In this reading, Carlos Sapir takes a look at the contradictory situation of Jews outside of Palestine, focusing primarily on the extent of anti-Jewish oppression in the US and the Eastern Bloc during the 20th-21st centuries. Sapir examines the ancient history of the Jewish people to examine how Zionist narratives of Jewish national-religious unity obscure a much richer and diverse historical experience. Finally, the piece closes with a brief glossary of relevant Jewish ethnic and religious subgroups, which can also be used independently from the rest of the article
The Jewish people and antisemitism in the modern context
by Carlos Sapir, 2021
The situation of Jews outside of Palestine, and particularly in the US (which today is home to the largest Jewish population outside of Palestine, comprising roughly half of all Jewish people) is rife with contradictions. While our readings on Zionism and Palestine clearly establish that the historical persecution of Jews does not license the colonization of Palestine by a Jewish-supremacist political project, the simultaneous phenomena of supremacist colonization in Palestine and varying degrees of discrimination elsewhere make the question of how to stand in solidarity with Jewish people facing antisemitism in other countries more difficult than the question of how to stand in solidarity with other groups facing oppression.
Jews in America: A partial assimilation with whiteness
While some Jewish migration began during the colonial period and early history of the US, the majority of the Jewish population in the US can trace its lineage to mass migrations of Ashkenazi Jews in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, primarily from Eastern Europe. These waves of immigration occurred at roughly the same time as immigration by other European groups, such as the Irish and Italians. The first few decades of the 20th century thus saw a Jewish American immigrant proletariat that formed ethnic enclaves in the poorer neighborhoods of major industrial cities like New York. Despite the fact that European eugenicists of the time tended to classify the “Jewish race” as a non-Caucasian group (with various scientific racists considering Jews to be either “Mongoloid” or “Negroid”), the American racial hierarchy did not formally distinguish Jews from the rest of the white population. While Jews faced informal discrimination, and while the American bourgeoisie was very resistant to Jewish (as well as Catholic) entry into the upper echelons of American society, this never reached the level of persecution faced by Black and indigenous people living in the US; white-skinned Jews living in the Jim Crow south were white as far as the police were concerned (and the small Jewish community that arrived in the antebellum south owned slaves much like their Christian counterparts). Similarly, the Jewish population was allowed to benefit from the post-war boom alongside the rest of the white population, and the relative economic prosperity coupled with McCarthyite anticommunist repression transformed the official institutions of the American Jewish community from hotbeds of socialist politics into petit-bourgeois organizations looking to lend their support to American imperialism, and eventually Israel, once the US began to fully support it in the late 1960s. While recent years have seen a significant break away from Zionism within the American Jewish population, this has been a largely grassroots shift, with the formal, bourgeois institutions of Jewish religious and cultural life in the US lagging behind their constituencies and continuing to hold a hegemonically pro-Zionist position.
Unlike their contemporary European immigrant counterparts, the Jewish population remains less assimilated into the white populace thanks to the religious divide, which reduces the amount of intermarriage between Jews and other American populations, white or otherwise. Although American bourgeois Jewish and Christian community leaders looking to build a religious opposition to communism coined the concept of a “judeochristian” cultural identity during the Cold War, this was little more than a rhetorical ploy, rather than a sincere merger of cultures or theologies. While Judaism and Christianity do have some tenets in common, from a theological perspective there is more common ground between Judaism and Islam, or Christianity and Islam, than Judaism and Christianity; from a social and political perspective, “judeochristianity” exists only in the form of either Jewish lip service to American religious norms, or Chrisitan philosemitism, a strain of Christian thought that fetishizes Jewish people and the settlement of Jewish people in Palestine as a necessary precursor for the Christian apocalypse and Jesus’s return. While philosemites make common cause with Zionist Jews, their self-serving motives make them a peculiar brand of antisemitism, rather than genuine allies of Jews at risk of oppression.
