History of Anti-Semitic Tropes
To say that there is a long history of anti-Semitism is to state one of the most obvious realities of human history. For hundreds, even thousands of years, Jews have been identified based on an endlessly repeated playlist of slurs and stereotypes. They have been seen as the consummate other, greedy financiers, murderers of children and drinkers of their blood, the world puppet masters who control literally everything behind the scenes, and the cause of all wars.
It’s a long and tedious story, but it is worth highlighting a few important moments. In 1543, German Reformation leader Martin Luther published “On the Jews and Their Lies”. You can purchase it today on Amazon, it’s chapter 25 of this collection.
“In the treatise, he argues that Jewish synagogues and schools be set on fire, their prayer books destroyed, rabbis forbidden to preach, homes burned, and property and money confiscated. They should be shown no mercy or kindness, afforded no legal protection, and “these poisonous envenomed worms” should be drafted into forced labor or expelled for all time. He also seems to advocate their murder, writing “[W]e are at fault in not slaying them”.” –Wikipedia
A little later came the counterfeit Protocols of the Elders of Zion—a fabrication that fit perfectly with centuries of conspiracy theory around Jews. Published in Russia in 1903, it was later republished in English by Henry Ford in the 1920s. You can purchase it on Amazon today.
We all know that these led to Mein Kampf, written by the beloved Fuhrer and still for sale on Amazon here.
The history of traditional anti-Semitism—mostly from the Christian world—can and does fill encyclopedias.
In the early 19th century U.S., after waves of Jewish immigration, primarily from Eastern Europe, the tropes became more subtle. Like the German Jews of the early 20th century, the American Jews assimilated into the culture, the ‘White’ culture. To be clear, the real Whites never considered them as white. They were certainly tolerated, within limits, but there remained barriers in the various forms of exclusion such as university quotas. Anecdotally, my own father, a first generation American, witnessed the most blatant and explicit anti-Semitism of his whole life while serving in the U.S. Army in World War II. The irony that he was in the army fighting against Nazis was not lost on him.
Wokeism, Post-modernism, Critical Race Theory
Now, in 2021, we have a relatively new cultural phenomenon, called variously woke culture, identity politics or postmodernism. Judith Butler, an academic who has provided much of the intellectual underpinnings for postmodernism as we know it today, could be considered the high priestess of this religious movement, which has its own version of the Holy Inquisition called cancel culture.
There are many things to say about woke culture and postmodernism. One of the shameful aspects of this situation is that there is precious little, if any, critical treatment of woke culture coming from the left. So I’ll point to a useful summary here that is from the Newdiscourses website and written by James Lindsay. I don’t agree with everything Lindsay says, but it is definitely worth reading.
However, this article is not meant to be a comprehensive critique or analysis of the woke culture. I’m interested more specifically in looking at the places where woke specifically bumps up against Jewish historical identity. I’ll start by pointing out a simple but interesting phenomenon. Contrary to longstanding foundational leftist principles, woke culture does not favor either the concept or the practice of free speech. Rather, it labels unwelcome language as literal violence and seeks to ban and forbid certain speech. There are many books currently under attack by woke culture. These include a number of once popular works being pulled off the shelves, including some by Mark Twain, Dr Seuss and Harper E. Lee. But if you want to buy and read Martin Luther’s ‘scholarly’ take on the Jews, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, or Mein Kampf, you can order them in seconds. No one in woke culture is calling for their removal. And, in spite of being wildly inconsistent, that is as it should be. Banning bad thoughts doesn’t actually remove them. Language is not literal violence. Murders and massacres are literal violence.
Wokeism and the Jewish Problem
The mildest of criticisms aimed at woke theology are considered literal violence by its proponents. But at the same time, the harshest slurs and insults are completely acceptable if they are deployed against individuals who are not part of what has become a protected caste. In fact, randomly tossing around words like bigot, Nazi or White supremacist is the woke sport of our age. Nazi no longer means members of the National Socialist Party of Germany in the 30s and 40s who were dedicated, above all else, to the extermination of other humans born into one particular group. For woke cultists, Nazi just means anyone who doesn’t adhere to the exact language of their catechism. Plebity has been called ‘Nazi’ for posting an interview with a sixteen year old lesbian who disagreed with the woke tenet that trans women are literally women and that a lesbian should want to have sex with males. This absurd use of the word Nazi, repeated by wokeists countless times, dilutes the real meaning of the word beyond recognition and at the same time erases the reality of Jewish history and the lived experience of Jews (as the wokeists themselves might put it). It’s strange that it is necessary to say, in our modern woke world of supposed tolerance for everyone’s identity, that Jewish identity and the enduring nature of anti-Semitism are real.
And now, in the woke culture of 2021, we have a resurgence of the age-old pattern.
