jew-hatred of the classical right-wing variety can get a pass if the anti-Semite first registers as a victim. Joy Karega, an Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Composition at Oberlin College, was found to have posted a series of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories on Facebook. One had a remarkably tsarist vibe—she captioned a vampiric portrait of Jacob Rothschild with a blurb about “dismantling real Power.” When this made news, the Oberlin administration didn’t know what to do. President Marvin Krislov issued an ambivalent statement in which commitments to his Jewishness and academic freedom fought to a draw. Members of the Africana Studies department were less conflicted: They stood up for Karega, grousing that the censure of their colleague, an African-American woman, emanated from a place of privilege. “I am outraged at the irresponsible hostility drummed up against [Karega],” wrote Associate Professor Gillian Johns of concern about anti-Semitism, “especially when … we Africana faculty are repeatedly called upon to understand and model for our students appropriate responses to different scales of anti-Black racism.”

These two examples, in which anti-Semitism is erased and excused, trace an arc that points to where we’re headed—a moral and intellectual climate in which Jew-hatred, or at least suspicion of Jewish interests, becomes normal again, in places that Jews have traditionally looked to for protection. Populism creates a morally stark theater of resistance, and because of the consanguinity of conspiracy theories, anti-Semitism can come to seem like a kind of salvation, a soteriology of the oppressed.

Political conspiracism has its roots in the low religion of the European middle ages. In those terrible times of disease, deprivation, and war, the peasants and townsfolk, and their representatives in the lesser clergy and laity, sought relief by identifying the influence of Satan and his earthly agents: witches and Jews. Contemporary conspiracy theories are often shorn of content that is explicitly paranormal, but the medieval contours remain: They constitute a kind of secular magic that seeks to expose the devil and his collaborators. The oppressed, both perceived and actual, use them to deflect pain and misery from themselves to a scapegoat. And that scapegoat is us.

In February, the American Studies Department at Vassar College sponsored a talk about Israel and the Palestinians by the prominent queer theorist Jasbir Puar of Rutgers University. She was introduced by a professor who admonished the assembly against recording her remarks. When Puar took the podium, she congratulated Students for Justice in Palestine, which had helped publicize her appearance, for introducing a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions resolution at Vassar. The crowd reciprocated with cheers and cries of “Free, free Palestine!”

It became quiet again. Puar began her talk, claiming that the recent spate of stabbings by Palestinians, which she quaintly called a “people’s rumble,” had served as a pretext for Israel to stage 120 “field executions” of young Palestinian boys. Seventeen of these boys’ bodies were held, she said, for two months without explanation. Then a convoy of 17 ambulances, one for each body, suddenly left a morgue in West Jerusalem and unfurled along a “convoluted” route towards Bethlehem. “Some speculate that the bodies were mined for organs for scientific research,” Puar said.

What kind of state would do this? One that claims “the right to maim and debilitate Palestinian bodies and environments as a form of biopolitical control.” Israel is the apex of predatory imperialism, Puar explained: It controls “infrastructure” so it can “modulate calories … to provide a bare minimum for survival.” And to what end? To transform the Palestinians into a population of half-fed zombies whose “dismantled and dismembered bodies” can be subjected to “gendering,” “ungendering,” and “epigenetic deterioration” through biological “hacking.” This not only enables the extraction of Palestinian resources right down to their very flesh, but it nourishes the Jewish privilege conferred by the Holocaust: “[Israelis] need the Palestinians alive in order to keep the kind of rationalization [sic] for their victimhood and their militarized economy.”

I think any Jewish resident of medieval Cologne or Worms would recognize this scene for exactly what it is: In this occulted room, Puar chanted an abracadabra of quasi-religious jargon and blood libels that must have struck her audience as wondrous. Some philosophers important in Puar’s field rely on a concept of jouissance, which might adequately be translated as transgressive rapture. Traducing the ideas of Freud, Marx, and Foucault in order to drape medieval Jew-hatred in a sumptuous fabric of critical theory is certainly not what Derrida and Lacan had in mind.

It’s not enough for the wretched of the earth to identify their oppressors. The people of darkness must be rooted out. They have earned the undying contempt of the children of light. Today the witches are gone, but the Jews remain.

John-Paul Pagano is a writer in New York. He blogs at The Socialism of Fools.

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