PROGRESSIVES HAD BETTER DEAL WITH IT

An Editorial from the Summer 2016 issue of Jewish Currents

Cartoon in Al-Watan, Saudi Arabia, Sep­tem­ber 10, 2012, courtesy of the Anti-Defamation League.
Cartoon in Al-Watan, Saudi Arabia, Sep­tem­ber 10, 2012, courtesy of the Anti-Defamation League.

THERE IS OFTEN a reluctance on the part of the left, even among progressive Jews, to “make a big deal” out of anti-Semitism, particularly when we see the issue exploited by conservatives to blunt or censor criticism of Israel, to suppress free speech, and to stoke conservative energies in the Jewish community by cultivating fear. Nevertheless, anti-Semitism is alive and well, domestically and internationally, and for progressives, especially progressive Jews, to ignore it an issue only for conservatives is a self-destructive shirking of our responsibility.

Some forms of anti-Semitism are easier than others for the left to identify and call out. Recently, for example, the ascendancy of Donald Trump has unleashed the anti-Jewish sentiment of his “alt-right” base. Following her less-than-gushing profile of Melania Trump in GQ last April, journalist Julia Ioffe was subjected to anti-Semitic slurs on social media and neo-Nazi death threats on Twitter and over the phone. Asked for a reaction, Ms. Trump expressed her reservations but placed blame on Ioffe, saying, “She provoked them.”

Erin Schrode, a 25-year-old environmental activist who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for Congress in California’s District 2, has been similarly abused on alt-right blogs and in white supremacist chatrooms, where her email address and cell phone number were broadcast, alongside faked images of her wearing a yellow star.

Rightwing anti-Semites are also using a digital device that automatically places suspected Jewish names in triple parentheses on webpages. Generating what is termed an “echo” symbol — for example, (((Bernie Sanders))) — the tool, designed to target Jews for trolling and abuse, has thankfully been removed by Google for violating the company’s hate-speech policy.

IT IS MORE DIFFICULT for leftists to confront anti-Semitism that sometimes festers in progressive circles, generally emerging from a distorted level of rage against Israel for its stubborn oppression of the Palestinian people. True, traditional rightwing voices will always be there to lump together anti-Zionism, support for the BDS movement, simple criticism of Israel, and anti-Semitism in ways that muddy the waters and suppress free speech. Free speech is no excuse, however, for incendiary slander.

In February, for example, Rutgers scholar Jasbir Puar suggested in a talk at Vassar College (“Inhumanist Biopolitics: How Palestine Matters”) that the corpses of seventeen young Palestinians, all involved in attacks on Israeli Jews, had perhaps been “mined for organs for scientific research” by the Israeli government. Israel, she say, may be practicing “weaponized epigenetics where the outcome is not so much about winning or losing nor a solution but about needing body parts, not even whole bodies, for research and experimentation” (quoted in Haaretz). Whatever the precise meaning of “weaponized epigenetics” may be, Puar was invoking a blood libel, associating Jews with the ghoulish use of human bodies. To drop that bombshell without evidence is to indulge in anti-Semitic slander.

There are also instances on college campuses in which, for example, the vituperation of Students for Justice in Palestine (an organization with some 100 chapters nationwide) has reached outrageous levels, making Jewish students feel unsafe. Surely Jews should have the right to be respected and openly express their identity on campuses, even if Israel is breaking international law! Yet a recent letter of protest by the Zionist Organization of America about such incidents on campuses of the City University of New York — a letter that nearly led to state budget cuts for CUNY — added up to little more than a sloppy effort to discredit BDS and pro-Palestinian activism by equating them with anti-Semitism. Such mobilizing of political power to punish institutions for the excesses of a few young people is the very definition of censorship.

All of this is fairly lightweight compared to what’s happened in France, where Jews have faced lethal attacks, and in the Muslim world, where grim cartoons featuring Star-of-David monsters pepper publications, political and religious leaders excoriate both Jews and Zionists in dehumanizing language, and popular TV shows have dramatized scenes from the classic anti-Semitic screed, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

It’s important to note that not all anti-Semitism in the world is related to Israel’s occupation policies. In 2014, the Anti-Defamation League released results of a survey of over 50,000 people in 101 countries that used belief in the following statements as a measuring rod of anti-Semitism; respondents who said that at least six out of the eleven statements are “probably true” were considered to harbor anti-Semitic attitudes: “Jews have too much power in the business world”; “Jews have too much power in international financial markets”; “Jews still talk too much about what happened to them in the Holocaust”; “Jews don’t care about what happens to anyone but their own kind”; “Jews have too much control over global affairs”; “Jews are more loyal to Israel than to the countries in which they live”; “Jews have too much control over the U.S. government”; “Jews think they are better than other people”; “Jews have too much control over the global media”; “Jews are responsible for most of the world’s wars”; and “people hate Jews because of the ways Jews behave.” In the Middle East and North Africa, 74 percent of people surveyed held such beliefs; in Western Europe, 24 percent; in Eastern Europe, 34 percent; in the Americas, 19 percent; in Asia, 22 percent; in sub-Saharan Africa, 23 percent; in Oceania, 14 percent.

In response to such daunting numbers, a “no-big-deal” attitude confines progressives to a fantasy world, leaving conservatives to dictate the narrative and influence actual policy. It’s time, instead, for people on the left to confront anti-Semitism with the same vigor we apply to other outcroppings of racism.