How “Anti-Racism” Morphed into “Anti-Semitism”

How “Anti-Racism” Morphed into “Anti-Semitism” January 10, 2024

The spectacle of so many progressive protesters on our campuses and city streets calling for the genocide of the Jews is disorienting.  Surely assaulting Jewish students and vandalizing Jewish businesses go against progressive values, which, up until now, have been hyper-sensitive to the mistreatment of all minority groups.

So how did “anti-racism” morph into “anti-semitism”?

Barton Swaim takes up that question in his Wall Street Journal piece (behind a paywall) entitled How ‘Antiracism’ Becomes Antisemitism with the deck, “Demonizing people in racial terms because they’re successful turns out to have consequences.”

“Past eruptions of antisemitism,” he writes, “usually arose from the need to blame someone—anyone—for the cataclysmic failures of a ruling political class.”  He argues that liberals’ failure to solve the problem of racial equality with Great Society-style social programs has led to old-fashioned scapegoating.  First of Whites and then to Jews.

He gives a great quote on both the irrationality of anti-semitism and why it keeps coming back:

As Liel Leibovitz writes in a 2021 essay for Commentary magazine: “The creative genius of Jew-hatred has always been its ability to imagine the Jew as the embodiment of whatever it is that polite society finds repulsive. That’s why Jews were condemned as both nefarious bankers controlling all the world’s money and shifty revolutionaries imperiling all capital; as both sexless creeps and oversexed lechers coming for the women and the girls; as both pathetically powerless and occultly powerful. . . . And if you decide that there’s such a thing as ‘whites’ and that they are uniquely responsible for all evils perpetrated on the innocent and downtrodden, well, the Jews must be not only of them but nestled comfortably at the top of the white-supremacist pyramid.”

Let me explain the steps by which “critical theory” becomes “Jew-hatred,” including some factors that Swaim skims over rather quickly and taking into account the sympathy for the Palestinians, which Swaim doesn’t do too much with.

Critical theory, particularly critical race theory, teaches that justice requires “equity,” which is equality of outcome.  If groups have different outcomes, this is because of injustice.  A group that is less successful is “oppressed.”  A group that is more successful is “privileged.”  And the “privileged” are the ones doing the “oppression.”

In this country, white people are privileged.  Black people are oppressed.  Many white people, of course, are progressive, so in their social and political circles they go through a ritual of “owning their privilege”; that is, acknowledging their guilt in a sort of secularized version of repentance and confession, allowing them to be absolved through penitential activism.

This creates a heightened kind of race consciousness.  The oppressed are blameless, by definition, and the oppressors are demonized, with all kinds of faults ascribed to the privileged race.  White people, for example, are stereotyped as cold and analytical.  Such qualities, therefore, should be expelled from schools and businesses in order to be inclusive of races that are emotional and intuitive.

Jews, typically (and stereotypically), are successful in both the economic and the academic worlds.  Therefore they are privileged.  Therefore they are oppressors.

In another context, Israel is a successful state in the Middle East, with a strong democracy, a prosperous economy, and a formidable military.  Therefore, Israel is privileged. The surrounding Islamic states, in contrast, are much less successful.  (The oil-rich Arab nations like Saudi Arabia and Qatar are not factored into this paradigm.)  Therefore, they are oppressed.  And privileged Israel is their oppressor.

To be sure, colonialism has always been opposed by the left, even before the reductionism of critical theory took hold.  So some on the left can claim to oppose Israel without being anti-semitic.  According to their narrative, Israel is a European colony that has occupied Palestinian land.  Now this reading of history is contested–see this and this–on the grounds that Jews were the indigenous inhabitants, that Palestinians never had sovereignty over this land, and that the founding of Israel by subdividing a British protectorate was legal according to international law.

This can be debated, but the anti-semitism comes in when the brutal murders of Israelis–including infants and children–and other atrocities by Hamas terrorists are applauded.  And, even more to the point, when non-Israeli Jews are blamed and assaulted because of what is happening in Israel.

Why are pro-Hamas mobs on university campuses targeting classmates simply because they are Jewish?  This brings us to another aspect of the left’s current “social imaginary” (a new word for worldview).  The left, both before and after critical theory, is strongly collectivist.  Instead of seeing identity in terms of what defines an individual, the left sees identity in terms of what groups people belong to.  So a Jew in America, even one who disagrees with Israel, is the same as a Jew in Israel.  Both are legitimate targets.


Photo by Andrew Ratto, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


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