Why the debate over anti-Semitism is so important

Why We Wrote This

A resurgence of anti-Semitic hatred prompts our writer, himself a Jew, to share a lesson from history: Hatred rarely stops with one group. 

Philippe Wojazer/Reuters
People gather at the Place de la République in Paris Feb. 19 to protest anti-Semitism and the rise of anti-Semitic attacks. The banner reads: 'Muslims against anti-Semitism.'

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The debate over what is and isn’t anti-Semitism is increasingly acrimonious. That has shifted the spotlight from the familiar Jew-hatred of the far right to left-of-center groups that have told themselves anti-Semitism is not a problem for them. But it is. The stereotyping of Jews has been given space within the mainstream. And there is a real human cost – with Jewish property attacked and Jews assaulted, even murdered, in Western countries.

The argument over “anti-Semitism versus anti-Zionism” has long seemed to me an intellectual fudge. A person can criticize Israeli policies, or challenge the core Zionist aim of creating a Jewish state, without necessarily being anti-Semitic. Yet some self-styled “anti-Zionists” give oxygen to the centuries-old lies and conspiracy theories that ultimately made the Holocaust possible. And historian Deborah Lipstadt notes in her new book on anti-Semitism that left-wing politicians seem to recognize Jew-hatred only in opponents.

Why is this so important? Yes, as a Jew, I find the resurgence of such hate deeply upsetting. But remember a lesson from history: Anti-Semites don’t hate only Jews. They are almost always intolerant of others, too – different faiths, races, colors. And of difference itself.

It has set off a full-blown crisis inside Britain’s Labour Party, and the first hints of one inside the Democratic Party in the United States: Anti-Semitism, that oldest of hatreds, is proving to be, as a leading Irish writer and politician once put it, a very light sleeper.

Yet beyond the political ramifications on both sides of the Atlantic, there is also an increasingly acrimonious debate over what is, and isn’t, anti-Semitism – especially when it comes to criticism of Israel. That, in turn, has shifted the spotlight away from the familiar, in-your-face Jew-hatred of the far right and on to left-of-center groups which, with their overt commitment to fighting racism and discrimination, have long insisted that anti-Semitism is not a problem for them. 

But it is. And there are at least two reasons why that matters. The first is that, just as on the right, the stereotyping and dehumanization of Jews, once the province of fringe figures, has increasingly been given space within the mainstream. The second, sometimes obscured in the acres of op-ed space devoted to the issue over recent weeks, is that there is a real human cost. Synagogues, Jewish cemeteries, and other Jewish property have been attacked. And Jews have been assaulted, even murdered, in Western countries – on a scale that for decades after the Nazi Holocaust would have seemed unthinkable.

I am not the first columnist to try to disentangle the issues around the left’s “Jewish problem.” Nor will I be the last. But I should start by explaining where I’m coming from. I am a longtime, proud part of The Christian Science Monitor family. I am also Jewish, born in Washington, and raised in a nonobservant home, though my Jewishness has become much more a part of my life as an adult. And as a foreign correspondent, I covered both sides of the Middle East conflict, based first in Beirut and later in Jerusalem.

Anti-Semitism vs. anti-Zionism

The argument over “anti-Semitism versus anti-Zionism” has long seemed to me an intellectual fudge. A person can be critical of Israel, or even challenge the core Zionist aim of creating a Jewish state, without necessarily being anti-Semitic. Some Jews, and Israelis too, oppose many current Israeli government policies. One of the main strictly Orthodox movements in the Jewish world, the Satmar Hasidic group, is itself anti-Zionist, viewing the establishment of a Jewish state as sinful until the arrival of the messiah.

