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Power Plays in the Anti-Semitic Blame Game

As capitalism starts to crumble, hate finds a familiar foothold.

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Last month’s shooting at the Chabad of Poway, a California synagogue in a suburb about 20 miles north of San Diego, killed one woman and injured three others. Before picking up his assault-style rifle, the 19-year-old male now being held for that attack posted an anti-Semitic, white supremacist screed to the internet forum 8chan. In the post, he also claimed responsibility for a mosque fire nearby and said he was inspired by the shooter who murdered 50 people in two Christchurch, New Zealand mosques in March.

This horrific connection, drawn by an American teen to a massacre half a world away, reminds us once again that white supremacy sees so many of us—in different but interlinked ways—as threats to be obliterated in order to preserve power. The foot soldiers in this battle will be white men who have been told in a thousand ways how and why they should be on top; men who now feel their power ebbing and are desperate to reassert it, through violence if necessary.

In moments like this, political leaders and pundits offer platitudes and “thoughts and prayers,” but also leap to place blame. For Ted Cruz, Meghan McCain, and their fellow travelers, it was yet another opportunity to point the finger at their favorite scapegoat, Ilhan Omar, a naturalized United States citizen and former refugee from Somalia, who now represents Minnesota’s 5th District in the House of Representatives. It is nauseating that Cruz and McCain (neither of whom is Jewish) targeted a Muslim woman when the Poway shooter, himself, targeted Muslims, but theirs is a divide-and-conquer tactic with a long, nasty history.

Jews (like me), of course, are no strangers to being scapegoated for a country’s ills, and even blamed for the violence visited upon them. But that is exactly why this is a moment for solidarity—a moment to proclaim unity with the victims of violence and the enemies of white supremacy the world over. The rise of anti-Semitic violence once again is a reminder that the boundaries of whiteness can shift, and that groups that had felt relatively safe can find themselves quickly on the wrong side of those borders.

The rise of ethnonationalist political leaders and racist violence should have focused attention on the threat of the far right, but instead, the loudest voices warn of an anti-Semitism problem on the left. In the U.S., that focus has come from the president, but it has been enabled by the supposed “resistance” to Trump: the Democratic Party leadership. (For instance, right after Trump targeted Omar, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi piously tweeted about her discussion of anti-Semitism with a splinter group of U.K. politicians.)

The focus on Omar, who has been the loudest voice challenging the Trump administration’s foreign policy (and pointing out, rightly, its connections to bipartisan American policy of a century or more), surprises not at all. It is also not news that criticizing Israel will get one accused of anti-Semitism; nor is it a shock that Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer are more than happy to go along with such accusations. But the relatively new twist is that those accusations are being used to silence broader criticisms of capitalism and imperialism.

Anti-Semitism functions as a conspiracy theory. In the pretzel logic of this conspiracy, a Jewish cabal is causing all the world’s problems in an effort to further its own power. It has long served as a tool for those looking to deflect the evils of capitalism and imperialism onto a racialized group in order to protect the status quo. As political historian Barnaby Raine wrote, “It tells the anti-Semite that the problems in her society do not really run very deep, that they are only the work of some small cancer to be zapped while leaving a healthy body intact.”

And it is striking how recent accusations of left anti-Semitism have functioned in similar ways. Birtherism, for example, and Islamophobia more broadly, operate in the same conspiratorial shape. The idea that Barack Obama was a foreign invader, a secret Muslim out to destroy white America, came alongside the demands for his birth certificate (most notably from Trump, birther-in-chief) in the hopes that if it could only be proved, Obama could be removed. America would be, as the saying goes, great again. Omar actually is a few of the things that Obama’s enemies assumed he was: Muslim, African-born, and a real critic of American global hegemony—one who intends to change the way such power is wielded. Her critics, like Chelsea Clinton, have no problem reading anti-Semitism into the congresswoman’s tweets, yet don’t see how their own comments echo birtherist ideas that a Muslim migrant can never be “an American.” (With such attacks from her own party, it’s no wonder that the right scapegoats Omar—and expects to get away with it.)

Conspiracy theories are an attempt to understand the worldoften deeply poisonous attempts, but attempts nevertheless. Anti-Semitism has been called the “socialism of fools” because, as organizer and antiracist educator Dania Rajendra told me, “It blames our oligarchy on Jews instead of ever-worsening monopoly capitalism.” It is not surprising, then, to see it rising in a time when capitalism’s cracks are easier than ever to perceive and, indeed, to fall through, even for those who used to feel secure. In the absence of a structural analysis of capitalism, conspiracy theories can thrive. And the systematic crushing—often through the use of anti-Semitism—of not just communism, but of any whisper of an alternative to capitalism, has left many people struggling for answers to why they feel their security slipping away.

The other side of the anti-Semitic conspiracy theory has always been the “Judeo-Bolshevik,” the Jewish communist seeking to undermine and overthrow national governments. As a new book by historian Paul Hanebrink argues, this myth animated anticommunists from Winston Churchill and Woodrow Wilson to Hitler himself, and justified repeated, brutal pogroms against Jews across the world. As socialism again edges into the mainstream, particularly in the U.S. and the U.K., it is not surprising that we are seeing renewed accusations that it harbors a malevolent plot to infect the body politic; what is strange is that the plot is being cast as an anti-Semitic one.

It is useful for those in power to be able to pretend that critiques of their power are attacks on its victims—to present Omar and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn as the cause of rising anti-Semitic violence, even as we see more clearly than ever that such violence is coming from white supremacists. Anti-Semitism, according to Rajendra, “is core to the appeal of far-right political movements, including Trumpism.”  These movements, she notes, are “looking to galvanize already existing American prejudice against immigrants, Black people, Native people, and other people of color, women, trans people, and Muslims,” scapegoating those who often feel the brunt of worsening conditions for the crisis now affecting a growing number of white people.

“It’s inevitable,” Rajendra said, “with such easy access to guns and conspiracy theories and such difficult access to education and healthcare, that we see these shootings as well as other attacks.”

But the center, as well as the right, guards its power through accusations that the left are the “real racists.” If socialism has begun to lose its scare quality, perhaps some can be split away from a rising left through claims that leftists are as big a threat to their safety as a violent right. But safety will not come through isolation, for Jews or any other marginalized group. Instead, said Rajendra, movements on the left must learn to recognize and reject anti-Semitic and Islamophobic messages as well as they are learning to recognize anti-black and misogynist ones. It is crucial to understand that the “grinding structural violence” of poverty, police abuses, and the ongoing crackdown on migrants is as important as more spectacular horrors like the Poway shooting. Only together, she said, can marginalized groups beat back white supremacy.

Conspiracy theories take off because they feel true. The world really is shaped by a relatively small group of people who have outsized power—it’s just that it’s not an ethnic cabal, it’s the super-rich. Fighting racism and bigotry cannot and should not be done to appease external critics, but because it is part of the left’s fundamental project. Without such an analysis, ideas that feel true to people—whether they are the  anti-Semitic conspiracies about Jews bringing in immigrants to replace white Americans, or birtherist beliefs that Muslims are plotting to undermine the West—can take root and grow.