(This essay was first published on Evolve: Groundbreaking Jewish Conversation as part of a symposium on antisemitism (evolve.reconstructingjudaism.org/category/Antisemitism).
Many in the American Jewish community are worried about a rise in antisemitism and have recently focused their concern on the words of Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar. That focus is misplaced. The real and actual threat comes from white extremists.
I believe that the reaction to the antisemitic tropes in Omar’s comments has been so intense for several reasons: She is Muslim. She is Black. She is young. And she is a woman. Managing our reactions requires that we also remember that she is inexperienced in understanding the complexities of the Middle East, and as her apologies demonstrate, she is an immigrant who was unaware of the antisemitic tropes she invoked until they were pointed out to her. Some have jumped from reactions to her remarks to accusations of antisemitism in the Democratic Party. Those flames were intentionally fanned by Republicans for their own political advantage. This essay will put that attack in perspective.
Key to Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States was his concentrated effort to polarize and divide. He fanned the flames of racism and bigotry, pitting brown against white and making name-calling and false statements daily political weapons. When white extremists rioted in Charlottesville, Trump blamed both sides, refusing to recognize that the riots and death were a direct product of racism and antisemitism. When confronted with that accusation, Trump pointed to Jews in his inner circle and his support for the Netanyahu government, equating attitudes toward Israel with attitudes toward Jews. Of course, that is a false equation. Jewish involvements with Israel and attitudes toward it are all over the map. Trump’s generalization is itself a form of antisemitism; it smacks of the canard of dual loyalty.
It is well known that President Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu have a close relationship based on mutual admiration. Netanyahu’s interactions with AIPAC (the longtime pro-Israel lobby) and his public statements have allied him with the Republican Party and with Zionist Christian evangelicals. For the first time in the history of Israel, he has driven a wedge into the bipartisan support for the State that has existed in the United States. Some cynics say that this was simply what Netanyahu had to do to assure his last election. I believe he purposely sided with those who have prejudices against Muslims in general and Arabs in particular with the goal of building support among those who will support Israel’s permanent occupation of the West Bank. The coalition Netanyahu has worked to create in the USA has shown little concern for the welfare of Palestinians.
Who are the American antisemites who are most dangerous to Jews? The answer lies in a history of violence against Jews in the USA. In 1913 Leo Frank was lynched in Atlanta by a crowd of whites enflamed by the Ku Klux Klan. In 1958 The Temple was bombed in Atlanta in retaliation for its stance against racism. The firebombing and shooting in Gadsden, Ala., in 1960 were carried out by a white Nazi sympathizer. An antisemitic racist shot several people and killed one in a 1977 attack on a St. Louis synagogue. White supremacists committed the 1984 murder of Alan Berg in Denver. The Seattle murder of the Goldmark family in 1985 occurred because they were mistakenly believed to be Jews and Communists by the white supremacist who killed four of them. The 1986 murder of Neal Rosenbaum in Pittsburgh was committed by a neo-Nazi who did not know him. In 1999 former skinhead Buford Farrow sprayed a Los Angeles JCC with bullets, wounding several children. The 2009 Holocaust Museum attack was carried out by James von Brunn, a neo-Nazi and white supremacist. In 2014 antisemite and white supremacist Frazier Cross killed several people at a JCC in Kansas City. A white supremacist carried out the massacre in Pittsburgh in 2018. The tragic March 15 massacre of Muslims at prayer in New Zealand was carried out by a white nationalist, once again demonstrating this major threat to non-Christians and non-whites in Westernized countries.
Overwhelmingly, American violence against Jews comes from neo-Nazis and white supremacists—from right-wing extremists. However, there are several exceptions to this pattern. The 1991 killing of Yankel Rosenblum in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, was connected to rioting of African- Americans following a car accident in which a Hasid ran over an African-American child. In 1994 Lebanese immigrant livery driver Rashid Baz shot at a van of 15 Chabad students who were traveling on the Brooklyn Bridge, killing one and injuring three others. Baz’s mother was Palestinian, and the murders occurred just days after Baruch Goldstein carried out a massacre of Palestinians in Hebron. In 2006 Pakistani Naveed Haq, diagnosed with bipolar disorder, killed several people at the Seattle federation, claiming at the time that he was angry at Israel. None of the violence was carried out by a political progressive.
It is political conservatives who claim the left is dangerously full of antisemitism. Where is their denunciation of the extreme right? Barely a peep about that. Yet it is generally conservative politicians who include antisemitic tropes in their ads. These include pictures of candidates surrounded by money, references to moneyed Americans such as George Soros and claims that Jews control the media. Interestingly these were mostly Republican ads and a smattering of minor party ads. No Democrats. But it is Republicans who are leading the attack on Ilhan Omar after doing little to address the scandalous advertising produced by Republican candidates. Of course the Democrats issued a statement condemning antisemitism, racism and Islamophobia. Where was the parallel Republican statement after Trump failed to condemn the racists in Charlottesville?
One of the accusations Omar made is that AIPAC and the NRA are two of the most powerful lobbies in Washington. Historically that has been true. However, their expenditures are dwarfed by the lobbies of the US Chamber of Commerce, the pharmaceutical and hospital industries, the oil and defense industries. Analysts say that the power of the National Rifle Association stems from its effectiveness in influencing voters. So at first glance, it would appear that Omar was wrong that money plays a major role. However, Jews account for a significant amount of the money contributed to political campaigns, and they have major voting blocks in some of the largest states: New York, New Jersey, Florida and California. As long as AIPAC was speaking for the consensus of Jews, its influence was felt through the independent actions of Jews. Today AIPAC’s influence is waning because the majority of American Jews reject key policies of the Netanyahu government, including settlement-building in the West Bank. And as Netanyahu leans more heavily on Christian evangelicals, he has not been as responsive to American Jewish concerns.
With the majority of American Jews unhappy with the Israeli government’s conduct in the West Bank, it is important to separate antisemitism from criticism of Israel, but that is precisely the line that Netanyahu and Trump have blurred. One way this is demonstrated is that American anti-BDS legislation lumps together boycotts of West Bank goods with boycotts of goods from Israel proper. It is easy to understand why Netanyahu supports this, but why does it have the support of Republicans in general? Is it because Republicans have abandoned all hope of a two-state solution? And/or is it because the legislation can be used as a wedge issue that favors Republicans? And/or is it because the restriction of free speech can pave the way for further restriction in the future? I am not sure.
J Street is committed to a two-state solution, in which Palestinians are able to chart their own political course. In the last election, J Street-endorsed candidates won more seats than ever before. That suggests a sea-change in the political landscape. The way we will stabilize left-wing commitments is to continue to support feminism and fight racism, Islamophobia and antisemitism wherever they occur.
American Jews as a community are deeply committed to civil rights. We affirm those values for the United States and for Israel. That stance puts us in a position to encourage people like Ilhan Omar to master the distinction between Jews and Israeli governmental policy. We all want safety, peace and justice, here and in the Middle East.
Rabbi David A. Teutsch is the Wiener professor emeritus at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, where he previously served as president for a decade, and later as director of the Center for Jewish Ethics. He is Co-chair of the Rabbinic and Cantorial Cabinet of J Street.