In December 2020, The Forward, a national Jewish weekly, published a series of essays about a dispute between an author, Marc Dollinger, and his editors at Brandeis University Press. This argument concerned a new preface Dollinger had prepared for a second edition of his book Black Power, Jewish Politics (2018). In the new preface, Dollinger suggested, among other things, that Jews need to consider the ways in which they are implicated in the “white supremacy” constitutive of American society. (I add scare quotes around white supremacy, because the term itself has undergone some contestation of late.) A reader’s review of the preface took strong issue with the use of the term “white supremacy” in regards to American Jews; the press decided not to publish the preface, and returned the publications rights to Dollinger to publish his second edition with the new preface elsewhere. The story is relevant here because of the way a term like “white supremacy” can evoke such negative reactions, even at a university press.
In popular parlance, “white supremacy” had once been associated only with white supremacists or white nationalists—that is, people like David Duke, who actively promote an ideology that America is a white Christian country by design and that anyone who challenges this is un-American. But more recently, it has become common even in the public square to use the term “white supremacy” in the more analytical sense that it is used by critical race theorists. Even Teen Vogue recently published an article about white supremacy.
Using this analytical sense, one can call America a white supremacist society without suggesting that all white Americans are white supremacists, just as one call can America a misogynist society without accusing all Americans of misogyny. As popularized by Ta-Nahisi Coates in his essays in The Atlantic Monthly, this sense of “white supremacy” describes the very template of America: a society not only founded on slavery, but on a fundamental notion of anti-Blackness.
This use of the term “white supremacy” is thus akin to terms like “structural racism” or “systemic racism.” But “white supremacy” suggests that more specificity is needed when referring to the systemic injustice perpetrated by white America toward its Black citizens. The problem is not merely racism, in a general sense that could apply to any negative racial attitude toward another race, but rather a constitutive negation of Blackness, predicated on the elevation of whiteness. That negation played a foundational role in the construction of American society both during slavery and since emancipation.
Where do Jews fit in this structure? This question seems to be at the heart of the controversy surrounding Dollinger’s new preface. The editors of the press took issue with Dollinger for suggesting that American Jews are in any way complicit in white supremacy. One could imagine two reasons for the exceptionalist argument against including even white or white-passing Jews here: either that Jews played a prominent role in the civil rights movement, thus putting themselves on the line against white supremacy, or that Jews are also victims of white supremacy, due to antisemitism, and thus cannot be implicated in American white supremacy. The first reason is not very convincing: Jews were certainly not the only white ethnic minority, or even the white majority, that aided Black people in their fight for civil rights. And while the Jews did play an oversized role in the civil rights movement, the story is not so clear-cut, especially the more traditional you move along the spectrum of Jewish America. The antisemitism question, though, is intriguing. What is the relationship between anti-Blackness and antisemitism in America? How are they linked, and how can one inform the other? Below, I offer some preliminary observations about how some contemporary writers understand antisemitism, and how critical race theorists, and specifically Afropessimists, distinguish anti-Blackness from racism more broadly.
This essay is a prolegomenon, meant to open up a larger discussion. The debate between Marc Dollinger and Brandeis University Press is an occasion to reflect on the nature of Jews’ response to race that also may suggest how many Jews understand antisemitism. One of the vexing dilemmas in the contemporary study of antisemitism is that, while much has been written about antisemitism, it is unclear to me how it is being understood as a phenomenon and analytic category. Is antisemitism a historical phenomenon—that is, is it the consequence of circumstances? Is it theological—that is, a divine decree? Is it ontological—that is, is antisemitism somehow wired into civilization such that it can’t be undone? Of course, it needn’t be only one of these. But in most cases these categories are implied but never fleshed out. While much writing on antisemitism speaks historically, it often gestures toward the transhistorical: antisemitism, here, there, and everywhere. And while some traditionalists want to view antisemitism as theological, or even ontological, as captured in the rabbinic adage “Esau hates Jacob” (which I’ll discuss below), most modern Jews blanch at the implications of such a theological maxim, preferring a more historical analysis focused on describing instances of antisemitism throughout history.
