In the first post in this series, I talked about why I thought it was important to look at anti-Semitism from a critical perspective, and sketched the outlines of the assumptions and methodologies from which I’m making my claims. This post was originally supposed to Post #3, but for a variety of reasons I decided to flip it with the 2nd post. It looks at the hyperpowerful Jew and how that fits into contemporary discourse about Jewish institutions.
One thing that became clear in the last post was the need to clarify what the project of this series is. It is not “my thoughts on Gaza: anti-Semitism is the real issue.” That would be absurd: anti-Semitism cannot be removed from Gaza, but it is obviously not the sole or primary issue and it would be wrong to frame it such. This project is more accurately stated as “A critical account of anti-Semitism as a structural phenomenon, and how it affects the progressive community – with Gaza occasionally used as illustration.” I understand there are a lot of really important issues going down in Gaza that deserve the attention of the progressive community, and we shouldn’t ignore them. Fortunately, I’m not the only blogger in the world, so I’m confident in your ability to find that information without my aid. Likewise, I do not at all dispute that there are other issues as pertaining to the Jewish community and Israel other than anti-Semitism (someone mentioned Jewish racism. Absolutely true, absolutely appalling, needs to be condemned and excised from my community – but not the subject of this particular series). This series is about anti-Semitism.
In the pantheon of anti-Semitic stereotypes, few are more prominent than are the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The Protocols purport to reveal the secret Jewish plot to take and maintain control of the world. Though proven to be a Czarist forgery, the Protocols still enjoy widespread currency, including in the Arab world, where it has (among other cases) made an as the linchpin of an Egyptian television series.
The myth of Jewish hyper-power flows out one of the more peculiar ways anti-Semitic oppression has historically manifested itself. The fact that Jews have often ascended to positions of wealth and influence has been used as proof positive that they cannot possibly be oppressed. But this refuses to grapple with the particularity of how anti-Semitism has historically operationalized. For a variety of historical reasons, including their long-standing diaspora status and the Christian ban on usury, Jews were disproportionately represented amongst the trading and banking classes. Because of this, many Jews were able to rise to positions of surprising power even in locations where they were heavily marginalized. The ruling classes found that Jews could be useful in this role for several reasons. One of these was that Jews could serve as a buffer between the rulers and the peasants, redirecting the ire of the working classes away from their true oppressors and onto another source (thus spawning the observation that anti-Semitism is “the socialism of fools”). The Polish nobility, for example, assigned Jews to be tax-collectors, guaranteeing them to be hated and despised (as tax-collectors generally are) by the broader populace. Many a noble found that an easy way to get himself out of debt would be to spark a well-timed pogrom against his local Jewish population – which generally included most of his creditors.
Jewish hyperpower is the idea that Jews, through their control of (I’m told) the media, entertainment, banks, and intelligentsia, can effectively manipulate the world to their own ends and stifle any criticism of their policies. It is conspiratorial: “The Jews”, as a collective entity, are working together to achieve ends favorable to “The Jews”. In effect, it renders the Jews inhuman: an undifferentiated malevolent entity, existing outside time and space, which is unbound by the strictures and rules which govern the rest of us and can do whatever it pleases.
Like the narrative of Jewish violence, the myth of Jewish hyperpower continues to have salience today. On the far-right, of course, claims about our Zionist-Occupied Government (ZOG) are rampant. Leftist extremists can make very similar claims: (now retired) Wellesley University Professor of Africana Studies Tony Martin’s book The Jewish Onslaught is replete with this sort of argument. A left-wing graduate student at Chicago told me to my face that the Jews had achieved “hegemony in the original sense of the word” over the field of Middle Eastern studies, and that the UN was likewise under the heel of the Jews through its connection to the “Rockefellers.” And a British magazine hit all of the bases (money, conspiracy, malevolent power) when it published an article entitled “A Kosher Conspiracy?” illustrated on the front cover by a gold star of David piercing the Union Jack.
When John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt wrote their book, The Israel Lobby, many of these issues came into sharp relief. First, many Jewish organizations complained it was anti-Semitic. In response, many of M&W’s defenders used this reaction as proof of their hypothesis, that it was impossible for criticism of Israel to make it through the checkpoints Jewish leaders had placed to govern discourse of their actions (the fact that the article was, in fact, published and then converted into a highly profitable book deal seems to be irrelevant).
