Some years ago I published a series of podcasts entitled ‘Treyvon Martin and Civilized Racism,’ and ‘Civilized Racism Pt. 2' with Layla AbdelRahim, a Canadian anthropologist, theorist and scholar. Our discussion was an exploration of how society’s institutions enable and perpetuate racism and systems of racial privilege. Although there are some major differences, antisemitism exists on the same continuum as racism and can be deconstructed using similar methodologies. This essay is meant to be a counterpart to the discussion about civilized racism, and a challenge to think about antisemitism (and by extension all forms of oppression) in a new way.
Antisemitism reveals beyond a shadow of a doubt the structural weaknesses and moral bankruptcy of western society’s institutions. Antisemitism and the centuries long persecution of Jewish people is often associated with a lack of civilization, or as stemming from some wild, untamed, tribalism-oriented corner of the human psyche. As we shall see, in reality, most systems of oppression within our society stem from not a lack of civilization but from too much of it.
What Is Antisemitism?
Victor Klemperer was a German-Jewish university professor and linguist who is known for his posthumously published WWII diaries; in these diaries he meticulously details the persecution of Dresden’s Jewish community at the hands of the Nazi regime. Having directly experienced what is arguably the most extreme form of antisemitism to ever exist, we can trust that his perceptions and definitions of it are accurate. Klemperer gives us a very clear definition of antisemitism in his book, The Language of the Third Reich:
Antisemitism, as a form of hostility with social, religious, and economic causes, has cropped up across the ages and amongst all nations, sometimes here, sometimes there, sometimes in a mild form, sometimes more virulently…
Further on in this chapter where he explores the European cultural roots of Nazism, he strikes directly at the heart of the issue with this passage:
…the third and most crucial innovation [produced by the Nazis] consists of embedding the hatred of the Jews in the idea of race. In earlier times the animosity towards the Jews was directed at a group which stood outside the Christian faith and Christian society; the adoption of the country’s religion and customs served as a compensation and (for the succeeding generation at least) as a blurring of differences. Displacing the difference between Jews and non-Jews into the blood makes any compensation impossible, perpetuates the division and legitimizes it as willed by God.
Klemperer sheds light on the fact that antisemitism was modernized by the Nazis to bring it into line with the prevailing race theories of the day — theories that were considered respectable and acceptable as recently as fifty years ago. These pseudo-scientific race theories contributed to Jim Crow segregation, the genocide of Indigenous peoples and brutal European colonization on a number of continents just to name a few examples. Antisemitism, already a serious problem, became much deadlier when it was brought into line with both modern racial theories and modern technological capabilities.
Victor Klemperer’s writings are essential reading for anyone seeking to understand antisemitism both in practice and in theory, and his perspective dovetails nicely with the assertions that will be made here. His diaries are particularly enlightening and should be part of standard high school and college curriculums. Klemperer chronicled Germany’s gradual, day to day descent into the abyss under National Socialism’s tyranny, beginning in the early days when, astonishingly, some of his German-Jewish acquaintances had positive things to say about Hitler. Unlike most of the Jewish people he eventually found himself surrounded by, he descended into hell and lived to tell about it — and, because of his academic background, he was able to clearly articulate both his experiences and their political and sociological relationship to current events. This is what makes his and similar perspectives so valuable.
When the Nazis began ethnically cleansing all state institutions Klemperer found himself out of a job, dismissed by the university. Because of his WWI military service he was entitled to a pension which enabled a modest partial retirement. After a few relatively mild years, the vise gradually tightened. After Kristallnacht many of his friends and acquaintances fled the country; he halfheartedly explored emigration, but essentially he was too much of a German to want to leave Germany. As part of an onslaught of anti-Jewish legislation, shortly after the beginning of WWII his home was “Aryanized,” meaning he was forced by the Nazi bureaucracy to move out and hand his property over to a so-called Aryan. As a non-Aryan, Klemperer eventually found himself facing a murderous regime with almost no rights whatsoever. He and his wife were compelled to move into one of about a dozen “Jew’s Houses” located in the nearby city of Dresden. These were essentially partial ghettos where people were congregated before later being deported to eastern European ghettos and death camps. Only his marriage to an “Aryan” woman saved him from a similar fate — he was what was then referred to as a “privileged Jew,” part of a very small percentage of the German Jewish population spared from deportation because of their family ties with “Aryans.” When Klemperer learns that he must vacate his home he remarks in his diary:
The sadistic machine simply rolls over us.
If we want to understand systems of oppression and how to once and for all eradicate them, it’s absolutely crucial that we understand the true nature of this “sadistic machine.”
Recent headline-grabbing controversies and horrific incidents have reminded us that antisemitism endures as a scourge within our society. While it’s true Jewish people are not currently being targeted by the state for deportation, economic and political disenfranchisement, mass incarceration and extrajudicial police killings, hate crimes are nevertheless on the rise and antisemitic attitudes still pose a threat as we saw with the recent Pittsburgh synagogue massacre. If white nationalism and neo-Nazism continue their ascendancy, Jewish people could very easily once again face systemic threats either here in the U.S. or in other countries.
With the exception of the past half century and a brief Renaissance in the early Middles Ages, the Jewish experience in the western world has mostly been one of marginalization and persecution that culminated in one of the most horrific crimes in human history. Only by taking a deeper, critical look at our society’s institutions can we understand why the history of Jewish people in the western world has been so fraught and intertwined with tragedy. Understanding this has implications for other minority groups living within western society. Far from being an aberration, violent attacks against minorities and their exclusion and oppression are commonplace.
What is Civilization?
Since the term will come up quite a bit here, let’s define what “civilization” means in the context of this essay. The widely accepted, mainstream definition of civilization is: “The stage of human social development and organization which is considered most advanced,” and, “The comfort and convenience of modern life, regarded as available only in towns and cities.”
The word “civilization” has a fair amount of baggage because it’s often automatically associated with social advancement, technological sophistication, comfort, security, and with the more desirable aspects of human societies. Layla AbdelRahim gives us a very good working definition that reveals what this institution is really all about with all the bells and whistles stripped away:
…the term “civilization” refers to the social and material cultures that issue from a specific socio-environmental system, which in human animals is legitimated by a perspective that sees the world as existing for a utilitarian purpose. In this view, all living and non-living beings are bound together in a predatory food chain, their reason for existence being to serve as a resource for someone else[emphasis mine]. This food chain is hierarchical rather than circular, with the human animal emerging as the top predator…
And additionally (especially important considering the epidemic of rape, gendered violence, enforced heterosexuality and sexual subjugation within civilized society) :
Before everything else, therefore, civilization is about “breeding,” that is, the selective breeding of crops, animal husbandry, and human resources.
