Israel’s Antisemitism Ruse: When Racists Claim Victimhood

Originally published with Spectre.

Right now in New York we had a couple cases where police grabbed the brother and beat him unmercifully – and then charged him with assaulting them. They used the press to make it look like he’s the criminal and they’re the victim. This is how they do it, and if you study how they do it here, then you’ll know how they do it over here. It’s the same game going all the time.1Malcolm X, “Educate Our People in the Science of Politics,” Malcolm X: The Final Speeches, February 1965, edited by Steve Clark (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1992), 90.

-Malcolm X, “Educate Our People in the Science of Politics” (1965)

Bruised-fist grievance politics as an old imperial ruse

Malcolm X was neither the first nor the last to spot this pattern. The fact is that even the worst racists try to appropriate the cause of self-defense, since it is easier to attack from moral high ground.

The pattern is plain. In his book The Reactionary Mind, Corey Robin linked it with “what is truly bizarre about conservatism: a ruling class resting its claim to power upon its sense of victimhood.”2Corey Robin, The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 190. This is a well-developed ruse. Reinhold Niebuhr, the classical moralist of US power, saw this ruse as a pillar of what he described as “the imperial supremacy of the white races in the contemporary world.” To Niebuhr’s eyes, racism was strongest where it blurred the line between “the will-to-live and the will-to-power.” Where this line blurs, the moral fervor of a fight for survival can be enlisted in support of imperial domination: “So inextricably are the two intertwined, that the one may always be used to justify the other in conscious and unconscious deception.”

This ruse is standard. In the language of the Euro–American far right, the ruse is packaged in the slogans of “white genocide” or “white replacement.” The attempted white-power putsch of January 6, 2021 in Washington, D.C. was motivated by this falsified narrative of self-defense.3See Robert A. Pape, “What an Analysis of 377 Americans Arrested or Charged in the Capitol Insurrection Tells Us,” Washington Post (April 7, 2021); and Dartagnan, “Study Indicates the Capitol Riots were Motivated by Racism and White Resentment, not ‘Election Theft,’” Black Agenda Report (April 21, 2021), <>. The story, as told by the neo-Nazis of our time, is that Indigenous, African, and Asian people are preparing to do to Europeans what Europeans did to them. It follows that further white violence is necessary for white survival.

This is hateful nonsense – but it is also typical, understandable nonsense. No oppressor, however brutal, has ever conceded the moral high ground without a fight. False victimhood is one of the most common ways that this ground is claimed. As Domenico Losurdo reminds us: “In the USA, the more ruthlessly the erasure of Native Americans from the face of the earth proceeded, the more repugnantly they were depicted. Discriminatory wars and wars of annihilation against colonial populations, whether external or internal to the metropolis, were justified by dehumanizing them; and this was achieved by sheer invention of ‘atrocities’ or by an inflation and one-sided reading of atrocities actually committed.”4Domenico Losurdo, War and Revolution: Rethinking the 20th Century, translated by Gregory Elliott (London: Verso, 2015), 156. Europe’s classical fascists read from the same script when they attacked Jews as the spearhead of “Judeo-Bolshevist” aggression.5See Paul Hanebrink, A Specter Haunting Europe: The Myth of Judeo-Bolshevism (Cambridge, Ma.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2018).

In other words, the anti-Palestinian smears of 2021 are twisted, but they are not original. In fact, the smears cannot accurately be understood in isolation. They are as imperial in origin as the warplanes that have terrorized Gaza. As Malcolm X insisted, “it’s the same game going all the time.”

Historically, one of Israel’s services to empire was to make the false victimhood of the powerful sound persuasive – to lend the “reverse racism” ruse legitimacy. In a cruel irony, pro-Israel smear campaigns thus played into some of the most dangerous themes of holocaust “revisionism.” One of the main objectives of holocaust “revisionists” is to disavow Western responsibility for Nazi antisemitism by projecting responsibility for it onto the traditional targets of Western hate. For the notorious German revisionist Eric Nolte, the Nazi holocaust, since it was evil, could not have been Western; it must have been an “Asiatic deed.”6For details on Nolte and the wider revisionism to which he contributed, see Geoff Eley, “Nazism, Politics and the Image of the Past: Thoughts on the West German Historikerstreit, 1986–1987,” Past & Present 121 (1988), 171–208, as well as Losurdo, War and Revolution, and Hanebrink, A Specter Haunting Europe. White supremacy emerges from this narrative all but unscathed. Pro-Israel attempts to depict the targets of Israeli racism as the real antisemites play into this game.7It is from this wider revisionism that pro-Israel smears derive their strength, as Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin argues in “Benjamin, the Holocaust, and the Question of Palestine,” in The Holocaust and the Nakba: A New Grammar of Trauma and History, edited by Bashir Bashir and Amos Goldberg (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018), 79–91. For just how little this style of revisionism has to do with principled memory of the Nazi holocaust, see Peter Novick, The Holocaust in American Life (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999).

They displace antisemitism onto Palestinians, Black-led social movements, and the Third World, twisting the legacy and reality of antisemitism into a moral mandate for Western power.

In 2021, this ruse is finally losing its social force. The links are just too obvious. In the United States, the most prominent spokesperson for classical white supremacy is Tucker Carlson of Fox News. Like Ayelet Shaked in Israel, Carlson has played around with using the term “fascism” in the first person.8See, respectively, Allison Kaplan Sommer, “Israel’s Justice Minister Sprays Herself with ‘Fascism’ Perfume in Provocative Campaign Ad,” Haaretz (March 18, 2019); and Tucker Carlson, Fox News Channel: Tucker Carlson Tonight (March 25, 2021), with video sampled at <>. This April, Carlson made a point of justifying white nationalism in the US by celebrating Israel’s expulsion of Palestinians. It did not take much imagination, since Benjamin Netanyahu had drawn the same parallel. On a 2002 sympathy tour of Texas, Netanyahu argued that a dominant group should expel others with confidence. “You know about this,” he said in Dallas. “This is the reason you have an INS.”9As widely reported: see Ruben Naravette Jr., “Bibi Bombs in Dallas,” Washington Post (April 20, 2002). Extending this parallel in defense of “white replacement” theory, Carlson argued that US white nationalism is as justifiable as Israel’s expulsion of Palestinians.10See, with video, Tim Hains, “Tucker Carlson Cites ADL’s Statements on Arabs in Israel to Defend his Position on Mass Illegal Immigration in US,” Real Clear Politics (April 13, 2021), <>.

At this point, those who fail to see the overlap between “new antisemitism” and “white replacement” sloganry have not been looking closely. In recent years, Israel’s anti-Palestinian racism has become so extreme as to produce startling comparisons in surprising quarters. Even ardent supporters of Israel have compared the politics of Israel’s parliamentary far right to the politics of the Ku Klux Klan and of Nazi Germany. Increasingly, the only way for Israel’s apologists to shut down criticism of Israeli racism is to shut down anti-racism of any kind. The anti-racist scholar David Theo Goldberg warns that wider efforts to do this are underway.11See David Theo Goldberg, “The War on Critical Race Theory,” Boston Review (May 7, 2021), <>. Historically, however, “new antisemitism” slogans offered a stronger line of attack, in part because Israel kept its anti-Palestinian violence quiet. That era is now over. The power of pro-Israel bullying persists; but we are already witnessing, and must hasten, the collapse of its moral credibility.

The nature and extent of Israeli racism in 2021

One of the worst contemporary contributors to holocaust revisionism is a pro-Israel smear outfit known as the International Holocaust Remembrance Association (IHRA). For the IHRA, anti-racism is antisemitism. So too is basic honest thought. We can start, then, with one of the IHRA’s falsified examples of antisemitism: “Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.”12See IHRA, “Working Definition of Antisemitism,” For the IHRA, an early purveyor of the scourge of “new antisemitism” was Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion.

