How the left is reclaiming the fight against antisemitism
Most people do not expect to see open antisemitism enter mainstream discourse, even as white nationalists try to keep that flame alive. Nevertheless, as Trump became the figurehead of the Republican base, and conspiracy theories about George Soros or QAnon mythologies became commonplace, the ideas of Jewish cabals became an anchor of conservative discourse.
The threat to Jews only magnified as the alt-right grew starting in 2015, particularly with high-profile moments like the 2017 torchlight march in Charlottesville and the 2018 mass murder of 11 Jewish parishioners at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. The so-called “Jewish Question” — or the antisemetic assertion of allegedly problematic Jewish behavior in society — has risen to prominence on the right. Its barely coded forms were becoming common Republican talking points as they railed against “cultural Marxism,” “financial elites” and other dog whistles historically used for Jews.
With the prospect of a volatile 2020 election season on the horizon, several organizers from progressive Jewish organizations decided to create a collaborative tracking project that would help explain how prevalent antisemitism had become on the right. They wanted a tool that would help recognize antisemitic patterns, such as the reliance on conspiracy theories. At the same time, they wanted to use an intersectional, anti-racist lens that saw antisemitism as part of a larger white supremacist web of bigoted assumptions and structural inequalities.
As a result, they formed Jews Against White Nationalism, or JAWN, in 2019 and began immediately tracking the incidents of antisemitism occurring with accelerating frequency on the right. By focusing on a wide range of incidents — from actual attacks to the use of well-worn antisemitic tropes on the floor of Congress — members of JAWN could see not only antisemitism’s persistent relevance, but also the forces behind it.
Building an accurate picture of the antisemitic threat
“Anyone paying attention saw that there was an increase in the use of accusations of antisemitism to go after progressive leaders and, in particular, progressive leaders of color,” said Sophie Ellman-Golan, who works with Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, or JFREJ, a partner organization in the Jews Against White Nationalism project. She had been the Communications Director for the Women’s March, which was plagued by accusations of antisemitism. She saw first-hand how such accusations, both real and manufactured, could stop a progressive movement in its tracks.
The project began as a coalition of three organizations that had been involved in progressive organizing: Bend the Arc, JFREJ, and the anti-occupation group IfNotNow. All three had entered with unique histories of their own, which included an analysis and approach to the problem of antisemitism while not centering all of their work on the issue either. IfNotNow did trainings on antisemitism as part of its larger activist development work. Bend the Arc worked to integrate a critical analysis of antisemitism that avoids right-wing trappings, and JFREJ produced a now popular pamphlet for the left on understanding antisemitism from an intersectional lens.
Together, they created a timeline that ran through 2020 and concluded at the end of March 2021, tracking antisemitic statements ranging from white nationalists like Nick Fuentes and his Groyper movement all the way to statements from Republican leaders like Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, who parroted some of the same antisemitic talking points. They revealed the connections between open white nationalists and Republican figureheads, such as when Georgia Sen. Kelly Loeffler was posing for photos with former Klan leader and neo-Nazi Chester Doles, or when conservative leaders marched alongside neo-Nazis at the Million Maga March.
“Part of wanting to track the antisemitism on the right was wanting to get the Jewish community to have a clearer sense of where the threats are to our community.”
What the nearly 300 entries show is a pattern of deep antisemitism — not only from the expected white nationalist sources, but also the same Republican party that is hurtling accusations of antisemitism at the left in an effort to sway Jewish voters.
“A lot of us felt that the American Jewish community should be a much more effective organizing force against the far-right in this moment. And they are being neutralized by this distraction of painting a few progressive Dems, or the entire Democratic Party, as antisemitic,” said Dove Kent, an organizer with Bend the Arc. Kent saw that accusations of left antisemitism had distorted the Jewish community’s view of how prevalent antisemitism was on the right.
“Part of wanting to track the antisemitism on the right was wanting to get the Jewish community to have a clearer sense of where the threats are to our community and to be a more effective organizing and fighting force against both the far-right and the Republican Party,” Kent added.
This project would show people what kind of dog whistles existed and how coded antisemitism functions, which is often hidden by the current discourse around antisemitism. There are a few ways that antisemitism is discussed that can make its mechanics appear invisible, such as suggesting that it works like no other form of bigotry or, on the other side, suggesting that only the most violent and openly Jew-hating versions are legitimate antisemitism. By showing how terms like “globalist” work — and how right-wing political conspiracies necessitate antisemitic ideas for coherence — the patterns that are forming on the right become more visible.
JAWN’s “How to Fight Antisemitism” tracking tool was used by a huge range of media outlets, including the Huffington Post, Daily Kos, Mother Jones, and Yahoo News, among others. Such coverage provided a corrective to groups like the conservative leaning Anti-Defamation League, which focuses on Palestinian rights activists rather than the more volatile antisemitism of white nationalism.
“It’s more vital than ever to continue tracking the spread of antisemitism and white nationalism, as conspiracism, bigotry and ultranationalism continue to be a rising threat in the United States and beyond,” said Ben Lorber, a research analyst with Political Research Associates, another group that tracks antisemitism.