The perceived benefits of civilization are therefore built upon systems of oppression.
Critiques of civilization (now known colloquially as “anti-civ”) are not new, and they date back to the period of the Enlightenment. In the 18th and 19th centuries, critiques of civilization were rhetorical tools used to attack social problems within European society as well as colonialism and the slave trade abroad. Some noteworthy contributions to critiques of civilization include: Civilization and Its Discontents by Sigmund Freud; The Crisis of the Modern World by René Guénon; Annihilation of Caste by B.R. Ambedkar; Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, and Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her by Susan Griffin. Recent contemporary critiques of civilization are associated more with post left and green anarchist philosophers like John Zerzan, Layla AbdelRahim and Daniel Quinn.
Dismantling systems of oppression requires us to use as many tools in the toolbox that we can get our hands on. Critiques of civilization are deeply radical critiques that shine a light on the foundations of our society; the point of these critiques is to help us craft and deploy radical solutions built on a radical analysis of society’s problems. Radical in this context means getting to the root, to the core, to the foundations. Despite what you may have heard, critiques of civilization are not focused on a return to life in the forests, or with taking away people’s insulin and wheelchairs, but on offering a holistic framework for re-imagining our relationship with the natural world and with each other.
It’s important to take a moment to recognize that while western European civilization will be our main focus, there have been African, Asian, and Native American civilizations as well. Some of these civilizations have been totally obscured from us and left out of the history books, particularly the African and Indigenous American ones.
When Spanish priests and Conquistadors arrived in the Aztec capitol of Tenochtitlán they were awe struck. Those “godless heathens” had managed to build a city that rivaled Venice, then known as one of the most beautiful places in the world.
The city of Tenochtitlán and Aztec culture were indeed full of wonders, but as with most civilizations, Aztec society was a very strict hierarchy and made wide use of slavery, the subjugation of women, and indentured servitude. In addition to being forced to work, those enslaved in Aztec society were occasionally used as human sacrifices during religious rituals and celebrations. When Hernán Cortés attacked the Aztec capitol, he was joined by a large number of locals from nations subjugated by the Aztecs who were seeking revenge.
Contrast the Aztec patriarchal civilization with the traditional Lenape or Diné matrilineal clan societies to understand in greater depth the difference between civilizations and other types of human societies. This distinction is an important one. All civilizations are societies, but not all societies are civilizations and do not necessarily aspire to become civilizations.
To orient us further and give a brief example of why an analysis of this thing we call civilization is necessary as part of examining and dismantling antisemitism (and other forms of oppression), let’s take look at a recent news item. Steve King, a Congressman representing the state of Iowa, was recently interviewed in the New York Times where he said the following:
White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?” Mr. King said. “Why did I sit in classes teaching me about the merits of our history and our civilization?
After this article was published Thursday, Mr. King issued a public statement calling himself a “nationalist” and defending his support of “western civilization’s values,” and said he was not an advocate for “white nationalism and white supremacy.”
“I want to make one thing abundantly clear: I reject those labels and the evil ideology they define,” he wrote.
Backlash compelled him to walk back his statement, however he has made his point of view quite clear in the past:
Let’s add to this sentiments expressed by the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter in one of several online antisemitic forums: “Jews are waging a propaganda war against Western civilization…”
The usual knee jerk reaction to this sort of poisonous vitriol is to try and snatch western civilization from the clutches of the racists and claim that it is actually wonderful, diverse, and not under the dominion and stewardship of dangerous white men. Or, some respond by pretending that civilization is some irrelevant concept being seized upon by racist wingnuts. The racist/antisemitic mob is wrong about a secretly plotting, Jewish monolith attempting to undermine WASP culture, but they’re right about western civilization being under threat from progressive/leftist values, and that’s as it should be. Steve King and others of his ilk are squirming now that more people are beginning to question one of western civilization’s major cornerstones — white supremacy — just a little too much. They correctly link their racist ideologies to western civilization and the white patriarchs who have been its main ambassadors.
It’s no coincidence that the majority of this vitriol and violence in our society originates with men. In his essay ‘Patriarchy, Civilization, And The Origins Of Gender,’ John Zerzan explains how civilized societies emerged with the advent of patriarchy. To bolster his case he quotes Ursula K. Le Guin who blessed us with this insightful gem:
“Civilized Man says: I am Self, I am Master, all the rest is other — outside, below, underneath, subservient. I own, I use, I explore, I exploit, I control. What I do is what matters. What I want is what matter is for. I am that I am, and the rest is women and wilderness, to be used as I see fit.”
The Underlying Problem
One prime example of antisemitism viewed through the lens of a critique of civilization comes from Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, German-Jewish philosophers who were greatly influenced by the turmoil of exile from their home country during WWII. In Michael Löwy’s review of Jack Jacobs The Frankfurt School, Jewish Lives and Antisemitism, he references one of Horkheimer and Adorno’s most important writings and “the constellation of themes — exile, Jewish fate, catastrophe of civilization — that ultimately make up their masterpiece Dialectic of Enlightenment.”:
“Elements of Anti-Semitism,” a chapter in the form of philosophical fragments, is one of the most important of the book, and it contains some quite radical theses, for instance, that fascism emerges from liberalism and that liberals fail to acknowledge that anti-Semitism cannot be expunged from such a society [emphasis mine]. The essential idea advanced by Horkheimer and Adorno is that fascist anti-Semitism helps to elucidate the dialectic of enlightenment itself and therefore the history of civilization.
Let’s explore several passages from the ‘Elements of Antisemitism’ chapter to understand how these philosophers help shed light on how antisemitism arises organically from the structures and logic of western civilization:
AntiSemitism is a well-rehearsed pattern, indeed, a ritual of civilization, and the pogroms are the true ritual murders. They demonstrate the impotence of what might have restrained them — reflection, meaning, ultimately truth.
