Without a deeper understanding of antisemitism and its relationship to white supremacy, our movements for justice can easily be undermined and weakened.
This piece was originally published on The Forge.
In the last week of November 2016, I was helping marshal a direct action on a Twin Cities retailer when I got a call from a friend, a Black organizer in Minneapolis. “Did you see the giant swastika on Facebook?” she asked. “What should we do?” Some time in the last few days, someone had spray painted an enormous (and poorly executed) swastika on a garage in North Minneapolis, just a few blocks from my house. Neighbors had posted pictures on Facebook.
I told my friend that I’d meet her at the garage, and I stopped at a hardware store for paint remover, heavy duty scrubbers, and gloves. For the next hour, we stood in the bitter cold, scrubbing out the swastika. My friend took some before and after pictures, as well as a couple of selfies, and tweeted them so others could learn about what we’d just seen.
The pictures of a Black woman and a Jewish woman erasing a symbol of hate caught the attention of the alt right. We were besieged on social media by white supremacists. Some accused us of staging a hoax; most responded with open racism and antisemitism. They shared old caricatures, calling her my pet, me her puppeteer. Some responses were incredibly violent. My friend was stunned. “People are really still antisemitic? I thought you all were just regular white people now.” “Yeah,” I told her. “I think a lot of us did too.”
I’m the Executive Director of Jewish Community Action, a 25-year old nonprofit dedicated to organizing Jews in Minnesota for racial and economic justice. We build teams of members who work in coalition to pass local policies for affordable housing, immigrant rights, and criminal justice reform. Until recently, we didn’t focus on antisemitism at all. The Jewish community is multiracial but still mostly (and in Minnesota, especially) white. We agitated the mainstream Jewish community for the inclusion of Black Jews and Jews of color while accompanying white Jews on a journey to learn about their racial privilege. We gave people with a history of oppression a path to showing up as allies of those most directly targeted by oppression and injustice today.
But in the winter of 2016, I began to realize that, by stopping there, we’d limited our work and the relationships it was grounded in. By positioning ourselves only as allies in fighting white supremacy, we’d erased the ways white supremacy directly targets us as Jews. We’d allowed our coalition partners to ignore Black Jews, Jews of color, and working-class Jews. We’d failed to understand our community as stakeholders and turned ourselves into saviors rather than co-conspirators. We’d also left our movement partners unprepared to support us when we needed it.
This became especially clear in 2017, as antisemitic violence escalated around the world. Early that year, more than 2,000 Jewish Community Centers in the United States and abroad received bomb threats. We watched online as Jewish buildings were evacuated, preschool children led across parking lots, and babies rolled away in portable cribs.
JCA was unprepared for this resurgence of public antisemitism, and our non-Jewish friends were too. Many faith organizing partners reached out to ask how they could help, but I wasn’t sure how to respond. Instead, we threw ourselves into organizing against the travel ban on Muslims. There was a larger crisis, and it wasn’t about us.
Still, that summer brought more antisemitic and white supremacist violence. The Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, brought together white nationalist groups, from the alt-right to the Ku Klux Klan to neo-Nazis. Young white men marched with torches, chanting “Jews will not replace us.” In the days following the rally, I read important reflections from progressive leaders on the anti-Blackness, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and misogyny of the action. But few talked about the antisemitism that seemed foundational and obvious to me. A prominent pastor posted on Facebook imploring white people of faith to stand in solidarity with targeted communities; as evidence of the danger of white supremacy, she repeated the chant from the rally but changed the wording to, “You will not replace us,” cutting Jews out entirely. Many progressive Jews saw ourselves under attack, but those we viewed as our allies didn’t see it.
There’s a long history of alliances and tensions between Black and Jewish communities in the United States. The American Jewish community has a history of antiracist organizing during the Civil Rights Movement — a history most often lifted up by mainstream Jewish organizations through images and stories of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. marching with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. But this history has not been followed by a consistent commitment to ending racism. As I asked in a sermon on Yom Kippur in the fall of 2017, have we relied on an image of Heschel marching with King because we don’t have any more recent examples of solidarity? If the images and stories so central to the Jewish community’s story of antiracist organizing are all fifty years old, how could we be prepared to counteract the very immediate white supremacy and antisemitism of the far right?
After Charlottesville, I realized that the progressive movement — and Jewish organizers within it — had also never made combating antisemitism a critical piece of a shared racial justice agenda. I thought about how we had taught members of Jewish Community Action to decenter our own experiences of antisemitism in service of fighting racism, and I knew that we’d missed something. It made sense: in the beginning of 2017, how could we make a big deal of the bomb threats that proved fruitless when the new president was enacting a Muslim ban? But in burying our own fear in order to show up in solidarity, we also buried the ways antisemitism and Islamophobia were deeply intertwined — limiting how effectively we could fight racism.
The fact is that white Jews both benefit from whiteness and are targeted by white supremacy. By not talking about that, we’d allowed ourselves to avoid grappling with that complicated truth and messy identity. We weren’t working on our own trauma, nor had we been vulnerable with our organizing partners the way they had been with us. I wondered if by hiding our own fears and pain points, we’d been in service rather than relationship.
I’m an organizer, so I began to do one-to-ones. I met with partners and friends from progressive organizations to start talking about what it might look like for the progressive movement to start to learn with us about antisemitism. Too often, casual antisemitism goes unchecked within progressive movement spaces. This is particularly true in campaigns to combat corporate power, which are often steeped in stereotypes about landlords and big banks. Embedded in these stereotypes is the purpose of antisemitism — to provide a scapegoat for economic inequality. As long as the left’s analysis of corporate power rests in antisemitism, we are perpetuating an ancient diversion tactic. We’ll never really win because we’ll be looking in the wrong direction.
Sometimes, it was challenging for antiracist organizers to assess their hidden biases. Antisemitism functions differently than other types of oppression — rather than “punching down,” tropes about Jews artificially inflate our power and wealth, which can make them harder to identify. A Black organizer told me: “Growing up, I definitely learned that the Jews had all the money, but I saw it as a compliment.” Of course she did, but it’s also not true — it’s a lie white supremacy has told us.
As I talked to other Jewish organizers and experts, particularly my friends at Jews for Racial and Economic Justice in New York, who’d been researching and writing on this all year, I began to develop a more sophisticated understanding of how antisemitism functions within systems. If capitalism requires racism to justify exploiting the labor of Black and brown people, it also requires antisemitism in order to point the blame at Jews instead of revealing itself as the actual source of oppression. As a Jewish educator told me, “Many critiques of wealth inequality tell us that the Jews are the man behind the curtain, but antisemitism is the curtain.”
In October of 2017, I presented my first workshop on antisemitism to a multiracial, multifaith audience. I taught them about how antisemitism had, throughout history, positioned Jews in front of the face of power, a buffer between oppressor and oppressed. In the Middle Ages, Kings would make Jews their tax collectors. The ordinary peasant might never see the King, but once a month, a Jew would arrive at the door asking for money. When money was tight and the rent was due, the Jew — and not the King — would be the obvious focus of resentment. I told them about how European Christian antisemitism did not just follow Jews as we settled in America; it was imported intentionally by people like Henry Ford, who built a corporate empire while using the newspaper he owned to publish articles attributing all evil to “Jewish capitalists.”
An organizer who attended that workshop invited me to do another, and I began squeezing them into my schedule whenever I could. I trained political candidates and labor leaders. I gathered a group of directors of progressive organizations and taught them about antisemitism over a brown bag lunch. As the 2018 midterms neared, the need for political education about antisemitism seemed even greater. If the bomb threats and tiki torches had been jarring, the use of overt conspiracy theories in political ads gave antisemitism a new mundanity. In Minnesota, the Republican running in the first Congressional District ran ads that portrayed Jewish philanthropist George Soros as the “Connoisseur of Chaos” and “Funder of the Left”; the ads showed Soros surrounded by stacks of money, dark imposing clouds, and professional football player Colin Kaepernick.
The Soros conspiracy theory hummed along on social media, the messages clear and repetitive: Jews are funding attacks on whiteness. The right-wing candidate for Minnesota Attorney General tweeted repeatedly that his opponent, Black Muslim Congressman Keith Ellison, was “bankrolled by the Soros family” while having the audacity to also accuse Ellison of antisemitism. The right skillfully used an antisemitic conspiracy theory to energize its own base while relying on questions about progressive leaders’ own potential antisemitism to play on the fears of Jews.
