From the Editor | How Nuance Can Save Us

By | Apr 04, 2024
Spring 2024

Since October 7, the American Jewish conversation seems to have become stuck in an infinite loop that circles between fear for the Jewish future and finger-pointing in all directions. I’d like to suggest another way of looking at the frightening upturn in antisemitic language and incidents, which could help extricate us from this infinite loop. What if antisemitism is a symptom—albeit a terrible one—and not the disease? What if the disease is the instability resulting from the wild polarization now consuming our democracy and fueling hate of all kinds—in particular, the old, reliable anti-Jewish kind?

If so, there’s good news—but first, the bad. Now that the crazy extremes that have always lingered on the fringes have gushed into the heart of American civil discourse, they’re dividing us at a rapid rate. I’ve written before about “polarization portals,” such as July 2, 2016, the day that then-presidential candidate Donald Trump tweeted a meme of his rival Hillary Clinton, with antisemitic imagery, accusing her of corruption. Through that portal has poured far-right streams of white supremacism with Christian roots, entwined with the belief that Jews control the world, à la The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. A more recent portal is October 7 and the long days, weeks and months since Hamas invaded Israel, killing 1,200 people and taking hostages, triggering a traumatic war as well as a tsunami of anti-Israel hate that has, at times, spilled over from legitimate protests against the horrific loss of lives in Gaza into outright antisemitism.

From this portal, the mainstream has been flooded with far-left antisemitic propaganda fed by old-school Arab nationalism, Islamic fundamentalism and the mistaken belief that colonialism and oppression are the only lens through which to understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—and everything else too. Recent history is riddled with portals like these, which also awaken deep fears and primal instincts from deep within our human psyches.

Ours is not the only era during which instability and polarization have manifested as antisemitism in the United States. In the long lead-up to World War II, for example, outright antisemites such as radio evangelist and Catholic priest Father Charles Coughlin, aviator Charles Lindbergh and industrialist Henry Ford commanded large audiences and roiled the nation, as documented most recently by Rachel Maddow in her well-researched book Prequel. I would argue that our current fragmentation is more dangerous than in that previous era owing to, among other things, the collapse of shared news sources, our vulnerabilities to social media and the effects of artificial intelligence.

As in the 1930s, polarization is also being stoked from abroad. Back then it was the Nazis’ propaganda machine expending huge sums to influence American leaders and the public; now it’s geopolitical players who have been diligently working for decades to foment divisions within the West and promote their own interests, among them Vladimir Putin’s Russia, China and the Islamic Republic of Iran. The biggies have company: Hamas, with its long game of isolating and eradicating Israel, is banking on its ability to splinter the West. And enemies are not the only ones engaging in this: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has spent years playing and arguably worsening U.S. partisan politics.

If polarization is indeed a big part of the problem, we continue to let it fester and spread in the United States at our peril. Not just at Jewish peril, but at the peril of everyone who wants a strong tripartite democracy that includes an independent judiciary. And if this is so, then what’s happening in the United States now is not all about Jews. That doesn’t mean we can ignore it. In fact, as I see it, antisemitism is now more treacherous than in the past. We now have two distinct swollen rivers of right and left antisemitism rushing side by side. At times their tributaries and branches intertwine, and their beliefs wash into one another. These rivers have more in common than at first visible: They both promote the idea that Jews are controlling some part of or all of the world.

Here’s the good news. When we begin to treat the disease of polarization, those rushing rivers will start to recede. The first step is to recognize that there are remedies. They are not easy ones by any definition, but knowing this can go a long way toward lowering our adrenaline and cortisol levels so we can think clearly. On the global front, we need to investigate and disrupt cyberattacks and other influence campaigns, deploy the still-powerful American weapon of cultural and economic soft power and, when possible, forge personal bonds as citizens.

At home, there are plenty of ways to push back against polarization. In addition to keeping in mind that we have a democracy worth saving, we must remember that our brains are wired for simple narratives. No matter how much our neurons squawk, we can resist binary thinking by digging into complexity. In complexity lies nuance, and in nuance, we find humanity. Recently, I had a long talk with someone with whom on paper I have little in common. Yet as the conversation progressed we found points on which our thinking intersected. Learning how he saw the world allowed me to communicate with him more effectively as well as clarify and expand my own thinking. Nuance is the bridge to connection with others.

It’s hard to resist pulling out all the stops to fight for what we think is right when we’re in the throes of what appears to be an existential crisis. But in today’s climate, this kind of behavior rarely changes minds. There are ways to express our opinions without stoking polarization. This doesn’t mean not sharing opinions or not calling out antisemitism (with history and context rather than mere condemnation) when we see it; it means to do so while taking care not to widen the chasm between ourselves and those who disagree with us. In other words, not to dehumanize them.

To do this we need to un-silo whenever and wherever possible. All of us can resist the instinct to separate into tribes—an instinct baked into both human nature and traditional Judaism—and invite people we know from beyond our bubbles to our Passover seders, Shabbat meals, holiday parties, weddings, brisses, baby namings, b’nai mitzvah, funerals and shivas; then reciprocate by attending their holiday feasts and rituals. I always think of the late Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who disagreed on many substantial legal issues yet bonded over food and music.

These antidotes to polarization are not just for Jews; they are for all Americans. They are small steps in a time of turmoil. They won’t work with everyone. We all know people who are too lost to polarization to reach right now, but let’s not give up on them completely. Meanwhile, there are plenty of other people who are turned off by extreme views of all kinds and want to strengthen the center. We can swim against the polarizing currents if enough Americans pull together, connect and find shared values to repair the world.

I want to end with a quote from a recent MomentLive! program, “Is a Two-State Solution for Israelis and Palestinians Still Possible?”, with Moment special contributor Robert Siegel and Middle East analysts Aaron David Miller and Ghaith al-Omari. “We’ve been talking about an existential crisis for both sides when we are talking about Palestinians and Israelis,” Siegel concluded after an illuminating, although at times depressing, discussion. “But there’s an odd mirror of that existential threat in the United States. Each side has critics that deny the reality and the significance of the other side. There’s a camp of Israel supporters who are convinced that Palestinians are a made-up nationality who are only here to make life miserable for the Jews. There are Palestinians who see absolutely no connections between the Jews and the Jews of Eretz Israel.” If the war forces people to realize that “there are actual human beings on the other side,” Siegel said, there’s room for “some extremely guarded optimism.”

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