Are stratified, rigid hierarchies conducive to the pursuit of nuanced reflection and the search for deeper meaning and truth necessary to once and for all eradicate both antisemitism and other forms of oppression? It’s an important question we must consider. The passage continues:
Civilization is the triumph of society over nature — a triumph which transforms everything into mere nature. The Jews themselves, over the millennia, have played their part in this… As the oldest surviving patriarchy, the incarnation of monotheism, they converted taboos into maxims of civilization while the others were still enmeshed in magic. The Jews appeared to have successfully achieved what Christianity had attempted in vain: the disempowerment of magic by means of its own strength, which, as worship of God, is turned against itself. They have not so much eradicated the adaptation to nature as elevated it to the pure duties of ritual. In this way they have preserved its reconciling memory, without relapsing through symbols into mythology. They are therefore regarded by advanced civilization as both backward and too advanced, like and unlike, shrewd and stupid. They are pronounced guilty of what, as the first citizens, they were the first to subdue in themselves: the susceptibility to the lure of base instincts, the urge toward the beast and the earth, the worship of images. Because they invented the concept of the kosher, they are persecuted as swine. The anti-Semites appoint themselves executors of the Old Testament: they see to it that the Jews, having eaten of the Tree of Knowledge, unto dust shall return.
Horkheimer and Adorno’s analysis appears to do what Alice Walker was attempting with her horrendous poem-as-political-screed ‘It Is Our (Frightful) Duty To Study the Talmud’. In contrast to Walker, they identified and teased out the complex connections between Judaism and modernity without blaming Judaism for all of modernity’s ills. The recent Alice Walker controversy merits some discussion. As someone who is genuinely concerned with justice and getting to the roots of systemic oppression, perhaps her heart was in the right place, but the effects of Walker’s exposure to toxic conspiracy theorists like David Icke made her attempts at systemic analysis dead on arrival. In the aforementioned poem she writes:
Unlike most Americans
I have witnessed Palestine
Under Israeli rule. It is demonic
To the core. But where to look
For the inspiration
For so much evil? Where
To find the teachings that influence
And sanction such limitless cruel behavior?
For the study of Israel, of Gaza, of Palestine,
Of the bombed out cities of the Middle East,
Of the creeping Palestination
Of our police, streets, and prisons
Of war in general,
It is our duty, I believe, to study The Talmud.
It is within this book that,
I believe, we will find answers
To some of the questions
That most perplex us.
Searching for the roots of this and other conflicts is of course a worthwhile endeavor, but we can see from her use of the word “demonic” where this is heading. What is even more bizarre is that anyone who is even casually aware of history knows that Israel hardly has a monopoly on “limitless cruel behavior” when compared with other nation states. One of civilizations defining features is near-constant brutal warfare on a scale that is unknown in other kinds of societies. War and conflict with neighboring countries has indeed been a mainstay of Jewish history going back at to at least 1200 B.C.E., but to say that we’ll discover the roots of warfare in Jewish religious texts is quite bizarre to say the least. The earliest record of organized warfare dates to around 14,000 years ago in present day northern Sudan, and the earliest recorded instance of urban warfare has been traced to 5,500 years ago in modern day Syria; both occurred long before the rise of Judaism and any Israelite military force.
Alice Walker is understandably concerned about the Palestinians, and this permeates much of the poem. The most recent incarnation of Israel’s ancient conflict with the Palestinians is an example of behavior that is commonplace in almost all patriarchal, civilized societies going back many thousands of years. Walker however eschews history and becomes entangled in conspiracy. Under the influence of David Icke (notorious for his Holocaust denial and furtherance of Rothschild conspiracies and the debunked Protocols of the Elders of Zion) she goes on to say in the poem:
Are Goyim (us) meant to be slaves of Jews, and not only
That, but to enjoy it?
Are three year old (and a day) girls eligible for marriage and intercourse?
Are young boys fair game for rape?
Must even the best of the Goyim (us, again) be killed?
Pause a moment and think what this could mean
Or already has meant
In our own lifetime.
You may find that as the cattle
We have begun to feel we are
We have an ancient history of oppression
Of which most of us have not been even vaguely
Aware. You will find that we, Goyim, sub-humans, animals
-The Palestinians of Gaza
The most obvious representatives of us
At the present time — are a cruel example of what may be done
With impunity, and without conscience,
By a Chosen people,
To the vast majority of the people
On the planet
Who were not Chosen.
If this were coming from some random internet nobody it might be easily dismissed, but the person who wrote this is internationally acclaimed, very well known and widely read. For that reason alone we must not let this pass by without comment. The horrors of the system we live within are very real, but to imply that the origins of this horror lay within the pages of a Jewish religious text is patently false.
Walker’s bungling analysis and conspiratorial thinking is a prime example of how antisemitism functions: whether done with malice or not, negative attributes of our society are attributed to Jewish people; then these people, or their culture in general, are blamed for creating a nefarious system they are actually “merely” participating in. The sentiments expressed by Walker combined with other recent events have opened another can of worms: the specter of so-called “Black antisemitism.” Her sentiments, shared by some members of the Black community (whatever that really means), are an unfortunate byproduct of the bitterness created by a stark reality: once almost universally despised and systemically oppressed, Jewish people, for the most part, have managed to rise above this history and now fully participate in society's institutions. Meanwhile, Black people continue to be excluded from full participation in these same institutions while simultaneously struggling to have our inter-generational trauma, disenfranchisement, and history of horrific abuse validated and taken seriously.
The “Black antisemitism” specter is on full display in this editorial piece entitled Finley: New face of anti-Semitism is black. In this piece the writer says the following without a shred of irony and sans a single caveat:
Anti-Semitism is the most murderous force in history. It’s not OK to engage in it as casually as James did, nor as whole-heartedly as Farrakhan does.
This is indeed one of the most dramatic examples of “Oppression Olympics.” It invokes that French saying je suis plus folle que toi, which translates to “I am more angry (or hurt, disparaged, dismissed or judged) than you.” James Baldwin explores this emotional minefield in his 1967 essay, Negroes are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-white:
In the American context, the most ironical thing about Negro anti-Semitism is that the Negro is really condemning the Jew for having become an American white man — for having become, in effect, a Christian. The Jew profits from his status in America, and he must expect Negroes to distrust him for it. The Jew does not realize that the credential he offers, the fact that he has been despised and slaughtered, does not increase the Negro’s understanding. It increases the Negro’s rage.
For it is not here, and not now, that the Jew is being slaughtered, and he is never despised, here, as the Negro is, because he is an American. The Jewish travail occurred across the sea and America rescued him from the house of bondage. But America is the house of bondage for the Negro, and no country can rescue him. What happens to the Negro here happens to him because he is an American.
