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Anti-Semitism, and the Inconvenience of Collective Identity

There is a global rise in antisemitism, and the internal Jewish debate on its origins — and how to respond — is a fiery mess.
Photo: Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images
Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute. Yehuda is a leading thinker and author on the meaning of Israel to American Jews, on Jewish history and Jewish memory, and on questions of leadership and change in American Jewish life. Yehuda led the creation of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America in 2010 as a pioneering research and educational center for the leadership of the North American Jewish community, and teaches in

Anti-Semitism, and the Inconvenience of Collective Identity

First posted on Medium

There is a global rise in anti-Semitism, and the internal Jewish debate on its origins — and how to respond — is a fiery mess. Personally, I have felt challenged to think beyond my own aversion to the “crisis narrative” and to take this moment seriously, but thus far unmoved by the prevailing set of responses that seem deeply invested in advancing the political agendas of their advocates (see here , there , and mostly everywhere.)

Instead, I want to suggest that there are two basic orientations to approaching and understanding anti-Semitism — what I want to call a collectivist orientation and a contextualist orientation. A collectivist orientation originates in the belief that anti-Semitism anywhere, to paraphrase King, is a threat to Jews everywhere; and it understands that anti-Semitism crosses discursive and ideological boundaries much more fluidly than the individuals who police those very boundaries. A passion for Jewish peoplehood — for the collective identity and survival of the Jewish people, and a concern for the actual individual Jewish people who make up the peoplehood — requires the inconvenient act of caring about the survival and safety of Jews everywhere, regardless of the version of anti-Semitism that they face or that they fear.

A collectivist orientation further recognizes that the fears of others are not falsifiable. The Jewish people have earned the right to take seriously our existential fears and to have them taken seriously by others — especially by other Jews; casual dismissal of these fears as paranoia, or as politically motivated or otherwise pernicious, is profoundly damaging. This act results in what Jill Stauffer calls “ethical loneliness,” the experience of first being wronged or threatened and then suffering a second injustice of not being believed. We Jews should be first to understand that “just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.” A collectivist orientation to anti-Semitism obligates us first to ask why other people see fears that we don’t see, and to feel obligated to the safety and insecurity of those others — even when the fears they face, that we don’t necessarily see, undermine or challenge our narratives about the primacy of our own experiences.

A contextualist orientation to anti-Semitism, in contrast, focuses specifically on the social, political, religious, or rhetorical context in which any particular version of anti-Semitism thrives, and responds primarily to what it sees as the most imminent threat. A good example of the contextualist orientation is on display right now in the research and advocacy against the rise of Neo-Nazi (euphemistically called “white nationalist”) anti-Semitism in America and parts of Europe. This research identifies the ways in which anti-Semitism courses through dangerous political movements and interrogates the ways in which political structures empower and embolden these ideas and translate them into dangerous consequences. In a different part of the world — let’s say, France — a contextualist approach to understanding the most dangerous form of anti-Semitism would focus on the religious, political and historical reasons why Jews fear harassment and attack by Muslims in the street and in their institutions, and the complicated ways in which classic anti-Semitic tropes recur and fuel this hatred.

These contextualist orientations are critical for dealing with anti-Semitism as it presents in particular places; done correctly, the contextualist and collectivist orientations can be harmonized, because the efforts to combat and eradicate anti-Semitism everywhere require intimate understanding of the particular contexts in which it is appearing. But it also clearly possible for these orientations to come into conflict with one another, if the contextual narrative for one expression of anti-Semitism becomes incompatible — politically or otherwise — with the contextual narrative for an anti-Semitism that appears elsewhere. When this happens, it is not uncommon for contextualists to ignore or minimize other contextual presentations, to offer apologetic explanations or otherwise place the version of anti-Semitism that they are combating higher on the hierarchy of concern, and thus in turn to weaken the collective capacity of the Jewish community to fight anti-Semitism.

