Not On Antisemitism (JVP)


If you are a gentile on the left side of the political spectrum and you want to be an ally to Jews, but do not fully understand the history of antisemitism and the politics of Israel and Palestine, you may not want to look to this book for guidance. If you are a Jew, committed or not to the struggle for social justice, you may find unpleasant or awkward a book “on antisemitism” that is not a book on antisemitism.

After years avoiding a direct address to the problem of antisemitism, particularly as it manifests itself on the political left, Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) came up with a manifesto and a volume of edited essays on the topic. The strongest selling point of On Antisemitism: Solidarity and The Struggle for Justice lies in opening the discussion to diverse writers, among them Ashkenzai Jews, Black Jews, Latinx Jews, Mizrachi Jews, and Queer Jews alongside Christian and Muslim allies of “the movement.”  The focus of this book “on antisemitism” is not antisemitism, but rather the claim that antisemitism is being abused by “the Jewish community” to silence “criticisms” of Israel and to obfuscate racism in mainstream Jewish society. The strongest essays are those that actually return to the subject after addressing endemic problems concerning the marginalization Jews of Color in the Jewish community. The book’s primary emphasis is political.

On Antisemitism is noteworthy if only for the fact that JVP has successfully captured a prominent visible profile for itself at the far anti-Zionist left of the Jewish community. The volume offers a snapshot view of the American Jewish community at this historical moment after 50 years of Occupation and de facto annexation in the West Bank, creating a single state under semi-apartheid Jewish hegemony in Israel/Palestine, the rise of religious radicalization and racial animosity, the collapse of the Zionist dream as heretofore dreamed as Jewish and liberal-democratic. The book highlights a vocal, even obnoxious segment of the American Jewish left. Written primarily by activists, not scholars, On Antisemitism raises serious questions about the American Jewish community, Israel and the Occupation, the history of Zionism, power and privilege. Alongside these are genuine questions concerning the positioning of the Jewish left in relation to the liberal mainstream of the Jewish community and to larger national and international political contexts and social justice agendas.

On Antisemitism is not a book about antisemitism. One will find nothing to learn by way of a direct examination of its history and its contemporary expression on the right and on the left, the demonization of Jews, stigmatization, tropes of Jewish power, privilege, and influence, claims regarding Jews, money and the media, or the active attempts at excluding Jews from society and culture, primarily on campus. The volume advances no leftist point of view that might shed light on the actual phenomenon from that particular perspective. Not antisemitism, the book’s primary intention is to explore how antisemitism has been allegedly misused to cudgel critics of Israel, to obscure or justify Israeli oppression of Palestinians, and to hide completely from view the dynamics of white Ashkenazi privilege vis-à-vis Mizrachi Jews and (other) Jews of Color including Black Jews.

In this way, the discussion in On Antisemitism pivots constantly off topic, and about this one begins to wonder. Consider the “JVP Statements on Antisemitism” included in the volume as a case in point. The Statements would seem to be a formal institutional position paper in which the opening historical sketch and discussion of Christian hegemony and racial antisemitism are interrupted by the caveat that antisemitism does not affect all Jews in the same way. The caveat is then followed by the claim that, unlike anti-Black and anti-Muslim racism and xenophobia, antisemitism in the United States is not “systemic,” by which is meant reinforced by state institutions such as criminal law and police, and immigration law. The “Statements on Antisemitism” continues to explore the white privilege enjoyed by Ashkenazi Jews in this country and U.S. responsibility for Israeli apartheid. This is all crammed into the two pages of section #1. In section #2, the “Statements” pivots to explore allegedly false claim that anti-Zionism (the struggle for justice for Palestinians, including a comprehensive right of return) is antisemitism. The “Statements” rejects the image of eternal Jewish suffering and the idea of eternal Jewish victimhood, and refuses to equate what the “Statements” call anti-Semitic “micro-aggressions” with “structural inequality.”  The point is not to “divert” attention from power and privilege enjoyed by “some Jews.” The discussion of antisemitism gives way to what in the “Statements” is the motivating overriding concern for Muslim Americans and people of color and for how Muslims and Arabs are blamed for antisemitism (pp.213-16).