Nylah Burton contributes much to this discussion with her thoughtful essay entitled Alice Walker’s Terrible Anti-Semitic Poem Felt Personal — To Her and To Me. Coming from someone who is both Black and Jewish, her exploration of this subject feels especially well considered and sincere:
In 1967, Alice Walker married a young Jewish civil-rights lawyer named Mel Leventhal. Their interracial marriage — the first such legal union in the state of Mississippi — was still illegal in Walker’s home state of Georgia at the time. Leventhal’s mother was also deeply opposed to the union, and his other family members didn’t allow Alice to attend family events. “Leaving no question about how she felt about her son’s marriage to a ‘shvartse’ (a pejorative Yiddish term for a black person), Miriam Leventhal sat ‘shiva’ for her son, mourning him as dead,” Evelyn White writes in ‘Alice Walker: A Life’. A source who knows the family told me that Mel preferred to ignore rather than confront his family’s bigotry. This caused Walker to feel increasingly isolated and resentful. The marriage ended in 1976, after the pair had one daughter together, named Rebecca.
I loathe the misogynist assumption that a woman’s faults must be the direct result of a man’s actions, but I find myself incapable of separating Walker’s fraught marriage from her hatred of Judaism. She doesn’t separate the two either. In her 2014 book, ‘The Cushion in the Road’, Walker writes about meeting an elderly Palestinian woman in the Occupied Territories. The woman accepted a gift from Walker, and then bestowed a blessing upon her, “May God protect you from the Jews,” to which Walker responded, “It’s too late, I already married one.”
While systemic racism and economic anxieties can contribute to antisemitic attitudes, as the historian Adolf Reed reminded us, there is no such thing as “Black antisemitism”:
Obviously, I don’t mean that there are no black people who are anti-Semites. …What doesn’t exist is Blackantisemitism, the equivalent of a German compound word, a particular — and particularly virulent — strain of anti-Semitism. Black anti-Semites are no better or worse than white or other anti-Semites, and they are neither more nor less representative of the “black community” or “black America” than Pat Buchanan, Pat Robertson, Tom Metzger — or your coworker or roommate who whispers about “their” pushiness and clannish-ness — are of white American gentiles.
Blackantisemitism is a species of the same genus as “African-ized” killer bees, crack babies, and now the rising generation of hardened ten-year-olds soon to be career criminals. It is a racialized fantasy, a projection of white anxieties about dark horrors lurking just beyond the horizon.
There are quite a few similarities and points of connection between the Black and Jewish experience, many of which revolve around the struggle to assimilate and gain acceptance within a generally hostile society. This is one reason why Walker’s poem and embrace of David Icke is so troubling, and why it’s unfortunate to see how some of these recent antisemitism news stories are being used to paint a picture of the Black and Jewish communities as enmeshed in mutual miscommunication and suspicion. In addition to Alice Walker there was also the controversy with the Women’s March organizers and the furor over LeBron James retweeting lyrics referencing “Jewish money.” These incidents however reflect more on the general culture than on the Black community as a whole and some mythical “Black antisemitism” bogeyman.
Let’s consider how after white men marched through the streets chanting “Jews will not replace us,” and after swastikas were burned during a neo-Nazi rally, very few people sounded the alarm over “white antisemitism” or “white male antisemitism,” though perhaps they should have.
Ask yourself if this scenario sounds familiar: a generally feared and despised minority group is excluded from most of society’s institutions and is pushed to the fringes where over time they become associated with criminality and vice. Most of them are segregated from the general population and are forced to live in ghettos where they seek escape, refuge and comfort from their debased circumstances in religion and in identifying even more strongly with their own unique culture. Over time, those members of this despised minority who are most willing to shed their “other-ness” and conform are offered conditional access to mainstream society. Essentially this describes the experience of Black people in the diaspora, particularly in North America and Latin America, but it also describes the experience of Jewish people in pre-WWII Europe.
Insecurity & Herzl’s Dilemma
A strange editorial entitled Why it’s Time for the African and Jewish Diasporas to Return Home teases out another curious connection between the Black and Jewish communities:
The biggest arguments against aliyah or Black emigration are always that we’ve contributed too much to our host countries, or that we should stay and fight for the equality we deserve. And yet, after decades or even centuries of doing so, to little or no avail, perhaps it’s time to realize that Herzl and Garvey were right: Jews and Blacks will never truly be accepted as equals in Western society.
Written by a biracial person with Black and Jewish ancestry, this article promotes Zionism while at the same time attempting to resurrect the relevance of Marcus Garvey’s “back to Africa” movement. It raises some interesting questions, and Garvey is an interesting character, but for our purposes here we will focus more on Theodore Herzl. The difficulties inherent in trying to create something new while operating under the logic of western civilization’s institutions is personified in the figure of Theodor Herzl, the father of the modern political Zionism movement. Born into an affluent, assimilated, German speaking Jewish family in the Austro-Hungarian empire, for much of his life he glorified European culture, particularly German culture, only becoming disillusioned with the idea of assimilation after traveling across Europe witnessing and experiencing repeated episodes of virulent antisemitism.
His vision of an ideal Jewish homeland is very different from the current reality. Consider his vision of the then-imaginary Zionist state in his book Alteneuland (Old New Land):
It is founded on the ideas which are a common product of all civilized nations … It would be immoral if we would exclude anyone, whatever his origin, his descent, or his religion, from participating in our achievements. For we stand on the shoulders of other civilized peoples … What we own we owe to the preparatory work of other peoples. Therefore, we have to repay our debt. There is only one way to do it, the highest tolerance. Our motto must therefore be, now and ever: ‘Man, you are my brother.’
A fundamental misunderstanding of the true nature of modern nation states (and by extension civilization itself) cast a shadow over his project from the very beginning. His passion for finding a secure homeland for Jews away from European antisemitism originally included a plan to settle in modern day Kenya, in an area then controlled by the British empire. This idea was voted down by the Zionist Congress in favor of settlement in Palestine, but we can imagine what problems may have arisen if this original scheme had come to fruition. This “humanitarian colonialism” brings to mind the origins of the United States and the settlers who came here fleeing religious persecution. Herzl’s nation building schemes were largely a response to ongoing late 19th century pogroms in eastern Europe where large numbers of Jewish people were being killed and thousands displaced. Nevertheless, his plans were still predicated on the logic of colonialism. Herzl was, like many people of that time, trapped by a lack of revolutionary imagination, yet he instinctively realized that safety and security could only come through the promotion of certain values:
But in contrast to Europe, where racism was victorious, in [Herzl’s ideal vision of] Zion and Jerusalem, it was defeated and the principles of equality and liberalism won.
Herzl’s main goal was to solve the dilemma of Jewish insecurity, an insecurity that was primarily the result of their history vis-à-vis Christian Europe. The golden age Jewish people experienced during the Middle Ages came to an end with the propagation of the “Christ killer” trope that grew extremely popular during the Crusades, a bloody, protracted war to assert Christian dominance. After the forces of Islam were beaten back, France, Germany, England and Spain expelled their Jewish populations to Poland and beyond in the 11th and 12th centuries. It was not until almost 600 years later in the late 1860’s when Jewish people finally received equal rights across most of Europe. Despite this progress, the insecurity remained, smoldering like embers waiting for a gust of wind to ignite them into a roaring flame.
