Anti-Semitism and anti-leftism share a violent and intimate history that is being revived under Donald Trump
Thu 12 Dec 2019
On Thursday, Donald Trump signed an executive order that defines Judaism as a nationality. In the process, he also effectively defined some 7.5 million American Jews as dual nationals, with dual loyalties. This is an anti-semitic trope with a long, ugly history. It was precisely that kind of logic which helped unleash the murderous pogroms that my great grandfather fled in Eastern Europe.
Ostensibly, Trump’s order was a ploy to crack down on the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement on college campuses. It will enable the Department of Education to ban the protest movement–a solidarity call from Palestinian civil society to bring an help end the Israeli occupation there–as legally discriminatory under civil rights law, ironically. It’s a throwback of the worst kind to have an attack on Jews and one on the left so clearly intertwined.
When my great grandfather arrived in the United States, he moved around a bit before eventually opening a shoe store and settling into a comfortable middle class life in a relatively sleepy stretch of Southern New Jersey. But many others who left Europe for the US during the same period landed and made their lives in cities like New York, where Yiddish-language papers like the Forvarts became organs of working class life. Socialist Jewish labor organizers in unions like the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union led strikes and changed laws, improving living standards for people around the country subject to low wages and long hours, and helping define the relationship between capital and labor in America more broadly. In the US and abroad, this kind of activism was a threat to big business, which joined forces with virulent strains of right-wing nationalism to define Jewish life as inherently foreign, and inherently dangerous.
Anti-Semitism and anti-communism – and anti-leftism more broadly – share a violent and intimate history that stretches from Nazi Germany to the House Un-American Activities Committee to the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Charges of Judeo-Bolshevism have been a premise for limiting the scope of who deserves basic rights and citizenship. Like racism and sexism, anti-Semitism has oozed through history and as such is hardly limited to one side of the political spectrum. But despite their bad-faith accusations of anti-Semitism against left-wing politicians on both sides of the Atlantic, today’s increasingly radical right is reviving this nasty trend more plainly than in decades, and making life more dangerous for Jews from Pittsburgh to Germany.
While they might carry a soft spot for Benjamin Netanyahu, strongmen in the model of Trump, Viktor Orbán, Jair Bolsonaro will never be friends to the Jews. Attempts to close off countries to immigrants and anyone else not included in these politicians’ tribal concepts of nationhood have historically worked out poorly for Jews, which is why Jewish organizers have in the US and elsewhere joined in solidarity with struggles for civil rights and more humane immigration policies. As the climate crisis threatens to displace millions in the coming decades, fighting off xenophobic right-wing populists and their attacks on the left has never been more important.
With the political center collapsing and temperatures quite literally rising, politics throughout much of the world are beginning to look something like they did about a century ago, when Rosa Luxemburg recalled a line from Friedrich Engels: “Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism.”