Stop playing politics with antisemitism

Yom Hashoah seems as good a day as any to talk about antisemitism. That would be the case even if it wasn’t less than a week since a horrific white nationalist shooting in an American synagogue (the second in a little more than six months) and a shocking antisemitic cartoon published in The New York Times. What those two events seem to require however is a specific focus on the peculiar politicization of antisemitism, in the United States in particular.

Antisemitism used to be something – perhaps the only thing! – that Jews could agree on. Orthodox or Reform; liberal or conservative; Labor or Likud; we all knew antisemitism when we saw it, and it was to be fought tooth and nail. But in today’s historically polarized climate, the tendency to see the antisemitism from ‘the other side’ only has become impossible to ignore.

Cast your minds back to the AIPAC Policy Conference of a few weeks ago. With all the headlines about Democratic absentees from the conference, it was a senior Democrat, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer who got it right about antisemitism:

When someone names only prominent Jews as trying to buy or steal our elections, we must call it out. When someone says that being Jewish and supporting Israel means you are not loyal to America, we must call it out. When someone looks at a neo-Nazi rally and sees some very fine people among its company, we must call it out.

He pointedly referred, implicitly, to both Donald Trump and Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. Schumer did what few else are doing right now – expressing zero tolerance to antisemitism, from wherever it comes.

What we’ve seen in recent years is an unprecedented partisan calling-out of antisemitism. Left and Right insist that antisemitism is one of the great evils of the world, and will look for the slightest sign of it from the the side, while ignoring it from their own camp. Exhibit A: Vice-President Mike Pence at the same AIPAC Conference:

It’s astonishing to think that the party of Harry Truman, which did so much to help create the State of Israel, has been co-opted by people who promote rank, anti-Semitic rhetoric, and work to undermine the broad American consensus of support for Israel.

This is the weaponization of antisemitism for partisan political purposes. I do not doubt Mr. Pence’s genuine abhorrence of Jew-hatred, but the principal message of his speech was not ‘antisemitism is evil’, it was ‘the Democrats are evil’.

Exhibit B: the ridiculous and inane Tweet by Congresswoman Omar’s staffer Jeremy Slevin, which consisted of him writing “Anti-Semitism is a right-wing force” repeatedly, like Bart’s ‘lines’ on the blackboard in the opening credits of The Simpsons, until the 280 character limit was met.

Not only has his own boss disproved his point on more than one occasion, his claim would come as news to British Jews reeling from the epidemic of antisemitism infesting the Labour Party of Jeremy Corbyn.

Trump’s own antisemitism is actually relatively inoffensive. He displays the kind of instinctive acceptance of antisemitic tropes that is probably fairly common among ‘WASPs’ of his generation. There is certainly hypocrisy however when the president and others in his party slam Omar’s infamous “all about the Benjamins” tweet; she was merely making the same point that Trump himself made, more explicitly, to a group of Jewish Republicans in 2016:

You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money. That’s why you don’t want to give me money, okay? But that’s okay. You want to control your own politician.

Trump’s real contribution to the antisemitism threat is not his own views, it is his willingness to embolden and incite the forces of white nationalism through anti-immigrant and anti-democratic populism; in particular his none-too-subtle dog whistles to the same far-right fanatics. His disgraceful response to Charlottesville was widely covered but some of us remember the precursor to this, his obfuscation when confronted with former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke’s support for his candidacy during the campaign – pretending not to know who Duke was and refusing to disavow the KKK before he had “looked into” who they were.

Others have followed Trump’s lead in appealing to this far-right fringe.  A few months ago the National Rifle Association accused three Jewish billionaires of funding gun control campaigns. Now either there are simply no non-Jewish liberal billionaires in the United States, or the NRA are aping the final Trump campaign ad before the 2016 election, featuring three prominent Jewish bankers secretly pulling the “levers of power in Washington”.

The most common yet flimsiest defense of Trump is “he’s pro-Israel, so how can he be antisemitic?” It’s an argument that sounds superficially reasonable but disintegrates in the presence of thought. There are any number of reasons why a US President might be well-disposed towards Israel, personal feelings about Jews need not come into it. He is not even the most obvious example of this distinction. Richard Nixon was a great friend to Israel but we learned from the tape recordings of his conversations and drunken rants in the Oval Office that he was also a man of deeply-held antisemitic convictions.

A more nuanced argument I’ve heard from conservative friends is that left-wing antisemitism today is more dangerous. It is not an argument without merit. Because the left-wing variety invariably comes with anti-Zionism, it is usually accompanied also by sympathy with – if not outright support for – the most dangerous threat to peace and security in the world today: radical political Islam. Jeremy Corbyn and his fellow travelers are a nightmarish prospect for British Jews largely because he has a long record of association with, and advocacy for, Islamists from Hamas and Hezbollah to the theocratic regime in Iran. Nevertheless, post-Pittsburgh and Poway, it is incumbent on conservatives to acknowledge that right-wing Jew-hatred, no less than Islamism, can come equipped with the means and intention to murder.

It is high time that those who claim to take seriously the responsibility of ‘Never Again’, reject the use of antisemitism as a weapon to be wielded against political opponents.

That repellent New York Times cartoon did not come out of a clear blue sky; it was published in an environment in which criticism of Israel from (so-called) liberals is allowed to cross the line into blatant antisemitism with impunity.

The horrific shooting at a San Diego synagogue is part of a white nationalist revival that, not coincidentally, followed the election of a president who knowingly courted their support during his election campaign.

The fight against antisemitism would look a lot healthier if more liberals acknowledged the first and more conservatives admitted the second.

About the Author
Before moving to Israel from the UK, Paul worked at the Embassy of Israel to the UK in the Public Affairs department, and as the Ambassador's speechwriter. He has a Masters degree in Middle East Politics from the University of London. He is currently a Senior Fellow at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem - though he writes this blog in a personal capacity. He has lectured to a variety of groups on Israeli history and politics and his articles have been published in a variety of media outlets in Israel, the UK, the US and Canada.
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