The far-right nationalist tells me I’m not white. The progressive liberal tells me I am. The former explicitly wants me dead; the latter wants me to strip away any allegiance to myself as a Jew in favor of claiming a privilege that goes only so far.
So which is more sinister? In People Love Dead Jews, Dara Horn makes a distinction between two kinds of anti-Semitism, represented by two major Jewish holidays: Purim and Hanukkah. With Purim anti-Semitism, Horn explains, “the goal is openly stated and unambiguous: Kill all the Jews.” This is the anti-Semitism you can see clearly. It’s the anti-Semitism of Haman and is similar in content to what the Nazis advanced: “We want to kill you because you are Jewish.” That kind of anti-Semitism is indeed terrifying, and it has led to millennia-long trauma, including the Holocaust and numerous pogroms. More recently, we see it among the white nationalists and in the sharp rise in anti-Semitic violence, including the 2018 mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.
But the other type of Jew-hatred—“Hanukkah anti-Semitism”—is less overt and harder to parse. “The goal is still to eliminate Jewish civilization,” Horn writes. But it may be achieved “while leaving the warm, de-Jewed bodies of its former practitioners intact.” Today, Hanukkah anti-Semitism is couched in nominally noble pursuits such as social justice, civil rights, freedom of the oppressed, and the intersectional movement. This kind of anti-Semitism, promoted by the Hanukkah villain Antiochus, doesn’t outwardly encourage Jew-killing. Instead, it tells Jews to hide or erase their Jewishness by disavowing their practices, history, unique identity—and, especially in recent years, Israel—in favor of assimilating into a larger culture. It’s the anti-Semitism that says, “Go ahead and be Jewish, but don’t make a fuss about it.” As Hellenistic Jews tried to integrate elements of Greek culture into their lives, traditional Jews pushed back, leading to the eventual Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid Empire, from 167 to 160 B.C.E.
But the desire to blend into the surrounding population can be seen at various points in Jewish history. There is perhaps no example more illustrative of this than the practice of foreskin restoration—or epispasm. In ancient Greco-Roman culture, intact genitals were seen as beautiful, masculine, and ideal. In the first century C.E., under Roman rule, Jewish men in the gymnasia—where exercise was done in the nude—felt an enormous pressure to reverse their ritual circumcisions to avoid stigma in a society that viewed an exposed glans as vulgar and indecent. Roughly 2,000 years later, some European Jews sought foreskin restoration to avoid Nazi persecution. And in Russia during the Soviet Union, the practice of circumcision was forbidden—as were most religious practices—leading most Russian Jews at the time to forgo the tradition to avoid discrimination, or to risk the procedure by way of clandestine underground networks of mohels.
Hanukkah anti-Semitism continues to be problematic for today’s Jews, especially those living in the United States. While most American Jews espouse liberal values, their access to those circles where such values are championed has come at a cost. No longer do we feel pressured to reverse circumcisions, but we are more insistently being told to whitewash ourselves or be whitewashed by society without our consent. With progressives increasingly conflating the Jewish people with whiteness in their postmodern power rubric, American Jews find themselves stuck with nowhere to turn when faced with white supremacists who want them dead.
Days ahead of the D.C. Dyke March in 2019, its organizers banned the Jewish pride flag. They claimed that the rainbow flag, which included the Star of David, was reminiscent of the Israeli flag and thus a symbol of apartheid, colonialism, and ethnic cleansing—all of which go against the supposedly queer values of anti-Zionism. The same thing happened two years earlier at a march in Chicago. Somebody should have told the organizers that the Star of David, in addition to its use as a symbol of “violent nationalism,” was used to identify Jews in Nazi Germany, and it often adorns the pine-box caskets of our dead. Keep in mind that such gatekeeping makes up just one aspect of the effort to deny Jews the intersectional umbrella and its supposed protections.
In the Black Lives Matter movement, it is common to find anti-Israel rhetoric that sometimes rises to the level of blunt anti-Semitism. Temple University professor Marc Lamont Hill was fired by CNN in 2018 over his repeatedly wishing for a Palestine “free from the river to the sea,” a call to arms for the erasure of Jews in Israel, often issued by terrorist groups. And there is the ugly and false assertion swirling within BLM circles, more pronounced since the murder of George Floyd, that the Israeli military trains American police in methods to brutalize black people with choke holds and other inhumane tactics.
In an effort to sanitize views such as these, the deceptively named progressive activist group Jewish Voice for Peace hosted a Zoom panel in 2020 called “Dismantling Anti-Semitism: Jews Talk Justice.” Among those included on the panel were Hill and Michigan’s Representative Rashida Tlaib, who has trafficked in anti-Semitic slurs and claims that shadowy people “behind the curtain” are making “money…off of racism,” and “they do it from Gaza to Detroit.” Where, one wonders, were the Jewish, let alone peaceful, voices?
