Against Analogy

JVL Introduction

A thoughtful set of reflections on white Jews showing solidarity with Black Lives Matter.

In recent weeks various establishment Jewish bodies in the States have rushed to support the agencies of law enforcement.

It forces radical Jews to confront their communities’ instincts to side with the forces of law and order – of white supremacy.

So many are turning to Jewish history of oppression and rebellion: We, too, have been victims.

Natural, but wrong, says Ratskoff: white Jews in the movements should not seek similarities, but highlight the differences.

Resist the impulse to understand anti-Blackness through antisemitism, stop abdicating responsibility, and recognise ones complicity with the white supremacist police state.

This article was originally published by Jewish Currents on Tue 9 Jun 2020. Read the original here.

Against Analogy

To build solidarity in this moment, white Jews should resist the impulse to highlight similarities between histories of antisemitism and anti-Blackness.

THE CURRENT NATIONWIDE UPRISING—triggered by the state-sanctioned murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, accelerated by the leadership of the Black Lives Matter movement, and compounded by racial and economic crises—requires white people, including white Jews, to think carefully and strategically about their role in dismantling white supremacy. The task at hand for the Jewish community is less about cleansing individual white Jews and their communal institutions of racism than about organizing them to join the Black Lives Matter movement in attacking the white supremacist police state.

Mainstream American Jewish institutions have overwhelmingly aligned themselves with law enforcement and often maintain close relationships with city and state governments. In Los Angeles last week, police officers opened fire on peaceful protestors with tear gas and rubber bullets just one mile from the Jewish Federation building. Four days later, Federation CEO and President Jay Sanderson hosted a webinar with Mayor Eric Garcetti, whose continued inflation of the LAPD budget was itself a central cause of the protest. But Sanderson was not airing a meeting with the mayor in order to hold him accountable. Instead, he touted his own relationship with Los Angeles police chief Michael Moore—“a great friend to the Jewish community”—and praised the “positive and very supportive” relationship that Jewish communities in Los Angeles share with law enforcement. This was not atypical. The UJA-Federation of New York, for instance, recently appointed a new executive director of its Community Security Initiative, Mitchell D. Silber—a former Director of Intelligence Analysis for the NYPD and co-founder of the intelligence and security consulting company Guardian Group with former New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelley. On Monday, it was announced that the Anti-Defamation League was making former FBI official Gregory Ehrie its new vice president for law enforcement and analysis.

It is important to interrogate the reasons that institutional Jewish organizations turn toward law enforcement and the critical failure of imagination that such a turn reflects. But it is most important right now for white Jews to join the fight: Given their evident proximity to the police state, white Jews are in a position to use their voices and resources to not only withdraw support for it, but also to actively disrupt the preservation of the racist status quo. Young, non-Black Jews are thus facing a vital imperative to confront their white Jewish families and peers about their active implication in—that is, maintenance and reproduction of—white supremacy, raising questions about the most effective strategies for organizing and mobilizing Jews who remain shrouded in white ignorance.

More often than not, when progressive Jews attempt to mobilize their communities into solidarity with other minority groups, the strategy is one of comparison, analogy, and parallel. This tactic has mostly revolved around immigration and Islamophobia in recent years. “‘Never again’ is now,” Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg wrote following Donald Trump’s election in 2016, in response to the silence of many Jewish organizations regarding Trump’s anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant campaign promises. A recent Bend the Arc campaign against “hate and political violence” was titled “We’ve Seen This Before.” The immigrant rights group Never Again Action recently combined both messages on its homepage: “Anne Frank didn’t die in a gas chamber. Anne Frank died because she caught an infectious disease in a concentration camp. We have seen this before. We won’t let it happen again. Never again is now.”

It is only natural that Jews would follow the momentum of this tactic in relation to the current protests against the state’s anti-Black violence, and indeed some Jewish publications and prominent Jewish influencers have begun to make comparisons between this uprising and the ones mobilized by Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto—and even by the Maccabees against the Seleucid empire. If Jews can make a connection to their own suffering, this logic suggests, then they will be willing to enter into solidarity with those suffering under similar forces of oppression today. No doubt, Jewish histories of oppression give us a memory and a language with which we can perceive oppression in the present. The Immigration Act of 1924, for example, which restricted Jewish immigration to the US from Eastern Europe on racial grounds, can help us identify similar racial exclusions today. But a sound strategy right now would move in the opposite direction: White Jews in this moment should resist the impulse to highlight the similarities and instead amplify the differences.