It’s true that some anti-Zionists, or strident public critics of Israeli policy, do attract accusations of anti-Semitism that are politically motivated or unfair. But many self-styled “anti-Zionists” do draw on, give oxygen to, or actively spread the very same kind of imagery and hateful, centuries-old lies and conspiracy theories about Jews that ultimately made the Holocaust possible. The image of choice: Jews are an unassimilable group of cagey, disproportionately rich people who hold no real loyalty to the nations in which they live, and who are secretly out to control the world.

I suggest a thought experiment: Test some of the more extreme rhetoric and accusations being directed at “Zionists” by seeing whether they would jar if you simply substituted the word “Jews.” Or look at the political company this brand of “anti-Zionist” keeps, often including purveyors of anti-Semitic lies like “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” the czarist Russian forgery alleging a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world, or the accusation that Israel and Jews were behind the attack on the twin towers.

The criticism engulfing British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is not mainly over whether his own “anti-Zionism” has strayed into anti-Semitism, although leading members of Britain’s Jewish community have argued it does. It is that he has provided space, and at times support, for increasingly influential acolytes inside Labour and beyond who do traffic in anti-Semitic stereotypes. 

The reasons that political anti-Semitism is reawakening may help explain the difficulty Labour has found in confronting its crisis, as well as the first, milder, signs of a similar challenge facing U.S. Democrats.

The first is that centuries-old European anti-Semitism, largely dormant after the Holocaust, has become intertwined with a more recent version, incubated in the Arab and Islamic world since the establishment of Israel in 1948. Mr. Corbyn spent years, before becoming Labour leader, championing his support for Palestinian and Arab groups for whom Israel’s establishment was not only unjust. It was an injustice they were determined to reverse. Any wider anti-Jewishness among some of these allies clearly paled in importance for him compared with the cause they represented.

He and many supporters also seem to share a longstanding blind spot on the socialist left, with its roots in the Marxist view of class-ordered society: that Jews are well-off. Members of the privileged class. It is that, they would suggest, rather than race or religion that makes them worthy of attack – a notion dramatically highlighted when Mr. Corbyn sided with an artist who painted an overtly anti-Semitic mural in East London that portrayed hook-nosed Jews playing Monopoly on the backs of the struggling poor.

A second reason for the resurgence of anti-Semitism may be that, despite Holocaust-education initiatives around the world, for generations now coming of age politically, the industrial murder of millions of Jews eight decades ago is becoming a more dimly present, less viscerally horrible, part of history.

When Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar suggested that congressional support for Israel was “all about the Benjamins,” or, in criticizing the pro-Israeli lobby group AIPAC, questioned how Americans could “push for allegiance to a foreign country,” it’s unlikely that she fully realized the European anti-Semitic provenance of the tropes implicit in those statements. In other words, the image of Jews using money as an underhanded weapon for political control, or the suggestion of Jewish “dual loyalty.” 

Nor may New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have been fully aware of the dozens of anti-Semitism allegations swirling inside British Labour when she tweeted last month that she’d been “honored” to be able to speak by phone with Mr. Corbyn.

One thing that has now changed is that Labour is facing a political imperative to come to grips with the issue of anti-Semitism. The Democrats, in spite of the messy politics around their recent introduction of a House resolution against all forms of racism, are clearly intent on addressing the question much earlier, and more assertively, than Mr. Corbyn.

That suggests at least the beginning of a shift in the politics around anti-Semitism. As Emory University historian Deborah Lipstadt notes in her new book, both the left and the right have in recent years limited themselves to recognizing, or calling out, Jew-hatred only among their political opponents. U.S. President Donald Trump, for example, while repeatedly avoiding criticism of far-right supporters for anti-Semitism, has seized on the debate inside the Democratic Party to declare that Democrats “hate Jewish people.”

And here, in my view, is why all of this is so important. Yes, as a Jew, I find the resurgence of anti-Jewish prejudice, hate, and violence deeply upsetting. Yet it’s also worth remembering a lesson from history: Anti-Semites don’t hate only Jews. They are almost always intolerant of other groups, too – different faiths, different races, different colors. And of difference itself.

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