Responsible leadership means not politicizing anti-Semitism

Responsible leadership means not politicizing anti-Semitism

Ken Jacobson
Ken Jacobson

There’s a lot of talk these days coming from different quarters about how sad and dangerous it is that even a subject such as anti-Semitism has been politicized. It’s a good thing that people are standing up in protest, but in many cases, those raising awareness of the problem are themselves guilty of reinforcing the trend.

There are a number of characteristics of this politicization. But the two most significant by far are the idea that the problem of anti-Semitism is one only emanating from the other side, and the pattern of exaggerating or distorting the anti-Semitism of the other side.

To some on the left, there is either a denial of the very possibility of left-wing anti-Semitism or a level of omission of recognition and discussion of the sources of Jew hatred on the left that amounts to a denial in practice.

On the other hand, some on the right dismiss anti-Semitic violence from white supremacists as coming from a few crazies. They insist this violence has no connection to “dog whistles” or policies emanating from the mainstream right and doesn’t represent any broader trends or threats. Or, in discussing anti-Semitism, they only discuss the trends they perceive in the progressive world and Democratic Party while ignoring anti-Semitism among their supporters and from the far right.

Therefore, the number one piece of evidence that someone is serious when they criticize the politicization of anti-Semitism is the willingness to take on your own side, whether it’s your political party, your ideological compatriots, or the ethnic or religious group that you identify with.

Those on the left who condemn white supremacists or the surge of anti-Semitic, racist, and other bigoted tweets on social media, or the rhetoric of President Donald Trump in emboldening haters, are correct for doing so.

But they need as well to point to other manifestations coming from the progressive wing, including the increasingly critical focus on all-things-Israel, over and above all or virtually all other states, that moves at times into the demonization and delegitimization of the Jewish state — clear indicators of anti-Semitism — or the use of anti-Semitic tropes about the perception of nefarious Jewish power linked to money and capitalism.

There are those on the left who go so far as to argue that it is impossible to even refer to anti-Semitism coming from the left, particularly touching on the subject of Israel.

Those on the right are correct in pointing out the manifestations of left-wing anti-Semitism, whether related to Israel or perceptions of overarching Jewish influence.

Those, however, who talk about the anti-Israel left as the only or main source of anti-Semitism or seek denunciations of comments of Democratic House members but are reticent about the comments of their own party members and the violent anti-Jewish actions of white supremacists also are engaging in destructive politicization.

Trump’s infamous “there are very fine people on both sides” remark after the violent alt-right rally in Charlottesville, Va., played into this notion of not standing up when it is “our side” under scrutiny, even though there is little that conservatives should see about white supremacists as “our side” and nothing that is “fine” about such extremists.

At the same time, hyping and exaggerating situations that may be troubling but don’t rise to the level of anti-Semitism is the other major manifestation of the politicization process. Here again we see it coming from both sides of the political spectrum, but more seriously from the right.

Suggestions that the Democratic Party is institutionally anti-Semitic or unsupportive of Israel are a gross overstatement, as recent strong statements and actions to the contrary from all key leaders and many other members illustrate. At the same time, there are many on the right and beyond who are troubled by signs of erosion of support for Israel and for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian struggle within the Democratic Party and the progressive community. That is a legitimate concern and there is much work to be done on all sides to ensure that things don’t deteriorate.

But it cannot be said often enough: Criticism of Israel is not per se anti-Semitism unless it rises to the level of demonizing or delegitimizing the Jewish state or it leads to the use of anti-Semitic tropes. Those on the right who condemn examples of anti-Israel rhetoric coming from the left need to be careful not to automatically leap toward the anti-Semitism charge.   

The left suffers from this, too, at times when comments are made suggesting that Charlottesville simply represents the right in America or that the tragic synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh and Poway are directly incited by Donald Trump.

What is needed, therefore, is responsible leadership to agree on three things:

The importance of standing up and identifying anti-Semitism wherever it comes from.

The critical willingness to condemn anti-Semitism — particularly when it comes from those of similar political viewpoints.

And the commitment not to overstate or even misidentify anti-Semitism from the other side when one sees political opportunity from such stigmatization.

As anti-Semitism surges here and elsewhere, we all need to recommit to combat it, to stand together when it appears, and to avoid making it one more issue of political warfare.

The only victors when the subject of anti-Semitism becomes a political football are the anti-Semites themselves.

Ken Jacobson is deputy national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

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