This post includes excerpts from April Rosenblum’s “The past didn’t go anywhere: making resistance to antisemitism part of all of our movements” (2014), available here. Posting excerpts from this document has been permitted, so as to promote a discussion of antisemitism. All excerpts from Rosenblum’s paper have been indented and appear in green.
The AJDS provides a forum for critical thinking, dialogue and challenging contemporary progressive issues. We do not necessarily hold all the same views reflected in Rosenblum’s paper.
What does antisemitism look like and why is it a it a problem in the Left?
“From one side, progressive and radical activists and scholars are being attacked by organized campaigns to brand us anti-Semites. In particular, it’s virtually impossible to speak out critically about Israel without being charged with antisemitism.”
“At the same time, we face real currents of unchallenged anti-Jewish oppression in our movements and the world. This endangers Jews, corrupts our political integrity, and sabotages our ability to create the effective resistance our times demand. The Left has long procrastinated on taking on anti-Jewish oppression. In part we’ve had trouble because it looks different from the oppressions we understand, which enforce inferiority on oppressed groups to disempower them. Anti-Jewish oppression, on the other hand, can make its target look extremely powerful.”
“Antisemitism’s job is to make ruling classes invisible. It protects ruling class power structures, diverting anger at injustice toward Jews instead. But it doesn’t have to be planned out at the top. It serves the same ends, whether enshrined in law or institutionalized only in our minds; whether it’s state policy, popular ‘common sense,’ or acts of grassroots movements like our own.”
Why is antisemitism often not incorporated in the Left’s discourse of oppression?
The oppression of Jews is not necessarily associated with systemic socio-economic marginalisation, but rather the application of a mythical racist view that Jews yield too much power.
“The oppression of Jews has a lot in common with the oppressions that all kinds of other people are struggling with today. Racism, classism, sexism, homophobia and all oppressions serve twin functions: they control, endanger and disempower the targeted group, and at the same time, they help to keep a wider system of exploitation and inequality running smoothly.”
“Many oppressions rely on keeping a targeted group of people poor, uneducated, designated non-white, or otherwise ‘at the bottom.’ Anti-Jewish oppression doesn’t depend on that. Although at many times it has kept Jews in poverty or designated non-white, these have been “optional” features. Because the point of anti-Jewish oppression is to keep a Jewish face in front, so that Jews, instead of ruling classes, become the target for peoples’ rage, it works even more smoothly when Jews are allowed some success, and can be perceived as the ones “in charge” by other oppressed groups.”
Jewish oppression is used to scapegoat the world’s injustices on Jews, obfuscating the power structures that global justice movements are centred on tearing apart.
“That’s the nature of anti-Jewish oppression: To cover up the roots of injustice. To make people think they’ve figured out who’s really pulling the strings. This is one of the biggest reasons why it’s important for social justice movements to figure out and confront anti-Jewish oppression, for the movement’s own sake: because anti-Jewish oppression is designed as a way to keep people from understanding where the power lies. And it works.”
What is antisemitism and where does it come from?
Antisemitism, or anti-Jewish oppression, is defined as the system of ideas passed down through a society’s institutions to enable scapegoating of Jews, and the ideological or physical targeting of Jews that results from that.
“Antisemitism as we know it, with its images of special, evil Jewish power, began as a Christian, European phenomenon; though Jews faced mistreatment in Muslim lands, it was a more generic second-class citizenship applied to all non-Muslims. However, with European colonization and inroads made by the Nazis, European-style antisemitic theories have increasingly also entered Arab, Asian and other societies.”
The term ‘Semite’ was itself an invention of European Orientalists, imposed on Jews and Arabs.
“‘Antisemitism’ was a word popularized in 1879 by someone who was neither Arab nor Jewish, Wilhelm Marr. From the beginning it was chosen as a chic, new scientific word to show that Jews were an inferior race (not a religion that they could convert out of), and to replace the word Jew-hatred (Judenhass) so that Jew-haters could enjoy sounding more sophisticated.”
Whilst Semites are an ethnic grouping of peoples, including Arabs and Muslims, the term ‘antisemitism’ is used specifically against Jews from its historic context. Jews did not invent the concept to appropriate the oppression of other Semites.
What does antisemitism in the Left looks like?
“What has the bigger impact is not those individual Leftists who promote anti-Jewish beliefs, but the way that institutionally, people and organizations on the Left are so silent, uncomfortable, defensive, and even accusatory when someone brings up concerns about antisemitism.”
“Jewish communities are filled with people who once made their home in the Left, only to back away after continual encounters there with antisemitism. We’ve now had three generations of Jewish activists pull back from the Left for this reason: First in the ’50s, coming to terms with Soviet antisemitism; next, those discouraged by the New Left’s ignorance of Jewish oppression; now, young activists starting to feel hopeless about the tolerance of anti-Jewish rhetoric in the anti-globalization, anti-war and Palestine solidarity movements.”
Standing up for Palestinian justice and self-determination is not antisemitic!
“Yet instances of anti-Jewish behaviour do come up in Palestine work more than many parts of the Left: Why? It’s not because Palestinian or Arab activists are more anti-Jewish than other people. In fact, they often have a sharper eye than others for catching and interrupting anti-Jewish thinking.”
“One reason is simple: any issue where Jews are very visible will bring out the antisemitism that already exists in the world. Another is more complex: In an issue where some Jews do have real power; it can get hard to tell what’s an accurate observation of unjust actions they have done, and what’s antisemitic thinking.”
“A third problem arises from normal activist tactics. We often fight campaigns by making our opponents look as bad as possible. The Left doesn’t have tons of money, or muscle on Capitol Hill. One of the strengths we do have is moral power to make the other side look bad enough that the world shames them into reversing their policy. One of our main tactics is to make our opponents out to be cold, cruel and inhuman. But when you use tactics like that on a group that’s historically been portrayed as evil and inhuman, where that image has been used for centuries as a tool to incite mass violence against them, you tap into a larger historical power.”
Furthermore, Rosenblum elaborates:
- If you’re white, understand: When you take no action to stop anti-Jewish patterns in our movements, you set Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims up to take the fall. Though historic Left mistreatment of Jews has largely been a legacy of white, European/American movements, Arabs and Muslims are the ones who today get publicly scapegoated for charges of Left antisemitism.
- Anti-Jewish oppression is necessary in disentangling broader political analyses of oppression and the causes of global power inequity.
- The ways that antisemitism conjures unsafe climates globally for Jews intersects and feeds with the ideologies that Zionism provides a safe space for Jews.
The Mizrahi experience
According to Loolwa Khazzoom in “A big piece is missing from this ‘peace'”, the Israel Palestine conflict is often posited in binaries, both by the Left and the Right, completely negating the Mizrahi experience and Arab Jewish interactions, complexities, and oppressions. Anti-Jewish experiences in Arab regions present other narratives, in which complicated historical, religious and cultural factors intersect. Khazzoom states here, that:
“Seeing Arab resistance and hostility to Israel only from the slant of Arab-as-victim and Jew-as-oppressor overlooks and erases thousands of years of Arab-Jewish history in the Middle East and North Africa. It is inherently Eurocentric: It only recognizes the existence and experience of European Jews, and it only recognizes power as in the hands of Europeans.”
Racisms within the Jewish community… Because Jews come in all colours
The idea that all Jews are white, or Ashkenazi, is held by members of both the Jewish and non-Jewish communities. You might wish to have a go at this checklist, which was developed so as to educate about the widening range of privilege experienced in the Jewish community.