The elephant lost in the ‘Left-Right’ discussions over antisemitism

There shouldn’t be any antisemitism in Europe and the US, first of all. The standard should be zero.

Elephants. Illustrative. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Elephants. Illustrative.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
 I recently read a review of a new book about antisemitism that illustrates one of the main problems with the way we speak about hatred of Jews. The review criticized the book for portraying antisemitism on the “Left” and “Right” as a similar threat, while the author of the review argued we should take more seriously violent antisemitic attacks from the far Right.
This is emblematic of the hijacking of the antisemitism discussion by politics. We start from asking “who is hating?” and then we end by debating which type of hatred is “worse” or “more dangerous.” This discussion upends the problem and twists it around to become a political issue. This is unfortunate because when someone murders Jews in a Paris deli, or spray-paints a swastika on a cemetery in the Netherlands, or beats an elderly Jewish man with a stone in Brooklyn, it doesn’t matter if they self-identify as “right” or “left,” and it’s unlikely that we can tease out exactly what political ideology motivated them.
A second discussion I saw on social media is educational: The author of a post said we need to focus on the “real” antisemitism, and not get out our “pitchforks” over every antisemitic incident. “If the Jews keep playing the who’s-the-biggest-antisemite game we will be like the boy who cried wolf and nobody will care when the real antisemites show up,” a writer noted. Loyalty to political party came first, and opposing racism had to be sacrificed for the larger political goal. We hear that too often in 2019.
Another failure to understand the elephant in the room is the discussions that seek to divide antisemitism into multiple categories to downplay some of them. They try to categorize each “type” of attack and incident. So one discussion mentions “tensions” between Black and Jewish communities in Brooklyn that “erupted into violence against the neighborhood’s Jews.”
It talks about the “motivations” of antisemitism. The conversation next examines how American Jews are concerned about perpetrators who shot up synagogues, and concludes that it’s strange to conflate the two, because clearly gun attacks on synagogues are worse.
An article, for instance, compares Jews feeling uncomfortable expressing their Judaism on campus with Stars of David being banned from a protest march and with the “rise of the alt-right.” We are asked to look at a spectrum of incidents, such as a DC city councilman claiming Jews control the weather, in “proportion” to one another. We are told that the problem with discussing antisemitism is that we don’t focus enough on some aspect of it, and that we dwell on other aspects such as the Women’s March being linked to supporters of Louis Farrakhan. We should focus on the “real” dangerous antisemitism, and not as much on the rest, is the message.
This doesn’t make sense. Let’s replace Jews in any of these discussions with another group that suffers racism, such as black people, and then let’s have this bizarre discussion about trying to figure out “which type of racism is worse.” There isn’t a “worse” racism, there is just racism. Either you’re racist or not. We don’t need to compare which swastika is worse, the one that appears in a chat room on the “dark web” or the one drawn on a synagogue in Massachusetts.
Why is there a discussion about which is more “dangerous,” as if we have to choose between living in one type of fascist regime or another? This isn’t a zero-sum world where we have to choose between Hitler and Stalin. It isn’t the 1920s or 1950s. It’s 2019. We’re often talking about Western democracies that have spent five decades trying to eradicate racism and antisemitism.
There shouldn’t be any antisemitism in Europe and the US, first of all. The standard should be zero. Zero hate crimes. Zero swastikas. Zero attacks on elderly religious Jewish men. Zero denial of the Holocaust.
For some reason we are being asked to choose the lesser of several evils and also to divide everything into nice little groups. But things are not so easily divided. The hatred that inspired the Dreyfus Affair and the hatred that inspired pogroms in the Middle East or Ukraine are essentially the same. It’s not true that the conspiracies of the DC councilman who believed Jews control the weather are really “different” from the antisemitism found in Hamas beliefs or in czarist Russia. They are remarkably the same. The idea that we need to focus first on violent antisemitism or what “radicalizes” the “alt-right” is a bit odd, as though we don’t have the resources to stop all of it.
