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Challenging Antisemitism in the Trump Era

Wednesday, April 12, 2017 By Wendy Elisheva Somerson, Truthout | Book Review
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Workers lift up a toppled gravestone at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery, in University City, a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri, February 21, 2017. (Nick Schnelle / The New York Times)Workers lift up a toppled gravestone at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery, in University City, a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri, February 21, 2017. (Nick Schnelle / The New York Times)

How can we distinguish between the very real and harmful phenomenon of antisemitism, and false accusations of antisemitism used to defend Israeli state policies? Jewish Voice for Peace, a grassroots organization working for justice and equality in Palestine and Israel, has put together a collection of essays on this question, with a foreword by Judith Butler. Order your copy of On Antisemitism today by making a donation to Truthout!

On Antisemitism: Solidarity and the Struggle for Justice, an anthology curated by Jewish Voice for Peace, couldn't have come out at a better time. With Donald Trump empowering white supremacist neo-Nazis both within and outside his administration and White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer downplaying the atrocities of the Nazi Holocaust, we are seeing a surge in bomb threats at Jewish community centers, the desecration of Jewish cemeteries and Jewish families being targeted in rural communities, such as Whitefish, Montana. While I have joined the urgent fight against the state-sponsored Islamophobia, anti-immigrant sentiment and racism being forwarded by the Trump administration, it has been far more challenging for me as an anti-Zionist Jew to face the rising tide of antisemitism after spending the past decade fighting damaging and false accusations of antisemitism in my work for Palestinian liberation.

Right-wing apologists for Israel have systematically redefined antisemitism to include anti-Zionism.

On Antisemitism provides helpful context for this confusing political moment by showing how right-wing apologists for Israel have systematically redefined antisemitism to include anti-Zionism to silence and intimidate advocates for justice in Palestine. This redefinition is what makes it harder for all of us to grapple with and fight against actual antisemitism. This insightful collection provides a timely intervention to help us not only differentiate antisemitism from criticism of Israel, but also fight back against antisemitism as part of our fight for racial justice.

Is antisemitism being backed by state power in the era of Trump?

Contributors cover the history and theory of antisemitism, links among racism, Islamophobia and antisemitism, as well as recent efforts to combat false accusations of antisemitism in various social movements. Including the voices of Muslim and Christian Palestinians as well as Jewish and Christian African Americans, and Mizrahi, Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews, this anthology highlights how antisemitism impacts all of us in social justice movements and helps locate the struggle against antisemitism within a landscape of other struggles for justice. While the authors all share the fight for Palestinian liberation as a jumping-off point, there are productive tensions among the essays that make for a lively dialogue. Some of the questions that arise include:

Is antisemitism a form of racism, or does it function differently if it doesn't currently have structural power behind it?

Is antisemitism cyclical, or does that model reinforce a Eurocentric view of history and sense of perpetual Jewish victimhood?

How do we account for white Jewish folks who have access to privilege and power? How do white supremacy and antisemitism intersect?

The first essay in the book, "Antisemitism Redefined: Israel's Imagined National Narrative of Endless External Threat," by Antony Lerman, documents how defenders of Israel have succeeded in promoting a popular understanding of what they call "the new antisemitism" that conflates criticism of Israel with hatred of Jews. By positioning Israel as the "Jew among the nations," they have successfully convinced a broad array of institutions from the European Union to the US State Department to adopt a definition of antisemitism that includes anti-Zionism. 

This redefinition of antisemitism is what emboldens Trump to claim that despite his hiring of white supremacists and his failure to mention Jews on Holocaust Memorial Day, he is the least anti-Semitic person you will ever meet because Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu has given him the nod of approval. It is also what propels lawmakers in Montana to respond to actual antisemitism against Jews in their state by advancing a bill that punishes firms participating in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement to end the occupation of Palestinian land. The bill would direct the Montana Board of Investments to break ties with companies supporting the boycott of Israel, and Republican House Speaker Austin Knudson claims the bill is "an opportunity to stand up for Israel and the Jewish people."

