From a Constituent of Congresswoman Ilhan Omar on Anti-Semitism

What It Is and Why It’s Dangerous

Image of Congresswoman Ilhan Omar courtesy of Paris Malone/Flickr.

Employing anti-Semitic tropes doesn’t make someone a Jew-hater—but to do so is dangerous. They serve to scapegoat a people for the sins of capitalism; and to be a scapegoat is to face an existential threat. Thus, doubly dangerous—not only for Jews but also for letting off the hook the real culprits, permitting them to recommit their crimes.

Anti-Semitism is different from other forms of discrimination like racism—such as meted out, for example, against Palestinians—xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia etc. The latter aid and abet the divide and rule strategy ruling classes have employed throughout the history of class society, be it the Israeli or American ruling class. Jew-hatred, on the other hand, plays a particular role in class societies, specifically and historically in capitalist Europe.

For millennia, societies looked askance upon the merchant and money lender due to what’s inherent in their activities, buying cheap to sell dear and the charging of interest for loans—capital’s earliest forms. Thus, why all three Semitic religions banned in scripture the latter practice, at least amongst co-practitioners. Owing to pre-existing prejudices, Jews in Europe, the so-called “Christ killers,” were uniquely assigned, in almost caste-like fashion, to such odious endeavors, thus perpetuating and deepening their pariah status. But playing such roles—always by a tiny minority of Jews—a necessity for modern capitalism, could be complicated and riddled with contradictions: Exhibit A, the Rothschild banking clan.

Capitalism, unlike any previous economic system, entails periodic crises, recessions and depressions—hence, economic insecurity for the toilers. “All that is solid melts into air, all that is sacred is profaned,” as Marx and Engels explained in 1848 in their Communist Manifesto. In the second half of the nineteenth century in Europe as the capitalist mode of production generalized throughout the region, the inevitable crises engulfed increasing numbers of the most vulnerable. Jews proved to be convenient scapegoats for ruling elites to explain what happened—to divert attention from their own actions in causing the convulsions. The infamous and Czarist forged Protocols of the Elders of Zion in the early twentieth century, about a supposed worldwide Jewish “cabal” of bankers and related sorts, in combination with the murderous anti-Jewish pogroms, was the slippery—though not inevitable—road to Hitler’s Mein Kampf and, in the midst of the Great Depression of the 1930’s, tragically, the Holocaust. We all continue to pay for that most heinous crime, not the least, Palestinians.

More global than ever, capitalism since the 1970’s has entered into one of those rare moments in its history, what some of its defenders call “secular stagnation”—prolonged slow growth and weak productivity. For the working class, stagnant wages has been its defining feature—the end of the American Dream. The Great Recession of 2008 signaled the most recent phase in the historic crisis. Despite the so-called “recovery,” the carnage continues such as increasing homeliness and declining life expectancy rates for the working class in all its skin colors.

It’s in this mix that anti-Semitism, not surprisingly, has reared its ugly head again, though in no way as virulent and deadly—at least so far—as it did in the Great Depression. For visuals, see the short Academy Award winning documentary A Night at the Garden about the pro-Nazi meeting of 20,000 at Madison Square Garden in 1939 (https://anightatthegarden.com). Compare and contrast that gathering with the paltry torch-light crowd that assembled in Charlottesville, VA, a couple of years ago—unnecessarily alarming otherwise rational people. Note also the far larger counter-demonstration outside the Garden; that’s the important story. The 40,000 who rallied in counter-protest to Charlottesville a week later in Boston was a welcomed reality check about the real world of politics—again, today.

The 2016 elections as well as others elsewhere in advanced capitalist countries such as the Brexit vote in the U.K. registered the political consequences of the current crisis. It’s no surprise, then, that there are politicians willing to play the xenophobic card and always its ace, anti-Semitism. But to assume that they have triumphed, as some were want to do about Charlottesville, is to be, again, alarmist. It risks the danger of prophecy self-fulfillment because its misses the opportunities today for building the kind of movement to effectively counter the real—and not today’s wannabe—fascists when that moment will inevitably arrive.  The crisis of capitalism ensures that sobering fact.

Some version of anti-Semitism and Jew-bashing exists in any society where capitalist relations of production prevail. In Asia, it’s likely to be directed against the overseas Chinese such as the slaughter in Indonesia in 1965. In Africa, against the Lebanese and/or Indian communities. In South Africa, to be identified as Somali can be life threatening due to the many there who make a living as merchants.

