The Jewish community has turned selective outrage over anti-Semitism into a kind of norm.
There was a time—and it was not that long ago—when regardless of what separated Jews, we made a certain common cause over those who traded in the themes that had caused so many Jewish deaths. You could be religious or secular, liberal or conservative, but protecting Jews in the Soviet Union was a fight we all fought. Jews didn’t look the other way when Louis Farrakhan or David Duke spouted hatred. And an attack on a synagogue was, well, an attack on a synagogue.
Times have changed. Over the past few weeks, Orthodox Jews in the New York area have been targeted in a series of violent attacks. Yet the reaction has been muffled, including from people—especially but not exclusively Jews—whom one would expect to be up in arms. The reaction is about what you’d expect for unpleasant graffiti-writing or anti-Semitic name-calling. It is certainly not what I would have expected in response to a wave of hate crimes, including attacks with guns and machetes, that have left people dead and in critical condition.
Why the comparatively mild response? For many American Jews, the answer is that these aren’t “our” kind of Jews—and the attackers aren’t motivated by the kind of anti-Semitism we most want to talk about.
Batya Unger-Sargon, the opinion editor at the Forward, put it bluntly and correctly this morning:
After the massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue on Shabbat that killed 11 people last year, and another fatal shooting at a shul in Poway, California six months later, one often heard that the great threat to Jews—even the only threat—comes from white supremacy. Conventional wisdom said it was the political right, and the right’s avatar in the White House, that was to blame for the rising levels of hate against Jews.
But the majority of the perpetrators of the Brooklyn attacks, and the suspects in Jersey City—who were killed in a shootout with the police—and now Monsey, were not white, leaving many at a loss about how to explain it or even talk about it. There is little evidence that these attacks are ideologically motivated, at least in terms of the ideologies of hate we are most familiar with.
And therein lies the trouble with talking about the violent attacks against Orthodox Jews: At a time when ideology seems to [reign] supreme in the chattering and political classes, the return of pogroms to Jewish life on American soil transcends ideology. In the fight against anti-Semitism, you don’t get to easily blame your traditional enemies—which, in the age of Trump, is a non-starter for most people.
In our political moment, a great many people seem more outraged by the other side’s anti-Semitism than by their own side’s. Only recently, Jewish supporters of the president seemed not to notice when Rudy Giuliani—the president’s lawyer—disparaged the Judaism of a Holocaust survivor. Trump trades in anti-Semitic stereotypes on a relatively routine basis; he once suggested that Jews had to vote for him because Senator Elizabeth Warren would take away their wealth, and he ran an ad at the close of the 2016 election insinuating that a Jewish elite holds too much power and control. Trump’s Jewish supporters have looked the other way even as they have seen a menace to the Jewish future from Democratic—but not Republican—members of Congress who have advanced similar ideas.
The left, meanwhile, correctly decries such anti-Semitic overtones on the Trumpist right, even as it tolerates with equanimity the toxic environment that exists for many Jews on university campuses. It finds Ilhan Omar’s suggestions of Jewish dual loyalty, if not quite acceptable, then at least not worth talking much about. And many on the left seemed to not mind the U.K. Labour Party’s atmosphere of anti-Semitism—at least not until Labour lost big—though one poll suggested that nearly half of British Jews might leave the country if Jeremy Corbyn were elected, and another poll found that 86 percent of British Jews thought he was anti-Semitic.
So selective is our reaction to anti-Semitism these days that it is now commonplace in Jewish argument to respond to the suggestion of anti-Semitism on one’s own side of the political spectrum by saying, “Yes, but the real problem is not [whatever person or group just got mentioned] but [some example of anti-Semitism on the other side].”
If you catch yourself saying sentences like this, query whether your real concern is anti-Semitism itself, or whether you’re primarily interested in weaponizing the anti-Semitism of your opponents for political gain.
Yes, anti-Semitism is a feature of white supremacy. But if you think it’s only a feature of white supremacy, consider that it existed in murderous forms for more than 1,000 years before European white imperialists were asserting dominance over anyone. A lot of people have killed Jews over the centuries, and continue to do so, without wearing white hoods or brandishing swastikas. Not all of them have been white or had any concept of whiteness. If you’re not willing to face that reality, you’re not really interested in anti-Semitism. You’re trying to make the history of anti-Semitism tell a story you already know.
Yes, anti-Semitism has been a feature of some sectors of the left since the days of Marx—sometimes murderously so. But if one is simultaneously obsessed with leftist anti-Semitism and willing to have a transactional relationship with Trump’s stereotyping of Jews because he’s “pro-Israel,” or willing to ignore frequent invocations of anti-Semitic tropes on the conspiratorial right, then please spare me the platitudes about Ilhan Omar and Jeremy Corbyn. You’re not interested in anti-Semitism either. Most Jews in the world don’t live in Israel and would prefer not to be attacked as part of a vast “globalist” elite of rootless cosmopolitans. Their safety is not yours to trade in exchange for your preferred Middle East policy.
And finally, yes, anti-Semitism is a deep feature of Islamic fundamentalism of a variety of sorts, not to mention of important strains of Arab nationalism. But if you are one of the people who reduces anti-Semitism to its contemporary Islamic-world instantiations, there’s probably more than a little anti-Muslim or anti-Arab bigotry in your worldview. The killers in the deadly synagogue shootings in Pennsylvania and California weren’t Muslims or Arabs, after all. The presidential lawyer who declared himself the arbiter of George Soros’s Judaism isn’t a Muslim either. Nor is Corbyn. If you’re not willing to confront the diversity of anti-Semitism, you’re just not being serious.
The bottom line is that anti-Semitism does not align with any simple political narrative you try to map it onto. Jews should know better than to play games by trying to force an alignment that doesn’t exist. Doing so trivializes a weighty history.
We should all be suspicious of people, Jews and non-Jews alike, who purport to raise their voices about anti-Semitism but do not talk candidly about the anti-Semitism within their ranks. People who are more interested in how they can use the problem of anti-Semitism as a weapon than in the problem itself will always be a little too willing to avert their gaze when the wrong sort of people get killed by the wrong sort of killers for the wrong sort of reasons.