Ethnic Politics – It Never Left But Now It’s Back

One of the great illusions of post-World War II America – and really of the entire post-Enlightenment period – is that with tolerance and education, ethnicity would slowly erode. People would no longer see themselves primarily as members of this or that ethnic/religious group but would identify with their nation or, more ambitiously, with some supra-national concept such as the EU. Hatred based on such things as race, religion, and ethnicity would just go away.

For some period in America, this seemed almost real. After the second world war, barriers either came down or at least diminished. First the Catholics, Irish- and Italian-Americans, then the Jews, and finally, to a lesser extent, people of color. Say what you will about America from the 1960s to the 1990s, but things seemed to be moving in that direction.

Of course, the rest of the world was teaching a different lesson. As Yugoslavia dissolved, five hundred years of ethnic hatred reignited to the astonishment of Europe (which should have been clued in by the Irish conflict) and the U.S. In Africa, there was spectacular ethnic butchery, some of which continues to this day. And no one can look at the Middle East without seeing the same thing. Even taking Israel out of the equation – and, of course, that is really impossible – the story in Lebanon of an ethnic free-for-all, the Syrian disaster, the tumult in Egypt, and even the Palestinian internecine conflicts all trace back to ethnic/religious divides.

But now it has come back to America. This should be no surprise. American exceptionalism can only go so far. Increasingly, there is primary identification with this group or that group as the primary affiliation leading to conflicts between them for political air and resources. And, as night follows day, that leads to a resurgence in anti-Semitism because if there is one thing that unifies many of these factions, it is a common suspicion of/hatred for Jews, particularly Jews who look so, well, Jewish.

Let’s be clear, this is not really a left/right dichotomy. Neither side holds any moral high ground. When real right-wing extremism was once relegated to obscure parts of Idaho and the bayous of Louisiana, it now has captured a national voice with advocates who wear suits and have re-framed the language to have a veneer of civilization. For various reasons, certain national figures – and they know who they are – have given these groups a pass, or even used some of their tropes which normalizes what was once generally excoriated.

On the other side, as I have noted before, anti-Semitism on the left has grown by leaps and bounds. Comments that would have been whispered twenty years ago are now part of the progressive left dialogue. I will not belabor this problem here; it is now no longer in dispute unless one is willfully blind to the actions and statements of those who are clearly accepted and acceptable to the left.

This return to what some sociologists call “tribal identity” and its implications for the rise in anti-Semitism is not just going to go away. Nor is it susceptible to facile reduction to this or that cause. With all respect to Rabbi Sacks and others, this is not an “internet problem.” While the internet may have greased the skids on this sleigh ride to conflict, it is not the cause or even a significant contributing factor. Even less useful are those politicians who try to use recent events to promote their pet projects. For example, in the face of the recent attacks culminating in the horrific machete attack in a rabbi’s home, candidate Biden somehow sees gun control as part of the solution. Gun control may be worthwhile objective or it may not, but wheeling it out now is neither productive nor useful.

Accordingly, and this is where I agree with Rabbi Sacks, it may be time to hunker down and attend to more mundane, but practical, incremental solutions. Dealing with anti-Semitism will be a long, drawn-out process that will not be solved by one march over the Brooklyn Bridge or one mayoral visit to a synagogue. There will need to be a sustained effort that recognizes that we are fighting a deep fundamental problem, not a brief relapse.

Jewish communities should focus on physical security. When there are specific neighborhood issues, engagement at the local level with the other communities to take small but concrete steps instead of seeking to solve the problem from the top. In other words, solutions will only work if they fit the problem, and the problem is deeper and more intractable than many want to believe.

It also means that the Jewish community needs to have the courage to stand up and stand out. If someone tells us not to wear a Star of David because it might be confused as pro-Israel, we need to tell them that this is our symbol, not theirs and we insist on the right to wear it as we choose (and, by the way, also insist on our right to also be pro-Israel if that is what we choose). If we are told that wearing a kippah draws attention, we must insist on our right to do so and society’s obligation to protect that right.

Many are writing are marching about this today, but by February they will have moved on to the next hot topic. People who are serious about fighting anti-Semitism recognize this will take decades if not longer.

About the Author
Evan Slavitt is the Senior Vice President, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary for an international corporation where he oversees all legal and environmental matters. Before joining AVX, Mr. Slavitt was a partner in Bodoff & Slavitt, LLP, where he concentrated his practice in complex commercial litigation and white-collar criminal defense. Mr. Slavitt is a frequent author and lecturer on legal matters as well as the author of one work of fiction. He is a graduate of Phillips Exeter Academy, Yale University (B.A. and M.A. in economics) and the Harvard Law School, where he served as an editor of the Harvard Law Review. Mr. Slavitt was an assistant U.S. attorney from 1983 to 1987.
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