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Analyses Last Updated: Oct 3, 2021 - 10:59:15 AM

We Shall Be as A City on A Hill
By Shalom Lappin, Fathom, 9/21
Oct 2, 2021 - 12:18:44 PM

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Shalom Lappin argues that American Jews are caught between a white supremacist threat from the far right and a hostile anti-Zionist challenge from the far left. For the first time, they find themselves increasingly at risk from militant forces that are seizing control of the political mainstream. To fashion a viable set of strategies for coping with the dangers that they now face, it is first necessary to recognise that they are no longer outside of the turbulent flow of Jewish history. The crisis of democracy in America is thrusting them into the midst of it.

Introduction: From Integration to Crisis

In the approximately 200 years that Jews have lived in the US in significant numbers, they have enjoyed a level of equality, social integration, and success that is unparalleled in the 2,500 years of Jewish life in the Diaspora.[1] Although previous periods of Jewish history offer instances of relative security and communal flourishing, they have generally involved a clearly defined subordinate status within a stratified host society. The acceptance of Jews in these environments has, for the most part, depended on the good will of a ruler. With a change of regime, tolerance often gave way to persecution.[2]

When the Jews of Western Europe were emancipated in the nineteenth century, they were released from centuries of restriction and exclusion, as well as a history of expulsion and racist violence. It soon became clear that this was a false dawn. The rights granted to them were subsequently withdrawn in the twentieth century. The rise of fascism and Nazism first disenfranchised them, and then systematically slaughtered them.

By contrast, Jewish immigrants to America were never encumbered with these burdens. They arrived to conditions of full citizenship, and previously unimagined opportunities for mobility. To be sure, anti-Semitism was a significant feature of pre-war America. It contributed to the severe restriction of immigration in the 1920s, which prevented Jewish refugees from Nazism from finding sanctuary there in the 1930s. Jews were subjected to quotas at elite universities, barred from certain social environments, and kept out of positions of political power. These constraints were expressions of the anti-immigrant xenophobia that pervaded large swaths of White American society in the inter-war period. They quickly disappeared in the post-war era, as second and third generation American Jews achieved rapid integration.

The spectacular success of American Jewry has generated perhaps the first post-exile community in the Diaspora. Jews ceased to see themselves as a minority living at the sufferance of a host society, and started to regard themselves as an integral component of a pluralised majority. They did not forget Jewish history, but began to live outside it. They became a community that had finally escaped the driving forces of insecurity and marginalisation which have shaped life in the Diaspora over many centuries. The position which American Jews came to assume with respect to the rest of the Jewish world is largely that of benefactor, interceding for the oppressed, and curating Jewish cultural and historical memory abroad. They also provide substantial political and moral support to Israel. At home they embraced the roles of philanthropist and supporter of just causes. They now constitute the world’s second largest Jewish community, surpassed only by the Jews of Israel.

Trump’s presidency has seriously unsettled some of the assumptions on which American Jewish integration has depended. It unleashed forces that threaten the foundations of democracy and pluralism, whose constancy American Jews had generally assumed to be beyond question. It mobilised segments of opinion that they had always regarded as safely confined to the outer margins of the spectrum, and it transformed them into the mainstream of a powerful political coalition. These forces are acutely dangerous to most ethnic minorities, Jews prominently among them.

Many people breathed a huge sigh of relief when Joe Biden won the last presidential election, and the Democrats obtained effective control of both houses of Congress. It seemed as if normalcy had returned to American public life, at least at the highest levels of government. Events of the past few months suggest that this relief was premature. While Trump may be out of office, the political movement that he orchestrated remains very much in play. It is important to consider the implications of this movement for the continued security of Jewish life in America. It is also necessary to look at how the more radical opposition to the Trumpian Alt-right, relates to these concerns. If the Trump phenomenon has shaken the idea of American Jewish exceptionalism, it is, in no small part, a consequence of the fact that it has exposed some of the broader notions of American exceptionalism as fragile and without foundation.


The Rise of a New Confederacy

Until the eighteenth century anti-Semitism in Europe was expressed primarily as a religious prejudice rooted in Christian hostility to Jews. With the emergence of modern nationalism in Western Europe it was reconceived in secular terms as a racist doctrine.[3] Racist anti-Semitism construes the Jews as a Middle Eastern people who are indelibly foreign to European culture. It inherits the conspiracy theories of its Christian antecedents. In these theories Jews are cast in the role of an international cabal of malefactors plotting the domination and subversion of civilised nations. In its racist variant, these activities are attributed to the intrinsic ethnic character of Jews, rather than to their religious practises. Hence neither conversion nor assimilation offers an escape. This view reached fruition in the eliminationist programme of the Nazi genocide.

