The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere – A Left-Wing Approach to Anti-Semitism

I want to share here with the Brandeis community one of my favorite pieces written on the matter of anti-Semitism within left-wing movements. Unlike most commentaries on this matter, it actually comes from the left.

It’s a pamphlet entitled: The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere: Making Resistance to Antisemitism Part of All of Our Movements by April Rosenblum. The pamphlet is 32 pages long, but it’s an easy and fast read that I really think is worth it. Myself I am a left-wing student of Jewish History and have found this pamphlet highly informative, interesting and useful.

The right wing frequently likes to claim that opposition to Zionism and opposition to Israel’s policies is simply anti-Semitism in disguise. For those of us who are critics of Israel and are active Jews this can be very frustrating. Also frustrating however is when we attend demonstrations that are mostly ideologically in line with our views, only to find ourselves intimated by some real anti-Semitism. We dare not challenge it, lest we be accused of being like those right-wingers who simply paint everyone with that broad brush.

A lot of the problem lies in the fact that people assume all forms of oppression look somewhat alike. Anyone can clearly see that Jews in America have quite a lot of privilege. Most of us are white and upper-middle class. We are overrepresented, proportionally speaking, in politics, business, media, and other fields that have significant impact on society. If we try to compare the experience of Jews in America to blacks in America, it is quite clear who has more privilege in most circumstances.

But not all oppression works the same; oppression against blacks clearly works to deny privilege and power to blacks, but oppression against Jews relies on the fact that Jews have power and privilege in society. Throughout European history, the Jews have been attacked for having “too much power.” To be able to point at that fact that Jews have power in society does not disprove the existence of anti-Semitism. On the contrary, it proves that anti-Semitism has the potential to be just as alive and well as ever.

For me, the most important point to take away from this pamphlet is the fact that the ruling class uses anti-Semitism as a shield. They use it as a tool to misdirect the working class. This was true all over Europe for centuries. In medieval Poland, there were no such things as citizens, everyone, Jewish and non-Jewish were subjects of the szlachta, or noble class. The non-Jews were used as peasants, while the Jews were assigned to roles like tax collecting, rent collecting, toll collecting, money lending, inn keeping, and other such occupations. To the peasants, who probably never saw the nobles who ruled them ever in their lives – Jews were the face of power. It is not too surprising then that for hundreds of years Poles believed Jews had too much power in Poland – even in the post-Holocaust era when there were hardly any Jews at all! Even today in Poland, figurines and paintings of Jews counting money or holding moneybags are quite popular – they’re sold as good luck charms.

We must remember that many pogroms so distinctly remembered in Jewish History were actually peasant uprisings. Peasants, fed up with their situation, taking their anger out on the visible face of power, rather than the real oppressors. In that sense, anti-Semitism worked, it stopped people from overthrowing the ruling classes by channeling their anger onto someone else.

Anti-Semitism should serve as a reminder to everyone on the left that it is too easy for us to make enemies with people we really should be in solidarity with. We see other manifestations of this phenomenon in different forms today in America – poor white people are pitted against poor black people who are pitted against Latinos and gays. In Israel-Palestine we see this too – we see two peoples, both victims of capitalist oppression locked in conflict. Racism, homophobia, xenophobia, anti-Semitism: these are all simply ways to keep people from really seeing what is causing their problems (hint: its capitalism) and then uniting in solidarity to fix it.

Anyway, this pamphlet has a lot of information and a lot of ideas and tips about how leftists should deal with the question of anti-Semitism. A must read for all leftists.


2 thoughts on “The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere – A Left-Wing Approach to Anti-Semitism”

  1. Pretty interesting stuff. I don’t think the poor whites are pitted against Latinos and gays, as much as their heritage is sadly an antebellum one.

  2. The RULING CLASS is the problem, huh? Is that what they’re teaching you in Europe?? 😛

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