A friend once texted me a photo while hiking to a remote monastery in Japan, outside Tokyo. A little off the trail was a bit of graffiti, the usual tags: people’s names, “Joe hearts Wanda,” but then something else: a swastika.
“It says something to the effect of ‘they lied about the ovens,’” she wrote me after thirty minutes of cell phone Googling the Japanese characters accompanying the swastika.
While the numbers of Jews currently living in Japan range between 1,000 and 1,500, it is safe to say it is one of the most sparsely populated Jewish communities in the world. This means that, in all likelihood, the person who held the spray paint knew little about Jews, Jewish history, and had never met a Jew.
But the absence of Jews had never stopped antisemitism. In fact, sometimes it only accelerates it.
In David Nirenberg’s landmark study on antisemitism, Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, he looks at how cultures often define themselves in the absence of the Jews. Or, more correctly, in what they portray Jews to be. If the early Christians were spiritual, then the Jews were physical and carnal. If modernizing Germans had an essential folkish spirit that drew them to the land and tradition, Jews were unmistakably modern: anti-nature, lacking in strength, obsessed with abstractions. The dialectic of modern society includes a struggle for how we define ourselves and it is easiest to cut out an image of ourselves by first removing what we aren’t.
Part of the struggle to understand antisemitism looks at how it may have benefitted the powerful, particularly in suppressing the Jewish messages of liberation. There is a certain truth to this, but it neglects one key reality of most antisemitism: there are no Jews in it. In 1943 Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno published the Dialectic of Enlightenment, a touchstone in what became “critical theory”. Their chapter ‘Elements of Anti-Semitism’ is a framework for the Marxist critique of antisemitism, placing antisemitism as the process by which the impulse to liberate becomes the impulse to repress. This reminds us of what fascism scholar Robert Paxton calls the “mobilizing passions” that can feed both the left and the right, often the legitimate class anger and experience of oppression. What antisemitism does is create a dynamic conspiratorial narrative to explain alienation, one that posits shadowy actors in the absence of all things pure, wholesome, and good. The historic image of this new abstract world, with its decadent model of finance and legalisms, was placed on Jews, not because they had a distinctly present role in these systems, but because of historic tropes built by historical Christian antisemitism were already laid into the collective imagination of the West. It is immensely satisfying to believe that we had the answer to the current crisis all along, and it is emotionally euphoric to name your enemy rather than talk about abstract systems of power.
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Today we live several steps removed from this process, where antisemitism itself doesn’t always need Jews in any literal way. Instead, we have proxy totems for Jews: Rothschilds, “New York liberals,” Zionists, and Wall Street elites can all be slotted in. We started with Jews, then simply the antisemitic image of the Jews, and now we are left with a post-modern stew that has little to do with any actual Jews, living or dead.
The American Right, and increasingly the global Right, hold this type of antisemitism at the heart of their political machinations, from beliefs about George Soros to “Jewish space lasers.” Right-wing American Jews have participated in this system of scapegoat politics through the GOP, and Israel’s increasingly far-right global alliances have also helped to perpetuate increasingly blunt antisemitism from the national populist parties around Europe and ethnic nationalists in the Global South.
This adds an even more conspicuous layer to the problem, one of visibility. What Moishe Postone and others labeled as “structural antisemitism” is the systems of Western capitalism (which is now global) that build up antisemitic narratives into the mind of the public. By disconnecting the processes of production, our culture celebrates certain types of labor (largely physical labor) while attacking other types (usually abstract, such as ‘finance capitalism). Both of these are foundational to the inequalities of capitalism, but one type is celebrated as productive and patriotic while the other is identified as parasitic, and that dynamic connects to the working class feeling of alienation in a deeply emotive way. The experience of inequality is then tacked on to the model of “productive” and “unproductive” labor rather than simply rich and poor, and classic antisemitic narratives used to malign Jews are easily available to give this dynamic a story.
This means that antisemitism is a persistent problem, not just from the nationalists on the right, but including from our own ranks on the left when we fail to accurately name and confront the real source of working-class oppression. So what this situation requires is consistent visibility: only by seeing antisemitism exist can we hope to create a solution to it. Like with anti-immigrant attitudes in the labor movement or transphobia in the women’s movement, we will have to uproot antisemitism in the various social movements where it emerges from the “mobilizing passions.”
