When Judy Rebick, in her recent Znet Commentary (“Is anti-semitism an issue for the left?”) told this story:
“My father had to fight his way to school every day against gangs of boys calling him dirty Jew. In his day, he used to tell me, signs on Sunnyside beach on the Lakeshore in Toronto said, “No dogs or Jews allowed.””
I couldn’t help but remember the signs that I had heard of that were up in colonial India saying ‘No dogs or Hindus allowed’, or in Japanese-occupied Shanghai that said ‘No dogs or Chinese allowed’. And since Judy’s piece was prompted by the words of David Ahenakew, an indigenous man, it seems fitting to mention that around the Sun Peaks resort in British Colombia, Canada, the site of a bitter struggle between a multinational resort corporation and the Secwempec indigenous who that corporation is trying to displace, there are reports of signs that say ‘No Indians allowed by order of the BC government’.
The Holocaust was the most horrific event in a long, continuous history of European anti-semitism. In the rules of that anti-semitism, Jews were confined to ghettos. They were not allowed to farm or own land. They were restricted to a small number of occupations, one of which was moneylending (which also happened to be taboo to Christians) and then resented for it, and periodically dispossessed when those they had loaned money were wealthy and powerful. Whenever Europe got ready to go on Crusade, against external infidels in the Muslim world, the Jewish ghettos would be the first to suffer pogroms, riots, and massacres. After the last kingdom in Muslim Spain– where Muslims, Jews, and Christians had coexisted-was conquered by Europe in 1492, Muslims and Jews were given the option of conversion to Christianity or expulsion. Many chose to convert so they could keep their lands-but the Holy Inquisition was founded to root out those converts who were secretly still practicing Islam or Judaism, burn them at the stake, and, of course, take their land.
This is all Europe’s history, the story of Europe’s cruelty to Jews whom white supremacy has always seen as a foreign enemy no better-and it is important to emphasize this-no better than any of the other black and brown peoples of the world.
European colonialism is responsible for holocausts all over the third world. Belgium’s King Leopold ruled over the deaths of perhaps 10 million in the Congo in the late 19th century. English colonialism presided over the deaths of tens of millions to famines in India. The European slave trade killed untold millions over centuries in the Black Holocaust. The genocidal European conquest of the Americas killed tens of millions of indigenous-and was the model on which Hitler explicitly based his conquests.
The point in all this is that anti-semitism is part of a larger story of racism and white supremacy that spans the entire globe and a history of centuries. That racism is interwoven through the history of governments, economies, and societies. If anti-semitism is peculiar, it isn’t because, as Judy argues, ‘it is not based on thinking a group is inferior but rather based on resenting the achievements, privileges or power, imagined or real, of an ethnic group.’ This is true of racism against the Asian ‘model minority’ as well.
Anti-semitism is instead peculiar, and poorly understood, because Jews are in some contexts treated to all the hatred that racism has to offer, and in other contexts become simply Europeans.
When Palestinians resist Israel’s occupation of their lands and Israel’s ethnic cleansing, they are following a certain history, acting in a certain tradition. But this isn’t the history of European anti-semitism. It is, instead, the history of struggle of colonized and oppressed people against European colonialism-of Algerians against the French occupation, or the North American indigenous against the colonists. For people who have suffered from colonialism, how could it not be confusing when Jews, who so recently suffered from racist oppression themselves, become the implementers of racist, colonial policies?
But this is how racism works. For some of its victims, sometimes, it offers this deal: help us oppress those below you, and you can rise. Asian immigrants to North America know this deal well. We get to be ‘model minorities’, so long as we don’t join Black, indigenous, Latino struggles for justice. Just in case we forget our place, hatred and resentment can always be nursed, and stirred to violence-the occasional hate crime is enough to make sure we remember.
And Zionism, for its part, is not an ideology of liberation for a colonized people. It is, instead, the ideology of a colonizer. Dissident Jews like Norman Finkelstein and Tim Wise point out that it is a white supremacist ideology, springing right out of colonial Europe-like anti-Semitism did.
Judy Rebick says “The most terrible thing about the Ahenakew affair is that a representative of the most oppressed, persecuted people in North America is taking out his frustration on the Jews.” The same is true, in a sense, about Israel. The most terrible thing about Israel’s ongoing ethnic cleansing in Palestine is that a people historically oppressed and persecuted by white supremacy and colonialism is today aggressively colonizing a people that has shared much of its suffering over the centuries.
But to talk about Israel’s policies without talking about the US’s active support, and sometimes design, of these policies, is a mistake. Israel has been encouraged to do what it has done in the Middle East because it has served the agenda of the US. To frame the issue in terms of Jews and anti-semitism is to blind oneself to the reality that Israel is acting as part of the larger project of imperialism and control over the region. Both incidents of anti-semitism Judy describes in her commentary-the Ahenakew affair and the Indian cab driver-occurred for analogous reasons: people oppressed and discriminated against see a ‘Jewish conspiracy’ where there is instead white supremacy, racism, and imperialism, and fail to see that the centers of power are elsewhere.
Anti-colonial struggles are at their best when the colonized understand what they are really facing, find each other, struggle together, and find and build solidarity. Judy herself is consistently critical of Israel’s policies: “It is my view that Israel’s actions in the West Bank and the Gaza strip are a betrayal of the history of the Jewish people. I speak out against them because I cannot accept that my people, who have been so persecuted over centuries can persecute another people.” Since anti-semitism, racism, and zionism spring from the same root, all are welcome to the struggle against all three