Living in Tanzania years ago was a learning experience on this score.  Because my landlord and the person I had to buy goods and services from was “Indian,” it was tempting to attribute their devious actions to their “Indian-ness” rather than to their “landlord-ness,” or their “merchant-ness.” And to not be aware of the difference is to be susceptible to the illusion that only if someone of a different race, tribe, clan, gender, or whatever occupied such roles would things be better.   That too is dangerous. No wonder that aspiring wannabe capitalists in these various identities are often in the vanguard of such bashing of the other. That’s the fount from which Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan has always imbibed for his decades-long Jew-bashing and for those who are seduced by it; Jew-envy as I sometimes call it. And it’s no wonder that aspiring capitalist politicians, ever on the search for a potential constituency and funds are all so ready to engage in or enable the other-bashing.

Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar has justified her use of the anti-Semitic trope “all about the Benjamins“—what the non-hip crowd calls “Jewish money”—with academic authority: John Mearsheimer’s and Stephen Walt’s 2007 book The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (https://www.amazon.com/Israel-Lobby-U-S-Foreign-Policy/dp/0374531501). Indeed provocative, the tome is actually a thinly veiled attempt to scapegoat the pro-Israel neoconservatives for the quagmire the ruling class got itself into in Iraq—Vietnam redux—to let off the hook the ruling class in all its diversity.

Those of us who argued against the Israel Lobby pointed to at least two glaring problems. First, the logical one. To assume that just because someone strives to have something done and that what’s done is what they wanted and, therefore, they must have been the cause of the outcome is flawed thinking. In the rarefied world of the academy in which Mearsheimer and Walt inhabit, the University of Chicago and Harvard, to even consider that U.S. foreign policy is driven by the imperial interests of capital is almost verboten; certainly not the way to get hired or, for sure, tenured in such milieus. It’s safer, rather, to engage in anti-Semitic innuendo: AIPAC is the culprit, the American Israel Political Action Committee.

To claim, as Mearsheimer and Walt do, that an outfit that ranks 34th on the list of lobbyists in D.C. (https://www.opensecrets.org/industries/mems.php), and a country, Israel, whose GDP is less than one percent of that of the U.S., have enough resources to decide U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East is, to put it charitably, naïve. AIPAC has never been the omnipotent power its detractors assume. The defeat it suffered in trying to prevent the Obama Iran nuclear deal should have made that clear if not before. The fact that AIPAC once listed me amongst a handful of college professors in the U.S. that should be feared (The AIPAC College Guide: Exposing the Anti-Israel Campaign on Campus, 1984) revealed that it wasn’t the smartest lobbyist in Washington.

Those of us who do Cuba solidarity work have debated a similar issue: is U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba decided in Miami, its Cuban American Foundation, or in Washington and Wall Street? The return of Elian Gonzalez, the Cuban boy found at sea, to his father in Cuba and against the adamant demands of the crowd in southern Florida in 2000 forever settled in my opinion the debate.  Likewise, U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East and North Africa is made in Washington and Wall Street, not in Tel Aviv—contrary to the message of the anti-Semitic cartoon the New York Times recently ran.

The second flaw in the Mearsheimer/Walt book is the assumption that there is something called a U.S. “national interest” and that the “Israel lobby”—Patrick Buchanan’s “amen corner”—is subverting it. But there has never been a U.S. “national interest” just as there has never been, what both the left and right commonly assume, “our government.” What exists in the U.S. from the very beginning is a state and government of the ruling rich in all its various identities, whatever be their skin colors, genders, religion, etc.. That the once exclusive club for so-called “WASPs” has diversified, including now Jewish people and others hitherto excluded, doesn’t hide the fact that it’s still a ruling class. The fight ever since 1789 has been about how to make “our government” truly our government, that is, a political system that actually serves and, therefore, of necessity is under the rule of the working masses in their immense majority. The concessions U.S. rulers, be they Democrats or Republicans, are obliged to occasionally make to legitimize their rule owing to the mass mobilizations are just that—concessions, and thus, tenuous. Never should it be assumed that they have actually relinquished power; that fight lies ahead of us. To confuse what is with what should be is also dangerous.

