The anti-Semitism emergency
History teaches unequivocally that Jew hatred is evil and murderous. When we find it in our midst, we must stamp it out.
That we are living through an anti-Semitic moment can no longer be in doubt. On Saturday night, a man armed with a large knife attacked and stabbed five people at a rabbi's home in Monsey, New York. All of the victims survived — and the attacker's family said he suffered from mental illness — but it was the latest in a recent series of high-profile anti-Semitic attacks that have taken place in the region, including the deadly shootings earlier this month at a Jewish market in Jersey City. A spokesman for the Anti-Defamation League on Sunday called the series of attacks an "epidemic."
This is not just a New York problem. It has been little more than a year since an anti-immigration gunman attacked a synagogue in Pittsburgh, killing 11 people. And it is not just an American problem: Attacks on Jews are rising globally as well.
Again, this is evil. So how do Americans of good intent fight back?
We can start by recognizing that anti-Semitism knows no ideological bounds — it can be found on the left as well as the right. In America, Democrats and Republicans are excellent at identifying transgressions on the other side while making excuses for their own. Liberals rightly get angry when conservatives promote conspiracy theories featuring George Soros, but can equivocate when one of their own engages in "dual loyalty" tropes. This tendency against self-policing reduces anti-Semitism to a political football, a means of scoring points against one's rivals. If we're serious about fighting back against anti-Jewish forces in society, we need to consistently treat it as wrong because it is wrong — and not just when it proves convenient. "If you're not willing to confront the diversity of anti-Semitism, you're just not being serious," Benjamin Wittes wrote Sunday.
True enough. But we must also acknowledge the particular role President Trump and his allies have played in setting the table for this moment. Trump makes a great show of his loyalty to Israel's conservative government — Hungary's Viktor Orban follows a similar pattern — but he also promotes the "dual loyalty" myth by suggesting "good" American Jews owe him their vote because of his support for Bibi Netanyahu. He routinely dabbles in other anti-Semitic cliches before Jewish audiences.
Still, the president loudly declares his opposition to anti-Semitism, as he did once again on Sunday afternoon:
The anti-Semitic attack in Monsey, New York, on the 7th night of Hanukkah last night is horrific. We must all come together to fight, confront, and eradicate the evil scourge of anti-Semitism. Melania and I wish the victims a quick and full recovery.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 29, 2019
Why do such declarations ring so hollow? This isn't difficult. Even if the president's philo-Semitism were sincere, instead of plainly cynical, his main contribution to public life has been to renew the importance of racism and xenophobia in American politics and governance. He portrays Latino immigrants as murderers and rapists and breaks the Constitution to build a wall to keep them out; he has implemented a "Muslim ban" against immigration from some Middle Eastern countries; he has divided children from their families.
This is not obviously or particularly anti-Semitic, except for one more lesson drawn from history: Where racism rises, so too does the hatred of Jews. The two go hand-in-hand. As The Atlantic's David Frum noted back in July, "Jewish collective life in America has been built on the assumption that people who espouse any form of bigotry — whether against African Americans, or gays, or the disabled — will, sooner or later (and probably sooner!), also turn upon Jews."
Amazingly, the Trump administration's Israel stances prompted Frum to consider the possibility that this time might be different. "The Trump presidency seethes with hostility toward many different minority and subordinated groups. But Jews have been elevated to a special protected category," Frum wrote. He considered the possibility that the "old community of interest between American Jews and other minorities is dissolving."
This time isn't different, though. By the time Frum had written, the Pittsburgh shooter — angry that American Jews were helping immigrants come to this country — had already offered stark proof that racism and anti-Semitism go hand-in-hand. The events of recent weeks are only additional affirmation. You can't put the genie back in the bottle.
Trump's only route to retaining power is to divide us, particularly along ethnic lines. In doing so, he follows the example of authoritarian governments throughout the ages. As the late Tony Judt noted in his book, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, a government's brutal treatment of minorities often leads citizens to behave abominably towards each other. "If the ruling power behaved brutally and lawlessly to your neighbor — because he was a Jew, or a member of an educated elite or ethnic minority, or had found disfavor in the eyes of the regime or for no obvious reason at all — then why should you show any more respect for him yourself?" Judt asked.
We are in the midst of an emergency of racism and anti-Semitism. Lives are being injured and lost because of it. Americans from all walks of life — you and me, not just our leaders — will be judged by how we respond to this moment. It is time each of us chooses to repel and rebuke the hatreds blossoming among us.
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