In the Muslim world, race was not a primary category of cultural identification. Religious affiliation and language were the criteria for determining one’s place in the social hierarchy. Jews were a recognised non-Muslim minority, and so they were generally granted official tolerance. However, their position was immutably subordinate and marginal. As Muslim rule, particularly in the Ottoman Empire, began to decline in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, European forms of anti-Semitism were imported, and these were incorporated into some strands of the emerging nationalist movements in Arab countries.

When they came to America, Jewish immigrants left both types of stigma behind. They became a non-visible minority. They quickly entered the mainstream of American life in large urban centres. Even in the South during the era of slavery, followed by post-Reconstruction segregation, Jews were exempted from the racial caste system. The White supremacist ideology that supported this system was focussed on the repression of African Americans, and it was fashioned to advance the local interests of the ruling White elite. Groups like the Ku Klux Klan, which enforced the roll back of Reconstruction through terror, promoted a generalised racist world view. They targeted Jews and other minorities, as well as Black people. However, southern segregationists were primarily concerned to maintain their subordination of the Black population. Jews were granted the de facto status of honorary Whites. In occupying this precarious role they resembled the Jews in South Africa under apartheid.[4]

In the North, Jews quickly became just another immigrant community. They were perceived (for the most part) as White, and increasingly naturalised, in a highly varied population. In this part of the country the marginalisation of Black people (as well as other people of colour) was institutionalised through economic and social means, rather than through legal segregation.

In order to implement the New Deal in the 1930s Franklin Roosevelt assembled a peculiar coalition that combined labour unions, immigrants, ethnic minorities, and liberals on one side, with Southern segregationist Democrats on the other. The overwhelming majority of Jews supported the New Deal, and large majorities of the Jewish community have continued to vote for the Democrats. The alliance between Southern segregationists and the Democratic Party ended when Lyndon Johnson secured the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Since that time the Republican and Democratic Parties have exchanged roles in their relation to civil rights issues.[5]

From the election of Richard Nixon in 1968 until the present Republicans have relied heavily on a strategy of mobilising White rural and working class resentment against the perceived erosion of White social dominance in America. Central to this strategy is the myth of an urban liberal elite, which uses government to dispossess the White working class and rural population of its freedoms, and to undermine its way of life. One of the ways in which the liberal elite is alleged to achieve this effect is through taxes and social programmes that redistribute working class income to the ethnic poor. Until Trump, the Republican Party used this ostensibly populist electoral strategy to gain power, and then to pursue globalising corporate policies when in office. These included an internationalist/interventionist foreign policy, a relatively friendly attitude towards immigration, seen as a source of cheap labour, and unrestricted free trade. The latter generated a large scale export of industry to low wage economies, to the detriment of working class and rural communities. Republican administrations at both the federal and state level systematically cut public investment in social services and infrastructure. Through the relentless exploitation of identity politics Republican politicians managed to secure the long-term support of voters for policies that systematically worked against their own class interests.[6]

The neo-liberal economic order that these policies promoted throughout the West generated increasingly sharp disparities in the distribution of wealth between the middle and working classes on one hand, and an emerging economic super elite on the other. This gap was particularly acute in the US, where decades of Republican government, supplemented by the ‘centrist’ Clinton administration, undermined the minimal American welfare state. The financial crash of 2007-2008 seriously disrupted the consensus that had facilitated these policies across a large part of the electorate.

Barack Obama was elected on the promise of significant change. Although he prevented the melt down of the financial system and introduced modest repairs, such as a national health plan built on a partially regulated private insurance market, he lacked the Congressional support to implement more substantial reforms. He did not build a durable electoral coalition to sustain a progressive Democratic program for his successors to inherit. There was also a powerful racist backlash among Republican voters against the country’s first African American president.

In this environment of deep frustration with traditional policies and institutions, Trump was able to convert the long standing Republican electoral strategy of exploiting White resentment, and hostility to urban elites, into an operational program for his administration. He deposed the leadership of the Party not by changing its direction, but by transforming its previously coded points of appeal into an explicit mode of governing, rather than merely a campaign technique.[7]

Trump’s approach has a clear precedent in the career of Pat Buchanan, who came up through the ranks of the Republican Party. Buchanan had been a presidential adviser to both Nixon and Reagan. He then ran in the 1992 and 1996 Republican presidential primaries, before standing as the Reform Party candidate in 2000. He espoused more or less the same positions that carried Trump to victory in 2016. He was a traditional Republican isolationist, who rejected foreign military interventions and international leadership of the Western alliance. He opposed free trade, calling for tariffs on imports to protect American industry. He promoted a vintage nativist attitude. He was hostile to immigration, to immigrants, and to ethnic minorities, in particular Jews and African Americans. That he was not successful in his campaigns for office may, at least in part, be due to the fact that the economic and social dislocations precipitated by the financial crash of 2007-2008 had not yet occurred. Moreover, he lacked Trump’s perverse talent for demagoguery and media grandstanding.

