Jews and Americans as Supervillains

The long-standing interaction between anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism
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Graffito like the one appearing one morning just across the street from the apartment in a left-leaning so-called alternative neighborhood in Leipzig, “Fick Israel—Fick die U.S.A” is certainly no surprise for those who consider themselves part of the left. Anti-Zionism has been an endemic marker for the global left since 1967 as has its ideological companion, anti-Americanism. Both sentiments have become core characteristics of what it means to be left in liberal advanced capitalist democracies.

Unlike other prejudices, anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism are considered not only acceptable but in fact de rigueur for large parts of the global left because both denounce the rich and mighty, with Israel represented as the main satellite of U.S. imperialism. Both of these beliefs are positioned as speaking truth to power. In her important book Das unsichtbare Vorurteil (The Invisible Prejudice) which deals with anti-Semitism among the U.S. left after Sept. 11, Sina Arnold demonstrates that this is not just a narrative popular in Europe but also widespread among American progressives—which is not surprising since the latter almost by definition are highly critical of U.S. foreign policy.

Lest there be any misunderstandings: Being anti-Trump is not being anti-American! When we use the term anti-Americanism we mean an all-encompassing resentment not a mere opposition to a specific administration or policy. Opposing Trump’s very being, resisting his policies every step of the way is not anti-American. Indeed, it often in fact is based on the same American values that anti-Americanism denounces: plurality, minority rights, and public liberty.

Opposing American policies does not constitute anti-Americanism. Disliking what America does is not anti-American. But having an all-encompassing antipathy for what America is, does in fact represent anti-Americanism.

Anti-Americanism refers to a deeper presence of negative attitudes against all things American, a point of view, a state of mind that though occasionally dormant has never been moribund in European opinion of America and Americans since its first manifestations among 18th century naturalists. Paul Hollander’s definition of anti-Americanism appears quite useful to clarify our approach: “Anti-Americanism is a predisposition to hostility [emphasis in the original] toward the United States and American society, a relentless critical impulse toward American social, economic, and political institutions, traditions, and values; it entails an aversion to American culture in particular and its influence abroad, often also contempt for the American national character … and dislike of American people, manners, behavior, dress …; a firm belief in the malignity of American influence and presence anywhere in the world.”

Take the German word Amerikanisierung for example, which was introduced into the German dictionary during the heydays of the intelligentsia’s culturally pessimistic anti-Americanism at the turn from the 19th to the 20th century, as was its French counterpart américanisation. Until today, whenever used, in the most varied of contexts (sports, language, education, criminality, culture, etc.) terms like Amerikanisierung and américanisation invariably imply a phenomenon’s cheapening and loss of authenticity as in the Amerikanisierung of soccer, of food, of music, of language, of whatever. Américanisation also entails a corrosive dimension, something that ruins an item’s and context’s original bliss and genuineness. In addition, there is a sense of inevitability to this process, a kind of helplessness befalling the victims of Americanization, a loss of agency in the face of this all-powerful onslaught that breeds resentment. This same mindset pertains to anti-Semitism as well. Jews, just like Americans, are also seen as corrosive, as undermining an entity’s authenticity, as subverting its original purity. Both Jews and Americans are deemed to be particularly powerful even though they are almost always considered culturally inferior and somehow artificial, most assuredly inauthentic.

The attribution of an almost-limitless power to the United States constitutes one of the key links between anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism. Israel is perceived as an American outpost, the sole Goliath in the Middle East (somehow other regional powers like Iran and Saudi Arabia have never been subjected to anywhere near the opprobrium that Israel has received in the past 50 years), against whom the Palestinian David is desperately and honorably taking a stand. At the same time, the notion of unlimited power attributed to the United States reveals another dimension: the affinity of anti-American conspiracy theories with anti-Semitic narratives.

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Although it is hard to tell whether today’s anti-Americanism in some parts of the world derives from anti-Semitic beliefs or the other way around, it is obvious that the tale of Jewish power and conspiracy has been around both before the United States attained its global power that it has wielded since the end of World War II, and before Israel was founded. Well before Wilhelm Marr’s coinage of the term anti-Semitism in 1879, the view of the almighty, evil, devious Jew whose ways, indeed whose very being, comprises the essence of corrosion, had been alive and well in European discourse for centuries. Jews have long been viewed as corrosive agents that stealthily but all the more successfully dissolve the authentic fabric of a traditional collective, most eminently that of a nation since the 19th century, or in its much more primordial and ethnocentric manifestation the Volk.

