The Political Future of Jews: A Conversation with Tony Michels
Written by Avery Weinman
Illustrated by Amanda Leiserowitz
Tony Michels was a part of Leviathan from 1987 to 1988. He currently works in the History Department at the University of Wisconsin, Madison with a specialization in American Jewish history. In this interview, Professor Michels and I explored the rising trend of anti-Semitism coming from left-wing political spaces, the implications left-wing anti-Semitism could have on the future of Jewish politics, and how Jews and non-Jewish allies can address the potential dangers of left-wing anti-Semitism.
Avery Weinman: For this issue, we’re asking all the alumni that we’re in contact with to respond to a singular prompt: what is the biggest obstacle facing Jews today?
Tony Michels: I think the biggest challenge is how to continue to develop a liberal left-wing politics that takes into account Jewish interests and vulnerabilities such as anti-Semitism. This goal is made difficult by fact that anti-Semitism emanates from both the political Left and the political Right.
AW: So what I’m hearing in what you’ve said here is a kind of struggle for American Jews to be able to retain what we think of as these kinds of American-Jewish universalist values in the face of also wanting to maintain Jewish particularism. Which, I think, is a real struggle for American Jews in particular.
TM: I think it is a struggle, and it’s an old one. For more than a century, Jews have struggled to maintain some sort of balance between particularity and universalism. It’s an effort made all the more difficult by the problem of anti-Semitism and the fact that it comes from the Left as well as the Right, as I mentioned a moment ago.
AW: So I’ll ask you about that, because I’ll admit that, like you, that has kind have been a personal crisis for me at UC Santa Cruz. I grew up in Davis — so near UC Davis but also near Sacramento — and it never even really crossed my mind growing up that there would be anti-Semitism on the Left until I came to college and saw it for myself. I know that you work at the University of Wisconsin: Madison, so in terms of alumni that we’re talking to you are still much more rooted in this kind of college experience. So maybe you could elaborate more on how you first came in contact with anti-Semitism on the Left?
TM: It sounds to me like [my experience] is similar to yours. I grew up in San Jose, and it never occurred to me that there was anti-Semitism on the Left. Not that I was a very politically aware high school kid. But I came to Santa Cruz with the presumption that the Left was the natural political home for the Jews. It was in Santa Cruz that I discovered that I wasn’t entirely correct in my presumptions. I experienced anti-Semitism on the Left, first, as part of hostility toward Israel. I don’t mean mere criticism of Israel; I mean an obsessive hostility that morphs into anti-Semitism. This sort of left-wing anti-Semitism wasn’t widespread at UCSC back in the 1980s, but it was evident. Apart from Israel, there were milder forms of anti-Semitism, such as a refusal to criticize the likes of [Nation of Islam leader] Louis Farrakhan. There was also an attitude that held Jews ought to assimilate, or submerge, or minimize their Jewish identity, but members of other ethnic groups should celebrate theirs. Of course this double standard was evident among Jews as well as gentiles.
AW: I don’t particularly think that it’s a secret — and I don’t really understand people who think it’s not an issue — that there’s a serious problem with the Israel discourse on college campuses. I think it’s pretty objectively clear that there is a serious discourse issue, but there’s a lot of pushback from certain activist groups saying that it’s not anything to do with anti-Semitism, it’s only to do with Israel. At Wisconsin do you have similar type issues to what we have at UCSC where it’s getting more and more difficult to bring Israeli speakers on campus because the fear is just that those events are going to get shut down and that time is going to be wasted and resources are going to be wasted?
TM: There’s some of that, but I don’t think it’s nearly as strong as it is in the UC system. I think the kind of anti-Israelism that you’re talking about is regional, more evident on the west coast and in the northeast, less so in other parts of the country.
AW: I’m curious, at Wisconsin would you say that there’s an actual discourse on Israel, because I feel that at Santa Cruz we’re actually moving away from what I would term as discourse and we’re more moving towards just one side, one perspective, where student run activist groups just run the conversation and literally shut down alternate viewpoints, and I don’t feel that that’s productive in any way. Would you say that Wisconsin actually has an active discourse?
TM: Yes, I would say that. Various perspectives are heard. I don’t think anybody is silenced.
AW: A little bit ago you mentioned Farrakhan, who is now in the news again.
TM: Surprisingly to me, I have to admit. I thought his sort of anti-Semitism had mostly disappeared since the 1980s.