Amid the chaos and incompetence of his administration Trump consistently cultivated the White supremacist core of his electoral base. The racism that animates this constituency is not an insistence on racial segregation as a local southern caste system. It is a generalised neo-fascist ideology that targets Jews together with people of colour. It was on vivid display in events like the Unite the Right march in Charlottesville Virginia, on 11-12 August 2017, during numerous Trump rallies, and in the insurrection at the Capitol Building in Washington on 6 January 2021. Trump has refused to condemn these supporters. Instead, he refers to them as patriots. It is also the force driving a serious rise in deadly acts of far right terrorism, an increasing number of which are directed at Jews.[8]

Since his defeat in the 2020 Presidential election Trump has continued to pursue the falsehood that he lost due to widespread election fraud. A majority of Republicans accept this claim. Since January 2021 Republicans have engaged in a systematic campaign to pass laws which restrict voting access. They are also enacting statutes that permit the state legislatures that they control to intervene in the election process. By 14 July 18 states had passed 30 laws that impose highly restrictive conditions on voter registration and limit access to balloting (Brennan Center for Justice). A law recently passed by the Georgia state legislature poses an even greater danger. It permits the Republican controlled legislature and election board to intervene in the voting process to overturn ballot results. Republicans are proposing similar laws in other states.[9] The first set of laws are voter suppression measures aimed at minorities who tend to vote for Democrats. This is a large scale re-introduction of Jim Crow procedures for preventing African Americans and other minorities from voting. The second goes well beyond this traditional post-Reconstruction method of disenfranchisement. It provides a legal device for overturning election results that Republicans disapprove of.

As in the case of Jim Crow, the Supreme Court is an ally of this assault on democracy. On 1 July 2021 it upheld Arizona’s restrictive voting bill, setting a precedent for the constitutionality of the other Republican state voter suppression laws. In fact, this process began well before Trump’s presidency, when the Court invalidated a core element of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in 2013. In that decision it removed the requirement that states with a history of discrimination against minority voters receive Federal approval for any new state electoral legislation. The decades during which the Republicans stacked the Supreme Court with conservative justices prepared the way for the current attack on the legislative achievements of the civil rights movement. Now, armed with Trump’s election falsehood, the Republicans have gone further. They have established the legal basis for overturning elections and ensuring minority White rule across the country.

Biden has, to date, been singularly ineffective in countering the Republican threat to democratic elections. He has made rousing speeches critical of their assault on voting rights, but he has not committed himself to removing the filibuster from the Senate (the requirement that non-budget related legislation requires a two thirds majority to pass). Without such a change, there is no way that a new proposed Federal voting rights bill will be adopted. A least two centrist Democrats refuse to support ending the filibuster. The Attorney General, Merrick Garland, has been weak in countering the Republican voter suppression campaign. He also seems reluctant to pursue indictments of Trump and his inner circle for Federal crimes committed while in office.[10]

Biden’s strategy appears to be to focus on progressive economic reforms, like the infrastructure bill, in the hope of gaining electoral support, and neutralising Republican obstructionism. This is a misconceived way of dealing with the looming threat to the integrity of future elections. Republicans will be delighted to accept credit for the benefits that Biden’s social programs deliver to their constituents, while continuing to dismantle the democratic institutions through which Democrats hope to win re-election. In general, the insouciance of much of the Democratic leadership in the face of the Republicans’ relentless campaign of voter suppression and electoral manipulation is difficult to understand.

Many observers take the view that, with a few honourable exceptions, the Republican Party has allowed itself to evolve into a far right anti-democratic party primarily due to fear of Trump, who holds sway over most of its active supporters. This view implies that should Trump withdraw from the political scene, the Republicans will revert to their previous form as conservatives who respect the institutions of a liberal democracy. It is not at all obvious that this is the case. They seem less in thrall to Trump than to the electoral coalition that he has activated with such potency. Most do not appear particularly uncomfortable with the overtly racist and anti-democratic character that the Party has adopted during the Trump era. While these ideas may have originated as an electoral recruitment strategy, which became explicit policy through a recent insurgency, they have strong historical roots in the Party’s development over the past 60 years.

America is now dangerously perched on a precipice. The next set of elections will be conducted under conditions that have undermined the institutional foundations of its democracy. Should Republicans regain control of one or both houses of Congress and the Presidency, there is a real possibility that an authoritarian regime will take power (with or without Trump) in which White supremacists determine policy. This could be the beginning of a new Confederacy that discards the achievements of the civil rights movement, and entrenches xenophobic nativist practises. Should that happen, it is unlikely to be a Confederacy in which Jews would be honorary Whites. They may well find themselves contending with a government not entirely unlike those that caused their ancestors to flee Europe.

