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February 11, 2014 1:43 am

A Misguided Argument About Anti-Semitism

avatar by A. Jay Adler

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This Is Not Class Warfare

In the Wall Street Journal of February 3, Harvard’s Ruth R. Wisse published an Op-Ed titled “The Dark Side of the War on ‘the One Percent.” In the article, Wisse argues for a “structural” connection between “anti-Semitism and American class conflict.” First tracing the rise of nineteenth century European anti-Semitism in the accusation that Jews took “unfair advantage of the emerging democratic order in Europe, with its promise of individual rights and competition, in order to dominate the fields of finance, culture and social ideas,” Wisse proceeds to find like grounds for potential anti-Semitic outbreak in President Obama’s and American progressives’ “sallies against Wall Street and the ‘one percent.'” She warns, therefore, against “[s]toking class envy” in a “politics of grievance directed against ‘the rich'” for fear of igniting a “politics of blame directed specifically at Jews.”

Wisse’s argument is both grievously mistaken and dangerously misguided. It is mistaken because it mischaracterizes the connection between anti-Semitism and class conflict, and it is misguided because the argument is, contrary to its concern, actually detrimental to Jewish interests.

First, when Wisse speaks of a “structural connection between a politics of blame directed specifically at Jews and a politics of grievance directed against “the rich,” she is mistaken in her use of the word “structural.” What is structural is inherent, part of the makeup of a thing. To claim that aggrieved attention to any perceived excess accumulation of wealth in a society will inevitably lead to Jews and an outbreak of anti-Semitism is oddly, inadvertently, actually to accept the anti-Semitic formulation of Jews and wealth. In any contemporary Western society, attention to wealth will at least as likely, in far greater numbers, lead the attentive to Christians, atheists and many other groups. The choice of the anti-Semitic to focus on Jews only or particularly is thus selective, not structural, a development contingent on the genuine social and psychological causes of anti-Semitism, not on a true measure of Jewish wealth and power.

Ironically, Wisse is herself selective, seemingly constructing a necessary entailment of reasons and conclusions, leading from progressive concern with gross income and wealth inequality to the incitement of anti-Semitism. Yet, just as Wisse shapes her argument by her choice of the word “structural,” so does she by her use of phraseology such as “class envy,” a “war on the one percent,” and a “politics of grievance.” The problem might well be otherwise expressed and the argument, then, otherwise viewed. Ever did those people with consider any peep of objection from those people without to be an unseemly display of envy and resentment. The Bourbons of France and the Romanovs of Russia also thought themselves set upon and, like Tom Perkins, the victims of “class warfare.”

The Bourbons and the Romanovs themselves, however, were engaged in no class warfare: they were just a feature of nature, like the course of the sun, the divine-right hand of God, or the invisible hand of the free market. (See for this last the recently passed Farm Bill.) It is not “class warfare” or envy that is stoked when state governors, like that of Wisconsin, funded by two of the wealthiest brothers in the United States, campaign (to invoke more military vocabulary) to revoke the labor rights of public employees and to set private employees with their dwindling 401k’s enviously against public-sector employees, who often enjoy the genuine pensions the resentful should wish for themselves and not seek to take from their fellows in a “politics of grievance.”

The language shapes everything. It molds the argument the writer develops. It directs the understanding of the reader to whom the argument is made. If we speak, with less bile, as I did, not of envy and grievance but of “concern with gross income and wealth inequality,” perhaps we invoke less frightening ill will. If we recall James Madison, from Federalist No. 10, who advised that “the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property” and that the “regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation,” then perhaps we sound less alarmingly revolutionary, or at least revolutionary in a reassuring and founding American way.

Yet while Wisse is mistaken in the language she employs, and her argument misshapen by that language, she is also misguided in the implications to which she leads by this argument.

The force of Wisse’s argument is to drive American Jews self-interestedly away from “progressivism.” This would be, to echo Wisse, a “dangerous” development. To clarify how, we must briefly attend to language again.

The term “progressive” like so much political nomenclature, opens a broad umbrella. It may, depending on individual usage, cover everyone on the left from moderate Democrats to full-out liberals to socialists to postcolonial culture warriors to recalcitrant Marxists. The farthest left of these, like the far right, have ugly histories with Jews. In the anti-Zionism of some today, they are no friends to Jews now. But among those who was also called progressive was the Republican President Teddy Roosevelt.

Roosevelt was the trust busting conservationist who dramatically expanded the national parks and signed into law the first federal food and drug legislation. In that spirit, it is American progressivism that gave birth over the twentieth century to the full range of labor and economic and social safety net protections on which Americans have come to rely almost as if they are – to choose a word – structural features of reality, though, of course, they are not. They are social enlightenments born not of envy and grievance, but of the progressive belief that the quality of a life – the inherent value of it – should not be measured by the quantification only of what that one life can earn for itself in the free market. It is American progressivism that brought us the civil rights era, with its continuing and expanding benefit in access and human dignity to so many different minorities, including Jews, for it is only that era that brought to a close, for instance, the Jewish quota at Wisse’s Harvard, and ensured, similarly, that I might be admitted to graduate school at Columbia University on merit and not denied entry by reason of my Jewish birth because of longstanding quotas there.