European intellectuals of the right and the left have accorded America a similarly corrosive power that, not by chance, they see as strongly related to that of the Jews, as depicted in conspiracy theories like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. In Egypt, for example, the 41 episodes of the show “Horseman Without a Horse” in which the hero discovers a secret document written in Russian and describing a Jewish world conspiracy, were shown during Ramadan in 2002 by various television stations. Right-wing extremists in Russia, Europe, and America have reprinted the Protocolsrepeatedly, and the boom of esoteric and populist conspiracy theories has been accompanied by many articles and books featuring variations on the Protocols’ leitmotif.

Neo-Nazi views still represent perhaps the most overt manifestations of anti-Semitism as well as its relationship with anti-Americanism. In a recent article the University of Cambridge historian Brendan Simms showed that Hitler’s anti-Americanism was sharpened by his experience of American troops being the decisive force in defeating Wilhelmine Germany in WWI. Simms argues that this deep-seated anti-American resentment propelled Hitler to become the lethal anti-Semite that he turned out to be. It was therefore Hitler’s anti-Americanism that led to his anti-Semitism, rather than his days in fin de siècle Vienna in which he first encountered real live Jews and where he also failed to gain entrance to that city’s arts academy.

Both Jews and Americans are deemed to be particularly powerful even though they are almost always considered culturally inferior and somehow artificial, most assuredly inauthentic.

While we are swayed by Simms’ impressive evidence and novel interpretation, we still believe that it remains unclear, even in Hitler’s case, whether anti-Americanism constitutes the source for anti-Semitism or whether it is vice versa. In fact both narratives—“the Jews use America to rule the world,” and “America uses the Jews and Israel” to do the same—have been manifest for a long time, and complement each other. Symptomatic on the extreme right is the Nazi ideologist Giselher Wirsing’s 1941 elaboration in Der maßlose Kontinent (The Excessive Continent) that “The lodges [were] the collecting tank of Jewish power within the U.S. gradually growing beneath the surface.”

The belief that it is the other way around, and that the United States uses Israel to secure and expand its global domination, is a core element of the Marxist-Leninist catechism as Thomas Haury in his 2002 book Antisemitismus von links (Anti-Semitism From Left) argues so convincingly. However, often this anti-American anti-Zionism backfires when leftist groups find themselves in uncomfortably full agreement with the far right in arguing that Jews have “too much power” in the United States. Then again, it is particularly on issues of America and Jews/Israel in which the antipathies of the far left and far right often meet each other in happy harmony.

Yet the alignment of anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism, in its varied manifestations, is much older than Nazism or theories of imperialism. It can be found as early as the second half of the 19th century when anti-Semitism became a social movement in Europe. Just think of the Dreyfus Affair in France or the rise of political anti-Semitism in Karl Lueger’s Vienna: It was during that time when Jewishness and Americanism became synonyms of modernity and liberalism which, as many feared, would destroy Europe’s authenticity.

Jews and America back then were already identified with essential economic, political, and cultural institutions and ingredients that constituted the essence of capitalist modernity. Money, commerce, banks, stock markets, and materialism came to be associated with an almighty Jewish and/or American influence. The complexity of modernity is here reduced through a personification of capitalism and facile conspiracy theories. In a way both resentments fulfill a shared function: to rationalize an increasingly complex world by denouncing a small group of people working behind the scenes to design the world at their will. Until today the combination of anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism offers a much-needed and seemingly robust explanation of such abstract, complex and scary phenomena as modernization, urbanization, globalization, or (neo)liberalism first by declaring Washington, Wall Street, and Hollywood as the control centers of the world only to add that the Jews call the shots in these places often using the code word East Coast (oddly never West Coast) in this context.

Rather than dealing with capitalism as a profoundly international—indeed a-national—construct which it so clearly is, it is commonplace for many on the German left (not least important voices in the Social Democratic Party and the country’s most powerful trade union, IG Metall) to mitigate capitalism’s ills by assigning its particularly rapacious characteristics solely to an Anglo-American (sotto voceJewish) casino version that operates in stark contrast to the more humane and local German one often labelled Rhenish capitalism.

Jesper Gulddal has collected many expressions of anti-Americanism in 19th-century European literature in which a diversity of authors from France, Britain, and Germany (Gulddal’s countries of analysis) argued emphatically that America’s lack of tradition and culture, as well as its materialism, vulgarity, religious bigotry, and political immaturity constituted not only the essence of this country’s very being but that they would also somehow infest Europe. Gulddal’s work confirms the finding that conceptually speaking, there exists no country-specific anti-Americanism but that this phenomenon’s characteristics exist in identical forms in all European countries. To be sure, Tory anti-Americanism in Britain of the 1930s and 1940s was clearly a lot less pronounced and acute than that of the Nazis in Germany at the same time; but the constituent characteristics of the beliefs in both places were virtually identical. Indeed, even a cursory reading of Philippe Roger’s superb book The American Enemy: The History of French Anti-Americanism demonstrates how all the tropes identifying anti-Americanism in Germany play an equally crucial role in its French variant. Parallel scholarship on anti-Americanism in Spain such as Alessandro Seregni’s excellent El antiamericanismo español confirms this continent-wide pattern.

