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Nuanced Views on Current Wave of Antisemitism

Associated Press Photo
By TTN

A number of African Americans have attacked Jews, and some observers on the left can only see white supremacy.  For example, Alex Myers twists himself into knots to assert that “White Supremacy Is the Root of  Violence Against Jews“; while clearly true in Pittsburgh and in other instances, it’s hard to see this in the most recent incidents in Monsey, Jersey City and Brooklyn.      

Writing in The Atlantic, Lawfare’s editor in chief Benjamin Wittes (“Jews Under Attack Deserve Better Than Selective Outrage“) is in basic agreement with The Forward’s Batya Ungar-Sargon that this wave of attacks against Chasidim doesn’t fit comfortably within progressive discourse.  Wittes calls out the failure of non-bigoted partisans of both right and left to police their own ranks against antisemitism:

. . .  Over the past few weeks, Orthodox Jews in the New York area have been targeted in a series of violent attacks. Yet the reaction has been muffled, including from people—especially but not exclusively Jews—who one would expect to be up in arms.  . . . It is certainly not what I would have expected in response to a wave of hate crimes, including attacks with guns and machetes, that have left people dead and in critical condition.

Why the comparatively mild response? For many American Jews, the answer is that these aren’t “our” kind of Jews—and the attackers aren’t motivated by the kind of anti-Semitism we most want to talk about.

Batya Unger-Sargon, the opinion editor at the Forwardput it bluntly and correctly . . . :

“After the massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue . . . , and another fatal shooting at a shul in Poway, California six months later, one often heard that the great threat to Jews—even the only threat—comes from white supremacy. Conventional wisdom said it was the political right, and the right’s avatar in the White House, that was to blame for the rising levels of hate against Jews.

“But the majority of the perpetrators of the Brooklyn attacks, and the suspects in Jersey City—who were killed in a shootout with the police—and now Monsey, were not white, leaving many at a loss about how to explain it or even talk about it. There is little evidence that these attacks are ideologically motivated, at least in terms of the ideologies of hate we are most familiar with.

“And therein lies the trouble with talking about the violent attacks against Orthodox Jews: . . . . In the fight against anti-Semitism, you don’t get to easily blame your traditional enemies—which, in the age of Trump, is a non-starter for most people.”

[Wittes continues:] In our political moment, a great many people seem more outraged by the other side’s anti-Semitism than by their own side’s. Only recently, Jewish supporters of the president seemed not to notice when Rudy Giuliani—the president’s lawyer—disparaged the Judaism of a Holocaust survivor. Trump trades in anti-Semitic stereotypes on a relatively routine basis; he once suggested that Jews had to vote for him because Senator Elizabeth Warren would take away their wealth, and he ran an ad at the close of the 2016 election insinuating that a Jewish elite holds too much power and control. Trump’s Jewish supporters have looked the other way . . . .  

The left, meanwhile, correctly decries such anti-Semitic overtones on the Trumpist right, even as it tolerates with equanimity the toxic environment that exists for many Jews on university campuses. It finds Ilhan Omar’s suggestions of Jewish dual loyalty, if not quite acceptable, then at least not worth talking much about. And many on the left seemed to not mind the U.K. Labour Party’s atmosphere of anti-Semitism . . . .

So selective is our reaction to anti-Semitism these days that it is now commonplace in Jewish argument to respond to the suggestion of anti-Semitism on one’s own side of the political spectrum by saying, “Yes, but the real problem is not [whatever person or group just got mentioned] but [some example of anti-Semitism on the other side].” . . .

Donniel Hartman, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute, has blogged in the Times of Israel, “I hate talking about anti-Semitism” — because (among other things) it too often devalues Jewish life in the Diaspora and distorts the extent of the threat.  He continues, in part echoing the others in this post:  

. . .  While I hate talking about anti-Semitism, I hate anti-Semitism even more. I hate what it does to Jews. I hate the fear that it instills. I hate the pain and suffering that it causes. I hate the attention that it demands. And as we are experiencing with increased frequency, it does demand attention, even from those of us who hate to talk about it. . . . 

1) We must not use an anti-Semitic incident as a vehicle or opportunity for our own ideological aggrandizement. For example, when an anti-Semitic attack occurs, Israelis must refrain from calling on Diaspora Jews to make aliyah, no matter how well-meaning those Israelis may be. . . .

Similarly, in the toxic partisan political environment of today’s America, anti-Semitic attacks cannot be used as a vehicle to denounce the moral bankruptcy of one’s political opponents. Too often we tolerate and excuse the anti-Semitism that comes from “our” political camp. Its perpetrators are classified as deranged instead of evil, in order to maintain political alliances and political correctness.  . . .

When we politicize anti-Semitism, we undermine the universal condemnation that anti-Semitic attacks deserve and require. Most significantly, we create deep divisions within our own community, and prevent us from uniting to combat the threats we face.  . . .

2) We need to talk about anti-Semitism in a way that does not minimize its dangers, but also does not falsely conflate the reality in America with that of pre-Holocaust Germany, or even that of contemporary France. It is important that we talk about the legitimate concerns and fears that anti-Semitism is generating, which are free from the false claim that Jewish life is existentially endangered.  . . .

It is critical that we remember that we are not fighting government-instituted anti-Semitism, but an anti-Semitism which the government itself is committed to fighting. In combating the attacks on where our people gather — our synagogues, community centers, and neighborhoods — we are neither powerless, nor alone.  . . .

3) We need to avoid the discourse that portrays anti-Semitism as a unique phenomenon and the Jews as uniquely attacked. I don’t deny that there are ample historical arguments which point to anti-Semitism as distinct in its longevity, its ferocity, and the extent of its destructiveness. Instead, I am questioning whether this discourse is helpful to modern Jewish identity.  . . .

Finally, consider listening to the opening segment of the Dec. 30th audio-recording of WNYC’s Brian Lehrer ShowAlthough it’s misnamed “A New Age of Pogroms” (because historical pogroms were usually perpetrated or at least tolerated by antisemitic government authorities), this segment features an interesting discussion with Batya Ungar-Sargon and Motti Seligson, director of media at Chabad.   

2 Responses to “Nuanced Views on Current Wave of Antisemitism”

  1. Stan Nadel
    January 3, 2020 at 6:35 am #

    The notion that it’s only a pogrom when it has government support is historically false. The mothers of all pogroms, the 1st Crusade and the Chmelnitzky pogroms as well as the Kelice pogrom were all without government support. In fact most pogroms before the late 19th century were without government support and were often even opposed by the governments concerned.

  2. The Third Narrative
    January 3, 2020 at 9:15 am #

    Our TTN colleague, Stan Nadel, is disputing this parenthetical statement: “historical pogroms were perpetrated or at least tolerated by antisemitic government authorities.” During the 1946 pogrom in Kielce, Polish police/militia and soldiers reportedly participated https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kielce_pogrom. The term “pogrom” was invented in the late 19th century, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pogrom. But Stan makes a fair point that the term was applied retroactively to historic massacres perpetrated by rebel movements or forces outside the official control of governments; so we’ll modify that statement with the word, “usually.” Still, it’s important to note that authorities in the US are arrayed AGAINST such attacks — unlike the examples of Poland at times, Czarist Russia and during the Middle Ages.

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