Progressivism made the America in which Jews may feel so secure. To think that American Jews should fear progressive interest in economic justice, progressive belief in what Madison gave us as the proper “regulation of these various and interfering interests” that arise from and expand “the various and unequal distribution of property” is to counsel Jews most unwisely against their own interests. For an America committed in belief and in policy to serving equity and justice will remain for Jews a secure home.

More strategically, with regard to the profound American-Jewish interest in Israel, Wisse’s misidentification would only exacerbate a problem that has indeed developed in the farther left reaches of Western progressivism. It is visible for all to see that Marxist-inspired post-nationalism has joined with postcolonial analyses of culture and power to fixate perversely on Israel and Jewish nationalism as the exemplars of what they oppose. The true current danger is that this irrational, though fashionable misunderstanding is leaking toward more moderate quarters of progressivism. We see this in the growing attention in academia, for instance, to the BDS campaign.

This growing tendency requires a response. It needs to be combated. One way to do that is to clarify both what true progressivism is and what Israel is, which is, in the latter case, despite the pressures of seven decades of conflict and of internal theocratic forces, a nation that has been from the start and remains, socially, astonishingly progressive. Israel’s enemies are enemies of all that is progressive. They are among the most retrograde and increasingly regressive societies in the world, and true progressives should be among Israel’s most natural allies.

But it is true, too, that the political desire to moderate, rather than amplify, systematically arising economic inequities will remain a defining feature of progressive political philosophy. Grossly mistaking and mischaracterizing that profoundly moral commitment as a danger to Jews would work to drive a wedge where one already needs to be removed. Israel and Jews need to work to maintain and recover allies whose sympathies should naturally be theirs, not to sever those ties by declaring those allies’ highest ideals a danger to Jewish interests.

That misguidance would be the danger to Jews.

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  • Yale

    Maybe it is time to recognize that just because the Left uses the word “progressive” for their ideas, doesn’t mean that those ideas have anything to do with progress as is more widely understood.

    The Left’s real objective today isn’t progress for anyone other than themselves; they want power and spewing the term “progressive” has been very effective at getting it for them.

  • michaelgarfinkel

    Mr. Adler wants to “clarify…what true progressivism is”, and he discusses at some length the administration of – Teddy Rosevelt!

    A lot has changed since 1909 when Teddy left the white house, and I would suggest Mr. Roosevelt had more in common with the natives of Mambasa he encountered at his safari than he would have today with the current crop of “progressives.”

    Now, I’m pleased for Mr. Adler that he was able to attend graduate school at Columbia, (although there is scant evidence that he learned how to think there), but I do feel compelled to remind him that the re-instatement of quotas – and anti-semitism, for that matter, is a deeply cherished project of the modern left, uh, progressives.

    Adler describes as “profoundly moral” the “desire to moderate, rather than amplify, systematically arising economic inequities.”


    I have listened to and observed the behavior of Obama, De blasio, and many others, and I have seen the goings-on of the “Occupy Wall Street” enthusiasts, all of whom seek to “moderate” economic inequities.

    If there is a “profound morality” at work, it has escaped me.

    What I have seen, at “Occupy Wall Street”, were enough neo-Nazi signs to warm the heart of the most fervent anti-semite.

    So, I will state the obvious: the income-equality project is fraught with danger, not the least of which is an inherent threat to personal dignity and individual liberty.

    Ruth Wisse is on to something, as usual.

  • CSBG

    Ruth Wisse is correct, but she could have gone further back in history to the role of the Church and Biblical interpretation, nor can the Romans be forgotten.
    It seems the argument put forth in this commentary above neglects the fact that we have to deal with words and their meanings as they change through abuse and misnomers.
    Progressive was a positive during TR’s time,but has come tbeen bastardized through purposeful propagandistic usage to connotate regression and arrested power by ignoring
    the US Constitution. If anything, it encompasses Socialistic philosophy, if not Communist.
    Obama and his minions are strong-arming Israel on many fronts. Anti-Semitism ,
    unquestionably, must be carefully documented through the US, Europe, and the arab/Islamic countries. The role of the Muslims cannot be underplayed, because it is they and the jihadists among them who are vilely preaching hate for the Jews. They have infiltrated the US government on many levels and have worked successfully to influence one agency after another to control language and make Islam an exception .
    They have written the Military and intel agencies guideline books for training, reportedly, and the parameters of the press in what and how something is reported.
    Their anti-Semitism calls for killing Jews, and , I believe, one of the heads of an Arabic
    country said he backs another Holocaust.

