Defiling the Exiles

Annotated Selections from the New School Panel on Anti-Semitism with Jewish Voice for Peace and Linda Sarsour

John-Paul Pagano
Nov 30, 2017 · 13 min read

It’s hard to imagine a mise en scène more evocative of Jewish intellectual life than Greenwich Village in the 1930s, where a University in Exile emerged at the progressive New School for Social Research to rescue important thinkers from European fascism. These scholars, many of them Jews, established in asylum a seedbed of social thought that university president Alvin Johnson hoped would grow to confront “the problems that harass mankind.”

His expectations were copiously surpassed. Safe from persecution, Exile scholars enlarged social science, influenced New Deal policy, and cultivated a creative academy that would welcome Hannah Arendt three decades later. By establishing a haven for Jews in the heart of the liberal democracy that vanquished the Axis, the New School affirmed the troubling truth that the health of civilization depends on the wellbeing of the Jews.

The inverse is true too, and Tuesday night, in this era of Bannon and Trump, of moral panic and mass murder, the New School hosted a panel, ostensibly on anti-Semitism, but actually in service to it — by fashioning an intellectual clockwork for the conspiracy theory that Jews fake charges of anti-Semitism to silence critics of Israel. “Antisemitism is harmful and real,” a throat clears, introducing the event: “But when antisemitism is redefined as criticism of Israel, critics of Israeli policy become accused and targeted…”

Moderated aptly by Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman, the main speakers were Jewish Voice for Peace’s Rebecca Vilkomerson and the activist Linda Sarsour. (Leo Ferguson and Lina Morales, two Jews of color and far-Left educators, were on the undercard.) This was, to put it charitably, an outré lineup. JVP is a groupuscule of Jewish anti-Zionists whose most recent stance on anti-Semitism was to defend Chicago Dyke March for purging attendees with Jewish gay pride flags. Israel, they argued, has made Palestinians “justifiably feel unsafe around a blue Star of David in the center of a flag.”

Sarsour is tailed by a convoy of critics who question her commitment to liberal values, accusing her of dubious feminism and apologetics or support for radical Islam. Often she is denounced as an anti-Semite, or at least someone who works against the interests of Jews, having allied with Louis Farrakhan, declared that “Nothing is creepier than Zionism”, and called on feminists to make a Sophie’s Choice between women’s rights and the Jewish state.

What follows is an annotated selection of the talk’s notable moments. Quotes are transcribed in italics. A full recording of the event can be found here:

Overall Structure of the Talk

After an introduction by New School Dean Milberg and JVP’s Rabbi Alissa Wise, each of the four speakers made a primary statement, and then a follow-up statement in response to a question by Amy Goodman.

The event organizers appear to have felt with some justification that a direct Q&A would devolve into chaos, so instead they took questions on slips of paper and concluded the talk by presenting a few of these to the panelists.

Rabbi Alissa Wise — Introduction (Starts at 8:04)

Summary: Sets the stage by emphasizing two things. First, anti-Semitism is a problem of Trump and the Right. Second, anti-racists should take a “joint approach” that is not only concerned with anti-Semitism. With a whiff of Corbynism, Wise intones the cumbersome phrase “anti-Semitism and all forms of oppression” three times and hopes to “[fight] for equality for all people everywhere.”

Amy Goodman — Opener (Starts at 12:20)

Summary: She hawks JVP’s book On Antisemitism: Solidarity and the Struggle for Justice. Introduces panelists.

Leo Ferguson — Primary Statement (Starts at 24:54)

Summary: Anti-Semitism is to be understood in terms of two things: capitalism and conspiracy. Capitalism structurally produces anti-Semitism and fear of anti-Semitism is “cynically manipulated” by Right-wing actors for political gain; that’s how they got Trump in office. False charges of anti-Semitism have “derailed” movements for social justice “throughout history”.

This history is painful and what’s so sad is that it has been so cynically manipulated and confused by political actors who want to use the collective trauma and fear that many Jews have in order to attack social movement that they just don’t agree with.

Comment: This is the foundational thesis of the panel: that political actors in different forms and at different levels — Zionists, Right-wing Jews, Right-wingers, Trumpists, pro-Israel folks, etc.—fake claims of anti-Semitism to silence critics of Israel. It’s a version of the conspiracy theory that David Hirsch named The Livingstone Formulation.

If you live in a capitalist society, things are going to go wrong… In the history of Europe, what you see is…when times were bad, communities… often turned on the Jews.

