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The Remedy for Antisemitism is Gratitude for Liberalism

By Tal Fortgang

National media returned to a familiar storyline this past weekend, as two Harvard student organizations (the Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee and the African and African American Resistance Organization) and Faculty and Staff for Justice in Palestine apologized for promoting what it admits was anti-Semitic imagery. In an Instagram post linking the Palestinian cause to American race politics, the groups included a 1960s-vintage image of hand stamped with a Star of David and a dollar sign holding nooses around the necks of Egyptian ruler Gamal Nasser and the boxer Muhammad Ali.

  Despite their apology, the groups declined to take responsibility for their misstep or to reflect on why such an image would even accidentally end up on their poster. The incident highlighted once more that an ascendant suite of far-left ideas fixated on identity, power, and liberation led to viciously bigoted results. It is now more widely acknowledged than ever that the left has an anti-semitism problem. But what is often harder to see, especially for my fellow Jews, is that this is not because the left is animated by hatred of Jews, per se, or even of Israel. Instead, anti-semitism is the logical conclusion of contemporary leftism’s opposition to modernity, liberalism, and capitalism.

  This hatred is the inverse of an older form of anti-semitism, in which Jews were seen as subversive of Christian civilization. Rather than posing as defenders of established order, however, today’s identarian leftists aim to roll back world history, which they regard as a chronicle of ceaseless injustice. What both iterations of anti-semitism share is hostility to the engines of social, cultural, and economic mobility that have defined the modern West. For reasons both theological and social, old-world anti-semites saw the Jews as undermining traditional social and economic arrangements. Looking back on how modernity has unfolded, today’s leftists, who glorify “indigeneity” and denounce capitalism, have concluded much the same. Even where personal animus is absent, those who indulge this hostility to the liberal West  inevitably end up hating Jews because Jews exemplify the mobility that defines it.

  After all, Jews wandered in exile for millennia, yet on average have enjoyed extraordinary success in modern times. By the logic of the left, they must have exploited someone along the way. Just as Robin DiAngelo trains us to see pervasive racial oppression in every facet of American life (“The question is not ‘did racism take place?’” she writes, “but rather ‘how did racism manifest in that situation?’”), those whose ideology elevates indigeneity and anti-capitalism project that pervasiveness onto history.

  The notion of permanent and pervasive oppression is not limited to race, either. Critical analyses focus instead on identifying the “axes of oppression” that operate in the background of all human interactions between individuals from different identity groups. Every exchange of goods, services, or ideas is therefore tainted. Even if both parties think an interaction is mutually beneficial, it is, to the identitarian, in some way exploitative.  

  To credit the Jews for their own success is to admit that political and economic liberalism do not represent exploitation by another name, but in fact offer unparalleled opportunities to the “marginalized.” This is nothing short than an admission that the identitarian worldview is wrong. Resistance to this notion helps explain why progressive activists insist that Jews are part of the “oppressor” or “ownership” class who benefit from exploitation rather than because Jews have developed knowledge, skills, or resources that are genuinely valuable to others. 

  By treating success as evidence of oppression, many of today’s progressives are disciples of Karl Marx, who wrote that Jews’ “worldly religion” is “huckstering.” But they have gone beyond Marx’s materialist explanation of history, towards a rejection of coexistence itself. The goal of this movement is not to live together in a classless, cosmopolitan society, as Marx hoped. Instead, it is to return everyone to their proper places, where they were before the injustices of mobility began. In one sense, this is a vision of geographic restoration: Europeans must go back to Europe. But it is also a dream of political retribution: Jews must go back to powerlessness.

  Even liberal critics of “wokeness”, DEI, or CRT struggle to identify this component of the progressive left. The political scientist Yascha Mounk and his new book The Identity Trap are a case in point. Mounk argues that what he calls the “identity synthesis” lures well-meaning young people by promising to fulfill their “noble ambition: to remedy the serious injustices that continue to characterize every country in the world, including the United States.”  This is a trap, Mounk contends, because it tends “to create a society composed of warring tribes rather than cooperating compatriots.”

  The problem with this analysis is that a “noble ambition” doesn’t explain the enthusiasm for Hamas or the Houthis displayed on many campuses and city streets today. People yearning for peace do not call for a “globalized intifada,” invoking with glee the terror campaign that claimed thousands of civilian lives while announcing their intent to liberate “Occupied Turtle Island”—their name for North America. For Mounk and other heterodox liberals, progressive excesses are just that – an excess of liberalism in pursuit of genuine progress. They do not see that these movements turn against Jews because they also reject liberalism, not because they take it too seriously.

  The only way to defend liberalism against these radical opponents is to balance it with a dose of conservatism. Anti-Western movements thrive among ingrates. Only those who have no sense of the good modernity has wrought could adopt a revanchist politics that aims to undo modernity itself. Without inculcating gratitude for the miraculously free, fair, prosperous, and peaceful epoch in which we live, without skepticism of the pursuit of the untried to improve upon the balance of freedom and order that we’ve already achieved, the West cannot long resist efforts to overhaul its most basic components. Because Jews have contributed so much to the successes of modernity, and seem to stand for its core characteristics in the Western subconscious, a more conservative liberalism will also be more resistant to anti-semitism.

  For the last several decades, America’s universities have played a leading role in breaking down these defenses. It is no coincidence that so many are under investigation for countenancing anti-Jewish aggression. Now is their chance to reverse course and protect the societies and civilization that that created them.

Tal Fortgang is an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute and recent graduate of NYU Law.


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