AUS administration run by the “alt-right neo-Nazi movement,” claims a commentator online. The chief strategist is an American Goebbels. One meme reads: “First they came for the Muslims and we said ‘not this time mother –’” signed by someone named April Daniels. A cartoon by Eli Valley shows Pepe the frog (a symbol of the far Right) speaking with Sheldon Adelson, saying, “So it’s agreed we exterminate the Jews here and you can exterminate the Palestinian there.” To which the Adelson character says, “Sign me up.” Liana Fincke drew a cartoon showing a devil wearing a swastika saying “vote for me I’m pro-Israel” and another man saying “duh... okay.” A journalist posted a “template for how to respond” if approached by Trump with a letter from 1962 from Bertrand Russell to British fascist Oswald Mosley.
“Trump has shattered Jews’ American idyll,” claimed Chemi Shalev. “American Jews have transformed virtually overnight from insiders to outsiders. If worse comes to worst, they’ll always have Israel.”
The Anti-Defamation League’s national director claimed that the US “has not seen this level of antisemitism in mainstream political and public discourse since the 1930s.” One more piece of evidence.
The Associated Press tells us “American Jews alarmed by surge in antisemitism.”
But the actual statistics on hate crimes are more vague.
An NYPD report on November 6 showed there were 103 antisemitic incidents so far in 2016 compared to 125 for all of 2015 – so basically no change. According to the FBI there were 664 anti-Jewish incidents in 2015 (there were 257 against Muslims and 1,700 against African-Americans). That’s an increase from 609 in 2014. Back in 1996 there were 1,109.
An ADL blog claimed a “rash of vandalism and swastikas reported following election day.” The same ADL asserted that “antisemitic assaults rise dramatically across the country in 2015.” Actual numbers showed a 3% increase from 2014; 941 incidents versus 912. Rather than a dramatic rise, New York showed a decrease in incidents, from 231 to 198. But “antisemitism decreases” is not a headline. “Worst antisemitism since 1930s” is.
There is no doubt people are alarmed in America. An article in Fortune noted that over 800 journalists had reported antisemitism on Twitter related to this election.
Part of the reason people are alarmed is because of the hundreds, probably thousands of articles about the “surge” and “spike” in antisemitism since the US election – none of which actually showed any data about the supposed increase and most of which relied on data from before the election or from 2015 (one report claimed “US hate crimes against Muslims surge 67 percent,” but the data all related to a surge in 2015, not 2016). “Trump’s election triggers old nightmares for Holocaust survivors in America,” wrote Marisa Fox-Bevilacqua at Haaretz. They’ve been triggered because of a wave of hysteria and psychosis that has pushed fearmongering to extraordinary levels. Probably never in history have so many people written so much about so little antisemitism.
How did we get here? For years those crying “antisemitism” tended to be associated with pro-Israel Jewish voices.
Ruth Wisse at Tablet wrote in May 2015 that “antisemitism on American college campuses is rising and worsening.”
She quoted a Louis D. Brandeis Center survey showing “more than half of Jewish American college students personally experienced or witnessed antisemitism.” However almost all the examples in the article related to anti-Israel events. “Every year, some 200 campuses now host a multiday hate-Jews fest, its malignancy encapsulated in its title: ‘Israel Apartheid Week.’” Antisemitism was “spiking” and “skyrocketing” on campus, newspapers told us. The Observer
claimed one report showed 287 antisemitic incidents by June 2016 compared to 198 in 2015. “Campus events denying the right of Israel to exist – which nearly tripled,” was a major component.
There were also other incidents of non-Israel related antisemitism such as Oberlin College’s former assistant- professor Joy Karega posting on social media stories claiming the Rothschilds control the world. As recently as November 2 the Zionist Organization of America was speaking out about antisemitism on campus.
In a sense it was the Jewish Right that dominated and owned the “antisemitism rising” brand. In the 1980s the extremist rabbi Meir Kahane even used to talk about a “second Holocaust” in America. But the election in 2016 changed all that. Suddenly people on the Left began to worry that what they called “alt-right white supremacy” was connected to the Donald Trump campaign. In September The Daily Beast published “Alt-Right leaders: We aren’t racist, we just hate Jews.” Combined with the antisemitic attacks on journalist Julia Ioffe in April after her profile of Melania Trump, the Left began to take back the “antisemitism is a threat” story.
