“Jews must…” On the Hidden Truth Underlying the Fallacious Truism that “Jews must Fight Racism”

Paul Klee, Two Men Meet, Each Believing the Other to Be of Higher Rank, 1903, etching, 16,8 x 26,4 cm

“Who can guarantee that a future US administration will not one day feed the Jew to the negro in celebration of a grand day of atonement?”

Jean Améry, “Virtuous Antisemitism” (1969)

Though one sometimes wonders whether people ever think this far, formulations like “Jews must fight racism” tend to have and/or combine two possible meanings, one of them descriptive, the other normative. On the descriptive level, the conceit is that Jews have no other choice than to support the fight against racism because they too, after all, are affected by it (in the form of antisemitism). Hence, it would be bizarre and suicidal of them not to combat it. On the normative level, the suggestion is that solidarity is a good thing and that fighting racism is morally the right thing to do. Here, the word “must” merely serves as a more emphatic synonym for “should”. Let me engage these three arguments in turn.

First Argument: Antisemitism is a Form of Racism, therefore Jews have to be Anti-Racists

There can be few assumptions that seem as plausible but are as wrong-headed and harmful as the notion that antisemitism is a form of racism—from which seems to follow automatically that it is in the Jews’ own best interest to oppose not only the specific form of racism targeting them but racism in all its permutations. In fact, antisemitism simply is not a form of racism or, to put it slightly differently: antisemitism is a form of racism in the same way as, say, misogyny, the abuse and maltreatment of disabled people, or hatred directed against gay men. To hammer home the point, let me introduce you to the following assortment of popular “racist” claims:

Black people are exploiting their superior intellect to dominate white people at every turn. Gay women, as we know from the Protocols of the Elders of Lesbos (which may or may not be a forgery but offer so accurate a portrayal of their activities that it does not really matter), are out for world domination, and gay men rape our daughters the moment we turn our backs. Muslims are trying to force us to conform to their peculiar obsession with artifice and refinement in order to alienate us from our natural instincts. Disabled people invented capitalism and trans people dominate world finance. Jews are suited only to menial manual labour, all Canadians smell of garlic, and women are most dangerous when they look and behave just like us, allowing them to infiltrate society and unravel its fabric from within.

Clearly, the various delusions make no sense when they are swapped around in this way. Contrary to the postmodern version of othering, which seems to be a free-floating impulse whimsically attaching itself to any and every phenomenon that catches its fancy, or the intersectional myth that all forms of othering are ultimately derivative of whichever one I happen to think is most important, specific forms of othering serve specific purposes by meeting specific needs. To be sure, there is often some element of overlap, and all forms of othering obviously share the generic feature of being forms of othering. That few people or social groups get by on just one form of othering does not demonstrate that they are all arbitrary and interchangeable but actually proves my point: why bother with more than one form of othering if they were ultimately all the same anyway? The coexistence of multiple forms of othering demonstrates not the essential identity of their respective contents but the fact that each of them only caters for a specific set of needs. Nor, for that matter, are they all equally significant. Some forms of othering allow for difference within what is considered a reasoned world order, others construe difference as a real and present threat to that reasoned world order and therefore pose a much more lethal threat. Antisemitism tends to fall into this second category.

The long and the short of it is that, in the second half of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries, at a time when notions of group-specific biological determinism were widespread and given considerable credence, antisemitism too, like any number of social, cultural and intellectual concepts, ideologies and activities, was shaped in the image of these notions. And just as not all social, cultural and intellectual concepts, ideologies and activities subscribed to the belief in group-specific biological determinism in equal measure, and those that did have, for the most part, moved beyond that belief (hence, for example, the problematic sociological concept of “cultural racism”), so too has antisemitism. The notion that the nexus between antisemitism and racism is inordinately closer than that between antisemitism and various other forms of “othering” stems from an optical illusion created by the fact that the world’s worst crime perpetrated against Jews to date was carried out by a regime oozing race rhetoric from every pore.

The notion that the nexus between antisemitism and racism is inordinately closer than that between antisemitism and various other forms of “othering” stems from an optical illusion created by the fact that the world’s worst crime perpetrated against Jews to date was carried out by a regime oozing race rhetoric from every pore.

Given that racism and antisemitism fulfil differing specific emotional and psychic needs, it is by no means a foregone conclusion that the eradication of the specific social factors creating the “need” for racism would also eradicate the specific social factors creating the “need” for antisemitism. Of course, insofar as the respective factors do not exist in a vacuum and are part of a larger social totality, a fundamental change to that totality may well impact both sets of factors, but that does not change the fact that there is no reason simply to assume that what is bad for racism must automatically be bad for antisemitism too, nor even to rule out that what is bad for racism could be good for antisemitism.