Of course, Jews are not the only people who struggle to make sense of their persecuted state. Critical race theorists and Afropessimists have been struggling with these very questions about categories in terms of anti-Blackness: is it historical, circumstantial, ontological? I think Jews interested in understanding antisemitism can learn much from the critical race theory discussion, certainly in how to confront the consequences of a historicized antisemitism versus a theological or ontological one. I take no position on the various theories of anti-Blackness I will briefly rehearse below. That is not the point of this essay. Rather, I suggest they offer a helpful template of possibilities for understanding difference and otherness that is relevant to Jews and the ongoing work on antisemitism.
For much of the twentieth century in America, questions of antisemitism and racism existed in parallel, only occasionally intersecting with one another. In the early 1960s, many liberal Jews became involved with the Civil Rights Movement, viewing the fight against racism as part of their “prophetic” responsibility. But in 1967, when many Black Nationalists turned against Jews (either for being white in general, or for the perceived colonial exploitation of Palestinians in Israel), the alliance between Jews and blacks began to unravel.
The so-called “Black-Jewish alliance” has undergone various phases of repair and disrepair since then. But still, most Jews write about antisemitism as if it is distinct from racism (and many want to see it that way), and most Black thinkers write about anti-Blackness as if it is distinct from antisemitism. Notably, in his book The Wretched of the Earth (which became a veritable Bible for discussions of race and anti-Blackness in an era of post-colonialism), Franz Fanon makes a quasi-comparison between antisemitism and anti-Blackness, but does so to argue that Auschwitz is categorically different from the Middle Passage (the slave trade route that brought Africans to the American continent). Fanon writes:
Jews went into Auschwitz and came out as Jews. Africans went into the ships and came out as Blacks. The former is a Human holocaust; the latter is a Human and a metaphysical holocaust. This is why it makes little sense to attempt an analogy: the Jews have the Dead (the Muselmann) among them; the Dead have the Blacks among them.
This stark and categorical contrast is not meant to deny and disparage Jewish suffering, but to liken the notion of anti-Blackness to what some racial theorists have called a “political ontology” and not just a matter of historical circumstance. What is meant by political ontology, as George Weddington notes, is to describe “blackness not as solely a question of difference, but of a political positionality that exists outside of, but is also essential to, the construction of humanity” [italics in text]. The move to describe anti-Blackness as something beyond history, leaning into the realm of ontology, is an interesting challenge to Jews who write about antisemitism, and echoes certain strains of classical rabbinic thought and later Kabbalah on structural or essentialized difference between Jews and gentiles. While much recent writing about antisemitism focuses on its historical instantiation, very little analyzes whether antisemitism transcends historical circumstance and, if so, what that might mean.
Today, questions of antisemitism and racism (now often referred to as white supremacy) have become more intertwined. In some way, this may conform with the disagreement between Dollinger and the readers of his new preface at Brandeis University Press described above. Part of this is the result of a combination of intersectionality, the continued half-century-long Israeli occupation that includes the disenfranchisement of the Palestinian population, and the rise of critical race theory, which views anti-Blackness as something more than “systemic” or “pervasive” racism, but as a constitutive dimension of American society itself, a “white” society that includes most American Jews.
At the unmarked center of the study of both antisemitism and racism is the question of why they exist. Critical race theory grapples with that vexing question in myriad ways. But in terms of antisemitism, while the question is often asked, answers are rarely given or, I should say, the answers that are given are not compelling to me. I suggest that a deep anxiety generates the non-answers and the (to me) unsatisfactory answers that I would like to briefly explore here. To begin, it is first useful to look at Afropessimism, a particular form of critical race theory that suggests Blackness as the antithesis of Western civilization, as that which opposes the Human, as the very antithesis and negation of whiteness. Some Afropessimists call Blackness “social death” (a term adapted from the work of Orlando Patterson), meaning a condition of not being accepted as fully human, while others suggest that slavery is not the historical phenomenon of Black people as chattel, but the very foundation of western civilization: an enduring horror that still exists in different forms and will always exist as long as the society we now live in continues to exist.