Progressive Anti-Semitism

The period since the 2007-2008 financial crash has seen the revival of the progressive left liberal wing of the Democratic Party as a serious electoral force. The presidential candidacies of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren attracted widespread support for economic and social policies that continue the tradition of Roosevelt’s New Deal and Johnson’s Great Society. These policies seek to institute programs that have been taken for granted in most Western European countries, and Canada, throughout the post-war era, but are considered radical in the American political context. They reflect the reformist class-based politics of mainstream social democracy.

In recent years a more extreme element has gained force within the progressive movement. This group characterises itself as an anti-colonialist left, and it has made a certain type of identity politics the focus of its agenda. It is the American counterpart of the radical European left. According to the world view that it promotes, most oppression in the world originates in the crimes of Western colonialism. These were driven by White supremacy, which continues to deform the American, and more generally the Western social order. Patriarchy and gender discrimination are also derived from power structures that colonialism created. In this framework racial and gender identity replace economic class as the primary drivers of repressive social arrangements, and resistance to them. This part of the far left embraces radical Islamists as allies in the struggle against Western colonialism.[11] Like the far right and militant Islamism, it is staunchly anti-globalist in outlook. Variants of these doctrines, packaged in postmodernist language, now constitute orthodoxy in large sectors of American academic life, particularly within the humanities and some of the social sciences. They have become dominant in publishing, the entertainment industry, and significant parts of the media. They are also increasingly influential in the progressive wing of the Democratic party, where their adherents are playing a role not unlike that of the Tea Party insurgency among Republicans in the decades preceding the Trump presidency. In this way these ideas are beginning to define the terms of discourse on the left in America.

This segment of the left promotes a starkly Manichean view of history and politics. One is either an agent of colonialism and White supremacy, or part of the resistance to them. A virtue metric determines one’s objective moral standing in this struggle on the basis of one’s ethnic or gender affiliation. Jews do not fare well in this scheme. They are classed as beneficiaries of White privilege. More seriously, they are guilty of association with Israel, the paradigm colonialist enterprise. The American anti-colonialist left views the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an extension of the US struggle for racial justice. It portrays this conflict as one in which White European Israeli colonialists are dispossessing Palestinians, who are an indigenous people of colour. It also portrays Israel as a collaborator in American racism through its technical assistance to US police forces and security agencies.

The anti-colonialist left is acutely ahistorical. In construing colonialism and racism as specifically European diseases it disregards the existence of numerous non-Western empires that acted in a manner similar to that of their European counterparts. The Mongol Empire (1206-1368), for example, extended from China, through central and southern Asia, and parts of the Middle East, to northern Europe. The Ottoman empire (1301-1923), based in Turkey, conquered most of the Middle East, North Africa, and the Balkans. Both engaged in slavery, ethnic cleansing, and mass murder of indigenous populations. The Ottomans committed the most serious of the latter two actions at the beginning of the twentieth century, in the final years of the Empire. To recognise facts of this kind in no way diminishes the magnitude of European crimes against native peoples. It does, however, suggest that ethnic and gender categories do not provide a reliable basis for a genuinely progressive politics. In fact the far right has shown itself particularly adroit at using these categories for antithetical purposes, with devastating consequences.

The view of Israel as a European settler state is a particularly crude violation of the historical record. Unlike the colonial populations of genuine settler states, such as the those of North and South America, Australia, and New Zealand, the Jews of Israel did not come as agents of a mother country in service of its imperial project. They were refugees of pogroms and the Nazi genocide in Europe, and of violent expulsion from Arab countries. Most had nowhere else to go. Over half of Israel’s Jews originated in Muslim countries. A significant number also came from India and Ethiopia. A large part of the Jewish population is not White, according to the colour coding conventions of the American racial caste system. They are neither European nor colonialist. To acknowledge this historical record is not to deny that the Palestinians suffered expulsion and dispossession in the process of Israel’s establishment. Nor does it undercut the damage that Israel’s continued occupation of Palestinian territory in the West Bank is doing to both the Palestinians, and to Israeli democracy. But recognising the historical and demographic facts does require that one understand the conflict as a clash between two national movements, each with considerable justice on its side. It obliges one to approach this conflict with nuance, balance, and an awareness of its complexity. Unfortunately, the caricature through which the anti-colonialist left regards history in general, and the Middle East in particular, excludes such a textured understanding of the situation.