Piecing together a few quotes from articles at Breitbart, one of which was written by David Horowitz (who is Jewish), many writers connected the dots to dangerous antisemitism circulating around the campaign. When Trump won the election Samuel Freedman called it the “revenge of white supremacy” and Bradley Burston claimed it was a “historic victory for antisemitism.” The target of these writers was often Stephen Bannon and his association with Breitbart. “What’s more, unlike Trump, Bannon does not appear to be merely manipulating these people for political gain. He really hates us,” wrote Eric Alterman. There was actually scant evidence of Bannon’s antisemitism, as Alan Dershowitz has pointed out, but if you tell a story long enough it appears to be true.
So what is really going on? Many voices on the Left have used antisemitism as a tool against the Trump administration, exaggerating the levels of antisemitism and the extent of it. They disregard evidence that Trump grew up around Jews and indeed that his family is intermarried with Jews, and they disregard that Bannon even created an Israeli-run version of his website. Unfortunately, just as the Right exaggerated rising campus antisemitism, misinterpreting every anti-Israel act as pernicious (accusing Jewish groups who are anti-Zionist of being antisemitic), the Left exaggerates every hint of racism on the right as antisemitic, when in reality much of the racism is directed at other communities. Of course the racism is vile, but it should be confronted as racism, not “antisemitism.”
The two abuses of antisemitism have agendas. On the Right the exaggeration of increased antisemitism on campus was related to a campaign to defend Israel. Antisemitism was hijacked as a way to color all anti-Israel views as antisemitic and the very real dangers of real antisemitism was ignored to achieve the larger pro-Israel goal. The boycott movement, apartheid week, Palestinian flags – it’s all “antisemitism.”
The Left’s voices against antisemitism also have an Israel- centric narrative to them, that seeks to tar pro-Israel groups as not only whitewashing antisemitism but being tied to Trump to discredit them. “Trump lends hope to Israel’s right,” The New York Times
claimed. “Trump emboldens Israel’s far right,” wrote Saeb Erakat. America’s “most powerful Jewish organizations” have “kept quiet during the most bigoted presidential campaign in history,” wrote Peter Beinart.
They even perform the trick of pulling an antisemitic rabbit out of a Zionist hat. “Strange but true that many ardent Zionists view Western antisemitism as good,” wrote journalist Dan Murphy on Twitter. “How Bannon and Brietbart can be pro-Israel and antisemitic at the same time,” headlined The Forward.
In the article Todd Gitlin at Columbia University claimed that “the coexistence of antisemitism and right-wing Zionism ‘in Trump’s world make sense.’” A new narrative is forming to claim that Zionism is actually a form of antisemitism. This fulfills a kind of fantasy on parts the Left whereby being pro-Israel will now be seen as a component of being antisemitic, which will mean that the reality of radical-left antisemitism will forever be inured from claims it is antisemitic.
“Israeli Right works with antisemites” is that goal many anti-Zionists have always had in mind since the 1920s when they suggested that Zionism was a form of antisemitism because it called into question the place of Diaspora Jewry. The strange intersection of this election has allowed this fringe view to take center stage.
Rarely in history has antisemitism been so politicized, so untethered from real acts of antisemitism. Can we escape the train wreck that is about to happen, where some elements of the Left tar Zionism as antisemitism and the Right stays mired in its over-use of claims of antisemitism? In the recent documentary The Last Laugh, co-writers Ferne Pearlstein and Robert Edwards looked at comedians making fun of the Holocaust. In the film many comedians, such as Sarah Silverman, make fun of the genocide, calling it “alleged Holocaust” in one scene. She’s mocking antisemites, but what happens when antisemites think it’s funny? There is also “Holocaust fatigue,” says Edwards. “When it gets to the point where people roll their eyes and it has no effect anymore, then you have a real problem.” Have we watered it down too much? In the 2013 Pew Survey, “remembering the Holocaust” was the most important aspect of Jewish identity for 73 percent of American Jews. Antisemitism is a major portion of identity. But we’ve also educated generations to see more antisemitism than there is, to mock the Holocaust while at the same time seeing a new Holocaust as just around the corner as media claims we live in the 1930s.
Claiming “antisemitism” is easy, but that’s precisely why it should be done sparingly.
Too much crying wolf over antisemitism has harmed its meaning. It is also leading to shocking levels of people believing they are just years away from being sent to concentration camps. An honest discussion should be had on the Left and Right of American Jewry to stop exaggerating and work to confront real incidents of antisemitism and not waste time inventing bogeymen and fearmongering.
Follow the author @Sfrantzman.
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