A Threat Assessment for American Jewry, Part One

Which of the recent samples of anti-Semitism—on the street, on campus, in Congress, or in the clergy—is the greatest threat to America and the Jews?

Demolition and recovery crews at the scene of the December 10, 2019 shooting at a Jewish deli in Jersey City, New Jersey. BRYAN R. SMITH/Afp/AFP via Getty Images.

Demolition and recovery crews at the scene of the December 10, 2019 shooting at a Jewish deli in Jersey City, New Jersey. BRYAN R. SMITH/Afp/AFP via Getty Images.

Ruth R. Wisse
COLUMN
July 8 2021
About Ruth

Ruth R. Wisse is a Mosaic columnist, professor emerita of Yiddish and comparative literatures at Harvard and a distinguished senior fellow at the Tikvah Fund. Her memoir Free as a Jew: a Personal Memoir of National Self-Liberation, chapters of which appeared in Mosaic in somewhat different form, is out from Wicked Son Press.

Which of the following samples of anti-Semitism—all having occurred in the last few months—is the greatest threat to America and the Jews?

1) Hamas-style gangs pursuing and attacking Jews in New York and Los Angeles.

2) Campus intimidation of the kind that makes the chancellor and provost of Rutgers University retract the statement they had previously issued against acts of anti-Semitism.

3) Elected members of the U.S. Congress who abet the war against Israel in this country.

4) Open letters by dozens of rabbinical students “in tears” over Israel’s forcible removal of Palestinians from their homes, and by scholars of Jewish studies and Israel studies who “share the pain of Gazans.”

The good news is that Jews are no longer alone in identifying the danger. Donna Brazile, former chair of the Democratic National Committee, is one of many political commentators who now warn that anti-Semitism has reached, as she put it to the Wall Street Journal in May of this year, “pandemic proportions.” Speaking as someone who has herself experienced discrimination, she writes that anti-Semitism is based on the same belief as racism and other forms of prejudice, namely that “the other” is inferior and not entitled to the same rights as alleged superiors. She empathizes with the pain of Jews “in the same way that Jews sympathized with the racist oppression” suffered by black Americans.

Her acknowledgment of the danger of anti-Semitism is welcome and indispensable. At the same time, she mischaracterizes the problem. The legacy of slavery presents a very different challenge to Americans than the one presented by the organization of politics against the Jews, and those differences call for opposite responses. The idea driving the abovementioned attacks is not the Nazi claim that Jews are biologically inferior but the claim of Israel’s adversaries that Jews occupy other people’s land. In fact, Brazile’s anxiety was probably quickened by some of her fellow black Americans who include Jews in their attack on white supremacy and the Jewish state. Today’s attacks accuse Jews of their unfair superiority.

These distinctions in no way subordinate one set of injuries to another, but each requires its own diagnosis. Assessing the dangers that anti-Semitism poses to the Jews and America may help to clarify what it is and isn’t. I discuss them in ascending order of threat.

 

1.

 

“It’s a Scary Time for L.A. Jews.” Under this headline the Los Angeles Times recently reported multiple attacks on Jews, including caravans of cars with people flying Palestinian flags driving into areas with Jewish businesses yelling “F— you.” The local TV news showed a car trying to run down a Jew. His dazed wife says, “I can’t believe this is America.”  In New York there are assaults on Jews in the diamond district, and on Jews going to and from synagogue. The Israeli consulate in New York states that anti-Israel demonstrations are “larger, more toxic, and unfortunately more violent” than before. Those keeping statistical count of violent episodes register increases of 40 percent over already record numbers. The attempted murder of a Chabad rabbi in Boston on July 1 brings home the danger to yet another city.

These physical attacks on Jews leave wounded and dead—and fear—in their wake. Social media have been inciting anti-Jewish passions that trigger riots both spontaneous and organized. But acts of violence that break the law also invite punishment and censure, and many citizens dislike disturbers of the peace. Elsewhere, when pogroms were encouraged by the government, they directed local hostility against the enemy alien, but in America violence against a minority can bring that minority sympathy and protection. Donna Brazile’s concern is a case in point.

 

2.

 

More sinister than the physical attacks on Jews is the submission to anti-Semitism by the academic elite. Rutgers University has over 6,000 Jewish undergraduates, one of the largest such concentrations in America. Years of ideological campus attacks on Israel through the BDS movement and what Rutgers Hillel called a “social-media pogrom” recently escalated into acts of vandalism against Jewish students that finally drew official condemnation. In a joint statement, the chancellor and provost addressed the “sharp rise in hostile sentiments and anti-Semitic violence in the United States,” and against “other targeted and oppressed groups on our campus and in our community.” The offending groups called this linkage an attack on them. Since blaming Israel is protected free speech, its enemies feel entitled to denounce those who condemn it.

The sorry saga continued: Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) protested that by highlighting anti-Semitism “during a time when Israel’s occupation of Palestine is finally receiving widespread criticism,” Rutgers was diverting attention from Israel’s supposed murder of Gazan children. The administrators capitulated, and recanted. “It is clear to us that the message failed to communicate support for our Palestinian community members. We sincerely apologize for the hurt that this message has caused.” This retraction, in turn, brought enough Jewish protest to prompt an assurance from the president of Rutgers that the school would not ever apologize for standing against anti-Semitism, because “anti-Semitism, anti-Hinduism, Islamophobia, and all forms of racism, intolerance, and xenophobia are unacceptable wherever and whenever they occur.” The administration’s promise to Rutgers’ Jewish community never to apologize was universalized, and so became a trivializing bromide.

