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The DeBoer Tendency: How Progressives Belittle Violence Against Jews

The five stages of anti-Semitism denial, as it relates to racism and the concept of ‘privilege’

John-Paul Pagano
April 03, 2015
The cellar where hostages took refugee during the bloody hostage drama in the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket in Paris, France on January 9, 2015. (Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty Images)
The cellar where hostages took refugee during the bloody hostage drama in the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket in Paris, France on January 9, 2015. (Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty Images)

The conversation about Jews and “privilege” is finally upon us. Anti-Semitism in word and deed has been increasing in frequency and intensity for over a decade. That’s been true especially in Europe, and recently the problem there has become acute. The war last summer in Gaza stirred more than the usual amount of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish unrest and led some to draw comparisons to the European 1930s. In turn, the coverage of this terrible phenomenon has stirred voices of skepticism, many belonging to self-identified “progressives”—for whom “Jewish privilege” is more likely to be identified as a harm than anti-Jewish prejudice.

To take an example, the campus radical and writer Freddie deBoer pilloried Conor Friedersdorf for a piece in The Atlantic that considered Jewish flight from increasingly hostile conditions in Europe. DeBoer, in turn: mocked the notion of rising anti-Semitism in Europe; implied that it wasn’t real; called for a higher evidentiary standard to prove it; downplayed it as a mere epiphenomenon of American foreign policy; and defocused Jews while centering Muslims as authentic victims of racism. His series of reactions—a sort of five stages of anti-Semitism denial—is worth examining and understanding, particularly as it relates to racism and the concept of “privilege.”

First, some background. Israel’s stunning victory against combined Arab armies in 1967 set in motion streams of hostility—some anti-Israel, some “anti-Zionist,” some anti-Jewish—which would pool, roil, and gather strength until the turn of the millennium, when the Second Intifada unleashed them in a cataract of anti-Semitism. Two groups were swept along most forcefully by the current: Arabs and Muslims; and Left-wing radicals, who took their cues on Israel and Zionism from Moscow, where “anti-Zionism” assumed a central place in the Soviet anti-colonial catechism. By about 2002 anti-Jewish hatred began to burgeon in social-democratic Europe, where populations of disaffected Muslims languish.

Since a big part of deBoer’s (stated) complaint is a lack of evidentiary rigor, it is worth reviewing some facts about what the past decade or so has looked like for European Jews. Around 2002 observers started to note that in Europe the openness and more frequent violence with which Jew-hatred was expressed began to belie the lessons of the Holocaust. A watershed report, Manifestations of Antisemitism in the EU 2002-2003, was commissioned by the E.U. agency charged with monitoring racism and xenophobia. “A rise in the number of anti-Semitic incidents has been noticeable for almost all of the fifteen [EU] Member States since the start of the ‘Al-Aqsa-Intifada,’ ” it noted, singling out France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom for episodes that were “rather severe.” The report was leaked in 2003—after having been shelved owing to concerns that it made Muslims—who were a large part of the perpetrators in the worst countries—look bad.

Studies by reputable agencies followed, with increasing frequency. In 2005 the U.S. Department of State issued its own alarmed assessment. An NGO, Human Rights First, produced a similar study in 2007. DoS updated its earlier findings and released another review to Congress in 2008. Israel’s Coordinating Forum for Countering Anti-Semitism has been compiling world maps of anti-Jewish hate crimes since 2009; here’s the one for 2011. Community Security Trust, a charity akin to a British ADL, has been tracking anti-Semitism in the United Kingdom since 1984; here are the stats for 2012. France’s Jewish Community Security Service produced an analogous report for that country in 2014. As a whole these studies reveal radically worsening rhetoric, vandalism, and physical violence against Jews.

