Anti-semitism has been so politicized its name should be changed if you care about it
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Every day seems to bring new examples of anti-semitsm. And every day brings new excuses for it. Most anti-semitism appears to be in the eye of the beholder.
For instance, last year the New School hosted a panel relating to anti-semitism. Phylis Chesler wrote a piece at Tablet about it. She claimed that ‘Eighty-five years after Adolf Hitler fired Jewish professors from German universities and burned and banned Jewish books, the academics are leading the pack against Israel, Jews, intellectual diversity, and truth.” Her article was about a panel on anti-semitism that was described by its own creators as “Antisemitism is harmful and real. But when Antisemitism is redefined as criticism of Israel, critics of Israeli policy become accused and targeted more than the growing far-right. Join us for a discussion on how to combat Antisemitism today.”
The contrast between Chesler’s view of the panel and the panelists’ view was very broad. For Chesler the panel itself was an example of anti-semitism. She accused the hosts of hoping “to continue their work of reading Jews out of progressive movements and making them targets for hate.” But the hosts were also mostly Jewish and the panel was ostensibly dealing with how Jews relate to anti-semitism. In short you have two groups of Jews from different political background fighting over anti-semitism. One sees it with a broad brush, to the extent they see many Jews as actually involved in anti-semitism. The other sees anti-semitism much more narrowly and tend to shift all focus to the “far-right.”
With the controversy of Louis Farrakhan, the issue of politicized anti-semitism has reared its head again. The two sides can’t seem to agree. For instance, the Republican Jewish Coalition went after US Democrats who have associated with Farrakhan. So in defense Rep. André Carson (D-IN) attacked the RJC, saying it has “no credibility with me” and then wondering why others don’t condemn Netanyahu. So the story of Farrakhan’s very real and offensive attacks on Jews were lost in the political discussion.
On Facebook Chandra Hsu Prescod-Weinstein wrote about the issue, discussing how it affects black Jews. She noted “White Jews need to stop acting like this is about them. The list of utter f***ery that Farrakhan does which specifically harms Black people is so much longer than the list of things he does that harms non-Black Jews.” If Not Now also put out a statement about Farrakhan. It noted “Let us be clear: Louis Farrakhan is an antisemite. He is a homophobe and a transphobe as well. It is painful and confusing to see Women’s March leaders embrace Farrakhan.” Then, more than half the statement was devoted to “Let us be clear on this as well: the reaction by the Anti-Defamation League, the Republican Jewish Coalition, and other Jewish institutions to this incident has been outsized, particularly in the face of the rise of violent, antisemitic white nationalism.”
Tom Pessah also wrote about the politics of anti-semitism recently. He writes about confronting anti-semitism while dealing with accusations of anti-semitism from pro-Israel voices. “Confronting anti-Semitism is trickier than it sounds; it is a skill that people can eventually master, yet they are likely to make plenty of mistakes on the way.” He notes: “I learned that it was highly useful for hasbara groups to label us as anti-Jewish; doing so enabled them to mobilize the wider Jewish community by playing on its fears.” The problem is that there are anti-semites who try to exploit the pro-Palestine movement and use it as cover for their views. “In a separate incident, after I found materials romanticizing the pogroms of Jews on pro-Palestine activist Alison Weir’s website, the Muslim Students Association also agreed not to host her.”
This is just the tip of the iceberg. On report claimed that “more than half of Jewish American college students [have] personally experienced or witnessed anti-Semitism.” An article about the report at Mosaic goes on to claim that “So, too, universities and the academic community, without limiting the free-speech rights of groups that promote anti-Semitism, whether through BDS or demonstrably false accusations leveled at Jewish students or faculty, could deny them accreditation and university funds.” Notice how BDS became central to the discussion of “anti-semitism.” Most of the examples in the article of “campus anti-semitism” actually had to do with anti-Israel activity.
So what’s going on?
Anti-semitism has been so politicized that it feels like it no longer has a stinging point. For those on the right there is a desire to expand the definition of anti-semitism to include a lot of anti-Israel activity. This is actively encouraged by the pro-Israel crowd because they believe that it is worthwhile to sacrifice the rebuke that old style anti-semitism had in order to help make it a shield for Israel. In trying to lump disparate anti-Israel activity together they didn’t succeed in stopping anti-semitism, but rather watering it down so much that those on the left who are more critical of Israel could fairly say that they were being targeted on false charges of anti-semitism. Once it became clear that “anti-semitism” accusations were sometimes, or often, exaggerated, it became easier for real anti-semites to just pretend they were being falsely targeted. “We’re just anti-Zionist” they kept saying. “And we all know how the lobby targets us to ‘silence’ us.” Again and again stories about those claiming to suffer anti-semitism, but who apparently only suffered anti-Israel views, degraded the charge of anti-semitism. The common claim that the pro-Israel “lobby” was trying to “silence” all critique became an excuse to have the most extreme anti-Israel views, to the degree that real anti-semities could tag along and say “we’re just being censored, listen to us.”