So, for instance: if you are invested in building Muslim-Jewish coalitions in America, the persistence of profound anti-Semitic rhetoric and anti-Jewish violence in Muslim communities around the world is extremely inconvenient. And even though it is possible to build real relationships between Jews and Muslims, take seriously and do not whitewash the sources of hate in their communities for one another, it is easier and not uncommon to find people engaged in this coalition work actively attenuating Muslim anti-Semitism as “non-native” (a product of European colonialism), or marginalized as “only” a branch of anti-Zionism, or for anti-Semitism to be reclassified as part of a general “hatred of the other” — alongside Islamophobia, homophobia, and structural racism — as a contextualist move to reinforce existing coalitions alongside other marginalized groups. This makes light of a form of anti-Semitism that does not fit into a structural narrative, and it ultimately requires its adherents to believe that the anti-Semitism that may be found among their allies or in the communities of the people they are alongside is not dangerous, or that it is easily defeatable. This classification of anti-Semitism as “just another –ism” fundamentally narrows the moral field of vision of those seeking to defeat anti-Semitism. It is probably a good strategy for the progressive approach to structural social change, and it might well be useful as a contextualist strategy to root out particular expressions of anti-Semitism; it is not, on its own, an effective strategy to combat anti-Semitism in all its manifestations.

Or, in turn, it is an immoral sleight of hand — and also a contextualist approach — to see the way that the current administration is given a pass for its “dog whistles” toward and sometimes overt empowerment of alt-right anti-Semitism, when it is granted this pass because of the relocation of the Jerusalem embassy or for any other presentations of pro-Israelism. Here too, a group of people who believe that they are acting on behalf of the Jewish people — fighting against anti-Israelism as contextualists — are plainly compromising a collectivist ethos. Or, a person may believe that they are acting in the interests of the survival and safety of Israelis by partnering with individuals who maintain anti-Semitic beliefs, but the minute that that person begins to engage in apologetics or to minimize those beliefs and their ramifications, the partnership becomes a rotten compromise. Contextualist orientations can and often do undermine collectivism.

There are clear reasons why contextualist thinking about anti-Semitism is winning out over collectivist thinking in the American Jewish community right now. There is a general decline in collectivist identification among Jews globally, the giving-way of any post-war Jewish consensus about survival and solidarity. Jews in America are partisan political actors, and the contextualist approach to anti-Semitism is politically useful: it enables us to see anti-Semitism as part of the larger political ideologies that we are trying to defeat, even as it turns anti-Semitism into partisan discourse . In a hyper-partisan framework, opposing political ideologies are inclined to think of the other as a form of “existential threat,” and so anti-Semitism and other hatreds are easily mapped onto these polarities.

There is also, at least in America, a growing contest for Jewish authenticity and legitimacy, as the institutions and leaders that spoke on behalf of American Jewry in the 20th century are challenged and replaced. That there would be competing claimants of the legacy and responsibility of protecting the Jewish people from its enemies is a natural consequence of this entropy. And then, of course, there is Israel: once the strongest gravitational force for a collectivist consciousness of protecting the Jewish people, now Israel activates opposing instincts in the Jewish people as to whether the Jewish people continue to bear a principal obligation to look out for its safety, or to agitate that it uses its power differently in the world.

I believe that as it relates to anti-Semitism, it is a potentially catastrophic error to shift away from collectivist thinking. Contextual thinking deceives us into believing that anti-Semitism can be cleanly divided between “right-wing” and “left-wing” anti-Semitism, and then placed on some perverse hierarchy of danger, even as we know that of course there are going to be manifestations of anti-Semitism among right- and left-wingers; anti-Semitism thrives as a populist shortcut, regardless of the expressed values of the political movement. Contextual thinking tends to misread the ways that anti-Semitism thrives everywhere — in diverse religious, political, and economic contexts — and ultimately turns the very category of “Jew” into its own politically contingent classification. Politics becomes a primary indicator of Jewishness.

This helps us understand the primary reason people are skeptical of collectivist thinking on anti-Semitism, which is that they fear being subject to the accusation of “both-sidesism” — that by putting a variety of anti-Semitisms in one big basket, we are failing to differentiate between those that are clear and present threats and those that are not, that we are failing to take the most serious expressions seriously. Contentious times up the ante in the quest for moral clarity.

