Noah Arbit in Moment Magazine: Antisemitism is Inherently Political. Time to Stop Equivocating
Noah Arbit | Moment Magazine | February 25, 2020
It wasn’t until I joined Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign as an organizer in 2016 that I first experienced anti-Semitism. Advocating for my candidate on social media, I faced a barrage of abuse from Trump supporters targeting my Jewish identity, with one particularly virulent user declaring me “an enemy of the people, who should’ve been gassed with the rest of you Jews.”
Four years later, after Charlottesville, Pittsburgh, Poway, Jersey City, Monsey and so many other attacks, I, like many Jews, have become accustomed to living with the feeling that hatred of Jews has permeated America’s cultural and political bloodstream. But I refuse to accustom myself to Jewish organizations, which fail time and again to adequately confront one of the roots of this problem: Donald Trump. In the absence of leadership from traditional institutions, young Jews have worked to launch grassroots movements such as Never Again Action and my own Michigan Democratic Jewish Caucus, in order to tackle anti-Semitism and racism by challenging the very core of American political life - including the President.
Obviously, Donald Trump did not invent anti-Semitism. Yet, his anti-Semitic rhetoric and dog-whistles have undeniably stoked a trickle-down effect, normalizing racial and ethnic resentments among his most extreme supporters and exacerbating an already growing threat of violence against Jews and other minorities. That the President of the United States has played no small role in inciting some of the horrific violent anti-Semitism that plagues American Jews in greater frequency today than ever before, yet continues to brand himself an unparalleled defender of Jews is heinous. One would think mainstream Jewish organizations would be working day and night to extirpate these dangerous trends, even risking overblown accusations of partisan bias to do so. They are not.
In December, when President Trump went on an anti-Semitic rant in a now-infamous speech at a conference conservative Zionists, the American Jewish Committee tweeted, “Dear @POTUS—Much as we appreciate your unwavering support for Israel, surely there must be a better way to appeal to American Jewish voters, as you just did in Florida, than by money references that feed age-old and ugly stereotypes. Let’s stay off that mine-infested road.”
This response is jarring, particularly because organizations like AJC, AIPAC, and Conference of Presidents had previously come out swinging against freshman congresswoman Ilhan Omar of Minnesota for her remarks invoking the same anti-Semitic tropes of dual loyalty (“Demonstrably false and stunningly anti-Semitic…Apologize,” wrote the AJC). Though heinous, Omar’s remarks could hardly have been more objectionable than Trump’s, given his substantially greater position. So why the tonal disparity between the criticism of Omar and Trump? Many have argued that Jewish organizations are loath to criticize Trump because they support his policies on Israel. I find that notion deeply disturbing, as I have typically played defense for the so-called “Jewish establishment,” arguing with my more progressive friends that Jewish institutions cannot go after Trump too hard for fear of seeming partisan. But that was 2017, and it was not until this year that I realized just how accurate the progressive critique had been.
On a cold evening in January, I attended the Detroit Community Forum on Anti-Semitism sponsored by the Federation, JCRC/AJC, and ADL. One thousand of my fellow Jewish Michiganders and allies packed the pews, awaiting the response of our community’s leaders to the unnerving rise in anti-Semitism across our state and country. But what I heard that night convinced me that the organized Jewish community is shockingly ill-equipped to provide the necessary leadership in this era of deepening threats. While the panelists spoke passionately about the need to build coalitions with other minorities and invest in security, at the end of the night, the words that rang in my ears were those not spoken: “Donald Trump.” No doubt, the panelists would have been criticized for mentioning Trump’s name alongside the word “anti-Semitism,” but to completely gloss over the role of the President, whom at least 60% of Jews believe is at least partially responsible for the country’s rising anti-Semitism is dereliction of duty. And to claim—as several panelists did—that “anti-Semitism is neither political or partisan” shows a breathtaking misunderstanding of the problem we face. Can anyone truly believe that anti-Semitism—or any form of hate—is divorced from politics? Such a contention is not only an elementary misreading of history, but a rejection of events unfolding before our eyes.
It is time for us to declare that anti-Semitism is inherently political. It is political when demagogic politicians at the highest levels of our government traffic in its oldest, most damaging tropes to delegitimize their opponents. Anti-Semitism is political when the President hails as “fine people” the men with tiki torches shouting “Jews will not replace us.” Anti-Semitism is political when synagogue shooters graft the President’s conspiratorial rhetoric into their murderous manifestos word-for-word. Anti-Semitism is political when the White House issues press credentials to a fringe media organization that warns repeatedly of a “Jew coup” against the president. Anti-Semitism is political when political will must be engaged to marshal government resources to protect synagogues and promote Holocaust education. And because anti-Semitism is political, it requires a political response, without which we cannot ameliorate it.
I wonder how American Jews arrived at situation in which organizations like AJC and AIPAC, which beg us for contributions, claim to represent our interests, and insist on their indispensability to us, can treat the President’s anti-Semitism with kid gloves while pretending new perspectives (disagreeable or not) on Israel among a small faction of the party supported by an 80% supermajority of American Jews constitute an existential threat to American Jewry on par with ISIS terrorism. When Jewish leaders rend their garments over survey after survey depicting young Jews as disengaged from organized Jewish life, perhaps they might consider peeking into a mirror.
Indeed, if mainstream Jewish institutions want to survive for posterity, they must do far more to meet this moment of crisis and confront the President and elements of his party for the severe threat they pose to American Jewry. Otherwise, they will see themselves continue to drift towards irrelevance—so much so that when my generation takes the reins of leadership, we will reconstitute organized Jewish life in our own image, and fashion institutions that will actually defend Jews from politicians—of any party—who use Jews as props in their political agenda. It is time to demand communal leadership that recognizes when the Jewish community is being treated like a political football—and doesn’t respond with a punt.