A Jewish Goodbye to David Graeber

David Graeber’s intellectual legacy is enormous and wide-ranging, but his recent writings on antisemitism deeply moved me. He knew that antisemitism was far from dead — and he also knew that only a democratic left could stop it.  

David Graeber (left) speaks at the University of Amsterdam in 2015. Guido van Nispen / Wikimedia Commons

I was unexpectedly devastated to learn of David Graeber’s death as I prepared for an online meeting earlier this week. I was late to the meeting and couldn’t concentrate — I didn’t know Graeber personally, but something about his death, untimely, far-too-soon, cut down before his work was finished, struck me hard, and it took me moment to understand why he had become such an important figure for me.

Like many left-wing writers and teachers, I’ve long been aware of his work and his role in Occupy Wall Street. I had been meaning to write for some time a defense of his most recent book, Bullshit Jobs, a book critiqued as “productivist” by some and lacking economic rigor by others. Since “Graeberism” had become an epithet among a few Marxists with whom I usually agree, I felt past debates with Graeber on other issues prevented a serious engagement with the book’s premise: financialized (or “late”) capitalism has changed the meaning of work in the wealthy world, and the bullshit job is one of its indicators.

As the first world is awash with surplus capital that the bourgeoisie does not want to spend on welfare and development, a “bullshit job” — one that serves literally no purpose — buys off a certain section of the salaried masses: a kind of right-wing, white-collar Keynesianism. This is an argument I think socialists would do well to engage with, with far-reaching consequences for both organizing and educating.

But it’s not Graeber’s long, formal works of anthropology that impacted me most. Rather, it was a short piece he wrote on antisemitism at the height of the Labour Party’s campaign to smear its own leader Jeremy Corbyn as an antisemite.

Rather than simply refute the absurd claims, as most supporters of Corbyn had up to this point, Graeber pointed out that such false claims are themselves a form of antisemitism. Not only do such claims make “my safety a political chess piece” by “crying wolf when there are real wolves at the door,” blinding us to antisemitism during an upsurge of far-right violence. They also activate long-standing antisemitic ideas that Jews are shadowy elites, an enemy of democracy.

Such a point takes some further elaboration. If it’s perceived that the Jewish community responds to a populist, left-wing electoral upsurge by false claims such a movement is “against the Jews,” then one might reasonably consider that Jews are against not only against wealth redistribution but democracy itself. Given that Jews are already perceived by ideological antisemites and their more casual cousins as greedy and rich, it is not a far leap to understand that such a claim relies on associations of Jews and power.

The same pattern has emerged in the United States, as immensely popular left-populist elected officials, such as Reps. Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have been accused of antisemitism at one time or another. If Jews are often framed as a secretive, tribal elite who want to take power from a multiethnic working class, what better way to spread this racism by using Jews to undermine popular, democratic candidates? Done by non-Jewish politicians and Jewish hasbarists alike, it amounts to the same thing: Jews defend the rich and powerful.

But what moved me about Graeber’s article was less its piercing analysis than that he was motivated to discuss the issue of antisemitism at all.

From reading Graeber’s work and talking with people who knew him, he struck me as someone who was not given to discuss threats of antisemitism, let alone his Jewishness, as part of his political persona. He did not write about Jewish issues. He did not speak about Jewishness in the interviews I read, and when I did hear him discuss his family, he described them primarily as leftists and socialists. He was not “publicly Jewish” as part of his role as a popular intellectual, at least not in the way figures like Norman Finkelstein, Arthur Waskow, or Adrienne Rich are or were.

That might seem like an odd distinction to make — it’s not like Graeber hid his Jewishness either. But it is a decision many assimilated Jews face, about how to present themselves and how much they want to make a public spectacle of their identity.

A lot of Jews don’t talk much about their Jewishness, especially Jews from the middle classes. For a long time I didn’t, either. In part, as a white person on the Left, one fears taking up space, blurring already fraught solidarities, eroding the political salience of the always obscured color line on which a majority of Jews (though certainly not all of them) fall on the white side.

And, if I’m honest, avoiding public statements about one’s ethno-cultural identity prevents a lot of awkward conversations and assumptions, to say nothing of actual antisemitism. I don’t hide my Jewish ancestry. I belong to a shul and have written about being Jewish. But I do not tell my students I’m Jewish, do not organize in most left-wing spaces openly as a Jew, and do not take Jewish holidays off as a general rule when our very Christian calendar does not by accident recognize them. Teaching and organizing are hard enough already, and my willingness to confront racism in class or on the street does not rely on students or comrades necessarily knowing if I have personal reasons to address one or another of its iterations.

