Intersections of Antisemitism and White Supremacy

Categories: Black-Jewish Relations

by Aaron Wolfson

These days, everyone has an opinion on antisemitism. Amidst this talk, however, are more questions than answers.

Is the threat of antisemitism — also known as anti-Jewish oppression — greater on the left or on the right? Is it antisemitic to criticize Israeli government policy or to support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement? Is anti-Zionism just another name for antisemitism? Is there even a single definition of antisemitism that we can coalesce around?

What’s not up for debate is that hate crimes against American Jews are rising. Watchdog groups report the same trends: microaggressions, discrimination by exclusion, acts of vandalism.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which tracks hate crimes every year, reported a 12 percent jump in antisemitic incidents in 2019: more than 2,100, the highest total on record. And now, as conspiracy theories mushroom amidst the coronavirus pandemic, swastikas and other Nazi imagery appear on handmade signs at coronavirus lockdown protests. One sign compared Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker, who is Jewish, to Adolf Hitler.

The last two years have featured some of the most gruesome antisemitic attacks against Jews in the history of the United States. Eleven shot dead in a Pittsburgh synagogue. Five stabbed in Monsey, New York, celebrating Hanukkah at a rabbi’s home. A woman murdered at a Chabad congregation in Poway, California. Three gunned down at a kosher market in Jersey City.

Such attacks cannot be pinned on any one group of people or organization, any one ideology, or any one goal or purpose. They sometimes feel incomprehensible.

If we have any hope of combating the rise of antisemitism, we must dig deeper until we can uncover a foundational understanding of what scholars have called the “world’s oldest hatred.” We need to understand where antisemitism came from and what purpose it serves. We need to understand its function in today’s world and to whom it is useful. We need to search for it and confront it where it lives, wherever it lives.

OUR WORK

For more than 50 years, the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs (JCUA) has been dedicated to combating antisemitism, racism, and poverty in partnership with Chicago’s diverse communities. JCUA’s antisemitism work has taken different forms over the decades, and in the previous few years, the organization has found renewed urgency in the fight.

Part of JCUA’s approach is to equip its members with the tools they need to understand and combat antisemitism. Recently, more than 30 members of JCUA came together for a day-long training, led by JCUA organizers, to learn, share, and reflect on the history and current realities of antisemitism.

We focused on a variety of topics and themes, including: the history of antisemitism; how it functions in cycles toward the purpose of creating a scapegoat; its current expressions in events like the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville; how to identify and work with our internalized antisemitism; and how antisemitism intersects with our other identities, like our race, our class, and our gender (and many more).

At JCUA, we fight anti-Jewish oppression in the context of a broader racial justice framework. (Every member had previously participated in a racial justice training earlier in the year.) We recognized that many of us are white or white-passing Ashkenazi Jews. There are ethnic Jews of every racial identity, but we all have to understand how whiteness has been granted to Jews: we have opted into the system of white supremacy.

We reinforce this, to our detriment, when we center whiteness and uphold Ashkenormativity — the centering by default of Ashkenazi attitudes and culture — in our groups. Those of us who identify as white and/or Ashkenazi need to understand the internalized dominance that we’ve been socialized into, and how it affects our relationships with Jews of Color. And for Jews of Color, the challenge is immeasurably greater.

THE CYCLE

Antisemitism is a constantly shifting force. It manifests differently in different cultures and in different eras. It works in cycles. But the cycle always crescendos with the same outcomes for Jews: degradation, demonization, isolation, expulsion, and murder. (Much of this material on how antisemitism works is adapted from April Rosenblum’s pamphlet The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere: Making Resistance to Antisemitism Part of All of Our Movements. Check it out!)

There are four steps in the primary cycle of antisemitism.

The first step: isolating Jews from other oppressed groups. This is how waves of anti-Jewish oppression have often started throughout history. The power structure, which in America is the system of white supremacy, hyper-capitalism, and racial and social control, works to turn oppressed groups against each other, as a means of obscuring itself, and of hiding the true source of the exploitation from the exploited. We’ve seen this over and over in the story of American immigration: any new immigrant group inherits the lowest status, and all other groups are manipulated into blaming the new group for all ills.

Antisemitism is as old as Jews are. But we can trace its dominant form — and see a clear example of step one in motion — in early Christian Europe, and the myth that Jews were the killers of Jesus.

European rulers codified the punishment for Jesus’ death into laws and institutions that isolated Jews — by controlling where Jews could and could not live, and which professions they could and could not practice. As happens with oppressions, this maltreatment and othering spawned further grotesque ideas: Jews were the devil, Jews drank the blood of Christian children, Jews were the secret source of horrors like plagues and wars.

If Jews were so demonic, why did rulers not simply ban them from everything, and eject them from every place? The answer reveals the second step in the cycle: the power structure teaches other oppressed groups that Jews are exploiting them (thus hiding the true source of the exploitation), and it encourages those groups to channel their anger at Jews.

For this to work, Jews have to be seen as able to exploit. They must enjoy some amount of material success. They must be allowed to rise, temporarily, in order that they may be knocked down later. This is the source of many antisemitic tropes claiming that Jews have supernatural power, and that they are controlling things behind the scenes.

A classic example from feudal societies is Jews as tax collectors. Barred from other roles in society, rulers pressed Jews into service collecting their (often extortionate) taxes and debts. This was an ingenious set-up: the nobles confiscated the masses’ wealth, but they got the Jews to be the “middle agents,” making the Jews the face of the exploitative policy.

