Pushing back against white supremacy while embracing Holocaust remembrance

One month ago, we saw the Camp Auschwitz sweatshirt and the Confederate and QAnon flags parading on the Capitol steps.  Those images will forever be etched into our memories. As the child of a Holocaust survivor, they are even more poignant.  They are a reminder that antisemitism is part of a scaffold of hatreds and oppressions that were enabled by Trump and are being perpetrated by white supremacists.

The insurrection on Capitol Hill demonstrates the interrelationships between racism and antisemitism.  White supremacists like the man in the Auschwitz shirt see Jews and blacks as “others,” unequal and unworthy of human rights.

Recognizing that their destinies are intertwined with those of other minorities, Jews’ alliances with blacks and other minorities who are discriminated against must go deeper than they have ever been, in order to push back against all forms of discrimination and persecution.

White supremacists are well aware of the interconnectedness of Jews and other minorities recognize the unique Jewish role.  The civil rights activist Eric Ward explains that for white supremacists:  “Jews are an enemy race that must be exposed and eliminated.  Their ostensible position as white people is the greatest trick the devil ever played.”

Ironically, some white supremacists feel an affinity with Jews, a sympathy that is driven by Israel’s policies towards Palestinians.  As the alt-right leader Richard Spencer puts it:  “I have great admiration for Israel’s nation-state law (which prioritizes Israel’s Jewish character or its democratic principles).  Jews are once again, at the vanguard, rethinking politics and sovereignty for the future, showing a path forward for [white] Europeans.”

Spencer’s perspectives point to the challenge of maintaining Jewish alliances with other minorities, especially when the Jewish state comes into the picture.  Israeli policies vis a vis the Palestinians are seen by people of color as oppressive.  The images they evoke of mistreatment and persecution are the opposite of those showing Jewish solidarity with Blacks in Selma, Alabama or Chicano farm workers in California’s Central Valley.

Being seen as on the wrong side of justice is difficult for many Jews.  Many are sympathetic with the plight of Palestinians but are troubled by the calls of some Palestinians for a single state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, a state that would presumably bring an end to Israel as an expression of Jewish national self-determination.

And many Jews are also aware that antisemitic speech and actions can sometimes seep into to movements for social justice.  It is challenging to cooperate with progressive movements like the Dyke March when it bans Jewish stars from its rallies as it did in Washington in 2019.  When left-wing leaders like Ken Livingstone, then the mayor of London, asserts that Hitler supported the Zionist movement — as he did in 2018 — it makes Jews question the left’s commitment to equality and justice.

This puts many of Jews in a bind.  They know that the most virulent forms of antisemitism are those that reared their ugly heads on Capitol Hill.  Yet they cannot stay silent when any form of antisemitism presents itself.

To get out of this quandary, Jews must first accept the importance of criticizing Israel and even recognize the justice of doing so, including when it is contentious or strident.  Opposing Israeli policies or practicing nonviolent political action in response to Israeli actions are part of legitimate political debates.  They are not intrinsically antisemitic.

Secondly, when those with whom they have common cause in the fight against racism and antisemitism use antisemitic tropes or take antisemitic stances, Jews must be ready to call them out.  At the same time, Jews must remind their otherwise allies that when they cross a line into antisemitism, whether consciously or inadvertently, they are acting in a manner that is contrary to the values of equality, social justice, democracy, and pluralism.

Engaging those who cross a line into antisemitism may seem counterintuitive and self-defeating.  That is certainly the case with the likes of those who marched up to Capitol Hill with their vitriolic white supremacist chants and symbols.  But there are times when engagement, despite its challenges, is an opportunity for education.  When those opportunities are there, it’s important to take advantage of them, for the sake of the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, interreligious coalitions that are needed to combat antisemitism, racism and white supremacy.

About the Author
Jonathan Jacoby directs the Nexus Task at the Knight Program in Media & Religion of the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.
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