Opinion polls support these developments. I’ll cite just three. In 2003 the European Commission sponsored a poll that sampled people in every E.U. member state and revealed that 59 percent of them believed that Israel was the greatest threat to world peace. They had chosen from a list that included Iran (53 percent), North Korea (53 percent), and Iraq (52 percent). The Jewish Virtual Library has compiled results here of several mid-2000s polls that show large percentages of Europeans holding anti-Israel and anti-Jewish views. Finally, last year the ADL surveyed 100 countries for anti-Semitic attitudes and released a world map in which France, Spain, Austria, Germany, Belgium, and Switzerland all scored above 25 percent. (For comparison, the United States scored 9 percent.) Greece, with an astronomical index of 69 percent, led the list.

What’s going on in the streets? In some European communities, public abuse of Jews has reached overt and sustained levels that are unrecognizable here. In 2013 a survey of Jews in nine European countries revealed that one in four was afraid to go out wearing kippot or other Jewish symbols. Inspired by a clever experiment in which an appealing woman was filmed walking around New York City, attracting catcalls like a bug light, journalists have filmed themselves wearing kippot in the streets of England, France, and Sweden. The resulting videos show them being menaced, spat at, and pelted with racial slurs.

During Operation Protective Edge, in 2014 Community Security Trust recorded its highest number ever of anti-Semitic events in the United Kingdom, including close to a hundred assaults. In Paris, a mob broke off from anti-Israel protests and laid siege to the Don Isaac Abravanel synagogue. The Algemeiner summarized, “In Holland, popular rapper Rachid El Ghazoui shouted ‘F–k the Zionists, F–k the Talmud’; in Belgium crowds chanted ‘Slaughter the Jews!’; and in Madrid, thousands marched with banners reading ‘Israel enough, you are not the chosen people.’ ”

Inevitably all this churning hate has begun to produce extra-normal violence. It began with the 2006 murder of Ilan Halimi, a Sephardic Jew who lived in a banlieue of Paris. A French-Iranian girl served as a honeypot to lure Halimi to an apartment where he was overcome by a large gang led by French-African Muslims, who kidnapped, bound, beat, burned, slashed, and stabbed him for three weeks, after which he died. The ringleader, a French-Ivorian named Youssef Fofana, said he had wanted to kidnap a Jew because “they’re loaded with dough”; the gang had told Halimi’s family to “go and get [his ransom] from your synagogue.” They didn’t, but it didn’t much matter. The police suggested it was more out of pleasure than frustration that his captors mutilated Halimi until he was hard to recognize.

The lower-income banlieues of France with large Muslim populations are zones of social abandonment. In 2005 many ignited in riots, forming all over France a patchwork burned-over district of unrest. Unemployment, stultification, sexual violence, police harassment, and many other ills thrive in these cloistered spaces. It made sense that Mohamed Merah, the millennium’s first mass murderer of Jews in Europe, would emerge from one, near Toulouse.

After killing three French paratroopers and paralyzing one in two separate incidents, Merah disappeared for four days and then suddenly resurfaced. Helmeted, riding a scooter, and wearing a GoPro camera, he bore down on Ozar Hatorah, the main school of the Jewish community of Toulouse, where he lit up the kids in the yard with 9mm gunfire. He felled a rabbi and his two sons, 3 and 6 years old, shooting one of them as he crawled toward his father. Then Merah chased after the 8-year-old daughter of the school’s headmaster and shot her up close. “The Jews have killed our brothers and sisters in Palestine,” Merah declared later at his apartment during a 30-hour standoff, before police ambushed and killed him.

The murderer quickly became an object of wonder, and for some in France, veneration. Merah’s sister Souad was recorded saying, “Mohamed had the courage to act. I am proud, proud, proud. … Jews, and all those who massacre Muslims, I detest them.” Three incidents were noted in schools where teachers pointedly included Merah’s name in moments of silence for his victims. A man posted a picture of himself in front of Ozar Hatorah performing the quenelle, an anti-Semitic salute popularized by the French-Cameroonian comedian Dieudonné. “Pro-Palestinian” marchers have been heard praising Merah.

In the last 10 months, three more mass murders of Jews have been attempted by Muslims in Belgium, France again, and Denmark. It was one of these incidents—the slaughter of four Jews at a kosher superette by Amedy Coulibaly, a French-Malian from the “social dustbin” of a banlieue in Île-de-France, who made himself a sandwich while his victims laid at his feet—that prompted the Atlantic article to which deBoer responded.

On his blog he opened with some snark:

Friedersdorf spends the requisite amount of time showing Grave Concern about the increasing threat to Europe’s increasingly threatened Jews, who are threatened, at an increasing level.

Then, with hauteur—“If you’re interested in looking at some actual facts about [this] constantly expressed fear”he directed his readers to personal anecdotes of a Jewish life of “privilege” written by an English sports writer. DeBoer suggested that the Atlantic piece was sensationalism à la “Muslim-throngs-are-advancing-across-Europe,” in other words a bit of mercenary bigotry, and urged that attention be redirected from frivolous fears of anti-Jewish racism to the real deal, experienced by Muslims.

One perspicacious commenter noted that deBoer required a much higher standard of evidence for anti-Semitism than Islamophobia, a problem whose comparative severity he argued for by mere assertion. DeBoer replied:

No conversation about these issues can possibly be constructive or worthwhile without acknowledging that the United States and the broader Western world has engaged in a ceaseless campaign of violence against the greater Muslim world for decades.

Now, why would deBoer—a person who advertises himself as being devoted to the causes of social justice and anti-racism—progress like this, from callous, to skeptical, to juridical, to deflective, and finally to changing the subject from anti-Semitism to Islamophobia? It is very easy to imagine how deBoer would respond to anyone treating the demonstrable injuries of any other targeted minority group—blacks, or gays, or really anyone—in this way: He would passionately denounce them as bigots.

What accounts for this unique form of deafness on the left? I think there are three main drivers guiding progressives like him who have similar responses to the very real injuries suffered by Jews who are targeted, excluded, abused, and sometimes murdered for reasons that are clearly the result of hatred: an excess of rationalism, the way anti-Semitism short-circuits the “privilege” analysis of racism, and a prioritization of some victims of racism over others. The piece deBoer quotes, by the sports writer David Conn of The Guardian, suggests that anti-Semitism, if it does anything more than “linger” like an unpleasant odor, is triggered by flare ups of Israeli violence. In other words, Jew-hatred is a “pure epiphenomenon” of the Arab-Israeli conflict (a conflict which, to most who retail this view, is largely or solely the fault of Israel). This analysis is closely related to deBoer’s suggestion that U.S. violence is responsible for Muslim anti-Semitism, such that it exists.

Of course, as I mentioned above, incidents of violent anti-Semitism increase when Israel is operationally at war. That is statistically undeniable—look at the CST reports for early 2009 and 2014. And there’s little doubt that any military action the United States takes (and doesn’t take) serves to anger many Arabs and Muslims. Yet the baseline for these incidents is still remarkably high—and it keeps rising.

In the mental shorthand of many, Muslims are people of color and Jews are white.

Paul Berman made the point in Terror and Liberalism—a book the mere mention of which sends deBoer types running for the bathroom—that we in the West are inheritors of Enlightenment rationalism, and as such we find it difficult to understand and constructively respond to irrational political movements. In this respect “we are all Noam Chomsky,” Berman wrote in reference to the man who has done the most to advance this reductive Weltanschauung. In politics Chomsky proposed two warring innate ideas—an instinct for greed (embodied by the corporatized West) and an instinct for freedom (embodied by those opposing the West)—and honed this analysis by applying it to the abattoir in Cambodia during the 1970s. There have been few enormities that more clearly exhibit irrationalism than the Khmer Rouge auto-genocide; but in Chomsky’s hyper-rationalist view, no such movement of self-cannibalizing lunacy could exist (at least not among victims of American imperialism). So, he wrote that there was no genocide to speak of in Cambodia, and if there was violence, it was because greedy U.S. war-making had driven the Cambodians to it.

So too with some interpretations of crises relating to radical Islam and the Middle East. Irrationalism is the wrong explanation, because it simply can’t be right; or if violence and hatred do exist, they assume the discrete and contingent form of being a rational (i.e., predictable and understandable) response by the victims of the United States and Israel. For deBoer and the segment of the Left he represents, anti-Semitism is not a coherent and meaningful force among Muslims—that is to say, a movement; or if it is, it is not a self-sustaining irrational movement, one founded on conspiracist racism against Jews and drunk on salvationist violence. Rather it is tightly correlated to the wrongdoing of Americans and Jews themselves, and thus acute in onset and understandable.

Hyper-rationalism pairs well with the dogmatic underdog-ism of the Left, which assumes that weakness is a source or at least a marker of virtue. Yet just as the poverty of Chomsky’s political analysis became clear after the United States withdrew from Indochina, the silliness and toxicity of New Left ideas about race have become plainer as Jim Crow recedes.

Perhaps the worst of these is the formula that racism equals prejudice plus power. People of color can’t be racist, according to this definition, because they are structurally disempowered by our racist-capitalist “system.” Whites are racist, wittingly or not, because they are existentially driven to oppress non-whites in order to preserve their “privilege.” Analyses of “structural racism” and “privilege” assert a kind of Wizard of Oz sociology that exhibits some elements of conspiracy theory—false consciousness, social determinism, and peoples of good and evil locked in Manichean struggle.

In the mental shorthand of many, Muslims are people of color and Jews are white. That demarcation has fateful consequences. We in the West have a horrendous history of racism; in the United States the oppression of African Americans for hundreds of years is an enduring betrayal of liberal values. Responses throughout the educated West to the Arab-Israeli conflict have been warped by fear that Zionism is a form of racism—as the Soviet architects of that libel surely intended. We are prone to seeing Israeli violence as illegitimate per se, and to regarding violence, hatred, and illiberalism among Arabs and Muslims as a rational—predictable and understandable—response to Western and Israeli imperialism. We miss the part that is a will to power, aspirational imperialism in its own right.

The “prejudice plus power” idea erases real anti-Semitism—a construct with its own history of horrific effects, which is often lumped in with racism, but is actually something else. To borrow from comedy parlance, most racism “punches down”—an incumbent group constructs and subordinates an underclass. The stereotypes that make up such racism diminish their victims. For example blacks, to the white racist, are inferior, criminal, stupid, lazy, and lusty. Anti-Semitism is often the opposite, envisioning the Jew as a preternatural creature—as evil, brilliant, controlling, connected, rich, and powerful beyond measure. Anti-Semitism is a conspiracy theory. As such, Anti-Semitism often “punches up.”

When deBoer implies that anti-Semitism is not increasing in Europe and that the real problem is Islamophobia, he ties all of these threads together. Muslims, people of color, can’t be racist, at least not in any coherent and self-sustaining way; they are an oppressed people reacting to the depredations of Jews and other whites. Irrationalist movements that are powered by Jew-hatred don’t exist anymore; that sort of thing was the preserve of white people 70 years ago. Anti-Semitism today is embraced most frequently and fervently by people of color—but to note that is “the basic logic of bigotry,” blaming the victim while aggrandizing the powerful. As Chomsky put it himself, “Anti-Semitism is no longer a problem, fortunately. It’s raised, but it’s raised because privileged people want to make sure they have total control, not just 98 percent control.”

Most people on the Left today prioritize the well-being of Arabs and Muslims over Jews. And just as there are those who have extenuated plainly genocidal rhetoric by Iranian officials, there is now what we might call the DeBoer Tendency to deny the import of anti-Semitism among people of color, in part in order to avoid the dangers of a “clash of civilizations” analysis. In its best light, this impulse can be seen as an expression of well-intentioned concern for black and brown peoples who still endure the legacy of racist and colonialist oppression and exploitation and a determination not to allow those evils to take on a new guise. Yet, whatever the real merits of these sympathies and fears, the ideological lens that they shape appears to be singularly unsuited to analyzing the problem of anti-Semitism—the most long-lived and radically murderous form of group hatred that European civilization has produced—and the very real threats that it poses to the lives and welfare of Jews. Instead, it seeks to diminish and belittle them.


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

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