At the heart of the Hanukkah story is the assertion of Jewish particularism in a universalist world. The Tenth of Tevet—a minor fast day in Judaism, observed about a week after Hanukkah—marks the Jews’ early confrontation with a universalist worldview. In the third century B.C.E., King Ptolemy II oversaw the forceable translation of the Hebrew Bible into the Greek Septuagint and placed it in the ancient version of the Library of Congress. By moving the Hebrew Bible out of the house of study and into the library, Ptolemy sought to position it as nothing more than another book, thus rendering Jewish particularism a non-threat in a polytheistic world.
And what is the nature of our particularism exactly? It is the Jewish tradition of monotheism, plurality, tolerance, debate, reading, education, creativity, justice (tzedek), and mercy (hesed). If these themes sound familiar, it’s because they form the basis of Judeo-Christian and Western thought. All of these highlight what is at the root of our particularism—a search for the different, unique, or exceptional in order to create or celebrate or represent something incomparable or of special quality.
It’s no surprise, then, that Jews are vastly overrepresented in the fields of science, math, literature, music, philosophy, psychology, medicine, finance, and law. A tradition of and primary focus on study and education in the average Jewish household has led to remarkable contributions to society, with Jews compriaccounting for at least 20 percent of the 900 awarded Nobel Prize laureates in all fields.
Jewish particularism is still frequently loathed within a predominantly Christian, universalist worldview. That animosity has led to wide-ranging conspiracies regarding Jewish power and influence. While white supremacists classify black, Asian, Arab, and Hispanic people as subhuman races, they seem at the same time to classify Jews as a superior and superhuman one, a coven of covert puppet masters capable of controlling the levers of power through media, banking, politics, and film. Representative Ilhan Omar’s tweet in 2012 accusing Israel of “hypnotizing” the world rests on just such anti-Semitic tropes.
These theories are found in the words of anti-Semites on both the left and right. During the Charlottesville rally, white supremacists chanted, “Jews will not replace us,” and those words were taken to be in protest of the literal replacement of white people by Jewish people. That seems hard to believe in a country where Jews constitute just 2.4 percent of the population. In reality, the slogan’s deeper meaning is rooted in replacement theory—which asserts, among other things, a Jewish plot to usher in the unbridled immigration of Mexicans and other minorities in a bid to muscle out white dominance.
In progressive circles, critical race theory and postmodernism categorize Jews as white because of the same power dynamic that makes white supremacists suspicious of Jews. Borrowing from allegorical and religious thought, progressive anti-Semites label Jews not as victims or inheritors of generational trauma, but as wealthy assimilated capitalists in America and genocidal nationalists in Israel. The biblical story of David and Goliath has been reappropriated in largely atheistic circles to cast the Jew as Goliath in a world where power mediates all human relationships. By classifying Jews as white, progressives see no need for Jews to be protected or defended, as they are part of a sinister white hegemony.
Leveraging their own views of the Jew, ideologues on both sides turn to either conspiracy theories or binaries that intentionally strip away nuance and context from complex situations, such as the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, and instead assert false but clean moral imperatives about right and wrong.
It’s no wonder, then, that so many American Jews feel themselves in a kind of political purgatory where they are caught in an impossible choice between an increasingly radical left and an increasingly radical right.
In a bid to embrace progressive movements, American Jews who identify as liberal sometimes join anti-Israel causes such as the boycott, divest, and sanction (BDS) campaign, which puts them at the forefront of the attack on Israel. Their hostility for the Jewish state is frequently depthless, based on little or faulty information. They’re not likely to have much of a personal understanding of Israel; most American Jews have never been there. But in thinking about what motivates them to sign on to BDS, one must consider the pressure that American Jews are under. The gatekeepers of the movements that dominate their landscape don’t exactly give Jews the latitude to be proud of Israel. They offer instead an all-or-nothing approach to social justice, in which Jews who sincerely care about and support minority rights and liberal causes must simultaneously deny their support for a Jewish homeland.
Moreover, in order to gain access to these spaces, Jews must now “own” their supposed whiteness and repent for the privileges and supremacy therein. It matters not at all that history shows our ancestors—some of whom are still-living Holocaust survivors—have been victimized, exiled, and systematically murdered for centuries as a race, religion, and ethnicity. While we haven’t struggled in America the way that black people have struggled, we nonetheless sympathize and march in support of them. While our immigration stories are very different from those of, say, Hispanic peoples, we nonetheless advocate for a compassionate immigration process overall. To belittle or discount wholesale historical Jewish struggles simply because many of us present as white ignores a haunting history. We have recently seen just how readily this history can be discarded.
