The “New Antisemitism” and the Logic of Whiteness

Megan Wachspress argues that the relationship of leftist activists to their own whiteness is shaping the current wave of anti-Israeli campus protests.

By Megan WachspressNovember 29, 2023

The “New Antisemitism” and the Logic of Whiteness

AS I’VE WATCHED many Jewish people on college and university campuses react to others’ reactions to Hamas’s massacre on October 7 and Israel’s siege and bombardment of Gaza, I keep coming back to James Baldwin. Specifically, his short essay, originally published in Essence, entitled “On Being White … and Other Lies,” and his 1967 New York Times essay “Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-White.” Baldwin’s claim in the former essay is stark and resonating: the Jewish community in the United States “came here from countries where they were not white, and they came here, in part, because they were not white,” but American Jews have “opted to become white” by embracing the subjugation of Black people. Whiteness is not a phenotype or ethnicity but a position, a status, a membership. Numerous immigrant groups, in Baldwin’s telling, have become white by assuming this status (his examples include the Irish and the Norwegians), but because Jews were not white in Europe, and were not even white in the United States for a time, they have “paid the highest and most extraordinary price for becoming white.” To bowdlerize Baldwin’s point: Jews’ whiteness is contingent, perhaps uniquely so.

Baldwin’s essays are rich and challenging texts that I am not equipped to fully unpack. But as an American Jew who spent a decade engaged in political activism on various university campuses, and as an employee of a large nonprofit that has largely embraced the anti-racism canon that emerged following the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020, I believe that they provide insight into the current struggle over claims of antisemitism in the academy and other “liberal” spaces. News coverage and social media posts have described broad pro-Palestinian feeling on US college campuses in the days following October 7, which has crystallized in various missives and marches. Many of these—according to media reports—took on the character of outright celebration of Hamas’s “victory,” with explicitly anti-Israeli statements made at a louder volume and among a wider swath of students and faculty than most campuses had seen before. This in turn prompted many professors and students to complain about an atmosphere of antisemitism on campus, with many Jews claiming to feel unsafe due to what they saw as a celebration of the murder of Jews (the dozens of Thai farmworkers and Bedouin who were kidnapped and killed by Hamas being inconvenient for both sides of the narrative).

Ironically, the claim that Jews on campus feel unsafe (physically or psychologically is never quite made clear) is being advanced at the same moment when the US government is deploying billions of dollars worth of weapons in an ostensible effort to maximize the physical safety of Israelis and making repeated statements intended to assuage the psychological suffering of American Jews. The response among many of those who oppose the Israeli state (Jewish and not) has been to ridicule these fears or to accuse those articulating them of playing the victim in order to gin up more support for the bombing of Gaza.

What Baldwin helps me to see is that something complicated and unarticulated is happening in the campus protests. I think what many Jews on campus are in fact reacting to is the perception that, among white progressive, liberal, or left-wing students and professors, support for the Palestinian cause has become not just canonical but of high salience today. These white students and (largely junior) faculty have spent the last few years suffused in a particular anti-racism curriculum that, in its most popular incarnation within colleges and other liberal, elite institutions, takes a Manichean view of race and racism. As should be clear from the fact that I began with Baldwin, I could not disagree more with the politicians who caricature these DEI efforts as being aimed solely at emotionally browbeating white students and who are seeking, in response, to ban the teaching of history outright. But these critiques are also not entirely baseless: the currently dominant anti-racism curriculum does tend to produce a sense of guilt in white students as its primary affective response and, in some of its theoretically sloppier incarnations, seems aimed primarily at doing so.

In this context, the Israel-Palestinian conflict represents an opportunity for tremendous psychological release. Yes, white Americans are implicated in the annihilation of Gaza through US military support for Israel, but they are not personally implicated in this instantiation of white-supremacist settler colonialism, as they are in US anti-Black racism, through privilege and microaggressions and national original sin. On this view, Jews in Palestine, by contrast, are the agents of (first British, now American) empire—they are whiteness concentrated. This ignores, of course, the actual ethnic and racial diversity (and intra-Jewish discrimination) of Israeli society, which is hugely important for understanding the original Zionist project and the history of Israel. But for these non-Jewish white students, Israel presents a way to condemn whiteness without implicating oneself, to support anti-racist ideology in a way that doesn’t lead to shame and self-abnegation.

The sense of celebration some saw in the post–October 7 protests was not only originating from those who were personally—historically, familially—invested in freeing themselves and their loved ones from Israeli oppression, and who thus saw in Hamas’s attack the possibility of military victory. Muslim, Arab, and anti–Israeli-government Jewish groups have been fighting for Palestinian liberation for a long time; I heard the phrase “from the river to the sea” many times on campus before this month, and no doubt most of those speaking out about unprecedented antisemitism had too. It is, rather, the fact that the white Left on campus is now shouting it that makes some mostly if not exclusively white Jews on campus­—and in other places dominated, explicitly or otherwise, by a white Left—feel unsafe.

This feeling is, I suspect, the unconscious recognition that American Jews’ contingent whiteness may be threatened if “the Jewish state” becomes a means by which other white people can disavow their own complicity in European colonialism. The relationship of leftist activists to their own whiteness is informing both the size and the tenor of the current wave of anti-Israeli campus protests, and inasmuch as this aspect forces into the open the lack of racial identification between white Americans and (Ashkenazi) American Jews, it threatens the success of assimilation and the accrual of white privilege for those American Jews. To put it another way: Many American Jews are not afraid of Hamas sympathizers in their dorms (though this may be what they claim to fear)—they are afraid of losing the status their parents and grandparents won in the diaspora, and the current anti-Israel protests suggest that that status may not be as secure as they had once thought. This fear is not irrational; losing the protection of whiteness is no small thing for people who may have grandparents or great-grandparents who survived the camps. But whiteness also, as Baldwin explained, comes at an enormous moral cost.

Those decrying the “new antisemitism” in colleges and other progressive spaces are therefore not entirely wrong when they attempt to articulate the presence of something ugly in the current campus protests. But what they are sensing is the product of young people working through their own discomfort with whiteness, and it would be a mistake for Jews, in response, to double down on their own. The current wave of pro-Palestinian sentiment on college campuses has to be understood in the context of the last three years of US anti-racist organizing and discourse—and the claims of a “climate of fear” for Jews on campus as a reaction, however subconscious, to facing the perceived loss of racial privilege.

That this fear reaction is especially intense in relation to flagging support for Israel is telling, since Israel presents, for many American Jews, a place where they can be white. What else can it mean for American Jews to support the existence of the state of Israel specifically as a guarantor of Jews’ safety, at the same time that they point to its vulnerability to military incursion and terrorism from its neighbors as justification for billions in American military subsidies? If the United States turned on “the Jewish people,” in what way would Israel—meant to be a hedge against discrimination or worse in the diaspora—offer safety? And why would so many people talk about an “unprecedented” wave of antisemitism in the US with so little, if any, acknowledgment that 11 American Jews were murdered in a Pittsburgh synagogue almost exactly five years ago? The psychological investment in US support for Israel among American Jews is, I think, a subconscious desire that Jews should be recognized as a people with a place, as one of the hyphenated communities Baldwin describes (the Irish-Americans, Norwegian-Americans, etc.), a people who have chosen the United States and thus whiteness. It is also, in a devastating historical irony, a desire to be folded into the ethnonationalist logic for which central European Jews were a “problem” in the first half of the 20th century, and to which the “solution” was annihilation.

The conflation of whiteness and safety, among those writing op-eds and Twitter threads and emails and petitions seeking the protection of white institutions by demanding official condemnation of pro-Palestinian protests and vindication of Israeli military actions, may in this light appear as more understandable and deserving of some sympathy, but it is still a profound mistake. Not only is the effort to reaffirm one’s own whiteness an immoral choice, to use Baldwin’s framing, but it is also one that, I fear, will have long-lasting and ruinous consequences for the Jewish diaspora. What I hope is that liberal American Jews who now sense the contingency of their belonging, not among MAGA Republicans but within their own progressive communities, and who simultaneously are confronted with the monstrous actions of the Israeli state in Gaza, may see this as a watershed to break with ethnonationalism altogether. Perhaps in this “unprecedented” moment there lies an opportunity for American Jews to embrace a return to universalism as a fundamental Jewish principle and to relinquish, in the United States as in Palestine, the poisoned gift of whiteness.


Featured image: [Man with horse standing near the Dead Sea], ca. 1890–1900. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division., CC0. Accessed November 27, 2023.

LARB Contributor

Megan Wachspress is an environmental lawyer living in Berkeley, California, where she earned a PhD in jurisprudence and social policy.


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