This story of an NYC educator, who says she was reprimanded and then fired after talking about the loss of her family members in the Holocaust, reveals how Jewish identity is treated in the woke versions of Maoist struggle sessions which are increasingly mandated in corporate and academic settings. These are called anti-bias training sessions.
“At an implicit-bias workshop where superintendents were asked to tell their personal stories, Ames talked about her grandparents’ loss of two children during the Holocaust—only to have colleague Rasheda Amon tell her, “you better check yourself,” the lawsuit alleges.” – New York Post
Similarly, recent conversations on the social media app Clubhouse show us what is allowed when the target of what would otherwise be immediately recognized as hate speech is the group of people known as Jews.
This twitter thread has the details of what took place in this chat room:
Examples such as these might not be so powerful if they occurred in a larger context of tolerance for free speech where possibly inappropriate comments might be freely exchanged in all directions. But in the woke context this is absolutely not the case. What is acceptable is completely dependent upon the identity of the speaker. Based on that alone, some speech is given absolute free reign, and some speech is fiercely suppressed.
The new woke religion (because that is what it is) frames everything as being first about race and then about certain select self-identified gender identities. Woke theology is organized around a strict caste system. At the top are people of color and transgender identified people. The highest status of all is a transgender person of color. People with white skin are by definition racists and White supremacists. There is a place inside this caste system for people with white skin – as allies. However it is important that they understand their place, which is to be consistently deferential and not ‘take up too much space.’ Jews are, at best, in the category of ‘White adjacent’. As such, they share the fundamental characteristic of being racist and White supremacist. As good allies, what they are not permitted is to speak about their own Jewish identity.
In this way, woke ideology, originally derived from genuine social justice concerns within the Black community but now widely trumpeted by virtue-signaling, upper-class, affluent White people, has elevated a priesthood caste of fetishised people of color and transgender identified people. These people are given a special status akin to priests of the Catholic Church. In this hierarchy, Jews do not actually exist in any distinct way and have no special standing to talk about their own lived experience. It is predictable, for example, that criticisms of this article from woketivists and their allies will be that it is a long racist rant written by a Nazi white supremicist. There will be no need to engage with actual arguments as this one-size-fits-all vision of reality is acceptable for all good woketivists.
A group reveals itself as a cult when even the mildest questions are treated like religious blasphemy. This group’s priest class and its allies are allowed to hurl racist slurs at individuals who are part of less favored groups. Members of this protected caste can say anything about others; they can accuse anyone of bigotry, White supremacy, or transphobia while they, in turn, are beyond reproach. Those who have experienced the online mob and real-world cancel campaigns understand how any questioning of woke dogma will be answered with absolute ferocity. If you don’t think it’s a cult or you think I’m throwing out the term just to be contentious, see Chomsky on postmodernism and note his use of the word ‘cult’.*
In Wokeism it Doesn’t Matter What the Question is, the Answer is White SupremacyThe irony is that those who insist that Jews have no special identity beyond ‘whiteness’ and privilege’ are proving the enduring reality of anti-Semitism.
Let’s look briefly at an interesting example.What we see here is that NYTimes oped writer Michelle Goldberg has committed the crime of writing a piece that raised questions about woke ideology, specifically how certain aspects of transgender ideology could be in conflict with women’s rights.
That Michelle Goldberg is a Jew is recognizable because she has a distinctively Jewish name.
How Jews ended up with these names is a peculiar story. Generally, before the 18th century Jews in Europe did not have what we consider family names. They commonly used ‘son of’ or ‘daughter of’ to refer to themselves and each other. This changed in 1787 when Jews in Austria were ordered to adopt last names. This order was followed in 1808 by Napoleon in France and over the next decade or so laws decreeing that Jews adopt last names spread throughout most of Europe, including through various German states, Russia and Poland. The rulers of the time recognized that fixed names made it possible to register, tax and overall better control their Jewish populations.
Jews were sometimes assigned or able to choose names from lists of acceptable options. Sometimes explicitly ridiculous or insulting names such as Taschengregger (pickpocket) or Billig (cheap) were forced on them. Sometimes more affluent Jews were allowed to purchase ‘prettier’ names like Bernstein (amber) or Rosenthal (valley of roses).
These names were often modified when Jews emigrated to America. In my case, ‘White’ is an Ellis Island name—‘White’ chosen by my grandfather presumably because it was close to the original family name of Weiman, but also because it was easy for an Ellis Island immigration official to spell and would, in the best guess of the immigrant in question, make his Jewish identity less obvious. That story shares a little something with this story, also about Ellis Island and American Jewish names:
“And for those of you who don’t know why Sean Ferguson is Jewish, well, it’s an old joke. As the story goes, a Jewish immigrant could not recall the American sounding name someone had suggested he provide to the immigration inspector. And so he said in Yiddish, “Kh’hob shoyn fargesn,” which means, “I’ve forgotten already.” This the inspector understood as “Sean Ferguson.” –Jewish Surnames Explained”, Slate.