But with the increased abstractions around the manifestations of antisemitism, it has become hard to make the case that what we are seeing is, in fact, Jew-hatred. And more than this, a new cottage industry has emerged from right-wing Jewish organizations (and Christian Zionist groups) to throw allegations of antisemitism to anyone who may throw criticisms at Israel. This has worked together to build a political left unwilling and unable to see antisemitism, and therefore lacking in the muscle needed to unearth it. We are also a moment when Israeli violence against Gaza, replicated as settler mobs attack Palestinian civilians, is causing worldwide condemnation. While the behavior of antisemitism is not the cause of antisemitism, Israel’s violent occupation has done little to tamp down anger and has created a worldwide antagonism that continues to create blowback in the diaspora.
Since antisemitism is a projection onto Jews rather than a reflection of an essential Jewishness, it holds an inherent disconnect from anger against actual Jewish persons or institutions. Some Jewish communities have historically been placed in what has been called “middle agent” roles, such as money lenders in medieval Europe, a role that emphasized existing antisemitic ideas about Jews yet created a target for peasant anger that should have been rightly directed up at the monarchy. Hanna Arendt analyzed this dynamic in what has been called the “co-responsibility” thesis, which, while denouncing the evils of antisemitism, saw some role of Jewish communities in crafting it. This problem with this argument is that it ignores the shifting sands of the antisemitic accusation: Jews are too tribal, or they’re too universal, they’re capitalists, or they are communists. In the end, it is less the substance of the accusation than the people receiving it: the archetypal image of “the Jew” that exists as a cauldron to collect a society’s legitimate fear and anger and to direct them on a largely imagined foe.
The truth about antisemitism is that it is a narrative about Jews without Jews, so this creates a problem for segments of the left that argue that Israel is actually fostering antisemitism by perpetuating a tyrannical agenda of its own. Anger towards Israel is real, and visceral, which immediately separates it from the deep well of violent rage that has fueled antisemitism for centuries. Anti-Zionism or fierce opposition to Israel can be a vessel for antisemitism, but it is not inherently so, and now we live in a difficult paradox where legitimate anger against Israel is growing and we are now left to differentiate which reactions are legitimate and which pull from a millennium of anti-Jewish mythologies. This is why we have to locate antisemitism, not in the “mobilizing passions,” but in the narrative, and behaviors, that they fuel. Israeli malfeasance is a matter of fact, but when that energy pushes communities to blame Jews or Judaism as such, it doesn’t matter what the source was. Mounting discontent towards Israel is based on something tangible and real, and antisemitism is built on fantastic fables about Jewish culpability as Jews, which are two fundamentally different constructs. This should not provide cover for those who slip into antisemitic tracts in their response to the Occupation, nor should it assume some inherent parallel between historic antisemitism and anger at Israeli institutions for their nationalism and Palestinian erasure. None of these distinctions will matter, however, if antisemitism remains invisible if it does not make up a piece of the intersectional analysis we take to race, class, gender, and oppression.
We need a reckoning on the left, to rethink our ideas about race, oppression, and white supremacy, to remember the historic threat that Jews have faced. Simplistic narratives about white privilege can erase the uniqueness of antisemitism since it simply does not mirror anti-Blackness or the kind of anti-immigrant violence that Latinx people are facing. Instead, antisemitism is a particular promise of violence that persists even while (white) Jews experience the privileges offered by America’s colonialist white history. By taking antisemitism seriously we can capture this project back from the right and propose an intersectional and multi-faceted solution to white supremacy that puts the fight against antisemitism right back into the struggles against Islamophobia, transphobia, anti-Asian racism, and the cacophony of cruelties inflicted on a daily basis. Because of the inability of the left to deal with its antisemitism, and the Jewish shift to the political right since 1967, many Jewish organizations see the solution to antisemitism as a combination of Israeli nationalism and center-right anti-radicalism. This isolates Jews from other marginalized communities rather than empowers them to find a shared experience and strategy.