What is the case that anti-Semitism inflects Walt & Mearsheimer’s argument? One of the seemingly trivial, but I think somewhat important, warrants for the claim was the capitalization: “The Israel Lobby” (as opposed to “The Israel lobby”), which casts it as precisely the sort of uniform and conspiratorial entity that is promulgated by the protocols. But more seriously, it’s important to remember where Walt & Mearsheimer were coming from in relation to what they were arguing. W&M were two of the most prominent members of the neo-realist school of international relations. Neo-realists believe that international relations are governed entirely by structural aspects of the international system. Domestic considerations play absolutely no role – states are “black boxes”. Yet, W&M believed that American policy towards Israel could not be explained in this way. America wasn’t behaving in a way that made sense if neo-realism was correct. Their explanation was that “The Israel Lobby” was so effective it actually managed to break the IR equivalent of the laws of physics. In other words: Jewish hyperpower strikes again. W&M’s argument would be far less objectionable if they were people who normally believed that domestic lobbying played an important role in dictating international policy. But they don’t think that. They think the opposite: that domestic lobbying never plays a role in how states behave in the global sphere. The only exception, it seems, is when the Jews start acting up.
I noted previously the resistance to the idea amongst progressives that Jews deserve even to be able to stake a claim that anti-Semitism is a true and relevant consideration that they need to pay more than pro forma attention to. The myth of Jewish hyperpower has several implications for the way in which progressives engage with the idea of anti-Semitism. First, it makes it difficult to account for the idea that Jews might be oppressed. If Jews are the paradigm of empowerment, then they can’t possibly be a subordinated class subject to critical analysis. The task of analyzing Jews becomes synonymous with analyzing the history of modern European power. So, for example, the Zionist movement is uncritically lumped in with European colonialist ambitions of the 19th and 20th century. This happens despite the fact that Jews were, by and large and as a class, excluded from the empowered classes that developed and promulgated colonialist ideology (indeed, it happens despite the fact that many Jews – including many future residents of Israel, were not European but African, Middle-Eastern, or Asian). Certainly, such discourse affected the ways in which Jews presented their case to European powers which were sources of potential aid. But it is a gross misrepresentation of the contemporary position of European Jews to assert that Zionism was or is the vanguard, rearguard, or any other sort of battalion in the European colonialist project. It is something else entirely. It might be something else entirely that’s still bad, but that’s rarely what is argued.
Second, it delegitimizes Jewish claims of being silenced. Jews are omnipresent, they have their hands (tentacles?) on all levels of power. Far from being shut down, their voice governs the debate. I don’t deny that, in America anyway, plenty of high-profile speakers will stand up to defend Israel (often times far in excess of what it deserves). But that doesn’t mean the Jewish voice is present, because non-Jews don’t think of Israel the same way Jews do and even their defenses are predicated upon different assumptions and values that don’t necessarily cohere to the actual Jewish vision about what Israel means to us and what it ought to represent. Folks talk about the way the Christian Evangelical community defends Israel. But as far as I’m concerned, their defenses are anti-Semitic too – the glee they hold at the prospect of Israel being the front-line of the “clash of civilizations” is taking pleasure in Jews dying for their cause. The dominance of the Christian narratives amongst the defenses of Israel considered acceptable in the global sphere isn’t proof of Jewish power, but Jewish irrelevancy. Our voice gets superseded by Christian speakers who claim to be speaking on our behalf, but in fact are articulating a vision of “pro-Israel” that is very hostile to Jewish interests (this is one of the reasons I find groups like AIPAC allying with such speakers to be utterly unforgivable).
But even when they themselves are making the argument, subordinated persons often phrase their claims in ways that are amenable to how the dominant caste considers what they deserve. Booker T. Washington did not believe Blacks did not deserve the franchise – indeed, he privately funded several lawsuits which sought to increase Black political inclusion. But his public speeches were circumscribed by the audience he was speaking to, which had very definite and limited views about how it would respond to arguments about improving the Black condition.
