Good Jew, Bad Jew: Racism, anti-Semitism and the assault on meaning
The term ‘anti-Semitism’ has become detached from its moorings, argues Steven Friedman in his new book ‘Good Jew, Bad Jew’ (Wits University Press). It no longer means racism directed at Jews — it means holding left-wing or egalitarian opinions, which often seems to include being opposed to the white supremacy of which anti-Semitism was once a part.
Anti-Jewish bigotry just isn’t what it used to be.
On January 6, 2021, demonstrators incited by then-President Donald Trump stormed the United States Capitol in an attempt to overturn the result of a presidential election which Trump had lost. Since the event was a festival of white nationalist prejudice, it was perhaps predictable that some demonstrators were wearing garments bearing the slogan “Camp Auschwitz,” celebrating one of the death camps where Jews and others were murdered by the Nazis.
But the event was a little more complicated than it appeared. First, one of the participants, apparently a Christian Zionist, proudly waved an Israeli flag. Also, “another masked protester sported a black-and-white Israeli flag sewn onto his paramilitary vest, beside a pro-police ‘Thin Blue Line’ flag”. According to news agencies, several Israeli flags were waved. Second, among the participants were Orthodox Jews, who reportedly voted overwhelmingly for Trump.
To anyone familiar with the history of anti-Jewish racism, the event sent very confusing messages. Why would people who cheer the genocidal murder of six million Jews also support a state whose Parliament, in 2018, passed a basic law declaring itself the “nation state of the Jewish people”?
What were Orthodox Jews doing on the same side of the barricades as those who hanker for Nazi death camps? What, for that matter, were they doing supporting a President given to repeating and endorsing anti-Jewish slanders who, in 2016, used, in his campaign literature, an image which included the Jewish Star of David to brand his (non-Jewish) opponent Hillary Clinton as corrupt?
Trump also told American Jews that the Israeli state was “your country”, repeating the stock prejudice that Jews are not really loyal to the countries in which they live — much like telling South Africans of Indian descent that their country is India. In one view, this “betrayed his understanding of US Jews as not fully American, in keeping with his overall exclusivist notion of citizenship”.
Why would a politician who harbours these prejudices enjoy support among some Jews, in particular some who enthusiastically embrace their Jewish identity?
The answer to these questions is that the world has moved on in some odd and disturbing ways. Not that long ago, anti-Semitism, bigotry directed towards Jews, was a (reasonably straightforward) matter. Racists directed their contempt, venom and, at times, violence at Jews just as other racists might direct the same poison at black or Asian people. Since anti-Jewish racism can be seen as a type of white nationalism, those who were prejudiced towards Jews often harboured the same biases against blacks or Asians. Anti-Semites disliked all Jews. For their part, Jews might have different views on what to do about anti-Semites. For some, an ethnic Jewish state was the solution. Others believed that democracy, not a state for Jews alone, was the best way to fight anti-Jewish racism. But all agreed that anti-Semites were a dangerous foe, not a friend.
No longer. While the combination of T-shirts lamenting that the Nazis did not kill more Jews and Israeli flags might seem extreme, it was part of a trend — the alliance between anti-Semites and some Jews against other Jews.
On the first score, Trump was not the only politician with anti-Semitic leanings to enthusiastically endorse — and be endorsed by — some Jews (those who happen to run the Jewish state). Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban is one, despite the fact that he has run a campaign against Jewish financier George Soros which repeats the Nazi stereotype which portrays Jews as wealthy manipulators of white Christians. Orban also refused to condemn a magazine run by his lawyer when it pictured the leader of Hungary’s largest Jewish organisation showered in bank notes (like Trump’s image, this repeated the standard anti-Semitic claim that “Jewish money power” manipulates the world). He is a great admirer of Miklos Horthy, who ruled Hungary from 1920 to 1944, and was a proud anti-Semite who introduced measures modelled on the Nazis’ anti-Jewish laws.
Others include former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro who has called Hitler a “great strategist” and suggested that the Jews who died in Nazi death camps actually perished from hunger and cold, and Polish leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski whose party proposed imprisoning anyone who suggested that the Polish state had cooperated in the Nazi murder of Polish Jews.