Prior to the creation of Israel, left wing anti-Zionism was one of several political positions in a debate over which strategy offered the best route to Jewish political and social emancipation. Since 1948 it has been an agenda for dismantling Israel as a country. In the hands of the anti-colonialist left anti-Zionism has become a totalising ideology that promotes Israel to the role of a demonic historical actor. Not only does it exemplify the evils of Western colonialism and racism. Anyone who is associated with it by recognising it as a Jewish homeland, or, increasingly, simply through endorsing its right to exist, inherits its essential criminality. Jews in America (and abroad) who resist this view have become untouchables. As the members of J Street discovered, vigorous criticism of Israel’s government from a position of support for the country is not sufficient to secure entry into the anti-colonialist left. Total rejection of Israel’s legitimacy as a country is a necessary condition for acceptance. The prevalence of these attitudes in American universities has turned many campuses into hostile environments for Jewish students.

Jewish communities are increasingly affected by this criminalisation of Israel. Radical progressives have followed in the tradition of Soviet propagandists. They are refashioning vintage far right conspiracy myths of powerful Jewish lobbies controlling international finance, the press, and agencies of government, as leading themes of their anti-Zionist campaign. In 2019 Representative Ilahn Omar was forced to apologise for attributing American support for Israel to the influence of a powerful financial lobby (‘It’s all about the Benjamins Baby’).  In a speech to the Democratic Socialists of America on August 1, 2021 Representative Rashida Tlaib is quoted as stating, ‘Cutting people off from water is violence. And they do it from Gaza to Detroit.’ She went on to state that ‘the structure we’ve been living under right now is designed by those who exploit the rest of us, for their own profit”.[12] In this mode anti-Zionism ceases to be a political view. It becomes an instrument for encrypting hostility to Jews by embedding reference to them in an ideological proxy term. It is a variant of the coding technique that racists have used against people of colour for decades.

Many radical progressives have argued against demonising Trump supporters as counterproductive. They have called for dialogue with them as a necessary part of understanding and addressing their concerns. No such generosity is extended to Jews supportive of Israel, even those on the left. Rather than constructive discussion they are greeted with boycotts and vilification. This has recently escalated to violence and widespread abuse directed at Jews in general, particularly in times of active conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, as happened during the recent flare-up with Gaza in May, 2021.

There is an interesting historical irony in the career of extreme anti-Zionism. Whenever it becomes government policy, or achieves popular support, it invariably provides strong motivation for the original Zionist thesis concerning the non-viability of Jewish life as an exposed minority in the Diaspora. Three particularly clear instances of this phenomenon stand out. First, when Arab governments launched anti-Zionist campaigns in the period of Israel’s creation, 800,000 Middle Eastern and North African Jews were forced out of the countries in which they had lived for millennia, preceding the Arab conquest. The overwhelming majority of them came to Israel as refugees, where they and their descendants now make up the plurality of the population. Second, after decades of Soviet anti-Zionist campaigns, which destroyed organised Jewish life in the Soviet Union, most Soviet Jews left the country at the first opportunity. Over one million of them (the majority) immigrated to Israel. Third, in recent years the rise of violent anti-Semitism in France, particularly on the far left, and among radical Islamists, has provoked a significant increase in French Jewish immigration to Israel.

One would have thought that reflective anti-Zionists surveying this history might be concerned about the causal role that their ideology has played in generating the opposite effect that they claim to be working for. Rather than questioning some of their assumptions and methods in light of this evidence, they have persisted in replaying the campaigns of the past. Large scale radical anti-Zionist agitation serves to marginalise Jews and convince them that they have no place in the society that tolerates it. There is no mystery in this. Contrary to the claims of its advocates, in most cases, it serves as an effective vehicle for mobilising hostility to Jews. In the nineteenth century the German social democrat August Bebel described anti-Semitism as the socialism of fools. In the twenty-first century it has become the anti-colonialism of illiterates.

The progressive movement is the leading edge of opposition to the Republican far right. As such, it should be a natural home for American Jews, who are endangered by the rise of White supremacy and the new Confederacy that it seeks to create. Instead, the increasingly pronounced role of the radical component of this movement is turning it into another serious threat to the security and well being of the Jewish community.[13]

Caught in the Middle

American Jews are facing two emerging dangers. On one side Trump’s presidency has turned the Republican Party into a far right ethno-nationalist coalition. Anti-Semitism is one of the strands of racism that figures prominently among its core supporters. In the months following Trump’s defeat Republicans have succeeded in laying the legal basis for vote suppression and ballot manipulation in many of the states that they control. The Supreme Court has endorsed these manoeuvres, while the Biden administration’s response has been weak and ineffectual. This has opened the way for a possible electoral coup by a radicalised Republican party, both in Congressional and presidential elections. Should this happen, it would be likely to set off deep civil unrest, and serious conflict between the new regime and its opponents.

On the other side the anti-colonialist left of the progressive movement is leading a strident anti-Zionist campaign. It has targeted key sections of the Jewish community as the locus of a malign lobby that supports Israeli aggression and forms part of a larger intersectional network of oppression. Its influence within the Democratic Party is growing, and it is now a significant factor on the American left. At this point the threat from the far right is more immediate and more substantial.[14] However, the attitudes of the radical segment of the progressive movement are also acutely toxic to the safety of organised Jewish life.

