These days, it seems more and more that when I read articles on popular social justice and feminist sites talking about Jews or Israel, I ask myself:
Can I differentiate this “social justice” rhetoric from that of Neo-Nazis?
Too often the answer is no, because anti-Semitism on the left is far too commonplace. These are just a few examples of how far left and far right anti-Semitism echo each other:
- “International Jewry and the Jewish State are dedicated to subversion, manipulation, and total control over the worlds [sic] finances, media, governments, and our personal lives.” – Matthew Heimbach, white supremacist, 2014
- “It [Zionism] has targeted virtually every significant sector of American society; worked to involve Americans in tragic, unnecessary, and profoundly costly wars; dominated Congress for decades; increasingly determined which candidates could become serious contenders for the U.S. presidency; and promoted bigotry toward an entire population, religion, and culture.” – Alison Weir, anti-Israel activist, 2014
- “The Holocaust has been weaponized against whites because of pre-existing Jewish power in the media, academia, business, and politics.” – Greg Johnson, white supremacist, 2017
- “Hitler did far more damage to the Russians than [to] the Jewish people…” This is an unknown fact because of “the Jewish domination of the media…there’s a major lobby in the United States. They are hard workers. They stay on top of every comment, the most powerful lobby in Washington.” – Oliver Stone, Film Director, 2010
- “…they’ve (the “Israeli PR campaign”) managed to occupy the American media, so this narrative is everywhere. And they’ve managed, also, to occupy the American Congress. So they’ve taken over the media and politics, and the culture in general…” – Sut Jhally, anti-Israel academic, 2016
- “They are very tribal, and they network and they push their own interest, they spend hundreds of millions of dollars according to Forbes promoting their agenda, what they consider the agenda of the Jewish people, and the interest of the Jewish people and Israel, a foreign country.” – David Duke, white supremacist, 2016
Conspiracy theories run amok in white supremacist groups, so it’s unsurprising that anti-Semitism is so prevalent among them. At the heart of anti-Semitism is a conspiracy theory about the unseen power of Jews. In his essay “Skin in the Game,” black civil rights strategist Eric Ward argues that anti-Semitism is the uniting and animating factor of white supremacists in the United States, and has been for many years. White supremacist ideology is in part rendered “coherent” by a belief in hidden actors who coerce minority groups such as African Americans, non-white immigrants, and the LGBTQ+ community into revolting against heterosexual white people. To white supremacists, Jews are the prime enemy of whiteness – the reason for supposed existential threats to the white race, which they claim will end with a “genocide”. These threats include the “gay agenda”, race mixing, non-white immigration, feminism, and much more. To white supremacists and their sympathizers, Jews serve a familiar function: a demonic minority determined to undermine and control an unsuspecting majority.
Far left anti-Semitism isn’t always as blatant, but is equally disappointing. The left and far left have a long and sordid history of not taking serious steps to address anti-Semitism, especially when it is framed as anti-Zionism. Flippancy about Jewish concerns is all too common. In just one of many anti-Semitic incidents that occurred in the summer of 2017, Chicago Dyke March gleefully tweeted out that “Zio tears replenishes our electrolytes” before half apologizing for “not knowing the violent history of Zio”. “Zio” is a term popularized by former KKK leader David Duke.
After the marches led by Richard Spencer and Andrew Anglin in Charlottesville, and the subsequent terrorist attack against counter-protesters, there was a renewed focus on the creeping rise of Nazism, fascism, and white supremacy in the United States. One would think that Jews would be actively included in discussions about these ideologies and how to fight them. After all, Anglin has said that, “You cannot preserve the White race without addressing the Jews. You cannot address the Jews without addressing their [Holocaust] hoax. You cannot address their hoax without addressing Adolf Hitler”. And yet, in far too many cases Jews were erased from the conversation or treated with an utter lack of empathy in progressive spaces and publications.
For example, the website Everyday Feminism published an article the day after the events in Charlottesville titled, “Here Are 5 Palestinian Wonder Women You Need to Know About.” It pitted Gal Gadot against Palestinian women, including Rasmeah Odeh. Odeh is a terrorist who was convicted of murdering two Jews in a Jerusalem bombing. Moreover, the article attempted to tear down Gadot for being the “wrong” kind of Israeli – one who believes that Jews have a right to self-determination in their homeland.