So, what exactly is Afropessimism? This term is used to describe a discourse within critical race theory that shifts away from older models based on multiculturalism and the expectation of inevitable progress (e.g., the achievement of equality through rights, opportunity, access, more diversity of representation, etc.). In contrast, Afropessimism theorizes Blackness itself by claiming Blackness as a position from which to theorize. More than half a century after the civil rights movement began, individual Black people may have attained better positions within American society—even the presidency. But despite these representational changes, the general inequity in black/white wealth, health, incarceration rates, etc., remains intact. Individual successes have not solved the problems faced by Black Americans. Accordingly, Afropessimists do not focus on solving racism in relation to the individual (e.g., who is and is not a racist, who is able to overcome racism to find success) but rather theorize anti-Blackness on the principle that America is a white supremacist society, and that whiteness itself is constructed as an expression of anti-Blackness.
But asserting white supremacy and systemic inequality doesn’t quite get to the deeper claim of Afropessimists like Frank Wilderson, who goes beyond the history of slavery and its continued aftereffects on the structural privileging of white Americans in political, economic, and cultural domains. Rather than arguing for making more of a place for Black people in a society still defined by white people and whiteness, Afropessimism is about seeing the world from a position that does not ignore the anti-Blackness that undergirds whiteness, including its claim to speak neutrally or universally to what is Human. By this measure, anti-Blackness is viewed as categorically distinct from other forms of racism and bias, but also as a necessary component of white supremacy. Whiteness defines itself in contrast with Blackness, including the claim that white experiences are archetypal and universal, rather than particular. From this perspective, classical white writers are assumed to express truths about the human condition, while Black writers can only speak from their limited vantage point. As Huey Copland recently put it, “Afro-pessimism at once reveals and reckons with the modern world’s fundamentally anti-Black antagonism, which, in political-ontological terms, structurally positions the Black as the slave, the void, the site of noncapacity that makes possible whiteness, relationality, in a word, ‘the world’ itself” (“Afro-Pessimist Aesthetics,” 241).
It is in this sense that Afropessimist claims become explicitly ontological. By “ontological,” Afropessimists usually mean “politically ontological,” rather than referring to ontology as a metaphysical claim. Robert Nichols offers a cogent explanation of political ontology: “Ontology here does not refer to an essentialized structure of reality, that is, a rough synonym for metaphysics more generally. Instead it refers to a particular form of analysis, one that affirms the idea that knowledge claims about the world are also interpretations of what sorts of entities there are to be known, and simultaneously, a certain ethical positioning of the subject of knowledge in relation to the world so interpreted” (The World of Freedom, 58).
According to Wilderson, for instance, anti-Blackness is not a social dynamic, but a requisite component of social life as defined by Western ideals: the structure of the world’s semantic field is “sutured by anti-Black solidarity” (Red, White, and Black, 58). Slavery, therefore, is not simply a historical phenomenon in the past; it is a “relational dynamic” that continues to define Blackness, and in turn the very real social experience of blacks. It is not that blacks were slaves. Rather, “Blackness is coterminous with Slaveness: Blackness is social death, which is to say there never was a prior moment of plenitude, never equilibrium: never a moment of social life” (Afropessimism, 102). This notion of Blackness was born in the Middle Passage. Before that, people now referred to as Black self-identified in a myriad of different ways, including tribes, kingdoms, religions, language groups, geographies, etc. According to Wilderson, “Blackness and Slaveness are inextricably bound in such a way that whereas Slaveness can be separated from Blackness, Blackness cannot exist other than Slaveness” (Afropessimism, 42). His point is that Afropessimism is founded on an ontological claim of anti-Blackness (which he distinguishes from racism more broadly): there are Humans, and there are Blacks. “Blacks are not Human subjects, but are instead structurally inert props, implements for the execution of White and non-Black fantasies and sadomasochistic pleasures” (Afropessimism, 15). And this is part of the workings of white supremacy, as Sylvia Wynter similarly notes: Blacks are the negative opposite of the Human without which the Human could not exist; Blackness is the dehumanized Human which gives the Human its positive status (Wynter, 1994).