It is for this reason that the Corbynite left and “antiracists” more generally experience not the slightest hint of a cognitive dissonance when parading their “antiracist” credentials alongside their vitriolic antisemitism. It is not they who have misunderstood the nexus between antisemitism and racism! For better or worse, in terms of the bigger picture and long-term perspective, “antiracism” currently poses an infinitely greater threat to Jews than racism.

Short digression: Just as antisemites are not, as hyphenating the word would suggest, combating any real-existing phenomenon called semitism—hence the hoary chestnut, recently repeated yet again by Daniel Barenboim in Germany’s foremost highbrow daily, that Arabs cannot be antisemites because they are, after all, semites, is right up there with “some of my best friends are Jewish”—antiracists are not, or at best only coincidentally, concerned with actual racism. I therefore distinguish between actual anti-racists and antiracists, not least because, as things currently stand, antiracists pose an infinitely greater threat to anti-racism than anything one might actually describe in any meaningful way as racism.

Second Argument: Solidarity

But does any of this really matter? After all, quite irrespective of whether antisemitism is a form of racism and/or whether Jews stand to benefit directly from the fight against racism, surely it is a good thing to show solidarity with those affected by racism. It certainly is. But then, it would be equally laudable to show solidarity with disabled people, battered women, the International Railroad for Queer Refugees or any number of other people and causes. Don’t get me wrong: I am not engaging in whataboutism here. Nobody can devote themselves to all the worthy causes there are nor, given that to those affected, they are all equally important, can our choice of preferred causes ever be entirely “objective”. By all means contribute to the fight against racism, but do not do it on the assumption that this is the anti-antisemite’s “natural” or necessary choice. It is one possible choice.

Third Argument: It is Morally the Right Thing to do

Racism—actual racism: the discrimination, abuse, maltreatment and/or murder of people on the grounds of what has conventionally been identified as “race”, not whatever irritates today’s antiracists on any given day—is a real and heinous enough problem, and there are plenty of good reasons to combat it. Indeed, all decent people should oppose racism, and there is no plausible way of justifying it. But in our particular context, a fundamental problem lurks behind this contention. The statement “Jews must oppose racism” ultimately translates into “Jews must be decent people”. This sentiment is obviously as honourable as it is unrealistic and, placed in its historical context, it is clearly recognizable as a form of Jewish apologetics, i.e., the time-honoured art of trying to persuade others not to harm Jews on the grounds that they are not as bad as everyone thinks or in some respects possibly even the tiniest little bit better than non-Jews. (This is quite a complex balancing act since stressing the Jews’ good sides can very quickly be seen as evidence of the fact that Jews are full of themselves and always want to be better than everyone else.)

The statement “Jews must oppose racism” ultimately translates into “Jews must be decent people”. This sentiment, placed in its historical context, is clearly recognizable as a form of Jewish apologetics.

This matters because, throughout its history, the political left has made its opposition to antisemitism conditional on Jews bettering themselves. That Jews have all too often embraced and sought to meet these demands does not lessen non-Jewish leftists’ own responsibility for this dynamic by one iota. Time and again, leftists have (to put it mildly) refused to take issue with antisemitism on the grounds that Jews were failing to combat, or indeed implicated in, other forms of oppression.

Now, anti-racists quite rightly take it for granted that freedom from racist discrimination is not a privilege but a basic human right. That the same holds true of freedom from antisemitic discrimination, by contrast, is rarely taken for granted. What is considered a basic human right in the case of racism is often treated as a privilege that first needs to be earnt in the case of antisemitism. Yet the fundamental idea at the heart of the concept of basic human rights is that they are unconditional. These rights are yours, regardless of whether you are a decent person or not. This is the whole point of their codification. Rights only owed to those whom the people who might be tempted to violate them like anyway do not need to be codified.

The Hidden Truth Underlying the Fallacious Truism

There is one sense, then, in which the claim that “Jews must fight racism” might actually turn out to be true after all. I would understand it primarily as an expression of the deep-seated, unconscious and entirely justified fear that it might turn out to be extremely bad for the Jews if they fail to endear themselves sufficiently to the antiracists. All other things being even, as things stand, the greatest distinction between antisemitism and racism lies in the fact that racism has long been waning while antisemitism has once again been on the rise for some time now. My rather banal contention is that the increase in attention to the problem of the racism (real enough as it is) is being misconstrued as evidence of an increase in racism itself.

