Earlier this week the internet erupted over a gaffe made by Barack Obama during an interview with Vox. Obama described a terror attack in a Kosher supermarket in Paris as “a bunch of violent, vicious zealots who behead people or randomly shoot a bunch of folks in a deli”. Compounded by further errors made by Obama’s spokespeople who scrambled to defend the president, the backlash was harsh and at times vitriolic. On the other hand, some pointed to Obama’s previous statements unequivocally describing the attack as “anti-Semitic”, and opined that Jews are “hypersensitive” when it comes to anti-Semitism, real or perceived.
Mr. Obama is far from an anti-Semite. He seems a thoroughly decent fellow, if anything. But being well-intended isn’t enough. And Jews would be better served by carefully scrutinising the situation and exercising scrupulous intellectual honesty, rather than brusquely dismissing Obama as racist or in denial. He’s neither. The president didn’t mean to hide the fact that Jews were killed, he was speaking off the cuff. And yet it was still a blunder he should be careful to avoid repeating. The president should not be judged on the basis of this one slip of the tongue, but neither can he plead ignorance.
What Obama needs to understand, as do other world leaders, is that when journalists, politicians, comedians and other public figures deny the innocence of murdered Jews, claiming that they deserved it because of Israel’s actions in Gaza etc, it is vitally important for world leaders to challenge them. When the murder of Jews is being legitimised, it is incumbent upon world leaders to make clear every time this topic arises that these people were killed for being Jews. At a time when more and more Jews are seen as legitimate targets (never mind the excuse given) for baiting online, banning from universities, physical attacks, and shootings, Jews need to see leaders make absolutely clear that these attacks are anything but random.
And when Obama doesn’t do that, even if he has done so many times before, he fails to make absolutely clear that while this attack is explained and justified by many, it is in reality a heinous and inexcusable hate crime. Each and every time the topic of anti-Semitic violence arises, Obama must drum home this message because an alternative message is being circulated, and it’s steadily gaining traction. Failure to persistently counter this despicable message strengthens anti-Semites and racists.
Furthermore, there’s another type of people, those who refuse to admit that Jews are suffering an inordinate amount or that Jews are targeted more than others, and that those speaking out about Jewish suffering are doing so to distract from the crimes of the Zionist regime. This pernicious strain of anti-Semitism holds that Jews cry wolf and shed alligator tears, that we enjoy making mountains out molehills, and effectively deny that we suffer at all. This type of hatred is particularly effective in shutting debate down because every time that a Jew brings up hatred and terrorism, they are then seen as fixating on it, whereas the focus should be the other way around – attention should be directed towards those perpetrating violent attacks against Jews. That being the case, it is essential for non-Jewish world leaders to recognise and counter this prejudice by publicly stating what Jews know: This is hatred; this is not justified; this is unacceptable.
More generally, while anti-Muslim hatred and incitement certainly occurs and must be condemned, a double standard surely exists when people are sufficiently worried about (what turned out to be a largely non-existent) severe anti-Muslim backlash in the wake of terror attacks, but such sympathies are not extended to Jews when they are murdered in cold blood. Last year, following a terror attack in Australia perpetrated by a Muslim extremist, a woman deceived millions, concocted a heart-wrenching story of anti-Muslim intolerance and created the hashtag #IllRideWithYou with the aim of reassuring Muslims that they are accepted. It is wonderful that people can be so sensitive to others. And yet is it not astonishing that after Jews are killed, the hashtag #JeSuisJuif was adopted mostly by Jews, and the Paris demonstration in their memory was attended almost exclusively by Jews? At a time when world leaders flew in to attend the million-strong demonstration following the Charlie Hebdo killings, not one could find the time to stand with the Jews who are feeling increasingly under attack? The answer is very simple: It’s not sufficiently important to them.
That which may be acceptable from lay people isn’t acceptable from leaders of the free world. Because Jews around the world are attacked on the streets, in shops, and in synagogues by terrorists, democratic leaders have the responsibility to oppose such wickedness by frankly and repeatedly stating the naked truth: Jews are being deliberately targeted. And that is why the president and his spokespeople need to clearly and repeatedly state that such attacks are a crime and that Jews are under sustained attack.