Wednesday, December 11 – or 13 Kislev in the Jewish calendar – felt unbearably surreal. I felt as if a waking nightmare had mobilized my darkest terrors as I traveled home, trapped on one delayed flight after another, to sit shiva for a beloved and respected uncle. The day before, two murderers attacked a Kosher market in Jersey City, killing four before they died in a shootout with police. On Wednesday morning, Jersey City mayor Steven Fulop confirmed our fears that it was a targeted antisemitic attack..
I lived in Jersey City until a little over a year ago. My first apartment there was a little over a mile from the site of the shooting. I can’t easily process the thought that there was an antisemitic attack, a pogrom, in what was once almost literally my backyard. And yet, I can; it’s so obvious. People – many people – hate Jews, and some of them are prepared to turn that hate into murder. Pittsburgh, Poway, Halle, the list keeps growing.
But not in Jersey City, New Jersey’s hip, funky heart, the most ethnically diverse city in America! Yes; Jersey City, my home for twelve years. What shocked me most, what makes all of this feel so surreal, is that I am not really surprised. The Haredi community the murderers targeted is of fairly recent origin. The city’s Jewish community had been in decline since long before I moved to Jersey City in 2006. Once a thriving center of Jewish life, JC saw its Jewish institutions and synagogues dwindle as their congregants moved away. The imposing shul on Grove Street is now the Sunni Rizvi Jamia Masjid.
A couple of years ago some members of the Haredi community in Brooklyn, priced out by gentrification and real-estate speculation, began to move into the city’s Greenville neighborhood. I vividly remember when I first heard about it, too. In the aftermath of the 2016 election, one of my neighbors posted a message on the Nextdoor social media site, warning of an “invasion.” She raised the alarm that “a group of Orthodox Jews in dark clothing has been seen checking out properties in the Heights and Greenville. You know what that means. We’re going to lose our city.”
I never met this neighbor, but I noted that other users – many who insisted that they were “longtime residents” (and thus presumably more entitled) – voiced their agreement. In the weeks and months following, I began to notice things that I had never seen before in JC, including swastika and SS-symbol grafitti. Some of my Muslim students at Rutgers University in nearby Newark reported incidents of racially-motivated harassment, too, and even assault. At one point, a student emailed me asking for a deadline extension on an assignment because she was at Jersey City Medical Center with her family, tending to her brother who had been beaten by racist thugs in MAGA hats.
Subsequent history has shown all-too-well that these incidents – and Charlottesville, El Paso, and the others – were neither isolated nor unrelated. Not in Jersey City, and not in any other community in America. They are our daily reality at a time when the President of the United States can shout at the top of his voice the racist and antisemitic cant that polite racists only whisper, and which legitimizes terrorist violence: “Oh, the kikes are just a bunch of greedy globalists who are loyal only to Israel and the almighty dollar. The president said so.”
The news that the president who has inspired so much of this bigotry, who gleefully told a room full of Jews that “You’re brutal killers, not nice people at all… you have to vote for me – you have no choice. You’re not gonna vote for Pocahontas, I can tell you that. You’re not gonna vote for the wealth tax…” who said neo-Nazis are “nice people,” was issuing an executive order to “combat antisemitism” on college campuses was especially surreal. In fact it is the kind of Dali-esque, watch-melting surrealism that dissolves into utter absurdity.
It is thus worth asking why such a vile, enthusiastic, and unrepentant antisemite would, as his son-in-law Jared Kushner wrote in the New York Times, take “meaningful action to crush this evil” and why a certain clique in the Jewish community would support him.
The answer is complex. Kushner signaled part of it in his article where, after briefly nodding in the direction of Jersey City, he claimed that students “continue to face anti-Semitic harassment in schools and on college campuses.” This is something of a headscratcher for anyone with even passing knowledge of the American academy, where Jews, who make up less than two percent of the general population, are disproportionately represented in the academy. We make up more than ten percent of the professoriat, for example.
Admittedly, the president’s rhetoric has encouraged his white nationalist and neo-Nazi acolytes to spread propaganda and threats on American campuses. Last year, the Anti-Defamation League published a report documenting hundreds of such incidents. Yet, while these incidents are disturbing, and are evidence of a mobilized cadre of white nationalist militants, they neither indicate that the problem is either pervasive, or that it originates on campus. According to the ADL, there were 313 incidents of campus antisemitism during the last academic year, and with the upward trend in such incidents, there will almost certainly be more this year.