But chronicling anti-Semitism as it manifests across social movements and ideologies should not be automatically subject to this criticism. The accusation of both-sidesism is only relevant when it constitutes a particular attempt to deflect an accusation of anti-Semitism, or the avoidance of culpability in responding to a particular incident. It *is* both-sidesism when the president fails to clearly condemn neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, or when leaders weakly decry that both sides are responsible for a surge of anti-Semitic violence that is caused by a particular contextual cause. It *is* both-sidesism when people sputter “But Farrakhan!” in a conversation about a different form of anti-Semitism as a means of trying to indict those calling out anti-Semitism for their own blind spots. But it is not both-sidesism when we seek to understand the full landscape of a problem, and when we step back from a contextual moment to take the ecosystem seriously.

Approaching anti-Semitism with a collectivist orientation does not preclude the ability of an individual to build coalitions or to advance their political goals, even together with individuals who maintain problematic beliefs. It just has to be done soberly and without forgiving or dismissing the anti-Semitic beliefs. And these coalitions should never entail the redefinition of anti-Semitism into a framework that justifies or reifies the coalitions themselves.

Collectivism makes for its own set of uncomfortable allies. You may be disgusted by the individuals who are calling out and fighting the anti-Semitism that can be found on your side of the political aisle. You may want them to lose politically. You may think they are wrong empirically on everything, and even consider their accusations of anti-Semitism to be suspect. But a commitment to collectivity requires a minimum threshold of being able to see beyond contingent contextual interest, and an appreciation for a landscape of anti-Semitism that is far larger.

A collectivist orientation to anti-Semitism would posit that all the following examples of anti-Semitism alive and well can be true at the same time:

The most imminent anti-Semitic threat to the safety of most American Jews is in the emboldening of neo-Nazis, especially through the way that they are being implicitly legitimated by the administration and inasmuch as their base weds its anti-Semitic ideas to a broader nativist agenda and to America’s broken gun culture. As demonstrated by Eric Ward (op. cit), anti-Semitism “fuels” white nationalism in America and elsewhere around the world. But the long-term anti-Semitic threat to American Jews is not confined to the alt-right. I fear the rise of radical politics on both ends of the political spectrum, which challenge the core myths of America that served valuable functions for American Jews in the 20th century in our assimilation into and thriving in America. These radical politics sometimes traffic in conspiratorial tropes and convictions about the place of Jews in the system that they seek to dismantle. In our history, such political pivots have frequently led to reprisals and repercussions.

The most imminent anti-Semitic threat to the safety of Israeli Jews is in the still-widespread libelous rhetoric throughout the Arab world, and especially in governments and school systems that are connected to violent nuclear capacities or are otherwise still engaged in violent conflict with Israelis. Many Israelis, as a result, believe that the organized BDS movement in America and Europe constitutes an existential threat to the lives and the livelihoods of Israelis, especially as it sometimes employs classic and new forms of anti-Semitism in its rhetoric and methods. BDS affirms a deep psychological instinct of Jewish loneliness for many Israelis and Jews — us against the world — that in its own internal logic sees itself responding to Israeli politics but is experienced by many Jews as a form of ontological hatred. And in the meantime, the same aforementioned rise of global polarities is producing bolder hostilities on the global left against Israel as a key representative of a despised form of nationalism, and on the right a rise in neo-fascist regimes that may today see themselves as Israel’s allies but style themselves after politically and morally failed systems that have tended to victimize Jews. Oh, and by the way, there is anti-Semitism even among Israel’s friends, as it remains completely possible to present today as “pro-Israel” and to hold anti-Semitic beliefs about Jews, super-sessionism, the apocalypse, the afterlife, etc.

The most imminent threats to European Jews are different in different places — for British Jews, in the moral deterioration of the Labour Party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, where the mumbling protestations to differentiate between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are forms of dissembling which actually damage that very distinction; for French Jews, in the violence directed against them by Muslims; in most other parts of Europe, in the rise of global nationalism and its links to nativism and anti-immigrant sentiment, and then by the growing extremist backlash against this rise as expressed in anarchism, anti-nationalism (in which Israel is implicated), and the hostility against capitalist systems in which some Jews play significant roles; in Russia, rachmana l’tzlan, LITERALLY ALL THE ABOVE. Russian anti-Semitism juxtaposes the belief that Jews are responsible for the fall of Russia, because of their support for capitalism, with the belief that Jews are responsible for the fall of Russia because of their support for communism.