The claim that “Jews must fight racism” is primarily an expression of the deep-seated, unconscious and entirely justified fear that it might turn out to be extremely bad for the Jews if they fail to endear themselves sufficiently to the antiracists

Let me illustrate why I think racism has in fact been waning with a straightforward example. The inventiveness/mendacity required to categorize Israel as an Apartheid state is considerable. Given that the claim could easily be disproved if evidence played a role in these debates, the question arises why one would go down this route.—One might also be tempted to ask why those pursuing this strategy would accept the extent to which, in so doing, they dishonour the suffering and struggle of those at the receiving end of South African Apartheid, but I very much doubt that this even enters into their considerations.—This question is rendered all the more intriguing by the fact that the practice of equating the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians to the way in which the Nazis treated the Jews was already well established when the rise of the Apartheid paradigm began in earnest. Now, we need to be culturally specific in this context. We can safely assume that most people in Muslim majority countries and many people in other non-Western countries think of South African Apartheid as a more reprehensible crime than the Shoah anyway (assuming they acknowledge that the Shoah actually took place).

For Western purposes, by contrast, accusing the Israelis of Apartheid might seem a rather blunt instrument compared to the Nazi accusation. Yet the strategy of accusing Israel of re-enacting the Shoah has two distinct disadvantages. On the one hand, as we increasingly grow used to a culture in which all reprehensible occurrences are supposedly just as bad as the Holocaust, and the Holocaust therefore, by default, was ultimately no worse than any other reprehensible occurrence, the Holocaust is losing its status as the supreme symbol of evil and oppression. On the other hand, a significant minority of people in the West still recoil from equating Israel to the Nazis and these people are much more receptive to the Apartheid claim as a less extreme and therefore more plausible measure when it comes to the vilification of Israel.

If we lived in a world which was genuinely no less racist than it was in the 1950s and 1960s, let alone, in which racism was significantly increasing, it would make absolutely no sense to try and vilify Israel in the West by denouncing it as an Apartheid state.

In both cases, however, one thing is absolutely clear: only a tiny minority of the world’s population—a minority certainly dwarfed by the number of people who are perfectly happy to distort, relativize, minimize or flatly deny the Holocaust—would dream of defending any aspect of the South African Apartheid system. If we lived in a world which was genuinely no less racist than it was in the 1950s and 1960s, let alone, in which racism was significantly increasing, it would make absolutely no sense to try and vilify Israel in the West by denouncing it as an Apartheid state. The staggering success of this strategy indicates the exact opposite: that there are now few phenomena as profoundly unpopular on this planet as crude forms of traditional white supremacy (i.e., the white-on-black racism with which the antiracists are exclusively concerned).

The Dialectics and Contradictions of Emancipation and Integration

Anyone familiar with the history of Jewish integration in Europe will instantly recognize many of the phenomena currently confronting us. In an obviously schematic and reductionist way, the process can be described in terms of a number of phases.

  • In the first phase, those undergoing emancipation and witnessing the beginnings of integration cannot quite believe what is happening and are genuinely amazed, they are often extremely grateful for what is being achieved and look to the future with enormous optimism.
  • In the second phase, as significant numbers benefit from the relevant changes, they are inclined to get ahead of themselves, finding it increasingly difficult to grasp what all the fuss was about. After all, they are doing fine, if others are not, they are probably doing something wrong. Besides, what the latter are encountering is nothing compared to what their forebears had to endure.
  • In the third phase, it begins to become clear that the process of integration is going to take much more effort and time than anticipated and that significant proportions of the group in question, through no discernible fault of their own, are being left behind. In particular, it becomes increasingly clear that legal emancipation by no means generates automatic social integration even for those who are doing extremely well for themselves. Even though, overall, the process of integration is actually ongoing and the group in question is more integrated than ever before, more and more members of the group become more and more disillusioned and impatient with the process. The young in particular become increasingly contemptuous of their elders’ (to their mind) overly obsequious and (as it would seem) futile attempts to pass, and distrustful of the willingness or ability of the majority society to remedy the problem. Hence, they search for ways of attaining their goals under their own steam which, paradoxically, can lead to new forms of intentional self-segregation.

In Europe, the largely successful annihilation of European Jewry by the Nazis ended the process and radically changed the meaning of everything that has happened since. The US case does not necessarily offer a helpful comparison since Jews there were substantially less disadvantaged from the outset. Nevertheless, it does point to one fundamental dialectic: with increasing integration, normalization and passing come vexing questions about the group’s “identity”. Normalization tends to both hinge on and precipitate at least a partial erasure of distinctiveness. This can be described or encountered either as a process of assimilation, of selling out to pass in majority society, or of acculturation, of negotiating a new sense of self that combines aspects of one’s previous distinctiveness with the characteristics and expectations of majority society. In practice, this is likely to be a dialectical process in which one’s own renegotiation process can easily be overdetermined by recollections of the earlier negation of that distinctiveness by the majority of which one is now becoming a part. It is also, and far from least, overdetermined by the generic process Freud described in Civilization and its Discontents. We live in a social order in which increasing recognition bestowed by increasing integration invariably comes at the price of increasing conformism. We might note in passing that Horkheimer and Adorno, in “Elements of Antisemitism” (in Dialectic of Enlightenment) assumed that the unconscious rebellion against this imposed conformism was one of the principal motivations underpinning antisemitism.

