Ignatiev in the Age of Trump

I first met Noel Ignatiev in December 1987. I was a sophomore undergraduate at Harvard living in Dunster House, one of the university’s residential houses. Noel was a resident tutor there in American History and Literature. Give that my focus was on the Middle East, there was no particular reason for us to interact, but politics dictated otherwise. It was the beginning of the First Palestinian Intifada and I was going around Dunster House putting up posters of Israeli soldiers breaking the arms of Palestinian kids. Some Dunster residents responded angrily and there were some confrontations and complaints to the Housemaster. Noel approached me and informed me that he had made a point of taking my side and that he supported what I was doing. He had a remarkable ability to identify and seek out like-minded people and engage with them both politically and socially.

In the three years I lived in Dunster, I got to know Noel much better and we had many conversations about race, class, and politics in general. He offered a much more critical, and much more interesting, interpretation of American history than the liberal, triumphalist version I had learned in Massachusetts public schools. In 1991, when I returned from a year studying in Cairo, Noel informed me of a new project that he and John Garvey were initiating, a journal called Race Traitor with the motto, “Treason to Whiteness is Loyalty to Humanity!” The journal would encourage people to renounce whiteness with the aim of destabilizing, and eventually abolishing, the white race as a social formation. Naturally, I was enthusiastic, although I didn’t have anything to offer the journal at the time and went off to graduate school.

With his customary generosity, Noel kept me informed about the progress of the journal and we discussed the many controversies that it generated. Some on the left, including Noel’s old friend and comrade Ted Allen, were unhappy with Noel’s willingness to engage people on the far right, including one avowed Neo-Nazi and the militia movement that flourished in the mid-1990s. Noel saw race treason as a way to contest the racial division of the American working class and build a class movement against capital. He had no illusions about the people he was debating, but he also recognized that they were responding to the neo-liberal policies of the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton years, and to the overwhelming force the federal government employed to repress any display of armed opposition. For someone whose greatest hero was John Brown, there was no way to side with the government.

In 1995, I contributed an article to the fourth issue of Race Traitor, entitled, “Abolish the Jewish Caste in Palestine.” Noel and I had often talked about the comparative significance of racial regimes and we agreed that one could compare American whiteness with Protestant supremacy in Northern Ireland, Apartheid in South Africa, and Zionism in Palestine. Race Traitor argued about the white race that “Its most wretched members share a status higher, in certain respects, than that of the most exalted persons excluded from it, in return for which they give their support to a system that degrades them.” We distinguished racial oppression from national oppression. An oppressed nation might hope to free itself from its colonial oppressor through independence, but under racial oppression, only the abolition of the ruling caste (I intentionally avoided the term “Jewish race” because of its association with anti-Semitism) could address the problem. In my article, I rejected the idea of a Jewish nation and predicted the failure of the “two-state solution,” which called for a repartition of Palestine. Instead, I argued for a movement that would transcend the division between Jews and Arabs in Palestine and result in one state with equal rights and responsibilities for all, “a society free of race and caste.” Race Traitor continued to take an active interest in Palestine, and 2005 it published a special issue on the subject whose sole editor was Noel. He wrote an introductory editorial, reiterating the parallels between the United States, Ireland, South Africa, and Israel. In an article on “Zionism” for The Encyclopedia of Race and Racism, he wrote that Israel is a “racial state, where rights are assigned on the basis of ascribed descent or the approval of the superior race.” After a long campaign of pressure by Zionist groups, the publisher removed the article from the encyclopedia.

Eventually, I became convinced that that the role played by race in American politics was diminishing and that while whiteness was not irrelevant, race no longer occupied a central place. I continue to think this analysis is correct in spite of the tendency among “progressives” today to interpret almost everything through the lens of “white privilege.” The rise of Trump has led to a lot of discussion about white nationalism, fascism, and authoritarianism. Some have argued that white nationalist groups now constitute a “terrorist” threat similar to the so-called Islamic State and should be treated in a similar manner. Noel would have had little patience for that.

In conversations I had with Noel in recent years, we agreed that Trump is no fascist, even if there are actual fascists who seek to ride his coattails. Noel believed that it was not impossible that Trump’s appeal to nativism could win over some black Americans tired of seeing generation after generation of immigrants leapfrog them in ascending the social ladder. We debated whether the propensity of the police to kill black men could be explained best by race or class. Although Black Lives Matter and Palestine activists have noted that American police forces have been trained in military-style methods in Israel, we agreed that the description of police methods in the United States as “settler colonialism” is far-fetched.

Today, Trump presides over a presidency with remarkably broad powers. To explain this development, however, one need only recall of the bipartisan support for the expansion of the national security state, especially since 9/11. The Patriot Act, the Global War on Terror, and fbi and police surveillance of American Muslim communities all provided pretexts for the further expansion of executive power. Liberals who expected the courts to overturn Trump’s immigration policies have been shocked to discover the constitutional powers the president possesses. That said, Trump presides over an aging, minority party that maintains its hold on power by exploiting the electoral college and preparing the electoral battlefield through redistricting. There is little indication that Trump can or would resort to calling his people into the streets.

As Northern Ireland, South Africa, and the United States continue to distance themselves from their former status as herrenvolk democracies, Israel moves in the opposite direction. Settlement continues apace, Palestinians are evicted from what remains of their land, and it is now clear to virtually everyone that the two-state solution is an illusion. It might seem that we are moving closer to a one-state solution, in which every citizen enjoys the same rights and has the same responsibilities. Yet Israel’s Jewish critics have been silenced or driven abroad. For the first time, there is more criticism of Zionism among American Jews than there is among Israelis. Trump’s Deal of Century not only provides Israel with a pretext to annex Jewish settlements in the West Bank, it also provides for a transfer of territory from Israel to a potential Palestinian Bantustan. If implemented, this clause would deprive more than 100,000 Palestinians of Israeli citizenship and leave them with the status that West Bank Palestinians possess. In short, Israel remains a racial state in every sense of the word, and mountains are being moved to preserve the domination of the Jewish caste over Palestine. Noel always warned that it was possible that the Palestinians could suffer the fate of the American Indians. Palestinians now or soon will outnumber Jews in historic Palestine. When and if they will ever exercise their right to equality in their own land remains an open question.

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