Herzl, who is viewed as a kind of saint in Israel, was genuine and sincere in his desire to create a place where Jewish people could be free of the pressure of antisemitism. And indeed, those who have been born there have experienced a cultural Renaissance and found a sense of self-confidence that was generally unknown a few generations ago. Herzl’s vision of a state where Jewish people could live free from oppression and insecurity was mostly fulfilled, but at what price?
Compare Herzl’s ideal society to the current reality where Noam Chomsky has declared that Israel’s actions towards the Palestinians are “much worse than apartheid” in South Africa, and where one public official recently declared on national TV that she is “happy to be a fascist.” Furthermore, there are millions of Palestinian refugees living in abject poverty, constant human right abuses perpetrated against the occupied Arab population, and over 2 million people in Gaza are living under an illegal blockade in what has been referred to as an open air prison. It was not wrong for people to seek refuge from centuries of European cruelty, but the Palestinians don’t deserve the treatment they’ve received and should not have to pay the price for other people’s security. Simply shifting locations was obviously not enough to break the destructive cycle of violence and warfare. One way to break these cycles is to heed the advice of Layla AbdelRahim who says in Wild Children, Domesticated Dreams:
…regardless of individual intentions…if we continue to view our current institutions and pedagogies as benign and essential, inevitable attributes of life, we remain complicit in the reenactment of the deadly narrative that has colonized the world and brought it to the brink of destruction.
What we see happening in Israel is an example of this “reenactment of the deadly narrative.” Oppressive institutions and thought processes were transplanted from one location to another, ensuring the cycle of violence and oppression would continue. Essentially there’s been a flourishing of Jewish culture and identity at the expense of the Palestinians’ right to freedom and self-determination. Some say Israel is being unfairly singled out, and perhaps this has a ring of truth to it. The United States, Canada, Australia, and many Latin American countries persecute and force their indigenous populations to live in very deplorable conditions. If we call for Israel to stop building on land stolen from its original inhabitants, and for it to respect its minority population, we must demand the same from our own colonial governments as well. What’s happening in Israel is unfortunately a continuation of Europe’s culture of colonization and persecution of minorities; on a deeper level it is yet another chapter in the long and sordid history of western civilization.
Assimilation as Domestication
How can it be that well meaning endeavors like Herzl’s so often end up reproducing oppressive dynamics? And how exactly are these oppressive dynamics reproduced across generations? An exploration of the concept of domestication and its effects on both human and animal society is one of anti-civ’s most important contributions to a radical analysis of systems of oppression. In his book Elements of Refusal, the anarchist writer and theorist John Zerzan gives us this compelling overview of the effects of domestication:
Domestication involved the initiation of production, vastly increased divisions of labor, and completed the foundations of social stratification. This amounted to an epochal mutation both in the character of human existence and its development, clouding the latter with ever more violence and work.
Most of us are familiar with the domestication of plant and animal species, but we rarely entertain the idea that as human beings we ourselves have been domesticated, and that this is an ongoing, continuous process. Domestication is at the root of how people learn to internalize and accept the logic of antisemitism and racism. Domestication is also at the root of the pressure exerted on minorities to assimilate into the dominant culture. The process of assimilation (in effect a subcategory of domestication) illuminates the intractable problems facing minorities living within western society.
Domestication is rarely spoken of outside of certain fairly narrow contexts despite the fact that it is a process our civilization has relied upon from the beginning. Although he mentions it in passing, John Lanchester touches on the importance of domestication as a component of the development of civilization in his New Yorker article, The Case Against Civilization:
Anatomically modern humans have been around for roughly two hundred thousand years. For most of that time, we lived as hunter-gatherers. Then, about twelve thousand years ago, came what is generally agreed to be the definitive before-and-after moment in our ascent to planetary dominance: the Neolithic Revolution. This was our adoption of, to use Scott’s word, a “package” of agricultural innovations, notably the domestication of animals such as the cow and the pig, and the transition from hunting and gathering to planting and cultivating crops [emphasis mine]. The most important of these crops have been the cereals — wheat, barley, rice, and maize — that remain the staples of humanity’s diet. Cereals allowed population growth and the birth of cities, and, hence, the development of states and the rise of complex societies.
The domestication of plants and animals was essentially the first step in the creation of systems of oppression. The domestication of sexuality, gender and women’s reproductive capacities are on the same spectrum as the domestication of horses for their labor, cows for their milk, pigs for their flesh, and sheep for their wool, etc. Domestication is essentially the process whereby one’s reason for being is appropriated by an oppressive, exploitative force — which then creates systems of logic and institutions to legitimize this exploitation. In Wild Children Domesticate Dreams, Layla AbdelRahim maps out how institutions play a key role in the process of domestication:
To organize…civilized society, the institution first has to delegitimize wild knowledge and then institute authority in order to legitimize the needs of the hierarchy…
Again, one major example of this is how patriarchy as an institution created systems of authority to domesticate and subjugate women. Religion and other control mechanisms that manifest as social institutions were used to legitimize the regulation and control of women and their reproductive capacity. Recall what was said earlier about “breeding” and its connection to civilization. AbdelRahim continues:
[The needs of the hierarchy are legitimized]…while alienating people from their own needs, because the needs of the institution are usually in conflict with the needs of the people it colonizes. Through education, the institution thus occupies concrete bodies and minds. As domesticated people come to embody their institutions, the civilized come to see institutions as natural, inevitable and organic[emphasis mine].
If domestication is the root, assimilation is the branch — the more visible aspect of the oppressive relationship between the oppressed and the oppressor. Assimilation, and the pathways it can offer into the halls of privilege, helps western society maintain its dominance and eliminate competing paradigms. For those with their own unique culture but no power or influence in society, the offer to trade their culture for acceptance through assimilation is usually one that is too good to refuse. In most cases, assimilation appears as the only option as the alternatives are usually exclusion, persecution, poverty, and so forth.
The fraught nature of assimilation gradually became clear to Martin Luther King Jr., who, near the end of his life, had this to say during a conversation with Harry Belefonte:
“I’ve come upon something that disturbs me deeply. We have fought hard and long for integration, as I believe we should have, and I know that we will win. But I’ve come to believe we’re integrating into a burning house.”
