Ignoring Antisemitism’s Threat

Zionist leaders have been downplaying antisemitic attacks in the US in order to cozy up to Donald Trump.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu with US president Donald Trump on February 15, 2017. Prime Minister of Israel

A wave of antisemitic attacks is sweeping the United States.

On March 2, vandals attacked the third Jewish cemetery in less than two weeks, in one case knocking down or damaging 539 large headstones. Since the beginning of 2017, there have been at least 128 bomb threats at 87 different Jewish community centers and schools across the country.

Despite the increase in bomb threats and vandalism directed at the Jewish community since his inauguration, Donald Trump waited weeks to publicly condemn the attacks, doing so only after a public outcry and criticism from government officials and some prominent Jewish leaders.

That Trump would hesitate to condemn this wave of antisemitism should surprise no one, considering that he has not flinched at including in his administration open antisemites such as Steve Bannon. On the campaign trail, Trump shared an image of Hillary Clinton with a pile of cash, a Star of David, and the words “Most corrupt candidate ever!”

Then there was the time Trump refused to disavow the support of former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. And in various press conferences, Trump has suggested that recent antisemitic attacks were staged by Jews or Democrats aiming to make his administration look bad.

Absolving Complicity

So it’s not difficult to figure out where Trump stands. But what’s shocking — or at least should be — is the warm regard for Trump, despite his obvious embrace of antisemitism, among many pro-Israel political figures.

For example, an article in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz titled “The Five Top Jewish Leaders More Concerned With Threats to Trump Than to US Jews,” notes that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who “has always prided himself on condemning antisemitism wherever and whenever it happens,” has been notably silent, appearing to follow Trump’s lead on how to talk — or not talk — about the issue.

When asked directly about the surge of anti-Jewish sentiment in the United States and Trump’s lack of response, Netanyahu said: “There is no greater supporter of the Jewish people and the Jewish state than Donald Trump. I think we should put that to rest.”

Signaling the two leaders’ special friendship, Netanyahu even issued his own Trumpian tweet in defense of his pal’s plan to build a wall along the US-Mexico border: “President Trump is right. I built a wall along Israel’s southern border. It stopped all illegal immigration. Great success. Great idea.” Netanyahu followed up with emoticons of the Israeli flag and American flag.

Daniel Shek, the former Israeli consul general in San Francisco, described Netanyahu’s unusual silence on antisemitism as a politically calculated move by Israel’s political establishment to derive maximum advantage under the new Trump administration.

Shek told NPR:

For much less than what has been reported is happening in the US, there would have been an uproar [in Israel], and rightly so. [But] there is so much enthusiasm in the current Israeli government about the election of Donald Trump. And [the Israeli government] thinks what [Trump] stands for . . . about Israeli settlements and the Palestinian issue, they don’t want to ruffle his feathers in any way, even at the cost of not speaking up against antisemitism.

Glossing over antisemitism by those who usually don’t in order to support Trump extends beyond Israel’s borders.

Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, is generally prepared to pounce on anything that could be labeled antisemitism and even things that can’t, such as his condemnation of the boycott, divestment and sanction (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights.

Klein has likewise been notably silent under the new administration. After his organization received a deluge of angry calls from supporters outraged by the ZOA’s open support for Bannon, Klein simply stated, “[Bannon is] not an antisemite. He’s the opposite of an antisemite. He’s a philo-semite.”

As Haaretz correspondent Chemi Shalev put it:

Trump is being buoyed by a cadre of enablers and apologists, many of them Jews, who are doing their best to make light of the attacks, to ridicule the growing Jewish apprehension and to absolve Trump of any complicity in the rise of anti-Jewish sentiment.

Zionism’s Project

The specter of Zionists leaders lining up to support an administration with at best a cavalier attitude regarding its Jewish citizens’ safety may appear to undermine the idea of Israel as protector of world Jewry. But such unholy alliances are part and parcel of the Zionist political tradition.

As Annie Levin wrote in her 2002 article “The Hidden History of Zionism,” appeasement of antisemitism flows “quite logically from Zionism’s basic assumptions about Jews. Zionists accepted the nineteenth-century view that antisemitism — in fact, all racial difference — was a permanent feature of human nature.”

Early Zionists actually partnered with a rabidly antisemitic British ruling class to secure funding for their colonial project in Palestine — which served Britain’s dual interest of securing an “outpost of civilization against barbarism” that could help Britain dominate the Middle East, while also working to defeat left-wing “International Jews” (such as Karl Marx, Trotsky, Bela Kun, Rosa Luxemburg and Emma Goldman, among others).

Churchill understood that revolutionary socialists, organizing against racist pogroms in their own countries, posed a threat to the ruling class’s need to divide and rule its population, and so understood the benefit to supporting a “Jewish movement” that could counter this logic of antiracism and internationalism.

