Are we missing the anti-Semitism trees for the Israel forest?

Are we missing the anti-Semitism trees for the Israel forest?

Jonathan Weisman has stirred controversy with his new book, “(((Semitism))): Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump” (St. Martin’s Press). The deputy Washington editor of The New York Times, Weisman’s thesis is that the organized American Jewish community has become so obsessed with Israel that it has failed to recognize the obvious and ominous rise of virulent domestic anti-Semitism on the far right. It is an anti-Semitism, he argues, that is spread virally, through the internet and social media, and fueled by irresponsible statements and actions of President Donald Trump and members of his administration. 

The only exception to the alleged widespread complacency of American Jewish organizations, according to Weisman, is the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). 

It’s not just anti-Semitism that is growing, he maintains, but also hatred toward Muslims, immigrants, minorities, the LGBTQ community — anyone who is not part of white nationalist America.  

Weisman’s book has received heightened attention as it comes on the heels of ADL’s annual report, released at the end of February, which showed a dramatic increase in the number of anti-Semitic incidents. On the national level, there was a 57 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents in 2017 compared to the previous year; and a 32 percent jump in New Jersey, which had 208 reported incidents in 2017, the third most in the nation. 

Efforts to counter anti-Semitism in New Jersey have certainly ramped up. The extensive work of ADL, American Jewish Committee (AJC), Jewish Community Relations Councils, and local federations; the N.J. State Association of Jewish Federations; and others fighting anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry — often in coalition with intergroup and interfaith partners — have been amply reported in recent years on the pages of this newspaper. All this is to say that I don’t accept Weisman’s premise that American Jewish organizations are asleep at the switch. 

In a March New York Times essay, “Missing in the Fight against Anti-Semitism,” Weisman singles out the AJC and The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) for being “remarkably quiet, focused instead, as they have been for decades, on Israel, not the brewing storm in our own country.”  

AJC’s senior associate executive director, Daniel Elbaum, quickly shot off a letter to the Times asserting that the fight against anti-Semitism has always been a core mission of his agency, and “many of our domestic coalition building efforts — with the Muslim, African-American and Latino communities in particular — are premised on joint advocacy to defeat nativist nationalism.”  

William Daroff, senior vice president for public policy of JFNA and director of its Washington office, also sent a letter to the Times challenging Weisman’s assertion. While Israel advocacy long has been a central activity of the organized American Jewish community, I believe that in the last 15 years or so much more emphasis has been placed on combating anti-Semitism here and abroad. As Daroff pointed out in his letter, this enhanced activity has taken the form of the Secure Community Network initiative that provides the community with tools to protect itself against violent attacks, joint efforts with Hillels to address campus-based anti-Semitism, and the building of bridges with civil society leaders, as well as local, state, and federal elected officials. 

That said, he does, legitimately, point to a classic dilemma these organizations face: how best to calibrate a response to hate groups. In the chapter, “Toward a Collective Response,” Weisman asks, “How should displays of solidarity be handled in ways that do not give megaphones to the bigots and the haters?” This is a pivotal question. Rather than reacting in a kneejerk fashion, Jewish organizations would be better served by thinking and acting strategically. There are times that vigorous public response is appropriate, and others that call for a more discreet approach. And there are also times when ignoring expressions of hatred and bigotry may be the most prudent course of action. 

A large portion of Weisman’s book is devoted to cyberhate, i.e., the abuse of social media to spread toxic messages. The First Amendment, which protects the most odious expressions of bigotry, coupled with a largely unregulated internet, make this a very difficult issue to address, though the ADL and others are working hard to develop effective countermeasures that comport with constitutional protections of free speech. To its credit, Rutgers University sponsored an all-day symposium on March 27 exploring the delicate balance between protecting people from bigotry and preserving the right to free speech, “Fighting Hate While Preserving Freedom.”  

Still, Weisman believes that Jewish organizations have been too reluctant to confront Trump, whom he accuses of using the alt-right as his “shock troops.” I reject Weisman’s opinion here, as well — did any of our major public affairs organizations fail to call the president out for his disgraceful behavior during and after the fiasco in Charlottesville, Va., last summer? 

Also, while these mostly not-for-profit organizations are permitted to express their opinions on issues, they are required by law to refrain from political partisanship, lest they lose their tax-exempt status. Often that line is not easily discernable. Moreover, the overwhelming majority of Trump supporters are not, in fact, bigots, and these organizations must take great care to avoid the perception that criticism of the president is, by association, a criticism of his supporters. 

Weisman has been attacked for focusing only on the far-right, white supremacist version of anti-Semitism and downplaying anti-Semitism on the far-left, usually expressed as the delegitimization of Israel and vilification of its supporters. Once again, we see arguments about which anti-Semitism is more dangerous. At the recent Global Forum on Combating Anti-Semitism in Jerusalem, for example, U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman warned that the new anti-Semitism of the political left, what he described as “the irrational, deceitful, and insidious vilification of Israel and its supporters under the guise of political commentary,” is more worrisome to him. 

There is merit to some of Weisman’s arguments. If his intention was to write a book that comprehensively looks at anti-Semitism in all its forms, then I agree with his critics — he fell short. But if his purpose was to shine a particularly bright light on the alt-right and Trump, his efforts were successful. And unlike Friedman, I think there is little value in debating which anti-Semitism is worse. This most ancient baseless hatred has several different looks, each of which requires a carefully tailored response.

I do worry that disagreements over strategies and tactics may obscure the broad areas of agreement the Jewish community has about tackling the challenge of anti-Semitism, and I’m concerned that we haven’t come to grips with the harm being done through the vast reaches of cyberspace. 

But I pay no mind to accusations of Jewish organizational complacency in the face of this danger. Given our people’s history of persecution, hyper-sensitivity to anti-Semitism in its various forms is, and should be, hardwired into our DNA.

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