Divide and Conquer

One old ploy of power is to divide its opponents. Sometimes on the left we do that to ourselves. The politics of identity has provided the right with many opportunities to exploit the inherent weaknesses of the contemporary left. Identity politics without interaction and action among those identifying with a particular left political, social, or economic movement or interests is a recipe for defeat and as we know from our history on the left we have an uncanny ability to pluck defeat out of the jaws of victory with a nod to the late protester Abbie Hoffman. Our biggest weakness now is our lack of numbers compared to the left of the 20th century. We’re missing people who want a better world and will sometimes act, even demonstrably, to bring about that world. Many whistleblowers on the left are examples of that risk taking. A look at how whistleblowers are treated now by those who hold the reins of power is much more than a cautionary tale. As power, especially economic and political power, becomes solidified, the warning signs go up for the left.

Two protest actions of the past several years have had all the elements of divide and conquer written on them. The Women’s March (New York Times, September 18, 2019) fell apart when issues of alleged anti-Semitism reached the mass media who love to exploit any perceived or real fissures within the remnants of the organized left.

Recall how effective the right is at slandering and libeling Jews on the political left who criticize Israel vis-à-vis its treatment of the Palestinian people. The false claims of self-loathing Jews and self-hating Jews are as old as the movement for the liberation of the Palestinian people.

More recently, the Rage Against the War Machine (LA Progressive, February 7, 2023) protest against the Ukraine proxy war was met with universal condemnation in the mass media and criticisms of some groups and individuals who came to the rally in Washington, D.C. When only a few thousand showed up at that rally, the right had achieved its goal once again of finding fissures in the left and exploiting those weaknesses to its benefit. The proxy war in Ukraine goes on unabated at this writing with massive windfall profits for the weapons industry and the fossil fuel industry, industries that have brought the planet to its knees with climate destruction and the real threat of nuclear war. Attempts were made to raise the issue of anti-Semitism of some groups and speakers at the rally. There were members of a hard-right group linked to the Libertarian Party that was sanctioned to have an information table at the rally (“The forces behind the “Rage Against the War Machine” rally: Libertarian Party turns to anti-Semites and the fascist right,” World Socialist Web Site, March 2, 2023). Criticism of those who oppose left humanitarian ideals is warranted. The latter is not guilt by association as witnessed during  McCarthyism, but rather, an honest discussion of what remains of the antiwar movement and its inherent weaknesses in the face of extreme militarism.

Two historical facts stand out in the consideration of anti-Semitism in the US. The first was the Holocaust, the direct result of 2,000 years of anti-Semitism. The US did almost nothing in the face of those seeking refuge from the madman Hitler. McCarthyism and the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were obvious nods of the right to anti-Semitism.

Following World War II, the US became an outspoken supporter of the creation of Israel, support that has become ironic given the repression of the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and the increasingly rightward move of Israel’s government under Benjamin Netanyahu. The US, which could have been an honest broker for the creation of a Palestinian state, or the recognition of full human rights of the Palestinian people and others in Israel, instead has used Israel as its prime spokesperson and actor in the political and warring mayhem that has enveloped much of the Middle East. The US is not alone in supporting the regressive political environment of many Middle Eastern countries. The politics of empire and oil trump other issues.

Here is a comprehensive study of trends in contemporary anti-Semitism in the US published by the Pew Research Center in 2021, based on 2020 data. Many Jews in the US see contemporary anti-Semitism rising in the US.

Subjective information about anti-Semitism may be helpful in parsing anti-Semitism on the left. I witnessed plenty of anti-Semitism in my years working and living in Rhode Island, and some, but a lesser amount, in Massachusetts and New York. My single significant direct experience with a leftist who was anti-Semitic came from a visit to a recognized leader of a left group in Rhode Island during the 1980s. While on a visit to that person’s home, along with a friend from graduate school who was visiting, the leader of that peace group attacked my friend verbally for having gone on a trip to Israel. What struck me about the verbal assault was that my friend was severely physically challenged and may not have even heard some of the verbal barbs sent his way, as he is also hearing challenged.