In January, Whoopi Goldberg claimed on The View that the Holocaust “wasn’t about race” and was instead an instance of “whites fighting each other.” This idiotic statement fails to note that Hitler specifically cast Jews as a vermin race fit for extinction. It also places Jews in the postmodern categorization system that lumps us in with a white-supremacist structure that tried to eliminate us from the earth. Goldberg’s views on race as a matter of skin color reveals a narrow, American-centric worldview. In countless examples, from the Uyghurs to the Armenians to the Jews of Eastern Europe, skin color was hardly a determinant when it came to racist attitudes and murderous aims. Given her non-apology and doubling down, Goldberg seems to have no qualms about how she feels. She is simply privileging black struggles and being intentionally obtuse about the Jewish ones she knows so little about.
Goldberg’s comments show precisely the harm and ignorance of ideas such as critical race theory. Categorizing people into “white” and “non-white,” “powerful” and “powerless” based on skin color doesn’t get you very far in your analysis. The world is vastly more complicated than CRT advocates know. So, too, is American history. When woke activists claim that Jews, because some of us are light-skinned, are part of the pernicious white-supremacist superstructure, they advertise a comprehensive ignorance of Jewish suffering. It wasn’t so long ago that colleges had rigid quotas for Jews, and to be a Jew on campus was an uneasy proposition. Housing discrimination for Jews and other minorities through RRCs (Racial Restrictive Covenants) date back to 1916. And moving up in corporate settings was long notoriously difficult for Jews in America. These overt or subtle anti-Semitic practices show a clear American pattern of grudging acceptance of Jews in “white spaces.”
That said, there’s no doubt that the United States remains the most prosperous and welcoming home for Jews outside of Israel. But while many of us pass as white, that doesn’t make us white in the eyes of those who relish the idea of another Holocaust. Consider one reason why many of us, especially Ashkenazi Jews, seem to pass. While we have white skin, we are socially conditioned not to make a fuss about our Jewish identity. This manifests in a host of ways. In a heartbreaking compromise, we render ourselves virtually indistinguishable from whites—namely the country’s majority Protestant population—to fit in. We tuck our Star of David pendants under our shirts or leave them at home; we think twice about flying an Israeli flag or putting a mezuzah on our doors, and we refrain from wearing a kippah in public. All of these are ways of stripping signifiers of Jewish identity and nullifying us in society.
No matter the strides we’ve made in the post-WWII era, being too proud can invite vitriol, even in the land of the free. And while suppression of our Jewish identity may seem trivial for the most secular among us, religious Jews live under a different level of threat entirely. The Orthodox in New York have become easy and frequent targets of anti-Semitic hate crimes, as their dress and way of life stand out among the surrounding communities.
The idea of Jews as white is further challenged when we look at demographic data. Some 44 percent of Israelis have Sephardic or Mizrahi origins, with family emigrating from countries such as Morocco, Tunisia, Yemen, Algeria, Spain, Iraq, and Ethiopia—in other words, what progressives see in any other context as “brown people.” Are these dark-skinned Jews oppressors, too, even if they come from Arab countries?
Many leftists would rush to point out that more than half of Israelis are Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe or Russia, and therefore white. Yet even my “white” European ancestors hid from Nazis, were persecuted, lawfully denied certain rights, relegated to a handful of jobs, stripped of their citizenship after leaving for Israel, and barred from higher education. It wasn’t until just before my parents’ marriage that my Moroccan father knew for sure that my Polish mother was actually Jewish. With a family of “Catherines” and “Evas” and “Annas,” it was hard to pin down her matrilineal Judaism. As with many Polish Jews, her family lived under an unspoken directive: Be Jewish inside the home and Polish outside of it.
This past year, Jews were assaulted in Los Angeles, New York, and various European cities. Efforts to decry anti-Semitism have fallen on deaf ears as social media have overwhelmingly pushed inflammatory rhetoric, bias, and incomplete narratives that often cross the line from critiques of the Israeli government to outright Jew-hating. But no one sucker punches a Jew in Brooklyn over the plight of the Palestinians. No roving mobs ask diners outside a sushi restaurant in California who among them is a Jew because the mobs condemn the Netanyahu government. Not everyone is simply criticizing Israel, but there’s no shortage of anti-Semites who cite problems with the Jewish state as an excuse for their generations-old bigotry.
In a twist that is as absurd as it is wicked, Hanukkah anti-Semitism thrives on downplaying the threat of Purim anti-Semitism. It is perhaps incorrect to say that one is more harmful than the other. Like many of today’s extreme ideologies, they are interdependent. If you’re hated for being a Jew, you’re supposed to suck it up because you’re white. Anti-Semitism remains what it’s always been: the bigoted hatred of Jews, regardless of justifications and theories. And to find oneself caught between ancient and rival forms of that hatred is a sure sign that one isn’t white.
Photo: David Berkowitz
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