Saturday, October 27, 2018

Who's Afraid of Fighting Antisemitism?

I started writing this post yesterday, before the Squirrel Hill massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue. I got distracted, and it feels somehow limp to post it today in the face of such an obvious, brutal reminder of the persistence of violent antisemitism in our society (not the least because the Pittsburgh shooting emphasizes what has always been obvious to anyone who cared to look -- that in America, right-wing antisemitism is far, far more dangerous than its left-wing counterpart).

Nonetheless, the points I wanted to make here still have importance, even if comparatively overshadowed -- certainly, insofar as Jews look to see what sort of systemic allyship we can expect from the left not just in this hour but in the days and weeks and months going forward.

There was some controversy over the past few days about the role of Jewdas -- a left-wing non-Zionist British Jewish collective -- taking on a role in doing antisemitism training for Labour. For many years Jewdas as positioned itself as the irreverent, rebellious youth of the Jewish community -- gleefully pricking sensitive areas and popping communal orthodoxies -- a stance which perhaps has some value but whose virtues are maybe exhausted in the current moment.

I don't really want to talk about that specific controversy (coverage here, the activist's response here, if you're interested). But I do think it's worth exploring the standpoint Jewdas is articulating right now on antisemitism, because they are reflective of the current moment on the Jewish left. It is moment that Raphael Magarik captured well in a recent Forward article: a mixture of renewed interest in and deep ambivalence towards actually fighting antisemitism in a robust and systemic way. That's a step forward from even a few years ago, where antisemitism was almost exclusively viewed as a ginned-up distraction by the right to silence the left. But it's still a difference of degree, not kind: the Jewish left's interest in the fight against antisemitism, it seems, is fundamentally managerial in nature -- they want to make sure we don't fight too hard, or too aggressively, lest we "center" ourselves or sap energy from other more important struggles, or (God forbid) actually demand tangible alterations in how Israel and Palestine are talked about in left communities.

A few weeks ago, for example, Jewdas posted an unsigned statement on antisemitism that really demonstrated why it shouldn't be within 40 miles of antisemitism training. I have several problems with it, starting with the way it articulates the "buffer theory" of antisemitism (ask me about how I view Aurora Levin Morales' "antisemitism is what happens when Jews sell out oppressed people to save their own skin and get their comeuppance for it" conception some time).

But what I want to focus on is how Jewdas, even in the course of nominally tackling antisemitism, is at least as (if not more) worried about the possibility that ... people will tackle antisemitism. The vast majority of the essay is spent speaking of all the higher priorities the left should privilege about antisemitism and which antisemitism -- or more aptly, fighting antisemitism -- is distracting energy from. This culminates in the vomit-inducing passage "whereas before antisemitism was encouraged in order to direct the public’s attention away from its exploitation, today antisemitism is vilified in order to divert public support away from the best chance for better living than we’ve had in decades." It's hard to know which aspect of this is more appalling: the blithe acceptance that antisemitism has been successfully "vilified", or the explicit declaration that this is a bad thing.

Indeed, the author doubles down on this point: going on to say that Britain's "moral victory in WW2 is part of what defines us as a nation. Whereas before, antisemitism was part of a nationalist ideology and identity, today it is philosemitism." This is flatly bonkers as an articulation of the national identity of Britain or anywhere else, and is the sort of self-congratulatory vindicatory claptrap that any half-way decent leftist shouldn't be able to write without retching. It should go without saying that neither the UK, nor the US, nor anywhere else in the Gentile world constructs its national identity around its great love for the Jews (or any of its other minority groups); the only people who claim otherwise are those seeking to put down the Jews for being too uppity and demanding (we haven't massacred you lately and yet still it's demand demand demand!).

In other words, Jewdas' program on antisemitism centers around the claim that the danger of antisemitism pales in comparison to the danger of opposing it. To the extent the left should fight antisemitism, it's really to pump the brakes, because when Jews (or at least other Jews, Jews-not-them) fight antisemitism, it's a dangerous and scary thing. If we've progressed beyond Bruce Robbins' "The real issue here is anti-Semitism; that is, accusing people of it" (this came in the defense of a Christian clergyman who was outrageously accused of antisemitism for nothing more than his suggestion that if Jews didn't want to beaten up in the streets of Europe, they should try being more vocally anti-Israel), it's not by a lot. Antisemitism may be bad, but people actively contesting antisemitism is a lot worse.

And this isn't just about Jewdas. Magarik, for example, expresses his worry that it is "too convenient" for Jews "to rediscover our own oppression" when we should be reckoning with our own power and privilege. The obsession on the Jewish left with Jewish "centering" -- making it all about us, hoarding resources and energy to ourselves that are more urgently needed elsewhere -- should be read in this register as well (particularly given just how little it takes before the "centering" charge starts to manifest).

Contra Magarik, not all of us have been in the process of "rediscovering our own oppression" because not all of us had the luxury of forgetting about it to begin with. But there's something extra-grating about a cadre of Jews who -- almost (if not quite) by admission -- have been historically terrible at addressing antisemitism, who had been slumbering through its dangers, who have even now great ambivalence about robustly fighting antisemitism, and who are openly distrustful of pretty much all other Jews-not-them, emerging from dormancy and immediately assuming that it should be the acknowledged leaders of the fight against antisemitism as against those of us who hadn't been napping on the subject. That'd be terrible even if half their motivation didn't seem to be to make sure that we didn't fight against antisemitism too hard.

I continue to think that the most important overlooked attribute of antisemitism on the left (though not just there) is its epistemic dimension -- the persistent mistrust, suspicion, skepticism, discrediting, and gaslighting directed at Jews, particularly when Jews talk about our own lives and vulnerabilities. The Jewish left has been deeply implicated in this wrong, and has not come close to extricating itself from its grip -- which accounts for its ambivalence towards any actual fight against antisemitism because such a fight almost by definition requires crediting and empowering Jewish voices writ large.

There has been a genuine shift in the Jewish left over the past few years from almost total dismissal of antisemitism as a extant social phenomenon towards a willingness to kinda-sorta tackle it. But they're not all (or most, or half) of the way there and, more importantly, they haven't done sufficient work to unlearn the practices that made them so unreliable on the subject in the first place. Most notably, they still associate fighting antisemitism with reactionary elements -- with racism rather than anti-racism, with breaking coalitions rather than forging them, with restraining people rather than emancipating them, with the ruination of a chance at a better world rather than a prerequisite for it.

So I welcome the shift. But antisemitism cannot be effectively fought by people who are terrified of antisemitism actually being fought -- who think that vilifying antisemitism is more dangerous than practicing antisemitism. On that basis alone (though there are others), the Jewish left is not, have not been, and is not prepared to be leaders on the subject of antisemitism right now. The best move for them for the time being is to step back and learn from those of us for whom antisemitism hasn't necessitated any "rediscovery" at all.

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