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When the term antisemitism is cheapened by false usage on the right, it gives cover to the real antisemites

Hatred of Jews terrifies me. So do false accusations of antisemitism.
 
by Aaron Freedman

On 27 June 1941, the Nazis marched into the Polish city of Bialystok. In this once vibrant, cosmopolitan city where Jews had made up two-thirds of the residents, German troops went door to door, pulling Jews into the streets. The lucky ones were shot. Much of the rest – including my great-great-grandparents, their children and their grandchildren – were packed into the Great Synagogue.

The doors were locked. Grenades were tossed into the building. And then, my family was burnt alive.

For years I had almost forgotten this story. But last fall it came violently into my mind, as I read the reports of a shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. It has haunted me ever since, though most intensely since the synagogue shooting in Poway, California, last month. And all of a sudden, I am feeling something that I never could have imagined before: the same antisemitism that so horrifically massacred my family, rendered them as less than human, was alive in America.

So when the influential conservative commentator and publisher of the Federalist, Ben Domenech, tweeted last week that late-night host Seth Meyers was an antisemite, it should have carried all the grave seriousness of these past few months.

Instead, Domenech’s ire was provoked by … Meyers asking some tough questions of his guest, political commentator Meghan McCain. Who’s not even Jewish. Who’s Domenech’s wife.

It’s easy to dismiss Domenech’s since-deleted tweets as the ridiculous product of one hot-headed husband. Unfortunately, they’re not. For while rightwing violence against Jews has been on the rise in the US, conservative and centrist commentators have increasingly used the label of “antisemitism” for everything but.

As someone who is intimately familiar with the dehumanizing violence that antisemitism entails, it is not only offensive to see the term cheapened by false usage on the right: it terrifies me for that cover it gives to the real antisemites who want to see me dead.

The roots of this disconnect between media discourse on antisemitism and the reality of Jew-hatred go back years. In the 1990s, white supremacists became increasingly reliant on antisemitism – using Jews as a scapegoat for the success of the civil rights, women’s rights and LGBT rights movements. Sometimes, their hateful ideology inspired violence and bloodshed, as happened in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

Meanwhile, right-leaning academic and cultural circles began to coin a new term: “new antisemitism”. But it wasn’t to describe the resurgence of far-right Jew hatred. Rather, it was flung at a burgeoning movement in the US and UK to hold Israel responsible for the apartheid it was perpetuating in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. Anti-Zionism became conflated with antisemitism, and by the 2000s and the effective collapse of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, the narrative was pervasive. It was in that context that I was branded a “self-hating Jew” at my Jewish day school for supporting the liberal Zionist group J Street.

Over the past decade, this obsession with anti-Zionism being antisemitism took over even ostensibly liberal outlets like the the New York Times and the Atlantic, which devoted far more column inches to pro-Palestinian college students than the budding online communities of the alt-right. The “new antisemitism” gained influence at the expense of investigating – and stopping – the real antisemitism.

The cost of this misdirected interest was made clear in Donald Trump’s election following a campaign of racist dog whistling. As the violent neo-Nazi protesters in Charlottesville made clear, antisemitism was very much alive in the US – just that it wasn’t activists with the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement who were shouting “Jews will not replace us.”

The Pittsburgh shooting, committed by an avowed white supremacist, should have woken the country up. Instead, the opposite happened: pundits doubled down on calling everyone except those responsible “antsemites”. First it was academic Marc Lamont Hill, who was fired by CNN for espousing a position that Jews have held for longer than the state of Israel: there should be one, democratic, multiethnic state between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.

Next was Representative Ilhan Omar, whose innocuous critiques of the pro-Israel lobbying group Aipac led to a campaign of character assassination – and now, literal assassination attempts – based on her alleged antisemitism. And it didn’t stop there: pundits like Meghan McCain, who is not Jewish, even went so far as to compare Omar to neo-Nazis in Charlottesville.

Then, last week, Stanford University Republicans accused the Jewish comic artist Eli Valley of antisemitism. His crime? He had drawn a caricature of conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, mocking his anti-immigrant rhetoric. Though he embodies a Jewish tradition of internal debate and fiery critique going back to the rabbis of the Talmud, Valley was branded an antisemite by the New York Times columnist Bari Weiss. She is coming out with a hotly anticipated book on antisemitism this year.

But Monday the absurdity reached a fever pitch, with Trump and Republicans slamming Representative Rashida Tlaib as an antisemite for praising Palestine’s welcoming of Jewish refugees after the Holocaust. Teeming with Islamophobia, these charges are so delusional that they border on the surreal.

This recent history shows a vicious cycle: as antisemitic violence on the right gets ever more dangerous, false accusations of antisemitism are weaponized by the right as political cover. And as this slander is repeated more and more, it comes to take over our popular definition of antisemitism, therefore making it harder to recognize, call out and stop the real thing.

When Trump said of Charlottesville there were “very fine people on both sides”, he was rightly condemned by all but his diehard supporters for a dangerous false equivalence between Nazis and anti-Nazis. Yet when critics of Israel (especially those who are women and people of color) are equated with mass murderers, polite society nods its head in agreement.

At best, this is a grave misjudgment. At worst, it is complicity in a rightwing project of ethnic cleansing.

So what is to be done?

Above all, mainstream news outlets need to give greater attention to the diversity of Jewish voices on antisemitism. Right now the most prominent commentators on antisemitism are either avowed conservatives like the New York Times’ Bret Stephens, alt-right darlings like Ben Shapiro or establishment Zionists like Jonathan Greenblatt. Even those occasionally brought in to represent the Jewish “left” have been complicit: the Forward’s Batya Ungar-Sargon, who herself helped start the slander against Ilhan Omar, has now become a regular TV and radio commentator on antisemitism (just this weekend she met widespread condemnation for calling Pete Buttigieg’s critique of Republican billionaire Sheldon Adelson “an antisemitic dogwhistle”).

But a younger generation of American Jews is increasingly critical of Israel, and more fervently progressive than those before us. Groups like Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ), IfNotNow, and the Democratic Socialists of America’s Jewish Solidarity Caucus, with their vision of a Judaism grounded in social justice and solidarity with other oppressed groups, are well suited to take on white supremacists like the Poway shooter, who attacked a mosque before the synagogue. Ben Shapiro, whose Twitter feed was frequently visited by the Quebec mosque shooter? Not so much.

Now, more than ever, we need the powerful, historically grounded critique of antisemitism – and path for fighting it – that groups like these provide. Only in attacking antisemitism as part-and-parcel of white supremacy will it be defeated. That is something that my martyred ancestors will never let me forget. The rest of us cannot either.

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