The legitimization of anti-Semitism has become a familiar topic of discussion, especially when it comes to the mainstream media and more radical elements of the Democratic Party. We have witnessed several objectively anti-Semitic statements or actions in recent months, such as Rep. Ilhan Omar’s use of conspiratorial tropes, Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s reinvention of the history of Israel’s founding, or the New York Times’ publication of blatantly anti-Semitic cartoons.
However, when it comes to fighting anti-Semitism, a problem arises when we jump to over-apply the label of anti-Semitism without considering context or motivation. The New York Times published a piece on May 10th titled “Where Will Measles Break Out Next? Chicago, Los Angeles or Miami, Scientists Predict.” This article included a photograph of an Orthodox Jewish man passing in front of a measles warning poster, and included the following caption:
A health clinic in an Orthodox Jewish community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. A new study ranks the risk of a measles outbreak in various American communities. But the researchers failed to predict the nation’s largest outbreak, in Brooklyn.
When shared on Twitter, some objected to the use of this photograph, labeling it as yet another example of anti-Semitism from the New York Times.
Despite the fact that the New York Times’ recent history of blatant anti-Semitism could make the use of this photograph somewhat questionable, it is important that the Jewish community remain intellectually honest when it comes to the fight against anti-Semitism.
The fact is that not all statements or actions which target or involve Jews are examples of anti-Semitism. The New York Times article discusses a relevant Jewish community which is experiencing a widespread measles outbreak. It is not sufficient to declare “anti-Semitism” simply because the New York Times (in this example) mentioned a Jewish community or a Jewish person in a negative context. It is crucially important to consider the context of any statement or action before drawing a conclusion, rather than assuming anti-Semitic intent without evidence. After all, criticism of an individual who is a Jew is not morally equivalent to criticism of an individual because they are a Jew.
Anti-Semitism is clearly a growing problem in our society, and our fight against anti-Semitism will not be aided by applying the label of anti-Semitism too broadly. By muddying or widening the definition of anti-Semitism, we risk clouding the objectivity that is crucial in this fight. This could also make it much easier for real anti-Semites to avoid or deflect criticism, by claiming that they too are a victim of a definition of anti-Semitism that has become too broad.
It is not anti-Semitic to reference Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn when discussing a measles outbreak which is disproportionately affecting an Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn. Let’s not be distracted by misplaced and baseless accusations of anti-Semitism, and focus our energy on fighting very real and very clear anti-Semitism elsewhere.