Opinion |

Save the anti-Semitism Accusations for Real Jew-haters

Long a tool among the right to smother debate about Israel, now the left is using anti-Semitism to unfairly tar Trump and his allies.

David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg
At a protest near City Hall in Los Angeles on November 16, 2016 against president elect Donald Trump's appointment of Breitbart News head Stephen Bannon, to be chief strategist of the White House. The Breitbart website is seen by critics as a haven for white supremacists.
Seen at an anti-Bannon protest in LA, Nov. 26, 2016.Credit: David McNew, AFP
David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg

Donald Trump isn’t an anti-Semite and neither are Steven Bannon, Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. The fact that this is the subject of any public discussion at all is the poisonous product of identity politics and the internet.

Identity politics is supposed to create political blocs around racial, ethnic and religious affiliations that have been shortchanged by the system, and fight for their interests. But it inevitably morphs into an ideology with a narrative of victimization and a political program that seeks out enemies.

The best narrative is constructed of symbolic acts, which can rally the faithful far better than facts, and the internet is the tool of choice for building this narrative, being a seemingly endless treasure-trove of information that can find factoids to back up almost any and every prejudice.

If ye seek, ye shall find incidents of spray-painting or hurled insults. You will probably find any given public figure in the wrong company, at some point, or caught blurting something that can be construed as hateful. Social media gets the word out, and organizations fighting racism or sexism abet this phenomenon, too.

Jews aren’t the only ones who do this, but since our subject is the anti-Semitism canard, let’s see how it works there.

Annual audit of anti-Semitism

The Anti-Defamation League is a responsible organization, but the press release for its annual audit of anti-Semitism (“Anti-Semitic Assaults Rise Dramatically Across the Country in 2015”) is nothing less than alarmist.

Scroll down to the data and you discover that all anti-Semitic incidents in the United States were up just 3% last year to 941. Assaults grew by 55%, which seems dramatic, until you see that against an American Jewish population of 4.2 million there were only 56 cases.

Scroll down some more and you find that the assaults were mainly one-off incidents of people being called names and having eggs, paintballs and rocks thrown at them. Anti-Semitic yes, but evidence of rising anti-Semitism?.

Usually identity politics is the modus operandi of the left. In the Jewish world, it has been the property of the right, which has used it to hammer people and organizations it didn’t think were sufficiently friendly to Israel.

Being anti-Israel or anti-settlement doesn’t quite cut it as a weapon to hurl against your political opponents. But accuse them of being anti-Semitic and you conjure up images of pogroms or worse: Your opponent doesn’t just think settlements are a human rights violation, he actually hates you and your fellows Jews for who you are. End of debate, we have to fight back, no matter what we might think of settlements.

Anti-Bannon protest in Los Angeles, Nov. 16, 2016Credit: David McNew, AFP

Not exactly under the radar

It’s a pity now that the left in Israel and liberals in America are pulling out the same weapon. Donald Trump has made troubling statements about Mexicans and Muslims and hasn’t been especially fast and forthright in disavowing racists like David Duke who have endorsed him.

That is a good reason, along with many, many others, to dislike Trump and actively oppose his agenda. But to hate Trump because he’s anti-Semitic?

Trump has been a public figure for more than three decades and is a long-time figure in New York real estate, which is tantamount to a fourth major branch of Judaism (or is that anti-Semitic? I was quoted out of context -- my Jewish friends will vouch for me). Yet somehow his hatred of Jews failed to get noticed until he ran for president.

Now the weapon is now being aimed at Steven Bannon, Trump’s campaign chief and newly appointed strategic adviser, whose anti-Semitic record consists of two things: A headline that appeared in Breitbart News, the right-wing website he heads, that called Bill Kristol a “renegade Jew,” and Bannon’s ex-wife’s claim in divorce court that he refused to send their daughters to a certain school because there were too many “whiny” Jewish students there.

That is thin gruel for what must have been hundreds of man-hours trawling the internet.

Bannon and Breitbart have a lot of things to answer for, but anti-Semitism isn’t one of them. Tarring Bannon with it is meant to tar Trump by association and turn him into no-go territory for American Jews. This is a tried-and-true tactic of the right but should be disavowed by anyone who has an ounce of political sanity.

The essence of democratic politics is engagement with your opponents. Boycotting them is something you do on very rare occasions against the most odious people and movements. Trump and his West Wingnut aren’t one of them.

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