In his rambling, 70-page manifesto, the Australian white supremacist who massacred some 50 Muslims in New Zealand last week cited, as inspirations, British Union of Fascists leader Oswald Mosley, the People’s Republic of China, a videogame called Spyro the Dragon, fellow white supremacist terrorist Dylan Roof, and the Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Bering Breivik. Conspicuous by her absence from this list was Chelsea Clinton.
Someone should tell New York University students Leen Dweik and Rose Asaf. “This, right here, is a result of a massacre stoked by people like you and the words that you put out into the world,” Dweik told the former First Daughter outside a memorial for the dead, in a video that instantly went viral. “Forty-nine people died because of the rhetoric you put out there.”
For those of us who consider Chelsea Clinton a cringe-inducing banality, that she could be accused of anything so momentous, never mind a racist slaughter in the Antipodes, was puzzling indeed. And so it was with great curiosity that I read the Buzzfeed piece in which the pair explain their actions. In it, they accuse Clinton of having “stoked hatred against” all Muslims, everywhere, with a single tweet criticizing just a single one, Ilhan Omar. When the Democratic congresswoman complained about lawmakers being forced to pledge “allegiance to a foreign country,” she wasn’t repeating a hoary anti-Semitic trope which has instigated all manner of desecrations and violent attacks and pogroms. No, according to these NYU coeds, exemplars of American higher education as impressive as those Yale students who screamed at a distinguished professor for hours over Halloween costumes, Omar was “speaking the truth about the massive influence of the Israel lobby in this country.”
It is Rep. Omar who is the victim here. “Chelsea hurt our fight against white supremacy when she stood by the petty weaponizers of antisemitism, showing no regard for Rep. Omar and the hatred being directed at her,” Asaf and Dweik declared. English translation: People who are left wing, Muslim or “of color” cannot be anti-Semites, and those who say otherwise will be condemned as handmaidens of Jim Crow. This is especially true if the person in question is, like IIhan Omar, all three.
Reading the many progressive identity-based defenses of Omar, which repeatedly and pointlessly invoke the fact that she is a hijabi-wearing black refugee being criticized by a white native-born American woman, one gets the impression that this particular legislator can pretty much say whatever she wants and expect to be absolved for it: Her canonization as a left-wing hero is necessary, and irrevocable.
Omar can’t be an anti-Semite because members of “marginalized” groups are inherently virtuous. This is the ultimate logic of identity politics. Jussie Smollett just had to be telling the truth; he is black and gay and progressive and his purported assailants were white and straight and wearing MAGA hats. But when Asaf and Dweik insist that she “did nothing wrong except challenge the status quo,” they are taking the side of anti-Semites over Jews. They are normalizing anti-Semitism.
They are not the only ones. For a growing number of progressives, anti-Semitism has become an ideological obligation as central to their political identity as the Universal Basic Income, Green New Deal, a 70-percent marginal tax rate, and free higher education. These progressives, of course, cannot openly say this. Anti-Semitism is bad. Some of their best friends are Jews. The Holocaust happened. So they need to redefine anti-Semitism out of existence, while redistributing the valuable cultural capital of Jewish historical suffering to more deserving groups. Thus, the phenomena of “white Jews.”
Last December, The New York Times published a story about leaders of the national Women’s March who, among other examples of seemingly unsocial-justice-like behavior, allegedly claimed that Jews played a disproportionate role in the slave trade. This is a lie most infamously propagated by the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan, a man with whom three of the movement’s leaders—Linda Sarsour, Tamika Mallory, and Carmen Perez—are publicly and proudly associated. Asked by the Times to address her apparent endorsement of an anti-Semitic myth, Mallory, who has in the past praised Farrakhan for having the same “enemies” as Jesus Christ, replied, “Since that conversation, we’ve all learned a lot about how while white Jews, as white people, uphold white supremacy, ALL Jews are targeted by it.”
When the piece went live, many people blanched at that line—with a few noting that it wasn’t tossed off in an interview but was, unbelievably, actually part of a prepared statement. But defenders of the group’s leadership were undeterred—and actually began doubling down on the refrain that “white Jews” were trying to divide the women’s movement.
Even as Women’s March chapters throughout the country rejected what they saw as the clear anti-Semitism of the movement’s leadership—canceling marches, condemning the group’s ties with Farrakhan, and otherwise dissociating themselves from the national organization—the phrase “white Jews” quickly passed into common usage among those on the left eager to exculpate Mallory, Perez, and Sarsour.
Echoing Mallory’s charge that Jews, as a group, are implicated in the oppression of nonwhites, contributors to a recent online symposium asserted that “white Jews benefit from and participate in white supremacy” and that anti-Semitism is not an “exceptional form of oppression, but part of a larger framework that uses various forms of oppression to reinforce one another.” Women’s March deputy head of communications, Sophie Ellman-Golan, insisted that “white Jews, like all white people, uphold white supremacy.” A writer named Malcolm Harris demanded that critics of such notions “show me statistics where the situation of white Jews can be meaningfully distinguished from other white Americans.”
