The Black-Jewish Conflict, Part II: The Myth of the Powerful Jew

“No matter whose side history is on, Jews have always been expendable. And so long as we are expen­dable, to talk of ‘Jewish power’ is ob­scene.”


The Black-Jewish Conflict, Part II: The Myth of the Powerful Jew 

September 10, 1979

“Anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools.”
— August Bebel, German social­ist and leader of the Social Demo­crats in the late 19th century

Obviously, the fury of black people at Andy Young’s departure reflects a decade or more of in­creasing tensions between blacks and Jews. What is perhaps less obvious is how much the entire incident reflects deteriorating rela­tions between Jews and non-Jews generally. Any useful discussion of black-Jewish conflict must begin by acknowledging two basic realities. One is that American Jews are white and predominantly middle class, and so tend to have a white middle-class perspective on racial issues. The other is that blacks are part of the gentile majority and so tend to share the misconceptions about Jews and the overt or unconscious anti-Jewish attitudes that permeate our culture. Unfortunately, neither group has been eager to accept its share of responsibility for the conflict. If Jews have often minimized their privileges and denied or rationalized their racism, blacks have regularly dismissed Jewish protest against anti-Semitism in the black community as at best oversensitivity, at worst racist par­anoia. And in the end, guess who benefits from all the bitterness? Hint: the answer isn’t blacks or Jews.

Blacks have repeatedly argued that black hostility toward Jews is simply the logical result of Jews’ behavior, either as landlords, teachers, and other represent­atives of white authority in black neighborhoods, or as political op­ponents of black goals. As a Jew who stands considerably left of the mainstream Jewish organizations, let alone neo-conservative intellectuals — and as a feminist who supports affirmative action for women as well as minorities — I don’t think it’s that simple. To attack a ripoff landlord with standard anti-Semitic rhetoric about greedy, exploitative Jews is to imply that the problem is the iniquity of Jews rather than the race and class of white landlords. (When blacks protest the behavior of white cops, who are rarely Jewish, they don’t feel compelled to mention the of­ficers’ ethnic backgrounds.) Black criticism of Jewish politics invites the same objection. At worst Jews have been no more hostile to black power than the rest of the white population, though most people couldn’t withdraw from the civil rights movement since they hadn’t been involved in it in the first place. While the resistance of Jewish organizations to af­firmative action has been to some extent based on fear of maximum quotas for Jews, it has much more to do with the fact that most Jewish men share with most other white men the belief that affirmative action is illegitimate “reverse discrimina­tion.” In fighting community control, the Ocean Hill–Brownsville teachers were act­ing not as Jews but as white people whose livelihood was threatened. Besides, on all these issues a significant number of Jewish liberals and radicals has supported blacks and opposed the Jewish establishment. So why have blacks made such a point of singling out Jews for criticism?

As Joel Dreyfuss noted in last week’s Voice, disillusionment is a factor; Jews have talked a better line and had a better record on race than other whites, and groups with a history of oppression are always supposed to be more sensitive to each other’s aspirations, although, as James Baldwin put it, “if people did learn from history, history would be very dif­ferent.” The disillusionment is com­pounded when Jews invoke their status as an oppressed people to avoid confronting their racism (though blacks have com­mitted the same evasion in reverse). It is also convenient and tempting to vent one’s anger at a visible and relatively vulnerable minority. But the main impetus to black resentment of Jews as Jews seems to be that black people do not perceive Jews as vulnerable. Dreyfuss argues that the issue for blacks is Jewish power; he claims that “American Jews exert an economic, politi­cal, and intellectual influence on this country far out of proportion to their num­bers” and repeats the familiar allegation that Jews dominate the media.

I would guess that this view is shared by a great many, if not most, non-Jewish whites as well as blacks. I think it is profoundly wrong. Jewish privilege is real; Jews certainly exert intellectual influence; but actual power is another matter. As business people, professionals, journalists, academics, Jews are in a position to further whatever interests they share (or think they share) with the rest of the white middle class or with the ruling elite. But the real test of power is whether Jews can protect specifically Jewish interests when they diverge from — or conflict with — the interests of non-Jews. If the United States government decides it is in America’s eco­nomic and military interest to abandon Israel, do Jews have the power to prevent a change in policy? If there is a resurgence of anti-Semitism in this country, do Jews have the power to quell it and insure their survival? These questions are not hypothetical; America’s Middle East poli­cy is certainly changing, to the dismay of most Jews, and I experience more anti-Semitism (mostly from white people) than I did 10 years ago.

