Jews in America today are beset both from the right and the left. Nevertheless, a “one size fits all” strategy is not appropriate. The forms of antisemitism from the two poles are of different origins and are oriented toward different goals.
The threat emanating from the extreme right is directed against Jews and entails harassment, physical attacks and even murder, as, for example, in the deadly 2019 attacks in Pittsburgh and Poway. The attack from the extreme Left is aimed not at people but rather ideologies and belief systems. Zionism is the target, and in some quarters in the US, Judaism is also in the left’s crosshairs.
That’s why the Jewish community must develop differential strategies to meet these threats.
The danger from the extreme left is that of totalitarian utopianism. Student activists have called for the suppression of non-progressive views on subjects as disparate as Black Lives Matter and European culture, calling them “unfree speech.” “Cancel culture,” has prevented speakers, including prominent scientists, who do not meet the criteria of political correctness, or possess insufficiently progressive views, from addressing students on campus even regarding their areas of scientific expertise.
This is an ongoing feature of modern culture and politics. We have met it before in the French and Chinese revolutions. Today, this totalistic utopian streak has reasserted itself in relation to the quest for the equality of racial and sexual identities. Hence, every business, educational and social organization has its diversity offices and officers. Critical Race Theory and “anti-Racism” are being adopted for use in community education courses and schools.
The parallel with communism immediately starts to suggest itself. In communist societies too, every school, plant and organization has its party committee and its political officers, with six-year-olds schooled in the thought of Xi Jinping.
In such an environment Zionism doesn’t stand a chance. Centrists and moderates are willing to weigh Israel’s security needs against Palestinian rights and have some appreciation for how difficult negotiations between the two sides are, especially after Oslo’s failure. For progressives and their utopian perfectionism, Israel and Zionism in their essence embody colonialist and racist evil and are complicit with racism and oppression in America and around the world. They should be suppressed.
The suppression of Judaism may not be far behind. Not only is it an atavistic tribal religion, it practices barbaric cruelty against babies and animals and it is associated with white Jewish privilege.
Social disorganization and political fantasy
Right-wing murderous antisemitism has a different origin. It seems to be linked to extreme social disorganization which leads to political fantasy, especially of a conspiratorial and paranoid sort. Social disorganization characterizes the white, uneducated, working class today. Globalization and the off-shoring of jobs on the one hand, and robotics and computerized automation on the other, have made it well-nigh impossible for non-college-educated men to find jobs in which they can support a family and enjoy a moderate middle-class lifestyle. Thus, family and community life have disappeared, with most births today occurring out of wedlock.
The loss of employment and family life has led to a loss of self-respect and to despair. The most extreme result of all this has been a drastic rise in self-administered death either through alcoholism, opioid drug overdose or suicide. This phenomenon has risen to such an extent that it has affected the average lifespan in America. Life expectancy among middle-aged white working-class males is now in decline, a shocking occurrence in a developed country.
With such social disorganization comes a loosening of the grip on realistic, effective political action Social disorganization does not allow one to formulate clear political objectives or match them with effective means. Rather, it encourages fantasy. As surveys show, support for political fantasies rises considerably among white conservative populations who lack higher education and have low incomes – that is, the groups who are most exposed to social disorganization. One prevalent fantasy is “immigrants are invading our country and replacing our cultural and ethnic background.”
Immigrant replacement beliefs are dangerously close to antisemitic conspiracy theories. The white supremacist marchers in Charlottesville in 2017 chanted “the Jews will not replace us” and in the Tree of Life shooting all these themes came together. The white supremacist shooter attacked Jews because Jews (HIAS) helped immigrants invade the country. These incidents illustrate the linkage between violent antisemitic attacks and beliefs about the threat that Jews pose and are often conceived of as defensive steps against this threat.
The Jewish community should address both these threats with differential policies. To mitigate the threat from the right, it should support policies that ameliorate social disorganization by improving working conditions and strengthening unions, family, and religious life. Concretely, supplemental income and child support should be designed so as not to penalize working families and the state should provide adequate child-care so that parents can continue to work and support their children.
The Jewish community can address the left’s totalitarian utopianism by mobilizing the Jewish tradition, which has great resources of anti-utopian humility and irony. Anyone who has studied Talmud and Halacha seriously knows that they assume human beings do not have access to absolute truth and that all questions have many sides to them. Enveloping all of this is a sense of irony – the “Jewish sense of humor” that so many American Jews see as important for their Jewish identity. This is based upon an acute awareness of the gulf between the real and the ideal. Such an awareness can and should be applied to today’s intolerant absolutism.