Fifty years ago, responding to growing tensions between Blacks and Jews following the Civil Rights movement, James Baldwin contributed an op-ed to the New York Times titled “Negroes are Anti-Semitic Because They are 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,” Baldwin wrote. “[The Jew] is singled out by Negroes not because he acts differently from other white men, but because he doesn’t.”
Baldwin’s analysis elucidates the two major strands of American anti-Semitism — of the right and of the left. Traditionally, right wing anti-Semites have hated Jewish difference. Jews were targeted as Christ-killers, as greedy moneylenders, as racially inferior and dangerous, but always as different. Even in the United States, where anti-Semitism has been relatively tame, Jews have been labeled as foreign, urban and un-American, as Other.
In Baldwin’s formulation, conversely, the anti-Semitism some Blacks felt towards Jews was not true anti-Semitism because even if it employed anti-Semitic stereotypes and tropes, it ultimately targeted Jews as whites, not as Jews. This was the anti-Semitism of sameness, not of difference, and ultimately placed a reactionary veneer on a fundamentally progressive call to end racial oppression.
Two months after Baldwin’s op-ed appeared in April of 1967, Israel launched the Six-Day War. That preemptive strike expanded Israeli territory dramatically and placed hundreds of thousands of Palestinians under Israeli control. The 50 years of occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip have left Jews in Israel and the Diaspora vulnerable to leftwing anti-Semitism — the Anti-Semitism of sameness. Just as Baldwin had declared that Jews in America were as racist as any other whites, the left has labeled Zionism an imperialist enterprise, with Israel as guilty as any European colonial oppressor.
The latest manifestation of the anti-Semitism of sameness occurs in the rhetoric surrounding white privilege. Despite growing numbers of Jews of color, in 2013, over 93% of Jews in the United States identified as non-Hispanic white. Modern discourse places these Jews among those who benefit from white privilege. Many Jews are quick to acknowledge this truth, while still frustrated with those who deny or discount the significance of their religious or cultural difference.
This sort of left-wing Anti-Semitism of sameness has old roots. In its earlier form, it painted Jewish difference as superficial, and demanded conversion or assimilation to a universal ideal. Karl Marx’s essay “On the Jewish Question” traffics in vicious anti-Jewish stereotypes, but in truth is a call for Jews to shed their difference and embrace international socialism. Jean-Paul Sartre professed the same idea when he wrote, “the anti-Semite makes the Jew.” His existentialist philosophy led him to deny any Jewish essence in the name of common humanity. For Marx (himself of Jewish ancestry) and Sartre, Jewish difference was an illusion, the imagination of anti-Semite and Jew alike.
In the United States, however, Jews have not faced significant anti-Semitic pressure to abandon their identities. Since the 1960s, right-wing anti-Semitism of difference largely faded from the American mainstream. Jews have embraced America and in turn have been embraced, achieving economic success and integration in numerous fields. As right wing anti-Semitism has declined, interfaith marriage with non-Jews has exploded, rising from 17% in 1970 to 58% in 2013, according to Pew Research Center.
For some time, Israel appeared to be the major obstacle to eradicating anti-Semitism in the United States. A central question on college campuses, particularly since the Second Intifada began in 2000, has been how to distinguish legitimate criticism of Israel and Zionism with genuine anti-Semitism. The centrality of that question is indicative of the degree to which overt right wing anti-Semitism of difference had declined in America.
Until now. Donald Trump’s campaign has led to the return of right wing anti-Semitism of difference. Trump-supporting trolls target and harass Jewish journalists and traffic in the worst anti-Semitic stereotypes in memes, tweets and blog posts. Holocaust-related threats and crude anti-Jewish caricatures have proliferated across social media. Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis and Philadelphia and Rochester have been desecrated. Overt racism and anti-Semitism have found welcome audiences online and at rallies across the country.
Few predicted this turn of events. But there were clues that right-wing anti-Semitism of difference was reemerging. In 2008, Sarah Palin’s paeans to “Real America” and “small towns” angered American Jews who have long known anti-urbanism, anti-secularism, and anti-intellectualism as gateways to anti-Semitism. Last year, Ted Cruz’s criticism of “New York values” had an even thinner veil than Palin’s rhetoric. The ‘Alt-Right’ have abandoned the veneer of decency entirely.
In the United States today, both right and left wing anti-Semitism, of difference and of sameness, blend and feed off each other. How to defeat this scourge? To diminish left-wing anti-Semitism, American Jews can support progressive causes, ally with people of color and Muslims, and oppose the Israeli occupation while remaining watchful for anti-Zionism that bleeds into Jew-hatred. Fighting the rising anti-Semitism of the right, however, will require education, vigilance and a sturdier spine.
David Weinfeld, Ph.D., is the Visiting Assistant Professor of Judaic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA.