Grappling with Anti-Semitism, Again

As Jew-bashing spikes, the question of when anti-Israel animus becomes anti-Semitic has a new relevance

The perennial debate about whether and when anti-Zionism is anti-Semitic briefly seemed moot last month when protests against Israel’s military action in Palestinian territories spilled over, on several occasions, into overtly anti-Semitic violence. In New York, a 29-year-old Jewish man was beaten by pro-Palestinian protesters near the site of dueling pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian demonstrations, and firecrackers were tossed at Jewish-owned businesses. In Borough Park, Brooklyn, Orthodox Jewish men and teen boys were assaulted by men shouting, “Free Palestine—kill all the Jews.” In Los Angeles, diners outside a sushi restaurant were attacked by men carrying Palestinian flags.

Some reactions from progressives have fueled further controversy. Several prominent left-of-center politicians, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) condemned anti-Semitism while grouping it with “Islamophobia” (despite the lack of any noticeable spike in anti-Muslim crimes) and in some cases with “every other form of hate.” This, from quarters where “All Lives Matter” is regarded as a serious faux pas.

Then there was the bizarre saga at Rutgers University, my alma mater (and my mother’s former employer), where the chancellor and the provost posted a statement condemning anti-Semitism—along with other forms of hate—and then Students for Justice in Palestine complained because the statement did not acknowledge the pain of Palestinians, leading to an actual apology for “the hurt” caused by a message that “failed to communicate support for our Palestinian community members.” Then, both the initial message and the apology follow-up were scrubbed from the university site, to be replaced by a message from university president Jonathan Holloway deploring “hatred and bigotry in all forms” and condemning “anti-Semitism, anti-Hinduism, Islamophobia, and all forms of racism, intolerance, and xenophobia.”

Meanwhile, former Bernie Sanders surrogate Amer Zahr, a Palestinian-American comedian and close ally to Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), tweeted a call to … “stop condemning anti-Semitism.” Yes, really.

So this is the situation: some pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel rhetoric is clearly spilling over into anti-Semitism (including anti-Jewish violence), and some progressives are clearly having a difficult time unequivocally condemning this bigotry. Or, in a few cases, condemning it at all.

What’s going on here?

As I have written before, the issue of anti-Semitism and critiques of Israel is a tough one for me. I strongly believe that sweeping charges of bigotry which rely on “tropes” and “codes” (e.g., “it’s racist to refer to rioters and looters as thugs”) or on the linkage between political ideas and population groups (e.g., “it’s racist to oppose illegal immigration” or “it’s misogynistic to want due process for rape defendants”) are absolutely pernicious and chilling to free debate. I also believe in consistency. If harsh polemics against affirmative action should not be attacked as racist, then harsh polemics against Israeli policies in the occupied territories should not be attacked as anti-Semitic. If you can’t call someone a racist just for being mean to Barack Obama, then you can’t call someone an anti-Semite just for being mean to Benjamin Netanyahu.

On the other hand, racist and anti-Semitic tropes definitely do exist. It’s pretty obvious, for example, that a cartoon mocking Obama by depicting him as an ape would be shockingly out of bounds—even if George W. Bush was often likened to a chimp. (The “double standard” is rooted in the indisputable fact of longstanding racial tropes portraying black people as monkeys.) There is little doubt that “birtherism”—the idea that the first black president of the United States was an African-born usurper—had a strong racist component, even if some white politicians (Ted Cruz, born in Canada to a U.S. citizen, or John McCain, born in the Panama Canal zone) have also faced minor “birther” controversies about their eligibility to run for president. Likewise, portraying Netanyahu as an octopus whose insidious tentacles reach all over the globe would have ugly overtones—especially if, for example, the octopus had a mark shaped like a six-pointed star—that a similar cartoon of Vladimir Putin simply does not have.

Likewise, it’s not racist to oppose affirmative action or illegal immigration, or to call for tough anti-crime policies. But all these issues can be discussed in ways that are tinged with racism, or serve as vehicles for it, and they can be used to attack, harass, and stigmatize minorities (for instance, by suggesting that black professionals or academics owe their success solely to racial preferences, or treating all Latino immigrants as suspected interlopers, or profiling all black males as criminals).