Comment: This is a vintage Left-wing economic analysis of how racism and capitalism interact, reminiscent of the old Marxist saw that robber barons use racism to divide and conquer the people.

What our research… showed… is again and again and again, real charges of anti-Semitism and false charges of anti-Semitism have undermined, derailed, and distracted social justice movements throughout history.

Comment: A sinister intimation — Ferguson appears to be arguing that anti-Semitism has been used by both anti-Semites and some Jews to thwart social progress.

Lina Morales — Primary Statement (Starts at 33:14)

Summary: Anti-Semitism should not be thought of as something that affects white Jews only. Anti-Semitism is not irrational; it is used as a tool — conspiratorially — by ideologues. Farrakhan is an anti-Semite, but just as racism doesn’t exist if it’s not “prejudice plus power”, we should not be concerned about Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism because it is confined among black people, i.e. the marginalized. Philo-Semitism is the toxic approval of Jews who serve capitalism. The Zionist project is not Jewish, but rather seeks to reproduce white Western society in Israel. The West outsources its guilt for the Holocaust to brown people.

The Right-wing and even some liberals have been pushing this idea that Muslims, Arabs, and black and brown people and communities are especially anti-Semitic. So for example the knockout game — the idea that these black teenagers are just randomly knocking out Orthodox Jews for the fun of it…that people of color aren’t grateful enough to the very small minority of liberal Jews who fought for civil rights in the 1960s…

Comment: I’m not sure the motivations of knock-out gamers have been established, but Morales seems to imply here that they had rational reasons for attacking Jews.

Morales emphasizes how small was the minority of “liberal Jews” who sacrificed for the US Civil Rights movement. She seems to want to dial down recognition of the sacrifices of white Jews like Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.

Louis Farrakhan — I think he’s an anti-Semite — but materially, how has he put Jews in danger? Not really, because he only really affects the black community. But people in Chicago, white Jews, love to talk about him and love to paint him as the ultimate anti-Semite. Why is that?

Comment: As I’ve been anticipating for some time, the argument that racism does not exist unless it’s made of “prejudice plus power” will be used to cancel concern about anti-Semitism. Morales argues here that Louis Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism cannot be consequential because black people don’t have power.

Philo-Semitism… we live a power structure that loves Jews to the extent that they do what this power structure wants us to do… There’s a pattern of outsiders and marginalized groups being used by big colonialist powers sent to the colonies to gain a limited degree of freedom and a better reputation on the backs of other people… There are lots of Jews who came to this continent and found a limited degree of autonomy and some freedom and some self-respect. Like for example, there was a Jewish community in Suriname that was founded by slavers and they were considered an accomplishment by Western society…

Comment: This is toxic. Morales argues that Jews only find acceptance in capitalist society when they uphold its immoral structures and practices. She points to Jewish slavers as Jews that capitalism favors.

Zionism… [has] never existed without the patronage of a imperialist Western power.

Comment: Some antique Leftist analysis here.

[Zionism] has never seriously considered regional integration. It enacted cultural genocide against Jewish cultures that didn’t fit its version of a reconstituted Western Jewishness.

Comment: Half of Israel today is non-Ashkenazy, largely because of Sephardic and Mizrahi ingathering after Jews were expelled from Arab lands.

Rebecca Vilkomerson — Primary Statement (Starts at 44:38)

Summary: White nationalism has become mainstream. Israel is an apartheid state. Jews fake charges of anti-Semitism to silence anti-Zionists. The “institutional Jewish community” is profoundly hypocritical. Loving Israel does not mean loving Jews—just look at pro-Trump Jewish institutions. The attacks on Linda Sarsour are Islamophobic and dishonest.

JVP… is… a spiritual home… for so many… especially those of us who cherish our Jewish identity, but don’t think that that requires identifying with a state that is practicing apartheid.

Comment: Jewish anti-Zionist marketing.

Accusations of anti-Semitism are often used as a cudgel to suppress criticism of Israel.

Comment: Again, the Livingstone Formulation.

It’s not easy to talk at the same time about anti-Semitism as it exists and the way that some people use anti-Semitism — both accusations of it and feelings of victimization from it — to protect and deflect criticism from Israel.

Comment: Yet again.

I’m angry at the profound hypocrisy of the institutional Jewish community.

Comment: For Vilkomerson, the chief agents of fake anti-Semitism are Jewish Zionists, especially among the Jewish establishment.