Afropessimists do not deny the existence, depth, and depravity of antisemitism. What they contest is that it is comparable to the Black experience. In their estimation, Auschwitz cannot be likened to the Middle Passage. Saidiya Hartman, for instance, uses the same comparison to emphasize how the enslavement of Africans was predicated on their treatment as things rather than people: “Unlike the concentration camps…which had as their intended end the extermination of a population, the Atlantic slave trade created millions of corpses, but as a corollary to the making of commodities…[I]t wasn’t possible to kill cargo or murder a thing already denied life; death was simply a part of the workings of the trade” (Lose Your Mother, 31).
The Middle Passage erased prior hereditary and local African identities, and replaced them with Blackness. “The language of race,” Hartman suggests, “developed in the context of the slave trade” and defined “the bodies that could be transformed into commodities” (Lose Your Mother, 5-6, Horne, The Dawning of the Apocalypse, 62). The Black—Hartman, Wilderson, and others claim—is thus created by violence, not merely subject to it. In other words, the Black does not exist outside of that first ontological instance. Thus the Black can never escape it with new policies or legal assurances. According to this reading, there is racism (including antisemitism), and there is anti-Blackness; the former is a historical phenomenon, the latter an ontological one. For Wilderson, there is thus no solution to anti-Blackness—not rights, not equality, not power. The only true cure would be the dismantlement of Western civilization as we know it.
There are numerous critiques of Wilderson’s assessment of Afropessimism, including from among other critical race theorists. Ontologizing anti-Blackness in a sense accedes to the white nationalist claim of white supremacy. While the liberal may blanch at the term white supremacy and its implications, the Afropessimist and the white nationalist actually agree in principle. While the Afropessimist may say white supremacy is what is, the white nationalist will say it is what it is, and what it ought to be. The Afropessimist thus challenges both black America and liberal white America by suggesting that anti-Blackness cannot be undone through sociopolitical mechanisms, even if liberalism can ameliorate Black suffering. As Wilderson would have it, you can’t bring back to life something that is already dead. Equality is not possible if the subject is not even treated as fully human. And in America, Black people will never be, can never be, fully human, because the society itself is structured on Black “social death,” which serves as the necessary foil against which to define whiteness. Some argue that with such a claim, activism itself collapses and is replaced by theory. Whatever we make of Afropessimism’s ontological move, however, it seriously challenges us to think more deeply about anti-Blackness as a constitutive element in our society: one that has not been diminished by the civil rights movement. Such a critique compels us all to consider the ways in which we have been complicit in maintaining a society rooted in white supremacy.
But what does Afropessimism have to do with antisemitism? In short, everything. The questions Wilderson, Sexton, Hartman, and Wynters (among others) wrestle with about anti-Blackness are no different than the questions Jews wrestle with about antisemitism. Where does it come from? What are its origins? When and where does it exist? Is it historical, transhistorical, or ahistorical? Is it ontological? What, if anything, can be done about it?
To my mind, scholarship on antisemitism might have something to learn from scholarship on anti-Blackness, not least how to focus less on solutions and more on why such phenomena exist and how they function on social or even civilizational levels. For, as we are seeing with yet another surge of antisemitism, it does not seem to go away depending on shifting social conditions and positions. For many antisemites, Jews are both prototypical communists and capitalists, insular and superstitious as well as nefariously globalist and godless. But what are we to make of that? Part of what is powerful about Afropessimism’s intervention, for instance, is the proposal of a thought experiment that is not solutions-based, but that focuses on theorizing anti-Blackness as a way to better understand what is at stake for Black people and what exactly constitutes whiteness. As political scientists often say, a problem can best be understood, not by positing ways to solve it, but through assessing its contours, its origins, and its reach. Often, complex problems do not have easy or quick solutions—and sometimes they have no solutions at all. In the rush to a solution, one risks not understanding the problem one is trying to solve.