Equating all Jewish people with the neocolonial project of Israel does nothing to eradicate antisemitism and actually makes Jews less safe.

While a policy that threatens free speech does nothing to help Jewish people facing antisemitism in Montana, it will be used to intimidate activists in the powerful grassroots BDS movement that aims to exert economic pressure on Israel to end apartheid. This is what makes it so hard for many of us to respond to actual incidents of antisemitism: our fear that the incidents will immediately get used by the right to attack BDS and bolster support for a repressive state. But, as this collection suggests, we can't let the right define antisemitism, because equating all Jewish people with the neocolonial project of Israel does nothing to eradicate antisemitism and actually makes Jews less safe.

Truthout Progressive Pick


On Antisemitism: Solidarity and the Struggle for Justice

Facing the dangerous reality of antisemitism and the false accusations used to defend Israel's policies.

Click here now to get the book!


Many of the essays challenge our traditional models of conceptualizing antisemitism on both the right and the left and insist that we confront our varied relationships to privilege and oppression. In one of the most thought-provoking essays, "Antisemitism, Palestine and the Mizrahi Question," Tallie Ben Daniel questions the narrative of antisemitism that traces an intractable and cyclical history of discrimination against Jews that begins in ancient times and culminates with the Nazi Holocaust. Arguing that this model reifies the idea of antisemitism as a timeless oppression that has always and will always exist, Ben Daniel critiques its Euro-centricity because it ignores the diverse history of Jewish communities around the world, positions antisemitism as the basis for all other oppressions and is often used to justify the creation of Israel as an answer to this unending history of oppression.

To shift our viewpoint, Ben Daniel offers an alternative narrative that centers the experience of Jews in Iraq who flourished for thousands of years in urban areas until British colonialism imported anti-Jewish sentiment after World War I. Once Israel was founded, the Israeli government made a secret deal with the Iraqi government, which then expelled Jews from Iraq, so they could immigrate to Israel. Upon arrival, they were put in refugee camps, marginalized and discriminated against because of their Arab culture. By centering the experience of one group of Jews from the Middle East, Ben Daniel shows how a different story can emerge: one of relatively peaceful coexistence until European Christian antisemitism arrived.

Ben Daniel shows how even analysis on the left, including April Rosenblum's popular zine, "The Past Didn't Go Anywhere: Making Resistance to Antisemitism Part of All Our Movements," can reinforce a Eurocentric analysis that lets white Jews off the hook for participating in white supremacy. Rosenblum argues that antisemitism functions differently than other oppressions by making its target look powerful and thus diverting anger from the ruling classes to the Jews who become the target for people's anger about class exploitation. But Ben Daniel points out [that] this model ignores how some Jews gain access to power and privilege because of white supremacy. In Ben Daniel's words, "it is one thing to say that Jewish power is a myth of antisemitism; it is something else entirely to say that powerful Jewish people are a symptom of antisemitism." She argues that this model normalizes instead of challenges how racism, white supremacy and classism manifest themselves within Jewish communities.

What if we stopped seeing antisemitism as simply a cycle of recurrence, but instead developed an intersectional understanding of antisemitism that acknowledges racial diversity among Jews, accounts for the varying histories of Jews in the US and looks at its intersections with Islamophobia and racism? If we step outside the model of an endless cycle of oppression, we might be able to envision and work for a different future both here and in Palestine/Israel, which is exactly what this collection is demanding of us. In this era of Muslim bans, anti-transgender discrimination, increasingly hateful acts against immigrants, anti-Semitic threats, escalated deportation and continued US support for unrelenting violence against Palestinians, we are being called upon to untangle the deep roots of white supremacy and colonialism. Only by situating the fight against antisemitism as part of this larger fight against white supremacy can we start working for a world where all of us can flourish.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

Wendy Elisheva Somerson

A founder of Jewish Voice for Peace-Seattle, Wendy Elisheva Somerson works at the intersection of art, activism and ritual to help envision and create the world to come. She is a somatic practitioner in Seattle.