As Uri Avnery wrote in a recent article titled “Trump and Israel’s Antisemitic Zionists“: “The avowed aim of Zionism is to ingather all the Jews in the world in the Jewish state. The avowed aim of the antisemites is to expel the Jews from all their countries. Both sides want the same. No conflict.”

Later on during World War II, Levin explains, the Jewish Agency in Palestine opted to use its resources to finance land settlements in what was then Palestine instead of rescuing tens of thousands of Jews, and perhaps more, because merely saving Jews was not their goal.

David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, made this clear when he famously said, “It is the job of Zionism not to save the remnant of Israel in Europe, but rather to save the land of Israel for the Jewish people and the Yishuv.”

This conception of Zionism as a settler-colonial project — and one which could act to the benefit of Western empires — as opposed to a project aimed at saving Jews is the key to understanding how the US government could at once turn away ships carrying hundreds of Jews fleeing the Holocaust, effectively sending them to their deaths, while at the same time sending money and military support to the early Zionists.

Insiders and Outsiders

Today, Trump enthusiasts among the far-right antisemites are replaying this dynamic, offering full-throated support to Israel while simultaneously despising Jews.

As Todd Gitlin, a sociologist at Columbia University, said to the Jewish Daily Forward:

Antisemitism and right-wing Zionism are varieties of ultra-nationalism, or to put it more pejoratively (as it deserves to be put), tribalism. They both presume that the embattled righteous ones need to bristle at, wall off, and punish the damned outsiders. They hate and fear cosmopolitan mixtures. They make a fetish of purity. They have the same soul. They rhyme.

Given this history, the reasons for Trump’s support within Israel’s hard-right establishment aren’t so difficult to decipher. They flow from a recognition that the same ethno-nationalist chauvinism Trump promotes has served as the lifeblood of their tightening grip on political power over three decades.

They cheer Trump because Trump’s every “success” validates the path that they traveled long ago as they nakedly defended and extended Israeli occupation and apartheid, continually shifting the political spectrum rightward to the point where today, there is open talk of annexation of the West Bank, which would have been unthinkable chatter a few years ago.

So while the Israeli government usually leaps to condemn instances of antisemitism, such as the 2015 attacks in Paris — and uses such attacks as “opportunities” to call for Jews of the “diaspora” to return “home” to Israel — if Zionists are put in a position where they must either condemn antisemitism or ignore it to support a potential ethno-nationalist partnership that will further their own colonial project, they will choose the latter.

Defeating Antisemitism

Israel’s alliance with a US administration that includes openly antisemitic figures and gives confidence to far-right white supremacists is exposing the ideological hollowness of Israel’s claim to be the champion of the Jewish people.

As one Haaretz opinion article concluded, “I’ve got news for Bibi [Netanyahu]. The six million Jews of America are under threat. When Israel can’t be bothered to support them at a time like this, no one should recognize Israel as a Jewish state.”

But if Zionism isn’t a force than can defeat antisemitism, what is?

Trump’s attacks on all of us are themselves creating opportunities for solidarity and joint struggles — such as Muslims supporting Jews when they are attacked and Jews supporting Muslims when it’s the reverse.

These initiatives are important because in practice, the fight against antisemitism is increasingly being tied to the fight against Islamophobia — since both attacks emanate from the same right-wing bigots who have been emboldened by Trump’s election.

But we can’t fundamentally challenge Trumpism at home if our movement accommodates the racism of Trump’s imperial partners abroad against Palestinians. We can’t fight against a wall being built in this country without opposing the racist wall that exists in Palestine.

This means we will have to win people who want to fight antisemitism to not only joining forces with other antiracist movements, but in particular to the need to support Palestinian liberation. This will require differentiating between real acts of antisemitism and what the ruling class and Zionists would like us to believe is antisemitism, but which are actually efforts toward Palestinian solidarity.

The need to connect the fight against anti-Jewish racism with struggles against other forms of racism was understood by many Jews before World War II.

Socialist and radical Jews in Russia and Germany understood the need to fight racism in all its forms. They understood that their real enemy was the capitalist system that relies on sowing racist divisions in order to divide and rule, not “the gentiles,” as Zionists tried to argue in an attempt to win Jews to support their imperialist project to colonize Palestine.

In his book Zionism: False Messiah, Nathan Weinstock documents how Jews were disproportionately represented in the socialist parties of Russia and Europe at the height of these movements because socialists put the fight against oppression at the center of their revolutionary struggle against capitalism.

Now is the time to rediscover this history and rededicate ourselves to forging solidarity from below — in place of the toxic brew of Jewish and white ethno-separatism — in order to challenge racism wherever it shows itself as well as the system that needs it and breeds it.