A talk with journalist and author James Kirchick (jameskirchick.com) about antisemitism. Topics discussed include: the origins of various varieties of American antisemitism, controversial statements about Jewish people from Kanye West and Whoopi Goldberg; Donald Trump; Israel; George Soros; Louis Farrakhan; Black Hebrew Israelites; the term “globalist”, and more.
Transcript is below.
Resources that are related or that were mentioned:
- James Kirchick’s 2017 piece The New Jew Hatred: Right and Left
- NPR article about Whoopi Goldberg being suspended from The View for statements about the Holocaust
- Book by David Bernstein Woke Antisemitism
Zachary Elwood: Welcome to the People Who Read People podcast with me, Zach Elwood. This is a podcast aimed at better understanding other people and better understanding ourselves. You can learn more about it at www.behavior-podcast.com.
On today’s episode episode I talk to journalist and author Jamie Kirchick about antisemitism. In 2017, Kirchick had a piece in Commentary magazine titled The New Jew-Hatred: Right and Left. In that piece, he described antisemitism coming from both the political right and the left, as he saw it.
One reason I wanted to talk about this is that antisemitism is in the news a lot recently, with Kanye West making antisemitic statements, and him saying that black people are the real jews, and with him bringing a strange white supremacist troll over to Trump’s place to have dinner together, amongst other strange things he’s said and done. Also not too long ago Whoopi Goldberg said on the show The View basically that Hitler and the Nazis trying to commit genocide against the Jewish People wasn’t about race, and was a case of “white people fighting other white people.” So I wanted to examine some of these things and talk about where some of those ideas come from
Another reason I wanted to do this talk is that I see it as tying in to political polarization topics. In the last few weeks I’ve seen a lot of liberal-side rhetoric about how Trump and Republicans are anti-semitic, that there is a huge problem on the right with this. And I think a lot of those takes are taking the most pessimistic, worst-case framings one can make, and in doing that, they’re adding to our divides. Aren’t there many Jewish conservatives and Trump voters? Wouldn’t many people view the Republicans as the more pro-Israel party? What do those people see? Why is it that some people see antisemitism as a bigger problem on the left than the right?
So I thought talking to Kirchick might give some people some different perspectives on these things. I thought listening to his takes might help us see why some conservatives perceive liberals as rather hysterical on the topic of antisemitism, and as also being somewhat hypocritical. And, to be clear, you don’t have to agree with all of Kirchick’s points, but seeing how one can have such views can help us better understand our fellow citizens. As with many of the interviews I do, the value I see is not in reaching some definitive, accurate view on any specific stance; it’s not about establishing who’s right and who’s wrong. There’s very few things I myself have confident beliefs about. To me the value of these talks is in seeing the wide variety of views that rational and well meaning people can reach on these matters. That seeing of other perspectives is much more important to me than feeling I’ve got the right views, or any answers. Because seeing how others can see things differently, and examining the nuance present on any specific subject, is inherently depolarizing and inherently anger-reducing. Especially when our country is very polarized and we have a tendency to consume simplistic narratives from our preferred bubbles: not just simplistic narratives of what’s right or wrong, but simplistic narratives of what the people on the other side are actually like and what they actually believe. And the more we attempt to see others’ points of view, the more sane and respectful and functional our public conversation will become.
In this episode, we talk about Trump, we talk about Kanye West, we talk about Whoopi Goldberg’s controversial statements, we talk about antisemitism on the left and the right, we talk about criticisms of Israel, we talk about George Soros, and we talk about the term ‘globalist’ and how that word is used.
A little bit more about Jamie Kirchick:
He’s a columnist for Tablet magazine, a writer at large for Air Mail.
A widely published journalist, Jamie has reported from over 40 countries, and his reportage, essays, and reviews have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the Spectator, the Atlantic, the New York Review of Books, and Rolling Stone, among many other publications. His first book, “The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues and the Coming Dark Age,” was published by Yale University Press in 2017.
In 2022, he had a new book published titled Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington, which was an instant New York Times bestseller. A New York Times review called it “ a sprawling and enthralling history of how the gay subculture in Washington, D.C., long in shadow, emerged into the klieg lights.”
You can follow Jamie on Twitter at @jkirchick.
Okay, here’s the interview with journalist Jamie Kirchick.
Hi, Jamie, thanks for coming on the show.
James: Thanks for having me.
Zach: Maybe we can start with defining antisemitism as you see it. How much of it do you see as a focus on Jewishness as a race versus Jewishness as a religion? Are there other factors you would put in there?
James: Well, I guess there’s very different varieties of it. Judeophobia would probably be a better term for the hatred or bigotry of Jews based on their religious faith. And that probably requires a maybe deeper understanding of Jewish texts and whatnot that I think a lot of people who we would view as anti-Semites might not have. Whereas anti-semitism, I think is broadly a racist conception. It’s the hatred of Jews based on their peoplehood and their belief that they constitute a separate and distinct race, and prejudice against them based upon that. I guess that’s how I would define it. It’s interesting you asked that question because I feel like we don’t see that question asked a lot in these conversations. And I think so much of the reason why this is a controversial topic is because no one ever really defines it, or it seems that so much of the controversy revolves around what is and what isn’t anti-semitism.
Zach: Right. Yeah, it kind of strikes me in other areas of things that can cause big divides often. There’s a failure to even define the concepts we’re talking about like CRT or whatever it is. Do you see it as maybe hard to define sometimes because it does overlap so much with these conspiracy theories of, you know, the Illuminati or these other powerful forces controlling things behind the scenes, which I think people on the far left or far right political spectrum can have these kinds of conspiracy theories and maybe that helps explain why it can be hard to disentangle sometimes.
James: Yeah. Well, anti-Semitism is the ultimate conspiracy theory. It’s really sort of the oldest one. I mean, if you think of conspiracy theories as being modern phenomenon, I think anti-semitism is probably the oldest if there are conspiracy theories. And it seems that all the conspiracy theories go back to antisemitism. They all basically, you know, if you’re talking about shadowy elite secret people in power orchestrating things from behind a kind of dark curtain or whatnot, it’s hard not to end up with the Jews in some way. And I often find that some people might even be repeating antisemitic tropes without often even knowing that they’re antisemitic. I do think that there are people who are genuinely surprised when they hear that, they might not even know it. For instance, the ease with which people– this is separate from conspiracism– but the ease with which people throw around Holocaust analogies, I often think that they’re not consciously antisemitic, but what they’re doing is in effect antisemitic. Comparing your opponents to Nazis is something that so many people do these days, right? Or likening the treatment that one suffers, whether it’s under COVID regulations. On the right, you’ll see people do that, or people on the left might complain about police powers acting like the Gestapo or something. In both cases, I often think that most people who make these claims don’t really realise what they’re doing, it’s just become such a part of our political vernacular. It’s the reductio ad Hitlerum tendency, and oftentimes that can be labelled antisemitic but I’m not really sure it is. It’s totally distasteful and inappropriate.
Zach: Because it downplays the importance of-
James: It downplays the holocaust. And it also just raises the stakes in our political discussions to the point where you can’t have a civil conversation. I mean, if you’re comparing lockdown policies to the Warsaw Ghetto, it’s hard to really move on from there and have a meaningful conversation. I don’t think that the person making that accusation is antisemitic. In fact, often they’re putting themselves in the place of the Jews. So if anything, they are trying and they’re very stupid in a historical way to identify with the plight of the Jews. Of course, it’s minimizing with what the Holocaust was, but I don’t think it’s right to call those people necessarily antisemitic. Some of them might be, but I don’t think that that’s… That is not what’s keeping me awake at night when it comes to antisemitism.
L: Yeah. And your 2017 piece that I read that initially made me contact you, you talked about antisemitism as you saw it on the right and the left. One thing you did which I thought was really responsible was giving your opinion about how the United States is actually very Jewish appreciative and how it’s not as big a problem as some people say. Maybe you could give your summary of your opinion of how big a problem do you see it as in the United States, and do you see it as having grown recently?
James: Yeah, with what’s happened in those five years. [laughs] But in terms of the United States, no country in the world has been better to its Jewish population or better place for Jews to thrive than the United States. And there’s really no argument about that, I don’t think. Of course, one could argue Israel might be an exception but that’s a special case. Israel was only created in 1948 but Jews have prospered in the United States like nowhere else if you just look at how successful they’ve been in professions and culture and politics and philanthropy and just becoming a part of the American tapestry. There’s obviously antisemitism in America and there has been. It was not that long ago that Jews were victimized by quotas, right? You couldn’t get into… There was a limit placed on the number of Jews who were allowed into elite schools and universities, and there were neighborhoods that were not open to Jews. But this pales in comparison to what Jews had to suffer pretty much anywhere else in the world. Certainly from the countries where most American Jews trace their lineage, which is Europe. And Jews came to America for good reasons. They were subjected to all sorts of discrimination and second-class citizenship and worse, obviously, in places like the former Soviet Union Russia– Imperial Russia– so they came to America seeking a better life and they achieved it. And I feel enormously fortunate to have been an American Jew born in 1983. I mean, there’s really no better.. That’s really kind of a golden age.
So, that article was published in 2017 and I do think things have gotten worse for Jews. Not nearly to the point where anyone should be thinking about packing their bags, but Donald Trump obviously unleashed a lot of ugly things in this country. And I’m gonna say this, I don’t think he is himself an anti-Semite. Even knowing we’re recording this podcast a week or two after he sat down to lunch or dinner with Kanye West and Nick Fuentes, I don’t think that’s because he’s an anti-Semite. I think his vanity and his narcissism is world historical that he’ll break bread with people who flatter him. Even if they’re Nazis! That’s how pathetic this guy is. He’s not doing this because he seeks to hurt Jews. I mean, his daughter is Jewish, he has Jewish grandchildren, I don’t believe that he is himself an anti-Semite. It’s not excusing his behavior, it’s reprehensible, and the man clearly has no business being a dogcatcher or let alone President of the United States.
But put that aside, whether he is or isn’t an anti-Semite, I find it a waste of time and this is something that whatever I say I’m gonna get attacked by the people who hate him and think he’s Hitler, or I’m gonna get attacked by the Trump supporters who think he’s done better things for the Jews than Cyrus the Great. It’s indisputable that a lot of far right legitimate open proud anti-Semites flock to him and like him, and I saw that in 2015 when he was running for president. I wrote an article which I still stand by. I said, “Donald Trump is the candidate of the mob and the mob always comes for the Jews. He is a candidate of conspiracy theories, he’s the candidate of mindless populism.” Populism in itself is not necessarily always bad, there are good aspects of populism. I don’t think he represented a lot of bad aspects of populism. So he kind of opened a Pandora’s box and a lot of nasty shit came out, and I hold him responsible for that and I’ve held him responsible for that before he had dinner with Kanye West and Nick Fuentes.
Zach: Yeah, before we move on from that point about that dinner, the Kanye dinner, I’m with you in the sense that I really think if anybody really flattered Trump, he would basically do anything they want, really. And I think people underestimate how easy it would be for Kanye to be like, “Hey, Trump, I really want to have dinner with you and I’m bringing this guy,” and not even maybe tell him until they got there. There’s all sorts of ways this can play out and I think Trump is so desperate to appeal to the Black vote and such too, he would probably have done many things that Kanye asked him to do. So I think people underestimate those kinds of factors, like you say his ego and how far flattery gets people with him. These kinds of things.
James: Yeah, I said from the beginning, Trump isn’t a fascist, he’s a golfer. And it’s just reading him incorrectly to imagine this kind of devious plan.
Zach: Well, sort of like you say too, like we’re saying with the Holocaust and people making Holocaust analogies, and I think the analogies that Trump is this raving anti-Semite or this racist in general, these exaggerated claims don’t help. There’s plenty of things to actually focus on that we legitimately know, and the more exaggerated claims just rile up the tensions and to me, they create the very things we’re angry about.
James: Yeah. Yeah, I think that’s fair and I think our country has suffered a lot because of not only Donald Trump, but the way in which the Left has basically used him to validate their own transgressions and their own overreach and their own liberal behaviour. We could look at what’s going on Twitter right now and what’s being revealed now that Twitter was basically running censorship campaigns against conservatives for years. And they did that because Donald Trump existed. And Donald Trump’s existence has basically been used by the left to validate all sorts of things that I think are destructive and bad for our country. But that’s a separate podcast, probably. But I will say there’s been the Right and there’s been absolutely marked increase in antisemitic activity and the prominence of anti-Semites on the Right with the rise of the alt Right, and just with the whole Donald Trump [gestalt]. It’s been bad for the Jews. And I say that in spite of what I do think are some really important geopolitical advances that he made with the Abraham accords. Great. With recognising Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, great. With pushing back on Iran and reneging on the Iran deal and killing Qasem Soleimani also great. I don’t believe that just because I’m pro Israel, that I therefore have to praise Donald Trump as a wonderful person. I can hold two ideas in my head. And a lot of conservative Trump-supporting Jews don’t seem to agree with me. They think that because he did these wonderful things for Israel, you have to shut up and praise him as the best president ever for Jews, maybe since Harry Truman recognised the State of Israel.
I just don’t buy that. I don’t buy that when it comes to anything political. I think for myself and I’m able to criticise and compliment at the same time. And it shouldn’t be difficult for people but it too often is today, unfortunately. And then of course there’s been increasing antisemitism on the Left. We now have for the first time a small but very vocal antisemitic caucus in the House of Representatives among the squad. We’re talking about a handful of representatives, but they regularly make antisemitic statements. And that is not something that’s really existed in living memory, for me at least, and it’s really hard to remember when that happened. And the kind of spinelessness of Democratic leaders to really condemn and call this out, there have been Democrats who have called out Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and there’s a few others, but it’s been mostly crickets and that’s disappointing.
Of course, and then the anti Semitism on campuses, which just gets worse and worse every year and the stories just pile up you can’t even keep track of them with all the sorts of boycotts and cancellations of antisemitism under the guise of anti Zionism. I think that there isn’t a distinction between the two. I think they are one and the same one and we can talk about that if you want. But on the Left, it’s less.. The Left wing anti Semitism I find more insidious and obnoxious because at least the Right-wing anti-Semites tell you as Jews that they hate you. They’re very open about it and unapologetic. When I was criticizing Donald Trump in 2016, I would get all sorts of blatantly antisemitic messages on Twitter, in my email, on Facebook; people doctoring cartoons with me in a gas chamber and Donald Trump pulling the lever, lots of Pepe the Frog tweets and all that kind of crap.
Whereas the Left, it’s always this very erudite, you know? “Of course we don’t hate Jews! Hating anyone is not… We don’t hate anyone, that’s something that only right-wingers do. Knuckle dragging right-wingers hate people, we just oppose this racist colonialist occupier and its supporters in America who have dual loyalties– who aren’t really loyal to this country. They’re Israel firsters and whatnot.” That’s how Left-wing antisemitism carries itself. And there’s a third form of antisemitism which frankly we don’t see that much in the United States, and that’s the Islamic kind or the Islamists kind. That’s much more prevalent in Europe where they have large– it depends on the country if we’re looking at France, for instance, and England to an extent– you know, large, not-well-assimilated Muslim communities who basically imported this antisemitism from the Arab Muslim world. And that’s why you see these Jewish institutions and Jewish leaders and whatnot living under armed protection. Which, unfortunately, is actually increasingly happening in the United States now too, Jewish institutions in the United States, synagogues, Jewish day schools and whatnot are also getting armed security, which is a really unfortunate development but unnecessary one.
Zach: Getting back to the liberal side academic antisemitism, as you see it, you also talked about seeing Jews as white or white adjacent views too, which I think that’s maybe a separate category or subcategory or maybe are related to some of the campus anti-Semitism as you viewed it. And maybe you can describe a little bit of that argument.
James: Yeah. So as American discourse and society or the salience of race is increasing in our conversation, I actually think it matters less and less, right? Like in terms of your life chances, in terms of your economic station, in terms of the kind of everyday discrimination one faces as an American. I actually think race is less salient. There’s more intermarriage, the Black middle class is growing, the number of actual police shootings of unarmed Black men has actually gone down, okay? All those statistics, I think, are moving in the right direction. Unfortunately, we have this intellectual conversation and this discourse where race seems like it’s never been more prevalent. And there’s this new terms, intersectionality, which is basically inverting a racial hierarchy with Whites at the bottom and non Whites at the top. And there’s various levels even within that non-White category, there’s a hierarchy.
And it’s unclear where Asians lie in this, right? Asians are considered White adjacent according to some woke people. Hispanics are also dangerously becoming White adjacent, and that’s purely based on the fact that they’re increasingly voting for Republicans. There’s nothing to do with anything else but that fact. And so because we have this discourse now where Whiteness, and Whites and white people are considered all to be inherently racist, they all carry implicit bias, they are all responsible for the historical injustices that were committed by white people of generations before, they’ve inherited this guilt to say that Jews are White, and to constantly make this point over and over again that Jews are complicit with whiteness. While I agree that I as an Ashkenazi Jew, I present as White. Yes, I am not going to be stopped by a police officer for driving while Black, I’m not going to suffer from that kind of discrimination. Okay. I’m not going to be followed around in a department store by a sales clerk in the way that Black people often wrongly are. I’m not going to suffer that. But that’s not the purpose of what this discourse is. I think this constant harping on White Jews ‘white Jews this, White Jews that’ is to basically rob Jews of any kind of minority status, any kind of history that they’ve endured of past oppression and suffering and discrimination, and to just group them with this bad group; the bad group is the Whites with a capital W. And so I see as a very kind of provocative hostile act, frankly, that is meant to divide and is meant to demonize Jews, it is meant to identify them as part of an oppressor class, and I think that it is in some sense antisemitic. Yeah, I do.