Physical violence against the Jews is still not acceptable in elite educational institutions. But what happened at Rutgers is the most recent instance in a long trend of ever more accommodation to anti-Jewish abuse. Just wait; the predicate justifying violence against Jews is already present in America’s foremost institutions of higher learning—and this should come as no surprise. Student radicals of the 1960s identified the academy as the weakest institution of American democracy and launched attacks against the war in Vietnam that long outlasted their ostensible cause. Lionel Trilling, who witnessed the trashing of Columbia University, defined the “adversary culture” as hostility to Western civilization as a whole. Though anti-Zionism was originally only a small part of that opposition, it gradually moved into the foreground. The longer Israel was able to hold out against Arab aggression, the more it displaced the United States as the negative symbol of a flourishing non-socialist country.

Anti-Zionism is the Communist or far-leftist version of anti-Semitism, directed not against the individual Jew but against the Jewish people in its homeland. Socialist internationalists may have realized that other nations would only gradually transcend their particularity, but they expected Jews who already lived among the nations to dissolve themselves as a model to others. This is why Jewish leftists are among the most committed anti-Zionists: they oppose the allegedly reactionary return of the Jews to national sovereignty in their land. All the slogans of anti-Zionism—Israel as imperialist usurper, colonialist occupier—are Soviet leftovers refreshed for contemporary use.

For those who have trouble connecting the dots, the substitution of Palestinian for Arab and Muslim is key to anti-Zionism’s spread. In the seven decades since the Arab League declared war against Israel, it accomplished much more through propaganda than through its bombs and bullets. The Soviet-Arab alliance lost the wars of 1967 and 1973, but in 1975 it got the United Nations to define Zionism as racist. With wizardly speed, this inversion transformed the hundreds of millions of Arabs and 1.8 billion Muslims into the oppressed Palestinian refugee victims of the Jews. The universities that should have exposed this most effective of all fake narratives instead encourage the war against Israel. We have now arrived at the absurd time when Arab leaders in the Sunni Gulf are much friendlier to Israelis and even the Jews of the Diaspora than the supposed scholars of the Middle East who, on campus, pretend to speak in their name.

Adversarial culture is defined by what it stands against, and it is much handier to be against Israel than to declare war on the United States. In the same way that anti-Semitism was the vehicle for anti-liberal politics in Europe, anti-Zionism became the medium for anti-liberal politics in America, through Middle East Studies at the formal level and pro-Palestinian agitation in student affairs. Apartheid Israel was a codeword for racist America. Now that the attack on white supremacy is out in the open, Israel and the Jews are included in that toxic term.

Anti-liberal forces assume that attacks on the Jews will bring them no reprisals. Aggression aimed at Jews feels less dangerous to the rest of the population and gains “intersectional” support from other grievance movements. Attacking only the Jews for their alleged powers lulls the rest of the population into a sense of false security. Anti-Zionism redirects attention away from Islamist and neo-Marxist ambitions for conquering the West to blaming Jews for allegedly colonizing the Middle East. We may expect anti-Israel movements to keep sprouting on campus.

Dictatorships rule through repressive power, but before they can impose that repressive power over a democracy they have to win over the electorate through the power of negative ideas, by destroying the American ideal. The Palestinian cause has become the energizing wedge of this adversarial movement. The university is the springboard to government control.

 

3.

 

Democratic power rests in the Congress of the United States, and if an adversarial anti-liberal movement takes over one of the parties, it can quickly begin shutting down the opposition.

If we look back at the 1930s, a critical time in the history of the world, we see that both fascism and Communism made deep inroads in American politics and culture. Writing about the penetration of German anti-Semitism into American universities in the 1930s, the historian Stephen Norwood reminds us that schools like Harvard University “displayed a shocking lack of awareness of Nazism” when it gave their speakers a platform. Yet the German American Bund, an unabashedly pro-Nazi “organization of patriotic Americans of German stock” that grew to a membership in the tens of thousands, did not run its training centers at universities or spread its literature in the classroom. The academy of the 1930s may have allowed Nazism its voice, but did not feature its texts.

Communism did much better than fascism in the world of ideas. I have often quoted the view of Robert Warshow, one of that period’s most original cultural critics, that “virtually all intellectual activity was derived in one way or another from the Communist party. If you were not somewhere within the party’s wide orbit, then you were likely to be in the opposition,” so that in either case the party ultimately determined “what you were to think about and in what terms.” Communism’s bid to rule in the name of the international proletariat had greater appeal to Americans than Nazism’s claim for the master race, but no one espousing either fascist anti-Semitism or Communist anti-Zionism was elected to the United States Congress. Both had supporters, but no representation.

By contrast, the Islamist characterization of America and the Jews does have representation in Congress. In congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, and their ideological comrades, progressives have forged coalitions with other grievance sectors to become a significant force in government. The penetration of anti-Semitism into the British Labor party demonstrates both the attraction and the risks of this process that is now making its way into the Democratic party. The electability of anti-Jewish politicians is the saddest political “breakthrough” this country has seen.

Thankfully, there are many Muslim and Arab Americans who love this country for its pluralism and democracy. But that welcome Arab-American patriotism is betrayed by progressives and callow fellow-travelers—the academic elite foremost among them—who enjoy channeling Hamas in America. The weakest Jews collapse under their assault.

 

4.

 

Proceeding in what I think to be ascending order of threat we come to the loss of Jewish moral confidence, which some might discount as a negligible byproduct of the “real and present danger.” I disagree. Only wicked regimes organize their politics against the Jews, making Jewish resilience the touchstone of political hopefulness. If prospective Jewish leaders and teachers cannot withstand the malice, malevolence, and murderous cruelty of the “evildoers,” they do much more than expose their fellow Jews to hurt: they let down America, the best chance that democracy ever had.

But this part of the discussion will have to wait for my next column.

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More about: American Jewry, Anti-Semitism, Israel & Zionism, Politics & Current Affairs, Progressivism