AW: I would have hoped to agree, but clearly it has not. But he brings up an interesting thing to me; I do want to talk about intersectionality, and how some intersectional movements are perhaps a little bit in crisis and that Farrakhan exposed that, at least pertaining to the Jews and how the Jews are involved in progressive activism. What he said in his speech — and this is a recent speech, this is not like his 1980s speeches, this is a 2018 speech — he blamed the Jews for all of the sexual abuse scandals in Hollywood and he retreaded some old Satanic-Jewish tropes. But what made this story interesting is that [Tamika Mallory] one of the co-founders of the Women’s March, which I would pin as the most visible feminist movement in America today, was in attendance. So I think this exposed a really prominent fracture right now in American progressive politics where it does not seem like this whole idea of intersectionality includes the Jewish people, at least in the same kind of willingness to say “okay, we make mistakes and it’s complicated.” Essentially [Mallory’s] rebuttal for having been at the Farrakhan event was “it’s difficult to build an intersectional movement because people are complex,” and the response on the Jewish side was “we’ve been saying that the whole time, but we’ve also been kicked out of rallies for being Zionists and we’ve been told we can’t wear our symbols anymore.” Would you agree that this is also a potential fracture in left-wing politics today that needs to be addressed, and how do you think we can fix it?
TM: Look at it this way, Farrakhan is, among other things, an anti-Semite. Plain and simple. He espouses classical anti-Semitism that originates in the European racist and nationalist right-wing. He’s a conduit for it, in fact, he’s one of the main conduits for it in the United States. The Nation of Islam and white supremacists share a common hatred of Jews and employ a similar vocabulary. So this is a problem. The complicating factor is that the Nation of Islam is seen as doing important work in African-American communities. The Nation of Islam is a symbol of black militancy and pride, in the eyes of many, including those who are not members of the Nation of Islam. There is some truth to this perception. The Nation of Islam has made a positive difference in the lives of some people. Nonetheless, Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism has to be completely rejected. There are people on the Left who are confused; they think somehow that Farrakhan is a fighter for freedom and equality. But I don’t see how the Nation of Islam has actually challenged structures of racism and inequality in the U. S. The organization seems to stand on the sidelines most of the time and sees capitalism as the route to Black empowerment. And then there’s the fact that Farrakhan has espoused homophobia and sexism. How he can be regarded as a leftist or a friend of the Left is beyond me.
AW: Going off of that, we’ve covered that Farrakhan is really almost an essential European-intellectual anti-Semite, where the things that he says are really just regurgitations of things we’ve heard for more than a hundred years now. And I would say that also applies to [Palestinian Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas’ recent speech where he retreated back into Holocaust denial. He said something along the lines of: the Holocaust was caused by Jewish social behavior and money lending and not by anti-Semitism. And Abbas had previously written his doctoral dissertation on the so-called secret link between Zionism and Nazism arguing that the Holocaust was all a Zionist conspiracy to get international sympathy. But my question is, since these are both really recognizable, clear anti-Semitic tropes that both Farrakhan and Abbas are using, why is it so hard for the Left to reject them, when if the same statement had come from, I don’t know, [former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan] David Duke, instantly there would be outcry and instantly there would be rejection?
TM: Why is there reluctance? Here I’m speculating, but I think there are several reasons. First, it’s inconvenient to speak out against Farrakhan. It distracts from the main target and purpose of anti-racist activism. Second, there are some people, I don’t know how many, who actually agree with him on some level. These are people who do not view him as an anti-Semite, but rather as someone who courageously exposes the nefarious doings of the Jews, their plotting and scheming and exploiting. Finally, there are people who don’t agree with Farrakhan, but neither do they believe his words have consequences for Jews, so to their minds, there is no need to respond to him. Farrakhan is a sideshow, according to this perspective. One can turn a blind eye to his anti-Semitism because it doesn’t cause actual harm. Those are the three factors that come to mind. One, he’s an inconvenience best avoided. Two, he’s seen as a truth-teller, not an anti-Semite. Three, what he says about Jews is believed to be inconsequential.
AW: Do you think it is consequential? That it is something that needs to be more addressed so it doesn’t turn into a serious problem?
TM: Yes, I believe it’s consequential. One consequence, in the political realm, is that it has the effect of driving Jews from the Left. If Jews think there’s no place for them on the Left because anti-Semitism is tolerated there, then at least some of them will move in a different political direction. Also, there’s a possibility that anti-Semitism will spread and gain traction, and where that leads I don’t know.
AW: You mentioned one of the potential outcomes as that Jews will leave progressive or left-wing politics.
TM: And I’d say that’s already happened.
AW: Even this year we’re seeing that now in the United Kingdom amidst all of [head of the UK Labour Party] Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-Semitism scandals. We’re seeing really for the first time in modern Jewish-British history, Jews are not voting Labour Party anymore. The consequences of that are not yet known. We don’t exactly know where the Jewish-British demographic is going to end up putting their political currency, but we are seeing that that is a totally possible manifestation of tolerance of anti-Semitism in left-wing politics. But to bring it back to your original answer to what the biggest challenge facing the Jewish community today is, how do Jews remain in left-wing liberal spaces while also asserting a kind of Jewish particularism in that anti-Semitism needs to be addressed and routed, that there are particular Jewish vulnerabilities that people should be aware of — what do you think can be done to balance these two things?
TM: Well, I think Jews on the Left should stick up for themselves. Which is to say, one should speak out in defense of Jews as one would for any group that faces racism and bigotry. I still feel confident that if Jews do this, they will gain allies who will stand with them.