If Jews have power, its sources are mysterious. Jews may own newspapers and movie studios, but the truly powerful own banks, factories, and oil. Jews have been virtually excluded from America’s corporate and financial elite. There are few Jews at the highest levels of govern­ment or the military. As a tiny minority — 3 per cent of the population — Jews do not have the political clout of sheer numbers, except in a few heavily Jewish areas like New York. With the decline of the cities, Jewish influence has decreased; power to set national policy is now centered in the Southwest, hardly a Jewish stronghold, and the widespread anti-New York, anti­-urban sentiment that has fed the con­servative backlash is aimed at Jews as well as blacks.

Jews are relatively well-organized and vocal politically, but as with other well­-organized minorities, their effectiveness has depended on the absence of any strong counterforce. It is ridiculous to imagine, as Dreyfuss apparently does, that the United States’ Middle East policy is or ever has been dictated by Jews. Here he displays some confusion, since he also points out that Israel is “viewed in the Third World as a surrogate for Western interests” and faults Jews for once again choosing the wrong side. So which is it? Does America support Israel because of the Jews, or are Jews merely bolstering American im­perialism? The reality is that until recent­ly, Jewish pressure on behalf of Israel dovetailed neatly with the American gov­ernment’s political objectives. But Jews’ stake in Israel and United States interests in the Middle East are by no means the same. Whatever our differences about the Israeli government, Palestinian rights, or American foreign policy, most Jews agree on the absolute need for a Jewish state. The American government encouraged the establishment of Israel for power-political reasons (and perhaps as a way of dealing with the embarrassing problem of Jewish refugees no country was willing to absorb); it has continued to support Israel as a pro­-Western, anti-Soviet ally in a strategically vital region. But in the past few years, the U.S. has been reevaluating its stance, in line with changing political realities; as a result Jewish lobbying has met increasing resistance. Despite supposed Jewish con­trol of the media, coverage of the Middle East and the climate of public opinion have evolved more or less in accordance with government policy, growing steadily less sympathetic to Israel.

In general, the major media — including Jewish-owned institutions like The New York Times — reflect establishment poli­tics, whether or not they coincide with Jewish interests or opinion. Evidently, either Jews are less dominant in the media than popular wisdom insists, or Jewish publishers and Hollywood producers put their class loyalties before their Jew­ishness. Dreyfuss complains that “Jewish dissidents in the Soviet Union enjoy a flood of publicity, but black dissidents in South Africa are ignored until they are killed.” Can he seriously believe this bias reflects Jewish influence rather than gov­ernment and corporate hostility to the U.S.S.R. and sympathy with the staunchly capitalist South African re­gime? He contrasts indifference to racism in television with the “uproar” that fol­lowed the casting of Vanessa Redgrave as a concentration camp victim. Yet the Jew­ish protest elicited no serious, thoughtful response, only condescending lectures about the evils of blacklisting and the right to criticize Israel. (I keep waiting for someone to notice that these days dump­ing on Israel is about as daring as defend­ing the family, but no such luck.)

The danger of getting carried away with fantasies about Jewish power is manifest in Dreyfuss’s assertion that “Jews have taken control of [New York City’s] politi­cal apparatus. In the process of exercising their new powers they have neglected to appease the powerless…” Just a minute. Who is this “they?” It certainly isn’t me, or even the American Jewish Committee; it would seem, actually, to be one lone Jew, Ed Koch. (What about poor Abe Beame? He may not have been memo­rable, but he did exist.) In his zeal to pin blacks’ troubles on the Jews, Dreyfuss not only makes a dubious leap from the partic­ular to the general, he totally ignores the context of Koch’s administration — draco­nian fiscal retrenchment imposed on the city from outside. Koch’s brushing aside of minority concerns is indefensible (again, his whiteness, not his Jewishness, is the relevant category), but the people who really call the shots on New York are the president, Congress, and a bunch of bankers and realtors. I fail to see what Jews as a group are getting out of this depressing situation.