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Challenging Antisemitism in the Trump Era

Wednesday, April 12, 2017 By Wendy Elisheva Somerson, Truthout | Book Review
  • font size decrease font size decrease font size increase font size increase font size
  • Print

Workers lift up a toppled gravestone at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery, in University City, a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri, February 21, 2017. (Nick Schnelle / The New York Times)Workers lift up a toppled gravestone at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery, in University City, a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri, February 21, 2017. (Nick Schnelle / The New York Times)

How can we distinguish between the very real and harmful phenomenon of antisemitism, and false accusations of antisemitism used to defend Israeli state policies? Jewish Voice for Peace, a grassroots organization working for justice and equality in Palestine and Israel, has put together a collection of essays on this question, with a foreword by Judith Butler. Order your copy of On Antisemitism today by making a donation to Truthout!

On Antisemitism: Solidarity and the Struggle for Justice, an anthology curated by Jewish Voice for Peace, couldn't have come out at a better time. With Donald Trump empowering white supremacist neo-Nazis both within and outside his administration and White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer downplaying the atrocities of the Nazi Holocaust, we are seeing a surge in bomb threats at Jewish community centers, the desecration of Jewish cemeteries and Jewish families being targeted in rural communities, such as Whitefish, Montana. While I have joined the urgent fight against the state-sponsored Islamophobia, anti-immigrant sentiment and racism being forwarded by the Trump administration, it has been far more challenging for me as an anti-Zionist Jew to face the rising tide of antisemitism after spending the past decade fighting damaging and false accusations of antisemitism in my work for Palestinian liberation.

Right-wing apologists for Israel have systematically redefined antisemitism to include anti-Zionism.

On Antisemitism provides helpful context for this confusing political moment by showing how right-wing apologists for Israel have systematically redefined antisemitism to include anti-Zionism to silence and intimidate advocates for justice in Palestine. This redefinition is what makes it harder for all of us to grapple with and fight against actual antisemitism. This insightful collection provides a timely intervention to help us not only differentiate antisemitism from criticism of Israel, but also fight back against antisemitism as part of our fight for racial justice.

Is antisemitism being backed by state power in the era of Trump?

Contributors cover the history and theory of antisemitism, links among racism, Islamophobia and antisemitism, as well as recent efforts to combat false accusations of antisemitism in various social movements. Including the voices of Muslim and Christian Palestinians as well as Jewish and Christian African Americans, and Mizrahi, Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews, this anthology highlights how antisemitism impacts all of us in social justice movements and helps locate the struggle against antisemitism within a landscape of other struggles for justice. While the authors all share the fight for Palestinian liberation as a jumping-off point, there are productive tensions among the essays that make for a lively dialogue. Some of the questions that arise include:

Is antisemitism a form of racism, or does it function differently if it doesn't currently have structural power behind it?

Is antisemitism cyclical, or does that model reinforce a Eurocentric view of history and sense of perpetual Jewish victimhood?

How do we account for white Jewish folks who have access to privilege and power? How do white supremacy and antisemitism intersect?

The first essay in the book, "Antisemitism Redefined: Israel's Imagined National Narrative of Endless External Threat," by Antony Lerman, documents how defenders of Israel have succeeded in promoting a popular understanding of what they call "the new antisemitism" that conflates criticism of Israel with hatred of Jews. By positioning Israel as the "Jew among the nations," they have successfully convinced a broad array of institutions from the European Union to the US State Department to adopt a definition of antisemitism that includes anti-Zionism. 

This redefinition of antisemitism is what emboldens Trump to claim that despite his hiring of white supremacists and his failure to mention Jews on Holocaust Memorial Day, he is the least anti-Semitic person you will ever meet because Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu has given him the nod of approval. It is also what propels lawmakers in Montana to respond to actual antisemitism against Jews in their state by advancing a bill that punishes firms participating in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement to end the occupation of Palestinian land. The bill would direct the Montana Board of Investments to break ties with companies supporting the boycott of Israel, and Republican House Speaker Austin Knudson claims the bill is "an opportunity to stand up for Israel and the Jewish people."