The goal is to create a scapegoat: a group that other oppressed groups can blame for their exploitation (and punish for it), while the true oppressors remain invisible and unharmed. And over the course of history, Jews have been the ultimate scapegoat. The powers that be teach oppressed groups — whether they are Christian peasants in medieval Europe, poor Germans and Eastern Europeans fighting economic deprivation during the 1930s, or disaffected youths turning to the alt-right and Neo-Nazism in America today — that the Jews are the villains holding them down.

And then, the third step in the cycle: people strike out violently. We’ve seen it again and again.This is expulsion. Pogroms. The Shoah.

How does this keep happening?

When we are ignorant of the intersectionality of identities and the interconnection of oppressions, groups of people wielding power and supremacy take advantage. They isolate each oppressed group, pitting them against each other. For Jews, this isn’t just something that happened in 1200s France, or in Spain of 1492, or in 1800s Poland, or in Germany of 1933. This has happened much more recently and much closer to home, with consequences we’re still grappling with today.

MODERN INTERSECTIONS

In the U.S., Black people and Jews have been set against each other multiple times by our own (old, white, Christian, male) government. Despite a legacy of rich collaboration and shared experiences of being second-class citizens, by the 1930s and 1940s, there was a new divergence: our country began to treat Jewish people like they were white — a similar evolution to other ethnic groups like Italians and Poles — while continuing to treat Black people with blatant contempt.

It is true that in the system of “redlining,” in which the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) mapped out neighborhoods along racial lines and refused to extend loans on properties in which Black residents lived, the agency also considered an area’s Jewish presence as a marker of lesser economic value. But Jews could still get loans. What’s more, Jewish veterans returning from World War II were allowed to reap the advantages of the GI Bill; Black veterans were denied.

Some Jews profited from this exploitation of Black people, and in different ways. On the South Side of Chicago, neighborhoods were integrated, with Black people and Jewish people living in close proximity. When these blocks were redlined, many white people, including Jews, moved away, sometimes in the dead of night. This was “white flight.” Many felt severe economic pressure to do so, both from declining property values and from rapacious slumlords eager to exploit contract buying schemes. But these wounds to Black communities have never been adequately addressed or reconciled: they remain open today.

Jews created deeper wounds on the South Side by actively participating in the system of contract buying that redlining made possible. Landlords sold property (at well-above-market rate) to Black families on loan contracts that withheld titles from the new homeowners until the sum was paid in full: a single missed payment allowed the landlord to foreclose the property, leaving the family with no equity and no home. Some of these landlords were Jewish.

Jews did not have the power to create the system of redlining. And the Jewish people who participated in this exploitation did not do so because they were Jews: they participated because they wanted to profit from it. But they participated. Whether or not the conscious intention of the FHA was to drive a wedge between the Black community and the Jewish community, that’s precisely what happened.

This is tragic, not least because it mars and obscures the history of Black people and Jewish people working together, like when Historically Black Colleges and Universities welcomed Jewish refugees, who were barred from most American educational institutions, onto their campuses as faculty and staff.

If our communities — which, it’s important to reiterate, overlap demographically — come to blows, then white supremacy will continue to grow in strength.

The final stage of the cycle of anti-Jewish oppression is Jews’ cooperation with the ruling elites. In an effort to gain safety, we stay silent to the true nature of systemic oppression. We become compliant and complicit in furthering the agenda of those already in power. In doing so we perpetuate the cycle of our own isolation from other oppressed groups. And, in the end, the safety we seek remains elusive.

This is currently happening in synagogues throughout the country. In our bid to protect ourselves from active shooters, we are inviting more law enforcement personnel to stand guard in our sacred spaces. We seek the sanctuary of police guns, even as those same guns are used to murder unarmed Black people.

WHAT CAN SAVE US?

Our Jewish community is more diverse than many people, even some Jews, realize. Judaism is an all-encompassing concept: it is a religion, an ethnicity, a shared culture and history, and a way of life. Not only do popular portrayals of Judaism hide this diversity, but we often hide it even from ourselves, in our own communities and spaces.

But we have an opportunity. We can use the incredible (but overlooked) diversity of the Jewish community to combat antisemitism at its roots.

What a blessing that in our community, we have Black Jews, Latinx Jews, Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews, and Arab Jews. We are uniquely situated to use our collective Jewish voice to speak out against all oppressions. This is a way to counter the isolation that leads inexorably to Jewish scapegoating and to violence against Jews. And those of us who identify as white can use the privilege granted to us by whiteness to reinforce this effort.

At JCUA, we refuse to stay silent. We will not stand idly by. We have learned from history. We won’t allow the tactics of isolation to work against us. We know that hiding will not save us. Outsourcing our security to the police will not save us. Continuing to support the system of white supremacy, even when it appears to offer us acceptance and protection, will definitely not save us.

We need to be clear on what we are not willing to do in our fight. We are not willing to trample on other oppressed groups, or obstruct their quest for justice. We are not willing to ignore the ways in which white Jews participate as oppressors in the systems of white supremacy and capitalism. We are not willing to cede our right to question or even reject the use of state power to protect ourselves at our places of worship. We are not willing to blindly answer violence with violence.

None of that will save us. What will save us is unity.

JCUA stands with all oppressed groups, in Chicago, America, and across the world. Our liberation and our safety are bound up together. Fighting white supremacy fights antisemitism. Fighting anti-Black racism fights antisemitism. Fighting economic inequality and poverty fights antisemitism. Fighting the oppression of immigrants fights antisemitism.

Through education and action, we will continue to fight.

Aaron Wolfson is a member of JCUA’s immigration committee and white persons’ racial justice working group.