Concentrated power underpins the construction of a monolithic position for Jewish people collectively. But what appears as democratic representation is anything but.

In an important piece published by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Prof. Lila Corwin Berman highlights how and why a few organizations and their positions are made to stand in for all Jewish people: What makes them appear central and lends them legitimacy is minority wealth, not democratic majorities.

“As a historian who has written about many of these groups, I can tell you that every claim to be the united front, the central address, the singular American Jewish organization has rested on the surety that most American Jews believed no such thing. Indeed, words that posture such a “mainstream” are best read as indicators of dissent, debate and fracture.”

Berman writes about the United States specifically, but the effects of this process in America are felt worldwide. And the same process or a parallel one takes place in other countries, too. Here in Germany, we also have a constructed monolithic Jewish position framed as being above controversy. But there is a difference: the power legitimizing this “mainstream” is political rather than economic; the Geman state sanctions and promotes an official representation of German Jews. But here too, this representation is not democratically legitimized: while the Central Council of Jews in Germany is rooted in Jewish communities of faith, its leadership is not democratically or transparently elected.

What is also strange in Germany — though perhaps not entirely different from the US — is how many non-Jewish Germans are passionately dedicated to upholding a constructed Jewish consensus, claiming and perhaps feeling concern for “the Jews” but incidentally serving self-interest.

Majority and democracy

Criticism like Berman's or my my own often meets a very reasonable and fair objection: “but most Jews do support these positions!” However, this is somewhat besides the point, for three reasons.

First, “mainstream” Jewish organizations do not promote these positions as a result of a deliberative democratic process; they are not formally representative.

Second, the same organization are actively involved in shaping Jewish majority opinion. They organize endless events with Zionist and largely conservative speakers while deplatforming dissenting Jewish opinions and even excluding dissenting Jews from participation in community spaces. If the same organizations then run a poll and find their efforts have borne fruit and a majority agrees with the position they have been aggressively promoting, this cannot seriously be taken to mean the position they promoted was the true position of all Jewish people to begin with.

And finally, simply put, “majority opinion” is not the same as “the opinion of all Jews”. Most≠all. But this is precisely the equation being made: Opinions which are (supposedly) held by a majority are presented as being the opinion of “the Jews” or even of “world Jewry”. Again, this is materially different from actual democratic process, in which a group deliberates and forms a collective position by a collectively agreed procedure.

However, illegitimate power structures always produce resistance. Dissent among Jewish people is growing and becoming better organized. The powerful may back the Zionist consensus to the hilt, but those of us excluded by their representation are not going anywhere, and we will not be silent! ✊🏻

I recently saw a German pseudo-leftist neoconservative complaining that the slogans announced for a Berlin demonstration were exclusive of Jewish people – due to Palestine solidarity, of course. Some of the slogans, meanwhile, simply upheld the rights of refugees. That these might not be considered pro-Jewish would have been very confusing to anyone just a few generations ago: In the 20th century, Jewish refugees were a central part of this same struggle – both as beneficiaries and as actors. Where once Jewish people and our long history of flight and persecution appeared intrinsically connected with the struggles of all persecuted people, the foundation of the Jewish ethno-state and its promise to take in any Jewish refugee, has driven a wedge deep between our particular cause and the broader universal struggle it was once a part of. Indeed, not only has the State of Israel removed the threat to most Jewish people of ever becoming stateless; in the process of its founding it has forced a new group of people into the status of stateless refugees, and has aggressively prevented their repatriation. It has further yet sought to extract itself from the universal obligation upon all states to take in refugees not of their own dominant group, clinging to its demographic-ethnic imperative to protect Jewish rights by maintaining Jewish supremacy – supremacy of arms outwards, towards the displaced Palestinian population and neighboring countries, and supremacy of numbers amongst its enfranchised subjects.

In sum, it has created the perverse situation in which one might suppose that protecting Jewish people is in tension with protecting refugees or undocumented people. And this is not some mistake in understanding the situation: it is a reflection of a reality in which the “Jewish Question” has been resolved (temporarily) in a manner that undermines universal protections of persecuted people. The same institutions ensuring Jewish people are not susceptible to becoming refugees are invested in preventing others from returning home, invested in exempting at least one country from the obligation to take in and protect refugees – thereby negating the demand that people in flight be allowed to resettle wherever they may go, the same demand once at the forefront of the struggles of Jewish people.

