America is based on the idea that we are all created equal. We hold this truth to be self-evident, says our Declaration of Independence. And over the years we have tried to put our money where our mouth is. We come together in the body politic as individuals, even as we also identify with different sub-groupings—racial, sexual, cultural, religious, place of origin, professional. We are not equal in fact, of course. We elect politicians and lobby as groups, and some groups are stronger than others. But whether success or screw-up, Americans feel strongly that, all things being equal, everyone should have the same shot at success. When it comes to race, religion, ethnicity, national origin, alienage, and gender, our courts will not tolerate making distinctions between groups or individuals absent some compelling or heightened state interest. And “We prefer this group” or “we don’t like that group” doesn’t cut it.
That’s not what Richard Spencer and his white nationalist movement believe. It’s not what Steve Bannon believes. It may not be what Trump believes. “We . . . stand against the dispossession of America’s historic majority,” (i.e. whites), says Spencer in an advertisement for the National Policy Institute. At a rally celebrating Trump’s victory last November he gave a Nazi salute and shouted: “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory.” Spencer prefers Americans of white northern European Christian ancestry, and he thinks our politicians and courts should too. Spencer thinks that in the culture wars, the state should side with white European, Christian culture. He (correctly?) understands Trump’s campaign slogan of “make America great again” as “make America white again.” It’s a profoundly un-American idea.
Because Spencer knows he is advancing a profoundly un-American idea, he hunts around for models of respectability to associate with. And as he looks around, he sees that Zionism is respectable in our circles of power. So he threw Zionism in the face of a rabbi at Texas A&M University who challenged him last December: “The Jewish people are a people precisely because they did not engage in radical inclusion,” he said. “Jews exist precisely because you did not assimilate; it’s because you had a sense of yourselves. I respect that about you. I want my people to have that same sense of themselves.” The rabbi was flummoxed.
After the protests in Charlottesville, Spencer doubled down in an interview with Israeli television: “You could say that I am a white Zionist in the sense that I care about my people. I want us to have a secure homeland that is for us and ourselves, just like you want a secure homeland in Israel.”Spencer is aided in his analogy by what Israel has become, even as it stays respectable. He is aided by the fact that Israel has occupied the West Bank for 50 years, all the while denying citizenship and access to civil courts to 2.7 million Palestinians living there. Spencer is aided in his analogy by the fact that Israel maintains the Gaza strip as an open-air prison. Spencer is aided in his analogy when Prime Minister Netanyahu says that the West Bank is “the inheritance of our forefathers, this is our country. … We came back here to stay forever. There will be no more uprooting of settlements in the Land of Israel.” He is aided in his analogy when Ayelet Shaked, Israel’s minister of justice, repudiates universal human rights, saying: “Zionism should not continue, and I say here, it will not continue to bow down to the system of individual rights interpreted in a universal way that divorces them from the history of the Knesset and the history of legislation that we all know.” Spencer is aided in his analogy when Israel is ready, once more, to entertain a nation state bill that will explicitly favor Jewish culture over the democratic nature of the state. These are all things Richard Spencer and his movement would like to see in the United States. And who is to say that Spencer is wrong in cozying up into the glow of Zionism when Netanyahu receives 25 standing ovations in Congress every time he appears there, and the world tolerates this state of affairs in Israel and deems it respectable.
Spencer’s association with Zionism, of course, does not make his ideas any more respectable in American eyes. It does run the risk of making Zionism less respectable in American eyes. As Naomi Dann from Jewish Voice for Peace pointed out in a gently worded article in The Forward (8/17/17), Spencer’s comparison of white supremacy to Israel is discomfiting because Richard Spencer “is holding a mirror up to Zionism and the reflection isn’t pretty.”
