Parts of this essay were published last spring in reference to similar attacks on the writer Norman Finkelstein.
The Jewish tradition, from which I am proudly descended, is unique in Western theology – a credit, perhaps, to its tremendous age. The story of Judaism since the Diaspora is not of Gods, Men, and their Covenant, but a story of dialog, in which spirituality is not an undefinable experience but instead rests in the profundity and weight of each word. For this reason, the Jew’s principle religious paraphernalia is not a scepter or a crucifix, but a yad, a ritual pointer used to single out every word of the text during a Torah reading. The importance of words themselves is so central to Jewish legalism, the Talmud originally warned that touching a text naked – that is, without the reverential yad – is grounds to be buried naked.
Words are important, and few words carry more weight in the Jewish tradition than anti-Semitism. Jewish culture and identity has been shaped in reaction to some oppressive, Jew-hating regime or another for thousands of years. We eat unleavened matzo on Passover because the Jewish slaves of the Pharaoh did not have time to let their bread rise as they fled his army. We spin driedels on Chanukah because the Jewish children living under Seleucid occupation had to mask their Torah lessons as harmless games with a top. And we came to enjoy a relatively privileged position in Western Europe and its colonies because a millennium of Catholic theocrats literally forced Jews into financial and political work, if only to scapegoat them in times of crisis.
Of course, anti-Semitism did much more than enrich our culture. From horrifying public executions in the Roman gladiatorial pits to the rampant murder and torture of the Spanish Inquisition to ghettoization and mass rape under the Russian pogroms, the scope of Jewish blood spilled by the anti-Semites of civilized Christendom is staggering. It culminated, of course, in the German Reich’s Holocaust – six million Jews, first slandered and labeled enemies of the people, then isolated, then secretly murdered alongside three million Slavs, two million Poles, hundreds of thousands of Roma, and many thousands of those in political and sexual minorities. The Holocaust, for its horror and its scale, has become the definitive crime not just of the twentieth century but of humanity itself. We all, Jews and Gentiles alike, must come to terms with ourselves in its shadow.
I, like any decent human being, take anti-Semitism very seriously. To be anti-Semitic is to be tied at a fundamental level to a fundamental building block of the West – the cowardly embrace of Othering, the acceptance of dogma, the denial of humanity, the great and prolonged crime of genocide that renders the fundamental concept of Christianity and civilization hypocrisy. It is to accept lineage from the shame of Saint Paul, of Martin Luther, of the Popes and the tsars, of Hitler.
And in the spirit of the yad, I am careful not to underestimate the role anti-Semitism plays in the formation of our vocabulary. I pay anxious attention when I hear themes trickling from Nazi and neo-Nazi ideology into acceptable mainstream discourse – whether New York Times columnists are griping about non-existent “cultural Marxists” descended from the same largely Jewish Frankfurt School once framed by Goebbels as Bolshevik stooges, or patriotic Americans are saluting the “POW-MIA” flags that Republicans erected only after white nationalists pushed their conspiracy theory that a Jewish-controlled “Zionist Occupational Government” secretly abandoned thousands of US troops in Vietnam. I focus on the genealogy of language precisely because I hope believe in the mantra “Never Forget.” I believe words themselves play a substantial role in ferrying evils from one generation to another. And I understand that anti-Semitism has been carried from one cartel of powerbrokers to another over thousands of years, and that it is rising its hideous head again in a form which promises to be more terrifying and destructive than any previous incarnation.
I wish that such close attention to words and their meaning mattered in any way to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, moved this week to rebuke recent comments by Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. Omar, who is one of the first two Muslim women in the history of the United States Congress and the first to wear a hijab, found herself in the center of controversy last Wednesday after comments she made at the Busboys and Poets Progressive Town Hall went viral. “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it’s okay to push for allegiance to a foreign country,” said Omar, referring to the role of the lobbying group AIPAC in garnering Congressional support for Israel. Though has only just finished her second month in Congress, Omar is no stranger to controversy on this issue; just a few weeks ago she nearly faced censure for her tweeted remark that such support is “all about the Benjamins, baby!”
