Opinion

Why The New York Times Got the Fight Against anti-Semitism in America Wrong

Jonathan Weisman compares the reluctance of U.S. Jews to speak out against the hate crime to the European failure to prevent the Final Solution, which is wrong on many levels

Supporters of the Confederate flag participating in a rally at Stone Mountain Park in Georgia, 2016. It's the less obvious forms of anti-Semitism that are harder for politically divided U.S. Jews.
John Bazemore / AP

Jonathan Weisman of The New York Times is worried. Anti-Semitism spiked 57 percent in the United States last year, according to the Anti-Defamation League, and he just doesn’t understand why the American-Jewish community isn’t doing more to fight back.

In his hand-wringing news analysis titled “Anti-Semitism is Rising. Why Aren’t American Jews Speaking Up?” Weisman laments what he sees as the inability of Jews to “head off” the looming crisis.

In his eyes, American-Jewish leaders “have been remarkably quiet, focused instead, as they have been for decades, on Israel, not the brewing storm in our own country.”

The evidence he offers, however, is disappointingly thin. He points to a Jewish Ohio Republican state treasurer, Josh Mandel, who lambasted the ADL for releasing a report critical of controversial “alt-lite” figures Mike Cernovich – a purveyor of George Soros conspiracy theories – and Jack Posobiec, famed for popularizing the debunked Pizzagate conspiracy theory involving Hillary Clinton. From this, he concludes that the ADL “is an institution under attack – and it is not being defended,” while at the same time “nothing else has arisen to forcefully take a stand in the Jewish fight against bigotry.”

Rather offensively, he compares the reluctance of U.S. Jews to speak out to the European failure to prevent the Final Solution in World War II.

American Jews overly busy defending Israel need to switch gears and defend themselves for a change, he preaches. “If the vinyl banners proclaiming ‘Remember Darfur’ that once graced the front of synagogues could give way in a wave to ‘We Stand With Israel,’ why can’t they now en masse change to ‘We Stand Against Hate?’” he asks.

Weisman’s rallying cry is for the failing Jewish organizational world to “reconstitute itself,” for the ADL to “assert itself,” and for American Jews not to be “sheep” but “assert a voice in the public arena.”

Weisman’s article echoes the theme of his book that hits stores this week – “(((Semitism))): Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump” – which is billed as “taking to task the Jewish community in the United States for a single-minded obsession with Israel that blinded it to the threat inside its borders.”

Headstones toppled and damaged by vandals lie on the ground at Mount Carmel Cemetery in Philadelphia, February 27, 2017.
Jacqueline Larma/AP

I don’t know precisely what American-Jewish community Weisman is describing, but his generalizations bear little resemblance to the one I’ve been reporting on. It is certainly true that anti-Semitism has surged during the rise of Donald Trump. But the American Jews I’ve watched have been anything but sheeplike in their response.

The ADL’s press releases that flood reporters’ inboxes and their hyperactive Twitter feeds don’t reflect a group that has trouble asserting itself, or one that lacks support from mainstream Jewish organizations and many individual American Jews.

At the same time, a plethora of other organizations – from the massive Union for Reform Judaism, the Jewish Community Relations councils (the public outreach arms of the organization Weisman directly targets), the Jewish Federations of North America, and determined smaller groups like T’ruah and Bend the Arc – are also making themselves heard against racism in all its forms, and anti-Semitism in particular.

Individual American leaders, synagogues and organizations have been at the forefront of the Women’s March; active as Jews in the airport protests against the Muslim ban; and vocal in the outcry against the disturbing events in Charlottesville last summer and Trump’s reaction to them.

Weisman does at least mention the real problem that prevents an effective community-wide response to the rising anti-Semitism: partisanship.

In today’s charged environment, the American-Jewish community is often simply too divided to define what anti-Semitism is – making it impossible to combat it in a unified fashion. Nearly all Jews can call out an anti-Semite sporting a Nazi uniform or a Klan robe. But without such clear visual cues, anti-Semitism is too often in the eye of the beholder.

On the Jewish right, disturbing anti-Semitic dog-whistles are too often forgiven as long as the leaders pledge allegiance to Zionism and the Greater Land of Israel.

Perhaps the clearest example of such a forgiver: Morton Klein of the Zionist Organization of America, who hasn’t hesitated to laud Steve Bannon, Sebastian Gorka and others in the orbit of Trump.

In ZOA-world, “Good for Israel” is interchangeable with “Good for the Jews,” and politicians – regardless of dog-whistles and questionable supporters – merit a kosher stamp as long as they tick the boxes of supporting Israeli military aid, opposing the Iran nuclear deal, and applauding Trump’s declaration to recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital and move the U.S. Embassy, and refrain from criticizing any Israeli military action. Praise for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wins extra points.

Dare to criticize a Jewish right-winger’s tolerance for white nationalist rhetoric? Chances are the response will be a quick pivot to finger-pointing at the left and a lecture as to where the true anti-Semitic dangers lie – in dangerous Farrakhan-loving, anti-Israel radicals preaching boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel.

The Jewish left for its part is far from immune to this “whataboutism.” When confronted with the poisonous hatred contained in Louis Farrakhan’s recent Saviors’ Day speech and Women’s March co-leader Tamika Mallory’s affiliation with him, or the latest bizarre, anti-Semitic conspiracy theory espoused by a D.C. councilman, Jews on the left are quick to cry “Their anti-Semitism is worse than ours!”

They point out that while Farrakhan’s words are indeed inexcusable and dangerous, it is the hate of the powerless. Meanwhile, rightist anti-Semites and white supremacists are incredibly powerful at the moment: They have a friend in the White House, some proponents are running for GOP congressional seats, and they’re gaining strength in several European countries.

So no, American Jews have been anything but shy or hesitant about denouncing anti-Semitism. But they do it much more vehemently when the anti-Semitism exists in the opposing political camp.

Rallying behind any particular organization, as Weisman urges, isn’t really necessary. Neither is abandoning interest in or engagement with Israel.

It would be more helpful for American Jews to remove partisan blinders and improve their ability to see and denounce anti-Semites regardless of ideological or political orientation – recognizing that disturbing hatred of Jews exists in both mild and extreme forms on both sides of the partisan divide.