By Miriam of the Michigan Collective, a retired Jewish autoworker. Miriam was raised as a communist in Compton, California and is now an Anarchist operating out of the Detroit area.
The recent rise in visible Anti Semitism – vandalism of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries, shooting and murder in a synagogue in Pittsburgh, the fascist slogans pointing to Jews as the enemy – shows that the ground of security is once again cracking. The economic and social insecurities thrown up by the decay of capitalism, and its attempts to stabilize itself globally through a neoliberal strategy, have allowed hatred of “the other” to rise to the surface. This enables racists to publicly act out against Black people, questioning their right to be in public places; it enables public policies to detain, and sometimes murder, refugees seeking survival and protection; and it enables hatred of Jews.
Israel’s role in the world as agent of the United States and apologist for apartheid allows a conflation of Jews and Zionism. They are not the same. Zionism and the state of Israel is supported by people and institutions that are not Jewish; there are Jewish people who do not support the state of Israel.
Currently, Jews have assimilated into the United States to such an extent, particularly through the professional class, that they are seen as the face of authority among other groups, who have also been othered, and discriminated against, particularly Black people.
The Jewish people have been seen as other, as heretics from their first refusals to go along with Roman authorities during the rise of Christianity. Driven from living spaces, corralled in ghettos (Italy) or the Pale of Settlement (Russia), the diaspora, or dispersion, spread Jews throughout the world. Expelled from Spain (1492), they were forbidden to live openly in Spanish colonies. They lived as secret Jews, or Marranos (pigs), openly Christian, following Jewish traditions in secret.
The first Jewish settlement in what is now New York was in 1624. Through peaks of nativism, hostility against Jews rose periodically. Jews were forbidden to live in certain areas, there were quotas on their entrance to schools, they were caricatured, identified as greedy, money hungry, sly and devious, dirty, and, of course, the killers of Christ.
Jews sought assimilation and were allowed to participate as settlers; as Europeans displaced Native Americans across the western United States, Jews were among their number. In order to become “white”, or “truly American”, one must adopt attitudes of anti-Blackness. This was the route all settlers took as they established themselves as Americans, as they threw off their European identities.
The first major influx of Jews to the United States was in the 1840s, primarily from Austria and Germany, after the failed revolutions in Europe. They were primarily shopkeepers and financially able to secure employment and businesses. In Europe Jews were prevented from becoming farmers and were denied access to education and to the professional classes. They sought protection from their anti Semitic neighbors by appealing to the king or members of the king’s court for protection. They were often used as usurers, or money lenders, as this profession was forbidden to Christians. This role linked them to banking and money in the public eye; it also linked them to the ruling classes.
This group set itself against the second wave of Jewish immigration around the late 1880s-1900s, which was larger, poorer and escaping from the Russian and Polish pogroms. This wave also brought the anarchist and Communist influence into the Jewish communities, into the working class neighborhoods where they settled, and into the shops they helped organize. The many daily newspapers in Yiddish provided cultural adhesion, along with a strong cultural practice of poetry, theater and music, and a high value placed on education.
The “Jewish Community” has always been divided among itself – culturally and by class; by religious expression and by how it identifies itself. Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist are all forms of religious Judaism, each one seeing itself as the “true” Jewish religion. The humanist or secular Jews also see themselves as Jews, but without a religious identity, living within a cultural tradition.
These divisions were aggravated with the establishment of Israel as a “Jewish” state in 1948. Set up as a British and United States outpost in the Middle East, intended to represent British interests against the rising independence movements of the Arab states and as a place to send Jews displaced by World War 2, that were not welcome in the United States or in Europe.
Zionism was never the ideology of all Jews. Jews hold a range of politics and opinions, based on their upbringing and experiences, their desires to assimilate or remain a part of a Jewish community, whether religious or secular. It has served the purposes of both Israel and western imperialism to conflate Jews with the Israeli state and with Zionism. This has aggravated many Jews who do not identify with either.
Jews have played a major role in the various professional layers of American society – doctors, lawyers, businessmen, academics, movie moguls. Some have amassed great wealth and use this for the benefit of the many right wing causes and politicians they support.
Part of the othered persona has led Jews to a role of middleman, particularly in regard to Black people. They are the owners of stores in Black communities, the managers of recording artists, the landlord or slumlord willing to rent to Black people when others would not. This relationship has exacerbated a particular understanding of Jews as the face of the white man, even when the white man does not consider the Jew white, or allow them to live in their white only neighborhoods. Many Jews changed their names and hid their identities in order to attend schools with Jewish quotas. The fact that they were able to pass allowed a degree of assimilation unavailable to more recognizable groups.
Jews have also played major roles in various left wing and social justice movements, putting ideas and bodies into the struggles for rights for working class people.
One of the lessons of the German Holocaust is that assimilation into a capitalist society will not save an othered group from the thuggery of predators. As the right wing becomes more empowered and feels itself enabled to be open about its politics, its root anti Semitism once again reveals itself: in vandalism, in Nazi slogans, in murder.