Those in the business of monitoring antisemitism have increasingly raised concerns about the direction of the political Left. We’ve seen tags like #JewishPrivilege trend on Twitter, outrageous claims by celebrities and others that the Holocaust was a white-on-white crime, Jewish students forced to disavow Zionists so as not to be excluded from mainstream campus groups, and outlandish declarations that accusations of antisemitism decenter anti-black racism. As a lifelong Democrat, I’m worried about these voices growing louder within the Democratic party, the political home for the vast majority of American Jews.
Recently, the organization I founded commissioned the first national poll to investigate whether these anecdotal incidents are reflective of a broader shift in attitudes among progressives that are conducive to antisemitism. The findings confirmed my fears: there is a significant cause for concern about this new variant of bigotry on the Left.
What’s behind this evident shift in attitude toward Jews on the Left? Unlike antisemitism coming from the extreme Right or the Muslim world, antisemitism on the Left is frequently spoken about as if there are only symptoms and no causes.
Whenever there’s a sudden rise in antisemitism, however, there is almost certainly a concomitant ideological shift in the larger society. As, for example, alt-Right ideology and “Replacement Theory” grew in popularity on the American Right in the past decade, so too did notions that Jews were behind “The Great Replacement” of white people. Violent attacks against Jews in Pittsburgh and Poway followed. As Islamist ideology spread in large swaths of the Muslim world, depicting the West as evil, so too did conspiracy theories of Jews as infidels deserving of God’s wrath, and terrorism aimed at Jews in both Israel and the Jewish Diaspora. We don’t speak about these variants of antisemitism as if they are devoid of ideological antecedents.
While not at all easy to speak about in today’s censorious political culture, some of us have hypothesized that the reason for this rise in antisemitic rhetoric and sentiment on the American Left is the ascendancy of radical social justice ideology. This ideology defines in no uncertain terms who has power and privilege and who does not. And because Jews are perceived by many to have power, this discourse legitimizes resentment toward a community that far exceeds the mean on most social and economic metrics.
The turning point of May 2021
THOSE OF us concerned about this growing phenomenon on the Left watched, in May 2021, the Israel-Hamas conflict plays out in the West in a dramatically different fashion than previous episodes of hostilities. In this latest round, Israel was not only criticized for its conduct in war, which can be legitimate but roundly vilified and delegitimized in many progressive circles. Anyone who closely follows the situation in the Middle East – friend or foe of Israel – couldn’t help but notice the change in tone in mainstream media coverage and the pervasive vitriol on social media outlets. During that same period, the American Defense League (ADL) noted a substantial surge in antisemitic activity in the US.
Even while many Jews back social justice movements calling attention to police abuse and mass incarceration, some worry that rhetoric characterizing America as a white supremacist society and demonizing whiteness has and will continue to spill over into hostility toward Jews. As proponents of this ideology tend to view Jews as white, how could it not?
We worry that supposedly white adjacent groups with higher average incomes and educational achievements, such as Jews and Asians, are being implicated in white supremacy for allegedly succeeding on the backs of marginalized communities.
Moreover, it strikes us that the new social justice activism is not just a call for a much-needed shift in policy priorities but a fundamental challenge to the liberal order, which would render everyone, Jews especially, more vulnerable. The ideologues in the movement often don’t seek to fix institutions but to tear them down, as was evident in the campaign to defund the police. Those of us who have studied the history of antisemitism know that when illiberalism sets in, whether on the political right or the left, resurgent antisemitism is never far behind.
The hypothesis that radical social justice ideology foments antisemitic sentiment on the Left is supported by a new survey of 1,600 likely voters. The survey shows that self-described progressives and very liberal Americans who believe that America is a structurally racist nation also tend to see Jews and Asians as white adjacent to the tune of 80%. That same subset views Jews as having too much power and privilege by nearly 2-1 over comparable groups, such as Black, Asian or LGBT Americans. These percentages on both questions steeply decline among moderates and conservatives.
The survey also indicates that on the far Left of the American political spectrum, Israel is being increasingly viewed as a colonizer, which calls into question the country’s very right to exist. A plurality of progressives now views Israel in these very extreme terms. While the new data is not a smoking gun that the spread of radical social justice ideology is driving antisemitic sentiment on the left, it comports with what many of us have observed with our own eyes.
The writer is the founder of the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values (JILV.org).