We must recognize that the only durable and just resolution to the plight of refugees is to universally uphold, implement, and protect the right of all people to safely flee and resettle. Providing particularistic protections for one group undermines the struggle for refugee rights writ large, and at the same time pits the persecuted against those awarded special protections, threatening those protections and undermining their viability in the long term. A historically-aware defense of Jewish rights must uphold the rights and protections of all persecuted people and reject attempts to protect only persecuted Jews, especially at the expense of other people. A defense of the State of Israel as a Jewish ethno-state, now more than ever, is fundamentally incompatible with the fight to protect all those who are persecuted as we once were, as we may be again some day.

Refugee protections everywhere are the only defense we will have left when the State of Israel inevitably ceases to be able to provide the special protections it has promised.

“I knew my loss / before I even learned to speak” I've been thinking a lot about this Smashing Pumpkins line. I doubt it’s what they had in mind, but it really speaks to how I feel about generational trauma. I think, not to put too fine a point on it, that Germans lost something too, when their ancestors murdered away the entire life-world of our ancestors. I think they too are born into a wordless loss. Perhaps the whole world is. But I do not think they can know our loss. It might sound parochial, and maybe it is. But I suspect that every group touched by historical calamity and atrocity lives in a loss unknowable to all others, despite similarities, kinships and solidarities. Such loss is experienced only in and through a specific context. But the loss German society lives with is one that does not have space to be articulated, because the collective experiencing it is also considered responsible for it, and really shouldn't be such a whiny little shit about it, so to speak. Fair enough – but hardly healthy. I suspect a lot of Germans, admirably trying to right wrongs and empathize with their ancestors's victims, end up assuming they can know our loss. Partly because they know a lot about it, partly as a legitimate substitute for the intimately related loss they actually live with. But sometimes, I find it offensive when Germans suggest or presume they understand what Germany did to the Jews. They merely know about it. Those who did not live it cannot know it, but growing up in its wake, we know our loss – a loss I think can only be known from within.

Adorno warnte oft davor, den Antisemitismus bei seinem Wort zu nehmen. “Seine Substanz”, betonte er, hat “gar nicht an den designierten Feinden”. Es handelt sich dabei “um projektive Momente.” (Aspekte des neuen Rechtsradikalismus, 1967) Diese Projektion hallt nun bei der Antisemitismusbekämpfung wider.

Es ist kein seltenes Phänomen, dass man im Kampf gegen einen Gegner sich ihm in gewissen Dingen angleicht. (Auch das hat Adorno zuweilen erwähnt, wenn ich mich nicht irre.)

So werden die vermeintlich designierten Feinde des Antisemiten – aber nicht alle Jüd*innen der Welt gleichermaßen, sondern vor allem der Staat Israel – rein projektiv beschützt: nicht ihrer Realität wegen, sondern deswegen, was sie für einen symbolisieren. Ja, gerade diese ungleiche Beschützung des vermeintlichen jüdischen Kollektivs, die in der Tat die Beschützung des Staates Israels als Stellvertreter des vermeintlichen Kollektivs, ist an sich schon projektiv und ideologisch.

Die deutsche Israelsolidarität, in Widerhall des deutschen Antisemitismus, der mit ihr bekämpft werden soll, steht nicht mehr für die konkrete Opfer des AS ein, als er wiederum in ihnen seine Substanz findet. Sie ist genau wie er ein durchaus projektives, ideologisches Projekt.

Degrowth is a good aspiration in the abstract, but deeply contradictory as a political project.

It is formulated in the terms (growth) of an economic system (capitalism) which would spiral into crisis if degrowth were implemented as policy, even moderately and gradually.

It is of course true, and crucial, that unbridled economic expansion is incompatible with planetary boundaries. But macroeconomic “growth” is an aggregate indicator of the expansion of individual firms – expansion necessary for them to survive within capitalism. Firms which cease expanding risk being wiped out in competition, sooner or later.

As a result, actually implementing degrowth requires some centralized power overriding the narrow interests of capitalist enterprises.

The private sector can coordinate perfectly well where its interests are concerned – this is what states do. But on the aggregate level, a market economy which ceases expanding – let alone one which begins contracting – enters crisis, threatening business collectively.

So despite the collective, global, long-term interest in a stable-state world economy, making degrowth into policy means clashing directly with the interests of business, both on an individual level (reining in competition) and collectively (contracting the market).

Clashing with the individual and collective interests of business is of course, Good Actually. But it seems to me that like some approaches labeled “post-capitalism”, degrowth hopes to beat the capitalists behind their backs, without open class war. This is a tragic illusion.