The real problem is that antisemitic racists have won in a sense by getting Jews to debate among themselves about whether the “Left” or “Right” is “worse.” Why do we have to discuss whether antisemitism is worse among “right-wing Christians” or “the Labour Party in the UK”? In both camps the answer should be “there should be no hatred of Jews.” It’s a bit strange because no one does this balancing act with other types of racism. No one suggests that we should focus only on one type of anti-black racism. When you start excusing racism among some people simply because you identify with them politically, it means you are always willing to sacrifice your basic values for short-term political gain. That’s not a recipe for ending racism or antisemitism, it is a recipe for giving it a stamp of approval on both sides of the political spectrum, while each party tells the victims that the other side is worse.
The real question should be: Why is there any racism on campuses or in the Labour Party? That so many ostensibly left or liberal or progressive spaces have become anti-Jewish is testament to the fact that they are not in touch with mainstream left, liberal or progressive values.
The idea that we need to separate the antisemitism found among some historically Marxist circles with those in the fascist circles is mistaken. They are the same. While it may be an interesting academic discussion to look at the way Jews were “othered” during the Catholic Inquisition or expulsion of 1492 and during the persecution of Jews like Maimonides under the Almohad Muslim dynasty, the nature of the hatred and persecution is remarkably similar. Jews, a minority group, were targeted. Is the massacre of Jews in Hebron in 1929 so different from the one by the Crusaders? Is it so different that in some Islamic countries they forced Jews to pay a special dehumanizing tax, and that in some European cities Jews had to enter through a gate reserved for dung and swine? It’s always the same. Hatred of minorities, persecution, and the boot of intolerant religious fascism is always the same.
To try to tease out some coexistence from either era is also the same, trying to claim that Jews coexisted in 1920s Germany or in the Golden Age of Spain. Yeah, maybe they did. And then their neighbors murdered them one day. Because they were Jews. Because intolerance throughout history is often similar.
The racists say that their enemies control the weather, the banks, the slave trade, the police. It’s always the same story when it comes to hatred, and specifically hatred of Jews. There is no special “right wing” or “left” or “Muslim” antisemitism. They are all related. The man who shot up the kosher deli in Paris is the same as the Pittsburgh gunman.
At the basis of the “which is worse?” discussion is a quiet argument that says “we should live with it and accept it.” What the whispers mean is that violent attacks are somehow worse than just daily comments or graffiti. We are told to “focus” on the violence.
But we should be demanding zero tolerance. We’ve had generations in most Western countries that were educated not to be hateful. There is no excuse for antisemitism today, just as there is no tolerance for the n-word being used against black people. We don’t say that only antiblack violence is the real problem. We know that violence stems from a culture of racism; it’s the tip of the iceberg.
You have to tackle the whole iceberg to rid most of society of racism, by having a zero-tolerance approach. No jokes. No graffiti. No violence. Nothing. Anyone who talks about “Rothschild control” is an antisemite and racist. It’s not a question of if they are in Gaza or Moscow or Detroit. It’s the same, and they draw from the same anti-Jewish conspiracies online.
We need to stop being dragged into this discussions about “which is worse” or these excuses about “black antisemitism and white antisemitism” or “alt-right and Muslim antisemitism.” It’s not a competition to see which is “more dangerous.” It is a shame that, especially on the Left, we are being told to ignore the “left-wing antisemitism” because the “Right is more dangerous.” No. When people tell you to ignore one kind of antisemitism, they are telling you to accept it.
Call it what it is. Don’t let it weasel out by playing the “left/right” card of confusion. There is no acceptable racism, no acceptable level of hatred of Jews. And when Jews are asked to tolerate one type of hatred to make another type a priority, it is because they are being lied to in order to whitewash and make one type of hatred tolerable.
After decades of educating people about antisemitic tropes and statements and mostly banishing it to the margins, there is now a competition to see which side can make it kosher under the guise of political necessity. “We need to accept some antisemitism on our side to defeat the other,” we are told. We are also being told there is so much hatred of Jews that we have to order it in terms of priorities.
The real elephant in the room, then, is how societies that had banished this hatred have been nurturing it again.
Follow the author @Sfrantzman