NEW YORK – The most worrying thing in America today is neither bigotry nor hatred but the silence around it, Sen. Cory Booker (Democrat of New Jersey) told the Anti-Defamation League’s “Never is Now” anti-Semitism summit on Monday.
The 2020 presidential hopeful was quoting Rabbi Joachim Prinz, who spoke immediately before his hero, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., at 1963’s March on Washington.
Before King delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech, Prinz spoke about witnessing the devastation faced by Germany’s Jewish community under Nazi rule. He had served as a rabbi in Berlin before escaping to America and settling in Newark, New Jersey – the same city Booker led as mayor for seven years before being elected to the Senate in 2013.
Civil rights activist Prinz had said he learned in Germany that “bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.”
Booker compared that to anti-Semitism in the United States today. The senator warned that “we’re a nation that can’t allow our highest ideal to be tolerance. … Love says ‘I see you, I see your dignity and worth, that we have a common destiny,’” he said.
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“If you love someone, you cannot be a bystander but must be actively engaged in ensuring human dignity for all people. It’s not enough to say ‘I’m not racist.’ You must be actively anti-racist. You must be actively anti-anti-Semitism,” he said to enthusiastic applause.
The focus of Monday’s conference, attended by some 1,300 people, was the ways in which expressions of anti-Semitism in America are changing. This includes growing anti-Semitism from the political left and an ironic form of Zionist support from some avowed anti-Semites.
“Anti-Semitism is becoming normalized,” said ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt in his opening remarks. “This past year, we saw a record number of explicit and unapologetic extremists and bigots running on the ballot in campaigns at all levels. And we have seen a shocking surge of anti-Semitism on campus, with most university administrations pathetically slow and fecklessly stumbling in their responses.
“While anti-Semitic incidents generally had been declining for more than a decade until 2016,” he continued, “last year we saw the largest single-year increase since ADL initiated our annual audit 40 years ago. Regardless of what some might say, this is a plain fact,” he said, alluding to a comment by Israel’s Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett last month, in which he publicly doubted the validity of the ADL’s report into anti-Semitic incidents in 2017.
Apple CEO Tim Cook was awarded the ADL’s inaugural Courage Against Hate award at the conference. Apple “was the first company to remove Alex Jones’ hateful anti-government conspiratorial rants from their platforms; other tech companies followed their lead,” said Greenblatt, referring to Jones’ Infowars channel, as he introduced the tech leader.
Cook himself quoted Leviticus 19:16: “Do not be indifferent to the bloodshed of your fellow man” – first saying the quote in Hebrew (“Lo ta’amod al dam re’eikha”). “It is a teaching found in Judaism, but also in every religion,” Cook said. “Do not be indifferent. This mandate moves us to speak up for immigrants, for those who seek opportunity in the United States. Not just because we value their ingenuity, but because our own humanity commands us to welcome those who need welcome,” he said.
We need to “not be bystanders as hate tries to make its headquarters in the digital world,” Cook continued. “At Apple, we believe technology needs to have a clear point of view. This is no time to get tied up in knots. We only have one message for those who seek to push hate, division or violence: You have no place on our platforms,” he said, to loud applause. “The most sacred thing each of us is given is our judgment. Our morality. Our own innate desire to separate right from wrong. Choosing to set that aside at a moment of trial is a sin.
“I worry less about computers that think like people and more about people that think like computers – without values or compassion or concern about consequences,” he concluded.
Bluewashing, the alt-right and 'termites'
The challenge of addressing anti-Semitism was the focus of most of the day’s sessions.
New York Times op-ed columnist Bret Stephens, Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt and Forward Editor-in-Chief Jane Eisner were panelists on a discussion about what is driving anti-Semitism in 2018.
Stephens called the current anti-Semitism “a mutating virus. … Every head of this three-headed monster has now raised its head above the water,” he said, citing hateful online chatter from the alt-right (a term used by white nationalists to describe themselves), religiously motivated Jew-hatred “throughout too much of the Islamic world, I am sorry to say,” and “Jew hatred on the left, which replicates the slander and defamation from traditional Jew haters and applies it to the State of Israel.”
Lipstadt called out “an irony you hear from the alt-right. I’ve spent a lot of time in their sewers. Some of them love Israel because it is the white ethno-state they want to create in the U.S. I fear there is going to be an anti-Semitic, pro-Zionist view,” she said.
Stephens quipped that “engaging in anti-Semitism or anti-Semitic-like rhetoric but saying Israel is great” should be called “bluewashing.”
Throughout the day, speakers talked about the importance of allyship between Jews and other marginalized communities, noting the support from Muslims and Christians that flooded in after the murder of 11 Jewish worshippers at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue on October 27.
For some progressive Zionists, that allyship has been strained of late – especially with Tamika Mallory, a co-leader of the Women’s March movement, continuing to align herself with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who recently called Jews “termites.”
“What do you do with termites?” asked Lipstadt rhetorically. “You call the exterminator.”
Asked about the upcoming Women’s March in Washington, Lipstadt’s response was swift: “Don’t go. Yes, politics makes strange bedfellows. But when you call me a termite, I’m not marching,” she said, to applause.
“The rawness and violence of that massacre [in Pittsburgh] really changed our sense of vulnerability,” said Eisner. “It also taught other people in America that this plague of anti-Semitism is real. There’s a new regard for the situation of Jews that had been missing. We are figuring out a new Jewish vernacular related to, but not dependent on, Israel – responding in a purely Jewish way to what’s happening in America.”
One session exploring when criticism of Israel becomes anti-Semitism showed the challenges faced drawing a line between legitimate critique and hatred of Jews.
“Israel deserves criticism like any other country,” said Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, which advocates against the occupation. But “when people see everything Jews do as a symbol of Israel, it crosses the line” into anti-Semitism, she said.
Jacobs cited a sukkah on the Upper East Side being vandalized with the words “Free Gaza” and “when someone screams out ‘What about Palestine?’ in the context of a rabbi or Jew speaking about something else. It is anti-Semitic to say that Jews are equivalent to Israel, that a Jew has no right to speak about anything else,” she said.
On the other hand, “There are lots of people in the Jewish community who say that any criticism of Israel is necessarily anti-Semitism,” she continued. “We have to be very, very clear about our lines, because if we cry wolf every time there’s criticism of Israel, nobody will listen when it’s really important.”
Given the sharp rise in anti-Semitic attacks in the United States – the ADL says new national data indicates hate crimes targeting Jews spiked 37 percent in 2017 – Greenblatt said he worries that outrage may diminish if the pace of assaults continues.
“I worry about anti-Semitism fatigue,” Greenblatt told Haaretz. “I hope and pray that the number of incidents goes down, and that we won’t see the kind of violence we’ve seen.”