Traditionally, Israel’s main political parties were Labor and Likud. Ben-Gurion led the Labor Party; the forerunner of the Likud Party was a certain Vladimir Jabotinsky. Ben-Gurion often likened Jabotinsky’s politics to fascism and called him “Vladimir Hitler.”13This is recorded in piles of books, not least one written by Jabotinsky’s most loyal biographer: Joseph B. Schechtman, Fighter and Prophet: The Vladimir Jabotinsky Story (New York: T. Yoseloff, 1956), 248. Now, this should not obscure the fact that it was Ben-Gurion who organized the main expulsions of Palestinians in 1948. But to highlight the utter incoherence of IHRA revisionism, let us turn from Labor to Likud. Not even Yitzhak Shamir’s Likud Party was sufficiently anti-Palestinian to escape the IHRA definition of antisemitism. The right wing of the Israeli Knesset, or parliament, of 2021, celebrates a racist doctrine known as Kahanism. Within Shamir’s Likud Party, right-wing Zionists compared Kahanism to Nazism as a matter of course.

Historically grounded anti-racists can interpret the lineage of Kahanism in various ways. Meir Kahane, after whom Kahanism is named, was an anti-Black, white-backlash activist in the United States before he moved to organizing Israeli hate squads to attack Palestinians. Word for word, his program replicates Puritan doctrines of anti-Indigenous hate. In Israel, however, memories of Nazism overshadow other anti-Black and anti-Indigenous histories, so Israelis more often compare Kahanism with Nazi antisemitism. Whatever parallel one chooses, Kahanist racism is second to none.

In 2019, then Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu brought Kahanism into Israel’s governing mainstream. Old comparisons with the Ku Klux Klan and Nazi Germany immediately spread among hardline supporters of Israel.14Kahanist politics were compared with Ku Klux Klan politics as early as 1969 by at least one US Jewish communal leader, due to the anti-Black activity of Kahane’s Jewish Defense League (JDL); the comparison was made by Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, then president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. See “Defense League Scored by Rabbi: He Likens Group to Whites in ‘Robes and Hoods,’” New York Times (May 18, 1969). In the United States, Batya Ungar-Sargon, the opinion editor of the Forward, warned that “Israel’s equivalent of the KKK” had entered government.15Batya Ungar-Sargon, “Netanyahu Just Invited Israel’s Equivalent of the KKK to Join the Government,” The Forward (February 20, 2019). In Israel, Rabbi Benny Lau – “a pillar of religious Zionism,” as the New York Times stressed – repeated the old comparison of Kahanist with Nazi politics. Rabbi Lau reminded Israelis that even Likud under Shamir made this comparison, and he urged that “the public review the comparison MK Michael Eitan made in the 1980s between the Nuremberg Laws and those Kahane sought to enact.”16The first quote is from David M. Halbfinger, “Israel’s Leader Stakes his Fate on Racist Party,” New York Times (February 25, 2019); the direct quotes from Rabbi Lau are from TOI Staff, “Prominent Rabbi Likens Vote for Otzma Yehudit to Backing Nuremberg Laws,” The Times of Israel (February 23, 2019).

Eitan, a Likud MK under Shamir, had simply detailed the similarity between the Nazis’ Nuremberg Laws and the Kahanist program. To get a feel for this parallel, one can track Kahane’s rhetoric. In 1985, Kahane delivered the following speech in Haifa. First, he attacked Palestinian citizens of Israel as “roaches,” sanctifying genocidal violence: “We shall either cut their throats or throw them out.” Then he decreed that he would massacre Palestinians as soon as he had control of the Israeli army: “they will come to me, bow to me, lick my feet, and I will be merciful and will allow them to leave. Whoever does not leave will be slaughtered.”17Kahane’s speech was reported at the time by No’omi Cohen in a local newspaper, Kolbo Haifa. This and other passages from it are reproduced in Robert I. Friedman, “The Sayings of Rabbi Kahane,” New York Review (February 13, 1986), <>. Time and again, Kahane signed his name to words like these. In books that Kahanist hate networks still proudly distribute, Kahane urged genocide, or in his words, “total extermination.”18Meir Kahane, “The Special Halachic Status of the Palestinians,” in Beyond Words: Selected Writings, 1960–1990, Vol. 7 (Jerusalem: Institute for the Publication of the Writings of Rabbi Meir Kahane, 2010), 104.

These politics have swept into the Israeli mainstream. In April 2021, MK Itamar Ben-Gvir took the occasion of his first speech to the Knesset to praise Kahane by name.19Jacob Magid, “Far-Right MK: Meir Kahane Suffered ‘Character Assassination’ by the Media,” Times of Israel (April 26, 2021). Ben-Gvir was elected by Israeli voters who knew that he attended a wedding where “dancing participants stabbed a picture of Ali Dawabshe[h], a Palestinian toddler who had been killed in a settler firebombing attack.”20Tal Schneider, “Anyone but Ben Gvir: One Man’s Mission to Keep a Kahanist out of the Knesset,” Times of Israel (March 17, 2021). What followed, like a train that is never late, was a move from rhetoric to action. Ben-Gvir’s Klanist squads punctuated his speech with firebombing attacks on Palestinians in Jerusalem. “We’re burning Arabs today,” read one Israeli headline, reporting the April 2021 work of Ben-Gvir’s pogromchiks.21Nir Hasson, “‘We’re Burning Arabs Today’: Jewish Supremacists Gear up for Jerusalem March,” Haaretz (April 22, 2021). In their turn, Israeli state forces raided al-Aqsa Mosque and bombarded the Gaza Strip. Ben-Gvir has established himself as a central figure in Israeli media coverage and debates.

Most strikingly, where Ayelet Shaked and Tucker Carlson have played around with identifying with fascism, Kahanists have played around with identifying with Nazism. Jewish Israeli writers have long documented the identification of a settler fringe with Nazi politics.22After the distinguished Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz made this comparison from an anti-racist perspective, the well-known journalist Amos Oz interviewed a far-right settler who embraced the Nazi label. He said: “That’s right: Judeo-Nazis. Leibowitz was right. And why not? Why the hell not? . . . Fact: Himmler and Heydrich and Eichmann’s grandchildren live well.” This quote is from Amos Oz, In the Land of Israel, translated by Maurie Goldberg-Bartura (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983), 94. In 2018, Israel’s leading daily newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, reported the scene when the grandfather of Ali Dawabsheh, the Palestinian toddler murdered by Ben-Gvir’s constituents, attended a court date for one of the smiling suspects: “‘Where is Ali? Burned! No more Ali! Dead, burned! On the grill, on fire!’ were the jubilant jeers that welcomed Hussein Dawabsheh this week as he was heading into the Lod District Court.” Startled, Yedioth argued that “‘Ali is burned, on the grill’ is a sort of Jewish reclaiming of the furnace.”23Yehuda Nuriel, “The monsters in our midst,” Yedioth Ahronoth (June 22, 2018). Then came the Kahanist lynchings of spring 2021. “We are no longer Jews today,” wrote one Israeli Telegram user: “Today we are Nazis.”24Ali Abunimah and Tamara Nassar, “’Today we are Nazis,’ says Member of Israeli Jewish Extremist Group,” Electronic Intifada (May 19, 2021), <>. Ben-Gvir resists the Nazi label, but it seems that not all of his constituents do.25For Ben-Gvir’s opposition to being called a Nazi, see Gil Hoffman, “Religious Leader Rabbi Lau: A Vote for Bayit Yehudi is a Vote for Nazism,” Jerusalem Post (February 23, 2019); and Rogel Alpher, “Judeo-Nazis in Prime Time,” Haaretz (April 18, 2021).

