There’s a conversation in Annie Hall that resonates a lot with Jewish audiences, and it goes like this:
Alvy: … and under his breath he said, “Jew!”
Rob: Alvy, you’re a total paranoid.
Alvy: What, how am I a para, what, I pick up on those kind of things! You know I was having lunch with some guys from NBC, so I said uh, “did you eat yet, or what?” and Tom Christie said “no, Jew?” Not “did you?” “Jew eat?” “Jew?” No, not “did you eat,” but “Jew eat?” “Jew?” You get it, “Jew eat?”
Rob: Uh, Max, you—
Alvy: Stop calling me Max.
Rob: Why, Max? it’s a good name for you. Max, you see conspiracies in everything.
My dad and I (and I’m sure we’re not the only Jewish family that does this) have a bit of a running gag that when something goes wrong we just blame it on antisemitism. The restaurant messed up our delivery order? “Antisemitism!” Traffic at a stand-still? “Antisemitism!” No cell service inside the house? “Antisemitism!” This never stops being funny to us.
All these jokes come from a place of unease often experienced by Jews who live in apparently safe times. The US, with the exception of its most dedicated racists, has generally accepted me as white. To speak sincerely of antisemitism with that privilege in hand can therefore feel like the crassest form of Oppression Olympics—particularly given the popular tactic among Jews and non-Jews alike of justifying racism by citing antisemitism among POC. At the same time, history tells us that our belonging is contingent and our safety fleeting. German Jews in the 1920s also thought of themselves as no less German than their neighbors. And so we get that paranoia, but because it feels unearned we wind up twisting it back in on itself in embarrassment. Hence, jokes.
I offered a reasonably in-depth history (I mean, for a blog) of antisemitism in my previous post. If you haven’t read it the main take-away is this: Antisemitic narratives almost always rely on the notion that Jews are themselves the oppressors. Whether it’s the story of Jewish “authorities” manipulating the Romans into torturing and executing their future god, or of Jewish moneylenders and tax collectors fleecing the medieval everyman, or of Jews running the trans-Atlantic slave trade, or of the global Zionist conspiracy controlling the world banking system and mass media, pretty much every antisemitic canard is about Jews oppressing or plotting to oppress other people.
This gets especially sticky when oppressive systems like capitalism, white supremacy, and settler colonialism actually make space for Jews to participate as oppressors. The interfactional function of this space-making has remained consistent for a good millennium. Sheldon Adelson and George Soros take the brunt of class-based anger and divert attention from non-Jewish capitalists, just as medieval European Jews as the public face of economic oppression constituted a bulwark against potential anger at the aristocracy. Our limited language for deconstructing systems of oppression tends to force us into responding to these scenarios by either (a) denying that the Jew in question is being oppressive, or (b) denying that the charge is antisemitic. (Many a reader may be slotting Soros into one of these columns right now, and Adelson the other; who goes into which will depend on political bent.) But an interfactional analysis will allow us to see how a given charge can be at once systemically oppressive and immediately true; and moreover, how the truth of that charge can compound its oppressiveness. Or in short, how oppressive systems operationalize antisemitism by conscripting Jews to act as oppressors.
Existing theories of oppression can engage perfectly well with false narratives of Jews as oppressors. But they do not adequately explain what happens when individual Jews (or perhaps, a whole country full of them) are slotted into actual positions of oppressive power. When, for example, the oppressive system offers you a role in it as an apparent way out from under it. The non-intersectional analysis would say that you can be oppressed or you can be oppressor, but not both (so the Jew who becomes oppressor ceases being oppressed). The intersectional analysis allows you to be oppressed in one axis and oppressor in another, but commonly reads interaction of those axes in terms of mutual mitigation (so that antisemitism for white Jews is mitigated by whiteness, while white privilege is mitigated by antisemitism). What is missing from both of these frameworks is systematic engagement with how someone might be at once oppressed (e.g., as a Jew) and oppressor (e.g., as white) such that those aspects are not only simultaneous but also mutually constitutive and reinforcing.
