Don’t Fall For ‘Both-Siderism’ Trap On Anti-Semitism

Originally published in The Forward on November 29, 2018

In the aftermath of the Tree of Life massacre in Pittsburgh, the argument over the source of danger to American Jews — the social justice left or the right’s white nationalist movement — is over. Right wing antisemitism and white nationalism pose the single greatest threat to the safety of the American Jewish community. Our response as Jews must reflect that reality.

Antisemitism is a core animating force of white nationalist ideology. The starting point is as old as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion: a secret super structure of Jews plotting to undermine white Christian society through money, the manipulation of people of color and corrosive ideologies spread through the media. The practical endpoint of this world view is the destruction of Jews through expulsion, murder or conversion.

This theory has moved alarmingly from the fringes of society to the center. What was once only found on sites like 4chan are now echoed in the talking points and closing campaign ads for the Republican party in North Carolina and California, dozens of state legislative races, and Republican congressmembers like Steve King.

In recent months, members of the Republican party also publicly imagined George Soros — Jewish philanthropist and the right’s leading bogeyman — as the orchestra conductor of both the Kavanaugh protests and the caravan of migrants from Central America to the US border. This idea has been reinforced through conspiracy theory statements from congressional leaders Senator Grassley and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy.

According to Donald Trump and his party, the caravan threatens the lives of Americans. And according to Robert Bower, an avid follower of white nationalist propaganda, the Jews responsible for this threat to white Christian America had to be stopped. On October 27th, Bowers entered the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, one of the synagogues involved in HIAS’s campaign to ‘welcome the neighbor’ and murdered 11 davening Jews. This devastating tragedy was sadly an unsurprising outcome for the white nationalist ideology from which it emerged. That in this moment the white nationalist movement is still rising and strengthening should be concerning to all Americans, and Jews everywhere.

Yet even in the face of this very real, growing and terrifying threat, large portions of the Jewish community in the United States continue to hang onto to a facile both-siderism when it comes to antisemitism. In print and social media, Jews continue to argue that antisemitism from the left is just as dangerous as antisemitism from the right. In the wake of the Pittsburgh shooting, some Jewish leaders have doubled down on their efforts to inflame campus disputes over BDS. Others have spilled barrels of electronic ink attacking the Black and Brown leadership of national women’s organizations. Robert Bowers made no mention of Israel on his social media posts, yet in the days following the shooting, Palestinian American activists once again became public enemy number one for some of us.

This needs to stop. This is not just misguided; it is dangerous.

White nationalism is animated by antisemitism. It is core to far right ideology. It bears repeating: the ideological endpoint of this world view is the destruction of Jews through expulsion, murder, or conversion.

On the other side, antisemitism is not core to US left ideology and is not an animating force of our social justice movements. When American Jews lash out against the left instead of the right in this moment, it is at best a terrified community trying to win a fight wherever it can. At worst, it is the manipulation of a tragedy for a nationalist agenda, whether rooted in the Israeli far-right or the American far-right. Somewhere in the middle, it is a Jewish community deeply confused about who are our allies and who are our foes in our struggle to survive. Whatever the intent, the impact is millions of dollars and infinite hours wasted on fighting the wrong enemy, and a deepened alienation between the Jewish community and our most likely allies: other people also targeted by white nationalists for death, control or expulsion.

I have been around the social movement left for two decades, and I can tell you without a doubt antisemitism lives within the American left — just as the left is also filled with racism, sexism, Islamophobia, and every other oppression to be found in American society. It is American, after all. That is absolutely not saying we should excuse it. Indeed I have spent much of the last six years educating individuals and organizations on the left on the mechanisms and impacts of antisemitism.

But I can also tell you that there is no contingent of the American left that is trying to kill Jews or spread an ideology whose end result is the elimination of Jews. The end point for the vast majority of the social movement left is a multiracial, pluralistic democracy in which all people’s basic needs are met. Those who seek to equate the two have some other agenda in mind.

As Americans and as Jews, the only sensible choice is to join people working for a multiracial, pluralistic democracy. We make up 2% of the US population and even less worldwide; we cannot build a future for ourselves by ourselves. We need pluralistic democracy to emerge stronger and more expanded from our current crisis.

For American Jews, this means being in the fight for democracy no matter whom else is on our side. As Dania Rajendra writes, “We who believe in the promise of American democracy — that this can be a country where we all thrive — are in the fight of our lives. We do not choose the terrain. We do not choose, even, our partners in the fight.”

The midterms and international developments have made it plain: There are only two sides now. There are those who will fight for a democracy that keeps us safe, and those who will use every avenue to shut down democracy for their own nefarious ends — from war on immigrants and refugees to consolidation of wealth unseen since the Great Depression to, yes, bringing on End Times.

I know which side I’m on, not despite the fact that I’m a Jew but because of it.

Each of us must choose which side we are on: I stand with those fighting for democracy and those fighting to defend and expand it. Is it hard, sometimes, to stand here? No question. Do some people wish I weren’t here? Sure. But they cannot dislodge us. I invite you to join me in standing firm. I know our survival — as Americans, and as Jews — depends on it.

Dove Kent is the former director of Jews for Racial & Economic Justice. She was recently in Pittsburgh following the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue to support the local Jewish activist community.