The reaction to Dann’s article in Zionist circles was as swift, as it was predictable. The instinct of the Jewish establishment is to smash this mirror rather than to gaze upon it, lest Zionism turn to a pillar of salt like Lot’s wife. Instead of squirming in the presence of this strange and unwelcome bedfellow (Spencer), Jonathan Greenblatt, director of the Anti-Defamation League, launches an ad hominem attack on Dann. “Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) staffer Naomi Dann” was “riding the waves of extremism and hate” he begins. He continues by attributing improper motives to her. Her purpose is to demonize the Jewish state of Israel; she is a “Jew hater,” he suggests. And he concludes by exhorting that we ignore the image in the mirror. “Richard Spencer and JVP … mischaracterize, distort and blaspheme Zionism and do so to further their own perverted political agenda,” says Greenblatt. “[W]e must have zero tolerance for those who seek to divide and vilify the principles which we hold dear which include living proudly and securely as Jews in America and defending the legitimacy of the Jewish State of Israel. There will always be those on both extremes who seek to attack or undermine those core principles. As proud American pro-Israel Jews, we must continue fighting those hateful voices.”
Jane Eisner piles on in the same vein. The analogy Spencer is making is “offensive” she says, and it’s “even more distressing” when Naomi Dann gives a “supportive rendering” of the analogy. “When a Jew even hints at comparing Israel to Nazis,” says Eisner, “it must be denounced.” Smash that mirror, never mind the truth it might speak.
But pointing to Nazi flags in the streets of Charlottesville is a distraction. Spencer is not comparing Israel to Nazi Germany: he is making a cool reasoned argument for preferring white European, Christian culture in this country that (he claims) white European Christians have founded. He is making a case for a very un-American idea, and that very un-American idea is, in fact, expressed by Netanyahu and Ayelet Shaked, and many others, in Israel.
Greenblatt asserts Spencer is motivated by hate. Eisner agrees: “Like the anti-Semitism at its core,” she says, “this ugly syllogism will not die, resurging at times of anxiety and anger, and fueled by a willful disregard for what Zionism and Nazism actually represent.” And, of course, anti-Semitism will not die. It has expressed itself in the Charlottesville march (“Jews will not replace us”) and elsewhere since Trump’s election, but when Spencer holds up Zionism as a positive model for what he wants for white America, he is not expressing anti-Semitic ideas, and he is not being disingenuous. Spencer’s challenge to our American values is real and he will continue to point to Israel as long as we continue to tolerate those ideas within Zionism.
“The version of Nazism that Spencer espouses,” continues Eisner, “even if it’s dressed up as a kind of perverted affirmative action for white people, is by its nature exclusionary and racist.” But why is that different from “Zionism dressed up as a kind of perverted affirmative action for Jews?” The loss of white European Christian culture in America is real. After all, white Christians inter-marry too. The country is much more secular and multi-cultural than it used to be. Whites are slated to become a minority by some projections by mid-century. White Christians can get nervous about this without being “propelled by grievance and hate,” as Eisner claims. Just like Zionists don’t have to be driven by grievance and hate. Spencer “views ethno-nationalism as a zero-sum game,” says Eisner, “where one group’s power automatically diminishes another group’s status.” And Spencer would agree with this—but so would Netanyahu and Shaked, and that’s his point.
“The American ideal has always aspired to the . . . notion of nationalism that expands to include rather than restricts to reject,” says Eisner. And this is true. But it’s not Spencer’s view, and it’s not Netanyahu’s and Shaked’s view. So when we look at Netanyahu’s and Shaked’s Zionism, Eisner is wrong when she claims “Zionism, too, is an expansive aspiration, asserting that Jews, like all other peoples on earth, deserve the right to govern themselves in their ancestral homeland.” Spencer would agree with “ancestral homeland;” but he views America as the ancestral homeland of White Christians who landed at Plymouth Rock. That involves considerable fiction, but it’s an idea at least as coherent as Israel being the ancestral homeland of 21st century Jews of the world.
Eisner concludes with an appeal to “Truth.” “For a Jew to compare Israeli policy that she finds offensive to Richard Spencer’s ideology is more than troubling. It’s also not true,” she says. “And truth is too precious a commodity these days to ever be squandered.”
A search for truth requires introspection and self-reflection. “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” The mirror may lie, but smashing the mirror before it answers does not advance the search for truth.