Kenneth Waltzer

Antisemitisms of the Left and Right (with Mark G. Yudof)

Jewish intellectuals and rabbis, a disputatious lot, have struggled for more than two millennia to define Jewish identity. Is it genetic, religious, cultural, traditional, communal? Perhaps it is more than one of these. Antisemites of the Left and Right, however, have less difficulty. They make facile choices constructing Jewish identity, ignoring historical complexity to serve their own ends.

Seventy years or so after the liberation of Auschwitz, hatred of Jews is again on the rise in Europe and the Middle East. It is also evident to a lesser degree in the United States, particularly on campuses. Jews once again are called out, made to answer for the antisemite’s conception of the Jew.  Confident faith in an exceptional America where tolerance reigns is shaken.  What is to be done?


Today, Jewish students are called to account for their support of Israel, which on many campuses is presented as an evil pariah state. They are pronounced guilty due to white privilege and they are charged with supposed control of the media.  At San Francisco State university, Jewish students faced open calls in late spring that Jews supporting Israel should get off the campus. A law suit against the university claims “Jewish students who are open about their Jewish identities…feel vulnerable, intimidated, and threatened on their own campus.” Bloodied Israeli flags appear at anti-Trump demonstrations in the Northeast, Midwest, and West, falsely linking civil rights and concerns about immigrant rights with the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  At the University of Illinois, Students for Justice in Palestine recently equated fascism, white supremacy, and Zionism.  Simultaneously, an army of white nationalists marched in late summer at the University of Virginia with swastikas and weapons charging “Jews will not replace us. “Jews will not replace us.” These pernicious developments and others presage rising frictions in the coming months.

Charlottesville was a wake-up call for Jews as well as for African Americans, immigrants and other targets of hate. Hundreds of neo-Nazis, white nationalists, and white supremacists mobilized from around the country, descending on the town and campus armed with weapons. They marched with lit torches intimidating students, and they grew increasingly more violent in a poorly policed, escalating clash, which led to a homicide. Followers of Richard Spencer and others marched under the banner of a whites-only republic. In their outlook, the threat of racial decline in the United States is engineered by the Jews, whom racial nationalists picture as non-white and as choreographing the rest — globalization, immigration, illegal immigration, judicial checks on executive power, equality before the law, and multiculturalism.

Before these events, observers spoke expectantly of higher levels of antisemitism on campuses but did not fully anticipate the role white nationalists would play. Instead, they worried primarily about a growing Far Left antisemitism different from Far Right antisemitism. The antisemitism of the Far Left is the hatred of self-proclaimed anti-racists who nonetheless believe in a rigidly dogmatic anti-Israelism.  It is about the intersection of anti-Zionism and antisemitism, and especially about distaste in the global Left for the Jewish state.  The antisemitism of the Far Right is more like the older racial anti-Semitism.

These forms of hatred share a distinctive eagerness to put the Jew at the center of what is wrong with the world in the present. Yet they differ significantly and demand responses attuned to the differences.

The antisemitism of the Far Left is often called the newest anti-Semitism.  It takes its bearings from its growth during a post-Holocaust age, with roots in Soviet bloc anti-Zionism and antisemitism during the decades after World War II. Its origins are also traceable to the collapse of socialist politics late during the 20th century, which have been replaced by a kind of campist, binary international politics, pitting Western imperialism and anti-imperialism against one another. In this view, the Jewish state is a key part of the Western imperialist bloc and most Jews are allies of Israel. What the Jew was to racial anti-Semites historically, an ally of the devil, the Jewish state now becomes as a Western ally in the global Left power perspective.  The Jews were once hated because they were thought of individually as alien and other; they are now hated for being linked with and supportive of a sovereign Jewish state.

The antisemitism of the Far Right also reflects new elements but also harkens back to modern racial antisemitism, the hatred that culminated in the Nazi Holocaust. Antisemites assume Jews are evil in their seed.  They carry their essence in their biology,  It is also shaped by 21st century identity politics, including multiculturalism and novel assumptions about cultural identity.  In this alternative view, the Jews, evil in their nature, are an extraordinarily malevolent force shaping domestic fortunes. They drive globalism, affect economies, stir migration, and push multiculturalism.  “White Man, are you Sick and Tired of the Jews Destroying Your Country through Immigration and Degeneracy? states flyers distributed at the U. of Minnesota and many other campuses.  Poster depicting the international Jew and Jewish menage were up at the University of Houston where the Students for Justice in Palestine will host their national conference in late October.