The first comparative strategy assumes that sameness produces empathy, which in turn produces solidarity. A full-scale critique of the politics of empathy, which relies on a sentimental identification with victims in order to arouse political action, is beyond the scope of this piece. But whether or not such politics are problematic, the more pertinent point is that such “victim-bonding” may not actually produce the intended mobilization. In her critique of much second-wave feminist organizing, bell hooks argues that by “bonding as ‘victims’, white women’s liberationists were not required to assume responsibility for confronting the complexity of their own experience . . . Identifying as ‘victims’, they could abdicate responsibility for their role in the maintenance and perpetuation of sexism, racism, and classism.” In other words, regardless of the historical and personal truth of white women’s victimhood, identification as victims prevented them from seeing their role in the oppression of others.

Likewise, activating our white Jewish family members’ and peers’ identification as victims—even if only in historical terms—can, counterintuitively, make it more difficult for them to confront their role in the maintenance and perpetuation of white supremacy. Summoning memories of the Holocaust and other experiences of antisemitism invites Jews to imagine themselves as the victims of racial violence, which can foreclose possibilities for seeing themselves, today, as complicit. We see evidence of this in the way that invoking simplified comparisons between antisemitism and anti-Blackness frequently opens the door to a counterproductive litigation of differences: “But we never rioted,” “But Nazism was so much worse,” and so on. It is precisely the crudeness of these comparisons that leave them vulnerable to such litigation: The historical forms of economic exploitation and exclusion, of state and extrajudicial violence, and of ideological antagonism vary between antisemitism and anti-Blackness as much as, if not more than, they coincide.

The legacies of plantation slavery, systematic rape, convict leasing, and lynch mobs are best understood on their own terms. The current rebellion, a revolutionary refusal of the ongoing criminalization, enforced impoverishment, incarceration, and state-sanctioned murder of Black people, is a product of a long Black liberation struggle, stretching back to the first fugitive slaves who stole themselves—as property—from their white masters in a flight to freedom. None of these histories have simple counterparts in the history of antisemitism. Beginning from a place of difference, rather than sameness, shifts the focus away from Jewish victimhood and suffering and opens a greater window for listening and learning.

In 1970, South African anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko wrote in the South African Student Organization newsletter: “We are concerned with that curious bunch of noncomformists who . . . claim that they too feel the oppression just as acutely as the blacks and therefore should be jointly involved in the black man’s struggle for a place under the sun. In short, these are the people who say that they have black souls wrapped up in white skins.” Biko was responding to the white liberal insistence on a bilateral or multiracial leadership in the fight against apartheid, but his concern seems equally pertinent for white Jewish progressives, leftists, and radicals today who insist that they’ve “seen this before.” Such an insistence betrays an assumption that white Jews or their ancestors have experienced something parallel to anti-Blackness. Consequently, their present position in the camp of the oppressor—as white people—often fades from view.

Jewish communities teach themselves that their suffering is paradigmatic—the benchmark against which other experiences of suffering are compared. To continually invoke the Holocaust or other histories of Jewish suffering as a tool for mobilizing Jewish political action is to leave these comparisons open to never-ending, narcissistic dissection. But when we shift the focus away from Jewish suffering, Jewish victimhood is no longer under debate; a different terrain emerges on which white Jews can begin to consider their active implication in white supremacy. By resisting the impulse to understand anti-Blackness through antisemitism, white Jews can choose to stop abdicating responsibility and recognize their present position of complicity. In this way, we can provoke a more productive mobilization, one capable of collaborating in a serious effort to dismantle the white supremacist police state.

Ben Ratskoff is a writer, teacher, and scholar based in Los Angeles. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of PROTOCOLS.

Comments (5)

  • Michael Ryan says:

