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Only the Left Can Defeat Antisemitism

The recent spate of antisemitic attacks is horrendous. The best way to fight it is to reject the centrist idea that antisemitism transcends politics.

A member of an Orthodox Jewish community walks through a Brooklyn neighborhood on December 29, 2019 in New York City. Spencer Platt / Getty

Last weekend’s stabbing of five Orthodox Jews at a Hanukkah party in Monsey, New York, is deeply disturbing. It comes after a series of violent, antisemitic attacks in the New York area, ranging from a shooting at a Jersey City kosher supermarket to beatings on the streets of Brooklyn. Shockingly, in New York, the capital city of diaspora Jewry, some are now afraid to display visible signs of their religion. And so, the question becomes: What is to be done?

Unfortunately, in both the Jewish institutional and political world, centrists have produced a pernicious, mystifying response, one that will not only do nothing to fight antisemitism, but that may make things much worse. Only the Left has a real alternative.

Centrist pundits insist that hatred of Jews transcends politics. As Tablet writer Yair Rosenberg tweeted in the wake of the Monsey attack, “Anti-Semitism predates the modern left and right . . . No community or ideology is immune. Attempts to pin the hate on one part of the political spectrum are attempts to excuse one’s allies at the expense of Jewish lives.” At the Forward, opinion editor Batya Ungar-Sargon wrote the bizarrely titled “Why No One Can Talk About The Attacks Against Orthodox Jews,” even as discussion of the heinous assault proliferated in major newspapers and on social media. Because the perpetrators of recent attacks have not been white, Ungar-Sargon argued, they have proven difficult to assimilate into liberal narratives about Trump and white supremacists: “In the fight against anti-Semitism, you don’t get to easily blame your traditional enemies.” According to the Forward editor, we therefore need to break free of “those rigid ideologies to which so many are enslaved” and “fight this fight together.” Benjamin Wittes soon made the same argument for the Atlantic.

While the antisemitism-is-everywhere narrative presents itself as sober and mature, almost by definition, it makes overcoming antisemitism impossible. If antisemitism is ubiquitous, then what can be done? If antisemitism’s causes are infinitely diverse, if it cannot be connected to specific material circumstances and ideologies, then what does it even mean to combat it?

This confusion is evident in a December 30 New York Times op-ed from New York congresswoman Nita Lowey and American Jewish Committee leader David Harris. The piece, which promises specific answers, rehashes the familiar points about antisemitism’s “multiple ideological sources,” assailing those who would “exploit the issue to undermine their political opponent.” But without a politics of antisemitism, there is no coherent fight against it. Instead, Lowey and Harris offer platitudes: “recognize the problem for what it is: an epidemic”; “we cannot allow this situation to become the ‘new normal’”; and “more needs to be done.” Try to translate these ideas into concrete policy proposals: it cannot be done, because they are devoid of content. Similarly, Lowey and Harris identify apolitical culprits: the passage of time since the Holocaust, the dangers of “social media” and the “Internet,” and the decline of faith in liberal pluralism. Bereft of political analysis, the fight against antisemitism becomes an exercise in nostalgia.

But the centrist narrative can produce one kind of response: a doubling down on the status quo. If you imagine antisemitism apolitically, then your solutions will involve the state’s normal, everyday functions: in this case, police violence. In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio has intensified the police presence in Jewish neighborhoods. Governor Andrew Cuomo called the Monsey attack “domestic terrorism,” pressing for it to be prosecuted harshly, even though the assailant seems to be most in need of treatment for his schizophrenia. Meanwhile, in another Times op-ed, Mitchell D. Silber, a former NYPD higher-up, urged more intense policing, including police training for synagogues and, startlingly, “undercover officers dressed as observant Jews.” Such policing will inevitably result in violence against black and brown people (potentially including Jews of color). And it is hard to imagine that disguising cops in black hats and sidelocks will endear observant Jews to overpoliced people of color.

Police chiefs, of course, have no interest in defeating antisemitism, any more than they would in a world without crime: these are their reasons for existing — the constant, impossible-to-define enemies that legitimate state violence. And, in various ways, the same is true of centrist elected officials and Jewish institutions, all of whom depend heavily on the symbolic politics of sermonizing against bigotry.

Only the Left can offer a real alternative, because only we can offer a political analysis of antisemitism. That analysis must emphasize the fact that, especially when the perpetrators are poor and black, the culprits are white supremacy and capitalism — which benefit precisely by dividing oppressed groups against each other. This is not “rigid ideology” — it is the basic story of antisemitism, in which Jews serve as handy intermediaries (moneylenders, administrators of feudal lands, small shopkeepers) between elites and the most marginalized. Jews have always been useful to the powers that be (and now to capital) precisely because they make convenient targets of popular rage: better a pogrom than a revolution. Those elites then cynically tell Jews that our only safety lies in clinging tightly to the state and its protections. But that is nonsense. Allying with police departments and posting armed guards will only inspire more resentment and hostility toward Jews from the victims of state violence.

Only the Left can defeat antisemitism, because only the Left can name enemies: white supremacy, the police state, a radically unequal society sustained in part by the cynical redirection of popular rage against Jews. Most basically, there is no solution to antisemitic violence in New York — or, for that matter, to any violence — that does not involve making New York a more equal, fairer place for all its inhabitants. And if American Jews want something more than police escorts and sympathetic tweets, then we have no choice but solidarity.