The Right’s Antisemitism Problem—and the Left’s
One of the few points of agreement between the left and right is that hatred of Jews is acceptable political behavior. As alarming evidence of rising antisemitism gathers throughout the United States and Europe, mainstream media and political culture react with a collective yawn to a form of bigotry that doubles as a lethal conspiracy theory.
Leon Saltiel, a World Jewish Congress representative at the United Nations and grandchild of Holocaust survivors, recently wrote that as the world’s “oldest hatred,” antisemitism “exposes the failings in each society.” The United States certainly has its share of failings to expose. It is not a surprise that antisemitism is part of the combustible mix of authoritarian politics, anti-intellectualism, and the growing popularity of conspiracy theories, but it is disturbing that it comes from a variety of sources—and that it is rarely treated as a major problem.
The Anti-Defamation League reports that antisemitic incidents in the United States reached an all-time high in 2021. Attacks on Jewish community centers, synagogues, and other Jewish institutions increased by 61 percent over 2020, and antisemitic incidents at Jewish schools increased by 106 percent. Physical assaults against Jews jumped 167 percent.
Further documenting this pattern of antisemitic violence and hostility, the American Jewish Committee released its 2021 State of Antisemitism in America report just before the third anniversary of the massacre that took place at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. The AJC found that a quarter of American Jews reported having experienced antisemitism in 2021, and 40 percent changed their behavior to avoid bigoted harassment and confrontation—including 22 percent who said they had “refrained from wearing or displaying items that might reveal their Jewishness.”
But somehow, this trend of escalating hatred and violence against a historically persecuted religious and ethnic minority—one that accounts for 2.4 percent of the American public—does not rate as a public crisis. It is especially strange in light of the cultural predominance of ideals of inclusion and opposition to bigotry that have come to influence everything from political debate to pop culture coverage.
Examples of indifference to antisemitism abound. In June, rapper and Public Enemy–cofounder Chuck D received the new “Social Justice Honors Award” during Canadian Music Week. No public discussion of Chuck D’s history of antisemitic lyrics—including his song “Swindler’s Lust”—followed the announcement in May, and neither did anyone question his praise for influential antisemitic conspiracy theorist Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader who regularly rages against the power of “Satanic Jews” in speeches. (“[Public Enemy’s] whole story wouldn’t be what it was if we didn’t point to the minister’s work,” Chuck D said in an interview.)
Two months earlier, the New York Times, the New Yorker, and other leading literary and journalistic publications ran rapturous profiles of novelist Alice Walker, treating an antisemitic poem she wrote as an indecorous lapse, and soft-pedalling her unchallenged recommendation in the New York Times Book Review of a wildly antisemitic book by David Icke—a writer who cites the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in support of his theory that Jews are evil lizards in disguise. With the exception of Caitlin Flanagan’s excellent and indignant essay in the Atlantic, the mainstream press, even reliably liberal outlets, either avoided mentioning or treated with bizarrely deferential gentleness what Flanagan calls “Walker’s hateful ideas” about Jews. Flanagan adds that if a reader didn’t already know about Walker’s offensive beliefs, they would likely not gain any clearer idea of what they are from reading the New Yorker profile, which hand-waves them away.
David Baddiel, a British comedian and author, analyzes the Jewish exception to our age of inclusion in his 2021 polemic, Jews Don’t Count. With the intention of convincing the left to recognize its gigantic blind spot, Baddiel writes that “the progressive consensus has failed, in a time of deep intensification of concern about discrimination faced by minorities in general, to apply that concern to Jews.” There is an active rejection, Baddiel observes, of the idea that antisemitism is racism, or at least “an underlying sense that it is not real racism.”
The exclusion of Jews from normal considerations about racism is one step away from a common and pernicious misperception—one that Baddiel identifies as providing scaffolding for antisemitism and its enablement: the tired but persistent canard that Jews are disproportionately powerful and, in contemporary parlance, “privileged.” As Baddiel is quick to note, that leaves us one more step away from insidious speculations about Jewish cabals controlling the world.
With eloquence and tight logic, Jews Don’t Count confronts progressive indifference to antisemitism. Unfortunately, there are indicators that, in some circles, the indifference is morphing into outright prejudice.
The Midwest chapter of the ADL recently issued a report on antisemitic incidents taking place on college campuses throughout the region. In April of this year, at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, a group of students disrupted a Passover celebration with an anti-Israel protest, which culminated in a protester throwing an object at the Hillel building. At the University of Chicago, in November 2021 Students for Justice in Palestine published a zine on Instagram that depicted Jews as emoji-style pigs, including one with dollar signs instead of eyes. These are two examples of antisemitic episodes noted in the ADL report that have taken place on university grounds in the Midwest just within the past year.
There are many important and legitimate criticisms to be made regarding Israeli policy toward Palestinians. Parts of the left, however, have stopped making sensible denunciations of Israeli government or military policy, and have instead descended into hostility toward all things Jewish. In the past few years, two LGBTQ Pride parades—one in Washington, D.C. in 2019, and the other in Chicago in 2017—prohibited rainbow flags featuring the Star of David.