Treating its contemporary manifestation as an isolated microgragession is an index to the non-centrality of antisemitism or Jewish lives in this book “on antisemitism.” What is defined by Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of JVP, as “a starting point” in each of the contributions in a book “on antisemitism” is not antisemitism, but rather “the fight for Palestinian rights,” which forms an integral “part of the framework of our commitment to justice” (p.3, emphasis added). This is why the book refuses even to define antisemitism, because the task would “distract” from “necessary attention” to state power and the structural power of Islamophobia, anti-black, and anti-immigration bigotry. In On Antisemitism and at JVP, the problem with “antisemitism” is that it “shields” Jews from having to confront their own complicity in oppression in Israel and the United States. According Vilkomerson, this is “the proper context” for a “serious consideration of antisemitism” (ibid.).

That JVP and the anti-Zionist left might actually have a real antisemitism problem is suggested by the confession that for the contributors the subject is considered “fraught” and reflects not a little “frustration.” As per Alissa Wise, deputy director at JVP, the frustration has to do with how allegedly isolated incidents of real antisemitism that arise in “our movement” threaten to overshadow the “more urgent” need to end the occupation (p.207). The apologetic purpose of the book is how to help “interfaith partners” who want to know how to “deflect” accusations that they are antisemitic. At the very moment in which “Christians and other partners” are challenged to consider the antisemitism they may harbor, Wise quickly pivots, as if on cue, back to Israel and how “relentless privileging” of antisemitism in debates about Israel and Palestine “stymie” the struggle. The purpose here is ultimately is to let liberal Christians and pro-Palestine activists off the hook when they seek to boycott Israel (pp.209-10). At the same time, people at JVP are “confused” by how to distinguish the fight against “actual antisemitism” with “false” accusations of antisemitism.

No doubt, the confusion is of their own making.  The very idea of Jewish privilege and the reality of Jewish power today are vexed ones that require critical care. Long time critics of JVP will not be surprised to see how, without such care, actual expressions of antisemitism slip into this book “on antisemitism.” One contributor, a Christian clergyperson, regurgitates claims about “disproportionate Jewish influence,” “entitlement,” “privilege, and “control” of Holocaust narrative (pp.111-120) while two Palestinian contributors, among them Omar Barghouti, a prominent BDS activist and a master’s in philosophy from Tel Aviv University, effectively compare Israel to Nazi Germany (pp.139, 146, 151, cf. 201-2). The promotional blurb on the back of the book by a onetime professor widely perceived in the Jewish community to be an antisemitic internet troll only contributes to the sense that there is an antisemitism problem at JVP, that certain expressions of antisemitism will not be perceived as such at JVP. Perhaps these are the isolated incidents, but surely they would have had no place in a volume had it been organized by a movement that understood antisemitism to be a primary topic of concern.

The Achilles’ heel of the JVP book “on antisemitism” is the intentional refusal to define the term antisemitism (pp. vii, 3, 61, 207). In part, the refusal comes from the laboratory of bad or misplaced academic ideas, although in this book the function is apologetic and polemical. One contributor suggests the need for a minimum definition, which she herself does not provide even as she is preoccupied with the challenge of interpretation (p.vii). As for the definition provided in the “JVP Statements,” it is a painfully thin description of antisemitism as “discrimination against, violence towards, or stereotypes for being Jewish” (p.213). That one single sentence is as much as one gets. Failing as it does to define the term with more robust clarity, the volume as a whole slips into a meta-discourse (discourse about the discourse of antisemitism) that quickly gets lost at the “intersection” with Islamophobia and other forms of racism. Before antisemitism is even addressed, the subject has been changed at JVP. A case in point being the author who insists first that there is no need to define the term, but then, some pages later, states that anti-Zionism is not antisemitism “by definition” (p.67).

Jewish or not Jewish, for any radical leftist to be called an antisemite must undoubtedly be “painful,” as per Judith Butler. It is hard, however, to understand in what way it holds, according to the author of the book’s foreword, one of the few academics contributing to the volume, that “whether or not the accusation is true” is “less important” for the person who wields the cudgel of calling someone an antisemite than whether it is politically effective in silencing critics of Israel. The claim is certainly false that the person who calls another person an antisemite “knows” that the person being accused of antisemitism is not, in fact, an antisemite (p.xi, xii).  On Antisemitism gives no tools with which to make that discernment. Without a minimum working definition, there are no criteria with which to refine the critique of Israel or Zionism, or of Jews and Judaism, or with which to distinguish between true and false accusations of antisemitism. What one is left with is anti-Zionist special pleading.