It is disingenuous of Dreyfuss to argue that “Jewish power in America has always been a difficult subject to address… Their most effective tactic has been to attack any references to the power of Jews as ‘anti-Semitic,’ immediately blocking further discussion.” Talk about blocking discussion! I can only pursue this one honestly if I’m permitted to say what I think, which is that the notion of Jewish power is a classic anti-Semitic myth. There are historical parallels to Jews’ pres­ent position in America. In pre-Inquisition Spain, in Weimar Germany, Jews were a privileged and seemingly powerful group, a conspicuous cultural force. But their status did not protect them; on the con­trary, charges of excessive Jewish power and influence in behalf of their own nefarious ends served as a rationale for persecution. Hence American Jews’ feel­ings of insecurity, which — according to Dreyfuss — blacks find so mystifying.

Discrimination against Jews in Ameri­ca has not been comparable to the systematic, relentless bigotry inflicted on blacks. But in concluding that Jewish oppression can be defined as “exclusion similar in conception but vastly different in degree from the black experience,” Dreyfuss makes a common mistake. Though there are obvious parallels between white racism and anti-Semitism — particularly racial anti-Semitism of the Nazi variety — the psychology of anti-Semitism, the way it functions in society, and the nature of the threat to the Jews are in certain respects unique. Unlike racism, anti-Semitism does not necessarily involve straight­forward economic subjugation. Historical­ly, Jews’ distinctive class and cultural patterns, their visibility as representatives or symbols of authority (from the Harlem storekeeper on up the class ladder, but rarely at the very top), and their reputa­tion as hustlers, achievers, intellectuals, and social activists have been the basis of anti-Semitic stereotypes used to justify at­tacks on Jews. Jews are simultaneously perceived as insiders and outsiders, capi­talists and communists, upholders of high ethical and intellectual standards and shrewd purveyors of poisonous subversive ideas. The common theme of these dis­parate perceptions is that Jews have enormous power, whether to defend estab­lished authority or to undermine it. It is this double-edged myth of Jewish power that has made Jews such a useful all­-purpose scapegoat for social discontent. The classic constituency for fascism is the conservative lower middle class, oppressed by the rich, threatened by the rebellious poor (particularly if the poor are foreign or another race); for this group Jews are a perfect target, since they represent the top and the bottom at once. Oppressed classes like the peasants in czarist Russia have traditionally directed their anger at the Jews just above them in the social hierarchy.

The advantage to ruling classes of keep­ing Jews around as surrogate authority figures is obvious. But anti-Semitism can’t be explained simply as a political tool; it is deeply irrational. The insane obsessiveness of Hitler’s determination to wipe out the Jews even at the expense of his war effort was, in my view, not an aberrational form of anti-Semitism but its logical extreme. I think anti-Semitism is bound up with people’s anger not only at class oppression but at the whole structure of patriarchal civilization — at the authoritarian family and state, at a morality that exalts the mind, denigrates the body, and represses sexuality. As Freud observed, “civilized” self-denial generates an enormous reservoir of unconscious rage. I believe it is this rage, along with mis­directed anger at economic and political oppression, that erupts in the murder of Jews. In one sense Jews have been im­mensely powerful: they created a potent myth — influential in both Christian and Islamic cultures — that explains patri­archal civilization and includes an elaborate set of rules for right living in it. And Jews themselves play a special role in this myth, as God the Father’s chosen people, commanded to carry out an ethical and spiritual mission on behalf of the world — to obey God’s laws and by doing so bring the Messiah, who will redeem and liberate us all. As the protagonists of this paradoxical vision, Jews are at once super­-ego figures and symbols of revolution, who evoke all the ambivalent feelings that stem from the contradictions of patri­archy.

Just as the idealization of femininity is inseparable from male resentment of women, anti-Semitism is two-faced. It includes admiration of Jewish achieve­ments, the idea that Jews are morally superior, guilt, and identification with the Jew-as-victim. The complementary attitudes inevitably follow: envy; the convic­tion that Jews are too powerful; a com­bination of special outrage and covert gloating whenever Jews are revealed to be, alas, morally imperfect (check out the reaction to any Jew judged guilty of un-saintly behavior, from Bernard Bergman to Menachem Begin); resentment at hav­ing to feel guilty about the Jews, it was 35 years ago, after all; a mixture of self-­congratulation and defensiveness at dar­ing to criticize Jews; anger at Jews who refuse to act like victims. (In his column on the Vanessa Redgrave flap, Eliot Fre­mont-Smith pointed to her acceptance of the role as evidence that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are not synonymous. On the contrary, Redgrave exemplifies a men­tality that has flourished ever since 1967, when Israel became the prime metaphor for the powerful Jew: she hates Bad Jews — Zionists — and loves Good Jews — vic­tims, preferably dead.) But the power of Jews as emotional symbols would mean little if they were not hugely outnumbered and so, in reality, powerless. It is the combination that makes anti-Semitism so appealing: to kill a gnat, imagining it’s an elephant, is to feel powerful indeed.

I think people’s feelings about Jews are largely unconscious, that discrimination and outbreaks of anti-Jewish persecution are only the most obvious symptoms of a chronic social disease that exists mainly under the surface. This is why anti-Semi­tism flares up so readily in times of social crisis; it is why Jews feel permanently insecure; it accounts for the gap in com­munication between Jews who feel that gentiles are oblivious to the threat of anti­-Semitism and gentiles who think that Jews are always looking for anti-Semites under the bed. Anti-Semitism involves dark impulses that most people would rather not recognize in themselves, im­pulses connected with our deepest guilts and anxieties. Even people who are sophisticated about the politics of race and sex tend to cling to a simplistic view of anti-Semitism as plain old discrimination, punctuated from time to time with per­secution by evil lunatics — in either case, nothing to do with them. There is enormous resistance, even among Jews, to analyzing anti-Semitism as a serious, on­going social force, or to recognizing the anti-Jewish subtext in superficially rea­sonable political arguments. A lot of Jew­ish alienation has to do with the subterra­nean character of anti-Semitism. Suppose your friends and colleagues were always having fits of selective amnesia, during which they insisted that what you clearly remembered was your imagination. Even­tually you would begin to question your reality: What’s going on? Am I crazy? Is she doing this to me on purpose? By means of a similar process, Jewish “paranoia” about anti-Semitism often becomes para­noia in fact.

Black people who scapegoat Jews for white racism and exaggerate Jewish power are collaborating in a familiar and scary game. That black leaders should blame Jews for Andy Young’s resignation is not surprising, but the evidence doesn’t bear them out. Jews, who can add two and two like anyone else, could not fail to note that Young’s meeting with Zehdi Terzi was consistent with the noises the adminis­tration has been making for some months. It is Carter’s policy Jews care about, not Young — a point Jewish spokespeople have taken care to emphasize. If Carter starts talking to the PLO, Young’s dismissal won’t gain him any Jewish support; if he doesn’t, Young’s retention wouldn’t have lost him any. (And what about black support? Carter’s decision to get rid of Young may well have cost him reelection.) Besides, Jewish organizations are hardly unaware of black-Jewish tensions. As sub­sequent events have shown, it was not in their interest for Young to resign, and most of them pointedly refrained from suggesting it. Did Carter act to appease the Israeli government? I doubt it — I think the Israelis understand that Carter is their problem, not Young — but if he did it was in behalf of American diplomacy, not the Jews.

I don’t know why Carter let Young resign instead of slapping him on the wrist. Maybe it was just what it looked like — that in arranging to talk with Terzi and then lying about it, Young took his individualism a step too far and convinced the president he couldn’t be trusted. May­be not. The affair still has its loose ends, particularly the question of whether, as Murray Kempton plausibly suggested, Young is taking the rap for a meeting that was actually the State Department’s idea. But there is disturbing irony in the fact that (Jewish-dominated media notwith­standing) blacks have succeeded in defin­ing the issue as Jewish power. Given the energy crisis and the general economic malaise Americans may be more than normally receptive to the idea that Jews have been controlling our foreign policy. If Carter plans to move significantly closer to the PLO (and anyone who thinks such a move would reflect solicitude for the Palestinians, as opposed to solicitude for oil, is less cynical than I), it can’t hurt him to have anti-Jewish sentiment floating around.