Palestinians protesting against Israel’s occupation and its air campaign on the Gaza strip, shout slogans as they face Israeli troops near the settlement of Beit El and Ramallah in the occupied West Bank on May 18, 2021. Heavy air strikes and rocket fire in the Israel-Gaza conflict claimed more lives on both sides as tensions flared in Palestinian “day of anger” protests in Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank. Photo by Ibrahim Attaia | APA Images

Yet the real horror this spring was how the firebombs of Ben-Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit were followed by the artillery shells of the Israel Defense [sic] Forces (IDF). At the level of language, this can be tracked with Kahanism into Israel’s mainstream. How, Kahane once asked, could he be faulted for saying that “the Arabs in our midst are a spreading cancer”? Kahane wrote that it was enough to “quote Binyamin Netanyahu, who warned the Galilee Arabs of the danger of their becoming part of the ‘cancer of the intifada.’”26Meir Kahane, “The State of Israel vs. Meir Kahane,” in Beyond Words, Vol. 7, 47 & 51. These hateful tropes now align with the politics of the IDF command. The “centrist” Moshe Ya’alon announced as much in 2002 during his tenure as IDF chief of staff. He told the press that Kahane and Netanyahu had been right about Palestinian politics: “I maintain it is a cancer,” he said. He then summarized the IDF command’s disagreement with Kahanism: “Some will say it is necessary to amputate organs. But at the moment, I am applying chemotherapy.”27“Israeli Army Chief Says Applying ‘Chemotherapy’ to Palestinian ‘Cancer,’” Agence France Press (August 30, 2002).

Once again, the trope of “self-defense” is limitless in application. We can read it in the original US attack on “merciless Indian savages.” We can read it in the original fascist attack on democracy as “a war of the hand against the brain.”28Lothrop Stoddard, The Revolt Against Civilization: The Menace of the Under Man (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1922), 175, <>. This was the book that introduced the concept of “Under Man,” or Untermensch, into the fascist lexicon. More recently, we read it from the killer behind the white nationalist massacre of 2019 in El Paso, Texas, who “maintained that his attack was a preemptive action against Hispanic invaders and that ‘they are the instigators, not me.’”29Federico Finchelstein, A Brief History of Fascist Lies (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2020), 3.

How is anti-Palestinian racism any different? Israel’s current “defense” minister, Benny Gantz, oversaw the killing of 2,251 Palestinians in Gaza in 2014. He has advertised his killings as a point of pride.30For casualty figures, see United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), “Key Figures on the 2014 Hostilities,” OCHA (June 23, 2015), <>. For Gantz’s boasts, see Yoav Galai, “Israel: How Benny Gantz’s Campaign Has Turned State Violence and Dead Palestinians into Political Capital,” The Conversation (March 27, 2019), <>. On May 11, 2021, Gantz even sent a video message to Palestinians in Gaza, boasting about “the last time that we met on Eid al-Fitr” and threatening: “Gaza will burn.”

Once upon a time, US diplomats could celebrate Israel’s false victimhood. In 1976, Daniel Patrick Moynihan took the occasion of the bicentennial of US independence to praise Israel as the loveliest symbol of Western power on earth. “In its mortal peril,” Moynihan said, Israel “has become a metaphor for the condition of democracy in the world today.”31Quoted in Keith P. Feldman, A Shadow Over Palestine: The Imperial Life of Race in America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), 54. Now as then, Israel does embody the false moralism of its most powerful sponsors. But as the hatreds of Ben-Gvir and Gantz are exposed for the world to see, what was once a point of imperial strength has increasingly become a liability.

The “new antisemitism” as reverse-racism misdirection

The actual history of antisemitism is also a history of racism.

Classical antisemitism presumed an anti-Black and imperial worldview. For the proto-Nazi antisemite Houston Stewart Chamberlain, “the Jew” was “a cross between negro and white man,” a “Semite” who emerged “from the deserts of Arabia” to infiltrate Western civilization.32Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, Vol. 1, translated by John Lees (London: John Lane, 1910), 368.The whole point was to attack European Jews as racial fifth columnists. Spinning off of the standard attack on Jews as “Asiatic,” France’s Louis-Ferdinand Céline urged white supremacist attacks on European Jews precisely because they were “Negroid Jews.33For Céline’s prattle about the racial war of “Juifs négroïdes contre Blancs,” see Hanebrink, Specter Haunting Europe, 109. In Germany, meanwhile, the Journal of Racial and Social Biology focused on anti-Black racism for decades before adding anti-Jewish racism to its pages in 1935.34See George L. Mosse, Toward the Final Solution: A History of European Racism (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), 82–83. In other words, actual antisemitism is multi-issue hatred, targeting Jews as allies of the imagined barbarians at the gates of Western civilization. It is to this heritage that the enemy Sieg Heiled in Charlottesville with chants of, “Jews will not replace us.”35See Glen Ford, “American Exceptionalism = Mass Murder,” Black Agenda Report (August 8, 2019), <>.

The phrase “new antisemitism” – in sharp contrast – refers to anti-racism. It is a classical example of what Frantz Fanon called “verbal mystification,” the wordsmithery with which racism lies its way into virtue.36Frantz Fanon, “Racism and Culture,” in Toward the African Revolution, translated by Haakon Chevalier (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1967), 37. The original copy of this classical speech, with its interwoven challenge to colonial and anti-Jewish racisms, is available with other proceedings of the First Congress of Negro Writers and Artists (Paris, 1956) in the June–November 1956 edition of Présence Africaine. It is also a declaration of war on anti-racist memory. In Germany, the attempt to rewrite the history of antisemitism to Western advantage led to the revisionism of Eric Nolte, who argued that Nazi violence was not a Western but an “Asiatic deed.”37See note 6, above. The “new antisemitism” ruse is subtler. But as Peter Novick has shown in his study The Holocaust in American Life, it has nothing to do with principled anti-Nazi memory.38See note 7, above. And it pushes in Nolte’s direction. Even admirers of the ruse stress that its political function is to “dramatize the ideology of the West.”39I quote from a book-length tribute to the ruse; see Gil Troy, Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 213.

As anti-Palestinian racism consumes Israeli politics, the “new antisemitism” ruse is radicalizing. Netanyahu was so single-minded in his anti-Palestinian hate that he embraced holocaust revisionism of the crudest sort. It was a spectacular disgrace. Netanyahu literally fabricated evidence in an attempt to shift blame for the Nazi holocaust from Germany onto the Palestinians, earning neo-Nazi praise and a dishonorable mention in Federico Finchelstein’s Brief History of Fascist Lies.40See TOI Staff, “US Neo-Nazis: Netanyahu Is Right About Hitler and the Jews,” Times of Israel (October 23, 2015); and Finchelstein, Brief History of Fascist Lies, 97–98. But this is an extreme example. More often, “new antisemitism” means something roughly equivalent to “reverse racism.”

This line of attack can be dated to the US legitimacy crisis of the late 1960s. White-backlash specialists like Daniel Patrick Moynihan led the way, attacking affirmative action as antisemitic.41See Peter Kihss, “Moynihan Scores Ethnic Quota Idea,” New York Times (June 5, 1968). The basic outlines of this verbal mystification are as follows. While actual antisemitism attacks Jews as non-Western outsiders, “new antisemitism” theory flips the script. It represents Jews as timelessly white and Western, then attacks challenges to white or Western power as anti-Jewish. Generations of anti-racists have exposed this for what it is: a bullying product of what one US Jewish leader denounced as “[t]he white (including, God help us, the Jewish) backlash.”42Henry Schwarzschild, “Jews and Civil Rights,” Jewish Advocate (October 8, 1964).

