Zionism and antisemitism – the debate that won’t go away

JVL Introduction

Debate continues to rage in the US about antisemitism today, expressed in a spate of confrontations on US campuses (e.g. at Bard College recently) and in the printed word. It is a debate within the American Jewish communities and has clear resonances in Britain. Much of it is intimately linked to conceptions of Zionism whether we will it or not.

The debate has been going on for a long time as Hannah Gurman shows here in her wide-ranging discussion of Bari Weiss’s new book How to Fight Anti-Semitism, recently published by Crown in the US.

This discussion complements that previously published here, Judith Butler’s discussion in How (not) to fight antisemitism.


This article was originally published by Mondoweiss on Mon 4 Nov 2019. Read the original here.

The Centrism of Fools

In 1971, the New York Times published a piece on anti-semitism entitled “The Socialism of Fools.” Written by Seymour Lipset, an eminent scholar of political sociology, it called attention to a major shift in the phenomenon. “Unlike the situation before 1945, when anti-Jewish politics was largely identified with rightist elements,” Lipset observed, “the current wave is linked to governments, parties, and groups which are conventionally described as leftist.” Singling out anti-semitism within the Black nationalist and New Left movements, the piece argued that leftist critiques of Israel and Zionism had become tainted with anti-semitic tropes and that leftists in the United States and Europe were unwittingly parroting Soviet propaganda.

Lipset was not the first to argue that the left had a problem with anti-semitism. The phrase “socialism of fools” is attributed to August Bebel, a leader of the German socialist movement at the end of the nineteenth century. This internal critique nonetheless upheld the overwhelming association of anti-semitism and the extreme right, which the rise of Nazism and the horrors of the Holocaust made undeniable. In the 1960s, however,  concerns about anti-semitism on the left re-emerged. This time, the warnings came from American Jewish intellectuals who linked their analysis of anti-semitism to a broader argument for a rightward shift in the political orientation of American Jews.

Many of these individuals played influential roles in the neoconservative movement that emerged in opposition to the perceived extremism of the left. Between the 1960s and the 1980s, prominent neoconservatives connected their calls for a rightward tilt in American politics to issues of Jewish survival. In 1984, Irving Kristol argued that the left had essentially abandoned the Jews. “While American Jews have for the most part persisted in their loyalty to the politics of American liberalism,” he wrote, “that politics has blandly and remorselessly distanced itself from them.” In an interview about his 1984 book on left-wing anti-semitism, Nathan Perlmutter argued that the left’s critique of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East was a bigger problem than the right’s white supremacy. “I am more concerned by an isolationism that may deprive America’s strongest ally in the Middle East,” he said, “than I am with some Klansman in a cow pasture in central Missouri.”

Today, a new generation of American Jewish intellectuals is calling attention to the rise of anti-semitism on the left. At age 33, New York Times columnist wunderkind Bari Weiss is both one of the youngest and most prominent members of this group. Like Lipset, Weiss eschews the neocon label, identifying herself as a centrist. Her first book, How to Fight Anti-Semitism, which came out in September, ostensibly warns against the rise of anti-semitism on both the left and the right. Yet, like other recent works in this vein, such as Deborah Lipstadt’s Antisemitism Here and Now, which was published earlier this year, the essential point of Weiss’ book is to call out the left for being just as bad or worse than the right. In so doing, she continues the neoconservative tradition of smearing the left through accusations of anti-semitism. While Weiss draws attention to some real issues of anti-semitism on the left, her analysis ultimately contributes to a dangerous distortion of the phenomenon and a tired effort to tarnish progressive social movements in the name of centrist moderation.

In the opening pages of the book, Weiss writes movingly about the massacre that took place in 2018 at the Tree of Life synagogue in her hometown of Pittsburgh, where a white nationalist murdered eleven worshippers and injured six others. It was the deadliest attack on Jews in the history of the United States. A good portion of the book’s first half is dedicated to recounting this and other acts of anti-semitic violence committed by right-wing extremists. While impassioned and necessary, such condemnations of heinous atrocities don’t offer original insight into the contemporary phenomenon of anti-semitism.

As the book continues, it becomes clear that accounts of anti-semitism on the right serve mainly as preludes to the real crux of the book, which is a diatribe against anti-semitism on the left. While Weiss acknowledges that right-wing anti-semitism is responsible for the vast majority of physical violence against Jews in the United States and Europe today, she points out that such acts are vocally condemned by virtually all Americans, including President Trump. Unlike right-wing antisemitism, which is transparent and obvious, she argues, left-wing antisemitism is a “far more subtle and sophisticated enterprise” that is “typically camouflaged in…the language of social justice and anti-racism, of equality and liberation.” And because Jews have historically identified with the left, its anti-semitism is disavowed, tolerated, and allowed to spread even further. Because it poses an internal threat to liberal values and institutions, left-wing anti-semitism is ultimately more “insidious and perhaps more existentially dangerous” than its right-wing counterpart.

A central part of Weiss’ argument, and of self-professed centrists more generally, is the claim that anti-Zionism is inherently anti-semitic. “When anti-Zionism becomes a normative political position,” she writes, “active anti-Semitism becomes the norm.” Insisting that the long history of Jewish critiques of Zionism are invalid in a post-Holocaust world, she refuses to engage the possibility that this worldview has any contemporary value, mockingly dismissing it as the platform of a mere “few hundred committed anarchists in Brooklyn and Berkeley.” And while Weiss ostensibly acknowledges that not all criticism of Israel is anti-semitic, she devotes just one paragraph of the entire book to the illiberalism of the current Israeli government and the atrocities it has committed against the Palestinians. More broadly, she parrots a dangerous conceptualization of anti-semitism that includes criticism of the Israeli state. Under the guise of political neutrality, the “working definition of anti-semitism,” which has been adopted by the U.K. government, the European Union, and a wide array of non-governmental organizations, inordinately targets leftist critiques of Israel’s human rights transgressions. Even the American scholar who first drafted the working definition has condemned its use as a tool of repression of free speech.

There is a legitimate debate to be had on the question of whether and why Israel is singled out by the left in comparison to other states that also commit human rights abuses and atrocities on a systematic basis. But while Weiss and other centrists complain that Israel’s wrongdoing is distorted and taken out of context, they routinely do the same in their targeting of leftist intellectuals and activists. Refusing to seriously engage with the ideas of leftist scholars who situate Israel within a paradigm of settler colonialism and European and American imperialism, she instead cherry picks examples to expose a supposedly systemic problem. While she quotes a few grossly anti-semitic comments made by professors in Columbia’s Middle Eastern Studies department, she leaves out the many more instances in which professors at Columbia and elsewhere have been singled out by right-leaning Jewish groups, including Canary Mission, simply for critiquing Zionism or supporting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Painting leftist intellectuals as a bunch of anti-semitic bullies, she remains silent about her own role in  campaigns that sought to destroy the careers and reputations of many professors in the name of “academic freedom.”

Islam is another key element of the centrist exposé of leftist anti-semitism. Weiss complains that the left accuses anyone who calls out anti-semitism in the Muslim community of being Islamophobic. “This goes a long way toward explaining why” the woke left “will harp endlessly about a bakery that won’t make a gay wedding cake but have nothing to say about honor killings.” Although the legacy of European colonialism may explain the existence of anti-semitism in the Middle East today, she argues, it should not excuse such beliefs. But while Weiss is quick to point out the dangers of relying too heavily on postcolonial ideology, she refuses to acknowledge the ways in which her own views are shaped by post 9/11 ideology. The book routinely equates Islam and Islamist extremism and mimics the talking points of the post 9/11 U.S. national security apparatus. One of the examples she offers of Muslim anti-semitism in the United States is the 2009 attempted bombing of two synagogues in the Bronx. Echoing the mainstream media’s reportage of these events, she omits the fact that these supposed anti-Semitic terrorists were hungry, homeless, and mentally ill vagrants from Newburgh, New York who were entrapped by the FBI, which created the idea of the plot, offered large sums of money to its targets, and trained them to use bombs. This is a glaring example of the many ways in which Weiss and others distort the views and activities of prominent progressive Muslims such as Ilhan Omar and Rashida Talib who have been accused of anti-Semitism. Obsessing over their use of anti-semitic tropes, Weiss downplays the racist tropes that have been enlisted against them and pathologizes the bonds of solidarity that have formed between them and progressive Jewish groups.