So, back to Michelle Goldberg. I’m not making the claim that Goldberg is being criticized because she is Jewish. She is being criticized because she has expressed a viewpoint not acceptable to the woke priest class and she herself is not a member of that caste. She has white skin. Nothing else is relevant. Therefore, it is impossible to be too harsh in criticizing her. It is also not necessary to engage with her arguments. In the world of critical race theory where the answer to every question is ‘white supremacy’, the reality of Jewish identity has no significance beyond that a Jewish person is by definition a white supremacist. It may seem twisted or circular but this is woke dogma.
In an article entitled ‘Critical Race Theory’s Jewish Problem’ James Lindsay says this about the connection between critical race theory of today and historical anti-Semitism:
“People need to understand that the new growth of anti-Semitism that [Bari] Weiss asks us to stop being shocked at seeing is, if not a deliberate feature, a reliable consequence of the ideology of Critical Social Justice when put into practice. Because of the way Critical Social Justice views the world, it generates certain unavoidable and irreconcilable contradictions where Jews are concerned, and lacking the means to resolve them, it finds itself faced with what some are rightly naming a Jewish question that leads to it having a Jewish problem.”
Lindsay goes on to describe the pattern of historical anti-Semitism:
“This set of horrors tended to follow a familiar pattern as well, which we now name “anti-Semitism.” That pattern is that Jews are made out to be a group that stands by its own claim as separate from broader society in some significant way and yet finds a way to gain significant privilege, eventually to the point of usurping control of the institutions that shape society. We would be remiss to avoid pointing out that assigning “whiteness” to Jews repeats the opening act of this tragic play.” [emphasis added]
Lindsay makes many good points and I recommend reading his article in full. However it is unfortunate that he conflates Jewish identity with a specific package of political beliefs, which include an uncritical view of Israel.
The more complicated truth is that Jews do not share a monolithic outlook on the world or on specific political issues. They don’t even all agree on Israel or basic questions of Zionism. Jews belong to all the different economic classes, there are Jews among the oligarchs and Jews among the working class. There are Jews among the woke.
Yet, like siblings in the same family, Jews both share certain objective experiences of reality while at the same time processing that reality in an infinite number of distinct and personal ways.
Old Memories Die Hard
As American Jews we both live in the current, where yes, we have White privilege, and at the same time we’re marked by our long history which is anything but privileged. To understand this clearly you need to imagine that we’re like glasses filled with a small portion of the current and a very large amount of the past. This current version of the ‘White privileged’ Jew exists inside a fleetingly micro instance of time and place. We are only separated by a few years, a single lifetime, from when our grandparents or great grandparents were subject to the worst treatment that humans can inflict on others.
A movement like the woke religion, that resorts to the blatantly racist stereotypes that we have seen so many times in the past, will trigger a predictable reaction from most Jews. Even Jews who believe in and support woke ideology will experience a disconnect as their reactions, unavoidably based in part on long historical memory, are simply mocked or ignored.
Beyond the resurgence of all the classic anti-Semitic tropes there is the second symptom of anti-Semitism—the desire to make Jews disappear. Martin Luther’s initial goal was to make Jews disappear by converting them. When that didn’t work, he moved on to suggest other…more radical solutions.
The first step to making the Jews disappear has always been to separate them and make them more identifiable. Give them peculiar names, force them to wear odd hats or bright yellow stars. Then, put them in assigned walled off areas, expel them from a whole country, buy their conversion in exchange for a piece of bread or for their very lives, or simply herd them into killing places… and make them disappear for good.
Focusing exclusively on skin color, on ‘White privilege’, only captures a small part of what it means to be an Ashkenazi Jew—a Jew of Eastern or Central European descent. This ideology that insists on erasing the rest of our identity is a new form of age old anti-Semitic erasure. It represents a subtler and more pernicious way to make Jews disappear. And in this case the way it works is to make us want to erase ourselves. To be un-bigoted, anti-racist or a moral person means we have to first ‘admit’ to being White and privileged above all else. Only one direction is allowed – that is to deny the relevance of any specific Jewish identity and to humbly confess our sins as White supremacists.In the Warsaw Ghetto the German Masters created a Jewish Police force. This force would have special status which those who belonged to it hoped would protect them from the fate of the rest of their community. Members of the Jewish Police adopted a strange habit of wearing the clothing fashions of the Germans. Like their German Masters they wore high leather boots and long overcoats. They wanted to escape the reality of being born as Jews and to literally become their oppressors. But in the end this was nothing but an illusion. When it was their turn they were pushed into the cattle cars just like they had pushed so many others before them. They were simply instruments of the most literal violence imaginable and their job was to help their Masters make all Jews disappear.
The woke religion is full of well meaning people who know nothing about history. Ignoring history doesn’t immunize us from it even when we aren’t looking for it or don’t expect it.