Last month, graffiti sprayed on the campus of Walt Whitman High School in Montgomery County, Maryland, proclaimed “Jews Not Welcome.” While many people and organizations have since repudiated the message, it is undeniable that Jews are indeed unwelcome in many spaces throughout the US and the world.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, antisemitic incidents across the US have reached all-time highs in 2022, and the 28th Annual Report on Antisemitism Worldwide found a dramatic surge of anti-Jewish activity across the globe in 2021.
The question we must face is why Jews are unwelcome. Why have Jews in particular provoked the ire of an ascendant Right-wing, especially in the US, and how can American Jews in particular use this moment of pain and fear as an opportunity for healing?
Though antisemitism is one of the few attitudes shared by the far Right and the far Left, a 2022 study in Political Research Quarterly found that “antisemitic attitudes are far more prevalent on the Right, particularly on the young far Right.” This is not to excuse antisemitism on the Left, but we must acknowledge that it is the Right that presents the more immediate threat.
Special attention for Jews and feminists
In Proud Boys and the White Ethnostate, Dr. Alexandra Stern writes that every group in the US alt-Right holds a special antipathy for feminists and Jews. The reason is that feminists and Jews oppose rigid hierarchies and essential, fixed identities, two shibboleths of the Right. For the Right-wing, the top of the “natural order” is occupied by white, heterosexual, Christian, able-bodied cisgender men. Every deviation from that moves a person down in their hierarchy.
Contrary to an antisemitic canard, Judaism does not teach that Jews are superior to non-Jews. White supremacists tip their hands when they argue Jews’ calling themselves “chosen” is tantamount to their own cultural chauvinism.
In support of their hierarchies, the Right is violently essentialist, believing that people are born with a fixed gender, a fixed nationality, a fixed race, and that these traits are immutable, intrinsic, and important.
Essentialism in any form is rejected by Judaism. Jews are no less Jewish because of different nationality, race, generation or gender. Within Jewish communities, there are atheists, Orthodox, cloistered and cosmopolitan Jews. Both the convert and those who are born Jewish are equally Jewish. Further, our history shows how identities can change.
A Jew born in Berlin can become an American, and in every generation, some Reform Jews become more Orthodox and some Orthodox Jews leave the faith entirely. This fluidity of identity draws the ire of the Right-wing because it shows that their fundamental assumptions of human beings are wrong.
JEWISH HISTORY threatens adherents of the Right in another way, because the Right depends on threats and violence and a means to their ends, and our history shows that threats and violence do not ultimately succeed. Time and again, Jews have been brought to the precipice of non-existence and each time have outlived our adversaries. Jews are unwelcome because our very existence demonstrates both falsity of white supremacist philosophy, and also the fecklessness of their tactics.
Most damningly, Jews are unwelcome because we destabilize social orders that subordinate justice in favor of stability; at our best we foment what the late John Lewis, who gave the 2013 commencement speech at the Jewish Theological Seminary, called “good trouble.”
The American Jewish luminary Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, aligning himself with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., exhorted Jews and non-Jews alike to take up Dr. King’s challenge to pursue “the positive peace which is the presence of justice” over “the negative peace which is the absence of tension.”
If we live up to the ideals of our faith, we can transform this moment of pain and fear into an opportunity for healing. Shortly after the graffiti was found at Walt Whitman, the Council on American-Islamic Relations issued a statement condemning antisemitism. Many other community leaders issued similar statements.
When we reciprocate the goodwill shown to us by other communities, and recognize and celebrate their place in our country, we live up to our highest ideals, even as we make ourselves unwelcome to bigots.
The writer is a great-grandson of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and the father of three in Maryland’s Montgomery County public school system.