How 2020 explains 2024: Phoebe Maltz Bovy on antisemitism as settler-guilt-deflection as Palestine becomes part of politics everywhere

Social media post from the office of France's New Popular Front alliance leader Jean-Luc Melenchon: "We will have a Prime Minister from the New Popular Front. We will be able to decide many things by decree. On the international level, we will have to agree to recognize the State of Palestine."

As someone who’s had an eye on French Jewry for years, out of personal and professional interest, I’m familiar with the phenomenon of the Israel-Palestine conflict ‘playing out’ in other lands. Things flare up in the Middle East and suddenly, on a different continent, there are street fights, antisemitic attacks, some much-publicized Jews supporting (or becoming) far-right politicians, maybe the occasional torture of a Jew in the wrong place at the wrong time. And it will all be kind of in reference to the Mideast conflict but also about a whole host of at most tangentially related domestic concerns. Like, tensions between Jews and Muslims (or white leftists) in France will be said to be about whichever intifada, but also about the Crémieux Decree; the dual legacies of the Holocaust and French colonialism; and whatever happens to be going on in France at the time. 

And so it has seemed both familiar and bizarre to see the same happening in Canada, and more so in the United States, since Oct. 7. Canada, at least, you might say, is a bit more European, and more than a bit more French. But why do American college students and activists—including many who are neither Arab nor Muslim let alone specifically Palestinian—suddenly care so much about this conflict?

I had implicitly taken for granted that it’s because of the war, as if that alone explains it. As if there isn’t always a war, in the Middle East or elsewhere. What’s happening in Gaza is deeply upsetting whatever your interpretation of the underlying causes. But there is always devastating news, and not every just cause gets taken up in this all-encompassing way. What gives?

It was only when reading recent Bonjour Chai guest Benjamin Wexler’s essay, “The Eternal Settler,” that everything started to make sense. Wexler writes about the way antizionism can function in a North American framework, allowing settlers (that is, non-Indigenous Canadians or Americans) to “expiate the original colonial sin through global struggle against Zionism.” And this, oh, it got me thinking. Thinking, that is, about the 2020-21 racial reckoning, the one Nellie Bowles covered in her book Morning After the Revolution, and that dominated the cultural and political landscape in the U.S. and beyond. All the self-flagellations and cancellations. All the brands and influencers frantically apologizing for whiteness, a category from which Mizrahi Jews were not categorically exempt.

In the U.S., the focus was anti-Black racism, prompted by the 2020 police murder of George Floyd. The Canadian version centred on Indigenous people, the catalyst here being 2021 reporting on unmarked graves at residential schools. (No, this hasn’t all been debunked.) A relatively new term, BIPOC—standing for Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour—covered these and potentially other marginalized groups.

The thing about reckonings, though, is that they’re grim stuff. If you’re a non-Jewish European, it’s grim to think about the Holocaust, and the culpability of, if not your own specific ancestors, then the civilization you come from. This is a commonly suggested source of modern-day European antisemitism. If you’re a non-Indigenous Canadian, if you’re a white American, do you really want to spend your one precious life feeling terrible about yourself for things that after all you were not personally responsible for? You might post to Instagram about your intent to do the work, to do better, but wouldn’t it be more appealing to fight for social justice in a way that didn’t implicate you at all? In which you could—via a fashionable checked scarf, for example—identify yourself with the oppressed?

All of this is to say that the why now question about white gentile North Americans’ passion for Palestine has, in part, a domestic answer. It’s about Jews functioning as avatars of whiteness, of settler-colonialism, of neoliberalism, of entrenched power and privilege of all kinds. The framework for this development was already there, in pre-2020 social justice hierarchies. In progressive circles, there was already the idea—one that can’t be new as I wrote about it in my 2017 book—that Jews are the most privileged of all, the true beneficiaries of whiteness, whiter-than-white, and that opposing Jews is itself a righteous act.

It therefore made perfect sense for many social-justice-oriented white people to deflect in this way. It’s not just about absolving guilt, but about no longer feeling like someone who has too much and needs to give up advantages. If Jews and not cis straight white men or whatever are the all-powerful, then what do you know? You too can be part of the general pool of oppressed people. You can engage in the entirely normal human act of feeling grumpy about what you’ve got and wishing you had more, and do this without feeling bad about it.

Obviously that’s what’s happening. How had I not seen this?


A recent Bret Stephens column in the New York Times has a sentence that begins, “If you are an Ivy League megadonor wondering how to better spend the money you no longer want to give a Penn or a Columbia,” and it was at that point in the sentence I found myself thinking how few Jews engage with the world from the perspective of even a potential “megadonor” to anything. Most of us are shlubs like anyone else, noticing that the eggs at the fruit stand are now a dollar more than they had been, noticing this not because we’re penny-pinching Jews but because not running the show, we’re just in income brackets where such things add up.

For more original Jewish culture commentary from Phoebe Maltz Bovy subscribe to the free Bonjour Chai newsletter on Substack.

The CJN’s senior editor Phoebe Maltz Bovy can be reached at [email protected], not to mention @phoebebovy on Bluesky, and @bovymaltz on X. She is also on The CJN’s weekly podcast Bonjour Chai.