Behind the furor over Young lurks the larger issue of how relations between Jews and blacks, Jews and gentiles, blacks and whites affect and are affected by the Is­raeli-Palestinian conflict. Dreyfuss draws clear battle lines: Jews, white racists, and imperialists for Israel; blacks for the Palestinians, as victims of racist colonial­ism. But he leaves something important out of this picture — or cartoon — of reality, and that something is anti-Semitism (a semantically unfortunate term since Ar­abs are also Semites). Middle East politics would be a lot less confusing and agonizing if anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism were, as so many people want to believe, entirely separate issues. Which is to say that things would be a lot simpler if the Israelis weren’t Jews. But if anti-Semitism is, as I have argued, a systemic and pervasive pathology endemic to Christian and Islam­ic cultures (and, I would imagine, easily communicable to any patriarchy), then anti-Semitism is as much a factor in the Middle East as oil, the military im­portance of the region, the Palestinians’ demand for a homeland, and anti-Arab racism. Anti-Semitism is an actual or potential influence on the conduct of the United States, the Soviet Union, Europe, the United Nations, the Arab countries, and the Palestinians themselves. (Overt anti-Semitism has never been as wide­spread or severe in the Islamic world as in the Christian West, but since World War II the Arabs have been using explicitly anti-Jewish propaganda, borrowed from Europe, as a weapon against Israel.) Fear of genocidal anti-Semitism is a determin­ing influence on Israeli policy, far more decisive, I believe, than expansionism, racism, or the fanaticism of religious na­tionalists. Without anti-Semitism, there would still be a power struggle between the West and the Third World, but the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would not exist, since there would be no political Zionism and no Jewish state.

Anti-Zionism, in the modern political sense, is the argument that a Jewish state in Palestine inherently violates the rights of the Palestinian people. It regards Zionism as a racist, imperialist movement in which the European Jewish bourgeoisie (Jewish power, again) acted in concert with the colonial powers to displace the indigenous Arabs, furthering white Western domination of the Middle East. It assumes that religious belief is the move­ment’s ideological rationale, and so the PLO calls for the abolition of the Israeli state in favor of a “democratic, secular” Palestine. The essential problem with this argument is that it ignores or denies the reality of the Jewish condition. First of all, to get around the fact that the Jews also have historic ties to Palestine, that they are not simply aliens and interlopers, anti­-Zionists tend to define Jewishness purely in terms of religion, and dismiss as mythology the idea that Jews around the world are one people. But Jews have always regarded themselves, and been re­garded by others, as an organic entity, in some sense a nation; a traditional excuse for anti-Semitism has been that Jews have divided loyalties. Nor is political Zionism basically a religious movement. Orthodox Jews who believe in the Biblical prophecies are Zionists by definition, but they did not conceive of Zion in political terms — indeed, many opposed the estab­lishment of a Jewish state as sacrilegious. The movement for statehood came from “emancipated” Jews who believed that Jews would always be oppressed so long as they were homeless and forced into marginality in gentile societies. Zionism is a national liberation movement, and de­spite the rise of religious nationalism and a powerful religious establishment that (like the Catholic Church elsewhere) has imposed some religious laws on an unwill­ing majority, Israel is essentially a secular state.

As for the charge that Zionism is an imperialist plot, it does not simply mis­-define the Jews but makes them disap­pear. The relationship between Zionists and the Western nations has always been tense and ambiguous; they have served each other’s needs, but their needs are very different. And the Jews who settled in Palestine after World War II were neither ambitious capitalists nor Zionist ideol­ogues; they were traumatized refugees who were unwelcome anywhere else. Some years ago I asked a woman who supported the PLO if she thought Jews had no right to national aspirations. Not at all, she assured me, so long as their nation wasn’t on someone else’s land. Which set me to musing about possibilities. The Sahara Desert? The Amazon jungle? Imagine what would have happened if the Zionists had accepted Britain’s offer of a homeland in Uganda.