Thus, Jews remain a more salient and visible minority in the American population than other European immigrants of the same time period, and thus are more vulnerable to the exclusionary chauvinism that typically accompanies right-wing nationalist politics. While antisemtic conspiracy theories have their material roots in the economic restrictions placed on Jews in Europe in the medieval era and the nationalist upheavals of the 19th century, this body of far-right theory has been also adopted by the Klu Klux Klan and other fascistic formations in the US, claiming that Jews are engaged in a plot to infiltrate and undermine white society (hence the fascist slogan, “Jews will not replace us”). These groups are at the margins of American political life, but remain a salient threat due to both the possibility that they might grow in force, and because of their propensity for committing terrorist attacks. Jewish people in the US are thus in a relatively unique position of living largely free from economic or social discrimination, but remain threatened by vandalism and physical violence, as well as the specter of fascism. This presents a further obstacle to solidarity, as the first instinct for many Jewish institutions looking to protect themselves from antisemitic attacks is to hire armed guards or police officers, creating friction with potential solidarity partners that have principled positions against collaborating with the police.
Jews in Europe: No way back
A second complication for reconciling the Jewish position in Palestine is that, unlike other European colonial projects, there is no longer a Jewish homeland in Europe to return to following its destruction in the Holocaust. Similarly, reactionary nationalist pogroms and expulsions of Arab Jews from Iraq and North Africa in response to the establishment of Israel forced a wave of Jews to immigrate to Israel in the 1950s. The Palestinian liberation movement has long taken these special considerations into account, and thus does not raise calls for the expulsion of Jews from Palestine, but rather simply the dismantlement of the discriminatory legal apartheid that exists in Palestine. While it is likely that any just and lasting solution in Palestine would motivate some settlers to choose to emigrate rather than rebuild an equitable society, such a population flow would likely be predominantly recently-arrived settlers, and would likely head primarily towards the US, rather than back to Europe. Thus, slogans calling for the mass eviction or removal of Jews from Palestine, which are sometimes advanced by ultraleft groups, do not reflect the perspectives of the Palestinian liberation movement, and are counterproductive, presenting an image of Palestinian solidarity that is primarily vindictive, rather than liberatory.
What happened to the Jewish communists in Europe?
A final chapter of Jewish history that we have skipped over due to its lesser relevance to the situation in Palestine is the question of what happened to Holocaust survivors who did not go to Palestine. Some immigrated to other countries, particularly the US, UK and Latin America. Many Jewish communists, however, stayed in Europe, eager to play a role in rebuilding their countries under ostensibly socialist leadership. The communist parties of the eastern bloc desperately needed cadre to build socialist politics in countries such as Poland and Romania which were not liberated by a revolution from below so much as by the Red Army. While Jews were welcomed into the parties, old prejudices remained, whether in the form of genuinely bigoted communist cadre, or cadre who were worried about their regimes being seen as “Jewish” impositions on majority non-Jewish populations. Thus, in the Socialist Republic of Romania and Polish People’s Republic, Jewish cadres were kept out of public positions, or else were given inherently unpopular public roles, reminiscent of how Jews had been forced to be moneylenders and tax collectors hundreds of years prior. As the Romanian and Polish governments increasingly adopted a nationalist socialism in an effort to appeal to the majority of the population, they failed to combat antisemitism in their societies, leading to antisemitic riots during the 1950s in Poland and antisemitic purges of party members in the late 1960s (grotesquely under the pretense that the purged members were “Zionists”, lending fuel to Zionist anticommunist talking points).
Jewish communists in the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia fared a bit better than their comrades in soviet satellites. Russian society prior to the 1917 Revolution was extremely antisemitic, and the Bolsheviks took up campaigns against antisemitism that significantly improved the quality of life for Jews in the USSR, although the country’s leadership struggled with how to reconcile the diasporic nature of Jewish settlement in Eastern Europe with the other, more geographically concentrated and homogenous “nations” of the Soviet Union. Proposals for the establishment of a Jewish Autonomous Region in Crimea were abandoned during the purges of the 1930s, as essentially the entire leadership of the committee in charge of the project were purged in unrelated political disputes. A later proposal to establish a Jewish Autonomous Region in the Russian far east was put into practice and technically continues until this day as Birobidzhan, an autonomous region of Russia, but its Jewish character has largely been symbolic, and it has not had a majority Jewish population for most of its existence due to the region’s distance from both historical Jewish settlements and the economic centers of Russia more generally. Stalin’s rehabilitation of Great Russian chauvinism in Soviet society also allowed him to opportunistically make antisemtic attacks against his political rivals, with the Doctors’ Plot of 1951-1953 being the final and most notorious incident. Beginning during Stalin’s reign and continuing after his death, the combination of formal blanket bans on religious practice and de facto tolerance of Russian Orthodox Christianity meant that Jews were disproportionately affected by religious persecution compared to their Orthodox Christian counterparts (although harsher repression was reserved for Christian denominations which were associated with regional nationalist movements in Ukraine and the Baltics). A similar dynamic played out in Yugoslavia, with Jewish people and other religious minorities facing greater obstacles to religious practice than the tacitly tolerated Serbian Orthodox Church, but with Jews nevertheless enjoying material and social circumstances far surpassing the situation prior to the revolution.
