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What I’ve Been Thinking About Ukraine

Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine casts its long shadow over everything I do these days, even the small, mundane moments, like washing the dishes or playing backgammon with my wife. How could it not? I stand with the Ukrainian people, of course, and I have cheered their resistance is working, but I have also chosen to remain largely silent, preferring instead to learn from people far more knowledgeable and eloquent than I am on this subject. Then I read this article in The Guardian, by Jason Stanley, The Antisemitism Animating Putin’s Claim to Denazify’ Ukraine,” and I decided there are some thoughts I’d like to share. Nothing I’m about to say, of course, is immediately more important than what’s actually happening on the ground in Ukraine, but what’s happening on the ground there is taking place within a larger context we need to be paying attention to. To the degree that antisemitism plays a role in framing that context, I think we need to be paying attention to that too.

There is always the danger when Jews decide to highlight antisemitism as Stanley did, as I have just done, especially in the midst of an international crisis, that people will think some version of–and hear this in Ronald Reagan’s voice, if your memory goes back that far–“There they go again, making everything about Jewish suffering.” What Stanley highlights in his piece, however, and what most discussions of antisemitism overlook, is the danger this form of hatred poses not just to Jews, but to anyone who stands for progressive values. Central to European fascism,” Stanley writes,

is the idea that it is the Jews who are the agents of moral decay. According to European fascism, it is the Jews who bring a country under the domination of [the] (Jewish) global elite, by using the tools of liberal democracy, secular humanism, feminism and gay rights…to introduce decadence, weakness and impurity. Fascist antisemitism is racial rather than religious in origin, targeting Jews as a corrupt stateless race who seek global domination.

There is a great deal to be said about the fact that, while Christianity may not be white, whiteness is almost always understood in Christian terms–think Manifest Destiny, the The White Man’s Burden, and the legacy they have left–but what I want to focus on here is the conspiracy theory that Stanley rightly points out is at the core of the antisemite’s world view. In Why So Many People Still Don’t Understand Anti-Semitism,” Yair Rosenberg delves more deeply into the nature of this conspiracy theory–and if you read one article about antisemitism, I’d recommend you make it this one–but he also says something really important about the impact of conspiracy theories on the people who believe them. Those who embrace conspiracy theories to explain their problems,” he says, lose the ability to rationally solve them.” Rosenberg then quotes Walter Russell Mead (from Mead’s piece The BBC and The Jews’):

People who think the Jews” run the banks lose the ability to understand, much less to operate financial systems. People who think the Jews” dominate business through hidden structures can’t build or long maintain a successful modern economy. People who think the Jews” dominate politics lose their ability to interpret political events, to diagnose social evils and to organize effectively for positive change.

In the same vein, Rosenberg also quotes civil-rights activist Eric Ward:

Anti-Semitism isn’t just bigotry toward the Jewish community. It is actually utilizing bigotry toward the Jewish community in order to deconstruct democratic practices, and it does so by framing democracy as a conspiracy rather than a tool of empowerment or a functional tool of governance.

Both Mead and Ward, in other words, neither of whom are Jewish, see in antisemitism not just hatred of the Jews, but also, though they do not call it this, one of the central ideological building blocks of what Stanley calls a global fascist movement,” which he points out is becoming almost indistinguishable from (white) Christian nationalism.

One reason it’s hard to talk about antisemitism from this perspective is that it requires us to see antisemitism as its own thing, on its own terms, rather than as another flavor” of racism, which raises the specter of special pleading for the Jews that I talked about above. Difference, however–I am paraphrasing Robin Morgan from her book The Demon Lover–does not have to mean hierarchy, and it is possible we will learn far more from understanding the differences between antisemitism and other forms of hatred than we ever will from glossing those differences over, which is what usually happens.

I am reminded as I write this of watching one portion of the Women’s March after the election of Donald Trump and listening to speaker after speaker make sure to include in her comments a list of the various oppressions we” had to stand against. Not one, not even the rabbi who spoke, included antisemitism as one of those hatreds. Especially after the explicitly antisemitic rhetoric that had been coming out of Trump’s campaign, I found myself wondering who precisely we” were supposed to be. Then Angela Davis spoke and, if I remember correctly, antisemitism was one of the first forms of hated she mentioned. The order, however, is less important than the fact that she mentioned it at all.

After Davis spoke, I had to stop watching, so I don’t know whether subsequent speakers included antisemitism in their remarks or not. If Jason Stanley is right, however, and Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, whatever else it may be, is also his way of asserting himself as the acknowledged leader of [what has become] a global fascist movement”–and we know who the leader of that movement is here in the States–then we fail to follow Angela Davis’ example at our peril. All of our peril, Jews and non-Jews alike. Because if we don’t respond to the conspiratorial aspect of antisemitism forcefully and unambiguously, we will continue to allow one of the central ideological building blocks of the fascist movement to remain intact.

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