“[T]he destiny of the modern Jew is tragic beyond expression and comprehension—so tragic that ‘they laugh at you when you speak of it, and this is the greatest tragedy at all.’” ― Isaac Deutscher, The Non-Jewish Jew
When neo-Nazis and white nationalists marched through Charlottesville, Virginia, last week, they chanted anti-Semitic slogans like, “Jews will not replace us.” Even before the “march,” Nazi websites had posted calls to marchers to burn down a synagogue there. As The Atlantic observed, they are “obsessed with Jews.” This comes as no surprise to Jews — and should not be a surprise to anyone with even a passing familiarity with the history of anti-Semitism, white nationalism, or Nazism. When the Ku Klux Klan was re-founded in 1915, for example, one of its key precepts was anti-Semitism, alongside anti-Black racism and xenophobia. That is why when, last week, white nationalists marched, it was an attack on Jews and Jewish institutions, as well as on people of color: when white nationalists gain power and influence, they use it to terrorize us.
It has therefore come as a shock to me to discover the growing popularity, among some on the left, of the notion that Zionism actually is white nationalism ― a position as anti-Semitic as it is intellectually disingenuous. The most offensive aspect of this idea’s growing popularity is that it has come primarily since the march in Charlottesville, but the significance of the timing goes beyond mere insensitivity. In the aftermath of the march, many Jews on the left insisted upon, at long last, recognition by our allies on the left that white nationalism is a threat to Jews. The growing power of white nationalists represents, as it always has, a direct challenge to the ability of Jews to feel at home or safe.
Yair Rosenberg, for example, suggested that the left set aside the longstanding debate over whether Jews are “white” or not — an important debate because, he explained, “implicitly at stake ... is whether efforts to combat racism should prioritize prejudice against Jews” or whether other groups should take precedence. In practice, however, the question has been settled by the growing power of white nationalists, who uniformly contend that Jews are not white, and have no place in their vision for America. Though with some notable exceptions, the general response to this call was deafening silence.
Soon after, and ostensibly out of nowhere, some anti-Zionists began to suggest that Zionism is a form of white nationalism. This represents a direct rebuke of Rosenberg’s, and others’, pleas. In fact, the exclusive effect of this line of argument — there are innumerable other ways to criticize Israel — was, and is, to distract from and undermine the insistence of Jewish leftists that the threats to us and our communities be taken seriously. If Zionism is simply one form of white nationalism, and Jews are not threatened by Zionism, then how much could Jews really be threatened by white nationalism? Even without the dangerous underlying logic, the effect would be the same — to reorient the conversation about white nationalism to be about Zionism instead of anti-Semitism. And, as with so many discussions pertaining to Israel on the left, leftist Jews again find ourselves having to first disclaim any support for Israel before our concerns about anti-Semitism will be heard, let alone taken seriously.
Unspoken in the position is the erasure of any difference between Jews and non-Jewish whites (for the sake of simplicity, let’s ignore the fact that the vast majority of Israeli Jews would not be seen as white in nearly any part of the world). After all, for Zionism to be considered white nationalism, it must involve support for a white nation. This distinction between “whites” and “Jews,” is of importance not because of any inherent difference between us but rather because centuries of oppression have created that difference. Regardless of whether Jews are counted as “white,” we remain a small minority, frequently discriminated against on the basis of being Jews. When the left-Twitterati pretends this not to be the case, it tacitly suggests that there is no history of Jewish oppression or, at least, that such history is irrelevant.
Obscuring the history of and invidiousness of Jewish persecution is both vital to and inherent in this theory. At its core, white nationalism is ideological dishonesty in pursuit of greater power for the already powerful. White nationalists claim they seek the creation of a nation exclusively for them on the basis that white people are an oppressed minority whose coherent culture requires protection. This, obviously, has no basis in reality: white nationalism is not aimed at the vindication of any oppressed group but rather the further empowerment of those who have occupied positions of privilege for most of the world’s history, and continue to do so now. (Also, the notion that there is a single, “white” culture is laughable.)
By contrast, Jews clearly are a coherent cultural group; we actually have been oppressed, in fact by the majority in every nation we have inhabited; our shared culture, and even our people, has often teetered on the brink of extinction. The existence of Israel does not undo that history or the fact that half the world’s Jews continue to live as precarious minorities. To suggest otherwise is to appeal to the age-old anti-Semitic canard that Jews are a powerful global cabal, under which the power of some of us anywhere enhances the power of all us, everywhere.
The left has too often allowed our critique of Israel to obscure the demands of our better angels. If we embrace the notion that Zionism is a form of — or indistinguishable from — white nationalism, we will commit that error yet again, endorsing by implication the idea that Jews wield as much as, or more power than, non-Jewish whites — a neo-Nazi talking point. Instead, we must directly confront the ugly problem of anti-Semitism which has again reared its head in the form of white nationalism.
We can, and must, do better.