An in-depth interview by Lenny Giteck, publisher and editor
Dr. Amy Elman is the Weber Professor of Social Science at Kalamazoo College, a private liberal arts college in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Her research focuses on comparative politics and Western political thought.
In addition to numerous scholarly articles, her books include The European Union, Antisemitism and the Politics of Denial (2014); Sexual Equality in an Integrated Europe (2007); Sexual Subordination and State Intervention: Comparing Sweden & the United States (1996); and Sexual Politics and the European Union: The New Feminist Challenge (1996).
Prof. Elman has served as the Chair of the Political Science Department at Kalamazoo College and has been a visiting professor at Harvard University,
New York University, SUNY Potsdam, Middlebury College, Uppsala University
in Sweden, and Haifa University in Israel.
We spoke with Dr. Elman about right-wing antisemitism versus left-wing antisemitism: We were interested in finding out how she compares the two.
Professor Elman, these days we hear about antisemitism coming from both ends of the political spectrum. In your view, what’s the difference between them?
I know many people make that distinction but I’m not one of them. Nowadays, there is often a convergence between the far left and far right concerning Jews. To give you one recent example: David Duke, who is a neo-Nazi, retweeted the musings of [political activist] Linda Sarsour, a leftist, as they pertain to Israel.
We’re in a political atmosphere that’s extremely toxic and increasingly partisan. But focusing so much on that left/right distinction omits complicating factors we need to pay attention to, because ignoring the convergence of their ideologies is problematic, especially as that convergence pertains to Jews.
Is that convergence a new thing?
It’s not an entirely new phenomenon. If you go back to the mid-1980s, for example, you had the African American socialist Paul Robeson, Jr. attending a large Nation of Islam (NOI) event in Madison Square Garden. Robeson referred to its leader, Louis Farrakhan, and his followers as “brownshirts in blackface.” That was the title of an essay he wrote for the New York Amsterdam News, a Black newspaper, in which he expressed his revulsion at hearing so many antisemitic statements at the event.
Robeson wasn’t being hyperbolic. There is wonderful research by scholars Stephen Norwood and Eunice Pollack about the Nation of Islam, in which they talk about a time in the 1930s when Black followers of Hitler were referred to as “Black Fuhrers,” “Black Hitlers,” or “Harlem Nazis.” So, what is the Nation of Islam? Is it right-wing because it has an ideology consistent with Hitler’s? Or do we assume it is “progressive” — in the way that Linda Sarsour, Tamika Mallory, and others claim — because they insist the NOI does good for the African American community?
When Hitler talked about confiscating war profits, as he did in his early Nazi party propaganda, was that leftist-progressive? The Nazi movement was certainly a protest movement that focused on economic disparity in the aftermath of the Great Depression. Yet it was also virulently antisemitic, racist, and fascist.
Where does that leave us?
If we’re having trouble identifying what kind of ideology a group or person has, it might be more useful to talk about what the ideology actually says and what its likely consequences are, rather than trying to pigeonhole it within a certain classification.
Unfortunately, many on the left only seem to notice antisemitism when it comes from the right, and many on the right only seem to notice antisemitism when it comes from the left. We Jews lose when we’re put in a position of having to notice one or the other, or condemn one or the other, or be silent when the antisemitism is coming from our ostensible allies.
We hear a lot from folks who want to support Trump because of his supposed embrace of Israel. But they don’t address the many antisemitic dog whistles that have come from the Trump camp. One need only think of his recent re-posting of a white nationalist screaming “white power!” Such assertions are at once antisemitic and target people of color. On the other hand, many of these same people are very quick to label as antisemitic someone like Rep. Ilhan Omar.
I assume Rep. Omar, for her part, denies being antisemitic… yes?
She will say something that clearly is antisemitic, and later she’ll follow up by saying, “Gee, I’m really sorry. Golly, I didn’t know any better.” A sort of non-apology apology. Both sides are playing footsy with antisemitism. They may mildly distance themselves from it, but never entirely because they know their base. That’s not something we can afford to get hoodwinked by.
