Antisemitism, like other systemic “isms,” goes beyond just prejudice: It carries material power and it helps other systems of oppression function smoothly.
By Jonah S. Boyarin & Dania Rajendra
Originally published on Everyday Feminism.
Authors’ Note: The title of this piece — and much of its content — is inspired by April Rosenblum’s zine, “The past didn’t go anywhere: making resistance to antisemitism part of all of our movements.” The title is used with her explicit permission.
Do you want to fight white supremacy? We do. Do you want to fight systemic wealth and income inequality! Us, too.
Well, resisting antisemitism is one more way to make our feminist, anti-racist, anti-capitalist movement organizing stronger.
Antisemitism is real, it’s here, and it is a crucial and often invisible part of the interlocking network of oppressions with which we’re more familiar.
Resisting antisemitism strengthens our commitment to collective liberation — that we will all get free, together, including Jewish people.
Who are we? We’re Dania and Jonah, two members of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice. One of us is a brown cis-woman and one of us is a white cis-man — and oh boy, people have been asking us a lot more about antisemitism lately now that it’s been in the news so often.
Some background on Antisemitism
Antisemitism is broadly understood as violent hatred of Jews, or hatred that bears the threat of such violence.
It coexists with Christian hegemony, which normalizes and rewards Christian ideas, people, and power structures, and devalues and attacks non-Christian ones.
Sometimes, antisemitism shows up as ugly microaggressions like when we’ve been called a “dirty Jew,” or asking for a bottle of wine to buy for our seder (a Jewish ritual meal) and getting handed a bottle named “The Velvet Devil.”
Or they can sound nice but actually be quite dangerous, like when we’ve been told, “All the Jews I know are rich,” (pro-tip: lots of Jews are poor) or when people shout “Jesus loves you!” at us.
But antisemitism, like other systemic “isms,” goes beyond just prejudice: it carries material power and it helps other systems of oppression function smoothly.Antisemitism, like other systemic ‘isms,’ goes beyond just prejudice. Click To Tweet
Antisemitism is nothing new. Christian killing and expulsions of Jews for being variously racially or religiously foreign, greedy, “unsaved,” or subversive, was a feature of European life from medieval times through the Stalinist purges of the 1950s.
During the Holocaust, a third of our people were murdered by the Nazi regime, aided and abetted by their neighbors. It wasn’t just Hitler’s personal prejudice: Jews made a handy scapegoat for Germany’s interwar economic problems and the cultural and global shifts associated with the end of World War I.
Antisemitism is a dangerous fantasy of secretive, disproportionate Jewish power, a conspiratorial claim that a cabal of (Jewish) people control our economy and society.
Antisemitism distracts us from addressing oppressive systems like racialized, sexist capitalism that are the real root cause of great suffering for working and poor people of color.
It relies on a perception of Jews as being essentially foreign, religiously/racially other, “unsaved,” and having different economic, political, and cultural interests than the white, Christian, nationalist “us.”
Antisemitism redirects the blame for the injustices caused by systems of oppression onto individuals or a small group, onto people in highly visible middleman or “new money” roles, such as Jewish landlords, Jewish attorneys, Jewish film producers, Jewish shop owners, Jewish tax collectors, and Jewish teachers.
This dynamic of scapegoating is a pattern common in the oppression of middleman or “model minorities” (i.e., Koreans in the 1992 L.A. Uprising; or white backlash against South and East Asian enrollment in universities).
It coexists alongside vicious anti-Black, anti-poor racism that is different from the experience of those in the middle (though, to be clear, people can have multiple, intersecting identities and experiences, such as being Black and Jewish).
The effect of this redirection on collective liberation movements is to distract us from fighting systems of oppression by redirecting our blame on individuals or small groups.
Right-wing, antisemitic conspiratorial thinking has also portrayed Jews as the secret, subversive (“Communist”) power behind the Black-led Civil Rights movement, women-led feminist movements.
Today, the right absurdly insinuates that the Black Lives Matter movement consists of paid protesters stirred up by Jewish billionaire George Soros. Such false claims undermine the political power and accomplishments of people of color.
So, why do a lot of people falsely believe that Jews are clannish, rich, essentially foreign, and own the banks, Hollywood, and the media? Lots of reasons!
Some reasons include anti-communism, the G.I. Bill, antisemitic job markets, Henry Ford, racialized housing markets — you can read about this for days, but one excellent place to start is the paper that Jews for Racial and Economic Justice released this November, “Understanding Antisemitism.”
In short, antisemitism is bad for non-Jews working to get free as well as for Jews. We, Dania and Jonah, are trying to get free and we hope you are, too.
Here are 6 ways to make our collective liberation movements stronger by resisting antisemitism:
1. See, name, and organize against antisemitism on the right.
Leftist Jews looked on with fear as tiki torch-wielding white supremacists converged in Charlottesville to defend the memory of the Confederacy/white supremacy, chanting “Jews will not replace us” and brandishing assault rifles outside the local synagogue.