  • Simon Cordova

    I am of Mexican descent. I am not Jewish, I am Catholic. Reading this article about Ruth R. Wisse opened my eyes about how wealthy Jews perceive themselves. I had no idea they (meaning Wisse) were so willing to include themselves as part of the 1%, as I understand the 1% to be.

    Whenever I’ve thought of the 1%, Jews never came to mind. I just pictured a group of rich snobs who cared nothing of how skewed the accumulation of wealth has become. I pictured people who only cared of their own needs, the rest be damned. I pictured people who secretly relished the thought of having an advantage over poorer people.

    Adler is right in his argument. Wealthy Jews should not include themselves as part of the problem known as the 1%.

    I understand there are groups out there who will blame Jews for everything, but not everyone thinks that way. I, for one, was not raised to think that way about Jews. If you insist on the notion that all non-Jews are anti-Semitic, then you are proving Adler’s point.

    • Beatrix

      Rich people, including Jews, don’t identify themselves as belonging to the 1%. That is a dehumanizing left wing trope. The left dominated the 20th century, except for a brief period when they shared it with the Nazis, whom they now resemble, and they don’t want to let us free from 20th century rhetoric. The vast expanse of the 21st century, which they don’t understand, scares them. WW1 opened up the 20th century. Israel will probably open up the 21st century, which will hopefully be a healthier age.

  • Beatrix

    Ruth Wisse’s article resonated with me, but not the remark about average people and below hating the intelligent. Some men dislike women who are brighter than they are, and many people resent the rich, but few people resent Einstein. Most of us are in awe. However, we don’t like someone covering up a flawed argument with elegant language.

    We don’t resent intelligence, beauty or talent, unless we’re in competition with someone who outdoes us. We accept these gifts as G-d given so long as the person possessing these qualities shows us respect, too. If you’re Jewish however, the idea of Jews and money is so ingrained that some people think you have money even if you don’t.

  • This argument is silly. The antisemitism in Europe was not so much based on religious beliefs as it was/is based on envy. The Jews were blamed for the economic ills of Europe. “They have all the money and control all commerce”. Europeans were envious of the supposed Jewish wealth and that they were keeping others from attaining any wealth. Envy, envy, envy. That is exactly what the current administration is pushing now. Poor against the rich or even not so rich but earning a good living. It is an old trick of dictator wannabes.

    • Diogenes

      You underestimate the deicide libel. For centuries, Jews were persecuted not because they had money (they usually did not), but because they were held responsible for killing Jesus.

  • “It is American progressivism that brought us the civil rights era, with its continuing and expanding benefit in access and human dignity to so many different minorities, including Jews.” The Civil Rights Movement? The Jews were double crossed by the Blacks who marched in the Million Man March. I think the WSJ article was right on the money and that Jews are hated because of their success which stems from their brain power. In The Eternal Jew the Nazis pointed out how Jews started selling things from their pockets, then from a tray, then from a store then from a Department store. The people with average intelligence or below average will alway hate those smarter than them or at best be jealous of them.

    • Diogenes

      There are many stupid Jews, including those who believe that Jews are necessarily more intelligent than anyone else.

    • Prof.Lindenbrook

      Wow, your comment is so totally stereotypical of the “Greedy Jew” its almost comical. Equating financial success with mental superiority is as good as any of the old Fascist Aryan arguments for the Master Race. Okay, how about this one: The success of the Jew comes from within; a quite natural impulse of “sanguinary despotism”. And, the success is never achieved in an open and honest fashion, but rather through the employment of lies, deception, thievery, and plunder. It’s gained through parasitical means. The Jew wriggles his way in among the body of the nations and bores them hollow from inside. The weapons with which he works are untruths, calumny, poisonous infection, and disintegration – until he as ruined his hated adversary utterly and completely. Gee it felt good writing this; have a good day! (Smiley Face)

      • Michael Garfinkel

        The “professor” has enjoyed his hateful and sadistic Nazi rant.

        Let’s hope he remains a marginalized crank.

  • irving strauchler

    I am the child of two Holocaust survivors so I have a right to be a little sensitive.

    I am NOT insulted by Ruth R. Wisse Op-ed piece.

    To get an idea of how Germany sank into darkness, read Eric Larson’s award winning book “In the Garden of the Beasts”.

    Hitler and his monsters went little step by little step to demonize Jews and anyone else who stood in their way.

    Kristallnacht was just one step in the Final solution process.

    We must all be sensitive to any government program that chooses to select any group of people for “special handling” as the Germans were fond to say.

    And that includes smart, hard working, rich people too.

    • Diogenes

      Are you saying that the Obama administration singles out rich people for extermination? Your analogy is dangerous nonsense. And your assumption that rich people are smart and hard-working ignores the reality that many are not.