Another one of the scholars included in the volume, Shaul Magid, himself neither a member of JVP nor a supporter of BDS, traces the conflict of interpretation back to David Engel’s essay “Away from a Definition of Antisemitism.” Engel’s argument is against the historically anachronistic and uncritical application of a modern term with distinct and traceable origins in the 1870s to create the false impression of an abstract, disembodied, and eternal “antisemitism” (Rethinking European Jewish History, p. 45). Engel argues that there is “no necessary relation among particular instances of [anti-Jewish] violence, hostile depiction, agitation, discrimination, and private unfriendly feeling across time and space can be assumed. Indeed, none has ever been demonstrated” (Ibid., p. 53). All of this is well and true, but a little beside the point. In this particular context, an academic argument serves as a political pretext fundamental to the overall apologetic and polemical structure of the book, the point of which is to dissolve the sharpness of what is considered to be an ideological weapon directed at critics of Israel.

About Engel’s thesis, without a doubt, antisemitism is a retrospective term and it is also true that antisemitism is not a unified phenomenon. It is impossible to speak of any abstract identity persisting over time. The data is too diverse in manifestation. There is no cause and effect chain, and no necessary lines link all of the data into a complete and rounded whole. Historians immersed in historical data submit the data to the splintering effect that is basic to their analytic work. That does not mean, however, that the data do not lend themselves to patterns based on a family of shared overlapping consistencies. One tries to define the pattern while alert to the variations in mode. All of the concepts with which we think are retrospective. They are used to reflect from the present and for the present back on the accumulation of variant historical data. In our case, to disavow the labor of abstract conceptual work is to leave antisemitism unthought. To not define antisemitism supports the ready-made conclusion that today it is an isolated epiphenomenon, not deeply or permanently structured, in large part a figment of the political imagination, nothing very much more than an ideological cudgel.

As for the claims made about Israel in On Antisemitism, it is simply not true that the problem for many Jews who support the well-being of the State of Israel in one form or another is “criticisms” of Israel. It would be more accurate to say that only the far Jewish right in the United States and in Israel judge any and all criticism of Israel to be antisemitic (p.xi). In contrast, most mainstream Jewish organizations and personages have consistently maintained that Israel and Israeli policy regarding religion and state and regarding settlements in the occupied West Bank, are open for criticism. The argument has always been focused on particular forms of criticism that many people perceive as slipping into expressions of antisemitism, namely the specially pronounced hostility with which a people, and now a country, is treated. As Butler suggests in the foreword, “we have to change the terms of the question itself.” An adjective designating which “criticisms” are considered by some to be genuinely problematic and which “criticisms” are not considered problematic at all by most reasonable people would have helped clarify the terms of the debate in the first place.

Looking past Israel, the second general purpose of On Antisemitism is to set up “the American Jewish community” as a strawperson. We see this by way of blanket and general condemnations. Already on the first page of Vilomerson’s introduction mention is made against the alleged “[a]cquiescence of and even support for Trump by a number of major Jewish institutions” (p.1). These institutions go unnamed, creating the false impression that major Jewish institutions support Trump. The claim fails to clarify that these were rightwing Jewish organizations and does nothing to reflect the opposition against Trump by so many Jewish institutions. Ditto regarding the ugly language that “certain” influential groups whose focus on antisemitism is “infected” with “Zionist bias” (p.19). Ditto regarding the claim that “some mainstream Jewish institutions” misuse antisemitism for the express purpose of justifying any and all Israeli actions. Two rightwing Zionist groups, Amcha and Stand with Us, are accused of mainlining Islamophobia on campus, as is Hillel (pp.159, 170). Ditto regarding a claim that Jews support the status quo or that American Jewish students side with state power in Israel (pp.113, 178). What goes ignored in Antisemitism is the nearly wall-to-wall opposition against the Trump agenda in the Jewish community from liberal organizations and synagogues to prominent Jewish neoconservatives. The creation of this caricature is part of a self-serving attempt to create a clean friend/enemy distinction, positioning JVP on one side and “the Jewish community” on the other side. Painting this false picture, JVP, which is a more or less marginal group, is self-defined by its executive director as a true reflection of the American Jewish community (p.2).

