Trump and the Resurgence of Antisemitism

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I composed the following reflections-in-progress in the first week after the election in order to address the sudden prominence of antisemitism in mainstream American politics. Unfortunately, nothing that has happened since then leads me to think that these tentative thoughts have lost their relevance:

I have to admit I’m genuinely shocked by the extensive use of antisemitic—and even Nazi—rhetoric and insinuation by Trump, his advisors, and his supporters as part of their racist arsenal, and by the prominent place that antisemites (e.g. Steve Bannon) are going to have in the Trump administration. I don’t feel personally threatened (yet)—as I know members of other groups targeted by Trump have already been—but I am worried about what these indications foreshadow about the political movement that is taking power. Besides being a reason for grave concern—together with all the other frightening dimensions of Trump’s campaign and what it has unleashed and will unleash in the coming months and years—I believe there are at least two dimensions of these manifestations of antisemitism that are worth considering in more depth as we respond to the new regime.

First, I think we need to understand why antisemitism has so prominently joined other forms of hatred and prejudice in the current moment. My intuition and hypothesis is that the prominence of antisemitism may be key to understanding—and synthesizing—the argument that has been circulating about whether Trump’s victory has more to do with race or class (or gender). Among the forms of racism, antisemitism has often represented a kind of short-circuit between questions of race and questions of economics. Following a suggestion from Nikhil Singh, I returned to an interview by the social theorist Moishe Postone, where he has this to say about antisemitism:

“Anti-Semitism differs from most other essentializing forms of discourse, such as racism, by virtue of its apparently antihegemonic, antiglobal character. At its heart is the notion of the Jews as constituting a powerful, secret, international conspiracy. I regard it as a fetishized form of anticapitalism. Anti-Semitism misrecognizes the abstract domination of capital—which subjects people to abstract mysterious forces they cannot perceive, much less control—as the domination of international Jewry” (South Atlantic Quarterly, Spring 2009, p. 326).

It is via antisemitism, in other words, that dominant forms of racism and hatred can come to take on an allegedly anti-establishment, anti-elitist valence and become a mobilizing force among those who are—or feel themselves to be—victims of a global order out of their control: it is the “socialism of fools,” in August Bebel’s memorable phrase. There is also a strong gender dimension to antisemitism that is probably relevant to the forms of nationalist and nativist masculinity that are circulating prominently right now.

Second, although this is a frightening moment in so many ways, I think the forthrightness of the Trump movement’s antisemitism represents a wake-up call that we need to take as an opportunity for political mobilization. In the US (and elsewhere) in recent years, the relation of antisemitism to other forms of racism has been a sticking point in progressive mobilization (especially, but not only on college campuses), largely because of controversies having to do with Israel (controversies that obviously will not go away any time soon). But the proximity of the Trump movement’s antisemitism to its virulent anti-black, anti-brown, and anti-immigrant racism as well as its homophobia and sexism creates the opportunity to extend solidarities and create new coalitions. There is nothing easy or inevitable about these solidarities and coalitions, but I believe we have no choice other than undertaking the effort to create them—and I believe the current context provides fertile ground for their cultivation.

My second hypothesis is thus that attempts to mobilize against the Trump movement will be more successful when they include a strong analysis of and opposition to antisemitism. Principled opposition to antisemitism can be an important element (among many others) in the creation of a new left movement that takes back the critique of elites and of capital from the reactionary forces that have successfully mobilized it in the various global populist movements.

As I have been thinking about these issues, the well-known passage from Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks came to mind, in which he talks about the relationship between antisemitism and anti-black racism:

“At first thought it may seem strange that the anti-Semite’s outlook should be related to that of the Negro-phobe. It was my philosophy professor, a native of the Antilles, who recalled the fact to me one day: ‘Whenever you hear anyone abuse the Jews, pay attention, because he is talking about you.’ And I found that he was universally right—by which I meant that I was answerable in my body in my heart for what was done to my brother. Later I realized that he meant, quite simply, an anti-Semite is inevitably anti-Negro.”

This analysis is no doubt too straightforward in downplaying the contradictions and prejudices harbored even by minority groups, but I am tempted to suggest that in our current state there is a message here for everyone about the intersecting nature of today’s struggles. Those of us who are Jewish—or concerned about questions of antisemitism—may also want to think about reversing Fanon’s teacher’s dictum in the light of recent events:

“Whenever you hear anyone abuse [black people, immigrants, queers, etc.], pay attention, because he is talking about you.”

January 4, 2017

Originally posted November 15, 2016 at

Michael Rothberg teaches English and Comparative Literature, and Holocaust studies at UCLA. He taught 2001-2016 at UIUC. As head of the English department and executive committee member of the Program in Jewish Culture and Society, he was a staunch supporter of Steven Salaita’s bid for a job at UIUC.

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