Some who have written about antisemitism do not focus primarily on solutions, but rather on a deep understanding of the conditions and processes that gave rise to antisemitism in each context where it appears. Hannah Arendt’s piercing 1938 essay “Antisemitism” argues that the rise of antisemitism is in large part a product of European modernity, which, in pitting the aristocracy against the bourgeoisie, gave liberals a way to project their own self-hatred and their fear of inauthenticity onto the Jews. She writes, “The bourgeoisie understood that antisemitism was the way to cast off this odium. In the end all that is left of bourgeois traits is that they are ‘Jewish.’ In the end only Jews are crassly materialistic, unpatriotic, revolutionary, destructive, speculative, and deceitful, living only for the moment and lacking any historical ties to the nation” (“Antisemitism” 109). These were all traits the aristocracy claimed were tied to the bourgeoisie, and by shifting their locus they attempted to reunite the majority of the population in conflict with a vulnerable and exposed minority, the Jews. Arendt certainly doesn’t ignore the Christian anti-Judaism that fuels and exacerbates this animus, but she argues that it was only a second-tier support of anti-Jewish sentiment, one that arose in Germany for different, more materialistic, more structural reasons. Along these lines, David Engel’s “Away from a Definition of Anti-Semitism,” argues that the term “antisemitism” is the product of very specific conditions following Jewish emancipation in Germany, and the term should therefore not be used as a catch-all for Jewish-hatred elsewhere. He does not deny Jew-hatred in other times and places, but contests calling it “antisemitism.” That is, like Arendt in many ways, Engel wants to hyper-historicize antisemitism to avoid its ahistorical usage. According to this view, to universalize and trans-historicize historical phenomena is to misunderstand the subject of inquiry.
On the other end of the spectrum, David Patterson’s The Metaphysical Origins of Anti-Semitism argues that antisemitism is an expression of the human desire to kill God. Thus, killing Jews, God’s “chosen people,” becomes an exercise in pure anti-theology. Or, more pointedly, in a Nietzschean mode, killing Jews is killing those who ostensibly created the monotheistic God in the first place. This is an example of a radical trans-historicizing of antisemitism that uproots it from any physical conditions and places it solidly within a kind of demonic human psyche. Rather than a theological antisemitism, Patterson’s is a fully human one, expressing, perhaps, the worst elements of humanity directed at the Jew.
Meanwhile, Deborah Lipstadt’s Antisemitism: Here and Now suggests that antisemitism can be likened to a conspiracy theory whose contours consist of a circular logic that can neither be falsified nor proven. Thus there is no real way to argue with the antisemite about his/her antisemitism. Lipstadt’s notion of antisemitism as conspiracy theory also forces us to be vigilant in distinguishing reactions against Jews that may be rational from those founded on irrationality. Only the latter constitutes antisemitism. Are there rational reasons for a group to be against a segment of the Jewish population (say, Israel), or does any opposition to Jews by definition constitute irrationality? How would that compare to any group being opposed to any other group? One example Lipstadt brings is certain forms of anti-Zionism rooted in Israel’s unjust policies toward Palestinians. Collapsing anti-Zionism of all kinds with antisemitism suggests a conspiratorial motivation under the guise of a legitimate protest of injustice. In this way, anti-antisemitism that claims antisemitism is everywhere and always, that all opposition to Jews is irrational, is itself a conspiracy theory. In such an instance, the antisemite and the anti-antisemite operate in a similar conspiratorial paradigm.
Another theory comes from sociologist Zygmunt Bauman in what he calls “allosemitism” as opposed to antisemitism. Allosemitism for Bauman names a “radically ambivalent attitude” toward the “Jew,” an attitude driven by “the Jew” as something or someone who does not fit into the structures of the orderly world. Bauman notes this sometimes refers to those who would not even identify as Jews. Thus it is not against the “Jew” or Judaism per se but against those who “sit astride all the usual divides and elide all the criteria normally deployed to draw them.”
In historical approaches such as Arendt’s and Engel’s, antisemitism is a product of a complex set of conditions, and thus can be best understood only by seeing these conditions in their historical context. In a metaphysical approach like Patterson’s, there is no solution to antisemitism without radically altering human nature. And in Lipstadt’s assessment, getting at the roots of antisemitism means uncovering its conspiratorial motives. Some would argue that conspiracy theories never die because they are generated by their own circular logic. Nevertheless, honestly trying to understand what antisemitism is, and what it isn’t, remains an important step forward.