Anti-Semitism, in other words, is a mess of a constantly metamorphosizing social problem that seems to know no coherent ideological or social boundaries but is capable of exploiting diverse contexts to proliferate itself. Limited contextual thinking — which wants to resist the full picture in order to consolidate political allies to combat its version of the problem — may be necessary in the short run, but will inevitably turn on other contextualist approaches, and will weaken the collective resolve to confront the underlying issue.

In this spirit, then, I want to offer four suggestions for the recalibration of a collectivist consciousness to fight anti-Semitism:

First, intelligent Jews should resist the widening binary that is on display in public rhetoric between “globalism” or “internationalism,” on one hand, and “nationalism” or “tribalism” on the other. The chasm between these is as vacuous as the effort to clearly paint Jewish ideas of “universalism” and “particularism” as in opposition to one another when they are patently in dialogue with each other and essentially codependent. The very framework that divides between nationalism and globalism is an anti-Semitic construct that forces Jews to choose a side and then inevitably persecutes that side. It is a rigged game that falls short of the complex realities of Jewish politics in the 20th and 21st centurues and the web of self-interests and universal aspirations that have characterized the place of the Jew in the world for a long time. Resist it.

Second, a collectivist orientation commits us to rhetorical consistency. The anti-Soros rhetoric on display in the American, European, and Israeli media is classically anti-Semitic in tone and content, but it is not uncommon to see defenders of Soros use identical tropes in their conspiratorial criticism of Sheldon Adelson. As long as anti-Semitism is more than just a contextual form of hatred, combating it requires an uncomfortable consistency of discomfort.

Third, we should stop trying to assess whether individuals are anti-Semites, and instead we should be much more interested in rooting out expressions of anti-Semitism in rhetoric, policy, and violence. The insistence on characterizing individuals as anti-Semites leads to awkward litmus tests that are easily passed by means of personal friendships, and also prevents Jews from being held accountable for their ideas and actions. Policies and rhetoric can be anti-Semitic in tone and content, even if their adherents are Jews. We cannot defeat pernicious ideas if we assume that anti-Semitism is manifest entirely in individuals who we are trying to unmask, or who can avoid detection through the mechanics of their personal biography.

Finally, a collectivist orientation should challenge us to take seriously the complexity of a phenomenon that defies social or political categorization without becoming “mystified” and without having to possess transcendent theological characteristics. The specter of anti-Semitism should not stand in the way of the broader Jewish moral imagination or constitute a necessary constraint on our political aspirations or our moral responsibilities to others. A collectivist consciousness about anti-Semitism, in fact, should sensitize us to the ways that other hatreds and injustices persist in the world in spite of all efforts to defeat them. Anti-Semitic flareups must not yield as their exclusive return for the Jewish community a fixation with security and protecting ourselves. Safety is a realistic concern for all Jews and a necessary precondition for us to continue to do the work in the world that we are meant to do as a fulfillment of our hopes and dreams as Jews and as human beings. Maintaining a collectivist orientation about anti-Semitism should merely serve as a restraint borne of humility about the obstacles that still stand in our way as Jews, the obligation we bear to a community that transcends our particular political leanings, and as a valuable reminder of the modesty with which we should engage in coalition-building.

All these commitments constitute positive integrations between the contextualist approach — which we can use productively to interrogate the manifestations in particular societies — and the collectivist approach, which resists the essentializing of any particular manifestation into the whole of the issue.

And for what it’s worth, I believe it is legitimate — perhaps essential — for the Jewish people to remain optimistic. I think the Jewish people will be okay, even in the face of all of this. I think we will survive this most effectively if we can internalize a collectivist consciousness about anti-Semitism, because it will remind us that we have allies against this hate even across unbridgeable political lines, and because it will strengthen our conviction to solidarity and perhaps reduce our dependency on partisanship. And will be especially okay because we are still living in a profound moment of Jewish thriving, in America and Israel, that exceeds in power and comfort the majority of Jewish experiences throughout history; and because even when we are struck, we bear witness to the enormous outpouring that comes our way from fellow Americans — and other humans — who share our conviction that our vulnerability is a source of moral embarrassment. Netzah Yisrael lo YiShaker! But it needs a collective commitment of the Jewish people to stay true.

You care about Israel, peoplehood, and vibrant, ethical Jewish communities. We do too.

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