Many Jewish folks expressed outrage, not only with the content of the article but with the timing. This was what the site chose to publish one day after white supremacists were marching on the streets shouting, “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us”?
Everyday Feminism’s response to this criticism added insult to injury. They explained that it boiled down to “a timing issue.” They further elaborated: “It was not our intention to cause any more hurt during this highly-sensitive moment. We apologize for the initial untimeliness of this posting, but we feel that… this conversation is important.”
Some far leftists went even further, cynically exploiting Charlottesville to double down on old canards equating Zionism to white supremacism, fascism, and Nazism. Activists at Tufts, with input from the anti-Israel Students for Justice in Palestine, released a Disorientation guide, which claims that Israel is a white supremacist state. The Students for Justice in Palestine chapter at University of Illinois – Urbana Champaign (UIUC) said, “There is no room for fascists, white supremacists, or Zionists at UIUC,” and later shared an article that stated, “The confluence of fascism and Zionism is becoming more obvious by the day.”
Zionism is the belief that Jews should have a right to self-determination in their ancestral homeland, after nearly 1,900 years of living as an oppressed minority across Europe and the Middle East (including in the land of Israel). A regime built on fascism and white supremacy was responsible for the worst of this persecution – a genocide in which 6 million Jews were systematically murdered. Equating a Jewish liberation movement with the most severe hate and violence Jews have ever experienced is utterly racist.
Moreover, anti-Zionism and anti-Israelism appear frequently in white supremacist rhetoric. Matthew Heimbach, the founder and leader of the white supremacist Traditional Youth Network, claims solidarity with those struggling against the existence of Israel, saying that “We are not separate peoples fighting alone. We are all comrades in the struggle against International Jewry and the Zionist State.” Daryl Davis, a black musician and activist, recalls an American neo-Nazi in his tenth grade class telling him, “We’re going to ship you back to Africa. And all you Jews out there are going back to Israel… If they don’t leave voluntarily they will be exterminated in the coming race war.”
Anti-Zionists justify their spurious comparisons by pointing to Richard Spencer, who has claimed that his “white nationalism” is like Zionism. But there is no equivalence between believing that Jews deserve a secure place to call home and Spencer’s desire for a white “ethno-state”. Jews were colonized and dispossessed of their homeland, and oppressed for centuries all over the world. They sought liberation and self-determination in Israel – their ancestral homeland of over 3,000 years (though there are people who refuse to acknowledge this basic archeological and historical fact). Zionism was and is a fight for equality among nations. Israel aspires to equal rights for all citizens regardless of their background. On the other hand, white people have been the opposite of an oppressed minority in the United States. Instead of equality, Spencer wants a state where an already dominant majority population can exclude every other group, including Jews. In linking his ideology to Israel and Zionism, Spencer is engaged in a cynical attempt to whitewash his racism. Instead of pushing back, anti-Zionists are agreeing with him and helping him gain legitimacy.
Comparisons between Zionism and ideologies like fascism and white supremacy are unfortunately not a new phenomenon. The “Zionism is Racism” resolution at the United Nations, combined with a larger Soviet propaganda campaign helped spread this idea on the far left in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1964 and 1965, during UN negotiations over the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the USSR refused to allow a condemnation of anti-Semitism unless a denunciation of Zionism was also included. It also worked feverishly to instigate anti-Zionist feelings in the countries it controlled and influenced, many of which were part of the so called “third world”. This was done through the Anti-Zionist Committee of The Soviet Public, which claimed that, “the State of Israel served as the striking force of American imperialism in the Middle East, using Nazi-like methods to accomplish its goals”. This propaganda push was especially evident in the aftermath of the 6 Day War, where the USSR’s intentions for the Middle East and the Arab League were derailed. In his 1969 book Beware! Zionism, Yuri Ivanov, the Soviet Union’s leading anti-Zionist propagandist, stated that, “Modern Zionism is the ideology, a ramified system of organisations and the practical politics of the wealthy Jewish bourgeoisie which has closely allied itself with monopoly circles in the USA and other imperialist countries. The main content of Zionism is bellicose chauvinism and anti-communism”. This rehashed the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, but it was repeated around Soviet sphere as truth.