If the past year has taught us nothing else, it should have taught us that loving Israel does not mean that you love Jews. In fact, I’d argue that what we are seeing is an especially virulent Trumpian form of Zionist anti-Semitism, when those who would defend Israel’s policies regardless of their devastating impacts on Palestinians align themselves with those that espouse and advance anti-Semitism.

Comment: Zionists are “Trumpian” anti-Semites.

Jewish institutions and individuals right now are supporting and encouraging the demonization of peaceful forms of resistance to Israel’s human rights abuses. The institutional Jewish community has thus abdicated their crucial responsibility to fight against actual anti-Semitism. They’ve traded it for support of Israel.

Comment: Zionist Jews are inviting violence by conspiring to demonize peaceful resistance to Zionism. They have betrayed all Jews on behalf of apartheid Israel.

No one can have a monopoly on who gets to have these conversations, least of all those who seek to do so in order to allow Israel to have free reign to suppress Palestinian rights.

Comment: Livingstone, one more time.

Linda Sarsour — Primary Statement (Starts at 55:18)

Summary: People who attack me are strangers to the social justice movement. Intersectionality teaches that you can’t “dismantle” other forms of racism without “dismantling” anti-Semitism. I should be able to talk about anti-Semitism even though I’m not Jewish. I’m a staunch supporter of BDS. Those who criticize me, deny my existence. Don’t tell the progressive movement that Jews are synonymous with Israel. Show up, Zionists — the movement is not about you and your preconditions for allyship! I don’t show up with stipulations (even though disagreeing with me denies my existence -ed.). Jewish publications have been fooled into attacking me and Farrakhan, when Trump is the existential threat.

Apparently I’m the biggest problem for the Jewish community… the existential threat… [according to — ed.] people who… for sure have never been anywhere near a social justice movement in these United States of America.

Comment: Sarsour sounds snarky here, but she has a nefarious purpose: to establish a Manichaean separation between those who criticize her and those who believe in social justice.

I’m a very staunch supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement.

Comment: Good way to establish that you’re not a threat to the Jewish community, Linda.

The fact that people want to frame the way that I choose to show up in a movement, they are denying my existence…

Comment: Intersectional boilerplate.

The Jewish community is also not a monolith. Not every single Jewish person that I’ve met sees their liberation, or their Jewishness, connected to the state of Israel. So… this imposition… that all Jews = Israel, is inaccurate, is false.

Comment: Standard line that anti-Zionists cheer themselves up with. The vast majority of Jews care about Israel and are, in that sense, at least “South Park” Zionists.

[Apparently addressed to Zionists — ed.] What if you just showed up to the movement… and say, ‘You know what, this is not about me. Let me show up and work for black lives or undocumented immigrants. Let me roll up my sleeves for folks who are being impacted right now in this moment in such vicious ways.’ And guess what happens after you show up without putting conditions on your allyship and solidarity… eventually someone turns to you and says, “Who are you… what is your story?”

Comment: Sarsour calls out Zionists here as selfish — they’re social justice solipsists who place preconditions on their solidarity. This is radioactive — the fallout is that Jews don’t care about “black lives” or other marginalized peoples.

Sarsour condemns putting stipulations on solidarity, but note that earlier she implied that challenging her anti-Zionism and support for BDS were tantamount to denying her existence. Also note what happened at Chicago Dyke March — Jews who showed up with Jewish pride flags were asked to leave because they made marchers “uncomfortable”.

We all must commit to dismantling anti-Semitism… The existential threat resides in the White House… If what you’re reading all day long, morning and night, in the Jewish media is that Linda Sarsour and Minister Farrakhan are the existential threat to the Jewish community, something really bad’s going to happen and we’re going to miss the mark on it.

Comment: This quote has created a buzz because Sarsour referred to “the Jewish media”, a phrase which has an undeniable resonance of anti-Semitism. If you encounter this quote alone, as will be increasingly likely as it is passed around, it’s natural to interpret her to have meant “the media, which is controlled by Jews”. Because of the larger context of the event — that is to say, its primary emphasis on another conspiracy theory: that Jewish and non-Jewish Right-wingers fake charges of anti-Semitism to silence anti-Zionists — I don’t agree with that reading. I think Sarsour was referring to actual Jewish publications (like Algemeiner and Tablet) that had criticized her — among “the 199+ [critical] op-eds that are out there”, as she groused not long before making this statement.