The line was that “anti-whitism” was the real problem, and that “anti-Semitism” was just one form that this problem took. I am quoting Nathan Glazer, Moynihan’s longtime collaborator. Glazer blamed racial justice movements: “In every black neighborhood of every city, there have arisen spokesmen who have been intemperate in their attacks on whites, on the ‘power structure,’ on policemen, teachers, social workers, landlords, businessmen, and – where these are Jews – on Jews.”43Nathan Glazer, “Blacks, Jews & the Intellectuals,” Commentary 47, no. 4 (1969), 34. In this story, the US “power structure” had to suppress an “anti-whitism” that was persecuting police.44In callous service to power, Glazer alleged that the Black Panther Party was coming for US police just as the Nazis had come for Jews: “the Black Panthers believe that the gun is the only solution to problems, that policemen are ‘pigs,’ and that to kill them is not murder (just as to kill Jewish ‘swine’ was not murder to Nazis)”; Glazer, “Blacks, Jews & the Intellectuals,” 36. This nonsense deserves no response. For actual analysis of the figure of the ‘pig’ and the Panther response to popular fears of police violence, see Donna Jean Murch, Living for the City: Migration, Education, and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 135–137.

It was in this context that Kahane learned his first lines. He pushed forward with the “white replacement” logic detectable in the work of Moynihan and Glazer. His story was that Black migration to northern US cities from the former Confederacy was racially invasive. This is how the story sounded: “‘People used to sit on stoops and benches at all times of the day and night,’ said Allan Mallenbaum, a childhood friend of Kahane. ‘Nobody was afraid of crime. You never saw a Black face.’”45Robert I. Friedman, The False Prophet: Rabbi Meir Kahane, from FBI Informant to Knesset Member (New York: Lawrence Hill Books, 1990), 10. Kahane thus preached composite white power as a matter of self-defense. Significantly, Kahane presented his program in celebration of racial whiteness. He said: “The Jew is the weakest link in the white chain and the black militant knows that few non-Jews are concerned with the Jew’s plight. The Jew has always been more liberal than other white ethnic groups. So now most Jewish neighborhoods are integrated and the militant blacks there practice terror.”46As quoted in Stan Fischler, “Not-So-Nice Jewish boys Cause a Stir,” The Sun [Baltimore] (January 24, 1971).

This story was tailored to fit the needs of the dominant US culture. This is plain in Glazer’s denunciation of Black anti-police racism.47See note 47, above. But more than this, Novick shows that US patriots saw their own pioneer history in European Jewish settlement in Palestine. Just before the Palestine expulsions of 1948, the editor of the Boston Herald could liken the dispossession of the Palestinians to the “conquest of the Indians and the inevitable giving way of a backward people before a more modern and practical one.”48As quoted in Novick, The Holocaust in American Life, 73. See also Steven Salaita, The Holy Land in Transit: Colonialism and the Quest for Canaan (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2006). The doctrine of “anti-whitism” as “new antisemitism” was thus versatile. It offered a means of celebrating both anti-Black racism and the pioneer mystique.

The pseudo-religious flair of Israeli racism should not obscure how closely it was modeled on the US example. For its part, US white supremacy also focused on a pseudo-Biblical disparagement of Black people as descendants of Ham.49This legacy is unpacked in Anthea Butler, White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021). But it was the anti-Indigenous example of the United States that cut deepest in Palestine. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz records how the Puritans pioneered anti-Indigenous demonization in the literal sense. No sooner had English settlers arrived in North America than they “identified the Indigenous population as inherently children of Satan and ‘servants of the devil’ who deserved to be killed.”50Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (Boston: Beacon Press, 2014), 36.

The result was a distinctive colonial theology. First in New England and then in Palestine, settlers seized upon a line from the Book of Samuel: Now go, attack Amalek . . . Spare no one, but kill alike men and women, infants and sucklings, oxen and sheep, camels and asses!”511 Samuel 15:3. While this line is inherently troubling, most religious traditions navigate such lines with extreme caution. The association of “Amalek” with living people is opportunistic viciousness. This settler reading of scripture is foreign to traditional Jewish thought, as is Zionism more generally.52For details on how Zionism and the State of Israel break with Jewish tradition, see Yakov M. Rabkin, What is Modern Israel?, translated by Fred. A Reed (London: Pluto Press, 2016). Yet its transposition from New England to Palestine came easily. One reason is that Protestant white supremacy was framed around the claim that Protestant Christendom was itself the Israel of which the Bible spoke. By 1871, the US magazine Living Age could still celebrate anti-Indigenous violence with this theme: “As the Israelites slew the Amalekites, so did the Pilgrims slay the Pequot.”53As quoted in John Corrigan, “Amalek and the Rhetoric of Extermination,” in The First Prejudice: Religious Tolerance and Intolerance in Early America, edited by Chris Beneke and Christoper S. Grenda (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), 70. I refer again with the utmost respect to Salaita, Holy Land in Transit.

In turn, the post-1948 Israel – a settler knock-off par excellence – absorbed US settler theology almost as readily as it absorbed US weapons. By 1956, David Ben-Gurion could refer to the Palestinians whom his militias had expelled into the Gaza Strip as “hosts of Amalek.”54As quoted in David Hirst, The Gun and the Olive Branch: The Roots of Violence in the Middle East (New York: Nations Books, 2003), 327. This was violent enough from Ben-Gurion. But when Kahane arrived from New York, he helped Israelis sharpen this theme with the worst exterminism imaginable. If Palestinians are Amalekites, Kahane preached, then Palestinian adults and children should alike be killed as “Hamans, large and small,” by hate squads confident in the knowledge that “the All Mighty decrees that they be cruel.”55Kahane, “Saulism,” in Beyond Words, Vol. 7, 104.

At first glance, it seems ludicrous to claim that opposition to anti-Palestinian cruelty shows insensitivity to the oppression of European Jews. Here too, however, the template had already been drawn. Anglo–American power was second to none in spinning cruelty as compassion. And it had developed a powerful tradition of moral misdirection. This point is flagged by Gerald Horne, one of the leading anti-racist historians in the United States. How, Horne asks, was it possible to whitewash the anti-Black and anti-Indigenous violence endemic to US history? The racism was barely concealed. How could it be brushed aside in celebration of US liberty? Horne proposes that one “explanation for this abject hypocrisy is that too many could not see beyond the deliverance of poorer Europeans from the barbarism they endured on their home continent to a sympathy with those victimized in the process.”56Gerald Horne, The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism: The Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy, and Capitalism in Seventeenth-Century North America and the Caribbean (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2018), 29. This ruse is a classical feature of settler moralism.

For more on Gerald Horne’s The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism, see <>.

It starts with a truth. Europeans did endure barbarism on their home continent, from English sweatshops to the starving Irish countryside. The ruse then moves to a falsehood: that this justifies violence against Black and Indigenous people in order to deliver Europeans from oppression. Moving from the truth to the falsehood is the work of racist moralism, and making the move sound persuasive is the work of verbal mystification.

Two early examples illustrate how this worked. The first is British. One of the worst outbursts of anti-Black violence from Britain was the massacre of Jamaican laborers in punishment for their rebellion of 1865. The killings were horrific.57For context and details, see Thomas C. Holt, The Problem of Freedom: Race, Labor and Politics in Jamaica and Britain, 1832–1938 (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1992). To quote briefly from page 302, concerning the horrors of 1865: “When the final tallies of the government’s repression were made, they revealed that a terrible vengeance had been unleashed: 439 dead, hundreds flogged, and 1,000 houses burned. . . . Despite orders for restraint, people were flogged with whips made of twisted, knotted wires, and scores were shot or hung after drumhead court-martials. Commanders were quite explicit about the objective of official violence: they intended to instill terror.” Covering for them, distinguished Englishmen alleged that to oppose anti-Black violence was to show disrespect for the English poor. “Carlyle and Ruskin, Kingsley, and Dickens all insisted that it was not worth considering the injustices perpetrated against Jamaican ‘n*****s’ as long as English working men continued to groan under the oppression of the factory system.”’58Bernard Semmel, Imperialism and Social Reform: English Social-Imperial Thought, 1895–1914 (London: George Allen & Unwin), 30. The second example is American. In the US, leaders presented the westward assault on Indigenous life as a quest to secure land for the European poor. In the words of another conservative historian, “the concept of America as asylum for the ‘huddled masses yearning to breathe free’ was made to serve this muscular version of the national destiny.”59Clinton Rossiter, “The American Mission,” The American Scholar 20, no. 1 (1950–51), 23.