Jonathan Greenblatt of the Anti-Defamation League wrote an open letter to Pelosi condemning Omar’s remarks, walking out the familiar talking points in characteristically careless prose. “Accusing Jews of having allegiance to a foreign government has long been a vile anti-Semitic slur that has been used to harass, marginalize, and persecute the Jewish people for centuries.” The phrase “vile anti-Semitic slur” was also, coincidentally, how New York Democratic Congressman Eliot Engel condemned any perceived allegations of “dual loyalty”; Engel is rumored to be considering removing Omar from the House Foreign Affairs Committee where she currently sits. Though Pelosi’s initial efforts to single out Omar were thwarted for now by a massive grassroots outcry from the Democrat Party’s base, there is no question that Omar faces enormous and ongoing opposition from both her own party and the media, which continues framing her as anti-Semitic for perpetuating the image of Jews spreading “dual loyalty.”
Of course, the history of dual loyalty as an anti-Semitic trope fits very oddly into the current landscape of American politics. Back when Alfred Dreyfus was accused of loyalty to German banks, or when the Jews of Germany were painted as Soviet sleeper agents, there was no Jewish nation to which a particular Jew could hold dual loyalty. Today, Israel wields more substantial military and economic clout than most countries in the world, and its government (like most powerful governments) overtly advises lobbying firms including AIPAC explicitly for the purpose of influencing American politicians. If Eliot Engel is truly so offended by the suggestion that “the Benjamins” guarantee his ongoing support for Israel, why has he accepted over $1.07 million in donations from pro-Israel lobbying groups over his career? It is objectively the case that pro-Israeli lobbyists spend more money in American politics than agents of any other sovereign government (the Saudis find themselves in a distant second). It is also objectively the case that Israel receives friendlier treatment from Congress than any other sovereign government: to date, the US has spent more than $137 billion on the Israeli military, dwarfing even our allies in World War II. For Ilhan Omar to question this allocation of resources to a government just accused of war crimes by the United Nations is not anti-Semitic, it is a commonsense observation of absurdity. Even more absurd is the fact that, while she stands accused of defaming Jews, her comments originally criticized the very non-Jewish Florida Senator Marco Rubio (a recipient of $630,000 from the Israel lobby), who seems to believe that Bible-thumping Christians have been the real victims of anti-Semitism all along. With even a modicum of context it becomes clear that Omar’s true crime is not accusing Jews of dual loyalty, but something far more basic. In his condemnation, Congressman Juan Vargas (who has received only $61,600 from the Israel lobby) said in an accidentally revealing tweet, “Questioning support for the U.S.-Israel relationship is unacceptable.” It is this objective policy stance – that, like Venezuela, North Korea, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or other any nation accused of war crimes, Israel may not be deserving of American military aid – that bothers the political mainstream, not pearl-clutching over perceived hate speech. (How many Americans even knew that dual loyalty was an anti-Semitic trope before Ilhan Omar came into office?)
If we were to turn the yad to the ADL’s comment we would find a rather substantial slippage of meaning in the attacks on Omar. The anti-Semitic trope of dual loyalty, in fact, has not been used to persecute the Jewish people for centuries, it has been used to persecute the Jewish people for a little more than one century, since the rise of nationalism and Darwinian eugenic theory in Central Europe in the mid-1800s. The distinction between singular and plural here matters a great deal. Centuries ago, when the reasonable intelligentsia of reactionary regimes still based their opinions on God, Heaven, and Hell, the typical Christian European could hate Jews simply because they were unbaptized or somehow culpable in the storybook account of Christ’s death. A century ago, however, facing the looming spectacle of scientific modernity, hating Jews was only possible through a bizarre spiderweb of rationalizations: perhaps Jews, as a distinct ethnic group with particular genetic characteristics, are simply incapable of living in a society designed for, say, French- or German-blooded people, and could never be truly loyal to such a society. The trope of dual loyalty was one of many widespread and very explicit rationalizations that made up the scientific theory of anti-Semitism. I mean this very precisely: anti-Semitism was the word coined by French philogenist Ernest Renan and propagated by German politician Wilhelm Marr to articulate the many negative attributes they considered genetically innate to the descendants of the Semitic civilizations.
It was in the language of this (absurd and false) theory that Europe’s long history of hating Jews was realized through its most horrific crimes. Jews’ propensity for double loyalty was used as direct legitimation for the Holocaust; Hitler captured the racist imagination of the German people by informing them, scientifically, that Jews had sided with Russian communists to betray them in the First World War. Meanwhile, the great capitalist powers – France, the United States, and the British Empire – allowed this rhetoric to spread and at times facilitated it; fundamentally, in the era of revolutions that preceded World War II, they understood fascism to be a healthy enough form of anti-communism.
