Fighting anti-Semitism in the time of Trump

This past week, CNN’s chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour was honored with an award for her work. Her speech at the event in New York was published under the title “Journalism faces an ‘existential crisis’ in Trump era.” Among the issues Amanpour addressed was “the dangerous rise of the far right” in the US and in Europe, which in her view required more coverage by the media. In this context, she asked: “Since when did anti-Semitism stop being a litmus test in this country?” And Amanpour insisted: “We must fight against normalization of the unacceptable.”

I couldn’t agree more about the need to “fight against normalization of the unacceptable,” but I have bad news for Christiane Amanpour: anti-Semitism stopped “being a litmus test” in the US and Europe quite some time ago. I’d say it was decades ago: when the United Nations made Israel the Jew among the nations by equating Zionism with racism in 1975. Even though this infamous UN resolution was repealed in 1991, the “network of anti-Israel institutions and funding streams” that it spawned, and that forms a veritable “Infrastructure of Hate,” remains in place.

As a result, what has been rightly described as “antisemitic anti-Zionism” has become rather popular:

Antisemitic anti-Zionism bends the meaning of Israel and Zionism out of shape until both become fit receptacles for the tropes, images and ideas of classical antisemitism. In short, that which the demonological Jew once was, demonological Israel now is: uniquely malevolent, full of blood lust, all-controlling, the hidden hand, tricksy, always acting in bad faith, the obstacle to a better, purer, more spiritual world, uniquely deserving of punishment, and so on.

I’m afraid one could easily make the case that anti-Semitic anti-Zionism has even become something of a “litmus test” for admission to many “progressive” circles, where anti-Israel activism is regarded as a crucial component of any “social justice” agenda. The widespread acceptance of anti-Semitic anti-Zionism makes it possible that a well-connected American writer like Ben Ehrenreich can get glowing reviews for a book that glorifies a Palestinian family known for its ardent support of terrorism; it also makes it possible that an American professor – Ian Lustick at the University of Pennsylvania – can suggest Israel is perhaps too “fascist” to be “allowed to survive;” and it makes it possible that hundreds of academics will support a lecture by a colleague – Jasbir Puar of Rutgers University – who demonizes Israel with updated versions of anti-Semitic blood libels.

I would think that such incidents reflect a deplorable “normalization of the unacceptable,” but unfortunately, many of the people who have recently started to worry about anti-Semitism were apparently not all that concerned about “progressive” efforts to single out the world’s only Jewish state for a demonization that was and is meant to justify Israel’s elimination.

This is not to deny that there are indeed new reasons to worry about a “normalization of the unacceptable,” and unfortunately, some of the people who have shown zero tolerance for left-wing anti-Semitism now seem reluctant to acknowledge the newly empowered right-wing anti-Semitism.

When the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) sharply criticized the recent appointment of Steve Bannon as senior advisor and chief strategist in the White House because he had “presided over the premier website of the ‘alt-right’ — a loose-knit group of white nationalists and unabashed anti-Semites and racists,” many on the right were furious.

But if you never hesitate to condemn left-wing anti-Semitism, it looks really bad if you downplay right-wing anti-Semitism. Bannon may have scores of friends and former co-workers from varied backgrounds willing to swear that he is neither an anti-Semite nor a racist, but the fact of the matter is that Bannon himself acknowledged with apparent pride that Breitbart News – which he chaired since 2012 – had become “the platform for the alt-right.” As Bannon surely knows, the term “alt-right” was coined by Richard Spencer – the very same Richard Spencer who would “Hail Trump” and delight in neo-Nazi mannerisms at a gathering of his fans in downtown Washington D.C. not long after Bannon’s appointment by Trump.

The ADL would have been negligent if it had failed to express concern when a man who is proud to have provided a platform for the alt-right was appointed to an influential position in the incoming Trump administration. And let’s be honest: if Hillary Clinton had won the election and one of her first moves would have been the appointment of someone who boasted of having provided a powerful platform to the “alt-left”, the very same people who denounced the ADL’s criticism of Bannon would be only too pleased about a sharply-worded ADL statement condemning this hypothetical alt-left appointee.