In the racial theory of the white nationalists, Jews are among the many other minorities which allegedly threaten the foundations of an imagined white republic. Jews are sub-humans just like Blacks and Latinos but they are significantly more powerful and influential. It is claimed they have their own powerful lobby, dominate important institutions, help fund the major parties, and operate from unseen places to selfishly shape the prospects of others. Jews are racial enemies bent on extending the rule of the Jews.

The antisemites on the hard left oppose a Jewish state, even stand against the idea of Israel as a raft nation or a refuge for Jews.  Jews need no such consideration, they seem to say: no compensatory affirmation arises from a white nationalist review of Jewish history.  These bigots see Jewish history as a selective history of power and privilege, not of catastrophe and calamity. No Israel must exist in Arab lands anywhere.  Leaders in the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) acknowledge that a single Palestinian state is their true goal.  The idea of a two state solution lacks justice, most think, because it involves having to accept a Jewish state. Left antisemitism also excuses attacks on European and American Jews and their institutions because Jews everywhere are supporters of Israel. They are inductees in Israel’ cause.


As we move further into the new academic year, Left antisemites are a presence on many campuses.  Some are part of the BDS movement, with academic positions in departments and programs.  They are endorsers of the U.S. Committee for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI) or members of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP).  Not all are antisemitic, to be sure, but there are many in the ranks who view it as appropriate to raise questions about Jewish students standing for campus office or to circulate cartoons about Israel where classic Jewish figures appear with hooked noses and grasping hands. They think it desirable to bar Jewish groups in institutions from progressive alliances or to characterize campus Hillels as white supremacist organizations. At universities in California, they are among the students who disrupt Jewish meetings during anti-apartheid weeks. n the views rationalized by the idea of intersectionality, Jews are erased.They are ‘whites” and have no identity. Such people do not see the links between their antisemitism and their racism more broadly. They think they are not racists at all,

The Far Right antisemites, in contrast, are a threat reaching into campuses from outside. Generally these people are not enrolled at the universities but seek access, desiring to leaflet, march, mobilize, gain publicity, and win support. Groups like the Vanguard, Identity Europa, and Traditionalist Workers Party launch surprise forays onto campuses, pasting up flyers without permission, defacing walls, and chalking doors and sidewalks. The more prominent forces like the group Richard Spencer leads seek permits to march or rent venues, trying to turn towns and campuses into public fora for white identity.  They sue when they are denied entry, as they have recently at Auburn and most recently at Michigan State University and Ohio State University. At Florida, they pushed their way in and appeared, as great expense.

The challenge we face dealing with the Far Left antisemites on campus is to openly identify and point out their hateful tendencies when they cross the line from anti-Zionism to anti-Semitism.  Supporters of Jewish students must aggressively name and call out this form of hate when it appears, tagging any misbehavior, and pressing campus administrators to follow up and enforce existing codes of faculty and student conduct.  Hate directed at Jewish students deserves no less response than hate directed at other minority students.  We must be actively vocal in demanding that haters be held to forms of expression that meet the rules and standards of conduct respecting academic freedom and freedom of expression. We must especially press university administrators to enforce the rules equally when such people shut down speakers or engage in physical confrontations to block free speech.  University leaders must be held to treating antisemitism against Jews as they would treat actions of racism against African-Americans or misogyny against women.  Equal treatment for all is the demand to be emphasized as a shared goal. .

Crafting appropriate responses to antisemites of the Far Right also poses a challenge, since freedom of speech on campus in America includes the right to engage in hate speech. Under the First Amendment, it is difficult for universities to deny requests for permits as the courts demand content-neutrality in policing access to public fora.  After the Virginia violence, several campuses turned down Richard Spencer’s petitions to speak, citing fears of violence; but courts in time will assess university actions more in keeping with the case llaw.  Concern with the Far Right should look to create partnerships with agencies that monitor and collect intelligence on these groups, like he Anti-Defamation League, get to know this form of hate better, and mount noisy protests when the Right appears near or on campus.


Coping with the antisemitisms of the Far Left and the Far Right poses challenging problems.  We must simultaneously maintain a watchful responsiveness, aggressively calling them out, labeling, and countering their views with our own speech, while also affirming the free speech traditions and boundaries that have defined our academic institutions.  These are not easy tasks.  Equally important, Jewish leaders and people should never accept the historical revisionism of our enemies, permitting them to define and say who and what we are or what we stand for without speaking up forcefully ourselves.

About the Author
Kenneth Waltzer is former director of Jewish Studies at Michigan State University and a progressive opponent of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. He a historian of the Holocaust completing a book on the rescue of children and youths at Buchenwald. He directed the Academic Engagement Network 2015-2019.
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