In this historical light, the moralizing logic of Western support for Israel snaps into focus. Imperial moralists were already whitewashing colonial violence by presenting it as a way to help Europeans escape “the barbarism they endured on their home continent.” Then, as Aimé Césaire described it, along came the Nazis and inflicted upon Europe the “crowning barbarism” of modern Western history.60Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism, translated by Joan Pinkham (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000), 36. The spectacular viciousness of Nazi racism helped push white supremacy into a legitimacy crisis on a planetary scale.61The results are surveyed in Howard Winant, The World is a Ghetto: Race and Democracy Since World War II (New York: Basic Books, 2001); and Jodi Melamed, Represent and Destroy: Rationalizing Violence in the New Racial Capitalism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011). As racism’s legitimacy crisis deepened in the 1960s, US moralists found in Palestine a means of twisting Nazi horrors into colonial frames of reference.62Once again, Novick, The Holocaust in American Life shows how little this had to do with principled holocaust memories, as does, with more impressionistic commentary and a sharpened focus on Palestine, Yitzhak Laor, The Myths of Liberal Zionism (London: Verso, 2009), as originally published by France’s leading anti-racist publishing house: Yitzhak Laor, Le nouveau philosémitisme européen et le ‘camp de la paix’ en Israël (Paris: La Fabrique éditions, 2007).  See also note 8.

Within a US frame, the story of Palestine became a tale of colonial redemption, featuring Palestinians as new “Amalekites” and European Jews as new “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” It was a powerful allegory for Western virtue. Construing Israel as a moral force vindicated the entire logic of settler colonialism. Justice once more demanded the brutalization of Indigenous people by settlers yearning to breathe free. The opportunistic benefits were plain. Since the entire Third World supported the Palestinians, anti-colonialism could itself be attacked as a “new antisemitism,” affirming Western tolerance against the foil of Afro-Asian bigotry.63For details on the breadth of anti-colonial support for Palestinians, see A.W. Singham and Shirley Hune, Non-alignment in an Age of Alignments (Harare: The College Press, 1986); Odette Jankowitsch and Karl P. Sauvant, The Third World Without Superpowers: The Collected Documents of the Non-Aligned Movement (Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.: Oceana Publications, 1978–1993); and the more Palestine-focused analysis of G.H. Jansen, Zionism, Israel and Asian Nationalism (Beirut: Institute of Palestine Studies, 1971).

Such deception is traditional colonial fare. As Aimé Césaire warned, when it comes to colonialism, “the commonest curse is to be the dupe in good faith of a collective hypocrisy that cleverly misrepresents problems, the better to legitimize the hateful solutions provided for them.”64Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism, 32. But the “new antisemitism” ruse has now been in use for half a century. Where once it seemed clever, it now seems bizarre. A white liberalism that hides its own deceptive moralizing behind Israeli racism is increasingly not hiding at all. Phyllis Chesler once celebrated the symbolism of Israel by declaring on behalf of the United States: “we are all Israelis.”65As quoted in Sherene Razack, “Geopolitics, Culture Clash, and Gender After September 11,” Social Justice 32, no. 4 (2005), 20. At this stage, such a message can only further plunge US power into a deepening legitimacy crisis.

A McCarthyism in crisis versus the Palestinian freedom struggle

After the neo-Nazi rally of 2017 in Charlottesville, Catherine Squires reflected on the gaslighting lies with which we are constantly flooded. One is pushed to doubt oneself, Squires wrote, “when each new headline or tweet makes one want to rub her eyes to test if it’s just a trick of the light . . . Was it just my imagination that they were marching with tiki torches and making Nazi salutes?66Catherine R. Squires, “Epilogue Incantation,” in Racism Postrace, edited by Roopali Mukherjee, Sarah Banet-Weiser, and Herman Gray (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019), 284.

Charlottesville, at least, was hard to whitewash. The slogans of “white replacement” fooled no one. Squires continued: “I don’t know if it was scarier when racism was insisting it didn’t exist anymore or when the racists held the tiki torches high to spotlight their faces and they proclaimed their faith in the full glare of CNN cameras.”67Cuires, “Epilogue Incantation,” 285. The same question arises in Palestine, as Israel openly embraces the politics of hate. After Charlottesville, it was impossible to deny the racism of the Trump White House. The bogus tale of Israeli self-defense will take more work to dislodge.

But these things always take time. By the 1960s, it was still possible for US racists to attack anti-Klan activists on the old grounds. “This is how they psycho you,” Malcolm X warned, time and again. “You say, ‘Well, I don’t want to be a Ku Klux Klan in reverse.’”68Malcolm X, “Science of Politics,” 89. In the years ahead, pro-Israel smears of antisemitism will stand exposed as more of the same. The anti-Palestinian tropes will sound just like it sounds when we hear Tucker Carlson agree that racism is, of course, a terrible problem, a problem of “anti-white racism, which is now the only acceptable form of racism in the West,” etc., etc.69Tucker Carlson, Fox News Channel: Tucker Carlson Tonight (March 24, 2021). Carlson, Netanyahu, and the rest are singing in harmony. Amid the Kahanist carnage of May 2021 in “mixed cities,” Israeli president Reuvin Rivlin accused Palestinian citizens of Israel of antisemitic aggression.70See Jonathan Lis, “Rivlin Condemns ‘Pogroms’ by Israeli Arabs, Netanyahu Touts ‘Iron Fist’ to Quell Unrest,” Haaretz (May 12, 2021). As contrasted with the reality detailed by David Sheen, “How a Fascist Party Brought into Israel’s Parliament by Netanyahu Helped Him Start the War he Wanted,” Gray Zone (May 26, 2021), <>. In US Congress, Marjorie Taylor Greene spoke of “an Islamic invasion into our government offices.”71As quoted in Marianna Sotomayor, “Rep. Green Aggressively Confronts Rep. Ocasio-Cortez Causing New York Congresswoman to Raise Security Concerns,” Washington Post (May 14, 2021). In Britain, the notorious Islamophobe Tommy Robinson meanwhile celebrated Israeli atrocities to the noise of chants including, “may your village burn.”72Asa Winstanley, “At London Israel Demo, Calls to ‘Burn’ Palestinian Villages,” Electronic Intifada (June 1, 2021), <>.

These types deserve each other.

Meanwhile, the plain fact is that the Palestinian freedom struggle stands on the frontlines of the international struggle against the rising politics of hate. So the lies will continue to come. But the lies are losing their capacity to deceive, and those who continue to reproduce them will only help people of conscience to distinguish friend from foe. The people of Palestine have shown the world what bravery means – it should take more than stale smears to make anyone else flinch. McCarthyisms can only last for so long. It is time to make this one collapse.


What does “the White Man’s Burden” mean?

The phrase “the White Man’s Burden” is, syllable for syllable, probably the most iconic thing ever written in the English-language history of racism. But what does it mean?

In short, it means gaslighting. The concept of gaslighting has moved into discussions of racism from the field of relationship psychology. Fittingly, the term is adapted from a play, Gas Light, set in late Victorian England. The British Empire in the late decades of Queen Victoria’s reign (1837–1901) was a powerhouse of gaslighting the likes of which the world has rarely seen. One of its gifts to the world was the slogan, “White Man’s Burden.”

