What All Antisemites Can Agree On
In October, in San Antonio, a neo-Nazi group protested outside a church holding a fundraiser for Israel. “Horrified” to see them there was a member of Jewish Voice for Peace, a far-left group that was also protesting the church. These two ostensibly ideologically-opposed groups are perhaps not, as we’ll see, such strange bedfellows.
Those who follow the campus scene know that not all is well for Jewish students, especially for those who do not hate Israel. Swastikas, nasty graffiti, and hateful flyers; vandalism, even arson, against Hillels and Chabads; dorm room mezuzot and public menorahs torn down; “anti-normalization” campaigns promoting their ostracization; in May literally hundreds of academic departments and programs issuing hateful one-sided condemnations of Israel, all accompanied by frequent threats of violence from their student peers, such as this recent one from a “Diversity Senator” who proudly announced, “I want to kill every motherf**king Zionist.” It’s no surprise that a recent poll of “openly Jewish” students found that more than 65% felt unsafe on campus, 50% felt the need to hide their Jewish identity, and 10% feared physical attack. Almost 70% were aware of or had personally experienced a verbal or physical attack.
Perhaps most alarming is that the hatred is also coming from the professors.
Enter Scott Shay’s important new book, Conspiracy U. By focusing on his own alma mater, Northwestern University, Shay masterfully diagnoses the general state of today’s campus, and is actually speaking about many campuses when he remarks, in distress, that Northwestern “has enabled some of its professors to openly promote conspiracy theories” (xi). That is precisely the problem: what too many professors are promoting are “conspiracy theories,” and their institutions “enable” them. These theories, naturally, target the Jews. It is indeed no surprise that Jewish students do not feel safe when dominant campus actors openly proclaim they are part of an international cabal to perpetrate evil.
Sound far-fetched? Read on.
Stunningly, Northwestern has been home for some fifty years to Prof. Arthur Butz, whose 1976 Holocaust-denying book has gone through at least four editions in its 45 years in print. Butz claims that Zionism is a sinister movement to despoil Arabs and rob the world, that it invented the Holocaust to obtain Palestine and massive reparations, that it “framed up” the Nuremberg trials to manipulate American leaders into doing their bidding, etc. Classic, far-right, neo-Nazi conspiracy theory here, easily identified as antisemitic. Outrageous as this is, however, Butz and his ilk are not the problem: they have almost no presence on campuses.
The problem, of course, is the far-left, whose members are not merely ubiquitous on campus but largely in complete control thereof. By presenting the far-left campus ideology alongside the far-right, Shay insightfully brings out the deep structural similarities between the two. Just as today’s far-right ideology derives directly from that of the Jew-hating Nazis, today’s far-left anti-Zionism derives directly from the Jew-hating Soviets. Just as the far-right’s ideology is so clearly a “conspiracy theory,” so, too, it becomes clear, is that of the far-left. And just as the former is undeniably antisemitic, so, too, it also becomes clear, is the latter. When the left is placed next to the right as Shay has cleverly done, these conclusions become inescapable.
To illustrate, Shay focuses on Northwestern’s recently appointed Assistant Professor of Journalism, Steven W. Thrasher. From his endowed “Chair of Social Justice in Reporting” to his 2019 tweet that “any professor or academic, in ANY field, who has never taken a graduate class in ethnic or women’s or queer or Black or Native or Asian American studies … isn’t trustworthy” (147), Thrasher perfectly represents the legions of far-left faculty who dominate campuses. Shay documents the many conspiratorial claims promulgated by Thrasher and his ilk: Zionists perpetrate genocide against Palestinians, promote murdering people of color in the United States (through the “Deadly Exchange” program), manipulate American leaders to support Israel and defame and silence their opponents (by means of the all-powerful “Israel Lobby”), etc. By the time Shay is done there seems hardly any difference between the Nazis’ belief that Jews conspire to conquer the world and destroy the goyim and the far-left’s belief that Jews (code-named “Zionists”) are conspiring to conquer the world and destroy the goyim, starting with the Palestinians.
Key, of course, is that these beliefs are delusional: what makes them a “conspiracy theory” isn’t merely that they allege a conspiracy but that they are deeply divorced from reality, based on lies, misrepresentations, distortions, etc. Today, at least, no decent person takes Holocaust denial seriously enough to feel the need to actively refute it (though we remain grateful that Deborah Lipstadt, among others, has done so). That Holocaust denial violates all academic and moral norms is happily no longer up for debate. What Shay demonstrates is that decent people today really must engage in refuting the equivalent theories from the far-left, because these theories, in the end, are equally in violation of those norms and equally hateful — facts frighteningly obscured because those promulgating these antisemitic theories somehow do so in the name of “human rights and anti-racism.”
And so that’s where we are today. Jews are under attack from the right and from the left. The attack from the right is easily recognizable for what it is; the left compensates for its subtlety, particularly on campuses, by its overwhelming ubiquity. But Shay is surely right that, in the end, there’s not much difference between them. That is precisely why Jewish Voice for Peace can find itself at the same rally as the neo-Nazis. What difference there may be is well expressed by journalist Howard Lovy, who has noted that the right-wing antisemite will tell you he hates you while he murders you, while the left-wing antisemite will tell you he loves you while cheering on and empowering your murderer.
No — not much of a difference after all.
Andrew Pessin is a professor of philosophy at Connecticut College and Campus Bureau Editor of the Algemeiner.