The rhetoric from Israel, and affiliated organizations, has also done little to help with this process. Because of the political conservatism in some parts of Jewish civic life, and the reliance on Israeli nationalism as a supposed key pillar of the fight against antisemitism, the struggle against antisemitism has been separated from other anti-oppression work. Then Israel’s increasingly volatile and nightmarish occupation is presented both as a necessary defense of the Jewish people and as their exclusive bargaining agent in the region. The idea that Israel is an effective bulwark against antisemitism dissolves as the hostility escalate each time the IDF initiates a “shock and awe” strategy of cruelty in Gaza. The reality is that Israel’s crimes do not cause antisemitism, there was already plenty of that to go around, but it does flex the tensions, breaks down solidarity between Jews and other oppressed peoples, and then the Israeli political rhetoric intentionally tries to dissolve the lines between the Israeli state and the international Jewish community in diaspora. The rhetoric about the Jewish conspiracy has shifted to the “Zionist conspiracy,” a way of laundering in old-school antisemitic canards, and the Israeli model has done little to unseat the notion that Jews as a people and Israel as a state are two independent things. An effective approach to fighting antisemitism will only come from a unity of oppressed people, Jews, and other marginalized communities, and the conservatism and pro-Israel dogma that has proliferated in some segments of Jewish civic life will be a barrier to ultimately confronting the problem. If antisemitism is never about Jews, then we have to break apart the legitimate anger directed at Israel and the hatred of Jews: one does not relate to the other. Instead, the anger at Israeli violence has fueled antisemitism by creating angst looking for a narrative.
We are on the left because we know we are stronger together, but we have to actually rely on this. We cannot support “progressive” causes on the one side and then descend into isolation on the issue of antisemitism, seeing this project as disconnected from the larger struggle against white supremacy and oppression. The reality is that antisemitism is a story that power tells to avoid responsibility, and it has less to say about Jews than it does about the West’s own pathologies of fear and identity. But the story that can actually be told about Jews can only come from us, a history of resistance, thriving, and overcoming. That is one we can never do in isolation. And there is a Jewish Left doing this, from Tikkun to organizations that inherited the legacy of New Jewish Agenda, such as Jews for Economic and Racial Justice, Bend the Arc, and IfNotNow. We need to be a part of bridging these communities, by recentering a liberatory perspective in the struggle against antisemitism and bringing that visibility to the “antiracist” Left. Their work against the occupation also splits the narrative and decenters the ability of Israeli nationalism to argue that it is the center of the fight against antisemitism, which it is part of how it justifies an increasingly far-right political character that sees little humanity in its Palestinian neighbors.
The fundamental lesson of Judaism is the universal oneness of Hashem, that all that is living is one, dynamic, and interconnected organism. The journey that Judaism challenges us with is to actually understand the implications of that, to make an exodus from the world of isolating identities, and to deliver a message that we can live a life of liberation together. This is the story about the Jews we need to tell. And unlike the antisemitic narratives that continue to fester, this one actually has something to say about the Jewish experience.
But more than this it is also a challenge to what we have to offer. Part of why far-right narratives, including antisemitism, gain traction is that they exist as an answer to pressing questions. Real wages are falling, including with the white working class, and the Left has often failed to meet the experiences of large swathes of America. In the absence of an adaptive Left, the far-right will try to mobilize those passions, offering their own narratives for what is happening and who is responsible. This is true even in historically marginalized communities, where conspiracy theories and nationalist logistics can also metastasize in an effort to simply offer something. Without a Left that is available to really confront the crisis that most people are living through, one that will only become more visible as ecological and economic catastrophe compounds upon one another, then false narratives about “secret cabals” will only continue to appeal to growing segments of the country.
The final answer to antisemitism is one that binds us to the bigger questions about building a new world, and half measures simply fail to do anything other than temporarily blunt antisemitism and other forms of oppression. The promise of the left is the experience of collective liberation, a shared vision that can have broad buy-in for those out of power. The left’s inability to collaborate for real power, not merely the power of advocacy and representation, sends a message that it has nothing to offer, and the void is being filled by scapegoats. The most effective project against antisemitism is the one that unseats its conditions, and that necessitates the kernel of a new world entirely.
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