Solidarity National Committee
Posted December 18, 2019
Donald Trump’s executive order that ostensibly “extends civil rights protection to Jews” has “opened the door on a case-by-case basis to essentially defining Judaism as a race or national origin” and “expanded the definition of anti-Semitism to include some anti-Israel sentiments.” (The New York Times, December 12, 2019; emphasis added)
This is worse than a false solution to a real problem. It’s part of the problem itself.
In fact, defining Jews as a “race” has been at the heart of antisemitism from the 19th century to the present. The very term “antisemitism” was coined by Jew-haters trying to give their poisonous ideology a “scientific” veneer. But right now, much more than a theoretical question is on the line. In the bottomless depth of his cynical viciousness, Trump along with Kenneth Marcus, the head of the Office for Civil Rights of the Department of Education of all things, is moving to terrorize or criminalize pro-Palestinian activity on college campuses.
The increase in attacks on Jews in the United States since the early 2010s is well documented, along with the main reason why: It coincided with the racist backlash following the election of Barack Obama, and the rise of white-supremacist nationalism. Of course, Trump rode that wave to help propel him to the White House. In short, the growth of antisemitism in America at the moment is a product of the resurgence of racism in general. This has nothing to do with Palestine solidarity activism on campuses or elsewhere.
The context is important. Unlike such obvious historical cases such as Tsarist Russia or Nazi Germany, Jews are not the central target in today’s USA. African Americans, Latinx and immigrant communities, and Muslims are obviously the most exposed to victimization and terror. But when racism rises, antisemitism comes along for the ride. White nationalism wrapped in Christian veneer appeals to the notion of Jews as “outsiders” or “alien” to Christian civilization. (This can take a variety of forms including old-fashioned Jew-hatred, or fanatical Christian Zionism that professes to love Israel, or weird hybrids of the two — not necessarily requiring rational coherence, since racism of all kinds is inherently anti-rational.)
We have witnessed the horror of the Pittsburgh massacre and what just happened in Jersey City, and acts of vandalism against targets like synagogues and cemeteries. Jewish communities, however, are not at comparatively great physical risk. The Tree of Life shooting, which was correctly identified as the worst single attack on Jews in U.S. history, would hardly rank among the historic massacres of Black people in this country, to say nothing of today’s plague of mass incarceration let alone the Native American genocide. That doesn’t at all minimize the menace that white nationalism represents to Jews or anyone else. It does mean that anti-racists have to understand whom, and what, we’re fighting alongside and against.
There’s also a critically important global context. Ethno-supremacist nationalism, often wrapped in religion, is a spreading contagion. White nationalism (with an antisemitic flavor although most virulently anti-immigrant) is a growing factor in many European states as well as the USA. Hindu nationalism in India is a monstrous phenomenon, which requires an in-depth analysis of its own. The current coup in Bolivia has unleashed a murderous class and race war against the Indigenous population. The Brazilian Bolsonaro regime is almost explicitly exterminationist. We can look at China’s mass internment of Uighur Muslims, Burma’s ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people, the ideological role of the Russian Orthodox Church as a pillar of Putin’s presidentialist rule and imperial ambitions, and other examples.
The question is NOT which among these is “worst” — rather, it’s a spreading contagion where the various regimes’ actions enable each other. The Trump administration’s Muslim travel ban, the crimes against humanity it’s perpetrating at the Mexico border, and the state terror against immigrant communities and families, are part of this international trend as well as accelerants of it.
For the present discussion, one particularly relevant example of this malignant phenomenon is Israel’s infamous “Jewish nation-state law,” which makes its non-Jewish minority second-class citizens. Along with Israel’s annexationist acts and strangulation of the Occupied Palestinian Territories, this law is warmly endorsed by the Trump administration — and by many (though not all) “pro-Israel” Democrats. In fact, Trump’s latest executive order equating campus pro-Palestinian activism with antisemitism, on the spurious grounds that it denies “the Jewish right to self-determination,” attempts to extend this noxious doctrine into U.S. law, with an end run around the First Amendment’s protection of free speech.
It is not antisemitic to point out that the Israeli state’s claim to represent “self-determination of the Jewish people” in general is an entirely reactionary product of Zionist ideology. The world Jewish population — we aren’t speaking here of Israel, where there’s an actual Hebrew-speaking Israeli-Jewish nationality — is not a “nation” or any kind of political entity. What Jews in the USA, and internationally, share are certain religious customs or memories, some partially overlapping ethnic origins, diverse cultural affinities and histories — all aspects of Jewish identities, but none of which add up to anything like a nation, whatever Zionist ideology may claim.
Trump’s order has little to do with Jewish or any other realities. It is intended to give Kenneth Marcus and rightwing Zionist forces, under the disguise of the Civil Rights Act, a club to use against the pro-Palestinian Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions movement, and universities that refuse to ban BDS activity. The Trump administration’s claim that its designation of Jews as a “nationality” in need of protection under the 1964 Civil Rights Act is a backhanded attack on civil rights legislation as well.
The 1964 law represented a major victory of the post World War II civil rights movement. Cynically cloaking the administration’s latest attack on the BDS movement in the Civil Rights Act weakens legal protection for the minority racial, sexual, religious and national origin groups originally covered, as well as those subsequently covered such as people with disability. It will encourage more legal attacks on civil rights legislation and embolden racists everywhere.
It certainly has nothing to do with democracy or human rights, which U.S. policy shreds at will. On the very same day that the detestable Secretary of State Pompeo proclaimed Trump’s purported support for Hong Kong democracy protests, he also announced a U.S. policy that Israel’s colonial-apartheid settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories “are not per se inconsistent with international law” — showing the same contempt for the plain meaning of international law as the Trump gang shows for democratic and human rights at home.
We have to see all this for what it is — as a growing body of progressive Jews and young activists already do — and oppose it as something that’s as bad for Jews it purports to “protect” as it is for everyone else. Standing up for Palestine and supporting BDS is not separate from the global anti-racist struggle, or an optional extra. It’s a political and ethical obligation — and its growing strength is precisely why the Trump gang would like to crush it.