Though not part of Gulddal’s work, the same shared intercountry characteristics pertain also to anti-Semitism where the acuity of its manifestation varies by geographic location and era but where its essential characteristics are identical over time and place. The negative traits associated with Americans that Gulddal’s study brings to light have similarly been ascribed to Jews who have long been depicted as greedy, money-obsessed, urban, rootless, devious and culture-deprived. Plus, Jews were already considered to rule America and to be responsible for the vulgarity of American culture and the ruthlessness of its policies. If there were such a thing as a Jewish state in the 19th century, for many Europeans this was the United States. This impression persisted in Germany as well as France throughout the 1920s when President Woodrow Wilson, a Presbyterian, was portrayed as an agent of Jewish capital. And the widely used term Jew York hardly needs much explanation. Ditto the commonplace in much European right-wing discourse of Franklin Delano Roosevelt being a Jew by dint of his name’s similarity to Rosenfeld. The Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun, winner of the Nobel Prize in literature in 1920, firmly believed that the linkage of Jews and America constituted the prime evil of the modern world.

After the Holocaust, the overt articulation of anti-Semitism became unacceptable in Western societies, thus marginalizing the ideological amalgam of anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism as a marker of the equally unacceptable far right. But the Six-Day War of 1967 changed everything. Jews were no longer perceived as victims of the Holocaust but as victimizers of the Palestinians.

In an otherwise immensely commendable, because profoundly democratizing, growth of the discourse of compassion for the disempowered that came to dominate liberal culture in the West, especially since the late 1960s, Israel’s and America’s power became the two main enemies of world peace. Worse, they mutated into fascist states not only for the radical left but also for the bourgeois antiwar movements throughout Europe. Denouncing Israel and America became bon ton around Europe’s left-liberal dinner tables. In a 2007 review of Markovits’ Uncouth Nation titled “Love to Hate You,” Mary Fitzgerald commences her piece with a lengthy quote of the well-known British writer Margaret Drabble: “‘My anti-Americanism has become almost uncontrollable,’ wrote Margaret Drabble in May 2003, two months after the invasion of Iraq. ‘It has possessed me like a disease. It rises in my throat like acid reflux. … I can’t keep it down any longer. I detest Disneyfication. I detest Coca-Cola. I detest burgers. I detest sentimental and violent Hollywood movies that tell lies about history.’” Fitzgerald continues: “Europeans (I use the term loosely) see themselves as vastly different from Americans, yet in some parts of the world we are indistinguishable. It seems perverse, then, that anti-Americanism is the only face of xenophobia still broadly accepted in Europe. If, at a dinner party, you imitated the way Chinese people speak, laughed about their stupidity, their ‘slitty eyes’ and their lack of grace, you could safely expect never to be invited back. But no one thinks twice about calling Americans dumb, fat and uncultured. How is it acceptable for one superpower, but not the other, to be the object of such derision?”

Of course it is acceptable because in China’s case, we are dealing with a nonwhite, in many ways still-developing country that suffered at times from Western colonialism; whereas in the American case, we have the absolute core of all evils: Western, white, developed, (neo) colonial. Add to this collection of negatives the fact that in contrast to its West European counterparts (the dowagers Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Spain who at least have the cultural panache and historical legitimacy that somehow mitigate their colonial crimes) America is perceived as a cultural parvenu, a crude newcomer, an unoriginal usurper, an uncouth imitator. How often have both of us heard in our daily conversations in the German-speaking world, uttered even by admirers of the United States with no traces of any anti-American feelings or attitudes, that America, fine place that it might be, was simply not a Kulturnation or Kulturvolk and could never attain such august status no matter how hard it tried, though perhaps eminent in matters relating to technology. Simply put, America could never attain any authenticity worthy of the name. Never having had any nobility it could never attain being noble in the arts, tastes, manners, always relegated to being commercial at best. “American culture” was an oxymoron.

To be so reviled by left-liberal intellectuals, one needs to be both politically and militarily powerful, but judged to be culturally inferior, all of which the United States fulfils perfectly. Ditto with Israel. By constructing the former as an all-powerful white colonizer, it thus has become an acceptable object of derision and hatred at left-liberal dinner parties. Not so for Jews—yet—who, by dint of the Holocaust are still perceived as victims. Yet this “Holocaust pass” has begun to fade as David Hirsh’s book Contemporary Left Antisemitism so emphatically demonstrates. The fashionable anti-Zionist discourse that has become de rigueur among trade unions, churches, left-liberal parties, and social gatherings has entered a slippery slope towards anti-Semitism which, of course, all its practitioners deny with vehemence by accusing those holding this view as acting in open bad faith, driven by their maniacal desire to cover up the magnitude of Israel’s crimes, which must be enormous to merit such opprobrium.

