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The Left’s Blind Spot: Anti-Semitism

The neo-Nazi violence in Charlottesville highlighted the threat against Jews in Trump's America. Why do progressives struggle to recognize that?

John Moore / Getty Images describes itself as a website “for girls who don’t give a fuck.” True to form, after the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville they published a piece titled “We’re not going to fuck you, you Nazi losers,” by Dana Schwartz. “If you’re a 20-year-old pretending to be a Nazi, you’re not a bad boy; you’re a racist virgin so humiliated by his own sexual inadequacy and terrified at rejection that you’ll blame your feelings of weakness on some unseen Liberal Agenda,” she wrote. “First and foremost, the neo-Nazi alt-right movement is about racism. Second, it’s about sexual insecurity.”

Jezebel’s Kelly Stout did not see the essay as an act of criticism or humor by an established journalist, comedian, and young adult author. Instead, in her own essay (let that sink in), she accused Schwartz of being “a white woman who uses a tragedy to promote her brand” and that she “should be embarrassed.” Stout concludes by arguing that “the Nazis in Virginia weren’t really there to protest white women’s right to be alive. And the violence in Virginia does not cry out for a response from sassy white women who know a thing or two about virgins living in their moms’ basements.”

But here’s the catch: Schwartz is a prominent Jewish journalist and an outspoken target of white supremacist harassment. Assuming Stout is aware of the Nazi position on Jewry, and of Schwartz’s identity, it’s ambiguous whether she is arguing that whiteness cancels out Jewishness or whether she hadn’t picked up on Schwartz’s identity beyond “white woman.”

It’s certainly true that structural racism in the U.S. does not primarily target Jews, and to focus only on anti-Semitism would be myopic. But it’s a stretch to say that Jews responding in a personal way to a neo-Nazi rally are centering themselves, and it’s untenable in the context of Charlottesville to discuss white Jews simply as white people in need of etiquette instruction from fellow-progressive. While we should defend groups we’re not part of, we are also part of a group currently under attack.

Progressives in America pride themselves on being hyperaware of the persecution of minority groups of all kinds—blacks, women, LGBT people, immigrants—but they have a blind spot. The left first needs to recognize the very real, immediate threat of anti-Semitism in Trump’s America, and to acknowledge anti-Semitism as its own axis of oppression.

The neo-Nazis in Virginia made very clear that, contra Stout, they were protesting certain white women’s right to be alive. At the torch-lit rally on Friday night, the marchers chanted, “Jews will not replace us.” On Saturday, while holding Sabbath, the worshippers of Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville were terrorized by camouflage-wearing neo-Nazis with semiautomatic rifles, chants of “sieg heil,” swastika flags, and threats to burn down the synagogue.

“Local police faced an unprecedented problem that day, but make no mistake, Jews are a specific target of these groups, and despite nods of understanding from officials about our concerns—and despite the fact that the mayor himself is Jewish—we were left to our own devices,” Alan Zimmerman, the president of the congregation, wrote. “The fact that a calamity did not befall the Jewish community of Charlottesville on Saturday was not thanks to our politicians, our police, or even our own efforts, but to the grace of God.”

For yet more evidence, see Elle Reeve’s documentary short for Vice News, in which white supremacist Christopher Cantwell says, “I’m here to spread ideas, talk, in the hopes that somebody more capable will come along … somebody like Donald Trump who does not give his daughter to a Jew,” referring to Ivanka Trump’s marriage to Jared Kushner. As Emma Green wrote at The Atlantic, “Of course there are neo-Nazis in our time. There are those who hate Jews in every time. It’s a hatred that easily flickers between the universal and the particular, melding with the similarly particular hatreds of blacks and immigrants and other minority groups.”

And yet, despite this preponderance of evidence, there was a certain silence surrounding anti-Semitism over the weekend. “In addition to the horror of watching those hateful humans march in broad daylight without fearing any consequences,” Lily Herman wrote at Refinery29, “I found it disturbing that many people, including liberals and progressives, didn’t acknowledge the hateful anti-Semitic comments made by these Nazis. In some cases, they tried to argue that they didn’t happen.” She pointed out that Senator Bernie Sanders tweeted about the “provocative effort by Neo-Nazis to foment racism” without mentioning anti-Semitism. “This strange in-between of calling out Nazis without directly acknowledging their hate towards Jews made me heave a very, very long sigh.”

Recognizing that anti-Semitism exists is, in a sense, the simple part. Recognizing anti-Semitism for what it is—a specific form of bigotry, rooted less in a sense of Jewish inferiority, than in just-as-warped beliefs of Jewish superiority—gets more challenging. It requires a rethinking of terms on a fairly profound level. The common progressive framework, in which white people and people of color are binary categories, makes sense in many contexts. But in the case of Charlottesville and the “alt-right,” this approach erases a demographic who are white but also despised by white supremacists: white Jews, which is to say, most American Jews.

In The Washington Post, Yair Rosenberg asks that everyone set aside questions of Jews’ whiteness or lack thereof, and focus on the fact that “white supremacists have already made their decision” that Jews are not white. As Herman noted, “While many people identify Jewish Americans as simply ‘white’ these days, some may be surprised to learn that this is a relatively new mainstream notion that has surfaced in the past half century. Before that, many Americans bought into the belief that Jews were ethnically inferior white people and treated them as such for centuries.”

I’d argue that we have to address those questions head-on, but doing so takes about two seconds: American Jews are white. Most of us are, anyway, and that’s how we’re usually treated. But that’s neither here nor there, where anti-Semitism is concerned, because anti-Semitism concerns itself with Jewishness, not whiteness.

Anti-Semitism must be fought, but on its own terms. This means not trying to fit anti-Semitism into the framework of other forms of bigotry. It’s not racism. It’s not classism. Treating anti-Semitism as its own axis of oppression—intersecting with others, but still distinct—allows for precision, and avoids over- or understating the case.

The left also needs to understand that neither socioeconomic privilege nor white privilege guard against anti-Semitism. In fact, the perceived privilege of Jews is precisely why many anti-Semites despise them—consider the conspiracy theory that Jews control the media and Wall Street—and why many progressives are incapable of classifying Jews as a marginalized minority. It’s true that in material terms, on the whole, Jews in America are doing fine. But the consider the psychological terror of being a Jew in Charlottesville last weekend. Consider feeling trapped in your house of worship while being watched by extremely well-armed people who want you dead. Consider the rise in anti-Semitism in 2017, no doubt encouraged by a president who—his Jewish relatives and advisors be damned—sees “many sides” to neo-Nazism.

Scapegoating Jews has long been a way to avoid holding society’s most powerful actors to account. So when Jews react viscerally to anti-Semitism—even white Jews, even privileged Jews, even internet-famous Jews—don’t take them to task for centering themselves in a conversation about bigotry. Just listen.