Fine. Last year in New York City, there were four times as many bias crimes against Jews then there were against blacks—though there are twice as many blacks than Jews living in the city—and 20 times as many bias crimes against Jews as against transgender people. The main targets of these crimes were not Jews with dark skin but Jews of any race who were readily identifiable as Jews.
Inconveniently, the perpetrators of these specific crimes do not appear to be die-hard supporters of Donald Trump. “During the past 22 months, not one person caught or identified as the aggressor in an anti-Semitic hate crime has been associated with a far right-wing group,” wrote Ginia Bellafante of The New York Times. In most recent cases, the perpetrators of anti-Semitic hate crimes in New York City have been people of color.
Being “white” according to the arbitrary racial taxonomy that has been repurposed by American progressives has not saved Jews before, including from the greatest mass murder in human history. Nor today does it protect their descendants from demonstrably being the most frequently targeted victims of religiously based hate crimes.
So whence the clamor about “white Jews?” They are not Trump supporters—at least not yet. In 2016, after African-Americans, Jews as a constituency delivered the most lopsided vote against Trump. Among the president’s conservative critics in the media, such as myself, Jews constitute such a visibly disproportionate share that it regularly draws the unwelcome attention of neo-Nazis and alt-right internet trolls.
Nor is there is evidence to suggest that anti-black racism is more prevalent in Jewish communities than it is in Mormon, Catholic, Evangelical, Arab, Asian, or Hispanic ones, and much reason to think it is significantly less. Moreover, anti-black Jewish racism is hardly as prevalent or as commonly accepted within normative Jewish communities as anti-Semitism appears to be among American blacks. (In 2005, for instance, nearly the entire Congressional Black Caucus, including a junior senator named Barack Obama, met with Farrakhan.) At a time when the opponents of Donald Trump, white nationalism, nativism, and other reactionary tendencies need to stand together, it seems awfully strange for progressives to form a circular firing squad and go after … Jews.
After the 2017 Charlottesville riot, where a group of white supremacists and Nazis chanting “Jews will not replace us” unleashed terror against a multiracial assortment of counterprotesters, the Israeli-American writer Gershom Gorenberg observed that, “Because race is the most pervasive reason that some Americans believe they can discriminate against and despise others, a reflexive response to hatred of Jews is to try to fit it into the categories of race.” But this is an historically inaccurate impulse. As Gorenberg put it elsewhere: “When it’s good to be white, we’re not. When it’s bad to be white, we are. When it’s good to be European, we’re Levantines. When Europeans are colonialists, we’re colonialists. When they hate immigration, we brought immigrants. When they hate capitalists, we’re capitalists.”
Charlottesville, Trump, the alt-right … all of it ought to have demonstrated the folly of this type of thinking, and brought the Jewish community and the progressive rainbow coalition together. After all, Jews and people of color are the unambiguous top targets of white supremacist hate. Instead, there has opened up a rift, as the incessant harping about “white Jews” testifies. Rank, vile, open, gutter-level anti-Semitism is apparently a pleasure that the progressive left is unwilling or unable to abstain from. Why?
The campaign against “white Jews” on the progressive left is not an accident but a determined effort with several concrete ideological purposes. The first is to codify the position of Jews at the bottom of the social justice victim pyramid, as just another category of “whites.” This move is intended to downgrade or even erase anti-Semitism—a sin of which Farrakhanites, radical Islamists, and other important progressive allies are all guilty. “White Jews” erases that sin by stipulating that “Jews,” insofar as they are “white,” cannot actually be victims of hate–because they aren’t, functionally speaking, Jews at all. They are white people, and therefore, by definition, the oppressor and not the oppressed.
“White Jews” is therefore, first and foremost, an epithet—an attempt to make “Jews” synonymous with “white supremacy.” This move is especially invidious, since Jews—“white” or not—are themselves the primary victims of theories of racial supremacy, and anti-Semitism is central to white supremacist ideology, including in the U.S.
But the larger point of marking Jews as “white” is to render them political treif—unassimilable into the left’s virtuous coalition of the oppressed, which includes plenty of Third-Worldist groups and alignments that are rooted in a political discourse in which conspiratorial anti-Semitism is normal. The solution that progressives have apparently alighted on is not to educate their allies out of bigotry and ignorance, but to trim “Jewishness” of any traits that might set off wild, conspiratorial fulminations by the people they wish to position as innocent victims.
Notice how it is only Jews who are endowed with a racial descriptor; no one on the left is busy fingering “white Muslims.” This assault on reason and history puts Jews, or “White Jews,” in their place as inherently oppressive and vile, while gifting their valuable history of oppression to its “true” inheritors—namely progressives and their handpicked allies.
