The Danger of Polarizing Anti-Semitism

Don’t let this old-new prejudice become a weapon in partisan politics.
By | May 10, 2018
2018 May/June, Jewish World

Anti-Semitism is back. In the United States alone, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) study on anti-Semitic incidents in 2017 showed a 57 percent increase over the 2016 numbers. In France in March, an elderly Jewish Holocaust survivor was murdered and set afire in her own home, apparently by an acquaintance with anti-Semitic motives. The issue cannot be ignored, but there is an added danger that makes dealing with it more difficult: Today, politicians and ideologues on opposite sides of the political spectrum who might normally come together to fight anti-Semitism are instead using the issue to bash their opponents. Instead of denouncing anti-Semitic incidents, too many simply use them to further their agendas. This trend is dangerous. It must stop.

Until now, fighting anti-Semitism has been one of those rare issues largely devoid of partisanship and ideological combat.  The Global Anti-Semitism Review Act of 2004  was passed with strong bipartisan support.   Even today the Congressional Task Force for Combating Anti-Semitism, co-chaired by four Republican and four Democratic representatives, operates in a commendably bipartisan manner. But there are signs that this island of bipartisanship is threatened.

In a New School panel on anti-Semitism last November in New York, Jewish Voice for Peace activist Lina Morales argued that the anti-Semitism of Louis Farrakhan is of little consequence to Jews because Farrakhan has no power outside the black community. Recently the “anti-occupation” group If Not Now criticized the ADL and other Jewish organizations for focusing on Farrakhan because “[w]hile Farrakhan’s influence is relatively small, [the] white nationalist movement has the ear of the president of the United States.”

As leftist ideologues claimed that only right-wing anti-Semitism is a problem, conservatives used the flimsiest of evidence to charge Democrats with being “soft” on anti-Semitism. In a January 2018 blog post on the Commentary website, Jonathan Marks cited Senate Democratic votes against confirming Assistant Secretary of Education nominee Kenneth Marcus as evidence that Democrats do not care about hatred toward Jews. Marks suggested that Democrats opposed Marcus because, in weighing in on several campus debates to denounce calls for divestment from Israel, he had advocated using the State Department’s definition of when certain types of anti-Israel speech can be anti-Semitic. Yet as JTA’s Ron Kampeas pointed out, Democrats cited numerous other reasons for opposing him, and none mentioned the State Department definition. Leveling frivolous charges of anti-Semitism against your opponents can be just as destructive as downplaying the anti-Semitism of your ideological soul mates.

Why is this trend so toxic? Partly because what we face today is not your father’s anti-Semitism. When American Jews and others confronted Soviet anti-Semitism in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, the situation was dire, but at least it could be confronted at a single address—the Kremlin. Today, anti-Semitism is a serious problem in dozens of nations; it takes different forms in each nation, and there is no one place where we can confront it.

To combat the new anti-Semitism, we must first identify its sources. This means being scrupulously analytical and brutally honest about what type of anti-Semitism we face in a particular situation, and from whom. If it comes from the left and we are progressives, we must be willing to call it out even if we shame our erstwhile allies. If it comes from the right and we are conservatives, we have an obligation to criticize those we may have worked with on other causes. And if anti-Semitic violence comes from a small number of Muslims and we are also committed (as we should be) to fighting Islamophobia, we must be willing to identify perpetrators—without demonizing a whole religious community. 

Fighting anti-Semitism in the 21st century requires broad coalitions of groups and interests. This is not a uniquely Jewish issue, nor one that Jews can confront on their own. Overseas, it requires a united U.S. government—not just the executive branch but both parties in the legislative branch. Problematic foreign governments sometimes try to dodge criticism of their policies by making the criticism a partisan issue. When criticized by Democrats and Republicans together, however, they sit up and pay attention. Moreover, when our government confronts anti-Semitism overseas, we rely on our democratic allies to come together to support us. We can’t just rely on center-left or center-right governments in Europe; we need both sides.

Here at home, we expect our political leadership—from the president down to city council members—to denounce anti-Semitic incidents or speech. However, the real bulwarks against rising bigotry in the United States are the social norms enforced by civil society. When white nationalists (or anti-Semites from the left) spout their hate, communities often react by shunning the bigots.  Witness the ostracism that individual white nationalists have experienced in the wake of Charlottesville or the reaction in Whitefish, Montana to neo-Nazi threats. If we allow partisanship to seep into the fight against anti-Semitism, these types of community norms will be more difficult to implement.

It is not easy in today’s political environment to avoid this drive toward partisanship. I myself have not always lived up to this standard: As the past executive of a Democratic Jewish organization, I was much more comfortable excoriating right-wing manifestations of anti-Semitism than I was calling out progressive bigotry. Nevertheless, if I am serious about tackling rising anti-Semitism, I must do both.

Anti-Semitism today in the United States and Europe is not nearly as virulent as it was in the 1930s. Yet social science research indicates that the societal norms that protect us from the abyss of genocide are quite fragile and can be reversed relatively quickly.  The warning signs are right before our eyes. History will not judge us kindly if we ignore those signs in favor of advancing our own partisan agendas.

Ira N. Forman served as the U.S. special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism at the State Department from 2013 to 2017. 

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