Same with Israel and Jews. Progressives who argue that polemics about affirmative action or immigration can be a cover for racism have a point (though they expand that point beyond all reason); but they often refuse to recognize that polemics about Israel have a long history of serving as a cover for anti-Semitism, whether in the Soviet Union, in large parts of the Muslim world, or, in some cases, in Europe and the United States.

Where does one draw the line? It’s a tough question.

For instance: I don’t know if the 2019 Portuguese cartoon that caused an uproar when it was reprinted by The New York Times—showing Netanyahu as a small dog with a Star of David on his collar leading a blind, skullcap-wearing Donald Trump—was intended as anti-Semitic. But it certainly does evoke ugly tropes of Jewish manipulation (and uses the yarmulke, a Jewish attribute not specifically related to Israel, as an apparent mark of subservience to Jews).

On the other hand, I find it troubling that a German newspaper dropped a cartoonist in 2018 over a cartoon lampooning Netanyahu’s response to an Israeli singer’s victory in the Eurovision contest because it could be construed as containing “anti-Semitic clichés.” Presumably, the problem was the Star of David on a rocket in Netanyahu’s hand; but that’s an official part of the Israeli flag. One may strongly differ with portraying Netanyahu as a warmonger, but it’s no more anti-Semitic than, say, portraying Hillary Clinton as a warmonger is misogynistic. Yes, Germans have good reasons to be extra-sensitive to any potential whiff of anti-Semitism. But that way wokeness lies.

A particularly bitter controversy erupted the other day over a New York Times cover story titled “They Were Only Children,” devoted to child victims of the Israel-Gaza conflict. Abe Foxman, the former head of the Anti-Defamation League, denounced it as a version of the “blood libel”—the claim that Jews ritually kill Christian children.

I have friends who reacted the same way, just as strongly (and quite genuinely). And yet it seems to me that this is a rather extreme case of “bigotry by trope.” Focusing on children as victims of war is a long tradition that is by no means limited to Israel (remember the Vietnam-era antiwar chant, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today”). There was nothing about the way the story was presented to suggest parallels to ritual sacrifice; what’s more, the story emphasized competing narratives that blame Israel and Hamas, and one of the cases profiled was that of an Israeli Arab girl killed by a Hamas rocket. It also mentions that two of the 66 Palestinian children killed were victims of misfiring Hamas rockets (in fact, it may be more).

One can certainly criticize the Times feature for a variety of reasons—as emotionally exploitative, or factually skewed, or both. A Times of Israel blogger points out, for instance, that it never asked whether some of the victims were children of Hamas militants knowingly placed in harm’s way—and that, by the Times’s own admission afterwards, one of the victims on the list turned out to be a 17-year-old Hamas combatant. But that still doesn’t make “They Were Only Children” a “blood libel,” unless, by the same token, one wants to argue (for instance) that any discussion of violent crime within the black community promotes white supremacist tropes of “black thugs.”

Again: in both cases, the discussion can be framed in terms that traffic in racial or ethnic/religious hate. For instance, a pro-Palestinian protest at San Francisco State University in 2002 featured posters that showed a can label with a photo of a dead baby, Israeli flags, and the words: “Made in Israel. Palestinian Children Meat, Slaughtered According to Jewish Rites Under American License.” One can argue that this should be protected speech under the First Amendment, but there’s little question that it’s vile and anti-Semitic, and the parallel to blood libel absolutely applies.

But such an explosive charge should not be made without a very compelling reason, both because charges of bigotry should not be used to chill disliked or offensive speech and because the potency of such charges should not be diluted by overbroad use.

There is another obvious parallel to the question of anti-Israel polemics and anti-Semitism: China. Here again, there are double standards on both sides. How many of the people who think the Times story about dead kids in Gaza smacked of blood libel scoff when leftists cry that confrontational rhetoric toward the Communist regime in China (whether related to the COVID-19 or other issues) smacks of racist “yellow peril” tropes? How many people who think China-bashing is racist huff that criticizing Israel is not anti-Semitic?

The principle is still the same. In both cases, criticism of the country and its leadership, per se, is not bigoted—but can be couched in bigoted terms and lead to animus toward people who share an ethnic/cultural origin with the country. I would argue that the linkage is stronger for Israel and Jews: Israel is the only Jewish state while China is one of three Chinese entities, Taiwan and Hong Kong being the other two. Moreover, most American Jews support Israel, while the Chinese-American community is divided in its attitudes toward China.