You’re saying progressives are not immune to antisemitism.
A lot of people who proudly proclaim they’re progressive have gone out of their way to portray Jews as being reactionary. When you listen to Linda Sarsour… one minute she’s insisting she is not antisemitic — and she loves that Jewish candidate! It makes her eyes water even thinking about Bernie Sanders. He’s the Jew she loves — the anti-Zionist guy who barely is Jewish-identified. Then within seconds she’ll start talking about right-wing Jews.
Sarsour and others conflate being a Zionist with being right-wing.
The truth is, most Jews identify favorably in some way with Israel. To conflate that with the right wing is to deny the significant contributions Jews have historically made to the very progressive movements Sarsour and others like her now seek to co-opt. It’s heartbreaking because they’re succeeding.
Again, my point is that discussions on this topic often omit complicating facts and histories. We want everything to be either left or right. Given that I teach politics for a living, I have to say things are much more complicated. There are many inconvenient details both the left and the right choose to ignore.
You’ve said alliances have formed between progressives and antisemites. How is that possible?
In order to broaden their political space and be taken seriously, some of the most virulent antisemites have gone into alliances with progressive movements. That’s taken place on issues having to do with the environment, police brutality, incarceration, women’s rights, gay rights, and so forth. Much of it is the result of decades of hard work by very committed people who consider themselves, and perhaps are considered by others, to be somewhat radical.
Now we see co-optation of these issues by antisemites who conceal their bigotry under the guise of protecting women, men of color and the environment. Why? Because the issues they are using to establish their credentials are the political issues of our time, and they’re very appealing to millennials. What better way to portray themselves than as “progressive” and on the cutting edge? Bottom line: There is no shortage of antisemitism on the part of so-called progressives.
Can you give an illustration?
There is a convergence in what Charles Small [founder and director of the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy] and other scholars call the red-green alliance. The red part is the far left and the green part are the Islamists.
That’s how you can have someone like Linda Sarsour standing at the intersection and claiming to represent both. She says she’s on the cutting edge of feminism because she’s a woman of color wearing a veil. She also says “Zionist feminists” are unwelcome in the women’s movement because they are somehow reactionary and right-wing.
At the same time, Sarsour says she wants to open a place for Sharia law. How is it possible to support Sharia — which, among other things, advances the notion that a man has the right to discipline his wife by beating her — and also claim you’re a feminist?
Obviously, that’s a contradiction.
One would think. But it’s not a contradiction in the sense that you have people on the far left and the far right coming together in agreement on what to do about the so-called Jewish question. That is no longer about what to do with individual Jews per se; it’s about what to do with the expression of our Judaism in the context of the Jewish state
Is there an issue of political expediency at play here? They get more followers, more credibility, and more power when they make these alliances.
I think so. How effective is it going to be? I’m not sure. However, in an age when people are not terribly well-educated in history and logic, it might have a great deal of appeal. But for those who can reason, it really seems to be politically beyond the pale.
It’s fascinating that Linda Sarsour is a woman who tweets about how wonderful Saudi Arabia is because it has ten weeks of paid maternity leave. Yet she ignores all the ways Saudi women are deprived of their basic human rights.
Not surprisingly, Sarsour’s most violent rhetoric targets her outspoken Muslim opponents, such as the author and activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. This is a woman who survived female genital mutilation and whose vagina Linda Sarsour has threatened to remove.
In almost all Muslim-majority countries, women’s rights as we understand them don’t exist. There is a total lack of LGBTQ rights, there are forced marriages, including of underage girls, “honor killings,” in some cases female genital mutilation… the list goes on.
Needless to say, there is a huge amount of antisemitism in these countries— not just regarding Israel but regarding all Jews. When these things are pointed out to people on the left, they often excuse them by explaining, “Well, that’s their culture.” What’s your take on that?