More recently, politicians from across the political spectrum, including liberal Massachusetts Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey and conservative New York Rep. Lee Zeldin, condemned the “mapping project,” an initiative of the Boston chapter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. The project provided the addresses of Jewish community centers, schools, and foundations along with Jewish-owned businesses, claiming—without evidence—that they belong to a network of “institutional support for the colonization of Palestine.” As reported in the Forward last month, the FBI launched an investigation of the “mapping project” out of concern that it could promote hate crimes and acts of terrorism.
Even if targeted violence were to be perpetrated as a result of the project, it’s not clear what stance major media outlets might assume in their coverage. As Dara Horn writes in her collection of essays on antisemitism, People Love Dead Jews, many newspapers and television networks go through a tortured exercise to “contextualize” antisemitic attacks in ways that can feel like implicit justifications for the violence. For example, in 2019, two assailants murdered a Jewish truck driver in Jersey City and a week later attacked a kosher grocery store where they claimed the lives of three people; coverage of the killings gave “surprising emphasis to the murdered Jews as ‘gentrifying’ a ‘minority’ neighborhood.” To cite one of Horn’s many examples: Although the alleged perpetrators did not even live in Jersey City, the Washington Post’s story on the hate crime detailed how “the influx of Hasidic residents comes as many of the longtime black residents feel increasingly squeezed.”
Horn cogently states the obvious when asking why the press did not similarly “contextualize” the massacre of LGBTQ Americans in an Orlando, Florida gay bar, or the massacre of Latino shoppers in an El Paso Walmart. Providing this kind of “context” for those acts of violence “would be bonkers,” Horn writes. “It would be hateful victim-blaming, the equivalent of analyzing the flattering selfies of a rape victim in lurid detail in order to provide ‘context’ for a sexual assault.”
If, as Baddiel writes, the “progressive consensus has failed”—and continues to fail—to show solidarity with Jews, the left will have no credibility when it excoriates the American right for often ignoring, or outright amplifying, antisemitism. Donald Trump was popular among Israelis, in part because of his decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. But he also articulated antisemitic tropes on multiple occasions. He told a room full of Jewish voters that they control politicians with money, claimed that Israel once “ran Congress,” and most repulsively, asserted that the Charlottesville neo-Nazi rallygoers chanting “Jews Will Not Replace Us” included “very fine people.”
The “Great Replacement Theory” of Charlottesville infamy has now gone mainstream, with Tucker Carlson and several Republican members of Congress, including Matt Gaetz, Lauren Boebert, and Marjorie Taylor Greene, brazenly arguing that it is true. Greene even spoke at a conference organized by Nick Fuentes, a white supremacist and Holocaust denier who believes that Jews are “not part of Western civilization.” Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) also addressed the conference.
Not all right-wing officials and propagandists are as shameless as Gosar, Greene, and Carlson. Many of them have adopted the sneaky code language of antisemitic conspiracy theories, regularly decrying the influence of “globalists,” even in advertisements with images of Jewish bankers and politicians. It is a favorite hobby of right-wing commentators to bemoan the pervasive agenda of the comprehensive bogeyman, George Soros. The right wing blames the Jewish investor and philanthropist, and other “globalists” like him, for just about every imaginable problem: street crime in Chicago, illegal immigration, the riots of 2020—the list goes on. . .
According to a Public Religion Research Institute analysis based on 2021 surveys, 25 percent of Republicans said last year that they believed the central claims of the QAnon conspiracy theory, which posits that a Satanic, global elite of pedophiles and sex traffickers controls the U.S. government. “If there is a single thread,” says an ADL report on QAnon, linking its “origins, its current state, and where the conspiracy theory is likely to go in the short- to medium-term, it’s antisemitism.” One of QAnon’s most popular influencers, “GhostEzra,” is a self-identified Nazi, and polling data shows that half of QAnon adherents harbor antisemitic beliefs. It is little wonder that Gregory Stanton, the founder of Genocide Watch, warned in 2020 that “QAnon’s conspiracy theory is a rebranded version of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”
Several years ago, Ben Tanzer, a Jewish author, told me what he consistently finds is the cultural message to Jews: “You aren’t part of the American experiment.” Since that conversation, forces on the left and right have tried to prove him correct.
As the hate crime numbers from the ADL and the survey from the American Jewish Committee make clear, antisemitism, no matter its source or iteration, is not benign. It manifests in violence, and is incompatible with democracy. Because it is not merely a type of bias, but a conspiracy theory about the world’s international relations, finances, and governments, it is antithetical to free inquiry, rationality, and liberal democracy itself. Compounding the problem is the ignorance of younger generations: According to a 2020 poll, almost two-thirds of millennials and members of Generation Z are unaware that six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. Nearly half cannot name a Nazi concentration camp.
There is no limit to how far antisemitism might go if “never forget” devolves into “don’t know, don’t care.” But to remember rightly, we have to see the problem rightly—as neither the far left nor the far right seems inclined to do today.