While some representatives of business are certainly conscious of the necessity of stabilizing the climate and preserving natural resources, the owning class as a whole will not willingly relinquish power – which is the political meaning of reining in the market.

The climate crisis is class war. We cannot win it by making believe it is not. We cannot overcome the systemic imperatives of capitalism behind the back of the capitalists. We must openly confront this existential threat to human civilization.

One of the most insidious effects of capitalist society is how it gently silences the voices of the people it hurts most. Nobody forbids the poor and downtrodden from speaking, but they systematically lack the means of making their suffering heard. We all know there are many people living in poverty, enjoying little of the freedoms liberalism stands for; but their suffering can seem abstract and virtual, because we rarely get to hear from them, and we're flooded with the views and experiences of the better-off.

Modern politics is often understood as a trade-off between equality and freedom, with liberalism leaning towards freedom. To its supporters, freedom is a more palpable, real experience than the lack of equality, because its worst effects are kept out of view. After the end of the Soviet Union, you often hear about the great effects of increased freedom – which are real, and important. But you hear much less about the life-shattering effects of increased poverty, which are no less real, and potentially more important.

Inequality should concern freedom-lovers deeply. What many forget – and it's hard to hold onto mentally, with a media lanscape and cultural narrative biased against remembering it – is that with increased inequality, freedom is unequally distributed and enjoyed, too. If we are to do justice to the struggle for human liberation, we have to constantly keep in mind those who are excluded from it practically and economically, even if not formally or legally. Otherwise, all talk of freedom is empty, a mockery and an insult.

Skizzenhafte Gedanken am Rande einer Lektüre Adornos “Elemente des Antisemitismus”, These I

Progressive Jüd:innen verstehen sich selbst traditionell als bloßes Exempel des universal Menschlichen; das Othering, das sie im Abendland traditionell erlebten, durchblicken sie als oktroyiert, da es ihr Selbstverständnis und ihre Subjektivität viszeral widersprechen. Aus diesem universalistischen Selbstverständnis haben Generationen progressiver Jüd:innen eine Praxis der Solidarität mit anderen Menschen entwickelt, die ebenso aus der Allgemeinheit ausgeschlossen werden, an denen ebenso Gewalt strukturell verübt wird.

Manche streben dieses Verständnis der Jüd:innen von außen an, doch dafür gehen viele wieder erst vom traditionellen Standpunkt des Othering der Juden aus, um den zu verneinen. Dabei bestätigen sie beständig aber ebendiesen Ausschluss aus der Allgemeinheit, und entwickeln ein wohl kritisches Verständnis der Stellung der Juden in der Welt, das aber eine Verschiedenheit voraussetzt, wenn nur im ganz abstrakten Sinne davon, dass man eine strukturelle Deutung der Othering entwickelt, dass durch Reaktionäre tradiert wird.

People often argue Zionism once aspired to be something better than the violent, parochial State of Israel we see now. Some believe that now still, Zionism means something entirely different than that. I think a (settler-)colonial frame can help us see if this is realistic.

It’s remarkable, and problematic, how vehemently people will defend the real State of Israel not in virtue of what it is but of what it could have been, with no real expectation that it still could become that in the foreseeable future. But was the better Zionism they imagine even realistically possible in the past?

Unlike other national movements, Zionism initially lacked a territory. There was much debate between petitioning for a piece of East Africa and settling in Palestine. The very possibility of this question already makes the colonial frame in which Zionism developed clear.

Despite European colonialism’s pretension to carry science and reason to the far reaches of the earth, it was intrinsically always deeply out of touch with the reality of the lands it dominated: It did not grasp the reality of indigenous societies.

In principal, early Zionism's designs for the Jewish state were much gentler than what it would become. These ideas have been sidelined more and more throughout Israeli history, while liberal Zionists kept them alive on the margins and especially in the Western diaspora.

But these ideas were all, always, rooted in the colonial delusion that Europeans can go to some place and reshape it for the better. This delusion directly breeds violent oppression. No matter what your vision is, you can’t go somewhere people live and build a new society they aren’t interested in living in. However you go about it, barring genocide, you inevitably trigger resistance, leading to oppression, fostering further resistance, followed by harsher oppression, and so on. This is the core dynamic of settler colonialism.

Structurally, Zionism was always colonial and can’t be saved from this contradiction by good intentions.

In retrospect, it was certainly contradictory that some revolutionary socialists once supported a progressive version of Zionism. Global decolonization has long made such syntheses untenable. Support for “progressive” visions of colonization depended on the same colonial blindness of the rest of the project.