Another part of the problem is the perception among some American progressives that Jews are simply “white and privileged,” and do not face significant discrimination. In fact, Jews were not seen as white in the United States historically, and have had a complex relationship with whiteness in recent years.
Since the founding of the United States, structural and systemic anti-Semitism has been pervasive. American Jews faced employment discrimination, forced Anglicization of their names, the occasional lynching, and quota systems established explicitly to keep them out of institutions of higher learning and social clubs, and even out of the country. Jews were blamed for all sorts of threats to America–from communism, socialism, and anarchism, to unrestrained capitalism. A letter written by a New York woman to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s office in 1934 illustrates this reality:
“On all sides is heard the cry that you have sold the country out to the Jews and that the Jews are responsible for the continued depression, as they are determined to starve Christians into submission and slavery. You have over two hundred Jews, they say, in executive offices in Washington, and Jew bankers run the government and (Bernard) Baruch is the real President. This is the talk that is heard everywhere.”
Anti-Semitism reached a peak during the Second World War. According to one 1939 Roper poll, only 39% of Americans “felt that Jews should be treated like other people,” 53% believed that “Jews are different and should be restricted,” and 10% believed that Jews should be deported. Henry Ford published what was essentially the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in his newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, and a Christian newspaper openly called for Jews to convert to Christianity to become “fully American.” The Christian Century, long considered one of the mainstream progressive Protestant publications of its time, wrote: “The simple and naked fact is that Judaism rests upon an impossible basis…It is trying to pluck the fruits of democracy without yielding itself to the processes of democracy.” Jack Kirby, the Jewish co-creator and writer of Captain America, was harassed by Nazi sympathizers, who threatened him on the phone.
While anti-Semitism became less overt after the war, it never went away. Restrictive racial covenants still governed where Jews could live in some places until the 1980’s. Former President Richard Nixon had many issues with anti-Semitism, protesting when he was called out for his prejudice that, “I’ve just recognized that, you know, all people have certain traits…. The Jews are just a very aggressive and abrasive and obnoxious personality.”
Whiteness is a social construct that has been expanded to include or exclude groups based on a variety of social and cultural factors. It was only after World War II and the passage of the GI Bill that some Jews began assimilating into white America. Assimilation came at a great cost, as it often does—of culture, language, and a distinct Jewish identity. It also came with limits. While many Jews may be able to “pass” as white and thus avoid the types of racial profiling and discrimination people of color face, the Jewish community continues to be a target of harassment and violence. Nearly 54% of all religiously motivated hate crimes in the United States are committed against Jews. At least 20% of American Jews (and most Israelis) are people of color by American standards. Moreover, 10% of Americans harbor ill feelings towards Jews, according to the Anti-Defamation League’s yearly study on anti-Semitic attitudes.
Ironically, the success Jews have enjoyed has been used to reinforce anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about Jewish power on both the right and the left. To white supremacists, the ability to “pass as white” is part of what makes us so dangerous.
Combined with anti-Semitic views about Israel and “Jewish privilege” on the left, this puts many American Jews in a precarious position. We want to participate in social justice movements, and indeed tend to show up in large numbers. But where can we go to advocate for our community and support others against white supremacy, when we face a similar brand of hate from the left?
None of this is meant to diminish or distract from the threat of white supremacy to brown and black folks in the US. While anti-Semitism is a driving factor in white supremacist movements, American Jews have not been the primary victims of their violence. Our efforts to dismantle white supremacy must include all groups that are targeted by it.
This urgent need for unity makes it particularly disappointing when groups on the left that focus on racial justice engage in anti-Semitism. We must stop bigots on both the far left and far right from further dividing us. Ostracizing Jews by dismissing us as “privileged” or carelessly linking our liberation movement to an ideology rooted in our oppression is profoundly destructive. Rather than fight white supremacy, this rhetoric upholds the very system of oppression advocates for racial justice seek to dismantle.