One of the most common features of antisemitism is its proclivity to worsen during times of political turmoil and great political transitions. Such was the case in the rapid escalation of antisemitic fervor in interwar Europe and the post-colonial Middle East. This lesson of history demands of us to treat antisemitism in the United States today with utmost caution. Not just that the United States is going through a period of significant political uncertainty, but such uncertainty was preceded by a steady rise of antisemitic sentiments in many private as well as public American spaces. The anti-Zionist neurosis which was a stable feature of American campus life broke out from the fringes of the progressive movements to public spaces. White supremacist and classical European styled antisemitism found fertile soil in the cyberspaces of far-right groups culminating in attacks on synagogues on both coasts of the United States. Our polarized politics significantly impedes our ability to act.
(January 14, 2021)
There is much alarm about the recent demonstrations of antisemitic symbols in the recent mob attacks on Capitol Hill. After listening to a GOP lawmaker give a speech in which she said that Hitler was right, far-right and white supremacists marched towards our democratic institutions wearing “Camp Auschwitz” T-shirts. All of this is indeed a cause for alarm. However, it is important to understand that while politics are seasonal, antisemitism isn’t. This public display of Jew-hatred symbols is not a sudden eruption of mob ignorance, but a part of a major antisemitic wave of a revival of Western antisemitism with its odd mix of racial superiority, Christian fundamentalism, xenophobia, and psychotic conspiracy theories. In one instance one demonstrator interrupted a broadcast of an Israeli TV network reporting on the event and started harassing the reporter while hurling antisemitic slurs.
The situation among the presumably educated elites of our progressive culture is not ideal either. While crude antisemitism is a hallmark of the far-right, its elegant transmutation is wide spread on the far left. Ironically and alarmingly, the antisemitic pro-Trump demonstrator who harassed the Israeli reporter voiced anti-Israel accusations which can also be found in academic and progressive circles when talking about the US aid to Israel and supposed Israeli misinformation. Indeed, the substance of these comments about Israel has been shared on social media platforms by Democratic lawmakers and are articulated regularly in a posher language in academia and in many of our major democratic institutions. While generally many can rightfully identify the far-right mob utterances as antisemitic, one wonders how the same substance came to be normative among our so-called cognitive elites.
In a cultural moment focused on undoing historical wrongs and protecting vulnerable minorities from discrimination and racial prejudice, antisemitism somehow came to pass as a benign or unharmful form of racism, and at best it is not even recognized in its anti-Zionist variant. Moreover, anti-Zionism becomes even more elusive and difficult to deal with due to the fact the more belligerent anti-Zionism seems to become, the more it is accepted as an expression of righteous and legitimate rage calling for social justice. This strange and unique situation is the primary asset of anti-Zionist activities in the United States and its what allowed the anti-Israel movement to flourish on college campuses for years. While the anti-Israel prejudice in academia is not in itself a recent phenomenon and remains a dogmatic commitment for post-colonial theory and its various offshoots. However, what is alarming is the influence of those ideas on contemporary American progressive culture and its activists. The contemporary progressive movement, with a pedigree directly descending from the social sciences, naturally inherited all the presuppositions of academia. This allowed for a unique cultural moment where progressive Americans found themselves on common grounds with Middle Eastern Islamists and Middle Eastern antisemitism.
This is the delicate situation in which the American Jewish community finds itself today. Yet the growing politicization and partisanship of American life are becoming the main obstacles in dealing with antisemitism. Both of our two political sides proved to be quite eager in calling antisemitism on their opponent’s side while attempting to downplay antisemitism on their own side. This caused antisemitism to become for many just another gadget in their political toolbox. People on the conservative right who may genuinely care about condemning far-right antisemitism, find themselves alienated from their own political camp if their condemnation is not accompanied by an even more vocal condemnation of progressive antisemitism. The same happens to people from the left. This hypersensitivity to political cost is becoming more difficult to deal with by the day given the deteriorating situation of our political discourse. Ultimately, the real cost is paid by us as we lose our ability to speak freely and meaningfully about such a vital subject. When every subject of conversation becomes covert politics, then every position becomes mere partisanship. The politicization of the issue of antisemitism is the determinant to all efforts seeking to combat antisemitism and to the Jewish community.
Nothing less than the complete depoliticization of the issue of antisemitism will fix this. This requires insistence on well-intentions bipartisanship. This effort is needed both inside and outside the Jewish community. American Jews, being as politically involved as the rest of American society, should not follow our political parties in politically weaponizing antisemitism. If anything, they should be the voice within their own respective party to demand not to use the issue of antisemitism in scoring political points against political opponents. Political power is temporary and political opinions shift constantly. The fate of American Jewry, and of any other community, should not be tied to the highs and lows of the political life.
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