This is an issue obviously relevant not only to “race relations”. With the benefit of hindsight, I am now somewhat embarrassed to admit this but when it began, I found the campaign for equal marriage totally bizarre. After all, I wanted to be much happier than, not as unhappy as, straight people, locked into the same institutions that caused, or at least trapped them in, so much misery. In my defence, my unease was owed as much to what struck me as the nonsense of making such an absolutely unrealistic goal a priority as it was to my opposition to the institution itself. While I still have to pinch myself every time I am reminded of the fact that in many countries, two men (or women) can now marry, I have come to accept that equality means also being allowed to make the mistakes others are allowed to make. That two men (or women) want to marry each other may not make them good revolutionaries, but neither does it make them bad gay men (or women).

When I first came to West Berlin in 1984, being gay, if one moved in the right circles, had instant subversive meaning. The city was home to a huge (not just sexual) gay subculture which had generated within it its own radical political counterculture. CSD rallies were still in a more conventional sense political demonstrations (when I went to my first CSD rally, I had to show my passport to the police to get onto the square where it started; at the time, the police was still maintaining its “pink list”, a special register of gay men in the city). In short: if you wanted it to, being gay instantly made you part of something special. Today being gay simply makes you gay and that is pretty much it. If anything, you are likely to be criticized for still insisting on such evil binaries as gay and straight. I obviously do not want to make light of the rejection, discrimination and occasional violence we encountered, but we had convinced ourselves that these were really badges of honour (what other choice did we have?) and we shared a sense of moral superiority, of solidarity and communality that it would be impossible to recreate today. (Which, I hasten to add, is not a call for a return to those days!)

Or one need only think of the often extraordinarily vitriolic controversy between those who think that drag queens or, for that matter, trans people are justified in wanting to pass, on the one hand, and those who insist that they should spend their lives embodying a fundamental challenge to traditional gender roles and stereotypes, on the other. (Back in the day, there was always a conformist faction in the gay rights’ movement—as it then was—who complained that drag queens and, to a lesser degree, trans people made “us” look bad; was this really necessary, could they not behave in a less conspicuous manner, at least in public?)

Even the antiracists acknowledge that what they call racism need by no means strictly speaking hinge on race.

To be sure, white-on-black racism is in some respects the odd one out in this context insofar as blackness tends to be an easily recognizable trait (if we leave the popular art of self-defining to one side). It is, however, patently obvious from the increasing regularity with which non-progressive non-white politicians are being told that there must be something wrong with their non-whiteness that the same dialectic applies here. In fact, with this criticism even the antiracists acknowledge that what they call racism need by no means strictly speaking hinge on race. That the US has had its first black president certainly does not prove that racism no longer exists in the US, but neither does it demonstrate that Obama was the wrong sort of black.

Unfortunately, there is no such thing as free integration, and it is a fallacy to assume that generic pressures as they apply to a specific group necessarily reflect a specific form of animosity towards that group. That we live in a social order that produces racism does not automatically imply that all the demands it places on non-white people are an outflow of racism. However, it is doubtless the case that the members of a group going through the process of integration, however protracted and imperfect, are likely to be much more sensitive to these pressures than individuals whose acceptance has never been in doubt and who have never had to go through the process of giving something up to attain it. My point, then, is that the notion that racism is on the rise results not least from the fact that mutually contradictory or attenuating factors, generic and specific stresses, are simply being added up. The pressures created by integration are simply being added to the disadvantages that arise as a result of integration being (partially) refused. The effects of self-ghettoization are being added to those of involuntary ghettoization. In short: alongside all the still existing all too real problems all manner of growing pains are being enlisted to demonstrate that no growth is taking place. Or to put it very bluntly indeed: people who really cannot breathe tend not to be overly preoccupied with microaggressions.

In short: alongside all the still existing all too real problems all manner of growing pains are being enlisted to demonstrate that no growth is taking place.

For all its shortcomings no one will suspect the current US administration of being inclined to “feed the Jew to the negro in celebration of a grand day of atonement” (Jean Améry, “Der ehrbare Antisemitismus” (1969), reprint in Werke vol. 7 [Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 2005], p. 136). Its grip clearly seems to be waning, however, and who knows what the autumn will bring. The Democratic leadership has made it very clear where its loyalties lie, should they be compelled to choose between the option of riding the wave of woke “antiracist” populism or guaranteeing the security of US Jewry and Israel as a Jewish state with secure borders she is realistically capable of defending if need be. Little wonder, then, that many Jews who cannot stomach voting for Trump see their best bet in kowtowing to that very populism and convincing as many Jews as they can that “the Jews must fight racism”.

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