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An important source of anti-Jewish hostility is the Christian right, which has held Jews in contempt for centuries. But its religious beliefs also ensure uncritical support for the Israeli state. Many Christian Zionists believe that Jews must control historical Palestine because this is essential to the second coming of Christ when Jews, like all other non-Christians, will either convert to Christianity or be exterminated.
The fact that these allies of the Israeli state see it as an essential means to achieve the death of the Jewish religion, and that hostility to Jews is deeply embedded in their view of the world, does not deter the state and its supporters: in a 2019 state visit to Brazil, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that “We have no better friends in the world than the Evangelical community” even though he admitted that: “Anger and vitriolic theories of Jewish control over the United States are … apparent inside the (Evangelical) churches, where old theories about Jewish influence in politics collide with religious views about the crucifixion of Jesus…”
The Israeli state has sold arms to anti-Semitic military juntas in Argentina and Bolivia as well as supplying weapons to the Azov Brigade, an overtly pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic division of the Ukrainian army, prompting a petition from Israeli human rights activists who urged that it stop these sales. Trump, one analysis notes, “brought classic anti-Semitism back into fashion in the United States while being warmly embraced by the prime minister of the Jewish state”.
Orban, Bolsonaro and other right-wing heads of government have paid official visits to the Israeli state where they undertake the obligatory trip to Yad Vashem, the memorial to the Nazis’ Jewish victims. Even the architect of the slaughter which the monument commemorates, Adolf Hitler, is now offered a posthumous free pass from a leader of the Jewish state — in 2015, Netanyahu told the World Zionist Congress that Hitler did not want to exterminate Jews but was persuaded to do this by the (Muslim, Arab) Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini. As we will see, the claim is entirely spurious. But it does, of course, let Hitler off the hook.
While the Israeli state and its supporters often mobilise horror at the Nazi slaughter for their own purposes, they reserve the right to absolve its perpetrators for reasons of state and because they share other prejudices.
A less bizarre but equally important example is a campaign against “anti-Semitism” in Britain’s Labour Party. We will return to this later but, for now, the important aspect of this purported fight against anti-Jewish racism is that many of those expelled for allegedly harbouring prejudice against Jews are, in fact, Jewish. According to a report by the group Jewish Voice for Labour, which has been a particular target of the “campaign against anti-Semitism”, Jewish members of the party are 20 times more likely to face complaints alleging that they are anti-Semitic than non-Jewish members. It accuses Labour of “purging Jews from the party”.
How is this justified? The answer is found in an incident during the Labour Party’s “anti-Semitism” saga. Its former leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who was routinely accused of anti-Semitism, was invited by a Jewish group sympathetic to him to attend a Passover meal — he did, bringing some horse radish, which plays a role in the ritual meal, from his garden. But Corbyn’s detractors refused to accept that he could not be anti-Semitic if he had joined enthusiastically with Jews in a very Jewish ritual — they insisted, in a chorus, that the left-wing Jewish group which invited him was comprised of “the wrong sort of Jews”. Some of them, including a Labour MP, claimed that Corbyn was deliberately baiting most Jews by hanging out on a Jewish holiday with Jews whose opinions other Jews don’t like.
In this Orwellian view, to dine with Jews and share in their festivals is anti-Semitic — if the Jews in question happen to be disliked by the communal power-holders. Throwing Jews out of the party Corbyn once led because they are “anti-Semites” is presumably justified on these grounds, since the offending Jews offend other Jews. Taken to its logical conclusion, this means that associating with a member of any group is a racist act if they happen to be disliked by other members of their group.
Our puzzle becomes even more puzzling. Anti-Semites, it appears, are no longer viewed as enemies by Jews — or, more accurately, by those Jews who see themselves, and are seen by much of the world, as mainstream Jewish leaders. But the fight against anti-Jewish racism continues and anti-Semitism, it appears, can be something Jews do — in some cases, in greater numbers than non-Jews do. It can be expressed not by denouncing Jews and their rituals, but by joining with them in participating in them.