Although his somewhat dubious solution to this dilemma was for Black people to become “firefighters,” he was touching upon one of the main contradictions of the modern era. Western society is dangerous, destructive and corrupt to its core, but assimilating into this society’s institutions is often the only way for minorities to achieve economic and social stability, at least in the near term. Assimilation is a rational decision within the confines of our society based on economic and social concerns. If the dominant group controls access to resources and social capital, the more one becomes like the dominant group the easier ones life will be. Additionally, shedding unique cultural traits is often a prerequisite for assimilation. For example, most Jewish people pursuing assimilation in either Europe or the United States during the 19th and early 20th century would never have been seen in public speaking yiddish or wearing traditional orthodox clothing or hairstyles.
Few have done more to shed light on the relationship of Jewish people to western society than Hannah Arendt. Her work is essential to understanding the complexities of Jewish assimilation into a generally hostile and antisemitic society. The following video is a great introduction to her for those who are not familiar with her work.
Of special interest to us here is how Arendt’s work reveals the ways in which Jewish people were practically forced to participate in and assimilate into systems that would later turn against them. For centuries, Jewish people were segregated and shunned within Christian Europe because of their unique culture and religious practices. They only gained equal rights and comprehensive civic freedoms around the same time chattel slavery in the United States came to an end. After their emancipation period Jewish Europeans were able to pursue the higher education, professions and social positions that had long been denied to them. Essentially they were given a seat at the table — that is, if they were willing to navigate the fraught assimilation process while seeking acceptance into French, English, or German etc culture.
In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt explains in great detail the choppy waters European Jewish people had to navigate as they made their way through an antisemitic society. In the chapter entitled ‘The Jews and Society’ she drops quite a few gems that help us understand the relationship between Jewish assimilation and a shifting antisemitic landscape:
Society, confronted with political, economic and legal equality for Jews, made it quite clear that none of its classes was prepared to grant them social equality, and that only exceptions from the Jewish community would be received. Jews who heard the strange compliment that they were exceptions, exceptional Jews, knew quite well that it was this very ambiguity — that they were Jews and yet presumably not like Jews — which opened the doors of society to them.
In this next passage Arendt describes the psychological effects of assimilation and navigating the expectations of the dominant society:
The behavior patterns of assimilated Jews, determined by this continuous concentrated effort to distinguish themselves, created a Jewish type that is recognizable everywhere. Instead of being defined by nationality or religion, Jews were being transformed into a social group whose members shared certain psychological attributes and reactions, the sum total of which was supposed to constitute “Jewishness.” In other words, Judaism became a psychological quality…
…Jewishness, after having been converted into a psychological quality, could easily be perverted [by society] into a vice.
Victor Klemperer adds further insights on this topic in The Language of the Third Reich:
When did the Jews at last emerge from their segregation, from their special sty, and when were they at last integrated into the nation as a whole? The emancipation goes back to the beginning of the nineteenth century, but is only implemented fully in Germany in the 1860’s, and in Galacian Austria a tightly knit group of Jews does not want to relinquish its unique way of life, and thereby repeatedly provides those who speak of an un-European people, an Asiatic race of Jews, the concrete illustrative material they are looking for.
Those who would not or could not assimilate had the most difficult path to tread, but socially and psychologically, assimilation also took its toll on those who gained some material benefits from it.
Another key aspect of domestication is the creation and enforcement of strict categories of identity. The enforcement of strict identity categories is thankfully something that has been increasingly called into question, especially by those yearning to be free from the rigid norms of gender and sexuality. We can trace this civilized need for classification to the process of domestication.The first step in exploiting someone or something is naming it and assigning it a category based on its usefulness to the owners of society. The roles and categories within a rigid hierarchical and patriarchal system exist to satisfy the needs and desires of the owners of the system. Within this hierarchy to which living beings have been assigned, plants and animals are at the bottom with no agency and little regard for their autonomy which helps explain why we’re currently living through the sixth mass extinction.
As time passed, the increasing complexities of nation states and the social forces set in motion by the era of colonization created a wide variety of new categories that manifested in the creation of pseudo-scientific race theories. These race theories had one major goal: to explain and justify the “natural” subordinate role of some and the “natural” superiority of others. Before the so-called Enlightenment, religion was used to justify a persons position in society be they a king or a peasant. In the age of “reason,” a new framework was created to justify both old and new forms of oppression.
Anthropologist and theorist Layla AbdelRahim helps us understand how the enforcement of identity categories and “the hierarchy of predatory relationships” are crucial to systems of oppression. In Wild Children, Domesticated Dreams she says:
The construct of “difference” provides the platform for all forms of exploitation, discrimination, slavery and extermination…
This construction of difference within the civilized system of categorization and classification reached new heights of insanity and absurdity during WWII. One of the most dramatic examples of this was the Nazi Germany edict forcing Jewish people to wear the yellow star. The Nazi’s genocidal ambitions could not have been carried out without 1) clearly defining who was Jewish according to their racialist definition, and 2) then isolating their victims from the general public. This isolation happened gradually, relying on propaganda and laws that enforced segregation. Victor Klemperer’s diaries give us a clear window into how this process unfolded. Shortly before the yellow star edict was announced he recorded this on August 2nd, 1941:
Frau Voss continues to be bitter about the notice given on telephones [several days earlier the Gestapo announced a ban on Jewish people owning telephones]. She has to go to an “Aryan” birthday, she would prefer not to go, she cannot bear to see any Aryans anymore. We are sitting at our evening meal, she returns, extremely happy and excited. A lady from western Germany was there; she said that Saxony and Silesia were full of west Germans “who cannot stand it anymore,” who wanted to get a good nights sleep. Air raid shelter every night, destruction and dead everywhere. … “And there was another woman there, I thought a National Socialist, and I was careful, and she could not possibly have known that I am not Aryan. She talked with tears in her eyes about a Jewish friend who had suffered so much…”
The Frau Voss referred to here was Klemperer’s roommate in the “Jews House” where they shared an apartment after being forced from their homes. Like Klemperer, she was born in Germany, had been married to an “Aryan” and was a convert to Christianity with many “Aryan” acquaintances. Her sociability and information gathering talents helped Klemperer paint a clear picture of what was happening at the time. Frau Voss’ ability to gauge the mood of non-Jewish people, both friends and strangers, was one of her talents, but this came to an end after the introduction of the yellow star. Once Jewish people like Frau Voss were no longer able to blend in, their isolation from society and ghettoization was near-complete.
