Anti-Semitism is back in fashion on both Right and Left. In an odd sort of way, its increasingly open expression has paved the way for a new Jewish activism. That is fortunate, because it’s sorely needed. It’s crucial that Jews stand together now as a community to combat anti-Semitic acts and the ideas behind them.
Silent No More, Redux
Fifty years ago, America’s civil rights movement was overtaken by radicals who, among other things, frequently scapegoated Jews and adopted anti–Israel, pro-Palestinian stances. Jews as a group had been notably active in the civil rights movement, but many felt increasingly uncomfortable within its ranks.
About the same time, pioneers began advocating for Soviet Jews, who faced discrimination and cultural death, as well as financial ruin and physical abuse if they sought to leave the U.S.S.R.
The result? Jewish activists realized they didn’t always have to fight for other people, and many became engaged in a movement to support Soviet Jewry. Activists were notably resourceful, applying pressure through political processes and public relations, and partnering with non-Jewish allies. By fighting for these victims of totalitarianism, American Jews could also assuage the guilt many felt for failing to do more to protect victims of the Holocaust. Hence the movement’s motto, “Silent No More.”
American Jews now face a similar moment. As America’s left becomes more and more energized in reaction to President Trump, it is becoming clear that there is a strong current of anti-Semitism within it, making Jews increasingly uncomfortable. But the left doesn’t have a monopoly on anti-Semitism. The Pittsburgh massacre and Charlottesville demonstrators made clear that anti-Semitism is also a go-to ideology on the right.
The problem is not limited to the U.S. According to Statistics Canada, anti-Semitic hate crimes rose by 63% in Canada in 2017, compared to 2016. Besides its growing presence in North America, anti-Semitism is pervasive and increasing in Europe, according to recent studies by the European Union and CNN. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, and Labour Party leader and potential next U.K. prime minister Jeremy Corbyn, to name a few examples, are both well-known for expressing or at least excusing anti-Semitism. The hateful ideology is also pervasive throughout the Arab world, where a vicious European-style anti-Semitism took root during the last hundred years.
As was true fifty years ago, today many Jews actively struggle for justice for other causes and people. This is a good time for Jews to recognize that we, too, are targeted for violence and discrimination and if we are not for ourselves, who will be? It’s a good time for the Jewish organizational world to establish an umbrella group focused on the issue, and for grassroots activists to act on behalf of Jews in America and elsewhere; time to devise new educational tools and protest strategies.
Goals and Methods
Multiple Jewish organizations address anti-Semitism. Some focus their efforts on the United States, others in Europe and elsewhere. Some target their efforts against right-wing Jew hatred, others against Jew-hatred from the left. The scope of today’s problem calls for a united front of organizations and grass-roots activists.
A contemporary Jewish rights movement, focused primarily on fighting anti-Semitism in the Western and Muslim worlds, should freely borrow ideas from yesteryear’s Soviet Jewry and civil rights movements, but not be limited by them.
Here is a modest proposal for an agenda.
Violence prevention needs to be the top priority. American authorities responded to the Pittsburgh massacre as well as one could hope, but lower level violence receives less attention and may not be appropriately sanctioned. The ADL has suggested that federal authorities should devote more resources to fighting right-wing violence.
Even when murder is involved, it is not clear whether European authorities take the threat seriously. For instance, French police were slow to recognize the anti-Semitic nature of the April 2017 brutal murder of 65-year old Sarah Halimi or the 2006 torture-murder of Ilan Halimi. Demonstrations and behind-the-scenes pressure may help persuade them to recognize anti-Semitic hate crimes, and more importantly, focus on preventing them in the first place. And, in a Europe in which it’s increasingly dangerous to wear a kippah in public, why not conduct a “Freedom Summer” in which groups of activists travel around Europe openly sporting head-coverings?
As important as it is to fight anti-Semitic violence, it’s also crucial to challenge the ideas creating a climate of anti-Semitism. The anti-Semitic ideology underpinning the obsessive focus on, delegitimization of, and boycott movement against Israel, and the harassment of its supporters, also needs to be exposed in a way convincing to the sometimes well-intentioned people who have swallowed it. The Soviet Jewry movement was at its best exposing the Soviet Union’s arbitrary cruelty and discrimination, thereby contradicting its pretense of being a workers’ paradise where all were free and equal. Likewise, a contemporary movement against anti-Semitism should aim to expose the hypocrisy and discrimination of those who pretend to fight discrimination and oppression, all the while discriminating against Jews.
The Jewish community needs to counter widespread, vile anti-Semitic propaganda like Rev. Louis Farrakhan’s Secret Relationship Between Blacks and the Jews (which Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., has called the “bible of the new anti-Semitism”), and the nineteenth-century fabrication, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which has been spread throughout the world. Protocols, in particular, informs and inflames Arab anti-Semitism against Israel, as in the 2002 Egyptian blockbuster TV series Horse Without a Horseman.
Why not kick off an international movement to fight anti-Semitism with an international conference, perhaps in Europe, inviting Jewish groups and interested individuals to attend, discuss problems, and brainstorm solutions? Conference organizers could offer scholarships to encourage student participation. The physical safety of Jews, emotional drain of needing to have armed guards around synagogues, hostile climate characterized by threats and insults, financial cost of protecting Jewish institutions, threatened or actual prohibitions on kosher slaughter and on circumcision – these are just some of the subjects needing attention. Besides offering a forum for developing strategy, it would provide an invaluable opportunity to educate, motivate, and foster personal ties among attendees.
Tactics for campaigning against anti-Semitism are endless. Contemporary activists could devise new seder inserts discussing the oppressiveness of anti-Semitism. They could pressure mainstream media to cover anti-Semitism wherever it exists, not just to play catch-up after Jewish media. Student activists could turn the tables on Students for Justice in Palestine by protesting their events, holding up pictures of Issam Akeel, Ahmad al-Awartani, and journalists wrongly imprisoned and tortured by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, with posters underscoring that SJP is really not interested in “justice in Palestine,” but only in castigating the Jewish State.
People and organizations endorsing anti-Semitic hate-speech must be forcefully condemned. For starters, why not inundate Congressman Steve King (R-Iowa) with thousands of letters expressing disgust at his endorsement of anti-Semitic Toronto mayoral candidate Faith Goldy? Synagogues in King’s district could invite churches and other religious institutions to condemn him for that action.
Likewise, Jews should make clear to any congressional representatives maintaining ties with Farrakhan that they expect to hear clear denunciations of Farrakhan’a anti-Semitic ideas. Synagogues in districts of Farrakhan supporters could invite mosques and other religious institutions to condemn them for supporting Farrakhan.
The American Jewish community should consider donating to campaigns of opponents of King, Farrakhan supporters, and other congresspeople (both Representatives and Senators) who actively or tacitly support anti-Semitism, so long as the challengers clearly denounce anti-Semitism. “Clearly,” as in, not limited to mealy-mouthed condemnations of “all forms of racism and discrimination,” but specific denunciations of anti-Semitism.
The above are only suggestions. Responsibility for deciding how best to fight today’s anti-Semitism will lie with those who fight it, and the sooner the better.
If not now, when?