This historical situation of anti-Semitism opens up another problem for the anti-Omar establishment of the Democratic Party. While Pelosi’s resolution defines anti-Semitism as “the bigotry faced by Jewish people simply because they are Jewish,” anti-Semitism as it was conceptually formulated and spread as an ideology across Europe and the United States is very specifically an ethnic categorization of all Semitic peoples. To the anti-Semites whose historical legacy we bear today, that meant Jews, but also Arabs and North African Muslims; Semites, in classical racial theory are those descended from Shem, the son of Noah and seven-great-grandfather of Abraham, claimed as the patriarch of both Judaism and Islam. To clarify, that means if Jews are Semites, Muslims are Semites. And anti-Semitism as a global tradition is not a nebulous idea but a specific historical force: Christian Europe’s violence and hostility toward both groups.
To carry this argument forward: if a Muslim, or for that matter any non-Christian European, is accused of anti-Semitism, that accusation merits extreme scrutiny. Of course, many Muslims hold a racist hatred of all Jews, just as many Jews hold a racist hatred of all Muslims. But, as recent interventions in historical scholarship by Shlomo Sand and others make extremely clear, Islamic anti-Jewish sentiment is a socially constructed event of the past eighty years. Our fellow Semites do not bear the ideological baggage of millennia of Roman-Christian Jew hatred. While the Christian New Testament explicitly condemns Jews for killing Christ, the Qur’an specifically celebrates Jews as allies and fellow “People of the Book.” In Palestine before the British conquest, Jewish and Muslim communities peacefully coexisted for a thousand years, sharing religious ceremonies, intermarrying, and establishing a dense philosophical dialog. Jews enjoyed full citizenship in the Islamic Caliphates that ruled Palestine, and in the Ottoman Empire – in fact, the most recent invaders to persecute Jews in Palestine were the Catholic Crusaders, who were repelled by a joint Jewish-Muslim resistance.
There are of course rampant anti-Jewish sentiments in many sectors of the modern Islamic world. The Hamas Charter, much maligned in pro-Israel media, does in fact contain the sentence, “Our struggle against the Jews is very serious.” Saudi-funded fundamentalist organizations such as Al Qaida and ISIS have issued fatwas against the Jewish people. But this reaction, unlike the anti-Semitism of Hitler and Christianity, is not rooted in centuries of oppression. Islamic hostility toward Jews is a direct result of policies of a country that proclaims itself the Jewish state. When Gazan protestors say there is no room for a Jewish state in Palestine, they are not being anti-Semitic – unless we also see anti-Semitism in the Israeli soldiers who bulldozed the homes of their grandparents and sent refugees scattering to caves for shelter, who killed teenagers with sniper rifles and guns even as this scandal unfolded because, as Israeli diplomat Machal Maayan said, “Well, we can’t put all these people in jail.” The Palestinian argument that the Jewish state must be eliminated is only a defensive inversion of Israel’s de facto policy: that, through isolation, forced labor, constant bombings and shootings, aggressive territorial encroachments, economic sanctions, poisoned drinking water, and the impossibility of hope, the Palestinians must be eliminated. Anti-Semitism has absolutely nothing to do with either.
Understanding this context, Ilhan Omar’s treatment by the political and media establishment swings into place. Any person even remotely familiar with the history of anti-Semitic violence acting in good faith must be able to understand that this black Muslim woman, a refugee, a follower of Semitic faith, is not the perpetrator but the target of organized anti-Semitism in the United States. No sitting member of Congress suffers through more accusations of “dual loyalty” on a daily basis, many accompanied with threats of physical violence, than Ilhan Omar. Days ago, demonstrators at the West Virginia State House waved a poster showing first the falling World Trade Center with the caption, “‘Never Forget’ You Said,” then Omar’s face with the caption, “I am proof you have forgotten.” Conservative Republicans have literally nicknamed her “Jihad Omar.” When Omar accused both Jewish and Christian members of Congress of allegiance to Israel, a country which spends millions lobbying them, she was stating an objective fact. But when right wing critics accuse Omar, one of only two Muslim women ever to serve in Congress, of affiliation with extremist terror groups in the Islamic world, they are voicing a specific and groundless prejudice based on her ethnic and religious background – an anti-Semitism.