Equating all Jewish people with the neocolonial project of Israel does nothing to eradicate antisemitism and actually makes Jews less safe.

While a policy that threatens free speech does nothing to help Jewish people facing antisemitism in Montana, it will be used to intimidate activists in the powerful grassroots BDS movement that aims to exert economic pressure on Israel to end apartheid. This is what makes it so hard for many of us to respond to actual incidents of antisemitism: our fear that the incidents will immediately get used by the right to attack BDS and bolster support for a repressive state. But, as this collection suggests, we can't let the right define antisemitism, because equating all Jewish people with the neocolonial project of Israel does nothing to eradicate antisemitism and actually makes Jews less safe.

Truthout Progressive Pick


On Antisemitism: Solidarity and the Struggle for Justice

Facing the dangerous reality of antisemitism and the false accusations used to defend Israel's policies.

Click here now to get the book!


Many of the essays challenge our traditional models of conceptualizing antisemitism on both the right and the left and insist that we confront our varied relationships to privilege and oppression. In one of the most thought-provoking essays, "Antisemitism, Palestine and the Mizrahi Question," Tallie Ben Daniel questions the narrative of antisemitism that traces an intractable and cyclical history of discrimination against Jews that begins in ancient times and culminates with the Nazi Holocaust. Arguing that this model reifies the idea of antisemitism as a timeless oppression that has always and will always exist, Ben Daniel critiques its Euro-centricity because it ignores the diverse history of Jewish communities around the world, positions antisemitism as the basis for all other oppressions and is often used to justify the creation of Israel as an answer to this unending history of oppression.

To shift our viewpoint, Ben Daniel offers an alternative narrative that centers the experience of Jews in Iraq who flourished for thousands of years in urban areas until British colonialism imported anti-Jewish sentiment after World War I. Once Israel was founded, the Israeli government made a secret deal with the Iraqi government, which then expelled Jews from Iraq, so they could immigrate to Israel. Upon arrival, they were put in refugee camps, marginalized and discriminated against because of their Arab culture. By centering the experience of one group of Jews from the Middle East, Ben Daniel shows how a different story can emerge: one of relatively peaceful coexistence until European Christian antisemitism arrived.

Ben Daniel shows how even analysis on the left, including April Rosenblum's popular zine, "The Past Didn't Go Anywhere: Making Resistance to Antisemitism Part of All Our Movements," can reinforce a Eurocentric analysis that lets white Jews off the hook for participating in white supremacy. Rosenblum argues that antisemitism functions differently than other oppressions by making its target look powerful and thus diverting anger from the ruling classes to the Jews who become the target for people's anger about class exploitation. But Ben Daniel points out [that] this model ignores how some Jews gain access to power and privilege because of white supremacy. In Ben Daniel's words, "it is one thing to say that Jewish power is a myth of antisemitism; it is something else entirely to say that powerful Jewish people are a symptom of antisemitism." She argues that this model normalizes instead of challenges how racism, white supremacy and classism manifest themselves within Jewish communities.

What if we stopped seeing antisemitism as simply a cycle of recurrence, but instead developed an intersectional understanding of antisemitism that acknowledges racial diversity among Jews, accounts for the varying histories of Jews in the US and looks at its intersections with Islamophobia and racism? If we step outside the model of an endless cycle of oppression, we might be able to envision and work for a different future both here and in Palestine/Israel, which is exactly what this collection is demanding of us. In this era of Muslim bans, anti-transgender discrimination, increasingly hateful acts against immigrants, anti-Semitic threats, escalated deportation and continued US support for unrelenting violence against Palestinians, we are being called upon to untangle the deep roots of white supremacy and colonialism. Only by situating the fight against antisemitism as part of this larger fight against white supremacy can we start working for a world where all of us can flourish.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

Wendy Elisheva Somerson

A founder of Jewish Voice for Peace-Seattle, Wendy Elisheva Somerson works at the intersection of art, activism and ritual to help envision and create the world to come. She is a somatic practitioner in Seattle.


Hide Comments

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