The COVID pandemic has greatly exacerbated the political polarisation that has afflicted America over the past two decades. This polarisation is undermining the cohesion and stability that had characterised the post war American Jewish experience. Jews are now caught in the middle of a major social conflict. This is a situation that is familiar from pervious Jewish history in the Diaspora. It is fraught with difficulties and vulnerabilities that American Jews have, for the most part, not encountered before.

Minorities of American Jews, at opposing ends of the political spectrum, have responded to the crisis by embracing one of the forces that threaten the community. Right-wing Zionists and some members of the Orthodox community are active Trump supporters. They point to his pro-Israel actions, like moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem, as evidence that he is a friend of American Jewry. In fact, Trump appears to have done these things as part of a transactional political relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu, and a concern to curry favour with the Christian Evangelical part of his base, rather than from commitment to Israel or American Jews. He has traded in anti-Jewish rhetoric on several occasions. He has described Jews as financially ruthless, and he has suggested that they have dual allegiances by stating that those who vote for the Democrats are disloyal to Israel.[15] He has pointedly refused to condemn the neo-Nazi participants in the 6 January 2020 Washington insurrection, and those attending other pro-Trump events. While right wing pro-Republican Jewish groups focus on the anti-Semitism of the far left, they deny its existence in the Trump camp.

Trump follows the pattern of far right political leaders in Europe, particularly in Poland and Hungary, who combine support for ultra-nationalist movements in Israel with anti-Semitism at home.[16] Netanyahu’s willingness to overlook their domestic anti-Semitism was a crucial part of this arrangement. The current Israeli government appears to be moving away from it. Yair Lapid, Israel’s foreign minister, has sharply criticised Poland’s new legislation making it virtually impossible for Jews to reclaim property lost during the Nazi occupation, and the subsequent period of Communist rule. This has produced a major diplomatic row with the Polish government.[17]

Small organisations of radical left wing Jews, like Jewish Voices for Peace, have joined the anti-colonialist left, adopting its rabidly anti-Zionist views. Like their counterparts on the right, they have no difficulty in identifying the anti-Semitism emanating from the opposing side, but they insist that it is absent from their own. The far left uses these groups to deflect the charge that they are hostile to the Jewish community. They parade them as the ‘good Jews’ who represent enlightened Jewish opinion. They construe their critics as agents of the Zionist lobby, who use accusations of anti-Semitism to silence criticism of Israel and other forms of colonialism.

There are clear historical precedents for both types of collaboration. Neither ended well. Prior to the Holocaust the Jews of Italy had been well integrated into Italian society for several centuries. A small minority became active in the Fascist Party in the 1920s and 1930s.[18] In his first years in power Mussolini did not characterise Fascism in racial terms, and anti-Semitism was not part of his ideology. This changed as the ethnic focus of his nationalism became more central, and his alliance with Germany developed. Italy’s 1938 race laws targeted all Jews, Fascist, anti-Fascist, and non-affiliated, alike. Their political views were irrelevant to their exclusion under these laws, and to their situation during the subsequent Nazi deportations.

The Yevsektsiya, the Jewish wing of the Soviet Communist Party, was established in 1918 to recruit Jewish support for the Bolshevik revolution. It was assigned the task of dismantling the traditional institutions of organised Jewish life, and uprooting Zionism and the study of Hebrew. It was disbanded in 1929, after being largely successful in achieving this mission. Many of its leaders were killed or sent to the Gulag in Stalin’s purges during the 1930s. Stalin revived his anti-Zionist campaign in the early 1950s as a pretext for attacking Jewish Communist leaders in the Soviet Union, and in the East European countries under Soviet control. This featured a series of show trials with forced confessions. The Slansky trial of 1953 in Czechoslovakia was among the most infamous of these.

American Jewish Communists and fellow travellers defended this campaign. Harap (1953) is an interesting example. It offers a paradigm of the arguments used by the current anti-colonialist left in their anti-Zionist agitation. Harap insists that anti-Semitism does not exist in the Soviet Union or other Communist countries in Eastern Europe. He identifies Zionism as a bourgeois ideology that is part of an international network of capitalist oppression. He accuses the western press of misrepresenting the Slansky trial as aimed at Jews, when in fact Slansky and his associates were guilty of crimes against the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. These involved working with foreign interests to undermine it. He is at pains to stress the distinction between criticism of the Israeli government (at the time headed by Ben Gurion) and Zionism on one hand, and anti-Semitism on the other. Viewing this apologetic with the advantage of historical perspective, it is at least as remarkable for its apparent innocence as it is for its patent absurdity. It appeared as a pamphlet for the magazine Jewish Life, founded in 1946 as a publication associated with the US Communist Party. The magazine broke with the Party in 1956, and it was re-named Jewish Currents. It is now a forum for members of the radical anti-Zionist Jewish left. The similarity between some of the diatribes from each period of the publication is striking.

