Rallying Against Antisemitism (And the Politics Behind It)

By | Jul 12, 2021
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No Fear Rally
Jewish politics and power
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1. When Jewish Americans took to Washington to fight antisemitism

It’s never easy getting people to attend a rally. Online activism? Sure. Enlisting Twitter and Facebook warriors? Never a problem. But actually leaving your home on a weekend, schlepping to the footsteps of Capitol Hill and standing for hours in the scorching sun on a blistering Washington 94-degree July Sunday? Now that’s real commitment to the cause. 

And that’s why it’s so impressive that some 2,000 mostly Jewish activists came out this weekend to protest the rise of antisemitism in America. True, it’s hardly the biggest rally that the Jewish community has pulled off, and–barely covering a fraction of the Capitol’s West lawn–it was nowhere near the major political demonstrations the National Mall area has seen, but it was still quite an impressive turnout.

The No Fear rally against antisemitism was designed to present to the world a Jewish community united in its concern over recent spikes in attacks and in hatred directed at Jewish Americans, and to project the community’s resolve to stand up to these expressions of violent hate.

Unity was the keyword at the No Fear rally. Organizers took special care to maintain an impossible communal balance: Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, Orthodox and Reform, organizational leaders and college students.

About an hour into the No Fear rally, an unlikely couple shared the podium: former Republican Senator Norm Coleman and former Democratic Congressman Ron Klein. One is the top lay leader of the Republican Jewish Coalition, the other, of the Jewish Democratic Council of America. In their daily work, Coleman and Klein are sworn political rivals. But on stage Sunday, they were all about unity.

“The fight against antisemitism bridges the political divide,” said Coleman, and Klein responded in his speech: “We must stand together to send a message of unity against hate.”

Throughout the event, many other speakers tried to strike a balance, to be just as critical of extremists on the right and on the left. For every mention of Ilhan Omar, there was one of Paul Gosar; for every Marjorie Taylor Green, there was a Rashida Tlaib. Somehow, speakers seemed to believe that by drawing these equivalencies, they could disarm the partisan tensions surrounding America’s current battle against antisemitism.

Was this the moment in which the Jewish community finally found its united voice, one that puts aside partisan divides and balances wrongdoings of both sides in favor of a shared battle against a common enemy?

Well, probably not.

2. Don’t be fooled by shows of unity

Despite Sunday’s public display of a community overcoming differences to battle the worst threat Jewish Americans could face—rising antisemitism—recent history has demonstrated that Democrats and Republicans are not at all united on the issue of fighting antisemitism. In fact, both sides view it as useful ammunition in their own political battles. Every unfortunate, insensitive, idiotic or outright bigoted comment uttered by a politician from either party in recent years was immediately met with partisan finger-pointing: Last month, the Republican Jewish Coalition circulated an article accusing Jewish Democrats, among others, of not standing up to Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for comments they had made on Israel, and thus giving “a seal of approval to the effort to dress up hateful anti-Zionism as merely legitimate criticism of Israel’s government.”

Jewish Democrats have also made a point of not missing any opportunity to call out Jewish Republicans any time Marjorie Taylor Green has chosen to draw on Nazi imagery when criticizing the Biden administration.

These are all important issues and definitely worthy of debate between Jews on both sides of the partisan divide. But there is also a whole lot of nuance lost within these claims. 

Jewish Republicans have, in fact, gone out of their way to condemn members of their own party who veered into dangerous antisemitic territory, including by withdrawing endorsements and supporting those candidates’ rivals. Jewish Democrats too have a track record of being at the forefront of urging their party to call out Democratic politicians for making antisemitic comments. At the end of the day, Jewish Republicans are just as appalled by Marjorie Taylor Gree’s “Jewish space laser” as Jewish Dems are by Omar’s “Benjamins.

In reality, antisemitism is an effective political tool and neither side has any intention of giving it up.

Despite the warm-and-fuzzy show of unity outside the Capitol Sunday, there are no real signs of willingness to remove antisemitism from the list of partisan talking points. Just wait for the next time someone makes a Nazi reference or associates with a known antisemite, and you’ll see how quickly calls for bipartisan unity get replaced with the usual mud-slinging.

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3. Don’t even mention Israel

If you think bipartisanship on antisemitism is hard to achieve, don’t even try to reach any consensus on Israel.

The No Fear rally’s unity message further exposed the communal fault lines when discussing anything relating to Israel.

Organizers succeeded in bringing together a huge array of Jewish groups to co-sponsor the event but failed to embrace left-leaning organizations. Groups such as J Street, Americans for Peace Now or T’ruah felt that the No Fear rally gave credence to claims made by some of the groups behind the event, that legitimate criticism of Israel equals antisemitism. This argument has been going on in the Jewish community for more than a decade and is not going to disappear any time soon. Jewish groups on the center and right of center tend to view many forms of criticism against Israel as veiled antisemitism. It’s an approach these organizations deeply believe in, and also one that helps them deflect claims that they, more often than not, refuse to stand up to Israel on issues of human rights.

This debate is just as handy when it comes to left-leaning Jewish groups. They may not embrace all types of criticism against Israel, and most are queasy about supporting boycott campaigns, but fighting for the right to express this type of harsh criticism provides Jewish activists on the left with the needed street cred to maintain their engagement with the broader progressive field.

4. Was the left’s outrage justified?

In the world of Jewish organizational life, the left-wing groups’ refusal to co-sponsor the No Fear rally was likely a smart move. It delivered an effective message that their concerns over using the battle to combat antisemitism as a shield against criticism of Israel should not be dismissed and that this is still an open issue in the Jewish communal discourse.

On the ground, however, things looked a bit different. The No Fear rally offered a variety of voices and views. Some, echoing the right-wing narrative equating criticism of Israel with antisemitism, were sure to make any liberal feel uneasy. But there were others, though perhaps fewer, who celebrated the variety of opinions within the Jewish community on all issues, including Israel.

5. Waiting for an antisemitism special envoy

Six months into his presidency, it is now abundantly clear that when it comes to senior administration nominations, Joe Biden sure is taking his time. Among other vacancies, it is worth mentioning the position of special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism. This ambassador-level State Department position requires confirmation, but Biden has yet to send a name to the Senate.

The longer the process drags on, the more it helps fuel the debate over the new envoy’s positions on where to draw the line between legitimate criticism of Israel and antisemitism. This is a largely moot debate: The special envoy deals with antisemitism abroad, not within the U.S., and, furthermore, the Biden administration has already declared it will adhere to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which designates many forms of anti-Israel expression as being antisemitic.

It seems that a communal-wide rally in Washington against antisemitism could have been the perfect timing for announcing the administration’s choice of a new antisemitism envoy. Biden chose to pass on the opportunity.

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