That is extremely unsettling. It does not, however, necessarily follow that the problem is so prevalent that it must be solved by the extreme measure of a presidential executive order. There are almost 4,300 degree-granting institutions in the the United States, so the ADL numbers indicate that, on average, 7 percent of America’s campuses expereienced a single antisemitic incident last year. All antisemitism is bad, but these statistics, my own experience at universities in the New York and Chicago areas, and the experience of colleagues whom I have interviewed suggest that it is absolutely not, as Kusher insists, “commonplace” on campus. Indeed, Muslim students are, in fact, far more likely to face Islamophobia, yet the executive order is mute to their suffering.
A closer examination of the ADL website reveals both the lie in its report’s numbers, and the real point of the executive order. The first heading on the page entitled “Confronting Anti-Semitism and Hate on Campus” references “BDS on Campus,” the second speaks to “standing up to anti-Israel bias.” Evidently, many of the ADL’s 313 “antisemitic” incidents – perhaps most – were, in fact, criticism of or demonstrations against the State of Israel, and not harassment of Jewish students or faculty at all.
Not only does this rhetorically equate criticism of Israeli policy and advocacy for Palestinian human rights with the murder of Jews at a kosher market in Jersey city, it also suggests that the government of a foreign country deserves the same civil rights protections as African American, Latinx, and Asian American students. Perhaps more ominously, despite Kushner’s insistence the executive order does not, as initially reported, define Judaism as a nationality, it does extend Title VI protections against discrimination “on the basis of race, color or national origin” to Jewish students. Jewish is not a color and, under US law, Judaism is not a race. Implicitly, therefore, it does in fact define Judaism as a “national origin.”
The debate over the specious Zionist claim that anti-Zionism – and criticism of Israel – is antisemitism will doubtless rage on and continue to tear at the heart of disapora Jewish life. What this executive order does, however, is to empower a tiny faction within the Jewish community to leverage the awesome power of the American state to its parochial ideological ends.
The idea that Judaism is a “national origin” and that Jews are a nation, as opposed to a community that might or might not aspire to nationhood, is not an original one. The racial theorist and revisionist-Zionist leader – and ideological father of the Irgun and Lehi terrorist movements – Ze’ev Jabotinsky articulated the idea in the 1920s that the Jews were a nation, like the French and Germans, with their own Sonderweg (special destiny) and Heimat (fatherland).
The Jews, he wrote, were a distinct race among races “whose immediate nexus with the national psyche is even more clear and evident.” Perversely enough, that put Jabotinsky and his followers in complete agreement with the blood-and-soil nationalists of his era who maintained that Jews were a race apart, who belonged to their own nation, and could thus not belong to any other. Thus, Jabotinsky wrote, there “is no value in the world higher than the nation and the fatherland, there is no deity in the universe to which one should sacrifice these two most valuable jewels.”
This idea is foundational to the kind of Zionism that Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party – which claims Jabotinsky as an ideological forbear – and its most vocal surrogates on the American right, embrace unquestioningly. It is profoundly disingenuous for Kushner to insist that the executive order does not define Judaism as a nationality, since that is what he, Netanyahu, and the tiny-but-vocal clique of American Likudniks believe. Moreover, as they are the only Jews the president actually knows, this canard simply reinforces his often-expressed antisemitic belief that American Jews are (or should be) exclusively loyal to Israel.
This is what made Wednesday, this week, indeed the very condition of being a Jew in America at this moment of history, so surreal. At a time when we face an unprecedented threat of murderous antisemitic violence on the very streets where we live, go to shul, and interact with our fellow citizens, the blatantly antisemitic leader of our country, who encourages antisemites and routinely denies our American citizenship, has issued an executive order to “combat antisemitism” that does no such thing. And he does this to advance the interests of a reactionary Zionist faction who, in fact, agrees with the president and his white nationalist supporters, that a Jew’s only true allegiance is to the State of Israel.
Trump’s Jewish allies, like Kushner, are not merely Hofjuden who collaborate with the antisemite in the Oval Office in order to line their pockets; they are Zionist true-believers who see the president as a useful idiot and convenient instrument to advance their ideological aims. The executive order does nothing to protect Jewish students from antisemitism, and everything to accomplish those goals, in particular to crush BDS and the anti-Zionist left, and to silence criticism of the State of Israel.
These Hofjuden eagerly collaborate with antisemites and white nationalists, including the president and his henchmen, because their aims coincide. And they will continue to do so until they have achieved their over-arching goal, articulated a century ago by Jabotinsky, and have ushered us all into Aliyah. Then, having emptied America of Jews, they will turn out the lights, close the doors behind them, and “return” to their fatherland. This is how they defend us. That is their patriotism.