Jews: One nation or many?
Although the Jewish religion makes frequent reference to a unified Jewish people, Am Yisroel, it is difficult to reconcile the totality of Jewish experience with the classical Leninist category of a “nation”, which comprises a group of people with a shared culture, language, and homeland. While there are aspects of Jewish culture and religion that are essentially universal among Jews, for most of their history, Jews have shared only a liturgical language (Ancient Hebrew), which was spoken with only limited proficiency, and did not share a common vernacular. Subgroupings of Jews in a given region would often have a Jewish dialect, such as Yiddish in Eastern Europe or Ladino in Iberia, but there has not been a common Jewish vernacular across the entirety of the Jewish population since the biblical era (if even then). Similarly, the “homeland” criterion is not fulfilled, as while the religious Jewish narrative identifies several locations in southwest Asia as homelands of a sort, the centers of the Jewish population were elsewhere for most of Judaism’s history.
To a point, addressing ancient Jewish history in the context of Palestine is a political misstep: as Marxists our understanding of right and wrong in Palestine is informed by an analysis of contemporary conditions, not pseudo-mythical land claims. That having been said, being able to understand how Zionist narratives depart from the actual historical record is valuable.
While the religious narrative of Jewish history holds that modern Jews are descended from a single family that decamped from Ur (in present-day Iraq), to a divinely ordained “promised land” in Canaan (roughly contiguous with Palestine), then to Egypt and back to Canaan, the strongest hypothesis regarding the origins of the Jewish people is that a Hebrew religion developed out of polytheistic cults practiced by Semitic-language speakers who lived at the intersection of Africa and southwest Asia. By the end of this period (~900-600 BCE), religious sites other than Jerusalem lost their prominence as neighboring empires encroached on the Hebrew kingdoms of Israel (which held territory roughly corresponding to present day southern Syria and northern Palestine) and Judah (which held territory roughly corresponding to the modern West Bank and surrounding areas). Although the religious narrative suggests direct religious continuity from the most ancient origins of Judaism to the present day, the beginning of Jewish religious practices that would be directly recognizable to Jews today occurred following the Babylonian conquest of Judah (586 BCE); an unclear proportion of Jews (named for the Kingdom of Judah) were exiled into other territories of Babylon. Following the Persian defeat of Babylon, exiled Jews were allowed to return to their former home, but most chose to stay where they were; Baghdad was arguably the global center of Jewish culture at this time, and Jewish communities in the Caucasus, Persia and Bukhara were established in this period.
The Jews who returned to Judah formed a client state of the Persian empire named Yehud Medinata, later falling under Alexander the Great’s rule. The collapse of the Alexandrian empire and its successor states led to the rise of the independent Hasmonean kingdom in Judea (the religious account of these events is commemorated in the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah), which would rule for about a century until it was deposed by the Roman Empire, and the client dynasty of Herod was established. A series of Judaean revolts against Roman rule were defeated by Roman forces. While religious and folk histories of the Jewish people typically hold that Jews were wholly exiled from Judea following the Roman defeat of the Bar Kokhba revolt in 136 CE, the historical record is that Jews were only exiled from the city of Jerusalem itself, although Jews faced severe repression under Roman rule following this event. Having lost access to the primary religious site in Jerusalem, the Judean Jewish community dispersed across the Roman Empire and beyond its borders.
