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Challenging Antisemitism as Part of the Wider Struggle for Racial Justice

I was invited by Donna Nevel to participate in a panel organised by Jewish Voice for Peace, South Florida among some really great speakers, Barry Trachtenberg, Jamil Dakwar, Mark Tseng-Putterman, Meena Jagganath moderated by Martha Schoolman.

The video of the event is below and the text of my contribution further down. This panel happened very shortly after Derek Chauvin was found guilty of killing George Floyd and I added some remarks about this at the start, noting the ramped up policing already awaiting Black people as the verdict was handed down.

I’d like to begin by acknowledging that I am speaking today from the unceded lands of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation and pay my respect to their custodians from whom they were stolen by the coloniser over 230 years ago. They have been tending to it for over 60,000 years. I recognise that this colonisation is ongoing and that, despite this, these lands always were and will always be Aboriginal lands.

I make this acknowledgement in recognition of the fact that I am twice a settler, first by virtue of my birth on colonised Palestinian land and second, as a migrant-settler in so-called Australia. And while these acknowledgements often sound performative, I would like to reject the idea that there is nothing about this situation that can ever be transformed, that the weight of settler colonialism and attendant racial capitalism is so overbearing that all each of us can hope to do is ‘stay in our lane’ and be a silent ‘ally’.

On the contrary, I think this reading of matters lends itself to the status quo being perpetuated, and what we actually have to do is not only acknowledge our participation and even complicity in these arrangements but talk openly about what this means in practice and to fight against it.

To do this from my position as a white European Jewish woman who is involved in critically analysing race as a key technology of rule and in mobilising against racism means (1) to closely examine the political usages of antisemitism today and (2) to tease out the relationalities between the different manifestations of race in practice in order to show how antisemitism is co-constitutive of other racisms; that it exists in relation to them, even as each form of racism has its own trajectory and manifests in different ways with different consequences for individuals and for people who are racialised as groups.

In the fourth chapter of my book, Why Race Still Matters – ‘Good Jew/Bad Jew’ – I make the argument that antisemitism after the Shoah has been made a prototype for all racisms. Put simply, antisemitism and the Shoah in particular – which in fact is extracted out from the longer history of European antisemitism – are wielded as the templates against which all other forms of racism can be compared. ‘Real racism’ then is equated with the Nazi Holocaust which is portrayed as a unique and aberrant event, disconnected from the longer history of colonialism and racial rule and fixed firmly in the past. I have referred to this as ‘frozen’ racism – an imaginary of what a real racist event looks like, against which every experience can be contrasted and found wanting. Indeed, the very idea of racism as an ‘event’, rather than a set of processes, logics and projects, serves to deny the structural, repetitive nature of systemic racial rule as manifest in laws, policies, and everyday practices of surveillance, discipline, control and exploitation.

I think this frozen template is held up to deliberately question Black and Brown people’s experience of racism and all the empirical evidence of it, making it ‘debatable’ in the public sphere. So, while Jews, philosemites and Zionists participate in this, it is important to understand that, not only is antisemitism used to justify the Zionist project, it is used by states and elites to cast doubt over racism, making it a matter of opinion. This is why it is entirely consistent to find politicians and pundits participating in Holocaust commemorations and the like while condemning migrants to harsher futures, ramping up the racialised carceral system, or inventing ever-more punitive welfare regimes.

Further, the idea that a so-called ‘new Judeophobia’ displaces the old antisemitism of Europe and is wielded by racialised minorities, Arabs and Muslims in particular, but also Black people, shifts responsibility for racism onto the shoulders of its current victims. Not only does this detachment of antisemitism from its roots in Europe serve the agenda of the states of the Global North to question and quell Black and Brown resistance to ongoing racism, it also has the effect of tethering Jewishness to whiteness and making the existence of Jews of colour, and the harms done against them under colonialism and within ongoing racist structures, invisible. 

So we should properly understand the political utility of antisemitism today as obscuring rather than illuminating the operations of race

Against this backdrop, taking a public stance against antisemitism and supporting Israel (the two have been made equivalent) have come to serve as a proxy for doing antiracism. The performance of opposition to antisemitism – whether this is a true commitment or not – has allowed even open racists to be able to publicly state their opposition to antisemitism, given that antisemitism has both been made exceptional and has been held up as the standard bearer for all racism. In this scenario stating opposition to antisemitism stands in for being antiracist. 

Cynically, this has allowed official Jewish bodies and other prominent Jews and Zionists to ally with often open white supremacists in the common cause of Islamophobia, the clasp linking these otherwise strange bedfellows together. Such alliances sees Netanyahu siding with the extreme right in Poland and Hungary, or Ben Shapiro saying of Ann Coulter, “her antisemitic remarks are ‘awful, nonsensical [but she] is also super pro-Israel, and has always been so, so I won’t lose sleep.’”

This works on the left too with the British Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, embroiled in an antisemitism crisis which actually obscured the bigger problems the party had with racism in general, being able to call itself ‘the party of antiracism’. This was despite the fact that the party, in its electioneering, promised more police and more controls on migration, going against the wishes of many of its members in an effort to win over the so-called white working class vote.

Having said all this, in an effort to point out these cynical manoeuvrings there has been, for me, a tendency to present any mention of antisemitism in political speech as ‘weaponisation’, and as a stick to beat the Left with and to quiet any and all mention of Palestine. And in fact, it is the exceptionalization of antisemitism within the counterinsurgent project to quell radical anticolonialist antiracism that has led to this focus on weaponization. So, in one sense it is understandable. However, I believe that those who insist on speaking in terms of weapons do not have antiracist interests at heart. Because to speak of any challenge against racism as a weapon against the left is to put an abstract universalist and race neutral left project before a commitment to defeating racism. 

The only response to this predicament is, in my view, to insist on de-exceptionalising antisemitism and, rather, to see it as part of the struggle against race as a political project which, as I opened by saying, has many contingent components of which – historically and in different ways today – antisemitism is one. This will require taking a different approach to history where the Shoah is understood within the longue duree of racial colonialism, rather than teleologically as an event that begins in Europe and ends in 1948. 

But it also requires work today to recognise the constantly shifting contours of racism, the entanglement between antisemitism and Islamophobia for example, which is fundamental to understanding why antisemitism is of such utility politically today. Essentially challenging antisemitism within a project of opposing racism and coloniality requires that as Jews, we reject alignment with white supremacist interests and, as Santiago Slabodsky has argued, we return to our ‘barbarian roots’ – the history which ties us to the other subjects of racial rule. 

Alana Lentin