Zach: One of the things that seem to play a role there is this kind of binary view that differences in racial outcomes are solely due to racism, it almost seems like there’s this binary which leaves a lot of the factors that can be involved out of the picture, you know? Like what happened in the past and how that-
James: Yeah, and what’s the flip side of that if Jews are so successful far beyond their 2% of the population? How do we explain that at one point a third of Yale was Jewish, and the Ivy League schools were disproportionately Jewish? Listen to what Ye is saying, right? Or listen to what people say about Hollywood or the publishing industry, what can that mean? It can only mean that if the disparate outcomes are only explainable by these invidious explanations, then it must mean that the Jews must have done something wrong to get to where they are. They must have cheated out other people. How else can we explain this enormous, disproportionate presence of Jews in certain institutions and certain professions? So yeah, the whole equity agenda I think is antisemitic and racist, but particularly antisemitic because there is no group that I think has more disproportionate presence where the difference between their percentage of the population and their presence in certain institutions is more disproportionate than Jews.
There is, it’s true. There are a lot of Jews in Hollywood. Yeah, there are. Why is that? Is it because they’re all meeting on Friday nights to kind of help each other out? Is there some sort of surreptitious, nefarious agenda going on? Or are there other explanations for it? I mean, why is the NBA so heavily African American? You know, not everything has some evil nefarious explanation behind it. But when you argue that there is, and as the Ibram X Kendis of the world say, that unless… He basically says that every institution and every outcome has to be almost exactly proportionate to… Isn’t that what he’s basically saying? So that’s arguing for a return to quotas. That’s an argument for a return to the 1940s, at least for Jews it is. Its argument for return to the 1940s when the number of Jews in institutions there was a ceiling placed on that. And I mean, that’s not something… That’s antisemitism, I don’t know what else to call that. And now it’s anti Asian.
Zach: Right. I think it gets back to this whole concept which I think is driving a lot of this, is that any differences in outcome are due to racism or White supremacy. And there’s so many factors. I mean, you can believe that Black people and other groups have had a hard time and that has affected them in many ways, just like for example Appalachian coal miners can have a hard time and we don’t say it’s because they’re lacking in some fundamental way, we can just recognize that there’s all these factors present. But to boil it all down to, you know, there’s racism in the society to explain these things is just such a simplification and that makes people look for, you know, “Where’s the racism? It must be coming from the people that are perceived as having more power, and are they oppressors and stuff?” And then that creates its own animosity.
A note here, these are hard things to talk about in passing as it’s easy to mistake people’s stances, and easy for people talking about these things to be misunderstood. If you want to do your own research into these topics more, I’d recommend a few books. Ibrahim X Kendi’s book, How to Be an Antiracist is where many of the most prominent anti-racism ideas come from. So that’s probably the key book for understanding some of the most common anti-racism arguments. And then as a rejoinder to that. You could read John McWhorter’s Woke Racism, which goes through various criticisms of those types of ideas and makes the argument that many of the anti-racism arguments are simplistic and divisive. Another book that might be pertinent to the topic of this episode is David Bernstein’s book Woke Antisemitism, which is similar to John McWhorter’s book, but from a Jewish perspective.
Okay, back to the talk. I want to get back to your views on Kanye West and what Whoopi Goldberg said on The View and some things like that, but one thing you said that I want to focus on more which I think of all the things you’ve said, it’s probably something that many liberals might find fault with is when it comes to criticism of Israel, how do you draw the line between what is valid criticism that anyone can make about a country or anybody doing bad things as they see it versus antisemitism?
James: I actually have a pretty… I think I have a pretty strict definition of this. I don’t think that, you know, there are some people who would say that criticizing Israel for actions that you wouldn’t criticize another country of or another democracy of… A lot of defenders of Israel would say that that’s antisemitic. And I’m not willing to go that far. I think there are lots of people that might be misguided, but they do hold Israel to a higher standard. That’s not always necessarily antisemitic. Most Jews I know would hold Israel to a higher standard. They expect more of Israel than they do of even Britain or France or other exemplary human-rights-respecting democracies. And it pains them that Israel is often in these situations due to its geography and its history, where it is engaged in constant military activity. I mean, it’s been militarily occupying a large population of Arabs since 1967 for 55 years, that’s a long time. So it’s going to do things that… It’s going to do things that a country does when it’s engaged in military actions, and there are always going to be mistakes, there are always going to be innocent people who are harmed, and there’s occasionally gonna be atrocities. Even great democracies commit atrocities because humans are infallible and they make mistakes, and everyone is capable of evil. Every individual is capable of evil.
And a country is no more than the sum of its citizens. And I don’t sit here and claim that Israelis or Jews are any more moral as individuals than any other people. What I would say is that I think the sort of obsessive criticism of Israel that we see in some quarters mostly on the Left– the obsession with Israel, with this relatively small country– I think assigning to it, describing it in almost demonic fashion… If you’re comparing… Again, this is actually where I would say that Hitler and Nazi comparisons are antisemitic. If you are comparing the actions of the Jewish state to what the Nazis did to the Jews, at the very least you are being extremely insensitive and unnecessarily provocative at the very least. I mean, in most cases I would say that that’s antisemitism to compare the treatment of the Palestinians or even the citizens of the Gaza Strip to the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto.
There are lots of things that you could say about how the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are treated, but to deliberately choose that comparison, that analogy, that I would say is anti-semitic. I think singling out Israel is also antisemitic. Like when you look at the amount of time that is spent at the United Nations on Israel in the Human Rights committees where there are real egregious abuses of human rights; Cuba, North Korea, it’s a joke for those countries. For the Arab world, by the way. There’s no Arab Muslim country which can hold a candle to Israel when it comes to not only rule of law, democracy, freedom of speech and whatnot, but the treatment of its minority citizens. I mean, Arabs in Israel are treated better than Arabs in any Arab-ruled country. So to single Israel out– and I’m not saying to criticize Israel, I’m saying the singling out of Israel, right? The boycotting of Israel, the fact that Israel is targeted and is the subject of more resolutions in these committees, the fact that you have these academics who choose only to boycott Israel… If they were so concerned with human rights, there are lots of other countries in the world that are much, much worse in terms of their human rights practices than Israel.
There’s no argument about that, right? So when you see a group of academics in Britain decide that they’re going to boycott Israeli scholars, that to me is blatant antisemitism. What else is it that’s making them choose this country that just happens to be the world’s only Jewish country? Why else are they doing it? I think that’s de facto antisemitism. So singling out Israel… If Israel is doing something singularly bad, fine, then you can single them out. But they’re not. Okay, at least in these conversations about human rights practices and whatnot. So that I think is antisemitic. But look, Israel has a very vigorous free press and you can read extremely critical things of all aspects of the Israeli government and society and culture in the Israeli press. And any Israeli would… You know, there’s the old joke ‘Two Jews, three opinions,’ it’s even more pronounced in Israel. So it has a very vibrant civil society where all sorts of criticisms are aired. And by the way, Israelis love to throw Nazi analogies back and forth at each other. Okay? And maybe there’s a kind of special dispensation we can give them because they’re Jews and whatever. But yeah, that’s where I would say the legitimate criticism of Israel crosses the line into antisemitism.
Zach: Do you think some of these things have a feedback mechanism of once they get started, it’s hard to stop them in the sense that there can be elements of peer pressure of people just not being aware of the complexity of Israel? That’s one thing that strikes me there as one I’ve tried to dig into. The things that have happened in Israel and what the narratives really were, it’s really hard to… It would take me I feel like a lifetime of research to really fully understood it but yet people have these simplistic ideas of like, “Oh, look what’s happening over there. Something bad happened, Israel must be at fault,” and leaving out all the context of the history and what led up to that. So I’m curious if you see some of these things having a life of their own once they get into these established and people are like, “Oh, they’re saying this, I’ll say it too” kind of thing.
James: Yes. I just think there’s a lot of peer pressure particularly among young people in college campuses and in certain spaces, where it’s very fashionable to embrace the cause of the underdog, and for the first 25 years of its existence or 20 years, you could say until 1967 really, Israel was the underdog and Israel had the support of the global Left and had the support of the Soviet Union in 1948. And it had the support of most socialists and other people on the left around the world. And that began to change in 1967 once Israel won a defensive war that was waged by its Arab neighbors to destroy it, and found itself in possession and in control of territories where Palestinians were residing. And that’s how the Occupation began. And so yes, Israel is absolutely of course responsible for the way it treats the citizens under its control in those territories. But I do believe that there’s a level of complexity to this conversation that many of Israel’s critics don’t appreciate, or many I should say, the ones who sort of joined the bandwagon, right? The ones who would post memes of likening Palestinian children to children in the Warsaw Ghetto. I don’t think that those people who do that are really historically aware. And I think that they are often, I mean, the people who are liking those posts on Facebook are ignorant. The ones who are posting and the ones who are actively spreading those memes and those messages I think are anti-Semites.
Zach: Maybe we can go to some specific instances, for example, when Whoopi Goldberg on The View basically said that the Holocaust was basically White people fighting with themselves when it came to Jewish people being killed in World War Two. Maybe you could talk about how you see that as playing into some of the liberal side philosophies arguments about race and seeing Jewish people as White, things like that.
James: Yeah. Again, I think it’s partly ignorance and it’s partly this very American-centric view of the world where our main cleavage is the race question. That’s the main societal cleavage in this country. And it’s taking that prism– the kind of White versus non-White or the Black and White issue in the United States– and thinking that every other issue in the world should be seen through that prism. That’s just wrong. Again, this would sound sort of… Maybe I’m playing into it by talking this way, but the Jews were like the Blacks of Nazi Germany. Okay? If that helps Whoopi Goldberg understand. So yes, they have the same skin tone as Aryan or however they call themselves in terms of the master race. They have the same skin tone, but they were not viewed the same way and they were not treated the same way clearly. Because 6 million of them were murdered. And by the way, they viewed Eastern Europeans and Slavs as subhuman races. Again, if you held up their hands– the hand of a German and that of a Pole or Slovak or Romanian or a Russian, their skin tone would be the same, Whoopi. But that’s not how the Nazis viewed things. You know, was she acting from some deeply thought antisemitic impulse? I don’t think so. I think she’s just extremely ignorant and it’s also very self-centred. It’s this belief that the world revolves around America and the American race issue.
I’ll just give another example of this in a different context. I was at a dinner a couple of nights ago with a group of Ukrainian Members of Parliament who were visiting from Ukraine and it was a dinner with a group of American journalists. And the whole night, everyone was talking about… It was mostly these young women, they were all women, they were presenting their case and what their country has been going through with the Russian invasion and how terrible it’s been. And at the end, there was a someone at the dinner table– we all gave our two minute spiel– and there’s one young man who got up and said that he could relate to it as an African American because African Americans are fighting the same sort of existential struggle for their survival that you Ukrainian people are. And I’m just thinking to myself, I’m like, “Come on! These women are in a country right now where apartment buildings are being blown to bits from the sky by Russian bombers.” Like, literally there’s a campaign of genocide is arguable. It’s arguable that the Russians are committing genocide in Ukraine right now. I don’t know what the latest death toll is, it’s in the tens of thousands if not higher. And you listen to Vladimir Putin, he sounds Hitlerian in the way he talks about Ukrainians. “Okay, this is a fake made up country and it needs to cease to exist.” And he’s sounding like Hitler talking about the people to his East, or the Jews for that matter. To compare the plight of what Ukrainians are going through right now with that of African Americans, I think is just minimizing what Ukrainians are going through. And it’s also just incredibly self-centered. Not everything revolves around the American racial issue, and not everything should be seen through that prism.
Zach: Yeah, I think there’s so many of these simplistic narratives that, as you say, seldom get challenged and these us-versus-them narratives that-
James: Of course, no one. Yes, of course, no one in that room by the way a couple of nights ago. It was a very fancy restaurant in Washington, DC. I could maybe suspect that other people agreed with me that this was an absurd thing to be saying and almost insulting to the women who were there. But of course, no one was going to pipe up and say, “Hey, you know what? This is kind of a stupid comparison. This is really stupid and shallow analogy, maybe you shouldn’t be making it and you’re insulting our guests.” Of course, no one’s gonna say that. And there are a whole lot of things that people don’t say when it comes to these sorts of issues.
Zach: Yeah, I’m somebody who works on depolarization and one of my big beliefs is that we all need to speak up more when we hear unhelpful and divisive narratives and viewpoints on our side– specific on our side– but that’s the nature of polarization that makes people unlikely to challenge people on their side and that’s the very way it works; it’s just people are unwilling to challenge things on their side so their side becomes more and more unreasonable etc. When it comes to Kanye, I’m curious what you think and I’ll give my brief thing and you can maybe play off of that. I see Kanye as having… I think he has some personality disorder in the way he behaves, but I can also see that some of his views he’s also imbibing through the culture on the far Left and far Right, in my opinion, in various ways and just swimming in these weird waters and he’s saying weird things because he’s got some issues. But I’m curious what your take on it is?
James: Well, look, I’m not a psychiatrist but I do think he clearly has some mental problem– I’ve heard bipolarism mentioned. And so I don’t know how much we can attribute to that.
Zach: A small note here. If you’re interested in the connection between mental health and saying offensive things, I’ve examined that in some previous episodes. The reason I delved into that topic previously was that I saw a lot of liberal side overreactions to various viral videos of people who were saying racist or offensive things, and some of these people were quite clearly suffering from mental issues. At one point, there was even a protest staged in California based on the ravings of a clearly mentally unwell woman. And on the Left, even now with Kanye, there is often a framing that having mental problems or personality disorders aren’t a factor in people saying antisocial or racist things. And this is clearly not true. Some mental issues or personality disorders will result in people saying horrible antisocial things. If you’re interested to learn more about that, check out those previous episodes. One was titled Factors Involved in Offensive Speech, and another one was a talk with Rob Rob Tarzwell about his emergency room psychiatric work. Okay, back to the talk.
James: in terms of the content of what he’s saying, look, it’s coming really heavily from… It’s not the far left, it’s coming from… Sorry, it’s not really the far left or the far right, it’s Louis Farrakhan. It’s black nationalism. And this is the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about, which is the prevalence of antisemitic thinking among African Americans. It’s higher than among the general population significantly so. I just saw a poll that said only 44% of African Americans responded yes when asked if Kanye West’s remarks are antisemitic. Which means that a majority either don’t know or do not think that what he said was anti-Semitic. But in terms of the content of what he’s saying, like the Jews who claim to be Jews are fake Jews, you know, Blacks are the real Jews, that’s the Black Hebrews. Your listeners might not know this but there was the largest antisemitic demonstration since Charlottesville happened just a couple of weeks ago in Brooklyn. Two or 300 Black Hebrews were marching in support of Kyrie Irving, another very prominent Black celebrity who’s made blatantly antisemitic remarks that was not covered in the media. We’re still hearing about Charlottesville five years after it happened. We hear about that a lot. It’s very much imprinted upon the American mind. And rightly so. But there was hardly any coverage of a similar-sized antisemitic demonstration because the people who were the villains in the story, it’s inconvenient, right? And so the mainstream media and basically our sensemaking institutions and the culture, you know, academia and all these institutions, they don’t want to confront this. And that’s why you just don’t really hear about it because it’s a very inconvenient and uncomfortable topic to discuss.
Zach: And a good number of hate crimes and even murders of Jewish people have been by the Black Hebrew Israelite type of people. Is that true?
James: Yeah, or just random assailants. You look at New York City where, you know, I’m not visibly Jewish. I’m not orthodox, I’m not wearing a yarmulke, I’m not wearing long sideburns pious. But among that segment of the Jewish population, yeah, it’s quite dangerous. And there’s been a huge spike in violence against them. And it’s almost exclusively from African Americans, you know, non-White assailants basically are the main perpetrators of that violence. Again, that’s a subject that you will not really see covered outside of the Jewish press and the conservative press. It’s something that the mainstream media does not want to touch because it doesn’t fit into this narrative that they’ve been crafting since 2015-2016 that the rise of Donald Trump and White supremacy is the central evil of our time. You’ve even seen this when there was this spate of anti-Asian attacks about two years ago. Much, if not the majority of it, was also perpetrated by African Americans. We were being told that this was the fault of White supremacy and there was just no logical… People were saying this in full view. There was video evidence of these attacks that were happening and yet they would constantly say that it’s still– I don’t even know how they rationalized it– that this was still somehow the fault of White supremacy.
Zach: Another example that often is brought up of antisemitism is the George Soros memes and insults and such, and in my own research of delving into some of the darker parts of the internet, I went into some pro-Trump Facebook groups and interestingly to me or surprisingly maybe to me, the amount of hate that I saw for George Soros was just off the charts compared to other people. Hillary Clinton and Obama and all these people got a lot of hate too but the amount of visceral death wishes and this kind of thing were just off the charts for George Soros. And I’m curious how much of the anti-George Soros speech and language and rhetoric from conservatives do you view as antisemitic? Because in some ways, I can see some of it has been similar to what we talked about with criticism of Israel where some of the people doing this would not view… They view it as, “Oh, there’s a powerful person with money giving money to liberal causes so I hate them,” kind of thing. But I’m curious what your take on where you see the boundaries of that is, or how much of it do you see as being antisemitic?
James: Well, I’m not a fan of really vitriol or hateful unhinged criticism and commentary in general so I don’t like it. When it comes to George Soros, look, the man is the biggest funder of the Democratic Party and he has been. And generally of liberal progressive causes. It should be fair to criticize him. And I think liberals and progressives, many of whom are very quick by the way to deny any antisemitism in their own ranks and are very quick to defend people whom I consider to be anti-Semites like Ilhan Omar, they get very, very, very sensitive about criticizing George Soros who by the way does not really even identify as Jewish. He’s been open about that. He identifies as a Jew, but he doesn’t give any money to Jewish philanthropies or any causes, he very much sees himself as a citizen of the world, he’s cosmopolitan, he kind of despises what he views as this grubby particularism of Jews. But that’s his decision and that doesn’t mean that he should therefore be subjected to antisemitic attacks. But it is an interesting side note. But when Marco Rubio or other conservatives criticize or they use the term ‘Soros-backed prosecutors’ to describe some of these progressive very Left-wing prosecutors in various cities across the country who are letting criminals out of jail and not prosecuting them for various crimes or reducing their sentences and removing cash bail and whatnot when they refer to these individuals as Soros-backed prosecutors…
There was a huge controversy about this in August and this was deemed antisemitic, you know, merely to point out the fact that George Soros is funding to the tune of tens of millions of dollars prosecutors who are public officials who are pursuing very controversial policies. That, to me, is ridiculous. Look, if George Soros is being discussed in terms that are the same that the Left uses to describe the Koch brothers, then I don’t see how that can be antisemitic. By the way, they’re describing the Koch brothers as these shadowy actors who are destroying the country and whatnot. That’s fine. That’s political rhetoric. They’re allowed to do that. I don’t think that when people on the Right– or not just the Right– when other people criticize George Soros in similar fashion, that is ipso facto an example of antisemitism in the United States, that is.
It’s a somewhat different conversation when you’re talking about Hungary, which has a different history than the United States in a very different context. And there’s a very different relationship between the Jews and that governments and Jews and non-Jews in Hungary. This is a country that largely collaborated in the extinction of its own Jewish population during the Holocaust. And when the leaders of that country decide to make George Soros this Emmanuel Goldstein-type boogeyman, when Viktor Orbán gives a speech and he says that the country’s enemies are not loyal, they’re not patriotic, they speculate with money, they’re internationalists, they’re globalists… to me, that’s crossing a line. Because there is a baggage and there is a context and there’s a history in Hungary that getting back to where this conversation started, is not the history of the United States. It is in many ways the opposite of the history United States. It’s the reason why Jews left places like Hungary in the last century and even earlier to come to the United States.
So I think there’s a kind of naivete among a lot of American right-wingers and conservatives. You actually ask them and a lot of them don’t even know he’s Jewish. I’m not trying to play defense for the Right here, because there are some people on the Right who know exactly what they’re doing. They know exactly they’re playing into Jewish tropes, and they use those anti-Jewish antisemitic tropes. But there are lots of conservatives who they’re just watching Fox News or they’re listening to talk radio. And yeah, “George Soros is the biggest donor to the Democrats and progressive causes. Of course, we’re not gonna like him.” And they use intemperate language to describe him but you know what? I don’t see liberals being very nice when they talk about Mitch McConnell or the Koch brothers or Peter Thiel or the Big Bad Bboogie Man who writes checks to conservative causes. So I’d like it if we were all a little more restrained in how we talk about our fellow Americans, but in the absence of that, I’m not so quick to just rush and say any intemperate criticism of George Soros. Even saying that he’s evil, okay? That’s not necessarily antisemitic.
Zach: Another thing you made me think of is the focus on the word ‘globalist’ and some people treat that as code for Jewish. I’ve seen that a lot and I’m honestly kind of perplexed by that sometimes because back in the day I read Jerry Mander book, The Case Against Globalism early on and he’s Jewish, and I just wonder how you see that word being used.
James: I think it can be, it depends on the context. All this stuff is contextual and I think-
Zach: It’s complex. Yeah.
James: Yeah. Well, you say no question but a lot of people don’t see it that way and they make these categorical judgments. And they’re not willing to abide any nuance or apply it in a case-by-case basis. I first came across the term globalist when I was researching the Ron Paul newsletters, which was a story that I broke for The New Republic in 2008. Ron Paul published all these newsletters dating back to the 1970s where he was railing against his usual bugbears like fiat money and the Federal Reserve and big budgets, big government spending, deficit spending. But there was also a lot of Right-wing, pro-militia, racist conspiracy theory stuff in there, too. And he was using this word globalist a lot. Then I looked into it more and it seemed that it was really kind of popularised with the John Birch Society, which was a far right– it still exists– was founded as a far-right anti-communist organization and definitely was antisemitic. And William F. Buckley Jr. sort of famously kicked them out of the conservative movement in the 1960s, if you will. So the word definitely has antisemitic intonations or associations if you will, but it is not always everywhere.
So I think that if you’re talking against free trade deals and international agreements and you want the United States out of the United Nations and you want the United States out of NATO, you know, come home America, and you’re just a kind of isolationist… You know, have isolationists been antisemitic in the past? Yeah, Charles Lindbergh the leader of the America First Movement was an anti-Semite. But not everyone in the America First Movement was anti-Semitic. And I don’t think that someone who poses international trade deals or American involvement in the world is necessarily anti-Semitic. There’s a lot of overlap because it often comes back to, “Well, why is it that the United States has these big defense budgets and is involved in all these wars and international conflicts?” It’s because they’re trying to support or defend the State of Israel. And why are they supporting or defending the State of Israel? Oh, it’s because of these neocons in Washington with all their money.
So that’s why there’s a lot of overlap between the isolationist community and the antisemitic community, but I have friends who are more libertarian inclined who just don’t believe that the United States should play a global leadership role, and they want out of all these institutions. And they’re not antisemitic, and they’re not driven to this position because they have some kind of conspiratorial view of what the Israel lobby is kind of hoodwinking the American people. They don’t share that. Again, there’s context, you know? Sometimes globalist can be used in an antisemitic context, sometimes not. I don’t think Donald Trump or necessarily even Steve Bannon who was the one– I think Bannon was the one who really inserted that word into Trump’s speeches and whatnot– I don’t think that they’re being motivated by an antisemitic impulse there. I think it is this genuine American nationalism that has a very long pedigree in this country, you can trace it all the way back to Andrew Jackson and maybe even earlier. And you know, these guys would say that they traced it all the way back to George Washington who opposed entangling alliances with other countries. So this is a real aspect of American foreign policy thinking. And while it has attracted anti-Semites under its banner, it is not inherently antisemitic.
Zach: One question I’ve sometimes wondered is, do you think that Jewish people’s not believing in an afterlife is a factor in them seeming to as a group be very hard workers?
James: It is a good question. And I’m not a very religious Jew so I’m probably not the right person to be asking, but I have gotten the sense just growing up. You know, I am a Jew and I was Bar Mitzvahed and I had a somewhat Jewish education growing up, but very much culturally Jewish, you could say. And I definitely got the impression that there was the sense that, you know, like the Catholic kids could go confess whenever they committed a sin. They could go confess and get absorbed by the priests. And there was this afterlife, right? That that’s what ultimately as Christians they were ultimately striving for, a place in this afterlife. And we didn’t get any of that. [laughs] That’s not how Jews live. It’s like, there’s this world, and you gotta make this world better and you have to succeed in this world, and you have to treat people good in this world. You can’t keep on committing a sin every week and getting absolved and going back and doing it again. So I think there was this kind of cultural sense that maybe the Christians had it easier, right? Or maybe non-Jews. I don’t know about the Muslim tradition here, or other religious traditions. But growing up in America, Christianity is obviously the predominant culture. And yeah, just this sense that we didn’t believe in heaven. You don’t hear that in the synagogue, you know, all this talk about the afterlife and trying to win a place in heaven. It’s just not a part of… It was not a part of my Jewish upbringing, whether or not that has– on a larger scale– whether or not that has anything to do with Jewish success.
I definitely think it has a lot to do with the Jewish philanthropic drive, the Jewish priority on learning. You know, you just see the enormous amount of support that Jewish philanthropies and charities do, individual Jews are extremely philanthropic with non-Jewish causes too. Right? I mean, David Geffen’s name is everywhere. There’s all these Jewish philanthropists. I think it does have something to do with that. Yes.
Zach: Yeah. It’s just interesting to me because it’s something that I’ve often wondered and I’ve just never seen anything written about it. And I kind of wondered if it might be viewed as insensitive to talk about, but it just seems to me like you say, it’s ‘I want to get my rewards in this life. I don’t have a second life to fall back on, I have here and now.’
James: Yeah. No, I think it’s a fair question to ask.
Zach: Do you want to mention anything else? Maybe anything that you thought we missed, or else go into what you’re working on these days.
James: Well, I published a book this past summer, which doesn’t really have anything to do with what we’ve talked about today. But it’s about another minority. It’s called Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington, and it’s about the role of homosexuality in American high politics from World War Two to the end of the Cold War when to be a homosexual in Washington was really the most dangerous thing you could possibly be. Even more dangerous than being a communist. That book was published in the summer, it was a New York Times bestseller, it was just named to the list of the top 100 notable books of the year by the Times. And I am back to journalism, writing for Tablet and Air Mail and [Colette] and other places that I write for, and thinking about a next book but not settled on one yet.
Zach: Congrats on the book’s success, that’s great.
James: Thank you.
Zach: And yeah, thanks a lot for coming on, and thanks for giving your opinions.
James: Thanks for having me.
Zach: That was journalist and author, Jamie Kirchick. You can learn more about him on his website, jameskirchick.com. You can follow him on Twitter @jkirchick.
That was journalist and author Jamie Kirchick. You can learn more about him on his website JamesKirchick.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @jkirchick.
I wanted to mention some people and resources who contributed to my research for this episode. I read some of David Bernstein’s book Woke Antisemitism, which makes the case that some common liberal-side antiracism approaches are divisive and can lead to antisemitic views. Bernstein has long been an influential person in Jewish organizations and he shares his experiences seeing the new antiracism ideas grow in influence over the last couple decades and how he’s seen those ideas affect Jewish organizations and affect people’s perspectives on Jews and Israel.
I also wanted to thank Marshall Herskovitz, who I follow on Twitter and who is also someone interested in depolarization, for talking to me a bit on this topic.
I also read some of a book titled The Enduring, Invisible, and Ubiquitous Centrality of Whiteness, which was a series of antiracism essays, and a couple of those essays were by Jewish people considering their so-called whiteness.
This has been the People Who Read People podcast, with me Zach Elwood. You can learn more about it at www.behavior-podcast.com. Remember that you can subscribe to it and get ad-free episodes, amongst a few other features. But mainly you’d be helping me work more on this podcast and help promote it to others, so if you enjoy my work or think it’s important, that’s the main way you can show your appreciation.
Okay thanks for listening.