For that reason, the anti-Semitic dual loyalty trope, specifically, “allegiance to a foreign country,” that Congresswoman Omar also employs is not just dangerous for Jewish people. Progressive-minded people should remember the history of the dual loyalty charge. Woodrow Wilson, Democratic Party president, utilized it for the first time, broadly, in his “preparedness” campaign for U.S. entry into World War I. German Americans were the first targets. In Minnesota and elsewhere they had to abandon their native language—including even in weddings—and cease publishing newspapers in German. The now restored Rathskeller in the Minnesota State Capitol was painted over in 1917 due to the anti-German hysteria.

Later the Wilson administration targeted opponents of U.S. entry into the War like Socialist Party leader Eugene V. Debs who was jailed; others were deported.  University professors were fired for being “disloyal,” including political scientist William Schaper at the University of Minnesota. Wilson was compelled to go to the Twin Cities to rail against its very vocal anti-interventionist movement. His crusade was the precursor to the first “Red Scare” in 1919 that birthed J. Edgar Hoover and the F.B.I. and, later, the McCarthy witch-hunt. The “preparedness” campaign may have inspired the internment of Japanese Americans by the next Democratic Party president, FDR, two decades later.

For those of us who “lobby” against U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba, should we be looked upon suspiciously regarding “allegiance to a foreign country” because we defend the Cuban revolution? Congresswoman Omar’s support now for “human rights fighters” in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela (http://www.startribune.com/apply-universal-values-to-all-nations-to-achieve-peace/507322412/) would so suggest. In moving closer to the White House’s position on these three countries, she is willing to ignore the fact that there are more human rights in Cuba than in her adopted homeland. Just ask the masses in South Africa and elsewhere in Africa about Cuba.  Now that Cuba is squarely in the crosshairs of Washington her tact to the center aids and abets—left cover—Washington and Wall Street’s long held goal to put an end to the Cuban Revolution.

Or, in my case, specifically—one of her constituents. Because my “allegiance” is first and foremost not to a “foreign country” but to the international working class, will I be on Congresswoman Omar’s list of the “disloyal” or subversives as I was on the AIPAC list? The “allegiance” charge smacks of the infamous HUAC—the House Un-American Activities Committee—also dangerous. I suggest that she revisit that history if she hasn’t already. Those of us who know the story have the obligation to inform the Congresswoman. To give her a free pass on this, as many well-intentioned people are want to do, or to not give her the benefit of doubt that she can be won to principled progressive politics is to sell her short. Not only can it be patronizing a la House Speaker Nancy Pelosi—Omar didn’t understand “the full weight of her words”—but it risks the pitfalls of the enemy of my enemy/lesser of two evil thinking all too prevalent in liberal circles­–especially after the post-Mueller Report funk that’s now set in. If our enemy the Republicans are going after her, then we, so goes the mantra, are obligated to defend her no matter what. The Dems, after all, are the lesser evil. That Omar has come under attack by self-serving misogynist Islamophobes is, however, no excuse for not being honest with her. Taking the moral high ground is the most effective way to counter such attacks.

Susceptibility to, engaging in, and enabling anti-Semitism isn’t, therefore, confined to the right end of the political spectrum. It was, in fact, someone on the left, Mikhail Bakunin the anarchist, who likely initiated biological anti-Semitism circa 1878; Marx was his target. Fast forward to when the new elite in the Soviet Union usurped power from the proletariat after its brief reign from October 1917. Like prior Russian rulers, Stalin employed Jew-bashing to consolidate his regime.  Those who claim that there was something redeemable about his counterrevolutionary project are, hence, more prone to excuse anti-Semitism on the left. That’s especially true for those who still subscribe to its “popular front” policy, unflagging support to the Congresswoman’s party.

Opinion polls reveal that many people are increasingly skeptical of capitalism and open toward “socialism”—at least as they understand it (that’s another discussion). My intent is to make the case that they have another reason to be wary of capitalism. Anti-Semitism is baked into its DNA. Influential defenders of capitalism who happen to be Jewish, in whatever form that identity takes, know that, I suspect, better than I do—from Disraeli to Kissinger.

Only the working class in all its various identities has a class interest in being vigilant about that most ancient, pernicious, and dangerous smear whenever it rears its ugly head in all its disguises and tropes—conscious or not, intentional or not. Unlike the more privileged layers of society, whatever their identities, workers, those who have to sell their labor to survive, have less to lose in so doing—increasingly because of the capitalist crisis. But such awareness on their part isn’t inevitable. This article consciously aims to aid and abet such consciousness.

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