As far as I’m concerned, the only solu­tion to the Israeli-Palestinian impasse that makes moral sense is two independ­ent states. Whatever one’s intellectual position on Zionism — that is, the idea that all Jews should settle in Israel — Israel’s existence as an alternative has clearly reduced Jewish vulnerability and, I be­lieve, is a psychological deterrent to anti­-Semites. The abolition of Israel and the incorporation of a Jewish minority in an Arab-dominated Palestine would at best put all Jews back in a pre-Holocaust situ­ation, and for the Israelis, the reality could be far worse. It is questionable whether all Israelis would be allowed to remain as equal citizens; the PLO’s charter, which defines as Palestinians only Jews who lived in Palestine before “the Zionist in­vasion,” is not reassuring on this point. And is the mutual hatred of all these years expected to just evaporate? But practical­ly speaking these questions are irrelevant, because the Israelis will defend their state until they are massacred or driven out. In which case the world will no doubt blame them for being stubborn.

Another difficulty with the idea that anti-Zionism has nothing to do with anti-­Semitism is that the great majority of Jews perceive the two issues as in­separable. One might argue, with equal logic, “I’m not a racist, I’m just against forced integration,” or “I love women, it’s feminists I can’t stand.” Vanessa Red­grave may think that Zionism is “a brutal racist ideology and the opposite of Judaism,” but she will find precious few Jews who agree with her. This puts her in the peculiar position of implying that except for an enlightened minority, Jews are brutal racists, and that she knows what Judaism is better than we do. Which is why her ritual tributes to Jews’ heroic record of struggle, and so on, are not only empty but obnoxious. As most Jews see it, the Israelis’ right to national self-de­termination would be taken for granted if they weren’t Jewish. The Palestinians have the same right, of course. What makes the Middle East situation so excruciating is the spectacle of two dis­placed, oppressed peoples, each of them victimized by more powerful nations, trying to kill each other. But at this point in history, absolute justice for the Palestinians would mean absolute injustice for the Jews.

My guess is that most Voice readers have no quarrel with this last point. Anti-­Zionist thinking predominates in most of the world, but here it has been mostly confined to the sectarian left. Nearly everyone agrees, in principle, on Israel’s right to exist. Yet I feel that non-Jews in America — particularly my peers, middle­-class liberals and radicals, the vanguard of “enlightened” opinion — do their own milder version of making the Jews disap­pear. In theory, they acknowledge that Jews are oppressed. In practice, they see Israel much as Dreyfuss sees the Jews — as a powerful nation beating up on the have­-nots. They assume that Israeli chauvinism, expansionism, and refusal to admit the justice of the Palestinian cause are primarily or entirely to blame for pre­venting a settlement. But a two-state compromise can work only if the international community supports and enforces it, and the international atmosphere is over­whelmingly hostile to Israel. Most coun­tries endorse the PLO’s claim to all of Palestine; if it weren’t for the United States, Israel would be long gone. And now American support is eroding.

In this situation, the Israelis are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. If they resist a Palestinian state they stand condemned as oppressors and obstructionists, and give their only major ally an excuse for withdrawing support. If they agree, the Palestinians with their own state as a base will be in an infinitely better position to pursue their claim to what they deeply believe is theirs, and the Israelis have no good reason to believe that anyone will lift a finger to defend them. Is it any wonder that they resist what has got to look like suicide by installments? Why should they trust the PLO to accept a state as more than a temporary expedient? Why should they trust the United States, when no country has ever proved trustworthy in its dealings with Jews? The American ruling class is profoundly anti­-Semitic; it is not going to protect Israel for humanitarian reasons, any more than it was willing to provide a haven for Jewish refugees during World War II, or “waste” a few planes to bomb Auschwitz. Under the circumstances, the self-righteous, sim­plistic condemnation of Israel that cur­rently passes as a “balanced view” is, in, my opinion, anti-Jewish. Many aspects of Israeli government policy, including its alliances with reactionary regimes, disturb me enough to make me wonder if in its determination to survive, Israel will lose its reason for being. But at least I can recog­nize desperation when I see it; at least I can understand — no, share — the bitter­ness that says, “To hell with morality and world opinion! World opinion never did a thing for the Jews!”

The Israelis are in the classic Jewish bind. To the Palestinians and the Third World, they are white oppressors, but to their fellow white oppressors they are Jews. If they are surrogates for the West, it is largely in having to pay for Western sins. For once, the West may end up paying as well; Dreyfuss is probably right, “History is on the side of the ‘have-nots,’ here and abroad.” But no matter whose side history is on, Jews have always been expendable. And so long as we are expen­dable, to talk of “Jewish power” is ob­scene.