The majority of American Jews belong to neither of these extremes. They occupy positions on the broad continuum that characterises centrist liberal opinion. They are committed to Israel’s security and well being, although many are highly critical of its annexationist policies and its human rights violations. They support strong civil rights legislation, gender equality, and egalitarian social reforms, but they are wary of the more far reaching initiatives of the progressive movement. They are becoming increasingly alarmed at the rising tide of anti-Jewish racism and attendant hate crime that is coming their way from the two radical groups between which they are caught. For the most part the community does not seem to have fully processed the depth of the crisis that surrounds it. As a result, serious strategies for responding to this crisis have not yet emerged.[19]
Conclusion: Re-Entering Jewish History

America is going through a period of severe political turmoil which threatens the foundations of its liberal democracy. This turmoil is driven by at least two factors. One is the emergence of sharp economic inequality over many decades, and the serious social dislocations that it has generated. This process has undermined the prosperity of the middle and working classes, and it has created a fertile environment for extremism. The second is a significant regression in civil rights and economic mobility for African Americans. This development has laid bare the extent to which the United States has never overcome its legacy of slavery and racial exclusion. Both phenomena owe much to the conservative economic and social policies of both Republican and centrist Democratic administrations since 1968.

American Jews are caught between a white supremacist threat from the far right and a hostile anti-Zionist challenge from the far left. For the first time, they find themselves increasingly at risk from militant forces that are seizing control of the political mainstream. Given their past experience of relative invisibility and integration, they are not well equipped to deal with this situation. Their traditional role of benefactor and advocate for persecuted Jewish Communities abroad is of little use in the current context. To fashion a viable set of strategies for coping with the dangers that they now face, it is necessary to recognise that they are no longer outside of the turbulent flow of Jewish history. The crisis of democracy in America is thrusting them into the midst of it.


Mike DeBonis and Rachael Bade (2019), ‘Rep. Omar Apologizes After House Democratic Leadership Condemns Her Comments as “Anti-Semitic Tropes”‘, Washington Post, 11 February, https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2019/02/11/its-all-about-benjamins-baby-ilhan-omar-again-accused-anti-semitism-over-tweets/

Henry Louis Gates (2009), ‘The “Lost Cause” That Built Jim Crow’, New York Times, 8 November, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/08/opinion/sunday/jim-crow-laws.html.

Louis Harap (1953), ‘The Truth About the Prague Trials’, Jewish Life, January https://www.marxists.org/subject/jewish/harap-prague.pdf.

Shalom Lappin (2006), ‘How Class Disappeared from Western Politics’, Dissent, Vol. 53, No. 1, pp. 73-78.

Shalom Lappin (2019), ‘The Re-Emergence of the Jewish Question’, The Journal of  Contemporary Antisemitism, Vol, 2, No. 1, pp. 29-46 (also published in Fathom, May 2019, https://fathomjournal.org/the-re-emergence-of-the-jewish-question/).

Bernard Lewis (1986), Jews in Islam, Princeton University Press.

Dana Milbank (2009), ‘Rashida Tlaib’s Bigotry Comes from the MAGA Handbook’, Washington Post, 9 August, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/08/09/rashida-tlaib-bigotry-antisemitism-trump-maga/.

David Montgomery (2021), ‘Merrick Garland Will Not Deliver Your Catharis’, Washington Post, 19 July, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/magazine/2021/07/19/merrick-garland-justice-department-catharsis/.

Jennifer Rubin (2019), ‘Trump’s Anti-Semitic Attacks on American Jews Keep Coming’, Washington Post, 9 December, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/12/09/trumps-anti-semitic-attacks-american-jews-keep-coming/.

Michele Sarfatti (ed.) (2017), Italy’s Fascist Jews: Insights on an Unusual Scenario, Quest. Issues in Contemporary Jewish History, Issue 11, October, https://www.quest-cdecjournal.it/?issue=11.

Geoffrey Skelley (2021), ‘ How The Republican Push To Restrict Voting Could Affect Our Elections, FiveThirtyEight, 17 May, 2021, https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/how-the-republican-push-to-restrict-voting-could-affect-our-elections/.

[1] I am grateful to Daniel Burston, Eve Gerrard, Jacqueline Gueron, Randy Ingham, Anthony Julius, Matthew Kramer, Elena Lappin, David Lappin, Avishai Margalit, Peter Nicholas, Peter Pagin, Colin Shindler, Richard Sprout, Hillel Steiner, and Ken Waltzer for valuable comments on earlier versions of this article. I am solely responsible for the views expressed here, and for any mistakes that the article may contain.