Always quick to change the topic, On Antisemitism is an unreflective book and as such does little to advance its own agenda. Marked as it is by extreme defensiveness, unclarity, and confusion, missing from the volume as a whole is a genuine culture of self-criticism. In place of self-congratulation, sustained attention to instances and patterns of real antisemitism in “our movement” would have gone a long way in creating a volume that took its topic with the requisite seriousness that it deserves. The same holds true for the subject of antisemitism in the Arab world, which gets only very little notice and which is mostly glossed over (pp.61-2, 148, 131). The same is true regarding anti-Arab racism in Mizrachi communities, which gets mentioned only once (p.78). These are among the other “difficult conversations” evaded in the volume. While I do not count myself among them, one could argue that Jewish neoconservatives have with more consistent rigor opposed the racism expressed by President Trump and his supporters than JVP has opposed antisemitism from the left.

Anti-Zionism is not antisemitism by definition, but one first has to define antisemitism to make this argument stick. In his own classic study, Toward a Definition of Antisemitism, the distinguished medieval historian Gavin Langmuir, culling through the data, came to a specific understanding of our topic. He distinguished carefully between “realistic,” “xenophobic,” and “chimerical” assertions of inter-group hostility and hatred. A “realistic” assertion of antipathy towards Jews, as members of an out-group, would be one based on the same assumptions with which one assesses the behavior of all other groups, including one’s own in-group. A “xenophobic” assertion is one in which all members of the targeted outgroup (the Jews, or Muslims) are judged on the basis of a small sub-group among them. In contrast, a “chimerical” assertion about the out-group has no recognized basis in reality (Langmuir, p.328). The classic example is the blood libel and ritual cannibalism. Such assertions would involve fantasies, figments of the imagination, monsters that, although dressed syntactically in the clothes of real humans, have never been seen and are projections of mental processes unconnected with the real people of the outgroup” (ibid., 334).

As opposed to anti-Judaism, by which Langmuir means antipathy of an ethnic and/or religious nature against Jews for reasons that are either “realistic” or “xenophobic,” antisemitism is defined as a unique form of chimerical expression, with origins in medieval France. For our purposes here and today, one criterion with which one could determine whether or not one can call a criticism of Israel antisemitic would depend upon whether or not the expression of anti-Zionism is or is not realistic. Are, for instance, the assumptions applied to the State of Israel or to Zionism the same ones that the critic would apply to the members of any other group, especially one’s own in-group? A second criterion with which to clarify these questions would depend on whether the expression of anti-Zionism is or is not simply a xenophobic form of inter-ethnic antipathy, in which the outgroup as whole is held responsible for the act of an individual or, we should add, the individual for the group. None of this can be settled in the abstract. It depends on the speaker and the action. But insofar as Israel and Zionism are ascribed with devilish attributes, extra-ordinary guilt causing extra-ordinary harm, and chimerical powers, insofar as Zionism becomes the special target of intense group animus, the more the discourse tends to unmoor itself from the practical character of normal inter-group conflict, and the closer we get drawn to the border with classical antisemitism.

Realist appraisals of antisemitism and anti-Zionism would have to recognize that, increasingly, antisemitism is becoming a pronounced problem in American society and in Europe, one that represents a hard challenge for the political left insofar as it takes up the banner in opposition to Zionism. For the left, in particular, this requires a better understanding of Zionism, a term that also goes undefined in On Antisemitism. A central chapter in modern Jewish history, is Zionism to be understood simply as a manifestation of “settler colonialism”? Or was Zionism a national movement, promoting self-determination (auto-emancipation) as the correct political response to the condition of Jewish precarity in the modern period? As a historical form, Zionism originated in the surge of antisemitism in western and central Europe, to waves of pogroms in Russia starting in the 1880s, to massive and violent disruption in the wake of the Russian Revolution, to the Holocaust, to the collapse of colonial rule and the rise of pan-Arabism across the postwar Middle East. Today, the State of Israel is home to half the Jewish people, the only country in the world whose culture as a whole is stamped by Judaism and Jewishness, where Jews do not live in a minority, subaltern or semi-subaltern social status. The tight intertwining of Zionism into the modern Jewish experience of systemic antisemitism cannot be simply waved away and made to disappear under the umbrella of postcolonialism. In this respect, On Antisemitism is not the place to look for a realistic reckoning of a human phenomenon as complex and fraught as the experience of Jewish powerlessness and power. To not see the history of Zionism in relation to the history of antisemitism may not itself be antisemitic, but it is arguably “anti-Jewish.”