The historical record for European Jewry between dispersal in Rome and the Medieval period, as well as the emergence of th Yiddish language, is unclear. Most academic hypotheses suggest that the predecessors of the Ashkenazi Jewish community spread from Rome to what is now southern Germany, and that Yiddish developed there out of the interactions between Jews and Germanic peoples, and that some of this population later shifted east to locations across Eastern Europe. A controversial counter-theory regarding Ashkenazi origins known as the Khazar hypothesis holds that the bulk of the Ashkenazi population is descended from a Turkic Khazar polity in Crimea that converted to Judaism around 800 CE, and then migrated west. It is however unclear how much of the Khazar population outside of the nobility converted to Judaism, and the hypothesis that the Khazar converts are the primary ancestors of Ashkenazi Jews is a fringe perspective. It is sometimes asserted that the Khazar hypothesis is inherently antisemitic: this is misleading, as the theory has been promoted by various Jewish historians over time, and even by some Zionists as well. Central points of th Khazar Hypothesis have however been appropriated by far-right antisemitic groups including the KKK, as it can be twisted to support a narrative of a supposed “mongoloid” origin for Jews to be counterposed against a white race (it also plays a role in some nationalist “Eurasian” historiographies of Russia). While Khazar theory was briefly popular in Arab anti-Zionist discourse in the 60s, in more recent years it has been abandoned as an unlikely tangent that distracts from stronger, more relevant political arguments.
Thus, contrary to Zionist narratives of national-religious unity, the Jewish historical record attests to a constellation of peoples. While Jerusalem and other locations in Palestine have religious and historical significance to Jews, the Zionist narrative distorts the importance of these sites to the religion and ignores other important historical centers of Jewish life.
Glossary of Jewish subgroups
The following is a glossary of Jewish subgroups relevant to political discussions about Jews in Palestine and the US:
Ashkenazi – loosely referring to Jews that trace their heritage to settlements across central and eastern europe from the medieval to modern period. Yiddish was the common language of Ashkenazi Jews for several centuries, although transmission of the language dropped significantly between the adoption of local vernacular languages such as Russian during proletarianization in the late 19th/early 20th century, the devastation of the Yiddish-speaking population in the Holocaust, and late 20th century diaspora Judaism’s Zionist embrace of modern Hebrew as a more important Jewish language to teach children. Ashkenazim make up the majority of Jews globally, and used to be further subdivided into regional groups (e.g. Litvaker Jews from Poland-Lithuania, Galitzianer Jews from Austria-Hungary) , although these subdivisions are essentially obsolete today. While significant Ashkenazi migration from Eastern Europe to the US and Latin America was well underway by the beginning of the 20th century, the Holocaust is what decisively destroyed the Ashkenazi communities of Europe, with the population’s centers of gravity moving to the US and Israel. Note that in the Israeli context, “Ashkenazim” is used to refer to people who are directly descended from the early Zionist settler establishment, distinguishing them from newer European immigrants who would still be considered Ashkenazi in diaspora Jewish contexts.
Sephardi – refers to Jews who trace their lineage back to communities expelled from Iberia in the late 15th century, and who largely settled in North Africa and the Ottoman Empire (with a minority going to locations in Western and Northern Europe, as well as colonial Latin America) following the expulsion. Their historical vernacular dialect is Ladino (Also known as Judezmo or Judeo-Spanish), although many sephardi communities adopted Judeo-Arabic instead of or in addition to Ladino following their expulsion from Spain and Portugal.
Mizrahi – Mizrahi is a term (literally “oriental” in Hebrew) invented by the Israeli government to refer to Middle Eastern Jews monolithically. This group comprises many different subgroups with little-to-no commonalities, including the ancient Jewish communities of Iraq and Iran, as well as Arab Jews from elsewhere (and in that sense there is overlap with the Sephardi population). Mizrahim were historically discriminated against in Israel due to their connections to Arab culture, at one point leading to the establishment of an Israeli Black Panther Party based in the Mizrahi community, but the Israeli political and cultural establishment was able to largely coopt the Mizrahi population into supporting the Zionist project beginning in the 1970s.