This brief, highly selective foray is simply to suggest that contemporary writers on antisemitism often find themselves wed to one of two narratives. Either antisemitism is a historical phenomenon that can thus be ameliorated or even resolved by historical contingencies; or antisemitism is ahistorical, maybe even “ontological,” which suggests it can never be solved, only managed. On this theological or ontological reading, the early rabbinic notion of “Esau hates Jacob,” originally referring to a dispute between two brothers in the Bible, eventually became universalized to include all gentiles as Esau. This theological (or ontological) rendering suggests that antisemitism is a constitutive part of Israel’s covenant with God, and thus defines their relationship with the non-Jewish peoples of the world at any and every time and place. It is even considered an illustration of Israel’s chosenness. In that register, it arguably should never be solved until the end-time, as it is an intrinsic part of God’s covenant with Israel.
Interestingly, the idea that “Esau hates Jacob” began as a historically contingent assessment of the animus of Esau/Edom/Rome toward Jacob/Israel/Jews by the rabbinic sages, and only became an ahistorical maxim of the gentiles’ (Esau) hatred of the Jews (Jacob) much later. But many contemporary Jews, and certainly many Jewish historians, are wary of such a maxim precisely because, in maximizing antisemitism, it negates any solution to it, and statically essentializes all possible parties involved. Yet the notion that antisemitism may itself be woven into the covenant is expressed in a fascinating early medieval midrash, Pesikta Zutarta on Exodus. Commenting on the episode in which Moses encounters God within the flames of a bush that burns but is not consumed, the midrash asks: “Why ‘in the bush’? Because Israel will be ensnared in the thorns of servitude in the future.” And then, getting even more linguistically granular: “Why ‘bush (s’neh)’? Because in the future Israel will receive Torah at Sinai” (from the same root as s’neh). Taking this etymological exegesis one step further, the midrash concludes: “Sinai is the language of sina (hatred), and the hatred of the gentile will descend upon Israel [because of Sinai].” This close reading of the text connects the mysterious image of the burning bush to Mt. Sinai to the ontological reality of Jew hatred. The suggestion that, in fact, Sinai is both the site of the Torah’s revelation and the germ-cell of antisemitism in this midrash speaks to the way some sages, literally or metaphorically, viewed antisemitism in metaphysical (or ontological) terms.
Many Jewish writers on antisemitism today stay methodologically within historical lines while often gesturing beyond them, in part because the historical roots of antisemitism remove it from a unique status pitting one group against another. If, however, we view antisemitism as an ahistorical or transhistorical phenomenon—something that is everywhere and always—we inadvertently make solutions impossible, reading antisemitism as a unique phenomenon woven into the fabric of pre-messianic reality. All that we can do about antisemitism, in this reading, is manage it. Here, David Patterson’s metaphysical idea of antisemitism as an attempt at deicide is as disturbing as the theological “Esau hates Jacob.” Antisemitism thus becomes the same as Wilderson’s anti-Blackness.
Afropessimism is one way that contemporary theorists of racism in America have grappled with the nature of anti-Blackness as constitutive of American (Western or even global) society. Its claim of “political ontology” as opposed to historical contingency enables us to revisit the status of Black Americans a half-century after the civil rights movement, in an era in which racism seems as dogged and as pervasive as it was in the time of Jim Crow (albeit without the legal mandate). It may be useful for Jews who care and write about antisemitism to openly confront the ontological vs. historically contingent theories of antisemitism, if only to better understand the stakes and consequences of their subject (and subjecthood). Of course, each alternative has its strengths and weaknesses. But if we refuse to seriously confront the various possibilities therein, when we talk about antisemitism, it is not quite clear what we are really talking about.
Shaul Magid is Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College and Kogod Senior Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. His two latest books are The Bible, the Talmud and the New Testament: Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik’s Commentary to the Gospel, and Piety and Rebellion: Essays in Hasidism, both published in 2019. His forthcoming book Meir Kahane: An American Jewish Radical will be published with Princeton University Press in 2021. He is presently working on a project engaging scholarship on antisemitism through the lens of critical race theory.