10 Readers on Opposing Anti-Semitism

“Conversations are critical weapons,” one reader writes.

kanye west
Paolo Pellegrin / Magnum; The Atlantic

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Last week I asked readers, “What is the best response to anti-Semitism in America?”

Yosef responded with acid observations about the type of anti-Semitism that prompts the most media coverage:

I find it ironic that those who are the most perplexed and dismayed about any rise in anti-Semitism are those who are least Jewish. At the same time, those who are most affected by anti-Semitism are those who are most Jewish. In greater New York City, in mass shootings and daily crime, it is the Hassidim who are attacked the most. But [violent] anti-Semitism and online anti-Semitism are distinct forms. One is a stone and one is a tweet.

Tweets take place on Twitter, which is a space almost devoid of ultra-Orthodox Jews. Yet you ask me this question because of anti-Semitic tweets, not when Jews are stabbed. Stabbings of Hassidim just don’t seem to occupy the same societal headspace that right-wing lunatics do. The Jews who live outside of the Jewish world are less likely to be physically attacked because they don’t look Jewish. They notice anti-Semitism when Kanye tweets it. It is these Jews who bring anti-Semitism to your attention in its most benign form.

We do not ask for a national conversation about anti-Semitism; anti-Semitism is a fact of Jewish existence. It will always exist, in many forms, in flavors palatable to any taste in politics. From my street-level view, teens with stones have as much power as Ye or Nick Fuentes.

There are two types of anti-Semitism: One is local crime and one is national politics. We just want crimes to be prosecuted, and for mayors not to tell the police to stand back.

Meredith urges a broad coalition that starts with education:

Overcoming anti-Semitism is an age-old challenge and often a matter of life or death. Christian leaders must work together with leaders of all faiths, officeholders of all parties, and prominent figures to expose the lies that underpin anti-Semitism. Public schools must educate children and teenagers about anti-Semitism in different historic periods, not just the one during World War II. It is insufficient to teach history in which Jews don’t appear until the Nazis are systematically hunting and murdering them by the millions.

Marilyn makes a shorter case for education:

Marjorie Taylor Greene, who casually compared the Holocaust with COVID mandates, seems to have gained something from her visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. If someone as offensively uninformed as she is can admit she didn't really know what the Holocaust was, then I’m sure just about anyone can learn the error of their ways.

DC urges a return to first principles:

The subhead under the title of Bari Weiss’s interview with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was a quote from Abdul-Jabbar: “Black people have to know that when they mouth antisemitism, they are using the exact same kind of reasoning that white supremacists use against blacks.”

That clear-eyed observation seems to me to express a principle that we have lost sight of in our current culture wars, which is that all forms of bigotry and discrimination—even when intended as a weapon against bigotry and discrimination—make bigotry and discrimination far more acceptable across the board. I don’t think that phenomenon is limited to expressions of anti-Semitic sentiment or to Black speakers; racial and socioeconomic and ethnic-group membership have become a permissible, if not defining, factor in how some of us judge others and how we speak about them and in what we feel they are entitled to say. No group will ever be able to claim that kind of “reasoning,” as Abdul-Jabbar rightly calls it, for itself. It is a contagion, and will continue to be adopted by other groups and for other causes for as long as we tolerate it.

Anti-Semitic speech cannot be legally prohibited. But the reactions it provokes and the conversations it ignites (like the one you’ve invited) are critical weapons in opposing it. Private organizations and businesses can and should denounce and punish it in whatever way they see fit, and they have seemed to do that lately. Public figures can and should denounce it and respond to it, as Abdul-Jabbar has done, among others.

But a broader-based backlash against the unprincipled basis for these kinds of statements is needed. We can’t pick and choose the forms of bigotry we object to. We have to be all in on the principle or watch as bigoted speech becomes more widely practiced and accepted.

Glenn cautions against prejudice or differential treatment rooted in group identity:

From many, one. Identity politics is the poison at the well of democracy. For the sake of expediency and the shallow thinking of the moment, we place individuals into groups so that we need only address ideas and stereotypes rather than persons. We dehumanize by this intellectual sleight of hand.

Of course, one’s culture is significant. We would be all the poorer as a people without those unique cultural flavors mixed into our “melting pot,” a perfectly good term. If we are to be, in any meaningful sense, a people, there will have to be a melting pot. One’s culture, history, and identity belong to the self and not to the civitas.  

All the Semitic peoples are a particularly old and honored cultural contributor to our nation. We are indebted to them, and should show our great gratitude and respect by treating them exactly like one of our own and not another. Leave it to each of us individually to separate ourselves into our own unique identities and proclivities, but let us in deep respect treat one another exactly as if we were the same. No more, no less.

Errol warns against punitive censoriousness:

I say give people like Kyrie Irving and Ye the rope to hang themselves with. Punishing them for essentially saying that the Jews run everything just proves their point to them. They go to their inner circle and say “See? Told ya.” Soon that underground club will grow in numbers, and we may have a serious problem on our hands that seemingly came from nowhere. This is why I think it’s backward to do things like outlaw Holocaust denial, as Canada and other countries have done. This doesn’t kill the idea, because ideas cannot be killed––they grow like a germ in a petri dish when you try to put a lid on them.