Even the nature of the accusations that single her out among American politicians as an anti-Semite contain their own strain of anti-Semitism. Surely Ilhan’s mild criticisms of a registered lobbying firm are less anti-Semitic than Hillary Clinton’s plans (revealed in the Podesta emails) to run attack ads against her Jewish presidential challenger, Bernie Sanders, focusing on his lack of familiar religious beliefs? Surely neither are as anti-Semitic as our sitting President, who courts neo-Nazis as an electoral base and blatantly inspired the most brutal act of anti-Jewish terrorism in American history just a few months ago? Yet Omar, not the Republican or Democratic establishments, is condemned in the press week after week as the anti-Semite. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that she is openly and unapologetically a Muslim, part of a faith caricatured in our country as barbarous and backwards – part of the self-soothing feedback loop, “Muslims are anti-Semitic, not Americans!” which itself constitutes anti-Semitism.
Jean-Paul Sartre famously wrote that “the anti-Semite is in the unhappy position of having a vital need for the enemy he wishes to destroy.” As Norman Finkelstein observed, the lobby for the Israeli government now finds itself in a similar bind. If opponents of the Israeli settler project, including Ilhan Omar, can not be painted as anti-Semitic, their arguments are very challenging to rebut. If supporters of basic human rights in Palestine are not anti-Semitic, if there is not a link between the million undernourished children of Gaza and the Nazis, then what justification does Israel have for their continued extermination? Without an existential threat from an anti-Semitic Other, what are we to call Israeli leaders but twenty-first century fascists?
Because beneath the debate, the stakes of human suffering are that high. Last night’s newest aerial assault on Gaza should remind us of that. While apparent progressives in our own country remain silent, while the New York Times reduces the deaths to “human shields” for Hamas, while Donald Trump and Chuck Schumer celebrate relocating the American Embassy in Israel to illegally occupied Palestinian territory, while American tax dollars and American weapons are flowing into the Israeli Defense Force, Israel is completing one of the most horrific campaigns of genocide in the world. It’s worse than apartheid. Under apartheid, the ghettos were not ringed with concrete. Under apartheid, some of the most densely populated residential blocks in the world were not disintegrated in rocket fire. Under apartheid, coursework for the military never explicitly said “Those people will become even bigger animals…if we want to stay alive we have to kill and kill and kill, all day every day.” Under apartheid, nobody argued that a nation’s “right to exist” meant the right of one ethnic group to maintain a majority population. When one nation demonizes another until they can hold it in a state of complete isolation and slowly kill off its occupants for their own lebensraum (to borrow a term from the Nazis), that is a fascist nation.
To most people, and especially most Jews, “anti-Semitism,” “fascism,” and “genocide” are states of being, and historical positions, to avoid at any cost. To Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his new indictment-inducing far-right coalition, they are stepping stones in a short-sighted, cutthroat, cynical, chauvinistic ploy to stay in power. It is no coincidence that Netanyahu celebrated the opening of the American Embassy in Jerusalem with with far-right Evangelical pastors (including Robert Jeffress, who has said on record “you can’t be saved by being a Jew!” and argues that the Holocaust was a gift from God to return the Jewish people to Israel), and that he has courted an American constituency of Evangelical Christians who believe Jews must amass in the Holy Land to greet Jesus on Resurrection Day – a day when, according to Evangelists of all stripes, every Jewish soul will be condemned to eternal hellfire. It is no coincidence that his ally, French President Emmanuel Macron, has both criminalized critiques of the state of Israel and sang the praises of the Nazi collaborator Phillipe Pétain, who played a part in the murder of over 70,000 French Jews. It is no coincidence that Israel’s military remains operational simply thanks to the ongoing support of an American President who once told his associates, “The only kind of people I want counting my money are little short guys that wear yarmulkes every day.” For a regime like Israel’s to survive, it must buy into the traditions of western political power and violence that were forged in the fires of anti-Semitism; it must reproduce anti-Semitism itself.
If we, Jews and all other people, are to be damned, it is not a question of some archaic mythology or propaganda, but of our own conscience. When the world allowed the Jews to die in gas chambers and boxcars, nobody with the breath to speak out was without blame. We must collectively refuse to play the part of the Germans, jaws agape as Allied soldiers marched them through the liberated concentration camps, horrified by the outcome of their cowardice. We must not allow the courageous few, Ilhan Omar among them, to be silenced by the mechanisms of racist authoritarian power. For the dead in Auschwitz and the dead in Gaza, we must fight: for a free Palestine, for the Right of Return, for the end of American colonialism, for the end of nations and borders, and for the reverence of words and their true meaning.