    I spent most of my adult working life driving a London Taxi(black cab) and many of my colleagues were ( I’m retired) Jewish. Jewish London Taxi drivers is something of a racial cliché, so I should point out this is a reality based on a historical connection that dates back to the English Civil War (yes we did have one of those) when Oliver Cromwell, leader of the Republicans arranged with Dutch Jewish leaders for thousands of Jews to come to London to run the London cab trade. For the previous three and a half centuries it was illegal for Jews to live in England. Cromwell figured the Jews would, as a consequence, be loyal to him, at a time when two and a half thousand men and horses represented a potential army and possible threat. The connection between Jews and cab driving is diminishing but is still strong.
    Cab driving is an oppressive form of employment. You are in constant opposition with other cab drivers, illegal cab drivers, other drivers in general, the passenger on your cab, pedestrians, cyclists, police, parking wardens, protesters who block your way, politicians who support protesters, impose speed limits, close roads, instigate one way systems, infact humanity in general. Cab drivers are by necessity right wing and reactionary.
    What I’m trying to say in a very round about way(no pun intended) is that many of the people with whom I associated were very right wing Jews who allowed me to join in their conversations because of my mother’s Jewishness and my consequent direct connection with Whitechapel and the fact that my wife was also Jewish from Stamford Hill, daughter of a cab driver. My Socialist views and sympathy with the plight of Palestinians, immigrants of colour, poor and vulnerable people in general, were not appreciated and many of our conversation became heated and I was frequently condemned as being anti Semitic for holding such views. To my mind it was nonsensical and counter intuitive that people with a such a long collective history of being oppressed, should have such vehement racist and reactionary views, but that is the fact of the matter. It’s not, I’m sure, that Jews, per se, are all like this (I’ve met many Jewish Socialists over the years) but many are and do align themselves with right wing aspirations and support Israel’s government for being like that too.

  • RC says:

    Fascinating indeed, especially about the class foundation of political interests and attitudes. A bit of pilpul, if I may; it is interesting too that sixty years after Elizabeth I’s rather grudging help to the Dutch proto-capitalist revolutionaries (remember reading about Sir Philip Sidney at Zutphen?) the English and Dutch had just agreed a treaty to end the first (1652-4) of the four Anglo-Dutch naval wars, this transfer took place. Some influence of the geopolitical background, surely?
    The Anglo-Dutch relationship continued to be of interest: after the first phase of the English revolution was triggered by a Scots invasion in 1638, the second phase began with a Dutch invasion in 1688. (Both were coordinated with English supporters – traitors if you will…). And English resentment at Dutch success in capitalist world hegemony, as well as Dutch success in standing off James II’s well equipped but hesitant army, remains with us in such pejoratives as “Dutch courage” “going Dutch”and, arguably “Dutch cap”…
    Not forgetting the Dutch part in the West Indian slave trade…..(But the GLU is waiting eagerly for me to continue listing the different religious buildings they brought to Aruba, Curacao etc – do you know what I mean?).
    What a complex web they weave….Sometimes, we are told, it is our political duty to suppress the truth….

  • RH says:

    A salutory caution against knee-jerk responses – as is the thoughtful post by Michael Ryan.

    Jackie Walker was targeted for pointing out that the roles of cultural/historical victimhood and the that of oppressor are not exclusive categories.

    Zionism is the working proof.

  • RC says:

    The ongoing persecution of Jackie Walker is I suspect down not only to Jewish chauvinism (keenly supported by reactionary gentiles who hope to get the kudos by osmosis) but also to outright anti black racism. Moreover to ask why Jews should be considered to be exempt from a history of salve-trading is to provoke squeals of self-deceiving horror at this ‘blasphemy’. Intone after me thrice “no Jew could ever trade in slaves”. Or read Israel Shahak whose reflections have yet not been exiled from the web. We will know the LP has recovered any allegiance it ever had to basic democratic standards and natural justice when Jackie at least is asked to come back to join us – and apology would be in order.

  • William Johnston says:

    An excellent piece, and certainly has me reflecting (further) on my own prejudices. Certainly any sense of my own superiority is fuelled in great part by history lessons in the 1950s and early 60s which extolled the “self-evident” greatness of the British Empire, and which encouraged me to rejoice in my own part in it. It was a telling of history which was riddled with absurdity and anomalies – it’s only in the last year that I’ve really twigged that for more than three hundred years those much vaunted “English” kings who followed The Conqueror didn’t even speak English. How ridiculous, therefore, that, as a latter day Englishman I was supposed to take pride in rulers who would have regarded those ancestors of mine who dated back to the England of the early middle ages as beneath contempt, unworthy of property rights or any sort of natural justice.

    And this is surely the one analogy that can be drawn down the ages: the moment when those who either have power, or, though powerless themselves, subscribe to the dominant narrative, regard anyone else as being of less worth – however benignly that scorn may be expressed – they open the door to oppression, often overt, more usually hidden, and no less pernicious for that.

    In other words, the question that I need to ask myself, regardless of my past – Saxon, Scots or Jewish; and I need to throw gay into the mix – is: to what extent do I operate racial or other hierarchies in my own psyche? And, having asked this question, rather than engaging in self-indulgent guilt as a means to exonerate myself, I need to own it and notice each and every occasion when I act in accordance with my own prejudices. Furthermore, if prejudice is born, as I am sure is the case, out of fear. The next question to ask is: in my encounter with the “other” what am I frightened of?

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