Sunlight is the best disinfectant in a majority of cases. And unfortunately, we have lost the art of making fun of bigotry and racism. There’s a particular archetype of comedy we no longer have.

Think of Archie Bunker. The joke is not that people make fun of Archie; the joke is Archie himself. He’s a character who spews idiotic sentiments that we laugh at because we find viewpoints such as his to be laughable. We have since veered far away from making light of people like him and in movies such as The Producers.

Bryan Cranston spoke in recent years about being offered a chance to direct a comedic play that made the KKK look, well, stupid. He turned it down because he felt it “a privileged viewpoint to be able to look at the Ku Klux Klan and laugh at them and belittle them for their broken and hateful ideology.” This attitude is a mistake. Humiliation is powerful and can diffuse someone’s hateful thoughts and convey better than forced apologies the idea that people like this don’t deserve to be taken seriously.

DG argues that anti-Semitism should not be ignored, and that it should be punished:

I think some background is essential. We no longer live in a world in which poisonous ideas can be expected to die through the lack of nourishment. That world perished with the advent of social media. The lure of having instant impact through provocative expressions has short-circuited prudent inhibition in the same manner as four shots of tequila.

The appropriate response to Irving and Ye should be evaluated from the perspective of their desired effect. They hoped to gain influence with their words. The most effective and appropriate outcome would be for them to lose influence. These are bullies. Bullies need an audience. And the next generation is watching.

If Elon Musk wants to reinstate Ye’s account, it should be on Twitter users to unfollow both of them. Or to leave the platform. We are not without power here. We should not exercise power unjustly. The response should fit the offense. In addition, a clear statement of disagreement with the objectionable views expressed should be considered by all observers who feel these ideas are divisive, harmful, or at least malicious in nature and intent.  

As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” As Ella Wheeler Wilcox said, “To sin by silence, when we should protest, makes cowards out of men.”

Harvey notes the belief among people, including Donald Trump, that even bad press is better than no press, and argues that Ye, Kyrie Irving, and Nick Fuentes are all better ignored than addressed because of the particular roles that those individuals play in American culture:

West is widely known but widely ignored on most subjects as a nut whose opinion has no influence except for those following him based more on his status as an artist than a political figure.  

Irving is an athlete. Most people care more about how he does on the basketball court, not his political or sociological beliefs. Fuentes is virtually unknown except among people who already agree with his position. His comments are so outside the mainstream as to render him unable to influence anybody except a small group. Only those with similar beliefs care about his opinions, except for those who follow him for a living, such as the FBI and the [Southern Poverty Law Center].

It seems to me that with these individuals, we would be better to ignore them than give them more oxygen than they warrant. Giving them more publicity validates their feelings of self-importance in ways that they do not deserve.

Tony agrees:

Anti-Semitism, along with every single other inflammatory, attention-seeking behavior from whatever quarter, but particularly from celebrities, should be ignored. It’s all excessive and immature, toddler-like even, and so doesn’t deserve the dignity of a response. There have to be some grown-ups in the room, and that should be the media.

And Jaleelah draws some distinctions:

Are you asking about how we should deal with high-profile anti-Semites or how we should deal with anti-Semitism in America? Those are two very different questions.

Disclaimer: I am neither Jewish nor an expert in the field, so I won’t claim to know the best way to deal with either of these issues. I will, however, share an observation. “High-profile anti-Semites” are not the greatest force of anti-Semitism in America. They’re certainly a threat, but most people have other entry points to anti-Semitism. Common conspiracy theories, evangelical tales about the End Times, and extreme anti-elite/anti-outsider rhetoric are all gateways to hating Jewish people. As a result, I find your qualms about “drawing attention to anti-Semites” an unconvincing reason to ignore them.

There will always be hateful figures who platform other hateful figures. Anti-Semitism is so engrained in American culture that it will not become less popular when non-Jewish commentators remain silent on it. You may be able to ignore Kanye’s hateful remarks, but Jewish figures will always be asked to comment on them. And Jewish people have no good options. Either they can let anti-Semitism thrive, or they can fight it and be painted as censorious.

So what is the largest anti-Semitic threat, and how can we stop it? I would argue that it’s the low-level anti-Semitic rhetoric that exists across all American communities, particularly when it comes from places of authority.

I was quite sheltered from anti-Semitism for the first 15 years of my life because I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood and attended a Jewish-majority school. My Muslim Palestinian grandparents raised me to treat Jewish people with respect and to resist people who try to turn us against each other. I thought it was ridiculous that anyone could actually believe Jewish people are behind some grand conspiracy to control the media or the government.

I truly believe that authority figures—whether religious, political, or educational—are the only ones capable of raising Americans to believe such obvious hateful untruths. Stop letting them make excuses.