Much has been made of the supposed resurgence of anti-Semitism in the West, with a particular focus on its emergence within some leftist circles, principally online and on university campuses. This “new anti-Semitism,” so dubbed by academia, is characterized by the adoption of left-wing, social liberation, and anti-imperialist rhetoric to push agendas that are fundamentally anti-Semitic. It is frequently met with bemusement; most on the left, I venture, would pride themselves on their anti-racist credentials – particularly those whose outlooks are geared entirely toward eradicating racism. How, then, could “the world’s oldest hatred” rear its head here? Having encountered this form of prejudice myself, I am convinced that, although framed in modern contexts, this “new” manifestation of anti-Semitism represents nothing but a recycling of age-old bigotries that transcend nationality, position on the political spectrum, and ethnicity.
During the Algerian Revolution of the 1950s, the slogan “la valise ou le cercueil” (“the suitcase or the coffin”) described the situation among the French pieds-noirs, the settlers of Algeria. Fearing retributive violence after the revolution, they fled en masse to France; although unfortunate, their fate can be seen as an inevitable consequence of French imperialism in the Maghreb. Lesser known is the fate of Algeria’s Jews: seen by many Algerian nationalists as privileged extensions of French hegemony, the community was driven out with the pieds-noirs – even though the Jews of Algeria predated French presence in the land by 2,000 years. Despite their distinct ethnic origin and their own history of persecution at the hands of the French, the community of 140,000 was almost entirely expelled in 1963.
The parallels between this historical episode and the “new” genre of anti-Semitism cannot be ignored. In modern identity politics, racism is seen as a phenomenon that involves “punching down,” targeting those systematically disenfranchised by society. To the anti-Semite, Jews fail to meet such a criterion, since, according to the anti-Semite, Jews are predominantly middle-class, assimilated, and white. Thus, we are equated with our own oppressors, in a brazen and offensive erasure of our history and origins that paints us as complicit in two millennia of the same white-supremacist oppression that humiliated, persecuted, and murdered us. Indeed, the history of anti-Semitic persecution in Europe is a history of racism, stoked as it was by the foreignness of the Jews’ origins: their dark curly hair, their peculiar language of alien origin, their primitive and exclusive Levantine ideology to which they stubbornly clung.
This history does not matter to the “new” anti-Semite. To them, anti-Semitism is simply not as important as other forms of racism, relegated to merely a form of religious prejudice. This is reflected in the manner in which some on the left, unaware of Jewish origins and history, will speak of “privileged white Jews,” all the while paternalistically appropriating the issues of those they judge to be the “brown Jews” with little regard for their own history or perspectives. Often, this is accompanied with invective about how many Jews aren’t “actually” Semites, and other similarly vapid arguments.
I should not have to clarify my stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for my discussion of anti-Semitism to be taken seriously.
This perversion of identity politics and social justice rhetoric can be intentionally manipulated to actively promote anti-Semitism. Consider a case rather close to us: that of Rania Khalek, a journalist recently invited to speak at Concordia University for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Week. A talking point of hers is her delusion of “Jewish privilege in America.” In this context, the charge of “Jewish privilege,” alluding to Jewish nepotism and influence in various professional fields, is an attempt to restore in an ‘acceptable’ form the old tropes of the Jew’s near-mythical power and wealth – a mere step away from claiming that Jews control the banks, the media, academia, and so on. In a testament to the malleability of this rhetoric, it has also been adopted by the far-right. Earlier this year, British white nationalists, neo-fascists, and other far-right groups organized a march in Golders Green, an area in the London Borough of Barnet with a large Jewish community; their premise was “opposing Jewish privilege.”
Because Khalek speaks extensively on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and was invited to speak as part of a campaign to boycott Israel, some readers are likely to dismiss this piece as a veiled attack on pro-Palestinian activism. Thus, let it be clear: no, I am not a supporter of the current Israeli government and its policies, and I am entirely opposed to the occupation of Palestinian territories. Let it be equally clear, though, that I should not have to clarify my stance on the conflict for my discussion of anti-Semitism to be taken seriously. Indeed, the pressure that I feel to dissociate myself from Israel in order for my concerns about anti-Semitism to have any validity is definitely part of the problem.
While anti-Zionist ideologues insist that they only oppose Israel and its actions and that diaspora Jews are not their enemies, many in their ranks often say things that vilify Jews both in Israel and in the diaspora. This creates an atmosphere where anti-Semitism, particularly when it pertains to Israel, is allowed to fester unchallenged; opposition to it is often dismissed as “Zionist scaremongering” and attempts to stifle free speech. For example, at an anti-austerity march at the City University of New York (CUNY), students in Hunter College’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter marched under the premises of opposing Zionism at their university, seemingly linking “the Zionist administration” to high student fees, privatization, and investment in prison labour, amongst other things generally found disagreeable.
Of course, I do not believe that “Zionist” is always used as a euphemism for “Jew,” or that Palestine solidarity movements are inherently anti-Semitic, but anyone who disputes that anti-Semitism can be projected onto discussions of Israel and Palestine is either criminally naive or criminally dishonest. Take the case of a Jewish candidate for student judicial board at University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), in which the candidate was grilled about her affiliation to Jewish organizations by students apparently concerned with allowing Zionist sensibilities onto the board. In this case, as in many others, the students’ recycling of age-old prejudices is abundantly obvious: the malevolent, well-connected, string-pulling “Zionists” control your finances; they control where your money goes, what is done with it, and how much of it you give; they are the cause of your life’s ills.
Perhaps herein lies the point. This form of anti-Semitism, though framed in a decidedly modern context, is really nothing new. As always, the rationale of the anti-Semite rests in the perception of the Jew’s privilege. Despite having been systematically persecuted for the entirety of our existence in the diaspora, we remain the same wealthy, powerful, malevolent puppet-masters of yore.
This rationale often feeds back into discussions of Israel. Salient is the belief that all Jews in Israel are a European colonial entity, worthy of no national home. This is congruent with regarding most diaspora Jews as privileged and white, unworthy of meaningful solidarity. If, to begin with, Jews are a privileged group that does not face systemic discrimination, why would they ever need self-determination? As in Soviet propaganda that continued the systematic persecution of the Russian tsars, we are “rootless cosmopolitans”: indigenous to nowhere, a people without a land, a wandering inconvenience.
Disconnected from the Israeli state’s policies and conduct, a central tenet of Jewish national identity, whether secular or religious, is that of Jewish ethnogenesis in the land we know as Eretz Yisrael (and yes, as we are acutely aware, a land others know as Palestine). Today, as sixty years ago, the Jews are not the pieds-noirs. They are not sunburnt Frenchmen who blundered upon a land not their own; rather, they are a national community fully convinced, as are the Palestinians, of their own indigeneity. Any solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, be it a two-state solution or a confederation, that does not respect either people’s narrative will only end in disaster and bloodshed.
While I know this argument is obvious to some of you, I also know that there is a certain section of readers who need to hear this. My purpose here is to ask that you acknowledge us, even if you disagree. When Jews on campus speak out about the anti-Semitism they face, whether or not it originates from anti-Zionist groups, acknowledge that perhaps we do it out of genuine concern, not just because we are Zionist bastards seeking to stifle criticism of Israel, and that our concerns as a minority are as valid as any other’s, regardless of our geopolitical stance.
Tom Tyler is a U1 Psychology and Neuroscience student. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.