At the same time as the pro-Israel groups were expanding the definition, the more left wing groups were trying to focus anti-semitism on the right. Once Donald Trump was elected this allowed those on the left to suddenly become like the right in finding and exaggerating anti-semitism within the US. Almost everyone in the Trump administration was accused of being anti-semitic. The term “globalists” was said to be a secret code word for “anti-semitism.” Sort of like how the right accuses the left of saying “Zionists” as a code. Donald Trump and his team were “pro-Israel” and “anti-semitic.” Calling Diane Feinstein “sneaky” was said to be “anti-semitism.” Even re-tweets were “anti-semitic” because they were said to be connected to people connected to anti-semitism. Trump was accused of “Holocaust denial” for not mentioning Jews during a commemoration of the Holocaust. Trump advisor Stephen Bannon was “bad for the Jews.” When he finally left, Huffington Post even mocked him “goy, bye.” Trump aid Gorka was said to be linked to anti-semitism.
Just as the pro-Israel right wing crowd has often accused BDS-supporting Jewish leftists of “anti-semitism,” so the Jewish left has accused right wing Orthodox Jews of being “white nationalists.” Richard Spencer, the white nationalist, was accused of being a fellow traveller of Israel. Trump administration members Cohn, Mnuchin and Kushner were called “court Jews” in The Washington Post. Jewish groups even targeted Stephen Miller, apparently because he is Jewish, to be fired.
In short, never has anti-semitism been at the forefront of so many things, whether it is politics in Poland, Austria, Israel, the UK or the US. Particularly in the US, anti-semitism is used again and again by both sides as an accusation against the other. Right wing Jews are called pro-Israel and anti-semitism, left wing Jews are called anti-Israel and anti-semitism. BDS is accused of anti-semitism at the same time that Zionists are accused of working with white nationalists and the alt-right. The Women’s March is attacked for anti-semitism as is the Trump administration. Even anti-semitic sermons by Imams have become political, with one side using them to impugn Muslims and the other side claiming they are mistranslated. You’d think preaching “count them one by one and annihilate them down to the very last one,” in respect to “them” being “Jews” would be clearly intolerant. But politics gets in the way.
The question is whether “anti-semitism” can be salvaged. Has it been so politisized by all sides that the word has lost its meaning amidst the cacophony of accusations. It is important that anti-Jewish views being part of the anti-racism struggle, such that anti-semitism is condemned and not allowed to have a home either on the right or left. It is important that it cannot sneak in wearing different clothing and using key words. But the two sides cannot agree on what those key words are. Professors who bash “the Rothschilds” on social media then hide behind “free speech” and claim they are being censored if they are critiqued for anti-semitism. Putin mentions Jews in a list of groups that he claims might be responsible for election interference. Is he just listing a bunch of groups, or is he targeting “Jews”? Media seems to know. One outlet wrote three article about his short statement.
Accusations of “anti-semitism” appear to get the most press when news outlets or groups can use it against eachother. A salacious secret Facebook group with anti-semitism is more interesting when “Labour party” members are in it. Attacks on George Soros are considered anti-semitic, which sometimes seems like a shield against any critique of his outsized role in funding campaigns in foreign countries. Of course, it’s more interesting that Soros is Jewish, if he were just non-Jewish and accused of the same things, the anti-semitic aspect would disappear, if it was there in the first place. But what to do when Israel’s Prime Minister accuses Soros of the same thing? Well, according to the Tablet, when Israel’s leader attacks Soros, it is also anti-semitic. And critiquing him for trying to stop Brexit, also anti-semitic.
Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t.
Anti-Jewish hatred has multiple levels, like other forms of racism. But it is more complex. Linda Sarsour said that “I want to make the distinction that while anti-Semitism is something that impacts Jewish Americans, it’s different than anti-black racism or Islamophobia because it’s not systemic,” but actually anti-semitism is not only systematic, it is more complex.
