Jewish Fragility

When I receive appeals from Jewish organizations exhorting me to fight antisemitism—which, they claim, is on the rise here and abroad—I tend to toss them away. During many periods of time, and in ...

When I receive appeals from Jewish organizations exhorting me to fight antisemitism—which, they claim, is on the rise here and abroad—I tend to toss them away. During many periods of time, and in many places, it has been dangerous to be Jewish; but that hardly seems true today. In Europe, the catastrophe of the Shoah inoculated modern nation-states against antisemitism, one of the oldest of hatreds. Consequently, we can assume It can’t happen again. Surely in the US, where Jewish communities enjoy unprecedented freedom and privilege, lingering antisemitism is a faint carryover from an earlier age. It can’t happen here.

Yet, many of us now find ourselves blindsided by the appearance of swastikas on college campuses, shootings in synagogues, unabashed anti-Jewish conspiracy thinking reported as news on major cable networks, and, perhaps most stunningly of all, the fact that the current occupant of the White House knowingly retweets barely disguised antisemitic tropes. In response, armed sentries have taken up permanent guard at Jewish institutions. Though few Jewish Americans would say that their very existence as Jews is under siege, old fears newly circulate. Paradoxically, accusations of antisemitism have simultaneously been weaponized by the right and wielded against those who are critical of the state of Israel.

How can we make sense of the apparent resurgence of antisemitism in the new millennium? And how, if at all, can recent discussions of racism advance our analysis of it?

Three books under review help us to consider these questions, as well as reflect upon the ways in which whiteness, privilege, and Jewishness twist and blur in the US. Read together, at an apparent moment of renewed antisemitism here and abroad, these books indicate that many Jews, while often benefiting from white privilege, are also vulnerable to a white supremacy that cuts across ideological divides.

European cultural nationalists in the 18th and 19th centuries defined Jews not simply by their religious beliefs or cultural practices. They also defined them as “racial others,” with catastrophic effects. In the US, it was not until the mid-20th century that those of Ashkenazi heritage, who comprised the vast majority of American Jews, were widely considered to be white. According to an influential account by anthropologist Karen Brodkin, after World War II, Jews moved up the class ladder, out of the cities, and into whiteness. They melted, or assimilated, into the dominant culture, because they were perceived to be white and thus could belong.

Though Black people and Jewish people shared an urban world, their paths steadily diverged. As Jews and other ethnic groups busily whitened themselves by moving up in the class hierarchy and out of lower-income neighborhoods, African Americans were often shut out of the very things (such as home ownership or access to higher education) that made Jewish upward mobility possible. Jews’ relative privilege fueled their faith in liberalism, which enabled them to distance themselves from the racism in their midst. Perhaps that’s why many American Jews were shocked by the election of Trump.

The complacency of comfortable white liberals is what Robin Diangelo seeks to unsettle in White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. She wants white people to understand that their whiteness affords them privileges, to which they tend to be oblivious. This blindness, Diangelo argues, buttresses structural racism. Acts of racism can be deliberate, unwitting, covert, overt, individual, or institutional. You don’t need a white hood to be a white supremacist. And yet, when called on their prejudices, members of dominant groups tend to recoil.

How can we make sense of the apparent resurgence of antisemitism in the new millennium?

“White fragility,” according to Diangelo, refers, then, to the range of defensive moves that white people perform to disengage from conversations about race and racism, because of their inability to tolerate discomfort. These acts include physically removing themselves from such situations; arguing away, denying, or minimizing the continuing significance of race or white privilege; and even, at times, becoming threatening and aggressive.

Diangelo doesn’t discuss Jews or antisemitism per se. But she does call out those who, “although their internal identity may be different … ‘pass’ as white,” and who, therefore, “still have a white experience externally.” In other words, even ethnic whites who may not identify as white are “still granted white status and the advantages that come with that status.”

Diangelo argues that white-presenting individuals rarely, if ever, experience a sense of “not belonging racially.” They exude a “deeply internalized assumption of racial superiority.” And while a white person may have been picked on mercilessly—if he or she is a numerical minority in a specific context—that is not the same as racism, Diangelo says. Instead, such behavior may be race prejudice or discrimination, which lack the structural quality and authority of racism. In this schema, antisemitism and racism are different kinds of oppression, and consequently have different roots. Those who can pass as white—including many Jews—elude structural racism.

The concepts of white fragility and white privilege do important work, forcing liberals to own up to their racism and offering them a way forward. But because they are rooted in binary understandings of race, these notions are blunt tools with which to analyze the unique experience of light-skinned Jews, let alone Jews of color.

It’s true that antipathy to Jews is not as foundational as anti-Black attitudes and structural racism in the US. By all measures, Black Americans live sicker, die sooner, and are more exposed to police violence than white citizens. Collectively, Jews have higher median household incomes than any other religious group. Yet antisemitism often racializes Jewishness, claiming Jewishness to be an inherited and embodied set of traits, as well as a threat to the body politic. Notions of white privilege also fail to appreciate the ongoing trauma and sense of loss that animate Jewish life. This sense of loss is most acute for those who have direct relationships to the victims of Nazism, though it is not limited to them.