Hatred of Jews can be expressed not by banning Passover rituals and discriminating against those who take part in them but by observing them with Jews of a particular political persuasion (a horrified article in the right-wing Daily Mail revealed that participants in the Passover meal had denounced capitalism). Fraternising with “bad Jews” — or “the wrong Jews” — is a great deal worse than expressing hostility to all Jews. One of the attractions of the anti-Semitic leaders now beloved of some Jews is that they too distinguish between “good” and “bad” Jews and are eager to work with the “good” Jews against the “bad” ones.
Making sense of the confusion
If you find this confusing, you are paying attention.
Were black leadership across the world to embrace anti-black racists as trusted allies; to insist also that white people who attended events organised by black people which are of cultural and spiritual significance to them were actually insulting blacks by associating with “the wrong blacks”; and if they were to seek to fight racism directed at black people mainly by acting against other black people, this would, to put it mildly, seem odd. But the current attempt by “Jewish leadership” to redefine anti-Semitism in this way is treated as entirely normal by opinion formers and people of influence in the — European and North American — places where this is evident.
To make sense of this, it is crucial to understand that, for those in positions of Jewish authority who peddle this attempt to manufacture a reality which seems entirely unreal, anti-Semitism no longer means prejudice against Jewish people. In the English-speaking world, we can date this development back to the 1970s when Arnold Foster and Benjamin Epstein, who held leadership roles in the American Anti-Defamation League, which was founded to combat anti-Semitism in the United States, but has increasingly become chiefly a propaganda vehicle of the Israeli state, published a book titled The New Anti-Semitism. This started something of a cottage industry — more books in a similar vein have followed.
This writing did seem partly concerned to identify hostility to Jews, even if its claims bordered on the paranoid — it insisted that the film Jesus Christ Superstar (whose director was Jewish) was anti-Semitic and used opinion poll data to single out black Americans as arch anti-Semites, a claim which became a theme in much of the writing on the “new anti-Semitism”.
In France, branding black people and Arabs anti-Semitic is a strong focus of the right wing. But much of it was entirely detached from anything which a reasonable person would identify as anti-Jewish racism. The “new anti-Semitism”, one tract complained, had created an environment in which “war is getting a bad name and peace too favourable a press”.
This tendency to find anti-Semitic intent in strange and marvellous places, has spread to other parts of the globe. In Britain, opposition to capitalism was branded anti-Semitic — even more weirdly, so was a motion of no-confidence in the leader of the Labour Party on the grounds that he had failed to keep a promise to unite the party.
In South Africa, calls for affordable housing in the Cape Town inner city were branded anti-Semitic, presumably because one of the pieces of land which campaigners wanted earmarked had been set aside for a Jewish school but was not, in fact, used to build one and so was unused.
Taken together with the pattern in which anti-Semites are Jews of a particular persuasion, not non-Jews who have shown hostility to Jews, these examples show that the term anti-Semitism has become detached from its moorings. It no longer means racism directed at Jews — it means holding left-wing or egalitarian opinions, which often seems to include being opposed to the white supremacy of which anti-Semitism was once a part.
The new Jew — or victim of anti-Semitism — is no longer a member of a particular ethnic group. It is a right-wing person, Jewish or non-Jewish, who supports the economic status quo and the racial hierarchies which have reigned in the West for centuries. The new anti-Semite is not a person who hates Jews — it is a person, Jewish or not Jewish, who embraces egalitarian values.
The Jewish people are no longer victims of prejudice as a group — it is now divided into two groups, one “good”, the other “bad”, and “bad Jews” are one of the groups most likely to be accused of anti-Semitism.
This is so because of, and not despite, the fact that the “bad Jews” who are stigmatised as “anti-Semites” tend to be anti-racists. DM
Steven Friedman is a public commentator, political scientist and Research Professor at the University of Johannesburg. He has published books on South Africa’s transition to democracy, the role of the trade union movement, and current South African politics. ‘Good Jew, Bad Jew: Racism, anti-Semitism and the assault on meaning’ is published by Wits University Press.