My impression of Graeber was that he felt similarly and may have been what the Jewish Marxist Isaac Deutscher called a “non-Jewish Jew.” In Deutscher’s formulation, the Jewish revolutionary tradition one can recognize from Baruch Spinoza, to Karl Marx, to Leon Trotsky, to Rosa Luxemburg, to Emma Goldman, and more recently to Abbie Hoffman, Albert Memmi, and Bernie Sanders is embodied by Jews who have walked away from strict observance of religious tradition and often from their Jewish communities — and yet held onto a sense of being Jewish in the world. That Jewishness is less expressed by adherence to religious observance or community, and more by a commitment to global principles of justice, by an identification with the oppressed, and insights gleaned by being of, but not wholly in, the societies about which they write.

It’s hard to say if Deutscher so much described a tradition as invented it. The “non-Jewish Jew” is at once a recognizable lineage as it is the experience of children of the Jewish left: Graeber was still marked by his mother’s experience organizing garment workers in New York City and his father’s fighting fascists in Spain, and yet also very much invisible in the color-coded, segregated life that is America.

If one chooses to remember that tradition, then one occupies a kind of duality — not one thing, yet not another. As Graeber himself posted, “One of the things I find most offensive is that I’m a self-hating Jew if I am loyal to that tradition of Judaism which has produced such figures as Marx, Spinoza, Jesus” — all three figures who both fulfilled the “humanistic spirit at the core of Judaism” as he wrote, yet none of whom had one could say, an easy or transparent relationship to Jewishness as an assimilated convert, an expelled heretic, and the origin point of Christianity.

I think I may have identified with Graeber’s own comfortable non-Jewish presence in his own Jewish skin, in the way perhaps many of us have a quiet pantheon of heroes and avatars who represent some unspoken part of us.  So when, a year ago, Graeber wrote a piece on the rise of antisemitism on the far-right, and the misuse of the fear of antisemitism by neoliberals, I took notice. To my great surprise, Graeber not only denounced the right-wing of the Labour Party, but spoke movingly of fears for his own safety, his own personal brushes with antisemitism, his own sense of a Jewish tradition.

It shook me. If Graeber had come out into the open about his experiences and fears of antisemitism, then in some ways, I also felt exposed: I could no longer deny my own fears, my perceptions that the racial coordinates of the Jewish world were changing.  Antisemitism was out in the open, from governments in Hungary, Poland and Brazil, to the antisemitic Q-Anon conspiracy that has gripped large swaths of the Right, to Trump’s George Soros invocations, to ominous whispers that dark, “shadowy” figures control Joe Biden and antifa — to say nothing of Charlottesville, the Pittsburgh massacre, the Poway massacre, the Monsey Hanukkah stabbings. Add this to the cynical antisemitic smears against Corbyn and Omar, the liberal revulsion for Bernie Sanders amid complaints about his volume, hand gestures, supposed atheism, and “outsider” status — it appeared suddenly that antisemitism was, again, part of the political and cultural common sense of America.

So if Graeber was alarmed — and speaking openly about his Jewishness — then I took it as significant and cause for some reflection. Graeber was someone “like me” in a very general sociological sense, only moreso. This is a moment, Graeber seemed to signal, in which “Jew” cannot be any longer an unmarked category, at least if one wants to be in solidarity against victims of antisemitism, it shouldn’t be. The invisibility of the “non-Jewish Jew” is perhaps a luxury we are past affording.

And yet all is not despair. Indeed, that sense of hope is the best part of Graeber’s political and intellectual legacy. Even as he wrote in his essay of the Labour right’s antisemitic campaign against antisemitism, he affirmed that the Corbyn campaign actually decreased the level antisemitism within the Labour Party membership — not despite, but rather because of its democratic impulses. That is, as antisemitism came out into the open within a left project, as it could be named, as people began to address it, the Party could be less antisemitic and less racist in general.

The critics of Corbyn had it backwards, and for Graeber that was the point: it is through a collective project that we can affirm the most humanistic impulses of the very tradition that quietly yet crucially informed core values of his work. Graeber knew of course that antisemitism is rife in all sectors of British society, yet he also knew that no other project than a democratic left could stop it.

Radical democracy is ultimately the driving force behind Graeber’s legacy: he believed in the 99 percent, because he felt himself to be among the 99 percent.  It is a tragedy that Graeber had to name a part of himself that suddenly made him dangerously visible. But democracy is also that: claiming those parts of ourselves that are the most vulnerable, and using them to further the cause of justice. He believed, as I believe, that socialism is the only way forward — and I am only that much sadder that we won’t be able to get there with him.