People carry their histories with them. Jews were confined to ghettos in 16th-century Venice, subjected to pogroms in 19th- and early 20th-century Russia, denigrated by the Nazis as racially inferior, and exterminated because of who they were and how they identified. These ongoing wounds—though hidden by external white privilege—nonetheless shape Jewish life today, here and abroad. They intensify some political discussions and make others impossible to broach, setting Jews apart from other ostensibly white populations.

Clearly, a focus on white privilege can make antisemitism more difficult to see. That’s one lesson of Deborah Lipstadt’s most recent book, Antisemitism: Here and Now, which takes us to a college campus, perhaps one like Emory (where Lipstadt teaches). During discussions about bigotry and prejudice, she tells us, Jewish students’ attempts to address antisemitism can, at times, be muffled because of the claim that, since Jews are a “privileged” group, the connections these students are trying to make are irrelevant and invalid. Fellow students and faculty members chide them, according to Lipstadt, informing Jewish students that for something to be racist or prejudicial, it must be composed of “prejudice plus power.” Under such definitions, those who possess power, such as white, middle-class Jewish Americans, cannot also be victims of prejudice. This “prejudice plus power” argument positions American Jews as, simply, oppressors—a deeply ahistorical reading that perpetuates age-old stereotypes of the powerful Jew and feeds antisemitism.


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Lipstadt has written a number of important books about antisemitism, and characterizes this prejudice as “an illogical, delusional passion full of self-contradictions and absurd contentions.” She sued Holocaust denier David Irving and became the subject of a movie about the trial starring Rachel Weisz. Antisemitism: Here and Now is a rumination that places the author in conversation with two imagined acquaintances—both liberals: one a Jewish undergraduate, the other a non-Jewish faculty colleague—who are concerned and confused about antisemitism and how to talk about it. The book describes how antisemitism, an age-old hatred that won’t quit, cuts across ideological lines. The crux of the book is a discussion of campus-based concerns that bring questions of antisemitism to the fore today, especially in relation to Israel. She warns readers that the book will anger many people—which it most surely will.

As Lipstadt remarks ruefully, “many Jews involved with progressive causes are increasingly feeling [a] tug, if not outright war, between their Jewish and political identities.” The issue of Israel divides American Jews like no other. Some insist that the Jewish state is their homeland, a safe haven in a sea of enemies, and they must support it no matter what it does. On the other side are those who assert that Israel is little more than a settler colony that has institutionalized apartheid-like policies that are racist at their core. On liberal college campuses, she says, Israel has become toxified. Implying that Israeli human rights abuses are aberrations, she is far more critical of those who condemn the Jewish state than of those who seek to protect it at all costs.

Lipstadt rightly calls out the left for not taking antisemitism seriously enough. But her attempt to equate left-wing and right-wing anti-Jewish attitudes seems forced—and inaccurate. Yes, the UK Labour Party’s Jeremy Corbyn has been oblivious to the antisemitism still evident in polite British society, including on the left. Yes, Louis Farrakhan must be criticized for his antisemitic attitudes. Still, it is important to acknowledge that antisemitism on the left rarely, if ever, rises to the level of virulence associated with the right. Nor is it as powerful. However, Lipstadt contends that antisemitism is an even greater threat on the left, because it is “more institutionalized” there. Had she spent less time on college campuses and more time in evangelical churches, or on certain corners of the internet, chances are she would have come to a very different conclusion.

To really understand why antisemitism is surging today, one must understand two powerful movements: right-wing Christianity and authoritarian populism. The former plays a much more important role in American life now than it did 40 or 50 years ago. Christians may not be as intent upon converting Jews as they once were, but many evangelicals subscribe to forms of philosemitism and Zionism that mask a belief in the inherent superiority of Christians. Moreover, they often view America as a nation that is essentially Christian.

For nearly four decades, since Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the Christian right has played a key role in the Republican Party. It even delivered votes for Donald Trump, who has little in common with right-wing Christians, except for their authoritarian impulses. Lipstadt misses an opportunity to reflect upon how right-wing populists, aligned with Christian conservatives, fuel public forms of antisemitism that are more visible in the US today than they were at any time since the 1930s and the era of Father Coughlin.

One of the engines of this antisemitic resurgence is the so-called alt-right, the focus of a new book, Proud Boys and the White Ethnostate: How the Alt-Right Is Warping the American Imagination. Alexandra Minna Stern, a University of Michigan historian, wades into the belly of the alt-right beast, deconstructing narratives that circulate in the forms of faux scholarship and troll attacks on the internet. She clearly and concisely analyzes an enormous swathe of nationalist and racist material, sparing the rest of us from that odious task. What she finds is that a younger generation of activists are repackaging the far right, waging a battle for cultural dominance that they believe (following Antonio Gramsci) is a necessary precondition for assuming political power.