I make it the subject of the first post on this site for two reasons. First, the name of this site, “The Puzzle,” refers to the most accomplished racialist gaslighter in the history of the English language: Rudyard Kipling. Kipling made a career of spinning cruelty as compassion. His 1909 poem “The Puzzler” is a tribute to the art of quiet malice. Ten years earlier, Kipling coined the phrase “White Man’s Burden” to celebrate the false compassion of empire. In short, Kipling helped to craft white supremacy as a politics of deception.

Second, the denial of racism within the dominant cultures of the North Atlantic still hews to the old ways. The deception that framed white supremacist politics in their heyday also covered for their later development – and for their retreat. Today, as new coats of paint are applied to an old racial order, the words of Frantz Fanon echo as loudly as ever. “At this stage,” he said in 1956, “racism no longer dares appear without disguise. It is unsure of itself. In an ever greater number of circumstances the racist takes to cover. He who claimed to ‘sense,’ to ‘see through’ others, finds himself to be a target, looked at, judged. The racist’s purpose has become a purpose haunted by bad conscience.”1Frantz Fanon, “Racism and culture,” in Toward the African Revolution, translated by Haakon Chevalier (New York: Grove Press, 1967), 36.

Since the new forms of deception extend from the older ones, it is imperative to look at – and even to judge – the dominant traditions that have refined white lies over the course of generations. Hence the photo above. Fittingly, it was shot in Haiti.

Earlier this year, Fanon’s daughter, the anti-racist scholar Mireille Fanon Mendes France, noted that the triumph and tragedy of Haiti continue to symbolize this world crisis. It was Haiti that introduced the abolition of slavery into North Atlantic politics. Ever since, its punishment by North Atlantic powers has been unrelenting. As Mendes France observes, Haiti is still treated with ruthlessness by states that ride roughshod over people’s rights as if “to teach them, at their expense.”2Mireille Fanon Mendes France, “Can we listen to the voice of the Haitian people?,” Black Agenda Report (March 17, 2021), as reproduced from the Frantz Fanon Foundation <>. Little wonder that the English phrase that will teach them a lesson has taken on such a menacing ring.

So the problem persists. But the basic question – what does “the White Man’s Burden” mean? – is still tangled up in lies. These are white lies; and in standard imperial English, “white lies” are innocent lies. All told, however, their innocence is a provocative ruse. The old tangle still needs to be pulled apart. On this site, I propose taking ahold of Kipling’s legacy as if it were an exposed piece of thread.

The “White Man’s Burden” of the Ku Klux Klan

We can start with the Ku Klux Klan.

The single most accomplished Klan publicist of all time, Thomas Dixon, was a big Kipling fan. Dixon spent the early years of the twentieth century promoting Klan hatreds in a series of popular books. He entitled the first of these books in a double homage to Kipling, The Leopard’s Spots: A Romance of the White Man’s Burden (1902). While Dixon’s subtitle declared the selflessness of white-power politics, his title echoed one of Kipling’s tales of anti-Black racism.

These lies carried power and prestige. After the abolition of slavery in the United States, the terror squads of the Klan did not work in isolation. Their violence was the cutting edge of the white backlash, to be sure. But it had wider support. The horror of lynchings, then, was inseparable from the wider US assault on Black people after emancipation. This assault on Black life now stands exposed as “one of the most stupendous efforts the world ever saw to discredit human beings, an effort involving universities, history, science, social life and religion.”3W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860–1880 (New York: Free Press, 1992), 727. Dixon helped to push it forward, doing his best to boost the morale and public reputation of Klan lynchers.

Dixon’s title, The Leopard’s Spots, took its cue from one of Kipling’s children’s stories, “How the Leopard got its spots” (1901).4I owe clarification of this sequencing to Will Kaufman, The Civil War in American Culture (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006). For twelve decades, this story has served as a tool of racist acculturation for any teachers or parents willing to resort to it.

The moral of the story is that dark skin is an irremediable, even a contagious, human fault. Kipling seized upon a phrase that was translated as follows in the King James Bible: “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard change his spots? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil.”5 Jeremiah 13:23, from England, The Holy Bible: The Authorized or King James Version (first published in 1611), 921. For a critical reading of this translation and trope, see Randall C. Bailey, “Beyond Identification: The use of Africans in Old Testament poetry and narratives,” in Stony the Road We Trod: African American Biblical Interpretation, edited by Cain Hope Felder (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), 165–184. Kipling used this imagery to instill a hateful sense of anti-Blackness in the minds of all children who could be made to read along or listen.

Once upon a time, Kipling begins, “everybody started fair.” We will return to this word, fair. Then came darkness. Kipling tells children that darkness came to the leopard when “the Ethiopian put five fingers together . . . and pressed them all over the Leopard, and wherever the five fingers touched they left little black marks.”6Rudyard Kipling, “How the Leopard got its spots,” in Just So Stories (London: Penguin, 2000 [1902]), 49–58. This is from Kipling’s Just So Stories. My copy, reprinted in 2000 by Penguin, features a leopard’s tail dangling provocatively across the cover.

Especially in light of Dixon’s use of the leopard theme in Klan publicity, this cover design is – at the bare, benefit-of-the-doubt minimum – a display of epochal bad taste.

In Klan terms, one can see why Dixon so appreciated Kipling. The supposed threat of “race-mixing” or “miscegenation” was a favorite lynchers’ theme. Kipling’s story played into it.

Once again, however, the full title of Dixon’s book was The Leopard’s Spots: A Romance of the White Man’s Burden. And where Kipling really excelled was in the transition from the theme of the title of Dixon’s book to the theme of its subtitle, that is, from anti-Blackness to romantic white innocence.

This brings us back to the word “fair.” Modern England owed much of its prosperity to its exploitation of Africans.7The exploitation of Africans and their overseas descendants was a fulcrum of English and then British economic development throughout the modern period. This is not news: Eric Williams, who went on to serve as the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, established this point as early as 1944 in a landmark study <>. A fuller review of the record can now be found in Joseph E. Inikori, Africans and the Industrial Revolution in England: A Study in International Trade and Economic Development (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002). English dictionary-writers were thus eager to make the virtues of whiteness a matter of definition. So in standard imperial English, “fair” was a moral as well as a physical description. “Light as opposed to dark,” the Oxford English Dictionary explained, was one of the word’s meanings. But for the OED, to be fair was not only to be free of physical spots – “Clean, unsoiled, unstained” – but also to be clean in “character, conduct, reputation: Free from moral stain, spotless, unblemished.”8Henry Bradley, A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, Vol. IV, edited by James A.H. Murray (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1901), 26. This story was told by generations of well-financed experts in barrels of high-quality ink.

Now, Kipling celebrated the English racialist as a “Puzzler” in tribute to this history of deception. But here we encounter a mild contradiction. On the one hand, Kipling celebrated racial mastery as the property of Englishmen above all others. He never tired of this theme: “the English – ah, the English! – they are quite a race apart.” On the other hand, Kipling layered Englishness into a wider white supremacy. Racism is always a pack of lies – but its contradictions are not random.

Kipling’s supreme lie was that white-power politics were a generous service to non-Europeans targeted by white attacks. This is the key point. The equation of whiteness with selflessness, and of imperialism with charity, was the central theme of Kipling’s gaslighting. But for a moment, let us pick apart the more basic theme, “whiteness” . . .

. . . or not. In his classic bit about the “Romanian cracker,” Chris Rock expressed a hilarious dismissal of the niceties internal to whiteness; “we don’t got time to dice white people up into little groups.”9Chris Rock, Bigger & Blacker, HBO, 1999, 45:11. I get that, and I ask those who share this sentiment to please skip the next section.