What gets under the skin of so many of the group’s critics is how JVP flouts a cardinal moral rule of a pariah people, which is the deep, often myopic solidarity that defines the embattled in-group. Themselves subject to internecine rifts, the most active members inside the in-group tend to circle around their own narrow wagon when pressed from the outside. One could look for this in rabbinic and Hasidic sources, where the love of the people Israel (ahavat Yisrael) reflects a supreme religious value, one that has carried over into the larger Jewish world. No matter how much they fought against each other, Jewish socialists and socialist Zionists, rightwing Zionists and leftwing Zionists, Reform Jews and orthodox Jews, religious and anti-religious staked their position in uncompromising solidarity with the Jewish group and its immediate political interests. Given the history of anti-Jewish prejudice and violence, the anti-Zionism over at JVP faces insurmountable obstacles in the Jewish community. The impression that JVP deliberately sets itself outside the communal tent aggravates these arguments at the very moment when recent governments under Prime Minister Netanyahu do so much to alienate American Jews from Israel with sustained lurching towards the radical political-religious right. JVP and the Jewish right are inverse mirror images to each other. In a co-dependent relationship, neither can do without the example of the other. The one is a buttress to the other and the other to the one, excepting for the fact that JVP holds no power.

JVP has its own perceived problem with Jewwashing that On Antisemitism will do nothing to resolve and everything to aggravate. In their self-positioning, they and they alone are “the good Jews,” the litmus test often being used to exclude “bad Zionist Jews” from various parts of the intersectional left. Given the prominence on the anti-Zionist left which has been deliberately cultivated, they are ultimately responsible for promoting and providing cover for full-blown expressions of anti-Zionism, including those that are structurally adjacent to and slip into actual antisemitism. Under the cover of JVP, one can say under the banner of the anti-Zionist left whatever one wants to say about Israel and Palestine, and now act against any and all Jewish groups that support the State of Israel. How can they be antisemitic, or at least anti-Jewish, when they act out against a broadly perceived Jewish political interest if JVP stands with them?

JVP should enjoy no monopoly on the Jewish left. Compare in contrast what in Langmuir’s words one might call the more “realistic” statement put out by Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREG). It is more thoughtful, more nuanced, more focused on a conception of “the Jewish experience” as a basic starting point. The statement does not share the same reflect to change automatically the terms of the debate as soon as antisemitism is raised as a topic of concern, even within “the movement.” The JFREG statement even addresses why so many Jews, perhaps the vast majority of them, perceive the State of Israel to be a vital Jewish political and social interest. If Not Now represents another serious voice to the left of liberal Zionists like JStreet and Americans for Peace Now. If JVP gets a lion’s share of attention, they can only be commended for having mastered the art of agitprop. But much of that attention is of a negative sort. It owes itself to the vociferousness with which they have mangled Jewish norms and attacked Jewish communal institutions with so much destructive heat as to call their moral judgment and political priorities into serious question.

After reading On Antisemitism: Solidarity and the Struggle for Justice, with what information will the reader walk away with regarding modern Jewish history, antisemitism, and the history of Zionism beyond a cursory sketch and crude caricature? What do we learn about the American Jewish community other than it it supports the status quo, in the Age of Trump?! And what do we learn about antisemitism except that, today, is a microaggression used for political purposes in relation to Israel and Palestine and to shoring up Ashkenazi privilege and white supremacy?

Solidarity and the unified struggle against antisemitism, racism, and Islamophobia in this country and in Israel are all urgent political tasks, and the “question of Palestine” has always been and remains an urgent Jewish political interest. Not taking the subject seriously, On Antisemitism effectively leaves the discourse about antisemitism in the hands of the Jewish far right, and in the more responsible hands of mainstream organizations like ADL that are themselves committed against antisemitism and racism. For its part, the Jewish left has to bring something to the table aside from apologetic obfuscation and intra-Jewish trolling. JVP and BDS are the useful idiots of the Jewish right. Wielding no actual political power, they work to whip up the Jewish right and alienate politically non-committed liberal Jews from social justice work. On Antisemitism: Solidarity and the Struggle for Justice is wrapped special for Hanukah, a gift to the Jewish right from the intersectional left.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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3 Responses to Not On Antisemitism (JVP)

  1. dmf says:

    part of why I find discussions about concepts/abstractions less and less helpful and focus more on who is doing what to whom and to what effect..,

  2. LDK says:

    Great book review! Thanks for the conceptual tools for talking about anti-Semitism.

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