The recent flare in the ongoing, intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict has sparked a sharp rise in antisemitic violence in the United States. Reports of incidents in neighborhoods around New York City and Los Angeles, where Jewish communities have long flourished, have been especially jolting and impelled American Jews to speak against the rising tide of hate. But many standing up to fight anti-Semitism see it only as a single phenomenon when, in fact, anti-Semitism has three distinct sources, each requiring its own set of tools to understand and combat it.
The most lethal of the three are the jihadis, for whom Western ideas about social mobility, secular education, free intellectual discourse, and political and religious liberty affront their Salafi fundamentalism. In the Middle East, a region believed by extremists to be Dar al-Islam, the realm of Islam, Israel poses a particular threat. As Natan Sharansky once explained: “The Jewish state” is perceived as “an embodiment of the subversive liberties that threaten Islamic civilization and autocratic Arab rule alike. It is for this reason that, in the state-controlled Arab media as in the mosques, Jews have been turned into a symbol of all that is menacing in the democratic, materialist West as a whole, and are confidently reputed to be the insidious force manipulating the United States into a confrontation with Islam.”
The second brand of antisemitism, more prevalent than jihadism in the US, emanates from segments of the far right. Shifting economic tides and social mores generate uncertainty. Instability seeks a scapegoat, and Jews have always offered an available mark. In a particularly bizarre case of Jewish scapegoating, Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene claimed Jewish space lasers ignited California wildfires. Our current climate of incivility and nativism has allowed for greater use of such historic antisemitic tropes in social discourse, which unchecked can incite a violent response. But while alt-right, neo-Nazi and white nationalist anti-Semitism remain a concern to Jews, historically Jews have been the canary in a larger coal mine. Ethnonationalists, like jihadis, attack anyone different. The Pittsburgh synagogue shooter’s loathsome online posts targeted refugees, too. The Poway synagogue shooter’s manifesto demonized Muslims. The march in Charlottesville menaced African Americans and Jews. When it comes to the nativism of white supremacists, all minorities lie in the crosshairs. The details of our faith, race, gender identity, or sexual preference don’t really matter, as long as it’s not the same as theirs.
The third face of anti-Semitism is the demonization of Israel and the obliteration of the boundary between Israel and all Jews, such as we are now witnessing in physical and rhetorical attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions in the United States and around the globe. Already terrorized by the violence of white supremacists, the Jewish community is now bullied by the violence of pro-Palestinian militants and the rhetoric of the progressive left, which even the United Nations acknowledges employs spurious opposition to Israel as a flimsy cover for anti-Semitism. Popular congressional Democrats such as Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar have trafficked in anti-Semitic tropes, accusing congressional supporters of Israel of dual loyalty, and Jews and Jewish money of manipulating American foreign policy, which Senator Bernie Sanders wants to reset, introducing legislation to block further American support for the Iron Dome defense shield. Does he not know that the Iron Dome protected Israelis from four thousand Hamas rockets this month? When Sanders likens the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to police violence against African Americans, as he recently did in The New York Times, he casts Israelis unambiguously as the aggressors and Palestinians as the victims, a false equivalency to say the least.
Certainly not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. For too long, the Netanyahu government’s policies of settlement expansion in the West Bank and construction in East Jerusalem have placed obstacles in the way of the two-state solution to the conflict it claims to support. It has empowered an ultra-Orthodox establishment bent on circumscribing religious and civil liberties according to their narrow worldview, and a nativist underbelly that would deny equal rights to Arab Israelis. We should be honest about these matters. Israel’s leadership cannot expect Americans, Jews included, to abandon our commitment to justice in Israel any more than we would abandon our commitment to justice in this country. Israel’s policies can be legitimately criticized by fair-minded observers.
But the criticism must be legitimate, and it must be fair. When politicians or the International Criminal Court or the UN hold Israel to standards different than countries notorious for their human rights abuses; when campus activists exclude Jews from participation in social justice efforts because of their presumed support for Israel; when academics portray the Holocaust as just one of many genocides or employ it as a rhetorical weapon against those who survived it — their antisemitism reveals itself. In the wake of the shootings in Pittsburgh and Poway and Jersey City and the stabbings in Monsey and most recently the beatings in Brooklyn and Los Angeles and elsewhere too, antisemitism must not be tolerated as an evil necessary for the advancement of any other good.
Because antisemitism stems from three different sources, no one antidote will cure it. To those who would do Jews physical harm, the response is limited: security. Jewish institutions must reevaluate their safety protocols in light of best practices and acquire funding to enhance them. And America must enact stricter gun control legislation. As long as there is easy access to firearms, those radicalized by Islamist or nativist influences can more easily inflict mass casualties.
But as a liberal rabbi, I feel a particular obligation, and indeed urgency, to address the third brand of antisemitism — the rhetorical demonization of Israel within my own ideological camp — and to remind progressives what Israel means to Jews historically, spiritually, as a living symbol of Jewish survival, and as a secure refuge against anti-Semitism in a world where European and American Jewry endure a frightening scourge of hate. Many do not know the complete history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, or the antisemitism that excluded today’s grandparents from certain country clubs, law firms and universities; nor can they recognize antisemitism’s dog whistles — and they must be taught. For too many, the country whose founding represents the greatest project of restorative justice for a persecuted people the world has ever known is perceived as an illiberal cause. When the legitimacy of a Jewish state is challenged, we need our allies — of all races, ethnicities, and religions — to answer as Dr. King did when he said, “I see Israel as one of the great outposts of democracy in the world…and we must stand with all our might to protect its right to exist.”
And a final word for Americans — and especially American Jews — who may be reevaluating their commitment to Israel: if Israel today is not the romantic ideal its founders envisioned, neither is America. And in America we regard our failings as challenges to overcome not as excuses to walk away. America needs Israel as a strategic ally in a menacing neighborhood. Jews need Israel as a cornerstone of our faith. When we tolerate unfair criticism of Israel, we sanction anti-Semitism. A hateful obsession with Israel too often descends into hatred of Jews, fomenting, accelerating and normalizing antisemitism.