Radical left-wing US politicians drive Jews apart - here's how to fix it

There is no room to talk about existential threats that Jews face that can’t really be addressed if Israel is constantly dominating the conversation.

 A placard at a pro-Palestinian rally in New York in May demonstrates the Left’s understanding that racism in the US is comparable to what Palestinians contend with in Israel. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A placard at a pro-Palestinian rally in New York in May demonstrates the Left’s understanding that racism in the US is comparable to what Palestinians contend with in Israel.
(photo credit: REUTERS)

Is anti-Zionism always antisemitism? The knee-jerk reaction may be, “well, of course,” but philanthropist and Ruderman Family Foundation President Jay Ruderman and Rabbi Dr. David Barak-Gorodetsky, incoming director of the organization’s program for American Jewish Studies at the University of Haifa, argue that the answer is far more complex.

“The line between being anti-Zionist and antisemitic is blurred all the time,” Ruderman says.

“If someone is sending a Jew images of a Nazi flag, that’s clearly antisemitism. But there are people who use subtle dog whistles that call on antisemitic tropes and are more difficult to detect. Even politicians do this,” he said, mentioning US Rep. Ilhan Omar’s infamous tweet insinuating support for Israel was “all about the Benjamins” – a not so subtle reference to the stereotype that Jews are money hungry.


But antisemitism really comes to the fore when the anti-Zionist rhetoric “heats up.”

“We can have a whole discussion of the standards that Israel is held up to, while individuals and companies ignore blatant human rights violations all over the world,” he said referring to the latest boycott controversy surrounding Ben and Jerry’s decision to no longer sell its products beyond the Green Line. Once you reach that territory of anti-Zionism, he said, wading into antisemitic waters is not too far behind.

“Often people don’t speak out, it’s only until something happens, like when Rabbi Shlomo Noginski of Chabad was stabbed in Boston in July,” he lamented, remembering an incident that occurred mere kilometers away from his home.

For Barak-Gorodetsky, the question itself is flawed.

 David Barak-Gorodetsky (credit: DEBBI COOPER)
David Barak-Gorodetsky (credit: DEBBI COOPER)

“It’s a trap that the discussion of antisemitism in the US has morphed into a discussion about Israel and anti-Zionism. It’s a problem that antisemitism has been about Israel and you have not been able to deal with other parts of it,” he said, adding that there is no room to talk about existential threats that Jews face that can’t really be addressed if Israel is constantly dominating the conversation.

And dominating the conversation is what Israel has been able to do even in situations in which it is not germane to the topic at hand.

Last month, Democratic Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri suggested aid to Israel is to blame for the homelessness in her state. “If this body is looking for something productive to do with $3 billion instead of funding a military that polices and kills Palestinians, I have some communities in St. Louis city and in St. Louis County where that money can go, where we desperately need investment, where we are hurting, where we need help. Let us prioritize funding there, prioritize funding life, not destruction,” she said.

Slowly creeping into – and albeit a faction of – the American Left’s penchant for conflating social justice issues at home with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has led to a more subtle form of antisemitism today and has also, at times, excluded Jews from the narrative of oppressed minorities.

“There’s tremendous injustice in America and people do need to speak out against it. But for some reason Jews are seen as part of the elite so antisemitism is not given the same credibility,” Barak-Gorodetsky lamented.

“It’s creating a huge tension within Jewish circles and there’s an ongoing effort by progressive Jews to dissociate themselves from Israel. And to a certain extent if you look at May 2021 – when Israel had its last conflict with Gaza – I think we reached a point where liberal progressive American Jews especially the younger generation perceive Israel as a cause of antisemitism not just a question of whether being against Israel is antisemitic. And that’s actually, I think, the main problem,” he added.

What’s more, the antisemitism that has begun to manifest from parts of the Left is much different from what we see on the Right.

Ruderman outlined the differences between both sides as such: “The Right is the historical antisemitism where white supremacists and groups that are on the fringe who are anti everything and will always exist,” he said. The creeping antisemitism on the Left, however, “has a fundamental misunderstanding of the conflict between Israel and Palestinians and the Arab world and looks at that conflict in very naive cartoonish way where Israel the oppressor and Palestinians are the oppressed while denying the strong Jewish connection to the land that has occurred for thousands of years.”

The issue with this small, yet growing, faction on the Left, Ruderman says, is a willful ignorance of the realities on the ground.

“Not only is there not a deep understanding of the conflict, but they don’t want to understand. It’s much easier to lash out with blanket statements, such as, Israel is an apartheid state. It fits into a narrative that has a political and activist purpose, but it’s irresponsible especially since Jews have always been at the forefront of every social justice movement,” he said.

HOWEVER, IN the annals of those who stepped into antisemitic waters, many have issued apologies for their words. Some were more heartfelt than others. In the spirit of Yom Kippur, Barak-Gorodetsky suggests that Jews can forgive someone for their words if they do the work. In other words, if they commit teshuva, then forgiveness is warranted.

“I believe in repentance by Jews and non-Jews. It’s possible to accommodate people once they’ve changed their mind. People are expected to perform a certain act of apology but is it an honest one? Maimonides talks about not only changing one’s language, but changing action. As a Jewish community, if you see people change their actions not just their words then that could be legitimate,” he offered.

Conversely, Ruderman countered, “if someone is hateful, we shouldn’t engage with them. Not every public figure has the understanding that they have a higher responsibility and it’s easy for followers to get swept away with groupthink that Israel is a terrible country.”

So what can be done?

“I think Israel tries to do the best it can and has a lot of allies in the US. When others talk in falsehoods, there are plenty of Israel advocates who respond forcefully. But if you don’t want to know the truth, that’s problematic and a lot of sources are irresponsible,” he said. “In my 55 years living in the US, I feel antisemitism here more than ever before.”

In the spirit of self-reflection during Yom Kippur, Barak-Gorodetsky also cautioned that the Jewish community must be more cautious before accusing someone of being antisemitic.

“I think part of the discussion is what’s the real value of calling out antisemitism? It seems to replicate itself when we call it out. I think there’s a long-term price to calling people antisemitic,” he said, saying that the label may begin to lose its value if flung around indiscriminately. More importantly, he said, a more precise working definition of antisemitism should be applied so it’s not always tied to Israel.

But, ultimately, Ruderman remains hopeful that Israel’s enemies will not prevail in the long-term.

“I am a believer in God. I don’t believe antisemitism is going away – I think it will be with us forever. However, I do think the enemies of the Jews generally don’t succeed, and history doesn’t look kindly on the enemies of the Jews,” he said.