Today the old 19th- and early-20th-century notion of Jewish power pulling strings stealthily in America’s politics (Washington), its economy and business (Wall Street) and its culture (Hollywood and the East Coast intelligentsia) is widely shared well beyond extremes of the left and the right. Add to this the postwar “Israel lobby,” and the inextricable linkage between Israel/Jews and America becomes an inevitable one.

Let us briefly look at some relevant data on this phenomenon by mentioning some polls conducted by the Pew Research Center, which asks its respondents on a regular basis whether they have favorable or unfavorable views of the United States and of Jews. Although these items do not comprise optimal measurements of anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism since they do not cover the whole spectrum of relevant resentments, they allow us to see rough estimates as to how closely anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism are intertwined. In 2016, for example, the polls show that 53 percent of the French respondents who had unfavorable views of Jews also had unfavorable views of the United States. Negative attitudes toward the United States were also found among 57 percent of the Germans who had reported unfavorable views of Jews. The respective number for Greece was 68 percent, for Hungary 40 percent, for Italy 34 percent, for the Netherlands 50 percent, for Poland 33 percent, for Spain 49 percent, for Sweden 51 percent, and for Britain 41 percent. These numbers are even higher for countries like Egypt (80 percent), Jordan (88 percent), Turkey (91 percent) Pakistan (87 percent) or the Palestinian territories (82 percent) as a poll conducted in 2011 shows. Since these are also countries in which Jews are generally disliked (unfavorable ratings for Jews in these countries reach over 95 percent) the prevalence of an anti-Semitic anti-Americanism (or anti-American anti-Semitism) seems the rule rather than the exception there.

In a study Beyer conducted together with Ulf Liebe he found that the strong correlation between anti-Semitic and anti-American resentments apparent in their German sample emanated from “functional similarities” of the two objects of resentment: Both fulfill the function to “rationalize social change.” Concretely, respondents feeling “uncertain” about what the future will bring and resentful of the world “changing too fast” as well as having generally negative views of “globalization” reported higher anti-Semitic and anti-American attitudes than did the rest of the sample. In yet another large-scale comparative study, Beyer looked at the contemporary presence of anti-Semitism in 18 countries (Brazil, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Jordan, Kenya, Lebanon, Lithuania, Mexico, Pakistan, Poland, Russia, Spain, Turkey, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and the United States). While widely varied in its respective country-specific manifestations, texture and intensities, Beyer found that bringing to bear three of his many “independent variables”—anti-Americanism, anti-globalization, and nationalism—the impact of the anti-Americanism variable on anti-Semitism in each of these countries was much higher and statistically significant than that of anti-globalization and nationalism. Concretely: Anti-Semitic attitudes were compellingly linked to anti-American ones.

In contrast to poll results, graffiti certainly do not allow us to draw deep conclusions about the political zeitgeist and its ideological peculiarities. Nonetheless, graffiti represent traces of public opinion and mark a consciousness which might often still be unacceptable being verbalized in public or to a researcher asking questions for a survey. In a way, graffiti serve the same function as the anonymity of the internet. They provide an unfiltered medium to voice what one harbors in one’s heart and not what proper society expects one to say. The presence of a graffito during the Iraq war in April 2004 at a Hamburg subway station read Kerry ist auch Jude! (Kerry, too, is Jewish) written over a Star of David in the middle of which the letters USA appeared, omitted the anti-Israelism accompanying the anti-Americanism of the graffito in Leipzig mentioned at the outset of our presentation. (Kerry, of course, refers to John Kerry, the former secretary of state, at the time U.S. senator from Massachusetts and a contestant for becoming the Democratic Party’s candidate for the election to the presidency of the United States later that fall.) The oft-invoked cover of legitimate anti-Zionism for actual anti-Semitism was no longer needed in this case. It was not for the first time that an American politician had conveniently mutated into a Jew.

The myth that Jews, helped by their American masters or servants, rule the world never disappeared. It merely lay dormant for a few decades in the aftermath of the Holocaust, thus deviating from the norm of having anti-Semitism be an integral and accepted part of public discourse. Alas, there are many signs that the threshold of shame concerning anti-Semitism has been substantially lowered. And its consistent link to anti-Americanism makes this lowering so much easier and more socially acceptable. Anti-Semitism’s association with America and thus to ultimate power, makes invoking it an antinomian act of speaking truth to power, which, in many circles on both sides of the Atlantic, is inherently a good thing.

Jews and Americans as Supervillains

The long-standing interaction between anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism
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