The tone-deafness that Weiss displays in relation to her own Islamophobia is accompanied by her willful blindness to the role of race in debates about contemporary anti-semitism. Challenging the notion that anti-semitism has anything to do with race, Weiss refutes the claim that Jews are white. Roughly half the Jews in Israel, she notes, are Sephardic, coming from Spain, North Africa, Persia, and the Middle East. This may be true, but it doesn’t account for the complex ways in which European racial ideology nonetheless persists in Israel, as examined in the work of Ella Shohat. It also doesn’t address the racial status of Jews in the United States. In her 1998 book, How Jews Became White Folks, Karen Brodkin explores the ambivalence and anxiety that accompanied Jews’ acceptance into the proverbial postwar American Dream. In contrast, Weiss formulaically acknowledges her own privilege as a Jew in contemporary America, but doesn’t acknowledge how this status is premised on whiteness. She is thus unable to grapple with the ways in which her ideas have been shaped by the legacies of a racialized centrist liberalism.

“The center has fallen away,” laments Weiss. Like Arthur Schlesinger, author of the 1949 book, The Vital Center, Weiss presents centrism as the rational, reasonable response to an America threatened by extremism on both the right and the left. And like Schlesinger, Weiss imagines herself as an objective voice of moderation who stands outside and above ideology. While the extremists on both sides of the ideological spectrum embrace a dangerous “tribal fealty,” she stands only for truth and justice. Weiss aims her warning about the dangers of anti-semitism on the left at those who similarly regard the polarization of American politics as the existential threat to the nation and who desire a return to the vital center.

The book’s ideal reader is an American Jew who identifies as liberal but feels alienated and unwelcome in progressive circles. The concluding chapter of the book offers advice to this reader on how to “fight back”: “stop blaming yourself,” “support Israel,” “lean into Judaism,” “tell your story.” Conversely, Weiss characterizes Jewish progressives as aiders and abetters of anti-semitism, comparable to pro-Stalinist Jews who were “agents in their own destruction” in the Soviet Union. If you are one of these individuals, Weiss wants to warn you to see the error of your ways before it is too late. Though couched in the language of care and concern, these warnings come off as thinly-veiled political smears that perpetuate right-wing caricatures of the left.

To many progressives, Weiss is almost too easy to lambast. As recent reviews of her book illustrate, she is one of those figures the left loves to hate. But while Weiss and other Never Trump neocons may be easy targets, it is not enough to deride centrist responses to anti-semitism. Although they do not come anywhere close to providing good answers, they do grapple with some important questions about the role, status, and experience of Jews in progressive politics. Some of the most interesting and provocative moments in How to Fight Anti-Semitism are those in which Weiss expresses feelings of exclusion from progressive circles that, she argues, inject a sense of guilt and shame into contemporary Jewish identity.

It’s a familiar claim that echoes the talking points of Bill Maher and other centrist critics of the left in general. Instead of simply dismissing or mocking these sentiments, we might explore how other Jewish intellectuals have navigated them more productively. Michael Lerner, a rabbi and founder of the Jewish renewal movement, is a good example. Lerner is a committed leftist. For decades, he has argued on behalf of progressive movements for social justice, criticized Israel, and warned against the dangers of the neoconservative movement’s efforts to court American Jews. He and his family have been personally targeted by militant Zionists. On the subject of anti-semitism, however, Lerner is no apologist for the left. His 1992 book, The Socialism of Fools: Anti-Semitism on the Left, written in the wake of the Crown Heights Riots, amidst rising tensions between Jews and blacks, ostensibly shares some of the concerns of the centrists. Lerner argued that the contemporary movement for racial justice was unnecessarily alienating Jews. He was particularly angry about the characterization of Jews as white beneficiaries of the American dream and oppressors of black and brown communities.