[2] Muslim Spain (sometimes described as a Golden Age of religious and cultural pluralism) provides an example of this pattern. Periods of harmony and rich cultural interaction between Jews and the Muslim majority were punctuated by forced conversions, exiles, and pogroms. One such case is the Berber Almohad conquest of parts of North Africa and Spain in the twelfth century. This was an extreme Islamic movement, which cancelled dhimmi status, and required Jews to either convert or leave. As a result, Maimonides was forced to flee his native Cordova, eventually settling in Egypt. A second instance is Granada, where Shmuel HaNagid rose to the position of Vizier and general of the army. When Shmuel’s son Joseph succeeded him, a popular revolt killed him, and destroyed the Granada Jewish community, in a bloody massacre, in 1066. See Lewis (1986) for a historical survey of Jewish life in Muslim countries.

[3] Willhelm Marr formulated this doctrine in his pamphlet Der Weg zum Siege des Germanenthums über das Judenthum (The Way to Victory of Germanism over Judaism) in 1879. He had previously supported the democratic revolutions of 1848 as a member of left wing German nationalist groups. Many graduates of these revolutions went on to careers in far right ethno-nationalist politics.

[4] The 1989 film Driving Miss Daisy portrays the fragility of the Jewish position in the segregated Southern social order. Randy Newman’s 1988 song Dixie Flyer also hints at it.

[5] See Gates (2019) for an overview of Reconstruction, its roll back under the White Southern ‘‘Redemption’’ backlash, and the respective roles of the Republican and Democratic Parties in these events.

[6] See Lappin (2006) for the role of identity politics in Republican electoral campaigns.

[7] See Lappin (2019) for a discussion of the correlation between the sharp economic inequality that has emerged over the past 40 years, and the social dislocations that it has generated, on one hand, and the rise of extremist anti-globalising political movements on the other.

[8] The Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh on October 27, 2018, in which a neo-Nazi gunmen killed 11 people, is one of the most dramatic instances of this pattern. The terrorist who committed the attack claimed that Jewish organisations were promoting immigration. He was responding to the anti-immigrant hysteria that Trump and his associates had generated.

[9] See Geoffrey Skelley (2021) for a detailed discussion of these voter restriction and ballot intervention laws.

[10] See David Montgomery’s (2021) portrait of Garland’s initial period in office.

[11] See Lappin (2006) for discussion of the replacement of class with ethnic identity in the anti-colonialist left.

[12] See Mike DeBonis and Rachael Bade (2019) for Ilhan Omar’s comments, and the reaction to them. See Dana Milbank (2009) on Rashida Tlaib’s use of the Jewish conspiracy theme in her speech.

[13] Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, the two most prominent leaders of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, are not advocates of the anti-colonialist left and its identity politics. They come from the liberal left/social democratic tradition, in which egalitarian economic policies and civil rights initiatives are the primary devices for pursuing social change. They are also not anti-Zionists. While strongly critical of the Israeli government on settlements and human rights violations in the Palestinian territories, they are firmly committed to a two-state solution. Their views align with those of J Street. However, they have sought to deflect criticism of radical members of the House Democratic caucus for extreme statements about Israel and the purported influence of Jewish lobbies that support it. Should current political trends continue, it is reasonable to expect that they will be forced to make a clear decision on the extent to which they are prepared to indulge the anti-colonialist radicalism of this part of their constituency.

[14] In this respect the situation in America is distinct from that in Western Europe, particularly Britain and France, where the far left and its radical Islamist allies constitute the most pressing danger to Jewish communities there. I am grateful to Matthew Kramer for useful discussion on this point.

[15] Rubin (2019) provides examples of this rhetoric, and an account of its relationship to the anti-Semitism of Trump’s White supremacist coalition.

[16] See Lappin (2019) for discussion of this phenomenon.

[17] The Times of Israel (2021) https://www.timesofisrael.com/poland-will-not-pay-polish-pm-hits-back-at-lapid-criticism-of-restitution-law/.

[18] See the articles in Sarfatti (2017) for the history of Jews in the Italian Fascist Party.

[19] It is difficult to avoid seeing some distant parallels between the situation of American Jews today and that of Jews in Germany and Austria at the turn of the last century. The latter were well integrated and prosperous. But they faced a rising tide of anti-Semitism from the nationalist right, as well as considerable hostility from parts of the left that campaigned against ‘‘Jewish capitalism’’. This situation turned deadly in the years following the First World War. Lewis (1986) notes the irony in the fact that German and Austrian Jews interceded on behalf of persecuted Jewish communities in the Ottoman Empire and Iran in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, only for some of their descendants to seek refuge in those countries when the Nazis came to power.

Source:Ocnus.net 2021

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