Under the Nazis the racialism and prejudice of western society, built on a foundation of systems of hierarchy and categorization, reached new heights (or rather depths) that would culminate in genocide. For western society genocide was nothing new, but what was new was the fact that assimilated European minorities who had managed to join society’s institutions were violently expelled from these institutions, and then ultimately from the world itself. We should not delude ourselves that this cannot happen again to any of our society’s minorities, and this is why it’s important to understand, deconstruct and reject the logic that leads to these tragic outcomes.
Wilderness is often associated with suffering and barbarism while civilization is presented as a place of safety and security buffering us from all those scary animals and natural forces. The Jewish experience within Europe, particularly in the 20th century, reveals just how dangerous life in civilization can be. In reality, those who have found themselves racially and ethnically targeted by our society might have had better luck with wild animals.
Nazi Germany has become synonymous with racial terror despite the fact that this system of racial terror that has run rampant across our globe over the past 500 years was not instigated by Germany, but in large part by British, Dutch, French and Spanish colonialism. While committing genocide on a massive scale and enslaving many millions, these same states were busy proclaiming the superiority and enlightened nature of western society. The United States, Canada, Australia, and most South American states are heirs to this tradition of hypocrisy built on a foundation of racial terror.
The extent to which the Nazis drew inspiration from U.S. laws has been well documented, especially by James Q. Whitman in his book, Hitler’s American Model:
“America in the early 20th century was the leading racist jurisdiction in the world,” says Whitman, who is a professor at Yale Law School. “Nazi lawyers, as a result, were interested in, looked very closely at, [and] were ultimately influenced by American race law.”
“One of the most striking Nazi views was that Jim Crow was a suitable racist program in the United States because American blacks were already oppressed and poor,” he says. “But then in Germany, by contrast, where the Jews (as the Nazis imagined it) were rich and powerful, it was necessary to take more severe measures.”
Keep in mind that at the time the Nazis were carefully studying its racist laws, the U.S. was widely regarded as a “beacon on a hill” and a bastion of democracy and prosperity.
Richard L. Rubenstein, author of The Cunning of History: The Holocaust and the American Future, saw the “severe measures” taken against Jewish people as a logical continuity of western society’s violence towards minorities rather than a freakish, illogical outburst. Rubenstein sees the Nazi concentration and death camps as an evolution of a technique of dehumanization that began during the Transatlantic Slave Trade:
The parallels between the treatment of the slaves in transit from Africa to the New World and the death-camp inmates are unhappily instructive. According to Elkins, the process by which the slaves were transported from Africa to the Caribbean, where they were stripped, deprived of name, identity, and language, and then sold as chattel at auction in the United States, anticipated the process by which the Nazis shipped their victims in overcrowded freight trains, compelled them to strip, exchanged their names for numbers and then either incarcerated them as slave labor or murdered them outright. The sea journey of the slave ships was a horror comparable only to the German freight cars. The same calculating rationality that was to figure in the work of the German bureaucrats was already at work in the New England and British sea captains who transported the sorrowful cargo.
Unlike the many other atrocities committed by the standard bearers of western civilization, what happened during WWII was well documented by the perpetrators themselves. The millions who perished in Belgian-administered Congo under the control of King Leopold II are forever lost to history; but thanks to extensive and meticulously researched databases we can reconstruct the lives of those murdered by the Nazis. The German government has published a particularly useful education and research tool, the Memorial Book:
The main objective is to compile a list, as completely and precisely as possible, of the approximately 600,000 Jewish residents, who had been residing in Germany anytime between 1933–1945 — borders of the Reich as outlined on 31 December 1937 — and who had been persecuted because of their Jewish origin or Jewish belief by the National Socialist regime.
A work in progress, it has so far compiled over 170,000 names of known victims of Nazi persecution. Many people who fled Nazi Germany as refugees have used the database to find information about their family and friends; the database can also be used to verify historical accounts like Victor Klemperer’s diary and the many people mentioned within it. Far from overwhelming the researcher with numbers and statistics, this Memorial Book actualizes each victim of fascism as an individual worthy of remembrance.
The above mentioned Frau Voss was the widow of a priest turned banker who held a high position in the German national banking system. She appears quite often in Victor Klemperer’s diaries. According to Klemperer’s account, she was a very social, somewhat childish and fun loving person who enjoyed doting on her friends and acquaintances. She was also a cat lover and a great cook. His diaries also detail how the strain of the situation led to occasional fierce arguments and petty squabbles in the “Jews house,” highlighting the enormous stress everyone was under. Sometimes his characterizations of his fellow sufferer seem unfair, not taking into account that Frau Voss went from living a widow’s comfortable upper-middle class life to working as a forced laborer in a munitions factory with the threat of death constantly hanging over her. In the autumn of 1942, along with the majority of Dresden’s remaining Jewish population, Frau Voss was forced into a detention camp on the outskirts of the city. Klemperer and others who were married to “Aryans” were spared from the camp. The Hellerberg camp was one of thousands of Nazi internment facilities that supported the concentration camp system, and we may never have known about it if not for Klemperer’s diary and the fact that film of Dresden’s Jews being interned miraculously survived.
You can view the full unedited clip here. The conditions of the barracks camp were horrible — a dozen or more people per room with no privacy, very poor food, poor sanitation, and little to no access to the outside world. Many of the inmates were forced laborers at a nearby munitions plant. The camp was essentially a collection point for people destined for deportation. Only a few of the almost 300 people interned at the camp survived; most, including Frau Voss, were murdered shortly after arriving at Auschwitz.
Recent studies revealed that 41% of Americans and two-thirds of millennials don’t know what Auschwitz is. This ignorance is not as prevalent in Europe but it is on the rise. Frankly, this is terrifying. As Richard L. Rubenstein explains, Auschwitz is not a freak occurrence but an example of the mutation of already existing racial ideologies and oppressive social dynamics. Had the Nazis won the war, Auschwitz would have become a model for the institutionalized enslavement and ethnic cleansing of Poles, Slavs, the disabled and others who were deemed racially or genetically inferior.
Auschwitz represents the height of civilized barbarism and the logical end point of racial ideology. In addition to its sprawling slave labor complexes, it was literally a “death factory” operating with a factory’s methodical efficiency. People were not only murdered there but were also enslaved to corporations to generate profits and experimented upon in the name of science. Not only was Auschwitz the most “advanced” extermination/slave labor facility and the place where the majority of assimilated western European Jewish people perished, it was the model for a new type of society —the Necropolis.