Right… and such cultural relativism is a manifestation of racism. Imagine, if after I told you that men beat women in America — which they do — and you have a president who unapologetically affirms his right to grab women by their genitalia, you said to American women, “I guess that’s your culture.” They would be outraged. They would have their knickers in a twist, and rightfully so. They might say Trump does not represent them. That excusing battery of woman as part of our culture, regardless of the pervasiveness, is unacceptable. Such abuse may be better understood as part of “tradition,” whereas “culture” is an honorific. I am indebted to Bernice DuBois for that distinction.
In the case of hatred toward Jews, dismissing it as a cultural misunderstanding is no less wrong. The culture justification contradicts some of the fundamental gains we’ve made in our society — such as our embrace of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. To suggest abhorrent behavior is just a matter of culture is to abandon the victims of that discrimination under the guise of being progressive. It destroys the possibility of really understanding the universal aspects of our lives that should connect us to each other in terms of our humanity.
One feature of the far right is Holocaust denial. Is there anything similar on the far left?
I would say the Holocaust is minimized a great deal on the left. It takes place all the time, but when it happens among “progressives,” people don’t seem to be that troubled by it.
What do you mean by minimizing the Holocaust?
When you have [the late LBTQ and AIDS activist] Larry Kramer – who most would consider to be progressive — referring to AIDS as a “holocaust,” this is deeply problematic.
We should be able to talk about the callous disregard of the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations toward the gay community and people with AIDS without calling it a holocaust. Because as bad as it was under those administrations, there wasn’t a willful determination to exterminate all gay men. That’s the kind of minimizing I’m talking about.
By the way, other examples of seemingly progressive minimizing include environmentalists who insist on the term “raping the Earth.” That is not the same as the actual, physical rape of a human being. Or when people who regard themselves as left-leaning refer to the exploitation of workers as “slavery,” it gives offense because it undermines a truly shameful era in our history.
Some people say, “Well, we had Cambodia and we had Rwanda. There have been a lot of holocausts since the Second World War.”
They don’t understand what made the Nazi Holocaust unique and in a league of its own. For one thing, the Nazis intended to exterminate Jews everywhere -– their aspirations went beyond the territory of any one state or geographic region.
To sum up, in your view dividing antisemitism between far right and far left is not helpful.
It’s overly simplistic and misleading to put antisemitism into discrete political categories. For instance, how should one characterize the antisemitic murders by black nationalists in 2019 — far left or far right? The Nation of Islam — is it far left, far right, Jihadist, or a combination thereof?
How should we characterize the antisemitism of the 2017 Women’s Marches? Let’s not confuse identity with political ideology. Being a feminist woman does not make one “left” any more than any other identity renders one a proponent of a particular politics.
We also know nothing about the ideological leanings of the perpetrators of antisemitic incidents in New York. What we do know is that half of all hate crimes in that city in 2019 were against Jews, and most of those Jews were more readily identifiable as Jews.
According to ADL data, the perpetrators of those antisemitic hate crimes were rarely readily identifiable as “far right” or “jihadist.” According to the data, we simply know that many perpetrators were young African American men. The fact that those who commit acts of antisemitism may themselves be vulnerable to racism (or sexism) may also account for, or contribute to, the reluctance on the part of self-proclaimed progressives (who often insist they are anti-racist and feminist) to identify antisemitic acts and/or perpetrators for fear of being viewed as prejudiced. Ironically, such reluctance to confront bigotry exacerbates it.
Given everything you’ve said, where does it all leave the American Jewish community politically speaking?
Sad to say, we American Jews are finding ourselves increasingly homeless politically — despite all our support over the years for political parties, social justice movements, and activist organizations.
We frequently find our political commitments and contributions unreciprocated. I think that to move forward, we can forge serious alliances only when we have some clarity about who our enemies and our friends are. In other words, this will happen only once we delve deep enough to know we are not served by the political cleavages and typologies of past centuries.
I imagine that if we have the courage to commit ourselves to this practice, we will be better able to establish connections with others who have been similarly ill-served by anachronistic thinking, false choices and ineffective mobilizations.
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An in-depth interview by Lenny Giteck, publisher and editor