Over the last couple of years, as Benjamin Netanyahu has intensified his ongoing love-fest with like-minded populist and racist-nationalist leaders across the globe, I’ve been having the same conversation, over and over with Netanyahu’s supporters, both Israelis and Diaspora Jews.
Their excuses are always the same. How can you say he has anything against Jews when he has Jewish relatives and advisors, when he gives money to Jewish heritage projects, when he is so pro-Israel? The real anti-Semites are on the left. Why don’t you go after BDS-supporting George Soros?
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There’s barely a moment’s hesitation. Then comes a tirade about "self-hating Jews" who have their priorities all screwed up and can’t bring themselves to support the Jewish state. And besides, they say, not all Jews think that. There are plenty of Jews in those countries supporting their leader.
This week, as some American Jews on the left were falling over themselves to defend Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, who had repeatedly alluded to the anti-Semitic themes of Jewish power, Jewish money, Jewish allegiance to foreign countries, it struck me how identical their excuses are to the apologists for Trump and Orban.
How can you say that a progressive woman of color is an anti-Semite? they demand. She is the one facing and fighting racism. You're just trying to shut down debate on Israel. And we, as Jews, who support her, are the living proof she's no anti-Semite. Why don’t you go after all the racists in the Republican Party and the White House?
Towards other Jews who clearly heard Omar’s dog-whistling, they have nothing but scorn: It’s Zionists like you who have screwed-up priorities and are piling on this brave voice.
So many Jews, on the right and the left, have totally destroyed their own credibility to call out racism and anti-Semitism in such a short time. It is an ugly moment in our people’s history when basic solidarity between Jews has been eroded by partisan politics.
Similar debates raged between Jews in the 1950s and 1960s over the actions, and the silence, of Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust and whether the post-war "New Germany" should be held responsible, but the sides were not necessarily divided back then on party political lines.
There is one interesting difference in the line of reasoning used by the right-wing apologists for Judeophobia. Towards the end of the argument, many of them will admit, sotto voce, that perhaps the said leader is a bit of an anti-Semite, but if dealing with him is necessary for enhancing Israel’s security, then so be it.
A left-winger will sometimes say, obliquely, that anti-Semitism is not a burning issue and there are for worse social injustices and forms of racism which need fighting. But they won’t actually admit that they are basically prepared to overlook their allies’ antipathy towards Jews in the interests of building a socialist paradise.
On a moral level, I’m not sure what is worse: the cynicism of the right, who are willing to excuse racism, or the dogmatic blindness of the left, refusing to acknowledge it exists. The right have a concrete purpose, safeguarding the Jewish state. The left has its ideological and historic claim to be the "anti-racist" camp.
But both are very shoddy arguments.
Alliances of convenience between Israel and less than democratic regimes may sometimes be necessary. Even the best of democracies have relations with despots. But volunteering to put a kashrut stamp on the historical records and current politics of these regimes does not have to be part of the package.
On the other hand, Jews on the left have done their share of whitewashing. Plenty of them were willing to turn a blind eye in the 1950s to the show-trials of Jews in the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia, to the way Marxist theorists and historians created the Zionism-equals-Nazism comparison, and to the purge of Jews from public life in Communist Poland in the 1960s. We see it today in the small hardcore of Jewish left-wingers still eager to excuse Jeremy Corbyn’s transformation of Britain’s Labour in to an institutionally anti-Semitic party.
Then, as now, neither side has a monopoly on hypocrisy.
Today, the apologists on the left tell us we have no right to point out the racist flaws of progressive politicians of color, as the power is on our side. Indeed, we Jews are now powerful and privileged. So it’s legitimate, so their argument goes, to use those terms to describe Jewish money and Jewish manipulation.
They sound so like the ultra-nationalist Chabad rabbi who explained to me in Budapest that there is absolutely nothing wrong with the Orban government today. He using the exact hateful terms once used against Jews to describe the "threat" of Muslim immigrants. Because, "now it’s not against us, and anyway the Arabs are our enemies as well."
It doesn’t matter where you fall on the political spectrum. Once you are willing, in the interests of ideology and political expediency, to overlook racism on your own side, to excuse anti-Semites, to accept a false hierarchy of grievances, and to forsake solidarity with some minority groups - even your own, because, for now, they may seem less vulnerable, you have lost all credibility to call out the other side.