In articulating his frustrations, Lerner also pushed back against the claim that Jews are white. However, he did so in a way that recasts whiteness as its own form of oppression. In Jews and Blacks (1995), a book of transcribed conversations between Lerner and Cornel West, Lerner acknowledges the historical, material, and psychological wages of Jewish whiteness in America: “Not only were we beneficiaries of American abundance (bought by Americans at the cost of genociding [sic] American Indians and then enslaving millions of Africans and killing millions more in the process), we were also less likely to become the primary victimized Other in the U.S. precisely because that role was already filled by African-Americans.” Lerner also highlights how acceptance into white America in the 1950s contributed to social complacency: “Most American Jews were interested in normalizing their life in America…focused on making it and accumulating wealth and power.”

Instead of denying the historical reality of whiteness, he highlights whiteness as a form of material and psychological dependency that is ultimately bad for whites, as well as for blacks. In so doing, he echoes the critique of whiteness articulated by James Baldwin and others whose writings inspired the academic field of whiteness studies that blossomed across universities during the 1980s and 1990s. Lerner argues that whiteness forces Jews to focus only on their particular self-interests and to forget the universalistic tradition of tikkun olam, a duty to heal and transform the world. Using the language of religion and spirituality, he highlights the political dangers of reinforcing the association of Jews and whiteness: “Those who see Jews as ‘privileged’ or ‘white’ actually help strengthen Jewish right wingers’ paranoia about a world that will always remain as insensitive to Jews as it has been in the genocidal 20th century.” Instead of a politics that downplays Jewish oppression, and makes Jews feel bad about themselves, Lerner calls for a transformative “Politics of Meaning” that is fueled by a sense of solidarity and a shared desire to fundamentally change the established order on behalf of everyone.

Lerner’s approach is not without its problems and Cornel West rightly questioned how his vision could work to obscure rather than highlight the inequities of racialized capitalism, among other things. But it is an important reminder that we don’t need to deny the existence of anti-semitism on the left in order to fight its far more dangerous manifestations in contemporary right-wing politics. At a very basic level, we can acknowledge the existence of anti-semitism in the history of leftist thought and politics. Yes, the figure of the Jew in Marx’s writings is anti-semitic. Yes, Stalin did massacre thousands of Jews, including many who were loyal to the cause. We can also acknowledge that contemporary leftist discourse occasionally, if mostly unwittingly, flirts with anti-Semitic tropes and assumptions. Yes, it is problematic to exclude individuals from the Women’s March simply because they were carrying the Star of David.

But, neither do we need to accept the centrist formulation of the problem. The Women’s March is a good example. For Weiss, the problem is that Zionists are not welcome in progressive circles. But, for progressive Jews, the problem is the assumption that a Jewish symbol is interpreted as a Zionist symbol, erasing the role of Jews in the history of the left and working against a politics of solidarity. The issue the left needs to confront is not anti-semitism, per se, but instead the role, status, and meaning of Jewishness in progressive politics. Searching for better ways to incorporate Jewishness into progressive politics can be a source of strength on the left. Groups like IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace are testaments to such transformative possibilities.

Ultimately, Weiss and other neoconservative analysts of contemporary anti-semitism force Jews into a cynical politics that pits Jewish survival against other movements for social justice. Progressives have a more compelling vision to offer in which a politics of solidarity addresses threats against Jewish communities not at the expense of other “others,” but alongside them.


Read some responses to this article on the Mondoweiss website


Hannah Gurman is a Clinical Associate Professor of History and American Studies at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study.



Comments (1)

  • Richard Hayward says:

    Reading this analysis raises the fundamental question of whether the term ‘antisemitism’ has now become so drained of serious meaning by the propagandists that it now has no useful function.

    Connection with reality has to be re-established.

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