The presumption of Jewish hyperpower causes too many progressives to assume that in every social location they are waging a desperate, losing fight against the minions of AIPAC (including, as we’ve seen, in the comments of a Feministe blog post). Maybe that’s true of the US federal government – personally, I have high hopes for J Street. But noting that the USFG is too pro-Israel (or, as I’d say, pro-Israel in the all the wrong ways) doesn’t mean that’s the same issue in, say, Seattle, or the United Nations, or on a college campus. The way in which the particular areas where some Jews have some influence gets transmuted into some sort of all-encompassing horde of Mordor is a symptom of the hyperpower hypothesis.
I won’t dispute Jews have ascertained significant influence over some important levers of power (I will dispute that this is necessarily a bad thing). But I do not think it is inapt to describe it, to some degree, as a Croson problem — indeed, I think Israel itself, in a very real sense, presents many of the same problems that we found in Croson: to wit, what happens when a broadly subordinated group gains control and power in a localized area? On the one hand, this power is subject to moral restraints, and that doesn’t get waved away just because now it’s being wielded by the marginalized. But on the other hand, surely the existence of Richmond, Virginia (the Black-majority city at issue in Croson) doesn’t obviate the fact that it still exists as part of a largely racist, White supremacist whole. The discourse that we hear in the halls of the US federal government – important as it is – is not the only focal point of importance for the Israel/Palestine conflict, and certainly is not the only nomos Jews reside in or that progressives need to concern themselves with.
Third, the hyperpower myth constructs the Jew in such a way as to make it virtually impossible for progressives to even conceive of the non-European Jewish community. This is a particular problem when talking about Israel, where non-European-descended Jews (Mizrachi and Sephardic) make up a plurality of the Jewish population. I can’t count the amount of times this fact was completely ignored by blanket assertions of Israel as part of “the West”, or a “White” nation, or a residual element of European imperialism. The stories of Jews who resided prior to the establishment of Israel in the Middle East (including, yes, in Palestine or Eretz Yisrael) are systematically ignored by nearly everyone (including, it must be said, much of the Ashkenazi Jewish establishment).
Insofar as the narrative of Jewish hyperpower is tied into the broader discourse on Western imperialism and colonialism, non-European Jews present a severe problem because they complicate the folding in of Jews with the broader network of White Western oppression. Jews from North Africa or the Middle East – ancient communities that are now virtually non-existent after their mid-20th century expulsion – cannot be differentiated from Ashkenazim. Israel is just as much a product of their oppression at the hands of the states they hail from (the Arab world, Turkey, Iran, and elsewhere) as it is the mistreatment European Jews faced. Not admitting these groups’ existence is a prerequisite towards a power discourse in which Jews are always at the top – as hard as it is to describe Ashkenazi Jews that way, it’d be really difficult to make the claim about Moroccan, Iranian, or Yemeni Jews. Ironically enough, while outsiders from Israel view its operation in Gaza as stemming from a lack of concern about Arab lives, within Israel the lack of a response was being taken by the Mizrachi community (which is heavily concentrated in Israel’s south) as proof that the Ashkenazi political leaders don’t care about Arab-descended Jews. I imagine (indeed, I know, as a friend of mine from college hails from Sderot) they’d have even harsher language to direct at those who frame this as a matter of White versus POC.
The further removed Jews are from the platonic anti-ideal of the White Male Western Colonizer, the harder it is to maintain the hyperpower ideology. Consequently, the story of the Jew must be wrenched away and told as the tale of only its luckiest, choicest few. Even Jewish discourse on Zionism tends to focus far too much, in my view (and in my guilt) on the Ashkenazi experience. Certainly, non-Jewish talk tends to utterly dislocate all Jews from their personal nomos and instead make them into an ahistorical group which has no stake anywhere and exists only as a kind of idea — the apex of power. As for those Jews who can’t be forced into that box, there is no space for them in the discussion. Indeed, they have no place even to exist – they are born as and die as trespassers on the land of another. At the very least, an account of how a Jew expelled from Iraq could be said to be engaging in a “colonialist” project in Beer Sheba. Who are they colonizing on behalf of, exactly? What is the “mother country”? Or are they just pawns of the Europeans?