Details on Kipling’s supreme lie – white-power-as-charity – can be found below, under the heading “Don’t run. We are your friends.” But for those with the patience, let us first look for a moment at the specifically English or Anglo-Saxonist racism around which white nationalism developed.

White nationalism and the “Anglo-Saxon’s burden”

Paul Martin, Jr., featured in the photo above, modeled the “White Man’s Burden” with a sense of heritage. It was autumn 2004, and this Canadian prime minister was visiting Haiti to confirm Canada’s support for the overthrow of Haiti’s elected government and the repression of Haiti’s main mass-based political party. Enter the Globe and Mail, the principal newspaper of central Canadian capital.

Kipling could not have written it better. The Globe did not mention the name of the girl featured in its photo, whom it identified only as “a resident of the Timkatec orphanage in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.” But it found a way to present Martin’s cynical power politics as charity. Proud, prime ministerial fingers are shown directing a Haitian forearm to wave a Canadian flag for the camera.

“Bigre, mes chers collèges (comme on dit), je vous ôte mon chapeau (mon chapeau d’anthropophage, bien entendu).”10 Aimé Césaire, Discours sur le colonialisme (Paris: Présence Africaine, 2004), 30. Or, “By Jove, my dear colleagues (as they say), I take off my hat to you (a cannibal’s hate, of course).” In one or the other language, this is from Césaire’s inimitable and affordably sold Discourse on Colonialism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000), 48: <>.

With Martin, all ambiguity is removed. This is not Johnny-come-lately whiteness but the thing itself, in all of its vintage prestige. But let us step back for a moment. Just who and what is “white”?

In earlier centuries, some claimed that Englishmen possessed this title almost alone. “The number of purely white people in the world is proportionably very small,” Benjamin Franklin wrote from Pennsylvania, in the days when it was still under British control. Franklin continued:

All Africa is black or tawny; Asia chiefly tawny; America (exclusive of the newcomers) wholly so. And in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians, and Swedes are generally of what we call a swarthy complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted, who, with the English, make the principal body of white people on the face of the earth. I could wish their numbers were increased.11As quoted in Matthew Frye Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (Harvard, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 1998), 40.

So for this racial storyteller, some of the Germans – the “Saxons” – made the cut, as did the English, who according to modern racial lore were “Anglo-Saxons.” But that was about it.

The question of whether any very poor person could be considered fully white lingered for centuries. By the late nineteenth century, a leading French racialist, Gustave Le Bon, could also apply racist ideas of natural hierarchy to gender. Le Bon wrote that even among the “superior races” of his imagination, “as among the Parisians, there are a large number of women whose brains are closer in size to those of gorillas than to the most developed male brains.”12As quoted in Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man (New York: W.W. Norton, 1996), 136. See also Nancy Leys Stepan, “Race and Gender: The role of analogy in science,” Isis 77, no. 2 (1986), 261–277. It was old wine in new bottles.

It was also the basic story of racism: the recasting of old oppressive hierarchies in new naturalized forms. “The vulgar, primitive, over-simple racism,” observed Fanon, “purported to find in biology – the Scriptures have proved insufficient – the material basis of the doctrine.”13Fanon, “Racism and culture,” 32. Ergo, European Christendom was the best, and its rich better than its poor, and its men better than its women, etc., etc. Own enough universities and such self-serving prattle can be made to sound pretty. Plus ça change.

Meanwhile, the US led the way toward white nationalism. Toward the end of Benjamin Franklin’s life, the US break with Britain meant that British nationality was no longer in play. Congress invited all “free white persons” to become US nationals. A whiteness including various European nationalities emerged, defined against an Indigenous and Black foil. Generations of racialist experts argued that to include more white people was to broaden the basis for white racial power over others. John Van Evrie, a Canadian-born white supremacist, was especially enthusiastic about this point.

After abolition, Van Evrie cheered on Klan violence from New York. He summarized his argument in an 1870 book entitled, White Supremacy and Negro Subordination: Or, Negroes a Subordinate Race, and (So-Called) Slavery its Normal Condition. What Orwell never taught us was that slavery = freedom is above all a white lie, even if English patriots prefer to call it a red one.

For Van Evrie, “can’t we all just get along” was a battle cry for white-power hatreds. He wrote: “The Englishman believes that the English are alone truly Christian and civilized; the Frenchman honestly believes that La Belle France is at the head of modern civilization; even the advanced and liberal American Democrat thinks, and perhaps correctly, that the Americans alone are truly civilized.”14J.H. Van Evrie, White Supremacy and Negro Subordination: Or, Negroes a Subordinate Race and (So-Called) Slavery its Normal Condition (New York: Van Evrie, Horton & Co., 1870), 67. Van Evrie’s message was that all white-on-white rivalry or violence was wasted energy, better poured into the unified violence of anti-Black and imperial politics.

So anti-Black and imperial violence defined the “White Man’s Burden.” But whiteness needed first to be made in order to be used as a weapon. In Kipling’s work, readers will thus find a dual commitment to white power and to Anglo-Saxon power. This logic was explicit. It was spelled out in Kipling’s day by the most influential US racial theorist of the period, William Z. Ripley.

Visiting Britain in 1908, Ripley told his hosts that Kipling’s “burden” should really be split into two, especially in North America. Yes, Ripley insisted, it was great for the British to plunder India, for the Klan to gallop across Dixie, and for the US army to devastate the Philippines. But white nationalism needed special attention. Ripley said:

You have your ‘white man’s burden’ to bear in India; we have ours to bear with the American negro and the Filipinos. But an even greater responsibility with us and with your Canadian fellow-citizens is that of the ‘Anglo-Saxon’s burden’ – to so nourish, uplift and inspire all these immigrant peoples of Europe, that in due course of time . . . the torch of Anglo-Saxon civilization and ideals, born by our fathers from England to America, shall yet burn as bright and clear in the New World, as your fires have continued to illuminate the old.15William Z. Ripley, “The European population of the United States,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (38 (1908), 240.

Like all white supremacist theory, this was nonsense, but it was nonsense with a logic. Ripley was spelling out a program that combined the primacy of British conservative social norms – and the English language – with the pan-European demographic and striking force sought by Van Evrie.

Those who do not care about Canada should now really skip to the next section. But strictly speaking, while Ripley bracketed Canada together with the US, the situation here was a little different. In this case, there was no break with the British Empire: a specifically British dominance endured. Until the 1940s, there was not even a specifically Canadian citizenship. Canadians were officially classed as British subjects. Relatedly, in celebration of this imperial connection, British Protestant sectarian groups like the Orange Order retained power at the expense of white nationalism as such. Not until after World War II was Canada’s British imperial connection painted over.

This brings us to Paul Martin, Sr., father to the twenty-first century Canadian prime minister. In 1946, it was Martin, Sr. who introduced the Citizenship Act for Canada. Thenceforth, Martin declared with white ecumenism, Canadians would be more than British nationals. Martin said: “No matter where we come from or what our origins, French, English, Scandinavian, Scottish, Ukrainian, Irish or whatever else, one thing at least we can all be, and that is Canadians.”16As quoted in Sunera Thobani, Exalted Subjects: Studies in the Making of Race and Nation in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007), 89. In this telling, the story of British or dual British–French nationality gave way to a story of composite Canadian whiteness.

In a master stroke of hypocrisy, this record was then removed from the field of popular education and debate. Organized confusion is the upshot. Granted, since the 1970s, layers of multiculturalist paint have been applied to the old Canadian social structure. But specialists agree that the appearance is altogether misleading. It now falls to a few academics to joke at the expense of those of us who were kept in the dark about Canada’s imperial foundations. One quips: “To paraphrase Kipling, ‘What should they know of Canada who only Canada know?’”17C.P. Champion, The Strange Demise of British Canada: The Liberals and Canadian Nationalism, 1964–1968 (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010), 34.