That October, a man who believed the lie that George Soros was funding an immigrant caravan walked into a synagogue in Pittsburgh and killed eleven Jews on Shabbat, our holiest day. The rhetoric had directly inspired mass murder. The next day, at a vigil held at a synagogue in Minneapolis, I sat in the balcony, listening to faith and elected leaders. I froze when I saw some of the loudest peddlers of the Soros conspiracy theory seated in the front of the congregation. In our grief and trauma, even the Jewish community could get confused, it seemed, about who our allies were.
It’s significant that some of the same right-wing politicians using antisemitic conspiracy theories were simultaneously leveling accusations of antisemitism at Muslim leaders. Congressman Ellison had repeatedly been accused of antisemitism. Now, I understood this as part of a larger strategy of the right. They paint progressive Black and Muslim leaders as antisemitic to stir up the fears and anxieties of the Jewish community, who are on guard at rising violent attacks. This leaves relationships fractured and targeted groups isolated and confused. Without a deeper understanding of antisemitism and its relationship to white supremacy more broadly, our movements for justice could easily be undermined and weakened. Our enemies had an analysis of how we were connected; we were a step behind.
It’s not a coincidence that Muslims have been the vehicle for this strategy of division and fear mongering. Islamophobia and antisemitism are just two sides of the same coin that portrays non-Christians as fundamentally other, untrustworthy, always plotting to undermine whiteness. Understanding this, JCA leaned into solidarity with Muslim organizations. When we hosted our own event to mark the Tree of Life massacre, we did it in partnership with Muslim organizers. When JCA co-hosted national speakers on white nationalism, we held the event in the office of the Council on American Islamic Relations – MN. And when 51 Muslim worshippers were killed at two consecutive mosque shootings in New Zealand, JCA and I joined Muslim organizations the way they had joined us after Tree of Life for press and community events that underscored our communities’ solidarity as the antidote to hate. A few weeks later, after another synagogue shooting in California, I published an op-ed on Jewish-Muslim solidarity in the face of white nationalism with Congressman Ellison, who was now Minnesota’s Attorney General.
JCA’s work to train our movement and disrupt dangerous rhetoric has not ceased, and the need for it has not subsided. In the summer of 2019, the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota Foundation reached out to JCA as part of their strategy to create safe, welcoming and connected communities. Because of their belief that fear, violence, oppression, and toxic stress are community health issues, they made a heroic and innovative grant that enabled us to formally launch a statewide program to train progressives on antisemitism and white nationalism. The funding enabled me to stop staffing this project alone during my lunch breaks, and I hired an organizer who came at the work from a different perspective. He’d seen his friends radicalized online by white nationalist groups and wanted to undermine their growth. He’s built out an entirely new workshop on the history and organizing of the far right, and during the uprisings this summer, JCA’s work was a resource to progressive partners seeking to understand and decode the presence of groups like the Boogaloo Bois and the Three Percenters.
For a year and a half, we’ve worked with progressive organizations, labor unions, mutiracial coalitions, and elected officials to build a shared analysis of the threats against us and our paths to fighting back. This work has validated my belief as an organizer that relationships must be at the core of everything we do. In my earliest days, I reached out for one-to-ones with people I knew and trusted. I couldn’t have had these conversations with strangers. I had to be generous and assume good intent — if white supremacy has told us lies to push us away from each other, we must offer sincere opportunities to learn.This work cannot be done without trust, and it also takes profound accountability.
The attack on the nation’s capital on January 6th threw into sharp relief what many of us have been warning of for several years — that the rhetoric of the president and his closest advisors had not just enabled but directly courted groups and individuals organizing around white nationalist ideology and energized by deeply antisemitic conspiracy theories. The public display was terrifying and enraging, and shows that there is still so much work to do.
For progressive Jews to do this work, we need partners and we need resources. We need non-Jewish foundations and organizations to include an analysis of antisemitism alongside their analyses of race, class, and gender oppression. We need the Jewish community to continue to work internally on our anti-Black racism and Islamophobia and to commit to fighting every piece of the machine of white supremacy as a whole, not to separate our own safety or our own perceived interests. Our adversaries have a head start, but we have each other, and, through each other, we can have hope.