Terrified Jews were alienated from our leftist movements when some of our leftist friends failed to notice, comment, or check in on us after the biggest public display of murderous antisemitism in our lifetimes.
Those of us on the Jewish left are working hard to get more Jews to effectively show up for racial justice.The dynamic of scapegoating is a pattern common in the oppression of ‘model minorities.’ Click To Tweet
Our non-Jewish allies can help us build Jewish trust in anti-racist movements by seeing, naming, and resisting antisemitism when it happens and by organizing to militantly resist violent white supremacist incursions on our communities. In order to do that effectively, we must…
2. Study the far right’s analyses, strategies, and organizing tactics and notice how they infiltrate the center.
Eric Ward (a Black, non-Jewish writer) offers some helpful framing in his widely-shared piece, “Skin in the Game” from Political Research Associates (PRA): “Antisemitism is not a sideshow to racism within White nationalist thought, [it is] the fuel that White nationalist ideology uses to power its anti-Black racism, its contempt for other people of color, and its xenophobia — as well as the misogyny and other forms of hatred it holds dear.”
PRA offers a bunch of other helpful resources for people new to looking at the right from the left. (Full disclosure, Dania is on the board of PRA.)
3. Name and interrupt antisemitism on the left.
Know your 1%! The 1% is not Jewish — only 1.7% of them are Jewish. By far and away, the 1% is white, cis-male and Christian. But that’s not the problem — the system (capitalism, the patriarchy, white supremacy, etc.) is.
So, the next time you see an article listing “NYC’s Worst 100 Landlords,” which focuses the blame for very real and horrible landlord abuses on individual landlords, many of them visibly Jewish, you might choose to respond, “Let’s organize to address the real problem, which is that the systemic structure of the landlord-tenant relationship is inherently abusive because it violates housing as a human right — housing shouldn’t be bought and sold, it should be a right.”
Or you might object the next time someone spouts a conspiracy theory blaming “the Jews” for 9/11. Or maybe, when you write a post about Jay-Z’s latest album, you will point out the dangerous nature of his “compliments” about how Jews are good with money.
Name antisemitism when you see it — doing so protects Jews from violence and refocuses the left on resisting systems.
4. Don’t highlight someone’s Jewishness if you wouldn’t highlight their ethnicity or religion otherwise.
You know that maddening hypocrisy that happens every time a white Christian cis dude kills a bunch of people but he’s somehow not a “terrorist”? Yeah.
When people subtly highlight the Jewishness of someone who is abusing their power, that’s almost always about scapegoating.
5. Distinguish between anti-Zionism and antisemitism; distinguish between Jews, Zionists, and Israel.
Israel and its head of state, Benjamin Netanyahu, often claim to speak and act on behalf of all Jews, but that is simply not true.
Many Jews are not Zionist, not nationalist, not militarist, and/or stand in solidarity with Palestine. Want to criticize Israel while also resisting antisemitism? No problem (also, us, too!): Address imperialism and colonialism everywhere.
As Indigenous leader Winona Duke has said, “We [the U.S.] can’t talk about Israel because we can’t talk about Wounded Knee.. Because we have Andrew Jackson on our twenty dollar bill. Because we are one huge settlement on stolen land. We can’t talk about Israel because we are Israel.”Many Jews are not Zionist, not nationalist, not militarist, and/or stand in solidarity with Palestine. Click To Tweet
And the Israel lobby (which does not represent all Jews!) is simply not the most powerful player in U.S. foreign policy — it’s systemic U.S. imperialism, which supports Israel in order to promote U.S. military and economic interests in the Middle East, not because it’s trying to do Jews any favors.
(And because Christian Zionists want to use Jews and Israel as part of their end-times theology — um, no thanks!)
6. Look out for the vulnerable, and recognize Jews’ vulnerability in this moment.
In the last month, I (Jonah), have had three people in public spaces approach me because they see me wearing a yarmulke (religious skullcap), ask me about being Jewish and then ask me about how Jews control the banks, own the real estate, and are good with money — I kid you not.
What I don’t think my non-Jewish friends realize is how scary this is — not just in the moment but more as contributing to an ongoing, existential dread that we might yet again be violently scapegoated because we’re seen as being all-powerful.
This dread carries real weight given that the Nazis murdered my great-great-grandfather and entire branches of my family.
In short, don’t assume. We’re in this work for everyone’s freedom, guided by and inspired by — and proud of — our Jewishness.
When you see a Jewish person — a woman with a star of David necklace or a man with a skullcap — you might be looking at us: two people on our way to do our justice work.
When we get on a subway car, we’re looking around to make sure everyone’s okay — we hope you’re looking out for us, too. After all, that’s the only way we are gonna make it through this administration, and the only way we’re all gonna get free.
*For deeper study, please consult JFREJ’s recent paper, “Understanding Antisemitism.”