It will take work to free these quips from specialists and develop a popular anti-racist discussion grounded in the historical record – as distinct from amnesiac national branding. What is meanwhile plain is that the strongest local traditions of gaslighting could not have developed in a few decades, or even in a few generations. They are as vintage as a Rosedale wine cellar. As C.L.R. James warned: “That calm confidence in its capacity to deceive is a mark of the mature ruling class.”18C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 294.

“Don’t run. We are your friends”

Finally, we return to Rudyard Kipling, erstwhile Saxondom’s gaslighter-in-chief. So long as his mockery remains obscure, the roots of contemporary racist gaslighting are likewise hidden.

Hollywood put Kipling’s politics to film in its 1996 spoof, Mars Attacks! The film features a Martian invasion of earth. The invaders claim with a poker face that they come in peace. It is the plainest lie. But the confusion it causes on the part of earthlings is too convenient for the Martians to abandon. So even as the invaders raid and kill, they stick to the script. In one scene, satirized Martian shock troops storm a US street, firing their weapons while professing their innocence: “Don’t run. We are your friends.”

Eight decades before the spoof, Kipling’s take on this story was played out in India. It was then, in 1919, that the British Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer fired 1,650 rounds of live ammunition – by his own estimate – at Indian demonstrators who had dared to gather in public in their own country against British wishes. To think that British rule in India was ending, Dyer explained, was to be guilty, and the sentence against the crowd was open massacre. “I fired and continued to fire,” he boasted. “If more troops had been at hand the casualties would have been greater in proportion.”

Crucially, Dyer maintained that this massacre was an act of friendship to India – as British rule always was – and that Indians “ought to be thankful to me for doing it.” Kipling could only nod at his pupil’s wisdom: “He did his duty as he saw it.”19As quoted in Derek Sayer, “British reaction to the Amritsar massacre, 1919–1920,” Past & Present 131 (1991), 146 & 158. The tradition of Kipling and Dyer was a tradition in which first-person compassion was asserted as an article of faith, all facts be damned.

What was empire, so the story went, if not a gift to those it conquered? Kipling joked about this ruse in an early poem entitled “Et Dona Ferentes,” from the proverb, “Beware Greeks bearing gifts.” Kipling made it clear to his readers that even the fiercest exploitation and hate should be made to sound kind, or at least kept quiet. In the idealized racist of Kipling’s poetry, “the hard, pent rage ate inward,” before striking out with sharp violence and then disappearing without a harsh word. Such was the mastery of the imperial figure whom Kipling idealized as the Puzzler: “When his lips are schooled to meekness, when his back is bowed to blows – / Well the keen aas-vogels know it – well the waiting jackal knows.”

In sum, Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden” was an ode to the waiting jackal.

Kipling was a product of the British imperial community that ruled India, which had been wrapping the gift of empire in Dyer’s manner for generations. Empowered by its Atlantic exploits, Britain first broke through resistance to its advance in India in the eighteenth century. What followed was the plainest plunder. In the words of one English historian, “No eighteenth-century nabob, as the plunderers of India were called, pretended that he laboured for the benefit of the Indians. He laboured in order to become a millionaire.”20A.J.P. Taylor, “Conquerors and profiteers,” in Essays in English History (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976), 30. Over time, the means became more subtle, but the profits continued to flow. By 1932, a British author could forget Kipling’s script and spell it out in dollars and cents. “It has been computed,” he wrote, “that every fifth man in Great Britain is dependent, either directly or indirectly, on our Indian connection for his livelihood.”

The Big Lie that British rule was a gift to India was a familiar and miserable joke. Never has wealth flowed from one country to another as wealth flowed from Britain to India during the colonial period. The scope of what happened is suggested by statistics published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). In 1700, on the eve of British expansion, India contributed nearly a quarter of the world’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) against three percent for Britain. By 1870 India’s share had been cut in half while Britain’s had tripled.21For more detail, see Aditya Mukherjee, “How colonial India made modern Britain,” Economic and Political Weekly 45, no. 50 (2010), 73–82. By late Victorian times, Indians were dying of famine while British wealth poured into universities that celebrated white fairness as an article of faith.

Kipling argued that the lessons of British India generalized: white power the world over should be wrapped as a gift from Europe to the rest of the world. This was the meaning of his poem, “The White Man’s Burden.” Kipling coached his readers to stick to the script, à la Mars Attacks! Proclaim white-power selflessness, Kipling told his readers; whatever the facts, say it again and again: “By open speech and simple, / An Hundred times made plain, / To seek another’s profit, / And work another’s gain.”

In the Canadian North-West as in India, colonized people were reeling from famines that the British authorities had ruthlessly exploited. Pretend, Kipling mocked, that empire comes to the colonized with no attacks and no malice, just bundles of food and medicine: “Take up the White Man’s burden – / The savage wars of peace – / Fill full the mouth of famine / And bid the sickness cease.”

Kipling aimed to define colonial oppression out of existence – white power equals charity equals white power – and in this way to make anti-colonial resistance to oppression a logical impossibility. One can resist oppression. But one cannot resist charity. To resist charity is not resistance at all: it is ingratitude, insolence. In anti-colonial resistance, Kipling therefore coached, racists should refuse to see anything but “The blame of those ye better, / The hate of these ye guard.”

But why would the bearers of empire’s gifts be blamed in the first place? Why would racists receive anything but thanks for, say, the friendship they would show in Jallianwala Bagh, or in Canadian residential schools? Kipling answered with six syllables of carefully crafted hate. He declared that colonized people were “Half-devil and half-child.” The phrase is sharpened to purpose like a knife’s edge. On the one hand, it restates the case for imperial tutelage: if colonized people are racially immature, so the story goes, then they must, in empire’s manner, be taught a lesson. On the other hand, the charge of demonic immaturity makes room for righteous hate even within empire’s educational mission. The result is a self-righteousness fitted to a cruelty both pious and profitable.

By the early twentieth century, Britain’s Lord Cromer could only smile. Cromer sat on an enormous family fortune from the trade in enslaved Africans. Then, without returning a dime, he helped to lead the Scramble for Africa. And after all of this, he felt confident demanding not only the continued European exploitation of Africans, but also their thanks. “Even the Central African savage,” Cromer quipped, “may eventually learn to chant a hymn in honour of Astraea Redux, as represented by the British official who denies him gin but gives him justice.” The mockery is astounding.

After Dyer, pushing Anglo-Indian friendship to its classical conclusions; after Cromer, marketing false humanitarianism as profitable (see the link immediately above); and after Kipling, with his pride in the “waiting jackal” – after all of this, language that sounds nice on its surface has lost the benefit of the doubt. Hateful words can be terrible. But silence can say just as much. All this time later, there is still good reason to heed Kipling’s warning: “oh, beware my country, when my country grows polite!

Canada in Haiti: A retraction

I conclude with a retraction.

Some time ago, I wrote that Canadian policy in Haiti combined professed good intentions with oppressive policies. I began one article, now a decade old: “Over the course of the past decade, Canada’s leading officials and most prestigious commentators have learned how to approach Haiti in the spirit of cynical power politics and racist condescension (or worse) while maintaining a posture of national self-flattery.”

At the time, I was unfamiliar with the precedents: the claim that this dates to the first decade of this century is wrong. It is much older. In fact, empire’s twenty-first century arguments on Haiti were anticipated even by that distant imperial icon, Henry Dundas, whose legacy looms so large in the public architecture of Toronto. I will return to this continuity in future posts.

Notwithstanding the error, that brief article does unpack the context for the Haiti photo featured above. I therefore reproduce it in full on the next page.