Without getting deep into the details of the Israeli-Palestinian question, I believe that, while there are very real human rights problems in Israel, it is without a doubt stigmatized as far worse actors are not. There are plenty of examples of double standards—from treating the 20th-century displacement of Palestinians as a unique tragedy while ignoring other mass displacements (including that of Jewish communities in Middle Eastern and North African countries) to treating Israel as the sole villain of the Gaza blockade while ignoring Egypt’s role.

Is left-wing bias against Israel due, as some contend, to bigotry against Jews? In some cases, probably. But I don’t think anti-Semitism is the main cause. I wrote eight years ago that this bias “stems largely from the left-wing instinct to side with Third World people seen as oppressed by pro-Western states”; this is even more evident today, amidst the international “anti-racist reckoning” in the West. Unlike Russia or China, Israel is seen as a Western “settler-colonial” project, and thus a white supremacist power oppressing “people of color.” This is, of course, a crude and ignorant viewpoint that ignores not only historical Jewish roots in the region but the non-whiteness of the majority of Israeli Jews.

However, this is an explanation that doesn’t entirely get left-wing Israel haters off the hook. "Old-fashioned" anti-Semitism, too, often was and is motivated by something other than simple hostility toward Jews qua Jews: as Bari Weiss notes in her book How to Fight Anti-Semitism, Jews have been blamed for everything from capitalism to communism, from religious fanaticism to the spread of secularism, from narrow tribalism to rootless cosmopolitanism.

Unlike Weiss, I don’t think anti-Zionism in the face of an already existing Israel (rather than a theoretical debate pre-1948) necessarily equals anti-Semitism—depending on how “anti-Zionism” is defined. If it’s support for a secular and democratic Israel which incorporates the occupied territories and has equal citizenship for all, such a vision may be naive and idealistic; but naïveté is not bigotry.

However, demonizing Israel in a way that goes far beyond criticizing specific leaders and policies not only means the de facto demonization of the world’s largest Jewish community; it also promotes animus toward Jews living outside Israel, the majority of whom are pro-Israel. No serious person believes that most Zionist-bashing rhetoric makes a careful distinction between “Zionists” and “Jews.” (A few years ago, there was bathroom graffiti at the University of California-Berkeley saying “Zionists should be sent to the gas chamber.” Nope, clearly nothing to do with anti-Semitism.)

Add to this the fact that, as John Paul Pagano has compellingly argued, the left’s current ideological framework of “privilege” and “systems of oppression” tends to make anti-Semitism invisible and to cast Jews as a “privileged” group that benefits from white supremacy. (Another campus example: During a 2016 debate at Stanford on a student senate resolution condemning anti-Semitism, senate member Gabriel Knight argued that comments about “Jews controlling the media, economy, government, and other societal institutions” should not be regarded as anti-Semitic but as a “very valid discussion” of “potential power dynamics.”)

So yes, there really is a left-wing anti-Semitism problem. Which is not to say that, as I’ve heard some conservatives argue, it’s the only real anti-Semitism problem. But that’s another topic.

Where does that leave us on the subject of anti-Semitism and critiques of Israel?

On one level, I cringe when Jewish campus activists use the language of “safety” or “hostile environment” to try to shut down pro-Palestinian protests or events. And yet, especially given recent events, I can see how anti-Israel militancy on campus can make Jewish students feel unsafe in the literal sense of a threat to physical safety, not emotional well-being.

Likewise, I don’t want to get on the bandwagon of finding anti-Semitism in “tropes” and “dog-whistles.” I don’t want the progressive mainstream to extend “woke” hypervigilance from racism to anti-Semitism; I think that mindset is deeply toxic. We don’t need more woke police. To use a parallel suggested by an anti-woke, pro-Israel friend: Just because the concept of “blackface” has been stretched beyond all sense to include any skin darkening (rather than a specific cultural practice of racial caricature) doesn’t mean that the concept of “blood libel” should be fair game for a similarly expansive concept stretch.

But where Jew-hatred does exist, we need to take it no less seriously than hate toward other minorities. At the very least, our politicians should be able to respond to anti-Semitic incidents without invoking a full catalogue of every kind of bigotry. And we should look at attitudes that fuel such hate—not only on the far right but on the far left.

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