Whereas anti-black racism is primarily about “race” and Islamophobia is primarily about “religion” ostensibly (with racial overtones often), anti-semitism and anti-Jewish views often span a gamut of different views. There are anti-Jewish views that are primarily religion-based. These exist in Christian and Islamic theology and have found expression in the Inquisition and various attacks on Jews in both societies. Maimonides was famously run out of Spain by Islamist anti-semites, but he found refuge in other Muslim societies.
In the Prescod-Weinstein post the recalls an incident where a Nation of Islam member accosted her: “While I was standing in line, a Black man who was clearly NoI [Nation of Islam] and much older than me came up to me and said, ‘Sister, why are you wearing the devil’s symbol?’ I was wearing a Star of David. I said, ‘I’m Jewish.’ He said, ‘Sister, why are you betraying your people?’”
This story clearly shows religious sentiments about “the devil” and also a racial question about “your people.” That leads us to the second aspect of anti-semitism. The German Antisemitismus, was coined in 1879 by Wilhelm MArr to excuse “Judenhass” or Jew hatred as being acceptable based on “scientific” or “racial” reasons. In a secularizing Europe where there was intermarriage and many conversions by Jews, the anti-Jewish extremists needed a new reason to explain their hate. If it wasn’t religious, it could be “scientific.” So that is how we get modern day “anti-semitism.”
But what happens when you add in other layers of anti-semitic views. The scholar at Oberlin who talked about “Rothschild” conspiracies. The claims that Zionists or Jews are “behind 9/11” has found fertile fields in different places, among far-left and far-right conspiracy theorists, racists, quacks and others. To pretend that anti-Zionism and anti-semitism are not intertwined is to purposely whitewash anti-semitism. People who spout anti-semitism are said to be “controversial” and deserving of free speech, even when the speech consists of claiming “American Jews to try to control the world by proxy.” Then there is Malaysia leader Mahathir Mohamad’s speech in 2003. He said “1.3 billion Muslims cannot be defeated by a few million Jews. There must be a way. And we can only find a way if we stop to think, to assess our weaknesses and our strength, to plan, to strategise and then to counter attack.” He went on “ The Europeans killed 6 million Jews out of 12 million. But today the Jews rule this world by proxy. They get others to fight and die for them.” Oddly enough, in 2013, an Israeli left wing journalist went to Malaysia to meet this raving anti-semite.
But Mahathir’s speech isn’t so far off from Democratic leader Keith Ellison’s 2010 speech. He also put forth a weird, binary, worldview of “them” and “us” when speaking to a Muslim audience about Jews. “But it makes all the sense in the world when you see that that country [Israel] has mobilized its Diaspora in America to do its bidding in America. The question is, with all of us here, we ought to be able to do at least as much.”
When we look at these different speeches and references we move from identifiable anti-semitism to insinuations about “control” and “doing its bidding.” Of course, insinuating that Albania or Ireland might mobilize its diaspora to get America to do “its bidding” is not anti-Muslim or anti-Catholic. Is it anti-Irish or anti-Albanian? Probably.
So we have a problem in identifying anti-semitism and not always making it political. Because when Ellison is attacked as a “democrat” then he can play victim. Farrakhan’s supporters can say it’s just a way to silence a “black man.” And of course the former Malaysian leader can just say it’s an “anti-Muslim” critique.
The vastness of the ways in which people attack Jews, the obsessions they have and the insinuations they make, makes it difficult to confront. The secret Facebook group in the UK, for instance, had a great diversity of hatred. Some were into Holocaust denial and complaining about how “how long will they make us feel sorry for them.” Others are into conspiracies about Israel harvesting organs. Others are into claiming “they control the media.” Everyone has their different theory. In the case in the UK, it all came together under the auspices of a “pro-Palestine” group. They didn’t feel embarrassed. None of them felt shames by the comments. The same people who are so sensitive to all other forms of racism felt comfortable in boasting of their anti-semitic views. And yet most of them when confronted all claim not to be anti-semitic. They all have stories about their “Jewish friends” or “Jewish spouses” or “Jewish guy I work with.” Some of them, bizarrely, are Jewish. The same Jews that would never accept similar statements excusing slavery, feel fine excusing the Holocaust. And so even in the most clear cases, the last line of defense is “but we have Jewish members.”
Can anything be done? Given the way in which every bit of anti-semitism often becomes political and so few can agree, how can the need to confront racism be preserved? How can the toxic and terrible anti-Jewish views held in different sectors, on the far right, on the far left, among Islamists, among pro-Assad supporters, among extremists in eastern Europe, among wealthy elites, or priests, the stereotypes and generalizations, the old and new code words, how can it be dealt with?
Perhaps what is needed is a new term.