Though they distance themselves from the Nazi past, today’s clean-cut, khaki-clad wannabe fascists find inspiration in European-style identitarianism and nationalism. They are a scattered, networked group of mainly angry white men who represent a variety of different semisecret organizations in North America, Europe, and Australia. They see themselves as an oppressed group of truth-tellers, a youthful vanguard counterculture. The internet is their home, where they glorify a fascist metapolitics that stokes fears of “white genocide” and stands for white/Christian/male dominance. The alt-right thrives on divisive fearmongering, wrapped in talk of heritage and belonging. Fueled by embittered white, Christian males and their female helpmates, it shares a vision of a white ethnostate that links blood and soil, excluding people of color and those who would align with them.

While the vast majority of Jews in the US may benefit from white privilege, they also suffer from white supremacy.

One of the great strengths of Stern’s book is her nuanced intersectional analysis, weaving together alt-right positions on race, class, gender, and sexuality, showing how white supremacy works in tandem with male supremacy. To understand white nationalists’ opposition to abortion and transgender rights, one must appreciate the ways in which they knit together anti-feminism and white nationalism, championing eugenic ideas. (Abortion rights, Florida State Senator Dennis Baxley recently suggested, are “causing Europeans to be replaced by immigrants and paving the way for the end of Western civilization.”)

Stern, the author of an acclaimed history of eugenics in America, traces the alt-right’s growing opposition to transgender rights to the movement’s strong belief in a highly patriarchal notion of family, which is predicated on binary notions of gender and race. It holds out hope for a future white ethnostate that will transcend the unruliness of modern life.

Black people, along with growing numbers of nonwhite immigrants on American and European shores, pose the biggest threat to Western civilization, alt-righters believe. But Jews play a central, symbolic role in alt-right political discourse for having supposedly engineered the decline of white dominance. Much as they were economic “middlemen” in Europe for centuries, according to the racist right, Jews in the US act as political middlemen who stand in the way of white supremacy. “Most white nationalists,” Stern writes, “see a Jewish stranglehold on American society that fuels multiculturalism and feminism and hence accelerates white extinction, constituting the largest obstacle to the white ethnostate.”

In other words, alt-right antisemitism is rooted in the claim that Jews created multiculturalism and are largely responsible for globalism and feminism, all of which threaten the power of white Christian men. It’s a new twist on the age-old theory of Jewish dominance, echoing The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Many of these ideas had circulated on the right-wing fringe for decades. Now that they have found their way into popular culture—moderate right-wing organizations, the Republican Party, and the White House—we can no longer dismiss them as the ravings of the few.

At times, these old antisemitic tropes coexist with a kind of alt-right philosemitism that publicly reveres Israel as a model ethnostate. That Benjamin Netanyahu is now cozying up to antisemitic leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orban is a case in point. The principal architect of Trump’s draconian immigration policies—who is overseeing the administration’s efforts to root out cosmopolitanism (or, in current far-right lingo, “globalism”) on our shores—is a Jew. While many Jews wittingly or unwittingly benefit from white privilege, few actively support white supremacy as gleefully as do Stephen Miller or Netanyahu.

Perhaps this signals a growing split among Jews: a division between those who can and do choose to pass as white, actively embracing white privilege and sometimes furthering white supremacy; and those whose bodies, backgrounds, or politics exclude them from power, including growing numbers of Jews of color, along with leftist Jews, and others.


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While the vast majority of Jews in the US may benefit from white privilege, they also suffer from white supremacy. Phenotypically white Jews are rarely, if ever, pulled over by cops or unfairly punished for schoolyard transgressions because of their appearance. Our mainly middle-class status and predominantly light-skinned bodies make us less vulnerable, in general. Still, the systematic antisemitism at the core of white supremacy bursts out on occasion in violent ways. Think back to the infamous 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville that brought the slogan “Jews Will Not Replace Us” into the homes of millions of Americans and led to the tragic death of one protester.

White antiracist activists in the US, if they discuss antisemitism at all, tend to see its roots as very different from those of racism. But could it be that racism and antisemitism operate on parallel tracks, at times reinforcing one another? In 18th- and 19th-century Europe, antisemitism provided a template for modern conceptions of racism, as historian George Mosse has shown. Even today in the US, some Jews continue to straighten their hair and their noses, change their names, and downplay their roots in order to ascend the class hierarchy and feel more at ease. Is this not a kind of racism at work? While most (Ashkenazi) Jews may have become white in postwar America, their membership in the dominant culture is far from guaranteed.

The fact that we tend to like simple narratives is what makes Jewishness so difficult to talk about today. The story of contemporary Jewishness is far from clear-cut. Jews are insiders and outsiders, white and nonwhite, powerful and marginal, simultaneously privileged by structures of power and oppressed by them. By slotting organized antisemitism into the past, and viewing this country as exceptional, American Jews have operated under an illusion of safety that is now in question. Many white liberals, Jews among them, saw issues of race and racism as mainly impacting people of color. Today, we no longer have that luxury, if we ever did.

White supremacy directly affects Black and brown people and undermines the whole of society. Racism—and its close cousin antisemitism—is the wedge that the enemies of cosmopolitanism and pluralism are now using to wrest power and divide us all against one another.


This article was commissioned by Michèle Lamont. icon

Featured image: Jewish Museum, Berlin, Germany (2019). Photograph by Nick Fewings / Unsplash