From our present vantage point, I think one can safely accuse all progressive visions of Zionism of idealism and blindness to the inherent violence of colonialism. But this accusation is not reserved for Zionism alone: most Western traditions of the left, aside from those committed to anti-imperialism, are certainly guilty of the same. Progressive Zionism is guilty of this violent distortion presicely by virtue of being of the same provenance.

That said, it would also be idealistic to see the problem now in this mythologized view of Zionism alone. Support for Israeli apartheid is rooted in the web of material interests involved in it. Mythologies like progressive Zionism serve that nexus of interests ideologically, as useful justifications, and it is in that capacity that we must take them apart – but that is at best just one small step towards decolonization.

One original premise of Zionism, which it unfortunately shared with many antisemites, is that the the effective cause of antisemitism is the mere presence of Jewish people as a minority among non-Jewish majorities. Consider the implications for contemporary support for Zionism. Consider what is involved in Western governments professing their commitment to combatting antisemitism BY supporting the State of Israel: For one, they distance themselves from the problem by posing as part of the solution. But as for instance Sai Englert has argued, the state plays a significant role in the (re)production of antisemitism. By presenting Israel as a response to Western antisemitism, Western governments also implicitly support that Zionist/antisemitic idea that the cause of antisemitism is the presence of Jewish people as a minority within a non-Jewish society. The solution: their removal! Of course, actively supporting the removal, relocation, or assisted emigration of Jews is – gladly! – entirely beyond the pale in the post-1945 world. Scarcely a respectable Western dare think it. But the 19th-century Zionist/antisemitic idea of why antisemitism happens persists. In this light, the Western dread at the possibility of losing the Israeli “solution” – that is, not having a place for all the Jews to go away to, even having some of them return – is actually an expression of antisemitism. Jewish support for it is internalized antisemitism. And there's a reason this is a primarily Western phenomenon: Any serious engagement with the place of Jewish minorities in non-Christian societies before the 1930s would put paid to the idea that the presence of a Jewish minority naturally generates murderous antisemitism. The specific ways antisemitism towards Jewish minorities in the Middle East and North Africa became a dangerous force after 1948 makes even clearer how thoroughly historical and political antisemitism is, how it is formed by living forces and interests – not by difference itself.

With increased attention to the systematic regime of racial oppression enacted by the State of Israel against Palestinians, this might be a good time to make a fine distinction: between systemic problems and essential, inherent, or natural ones.

Apartheid being ingrained in Israeli policy since its founding does not make it inherent and unchangeable in all Israeli people, and that's important.

Many of those defending Israeli policy equate calls to dismantle apartheid with calls to destroy the Jewish-Israeli population. Whether or not they mean to, they are naturalizing a structural issue.

Like its opponents, some defenders of Israeli apartheid recognize that its racialization, separation, dispossession, and oppression are inseparable from the State of Israel and also deeply structure Israeli society. But they are wrong to think it must be so.

To see a problem as structural means to expect it will be extremely difficult to solve. But to attribute a structural problem to nature — a people's “essence”, “the way things are”, “the only real option” — is to call it unsolvable, therefore perhaps a non-problem.

Structures of oppression are often naturalized by, or on behalf of, the oppressors. This serves to exculpate them and undermine efforts towards change. But it also implies a very dim view of the oppressors themselves. It means, in this case, not believing Jewish Israelis can be anything but oppressors — that liberating Palestinians means our destruction.

Considering how things have gone so far, it is understandable that many Jewish Israelis understand themselves this way and that many others take this view in order to “protect Jews”. It is also no surprise that some Palestinians reach the conclusion that cruelty is our nature as Israelis and/or Jews. What else has their experience demonstrated?

Yet either way, this conclusion is wrong and deplorable. And happily, there are people in both groups which resist it.

In contrast with a mere rejection of the occupation, acknowleding the systematic nature of Israeli apartheid is distressing. It means it will be hard to end. But it also bears hope, because structures inevitably do change.

With the way things have gone so far, it's can be hard to imagine a way forward less ugly than the past. But it is part of what it means to be human to be capable of terrible atrocities and also amazing achievements. And that is one reason we are responsible to do better, to dismantle oppressive structures, to identify the ways we are implicated in dehumanizing others and do everything to undo them.

If you truly believe in the humanity of Jewish Israelis, you must believe in our capacity to change beyond current structures, in our potential to be more than either helpless victims or cruel oppressors. I know we can be. Despite it all.