Ethiopian Jews – Also known as Beta Israel, it is unclear when the Jewish community in Ethiopia was founded, as there is little evidence to support various oral histories that identify ancient origins for the community, including the secular Ethiopian national myth that holds that the country was founded by a descendant of the biblical King Solomon. Nevertheless, they comprise a distinct Jewish subgroup that has a long history and was isolated from much of the rest of the global Jewish population until the 20th century. Historically they were subdivided into groups that spoke distinct dialects (Kayla and Qwara), although these languages lost ground to general Ethiopian languages in the 18th-20th centuries. Beginning in the 1970s, Israel secretly collaborated with the Ethiopian Derg government to expel much of the Jewish population in Ethiopia to Israel in exchange for military support. Ethiopian Jews, being visibly Black in appearance, face significant economic and social discrimination in Israeli society, and there have been recent protest movements pushing for greater acceptance of the Ethiopian Jewish population, as well as non-Jewish African asylum seekers, in Israeli society.
The spread of the Enlightenment to central and Eastern Europe had profound effects for Ashkenazi Jewish religious practice. In addition to providing an ideological justification for the integration of Jews in European society, it also created denominational splits among Jews looking to reform and secularize the religion. These splits primarily occurred in German-speaking regions, and were later imported to the US by immigrants. Today, these divisions are less relevant or even nonexistent outside of the US, but remain relevant to Jewish communal and political discourse in the US. Generally speaking, Jews across these denominational divisions consider themselves all to be fully Jewish, and may participate in Jewish community organizations that identify with a variety of groups (although this is less true for some of the more orthodox groups)
Reform – the original Enlightenment split from orthodox Judaism, it introduced the use of vernacular languages as part of religious services, ended the practice of gender-segregated seating and male-only leadership in synagogues, as well as advocating broad relaxations of religious laws. It is the largest Jewish denomination in the US, and enshrines values that are largely in line with US progressive liberalism. The Reform movement in the US originally opposed Zionism as a threat to the safety and cohesion of the American Jewish community, but adopted it as the US-Israel political alliance deepened. In recent years, Reform communities and rabbis have taken cautious steps towards normalizing criticism of Israel in Reform spaces, although the institutional leadership remains formally Zionist.
Conservative – a more traditionalist split away from Reform that maintained gender desegregation but maintains a stricter adherence to religious laws, while still maintaining an overall secular and generally liberal worldview. At times likened to “the Democratic Party at prayer”, there is a large overlap between Reform and Conservative Jewish institutions. A further split from the Conservative movement known as Reconstructionist Judaism is theologically close to Reform, although it is sometimes considered a separate denomination in its own right, promoting a reinterpretation of religious practices as “folkways” that provide a connection to tradition but are considered optional and non-binding.
Orthodox – these communities largely maintain the traditional prayer and ritual customs of Ashkenazi (and to a lesser extent Sephardi) Judaism, and typically comprise a mix of religious Jews who carefully follow religious laws and others who just prefer the traditional prayer service. The Orthodox community was originally hostile to the State of Israel, seeing its establishment as an act of blasphemy, but for the most part became fiercely Zionist following the rise of the religious right wing in Israel in the 70s. Modern Orthodox Judaism is a more secular subgroup of Orthodox Judaism that is even more strongly Zionist, with close ties to West Bank settlements. Ultra-orthodox groups are a loose grouping of insular sects that follow very strict interpretations of Jewish law; their theology can vary significantly, but they are largely identifiable by their adherence to modesty laws that effectively mandate a dress code that is superficially similar to Amish practices. Their perspectives on Zionism vary, with some ultra-orthodox groups being ardent supporters of Zionism; others, most famously the Neturei Karta, have remained hostile to Zionism. Still others largely ignore the question as a secular diversion from religious life. There is relatively little communal overlap between ultra-orthodox and Conservative/Reform groups, although Orthodox synagogues and communal spaces are a point of intersection for more and less religious Jews. Ashkenazi ultra-orthodox communities today are the largest Yiddish speaking population, although their dialect today is distinct from the dialect spoken by the majority of the early 20th century Ashkenazi population.
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