JAWN’s tracking tool became a central piece of the organizing strategy at organizations that were confronting antisemitism as part of a progressive program in 2020. Bend the Arc used this information in its progressive political mobilizations, creating outreach materials to push the issue of right-wing antisemitism for voters, with a particular focus on Jewish voters. Partnering organizations signed up for the “Mic Check” email where they could share the growing list of incidents on the tracking tool. This helped to create a back and forth model: They brought voters concerned about antisemitism into their progressive electoral campaigns, and they integrated the content on antisemitism into their broader progressive electoral materials.
IfNotNow used the tool to help frame the issue of antisemitism as one that appears more often on the political right and pushed the Biden administration to choose a Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism who actually reflected this intersectional perspective. Previous Anti-Semitism Envoys — much like the ADL — focused more of their attention on Palestinian rights activists and other progressives rather than the clear threat presented by white nationalism. Not surprisingly, figures like former ADL leader Abraham Foxman were floated as potential appointees for Biden’s cabinet position. Alarmingly, for the members of JAWN, this would have continued an Islamophobic approach to the issue that makes criticism of Israel the deciding factor in addressing antisemitism rather than the racist conspiracy mongering that drives most antisemitism.
Bringing the fight against antisemitism back to the left
If Jewish communities were being misled by the right, a corrective was necessary in advance of the election. Many Jewish communal organizations had focused on “anti-Israel activism” or political radicalism on both the right and the left. JAWN, however, developed a completely different approach to the question of antisemitism. Instead, they pursued an intersectional, anti-oppression politics that sees antisemitism as one part of the larger framework of white supremacy.
“We were seeing the threats that happen when antisemitism is treated as totally separate from other oppressions,” Kent explained. “[Antisemitism] used to be part of an anti-oppression analysis for activists in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Then, starting in the ’90s, that was really dropped. So you have a whole generation of folks in movements who came up in the ’90s and 2000s who were given no political education on antisemitism.”
As antisemitism was dropped from the left’s priorities, it was allowed to fester, growing on the right and even appearing in areas of the left, laundered through conspiracy theories like the “9/11 Truth” movement. This meant that antisemitism became contested ground, one that the left rarely mentioned or confronted with a sustained seriousness.
“Antisemitism is like sexism and racism and xenophobia: It exists all around us and within us, and we all have to root it out.”
This also drew on traditions of antifascism that saw the fight against antisemitism as central to successfully targeting reactionaries who want to subjugate all marginalized communities. The Jewish left has historically played a large role in the fight against antisemitism, from organizations like the Jewish Labor Bund — which fought from within the socialist labor movement — to New Jewish Agenda in the 1980s.
“Antisemitism did, for a long time, decrease in this country … while Jewish organizations became more and more involved in issues of labor, as well as racial and immigrant justice,” said Sophie Ellman-Golan, a JFREJ member and JAWN collaborator. “When you don’t have an analysis of how those things are deeply connected to each other, you can adopt a scarcity mindset, [saying] ‘Oh, we can’t take on [antisemitism]. We can’t center ourselves when the plight of others is greater. And as a result, we have ceded a lot of the discussion about antisemitism to the center and to the right.”
By re-approaching antisemitism from an intersectional lens, and by looking at how antisemitic conspiracy theories confuse who is responsible in capitalism, projects like JAWN present a counter narrative the left can use.
IfNotNow was a key member of this coalition because one of its primary campaigns was built on Jewish participation in the fight against the Israeli occupation of Palestine. By focusing on antisemitism as a part of that work, they are bringing a critical approach to the issue back into the left, while also refusing to capitulate on their key principles on Palestine.
“[Many activists] don’t want the conversation about Israel to have anything to do with antisemitism because it’s been so misused and weaponized, but we were very clear that we needed to actually take that on. … [So we] started talking about antisemitism in those trainings,” said Morriah Kaplan of IfNotNow.
JAWN has become a particularly salient example of how the left can reclaim the fight against antisemitism and bring it into the larger struggle against racism, which has mobilized in recent years to fight deportations, police violence and racial inequity. While some on the left have critiqued JAWN’s approach — arguing that it was conflating vague incidents and making antisemitism seem like a bigger threat than it really is — the reality of the situation seems clear. Increasing antisemitic incidents and Republican reliance on populist conspiracies show that antisemitism is a growing threat and systemic in the right-wing worldview.
“Antisemitism is like sexism and racism and xenophobia: It exists all around us and within us, and we all have to root it out,” Kaplan said. “And the left has done a lot more of that reckoning with the poisons we have in ourselves because of the ways our society is shaped.”
While JAWN was a briefly lived project, starting in 2019 and running until March of this year, it remains online as a resource for people organizing on this issue, while also providing a model for how the left can approach antisemitism going forward.
“Our movements need to fight antisemitism if we want to fully win,” Ellman-Golan said. “If they are confused about who is orchestrating their oppression, they are not going to be able to find the source of it. And the fact of the matter is it’s going to have to be Jews.”
Originally published at https://wagingnonviolence.org on September 2, 2021.