But unfortunately, it is not clear that in this hypothetical scenario, the ADL would have voiced criticism.

When it recently became known that Congressman Keith Ellison was an “emerging favorite” in the race to chair the Democratic National Committee (DNC), critics were quick to argue that Ellison’s record – which includes associations with anti-Jewish and anti-Israel groups as well as some rather shocking views he held as a student – should disqualify him for such an influential position. But the ADL apparently saw no cause for alarm, even though Ellison’s gradual move from associating with outright anti-Semites in his twenties to working with “alt-left” anti-Israel groups in more recent times could be seen as a troubling sign that he found it very difficult to break with his radical past.

In a rather unusual move, the ADL proceeded to vouch for Ellison’s “good character,” while noting that it did not support his positions on Israel and the conflict with the Palestinians. But the ADL should really not be in the business of vouching for the “good character” of politicians, because the fight against anti-Semitism – whether the target is Jews or the Jewish state – is not about naming and shaming people with a bad character. Don’t we fight anti-Semitism in the hope that people who engage in anti-Semitic conduct will reconsider their attitudes and see the error of their ways?

That the ADL’s statement about Ellison was problematic is illustrated by the fact that ADL Director Jonathan Greenblatt felt the need to publish an article because “it seems worth exploring the topic in more depth.” Greenblatt declared that Ellison had repudiated his past association with anti-Semitic groups and individuals, and “has been outspoken about anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry in his role as a congressman.” As far as Greenblatt is concerned, Ellison’s candidacy therefore needs to be debated only “in light of legitimate concerns raised by many as to whether his prospective leadership will help or harm the bipartisan nature of the US-Israel relationship.”

Well, maybe I’m mistaken, but I always thought that ensuring the bipartisan nature of the US-Israel relationship is more the domain of AIPAC, while the ADL’s mission was “to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all.”

Perhaps Jonathan Greenblatt wanted to secure the fair treatment of Keith Ellison by encouraging everyone to ignore the fact that for much of his adult life, Ellison has willingly associated with groups engaged in the defamation of the Jewish people. Greenblatt acknowledges that as recently as 2014, Ellison “voted against the US providing supplemental funding for Israel’s anti-missile Iron Dome program at the very time that Hamas missiles were raining down on Israeli civilians” and that he “criticized Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza, ignoring Israel’s legitimate security concerns.”

Does it really have to be spelled out that the positions taken by Ellison are advocated by all the groups that heavily rely on “the defamation of the Jewish people” of Israel in order to accomplish their goal of eliminating the world’s only Jewish state?

So unfortunately, the ADL has demonstrated that the renewed and justified concern about right-wing anti-Semitism may well end up weakening efforts to fight left-wing anti-Semitism.

But as Seffi Kogen of the American Jewish Committee has argued in an excellent op-ed, the alt-left should be seen as the “mirror image” of the alt-right. Yet, I think there is an important distinction: while alt-right anti-Semitism is usually part of a whole complex of resentments that are rejected by society at large, Kogen rightly points out that the alt-left “thrives on the college campus, where the faculties of anthropology, gender studies, and American studies spew its hateful ideology, indoctrinating the next generation in their dressed-up, academic anti-Semitism.”

Similarly, Alan Dershowitz has also noted that “the bigotry of the hard-left is far more prevalent and influential on many university campuses both in the United States and in Europe,” but he rightly insisted that both left-wing and right-wing anti-Semitism must be fought with a “single standard.”

I really don’t see how anyone who is serious about fighting anti-Semitism could disagree.

About the Author
Petra Marquardt-Bigman is a politically homeless lapsed leftist who can’t get used to living in a time when the Nazi slogan “The Jews are our misfortune” is considered quite acceptable in its 21st century version “The Jewish state is our misfortune.” She therefore writes mostly about antisemitism, anti-Israel activism and BDS, i.e. Bigoted Double Standards. She grew up in Germany and has a Ph.D. in contemporary history.
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