A second incident took place with yet another leader of a second peace group in Rhode Island. This incident was more garden-variety anti-Semitism, but still worthy of comment. One activist in the group, a Jewish person, had provided space to our group to store medicines and related material that would be shipped to Central America during the 1980s when the Reagan administration waged wars there. Chickens on the property where the medicines were stored got into some of the shipping boxes and left a general mess. I understand why the group’s leader was so incensed with this incident since he had spent months helping collect the medicines. He made anti-Semitic remarks while I was friends with him. The leader of the group had made comments about the person whose property was used to store the medicines. As mentioned, this incident was less substantive than the remarks made to my friend, but the leader of the group which collected medicines was not shy about his anti-Semitic remarks. He once asked one of my family members why she wasn’t Christian. She was 10 years old at that time.

The growth of the far right in the US since Reaganism in the 1980s, although its precursors came much earlier in US history, has led in a direct line to both the murder and right-wing propaganda against Jews in the US. Reagan hated everything about the political left, was a willing participant as a professional actor during McCarthyism, and stood in a long line of unquestioning support for Israel and its regressive treatment of the Palestinian people. McCarthyism was an anti-Semitic movement in that many left-wing Jews were targeted, both in their work and in left political movements. That Trump unleashed a monologue warning Jews (Reuters, October 17, 2022) as a group that they better support both him and Israel is an example of the manifestation of US anti-Semitism. The chants of “Jews will not replace us” during the “Unite the Right” demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, which led to the murder of a politically left protester, Heather Heyer, and the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, are among the examples of how lethal and far-reaching anti-Semitism is.

One of the foremost sources of information about anti-Semitism today, and in the past, the Anti-Defamation League, is also a tireless supporter of contemporary Zionism. Only now, with the far right and draconian actions of the Netanyahu regime in Israel, is the Anti-Defamation League reconsidering its decades of unquestioned support for Israel.

Growing up in a small town in New England, and coming of age during the rise of the New Left and the antiwar movement, I never witnessed anti-Semitism. I knew about the Holocaust, since no Jew was untouched by its horror. The town in which I came of age seemed to typify the ethos of live and let live. But here is an Anti-Defamation League study that appeared in the Boston Globe about multiple kinds of hate in New England with data that supports the Pew Research Center’s findings cited above. This data is more in line with the anti-Semitism I experienced in the work environment.

Toward the end of the Vietnam antiwar movement, there was an increased interest by the New Left about issues relating to the Palestinian people in both the Gaza Strip and West Bank. The New Left was accurate in its portrayal of what Israel had done to Palestinians and Arabs in the Middle East, but it was how a segment of the New Left portrayed Israel as the absolute worst actor against human rights in the world that raised concern. Saudi Arabia and other nation states and actors in some Middle East states come to mind when considering how the attacks against contemporary human rights and human suffering are considered.

There has been a demonstrative rise in anti-Semitism in many of the states in Eastern Europe. This is not to dismiss Israel’s egregious wrongdoing, yet Israel is one among many states taking part in the inhumane treatment of people. Historically, some Zionists had systematically violated the rights of Palestinians and others since the Balfour Declaration of 1917, to support the establishment of  “a national home for the Jewish people.” In terms of its treatment of an indigenous population, the US stands out for its mistreatment, brutalizing, and murder of Native Americans as exponentially worse.

It seemed to me, as a Jew and member of the New Left, that the plight of Palestinians in the Middle East was most important, but was dwarfed, or stood side by side, with the other outrages of empire that the US and its allies perpetrated. Much of the mayhem in the Middle East came from individual countries where representative democracy and human rights were a distant ideal, or missing. Oil and the dictates of geopolitical brute force were apparent.

An egregious example of anti-Semitism on the left took place at a rally on the Boston Common during the 2003 war in Iraq. My wife and I traveled to Boston to take part in the rally. The first speaker at that rally began with a monologue against “Jews,” who she seemed to hold as responsible for many evils. The latter was very atypical of speakers and spokespersons on the left then, and Jews made up a sizable segment of left politics in the US. We, and many others, left the rally as the speaker continued her assault. We found ourselves in Cambridge on Massachusetts Avenue standing outside of a convenience store looking at each other in disbelief. This never happened before and has not happened since, but to say we were traumatized after traveling a relatively long distance to attend the rally is obvious.

I believe that the left is less anti-Semitic than the rest of society because of its high level of education and commitment to a newer and better world, but anti-Semitism does exist on the left.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).