Linda echoes Morales in downplaying Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism because it is supposedly inconsequential. This is the second time this panel on anti-Semitism has downplayed anti-Semitism with the logic that racism only exists in a context of “power”.

Leo Ferguson — Secondary Statement (Starts at 1:04:55)

Summary: Nothing much, except he markets Understanding Antisemitism, another book on the subject by his group Jews for Economic and Racial Justice’s.

Lina Morales — Secondary Statement (Starts at 1:09:20)

Summary: I’m a passionate anti-Zionist. I was alienated from my Jewishness because I’m not white — there are parallels between treatment of Palestinians in Israel and Latinos in Chicago. I am anti-Zionist because I’m committed to Jews — as opposed to white, Ashkenazy, privileged Jews who want to distance themselves from Judaism.

I honestly consider Zionism to be The Man in the High Castle dystopia of Jewish history.

Comment: Here’s the link of Jews and Nazism that is customary in “Left-wing spaces”.

Linda Sarsour — Q&A (Starts at 1:14:15)

Summary: My understanding of Zionism is to create a refuge for Jews “post the Holocaust”. I’m not the keeper of the social justice movement, so stop talking about how I said Zionists can’t be feminists. To Zionist feminists: stop coming to the movement to “impose” preconditions on the rest of us. Stop denying my existence. Some Jews allied with Milo against me, why? [Why do you ally with Farrakhan? — ed.] Oppose Islamophobia, like I oppose anti-Semitism. Most Jews were grateful for my fundraising efforts on behalf of a vandalized Jewish cemetery, but some accused me of grift. Sarsour clarifies comment that anti-Semitism is not “systemic” like anti-black racism.

Let’s stop talking about the Civil Rights movement that was 50 years ago. There is a civil rights movement happening right now.

Comment: This sounds like a jab at Jews who refuse to stop praising themselves for helping blacks during the Civil Rights movement.

We are now living under fascism.

Comment: Get a grip, Linda.

Today in 2017, while we have prevalent anti-Semitism… what I was saying was it’s not written into the law, into the criminal justice system. It’s not written in the same way that anti-black racism is, or… Islamophobia.

Comment: Sarsour talks like Jim Crow is still in effect. This is not for nothing — far-Leftism is so thoroughly steeped in fatalism and victimology that true believers genuinely think no substantive progress has been made over the last 50–60 years.

Linda is also alluding to surveillance of Muslim communities, which she likens to the experiences of black radicals under COINTELPRO and Black Lives Matter today (“COINTELPRO 2.0”).

I hope that you agree that if you’re a white woman who considers herself to be [a] Jew that you don’t have the same experience as a black woman in America. That’s not something I should have to apologize for. Actually people need to apologize to me if you’re trying to make that argument.

Comment: Sarsour reverses herself with this crowd-pleasing quip — big applause — revealing that she does, in fact, believe that anti-Semitism is less important than anti-black racism.

Rebecca Vilkomerson — Q&A (Starts at 1:29:48)

Summary: Anti-Semitism is a problem, but white Jews don’t experience “structural anti-Semitism”. The power structures of this country don’t oppress us as Jews [yet we shouldn’t lose focus that the existential threat is in the White House — ed.] In the US, Jews are conflated with whiteness, which erases the impact of Zionism on Mizrahi Jews and fosters Ashkenazy dominance in Jewish spaces. Jews complain about anti-Semitism to deflect attention from their own racism.

Quoting from JVP’s book, On Antisemitism: “The cultural articulation that equates Jewishness with whiteness without accounting for the impact of Zionism on Jewish racial identity, furthers and perpetuates white Ashkenazy dominance in Jewish spaces.”

Comment: As Sarsour says, Vilkomerson “[reinforces]” her distinction between anti-Semitism and “structural” racism against people of color, claiming that Zionism privileges white Jews and oppresses Jews of color.

We need to be able to acknowledge that sometimes anti-Semitism is used as an excuse for those of us who are white in the Jewish community not to grapple with the racism that also exists in the Jewish community.

Comment: Yet another version of the Livingstone Formulation, an ugly one arguing that Jews exaggerate concern about anti-Semitism to deflect attention from their own racism.

Conclusion

I hope this piece will be useful to those who want to understand JVP and Linda Sarsour’s problematic approach to anti-Semitism. If you find any errors or omissions, I would be grateful to hear from you.

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