People have a tendency to frame the State of Israel, for example, either as a brutal manifestation of Europe’s tradition of racist settler colonialism, or as a well-motivated return home for a people whose experience as minorities in a 2,000-year diaspora proved genocidally catastrophic. In cases where those two framings are brought together, it is typically either in the language of mitigation (“we need to consider and balance the needs and histories of both peoples”) or transformation (“Jews learned hate from the Nazis and are now visiting it on the Palestinians, were once the oppressed but are now the oppressors”). Somehow, the possibility that Israeli racist hatred toward Palestinians might be fed by, and feed, a genuine fear of extermination, cannot be entertained. Either the racism is real and the expressed fear disingenuous, or the fear is real and historically earned while the racism isn’t racism at all. In other words, none of the common formulations acknowledge the possibility that Jewish oppressor status might actually be a function of antisemitic oppression, and vice versa.
What if the Holocaust was not the final act of Europe’s antisemitic project? What if its more elegant culmination was actually the nation state brought into being by the UN in its wake, realizing decades of English region-destabilizing machinations such that the ultimate survival of Europe’s fleeing Jews should be predicated on their capacity to dominate the British empire’s Arab subjects? Every Israeli subjugation of Palestinians, both an echo of that colonial project and a gift from Germany and England to the world in the form of continued moral superiority over the Jew-as-oppressor? (And yes, political Zionism was a Jewish movement, but very much fueled by a fire lit by Christian Europe.)
Under these conditions it becomes incumbent upon Jews to demonstrate victimhood to prove they’re not the villains. Which means that every day Jews aren’t visibly attacked becomes further evidence they were oppressors all along and thus valid targets of liberatory violence. Hence the almost obsessive investment in stories of antisemitic persecution by many Jews who now live in apparent safety, as if telling them were a talisman against their realization. And hence the internal stereotype of the Jew who sees antisemites behind every corner, the subject of my family’s running “antisemitism!” gag as well as that famous Annie Hall scene.
That scene is a fixed deep shot of a New York sidewalk along which Rob and Alvy slowly, over the course of their conversation, walk from far in the distance into the foreground. The space Rob and Alvy are moving into is strikingly empty; if there’s a polar opposite to the horror genre’s turn-around-there’s-something-behind-you framing, this is it. There’s nothing there, it says, nothing to worry about. This apparent safety justifies Rob’s skepticism just as it catalyzes Alvy’s paranoia. When Alvy does meet an unambiguous “classic Jew-hater” later in the movie it’s almost cathartic; he becomes visibly relaxed and fantasizes a mutually interested dialogue between the antisemite’s family and his own.
The structural basis of a Jew’s feeling of relief at witnessing overt antisemitism, or paranoia at its apparent absence, is a system that designates Jews as icons of oppression and so demands they demonstrate oppressed status to protect themselves from liberatory violence. If I can convince you that antisemitism is real I might be able to stop you from hurting me, and my inability to find evidence will make me unsafe. If you see me as oppressed you won’t see me as oppressor, but if you see me as oppressor you can freely oppress me without seeing it as such. This system draws power from the commonly accepted premise that “oppressed” and “oppressor” are necessarily mutually exclusive categories. Consequently, the system cannot be effectively challenged by any theory of power predicated on that premise.
Intersectional theory was developed by feminists of color to navigate the complex circumstance of facing multiplicative oppressive systems. The theory of interfactionality builds on this work, but comes from a Jewish subject position, whose complexity is of a fundamentally different character. Where the intersectional lens reveals how multiple oppressions interweave and align unidirectionally against (for example) women of color, the interfactional lens can reveal how antisemitism ties the putatively straight-line oppressor/oppressed dynamic into knots so as to align everyone against the Jews as icons of universal oppression. My meditations on those knots comes from the paralysis I have felt at being twisted up so severely in them so as to find it impossible to orient myself unambiguously against oppression. And having dedicated myself to the slow and frustrating task of unravelling those knots, I have come to observe how those same techniques have been used to entangle other marginalized groups against each other as well. The difference being that where racism, sexism, homophobia, and so forth intersect, interfactionality fulfills a secondary, exacerbating function; whereas for antisemitism, interfactionality is actually the primary operating principle.
Other posts in this series: