The essays collected here are evidence of how the Trump regime can be critically clarifying for Jewish studies, offering us—scholars if not Jews—an opportunity to think about the ways identity operates for and circulates through the Jewish studies field. As Neil Levi and Michael Rothberg point out in their Introduction, the Trump era’s juxtaposition of resurgent antisemitism (often dog-whistled or encouraged, if not in fact openly expressed, by Trump himself) and so many Jews in his inner circle (I hesitate to say “brain trust”) is, at least initially, cognitively dissonant for scholars raised on liberal commonplaces. They direct us to examine the historical forces at work that have expressed themselves in recent years.
If white supremacy has arguably been fair disciplinary game for Jewish studies scholarship for as long as there’s been a professional association for Jewish studies scholars (even if that association was initially more interested in ancient scholarly objects than modern ones), the Trump era’s catastrophic (in the sense of its etymological signification of a “sudden turn”) illumination of Jewish white supremacy— taking form in Stephen Miller’s white nationalism, Bibi Netanyahu’s alliances with racists like Viktor Orbán, Israel’s “nation-state law,” and Richard Spencer’s praise of Israel for being an ethno-state, for example—has been jarring for a Jewish studies establishment whose intellectual identity is still largely exceptionalist. Used to a historicist liberalism whose progressive narratives incite a kind of privileged identification with their scholarly objects, Jewish studies scholars (to say nothing of Jews, that population that, it pays to keep close to the front of our minds, supplies the majority of Jewish studies scholars) find themselves newly faced by an assertive need to interrogate their foundational concepts of Jewish identity.
One of the defining characteristics of our era—I’m really not sure when to date this emergence, but Vietnam might stand as a useful, if revisable, placeholder for now—is the affective elision of ideas and identity: it’s becoming increasing difficult to disentangle what one believes from who one takes oneself (and whom others take one) to be. For Jewish studies the signal illustration of this turn is the potency of [End Page 1] “Israel” in American intellectual discourse. So, for example, an array of American Jewish community organizations, like Hillel International, insist that support for Israel (if not necessarily support of specific Israeli state policies) is an essential part of American Jewish identity; “intersectionality” has become the banner under which “The Left” is criticized for an antisemitism that takes form in a refusal to countenance Zionism; Stephen Bannon is cheered by the ZOA for declaring himself a “Christian Zionist”; Trump and Netanyahu, funded by Sheldon Adelson and fluffed by Stephen Miller, suggest that American Jews who don’t embrace Israeli ethnonationalism are disloyal; and the charge that anti-Zionism or even simply criticism of the Israeli denial of civil, legal, and political rights to Palestinians, in fact, indicates antisemitism is becoming institutionalized, even sometimes among those who take cover behind that increasingly obfuscating and distracting term “liberal Zionism.”
In fact, the Trump era’s (including the Trump administration’s) intensification of Israel politics is demonstrating that Jews can be antisemites in addition to self-haters. Jewish self-haters presumably (so the accusation goes) don’t like their Jewishness and (thereby) make their fellow Jews look bad; indeed, the charge is levied by Jews at Jews, its persuasiveness, presumably, deriving from the fact that both parties equally embrace the identity-term (if not necessarily the specific shape or signified of that term). Thus was Philip Roth pilloried by some Jews early in his career for (so we read and heard) airing dirty Jewish laundry. Roth’s less than entirely flattering depictions of postwar Jewish American life caused great consternation among conservative Jewish community establishments, as they saw Roth as necessarily a Jewish American Writer—and therefore as a representative of Jewish Americans. Concerned about acceptance if not assimilation above all else, and little if at all about literary or aesthetic value, they saw Roth’s Jewish sensationalism as nothing but a hindrance. On the other hand, Roth adamantly resisted the label “Jewish American writer,” claiming only that he was a writer who happened to be a Jew, and who therefore drew (even necessarily) upon Jewish material, but who made no claims to representativity. In response to the establishmentarians’ complaint, Roth cited Isaac Bashevis Singer’s great retort. Cultural conservatives would wonder why Bashevis had to write about Jewish whores and Jewish pimps, and in Roth’s telling Singer responded, “What should I write about, Portuguese whores? Portuguese pimps?” It’s a great line, but of course it was the reactionary literary nationalists, not Roth, who won the long game. Roth, in fact, came in time to be perhaps the representative Jewish American writer, much as his reactionary coreligionist detractors in Jewish establishment formations themselves saw him and were worried others outside the Jewish fold would see him, too.
But our era’s new breed of Jewish antisemites—Jews who agree with the likes of Netanyahu, Trump, Adelson, Orban, Spencer, Bannon, and Miller that Jews should be loyal to “their” proper ethno-nationally defined state, Israel (and in particular its government)—are reproducing the antisemitic libel of dual loyalty. [End Page 2] While one might imagine that such Jews don’t necessarily share the judenrein aspirations of the tiki torch-bearing lumpen racists of Charlottesville, alliances with Orban’s Hungary and MbS’s Saudi Arabia, or indeed with a Christianist Republican Party whose philosemitism is at best Christologically instrumental, appear increasingly logical and normative when pursued under the banner of a rightist ethno-national Zionism oriented primarily around the Israeli state.
I don’t deny that I’m laying into the right here, that’s for sure. I’ll cop to finding racialist fascism a graver threat to the human future than a rate of taxation sufficient to pay for universal healthcare, community investment, adequate infrastructure spending, solutions to the climate emergency, and even (gasp!) reparations; but more to the point, my interest is the danger in how “Israel” is functioning as a fulcrum in this ever more pugilistic rightist hegemony. That said, following Judith Butler in Parting Ways, we can see a cognate move on the left, as well, when progressive Jews insist that a commitment to social justice is essential to Judaism and Jewish identity. Frankly, if one wanted to be particularly provocative one might also want to argue that liberal Zionists repeat the dual-loyalty libel insofar as they assume a kind of “natural” (that’s my word) loyalty of Jews toward Israel; but instead of following the lead of Trump (or of weiße Juden like Bari Weiss and Ruth Wisse) and blaming fellow Jews for being disloyal to their identity, they take for granted that Jews should hold Netanyahu and right-wing Zionists to account for perverting a presumably just Zionist ideal.
Jewish studies perhaps has a particular responsibility in this perilous time, as conflicts become increasingly intractable because ideas are becoming increasingly expressible—and only expressible—in the language of identity. We might argue in fact that if this discursive emergence has become a particular problem of our age, Judaism can be located at the origin: it was Abraham, after all, whose innovation was to translate a set of doctrines and practices into a biologistic inheritance. Alicia Ostriker writes that “Father Abraham is neither king, general, prophet, or priest, but an obscure shepherd whose newly circumcised loins produce in old age a particular seed, representing a particular idea. A set of promises tied to a set of commands. A chromosomal libretto. A knotted unbroken fiber, twisting and untwisting from one generation to the next.”1 With Abraham, a series of beliefs, teachings, precepts, and canon take a form peculiarly able to reproduce and propagate: Judaism and Jewishness illuminate the promise of an analytic for a set of ideas become a lineage. Jewish studies needs to develop powerful methodologies for this critique.
1. Alicia Suskin Ostriker, The Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical Visions and Revisions (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1994), 50.