Yet, as far as anti-Semitism goes, the real divide within the Jewish community has nothing to do with skin color. It is between Jews who choose to identify publicly as Jews (meaning those who attend synagogues, shop at kosher supermarkets, send their children to Jewish schools, dress observably as Jews, espouse “pro-Zionist” ideas of whatever stripe, etc.) and those who prefer to “pass” in whatever ways within the larger gentile-dominated society and avoid any Jewish affiliations.
The plain fact with which progressives refuse to grapple, and most Jews prefer to ignore, is that the more “Jewish” you are in America, the more of a target you are for anti-Semitic hate and violence. And while anti-Semitism emanates from any and all quarters of the political spectrum, it is especially prevalent in what progressives define as “their” communities—namely, urban areas. Observant Jews are today, and have been for decades, regular targets of physical violence in New York City and Europe at a far higher rate per capita than Muslims and blacks, who, as it happens, are very often their assailants—a fact that Orthodox Jews are loath to speak about in public, for fear of making a bad situation worse, and alienating the politicians on which both poor black and poor Jewish communities depend for housing, nursing care, and other public subsidies.
As I have written before, the need to erase the specificity of Jewish suffering, and Jewish specificity, hardly stops with White Jews, or Zionist Jews, or with the Holocaust. Jewish historical suffering is the Trojan horse through which history reenters and undermines the progressive moral universe that promises a final triumph of one-dimensional good over one-dimensional evil, a promise that can only seem credible if one obfuscates the inherent complexities and contradictions of the past.
For progressivism to remain coherent, then, Jewish specificity must be blurred, and the Jewish experience must be universalized by replacing the Jews with more appropriate and up-to-date victims. One can see this impulse in the House Democratic resolution which essentially took an “All Lives Matter” approach to anti-Semitism; the need to proclaim that Muslims are “the new Jews” or that a Syrian refugee girl is the new Anne Frank; or in the oft-repeated calls to universalize the Shoah, like this piece arguing for the new Holocaust Memorial in London to “not ignore the roots of racism shared with the slave trade.”
Renouncing hate, specifically of Jews, would have serious, concrete consequences for progressives and the global alliance of the oppressed at whose head they position themselves: For if you cannot justifiably hate Jews, or “Zionists,” or “White Jews,” then, morally and politically speaking, it would also be wrong to ally with people who insist that women must be veiled or that homosexuals tossed off rooftops. Without the numbers provided by the global ummah of some 1.5 billion Muslims, whose spiritual leaders often demand these things, the progressive left would lose its claim to speak on behalf of the oppressed masses, and become just another left-wing cult made up of white people. To prevent that admittedly awful fate, the licensing of Jew-hatred is essential, both practically and psychologically.
What all of this bizarre and depressing political mumbo-jumbo hopefully underlines is that the only morally and intellectually consistent position is to oppose racism in whatever form it takes, regardless of who espouses it. Trump critics, like the leaders of the Women’s March, lose their standing to criticize the president’s “casual expressions of racism” if they defend blatant expressions of racism by their allies, or espouse it themselves. For in both cases, bigotry is not incidental. Donald Trump could have run for president without slandering Mexicans as rapists and criminals. He could have chosen not to popularize a conspiracy theory about the natal origins of America’s first black president. Instead, he deliberately made these claims a central feature of his campaign because he is himself a racist conspiracy theorist who believed (alas, correctly) that his racially tinged outbursts would prove popular with a large segment of American voters.
Similarly, people like Ilhan Omar and Tamika Mallory—and the progressive cadres who choose to elevate and amplify them—could easily choose to advocate for Muslims or Palestinians or women without sidling up to a hate preacher who claims Jewish movie executives use marijuana to make black men gay or by insinuating that American Jews are disloyal. Except, they can’t—because intersectionality, not unlike anti-Semitism, is a conspiracy theory, one that hinges upon essentializing individuals into discrete and irrevocable racial, religious, or sexual-identity based groupings and ranking their virtue accordingly, in order to arrive at a more perfect form of justice, which will then rule the planet Earth. Intersectionality demands that the sectarian agendas and superstitions of a Palestinian-American woman in an arranged marriage, a Somali-born legislator who tweets about Israel “hypnotizing the world,” and a fellow traveler of a black nationalist cult take precedence over the universalist aims for which progressives used to stand.
By murdering some 50 Muslims at prayer, the Australian white supremacist hoped “to further the social, cultural, political and racial divide within the United states” so as to achieve a “Balkanization” that will “reduce the USA’s ability to project power globally.” Leen Dweik and Rose Asaf are, unwittingly, abetting this ambition. Chelsea Clinton, the target of their ire, attempting to show her solidarity with Muslim victims of a crazed white nationalist killer while carrying her unborn half-Jewish child on the campus of an elite American university in the middle of Manhattan, is merely collateral damage in a larger war, which only continues to get hotter.
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James Kirchick is a Tablet columnist and the author of Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington (Henry Holt, 2022). He tweets @jkirchick.