It is tempting to view all of this as a ghastly one off event that we can shudder at then put out of our minds as it has no relevance to today’s much more enlightened society. We embrace that narrative at our own peril. Rubenstein ends his book, The Cunning of History, with reflections on what the Holocaust reveals about the nature of civilization:
We are sadly forced to conclude that we live in a world that is functionally godless and that human rights and dignity depend upon the power of one’s community to grant or withhold them from its members.
Thus, the Holocaust bears witness to the advance of civilization, I repeat, to the advance of civilization, to the point at which large scale massacre is no longer a crime and the state’s sovereign powers are such that millions can be stripped of their rights and condemned to the world of the living dead.
Civilization means slavery, wars, exploitation, and death camps. It also means medical hygiene, elevated religious ideals, beautiful art, and exquisite music. It is an error to imagine that civilization and savage cruelty are antitheses.
Rubenstein comes so close to seeing the light but then loses the plot with this next bit:
On the contrary, in every organic process, the antitheses always reflect a unified totality, and civilization is an organic process. Mankind never emerged out of savagery into civilization. Mankind moved from one type of civilization involving its distinctive modes of both sanctity and inhumanity to another. In our times the cruelties, like most other aspects of our world, have become far more effectively administered than ever before. They have not and they will not cease to exist. Both creation and destruction are inseparable aspects of what we call civilization.
What he fails to grasp is that civilization and the logic of its institutions are at the root of this “savagery.” His belief that cruelties will inevitably persist is based on the assumption that civilization as we know it and its institutions will continue to exist. He has much to say about civilization, including some very useful insights, however, notice that he has nothing to say about wilderness besides a remark about “savagery” which is meant to represent the state humans lived in before entering civilization. The opposite of civilization is not savagery but life, spontaneity, freedom, and the ecstasy of living on ones own terms in harmony with the forces that brought us into being. Is there pain and hardship in wilderness? Of course, but it is certainly not institutionalized, and those moments are far outweighed by the joy of being immersed in the glorious web of life.
A New World
The civilized world is often presented as a place of safety, beauty, culture, and abundance. Wilderness on the other hand is usually portrayed as a brutally indifferent place full of pain, suffering, hunger and insecurity where everyone is at the mercy of the “survival of the fittest” doctrine. However, if we look closely at what is happening within civilization, specifically western civilization, we can see that perhaps we’ve been the victims of a very old and ongoing propaganda campaign. The horrors of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the Holocaust, settler-colonialism, pogroms, genocides, warfare, institutionalized patriarchy, and all the rest do not happen in the wilderness and in societies more closely aligned with wilderness.
To be a revolutionary is to align oneself more with the logic of wilderness than with the logic of civilization, whether one does so consciously or not. Rosa Luxembourg, the Polish-Jewish revolutionary who galvanized German politics, understood the depth of the crisis in her own time and did not shy away from fiercely opposing this destructive system. Today, this crisis manifests as ever increasing poverty, political dysfunction, ongoing wars and threats of war, and with the wanton and disgraceful destruction of nature and our precious environment. Like Luxembourg, we must take a clear and sober view of what is right in front of us:
Violated, dishonored, wading in blood, dripping filth — there stands bourgeois society. This is it [in reality]. Not all spic and span and moral, with pretense to culture, philosophy, ethics, order, peace, and the rule of law — but the ravening beast, the witches’ sabbath of anarchy, a plague to culture and humanity. Thus it reveals itself in its true, its naked form.
Today, we face the choice exactly as Friedrich Engels foresaw it a generation ago: either the triumph of imperialism and the collapse of all civilization as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration — a great cemetery. Or the victory of socialism…
Moving away from capitalism and towards socialism is of course a step in the right direction, however, the poisonous and persistent roots of antisemitism, racism, and other systems of oppression require us to dig deeper if we want lasting solutions. We should also entertain the idea that a managed collapse, or a managed retreat from ecocide, institutional racism, perpetual warfare, patriarchy, etc, might be preferable to hoping we can tinker around with an inherently destructive engine.
Critiques of civilization like this essay are all about exploring the deeper structural issues that transcend politics and the mostly failed liberal strategies of “anti-oppression.” It should not be considered taboo or strange to question how the emergence of this relatively new kind of society affects our daily lives today.
The crisis has been thousands of years in the making, but we don’t have thousands of years to find a solution to the incredibly huge and complex problems facing today’s world. Solutions will not be discovered by focusing entirely on political ideology and economic systems, but in re-imagining what it means to be a human being and rediscovering our true place in the world and its community of diverse life. In part this means rediscovering the value of wilderness and making space for other beings who deserve a chance to live and thrive.
As the European Jewish experience of the 19th and 20th century has shown us, the moral arc of history does not necessarily bend towards justice. The so-called Jewish Question arose organically from the fact that western society eschews cultural nuance and complexity and thrives on utilitarian homogeneity. Jewish people have historically faced persecution in Europe because institutions like the Catholic Church and Protestant denominations that controlled society had no place for them. When racial ideology was grafted onto already existing antisemitism, even those who had converted to Christianity and fully assimilated into European society were not safe.
Passing legislation to limit antisemitic speech and actions is only a band-aide solution. Legislation can be reversed. Protections can be withdrawn. Minorities become especially vulnerable during times of war. The institutions that thrive on war, violence and hatred must be dismantled. Only radical, institutional, structural changes to our society can once and for all liberate us from the threat of antisemitism, racism, and other forms of oppression. To believe that we can have an inclusive, just society that coexists with racist, colonial, warmongering institutions guarantees future horrors and suffering.
Between the climate crisis, enduring systems of oppression, the threat of nuclear war, and all the rest, it’s difficult at times to be optimistic. Yet to the degree that it’s possible to find a way out of this mess, Rosa Luxembourg is one of those who offers us a way forward. Even back then nearly one hundred years ago, she realized that the hour was much too late for us to be satisfied with merely rearranging the deck chairs for a more comfortable position on the Titanic. She understood that drastic times call for drastic measures in both thought and in action. Perhaps most importantly, she recognized that while human suffering is universal, the only way to end this suffering is with a dramatic and revolutionary break with the status quo. The following was written by Luxembourg to a friend while she was in prison for her anti-war activism during WWI. Both revolutionary and poignant, I’ll let her have the last word:
Above all one must at all times live as a complete human being […] read only the good ones, not such kitsch as the “Spinoza novel” which you sent me. What do you want with this theme of the “special suffering of the Jews”? I am just as much concerned with the poor victims on the rubber plantations of Putumayo, the Blacks in Africa with whose corpses the Europeans play catch […] they resound with me so strongly that I have no special place in my heart for the ghetto. I feel at home in the entire world, wherever there are clouds and birds and human tears.”