Last week I argued on the pages of the Jewish Journal that it is not only irresponsible but downright dangerous for Jewish studies scholars to deploy antisemitic tropes to critique Israel’s control of the stateless Palestinians.
Most notably, I rebuked the use of the phrase “Jewish supremacy” because “it evokes images of the racial war between the Jews and Western civilization forewarned by Wilhelm Marr, Houston Stewart Chamberlain and, of course, Adolf Hitler.” Whatever the context, Jewish supremacy is an antisemitic idiom.
The scholars who have used “Jewish supremacy,” such as Prof. Joshua Shanes of the College of Charleston, insist that the term is not in and of itself antisemitic.
Because he is using it to refer to what he calls Israel’s brutal occupation of Palestine and not the frequently associated Nazi conspiratorial theories. “The general trend [is] to conflate antisemitic language that portrays Israel as a substitute for Rothschild at the center of global conspiracy,” writes Shanes, “with (non-antisemitic) criticism of Israel as a state regarding what it is doing within the territory it controls. In this way, the latter – which should be open to criticism and debate - is shut down as ‘antisemitism.’”
Following the publication of my piece, Abraham Silberstein echoed Shanes in a Haaretz editorial, insisting that “Jewish supremacy,” as the anti-Zionist Left invokes it, has nothing to do with the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion: “These usages relate to conditions in today’s Jewish state, specifically in how the dominant group that controls the levers of power relates to the marginalized group(s).”
Shanes and Silberstein would have us believe it is a mere coincidence that their chosen locution is identical to David Duke’s, that other terminology to describe the Palestinian oppression could not be found. Surely social scientists have an arsenal of analytical descriptors at their disposal that would not be retweeted by Jew-haters with delight? Academics love coining terminology, yet they drew a blank in this instance, defaulting to one of the most notorious antisemitic idioms ever coined.
Emotive and deliberate
No, their usage of “Jewish supremacy” is deliberate. It is emotive, not analytical, much like calling Israel an “apartheid state,” even though the differences between Israel and apartheid South Africa outweigh the similarities. Anti-Zionists use “Jewish supremacy” to provoke outrage, erroneously believing that if enough outrage is provoked, Palestinians will be freed, or at least Diaspora Jewry will be shamed into rejecting Israel, lest they be branded supremacists themselves and face ostracism or even threats of violence.
But let’s say, for argument’s sake, that Shanes and company make a valid point. Let’s say that “supremacist” is the most apposite term they can devise to describe the ideology of Bezalel Smotrich, Itamar Ben-Gvir and even Benjamin Netanyahu. I am reasonably confident that neither Shanes nor Silberstein believe there is a global Jewish supremacist conspiracy when they impugn Israel’s right-wing leaders.
Jewish supremacy and white supremacy
MY SKEPTICISM, however, lies elsewhere, and neither Shanes nor Silberstein has refuted my other concern. “What’s even worse,” I wrote, “is that uttering ‘Jewish supremacy’ today inexorably leads one to think of ‘white supremacy.’ This is no accident, insofar as the Jewish people have been branded as white adjacent and even ‘hyper-white,’ enjoying all the benefits of (and complicity in) whiteness while simultaneously claiming to be an oppressed minority.”
For the intersectionalist Left, white supremacy and Jewish supremacy are inextricably linked. For instance, Yoav Litvin argues that “framing Zionism as Jewish and not white supremacy is a dangerous proposition.
“Early Zionists,” continues Litvin, “syncretized many aspects of European fascism, white supremacy, colonialism and messianic evangelism and had a long and sordid history of cooperating with anti-Semites, imperialists and fascists in order to promote exclusivist and expansionist agendas.”
In this sense, Jewish supremacy is a global conspiracy, but not one rooted in the apocalyptic racial war between Aryan and Jew prophesied by Marr, Chamberlain, Hitler and Duke, but one that is bound up with the ongoing imperialism of white Christendom to conquer, control and civilize the unenlightened backwards people of color.
Jewish studies scholars who defend the term “Jewish supremacy” have also endorsed this imagined relationship between global white supremacy and Jewish supremacy, albeit without Litvin’s inflammatory rhetoric.
In May 2021, more than 200 “scholars of Jewish studies and Israel studies,” including Joshua Shanes, signed a statement vilifying Israel as the sole aggressor in its brief war with Gaza, exonerating Hamas for the barrage of rockets the terrorist government deliberately launched at Israeli civilians. Going further, they neatly wrapped their condemnation of Israel in a simplistic and pernicious definition of Zionism.
The Zionist movement, they write, “was and is still shaped by settler colonial paradigms that saw land settlement as a virtuous means of solving political, economic or cultural problems, as well as modern European Enlightenment discourses that assumed a hierarchy of civilizations and adopted the premise that technological progress and development of an ‘underdeveloped’ territory would be an unqualified good.” For these scholars, the Jewish quest for national self-determination was nothing more (and nothing less) than global white imperialism driven by scientific racism.
In this sense, Shanes and 200 of his colleagues do believe in a global Jewish supremacist conspiracy, it just happens to be one in partnership with the global supremacist project that decimated Native Americans, enslaved Africans and (deliberately) provoked war between tribes and ethnic groups across the Middle East and Asia solely for the purpose of enriching “civilized” Europe and America.
Somehow the Jews – the Christ-killing pariahs of western Christendom who were later brought to near extinction in the gas chambers of Auschwitz – are nothing more than (white) European imperialists.
Jewish supremacy is a convenient locution for antisemites across the political spectrum. It plays well with those who marched in Charlottesville and those who vow to free Palestine from the River to the Sea. In both instances it brands the Jews as global, conspiratorial and the beneficiaries of historical processes aimed at displacing, subjugating and even decimating those deemed culturally inferior. It is the dark side of our chosenness.
Its presence in Jewish studies should be limited to textbooks and courses on antisemitism. Instead, more than 200 credentialed experts in Jewish history have appropriated this abhorrent idiom for the avowed purpose of liberating Palestine.
“It is remarkable,” writes Shanes, “that people are more upset about the use of these terms than the reality they are trying to describe.”
No, what’s remarkable is that Shanes simply doesn’t get that American Jews (quite reasonably) fear antisemitism far more than they ponder the fate of Palestinians or an intractable ethnic conflict in which thousands of Israelis have lost their lives.
When we hear our intelligentsia – who is supposed to have our backs – deploy the language of David Duke we become anxious and feel betrayed. Why wouldn’t we?
The writer is a Canadian-American professor of history and Charles and Hannah Block Distinguished Scholar in Jewish History at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington.