Earlier this week, my colleague, the wise and empathetic Carly Pildis, wrote a thoughtful and powerful piece about the political future of American Jews. In it, she argues that the Democratic Party, notwithstanding a handful of problematic and relatively inconsequential congresswomen, is still the most safe and welcoming space for Jews, while the president is guilty of rhetoric that is downright anti-Semitic.
It is in the spirit of Carly’s call for dialogue that does not shy away from unpleasant assertions that I would like to offer two observations about the political future of American Jews.
The first has to do with the unthinkable descent of the Democratic Party into being not just blind to anti-Jewish bigotry, but an engine of it. We can argue about when and exactly how this happened—I’ll leave the ultimate timelines to historians—but to keep things simple let’s connect only the most recent dots.
Shortly after Trump was elected, the left moved into resistance mode. The feelings here were entirely understandable—I myself found Trump’s election deeply worrisome. But, very quickly, the energy began to be channeled into causes and outfits with deep and clear anti-Semitic associations—including, most prominently, the Women’s March. Over the course of two years, the leaders of this organization sang hosannas to Louis Farrakahn, flagrantly used Nation of Islam as security, and used their influence to reframe Israel as the world’s biggest state criminal—quite a feat when you have such a calamity happening next door. Jews expressed their discomfort, but time and again were ignored—even told by some of their own leadership, by some of our own rabbis, that to want people in shared spaces simply not to foment vicious hatred of us was to selfishly “center ourselves.”
After Tablet published a 10,000-word expose, revealing that the Women’s March leadership was veritably soaked in hatred for Jews and Israel, some prominent people in the Democratic Party (though not all) finally felt compelled to distance themselves from these obvious bigots.
Then came the midterm elections.
During it, a young candidate named Ilhan Omar emerged—and immediately attracted the adoration of progressives, including Jewish voters in her hometown. At some point, someone surfaced a 2012 tweet in which she argued that Israel had “hypnotized the world.” A few polite Jews apologetically asked if she might, pretty please, explain to everyone that she didn’t actually mean to reference a longtime anti-Semitic canard. She ignored them—perhaps because she knew that no one in the Democratic Party establishment would care, or ever push her on it.
Things got worse. When meeting with Jewish constituents whose votes she wanted, Omar flatly told them what she knew they wanted to hear—that she supported a two-state solution and didn’t believe in BDS. After getting many of them to vote for her, she took it all back—even sponsoring a bill in support of BDS within months of joining Congress. None of Omar’s fellow Democratic congress members called her out for this sharp reversal, and neither The New York Times nor the Washington Post gave it much if any ink.
Then came Omar’s “all about the Benjamins” tweet, which outright accused Jews of using their money to buy influence and force America into supporting Israel, a potent mix of several anti-Semitic tropes, from the one accusing the Jews of dual loyalty to the one positing that Jewish money makes the world go round. Some on the left condemned Omar. But many others rushed to her defense, creating a hashtag, #IStandWithIlhan, that soon went viral.
Then, last week, came the storm following Israel’s decision to ban Rashida Tlaib and Omar from visiting. Soon after, it was revealed that their trip was to be sponsored by a Palestinian organization called Miftah. “Much of the chatter and gossip about historical Jewish blood rituals in Europe are real and not fake as they claim,” read an article posted on the organization’s website, as reported by the Washington Free Beacon. “The Jews used the blood of Christians in the Jewish Passover.” The article goes on to criticize then-President Barack Obama for hosting a Seder in the White House: “Does Obama in fact know the relationship, for example, between ‘Passover’ and ‘Christian blood,’” the article continues. “Or ‘Passover’ and ‘Jewish blood rituals?!’”
Did prominent voices in the Democratic Party rush to defend the Jews from these obvious and dangerous canards? I wish. The Washington Post described Miftah as a nonprofit headed by “longtime peace negotiator Hanan Ashrawi” and The New York Times contextualized as “a group dedicated to raising global awareness and knowledge of Palestinian realities.” Peter Beinart went on CNN to defend Ashrawi and her group as paragons of goodwill. Instead, the entity that came under fire was…you guessed it. A hailstorm of wails about the death of democratic norms ensued, all culminating in a #BoycottIsrael trend on Twitter—pushed by many of the same sort of polite people behind the last big boycott of the Jews.
Next, both congresswomen shared the same cartoon by Carlos Latuff, a notoriously anti-Semitic illustrator who, in 2006, had placed second in Iran’s infamous Holocaust-denying cartoon contest. No Democratic congressperson said a peep. Neither the Times nor the Washington Post nor CNN covered it.
Friends: We have to stop talking about preventing the Corbynization of the Democratic Party, because it is already here. And if you don’t believe me—if you want to draw a line under all of the above and hope that all the Democratic Party needs is some gentle nudging and organizing—I have bad news for you: The next thing coming down the pike is even worse.
Earlier this year, Rep. Betty McCollum (D.-Minn.) introduced a bill in the House of Representatives titled “H.R. 2047—Promoting Human Rights for Palestinian Children Living Under Israeli Military Occupation Act.” In June, a host of high-profile Democrats co-sponsored her bill, including Seth Moulton, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib.
The bill’s purpose is to require that “United States funds do not support military detention, interrogation, abuse, or ill-treatment of Palestinian children.” It then goes on to present a long list of citations from reports compiled by non-government organizations that accuse Israel of everything from applying coercive interrogation techniques against children as young as 11 to holding minors for days without a trial.
You could easily tear apart most of the bill’s cherry-picked claims by explaining, as the Israel Democracy Institute had, that Israel’s approach to underage suspects is far more complicated than the bill presents it to be. But there is an even simpler, more enlightening explanation—especially after seeing Ocasio-Cortez’s glib tweet about the bill: “I don’t believe in caging kids. Pretty straightforward value. I don’t care if it’s American kids, Mexican kids, or Palestinian kids.”
Except, of course, that the bill doesn’t apply to Mexico or Egypt or South Africa—all of which receive substantial amounts in American foreign aid.
If it had, we’d be on solid moral ground. Instead, this bill—backed by a cadre of House Democrats who abjure anti-Semitism in theory and yet astonishingly manage to “accidentally” perpetrate it over and over—tracks, in an eerily perfect way, with a long and murderous tradition: Fantasizing that Jews have a special fondness for killing, abducting, maiming, or otherwise abusing non-Jewish children, and leading mobs to attack them based on these accusations.
The phenomenon dates back to at least 1144, when a young boy, William of Norwich, was found dead in the forest near his home in central England with stab wounds covering his body. A local monk, Thomas of Monmouth, claimed that little William was murdered by a global cabal of Jews who, each year, choose one Christian child to sacrifice in accordance with their sinister religion. The story spread, William was considered a martyr, and decades of pogroms against Jews were promptly launched. They were intensified in 1255, when the lifeless body of an 8-year-old named Hugh was found in a well in the English town of Lincoln. A local Jew named Copin was forced to confess and repeat the old story about ceremonial killing of Christian children, and dozens of Jews were arrested or executed. By 1290, the recurring fabrications about Jewish obsession with harming innocent children led the Crown to expel all Jews, a decree that lasted centuries.
The trend soon spread to the rest of the continent. In 1171, in the French town of Blois, a rabbi named Isaac was accused of drowning a boy in the Loire, and in 1267 in Pforzheim, Germany, Jews were accused of buying a little girl from her mother only to cut her open and then drown her. In both cases, the stories led to violence against the local Jewish communities, a grim tradition that persisted in Europe through much of the 20th century—the notorious Kishinev pogrom of 1903 was launched after a local newspaper reported that the Jews had killed a boy named Mikhail and used his blood to make matzo.
Sadly, blood libels are still popular today in the Arab world, where media outlets and high-ranking officials frequently report on the Jewish lust for the blood of the young. Some American academics, too, are practitioners of this hateful art, like the Rutgers professor who accused Israel of killing Palestinian children in order to traffic in their organs.
If the history of anti-Semitism teaches us anything, it’s that when blood libels appear, real violence isn’t far to follow. If you harbored any reservations before now, H.R. 2047 should leave no doubt that the Democratic Party has a very real and very deep anti-Semitism problem.
This brings me directly to my second observation, which has to do with President Trump’s claim that Jews who vote for the Democrats are showing “either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.” Like so many of the president’s utterances, this one, too, is deeply regrettable. And it, too, reflects, as Bari Weiss brilliantly pointed out in The New York Times, the president’s Manichean worldview: “Indeed,” Weiss wrote, “if we have learned anything about the former host of ‘The Apprentice,’ it is that he looks at the world in the exact way he looked at those contestants. You’re a winner or you’re a loser. You’re for him or you’re a turncoat. In his small mind, if you’re on Team Jew, you vote for his party because Republicans are pro-Israel and, therefore, pro-Jew. If you’re on Team Anti-Semite, well, then you vote for the other guys.”
That the world, glanced through the windows of the Oval Office, ought to seem bigger, brighter, and brimming with hope, not discord, goes without saying, mainly because it has already been said, so many times and in so many ways by so many people these past two years. But observe Trump’s statement on its own merit, and you’ll find little there to justify the absolute hysteria that has led even some of our more astute observers to wail that the president is nothing less than the greatest anti-Semite of our age.
You can point out the president’s many flaws, and lament—as I have, frequently—anything from his words to his actions. But being on social media actually obscures and prevents us from thinking clearly about Trump: On Twitter, it often feels like right-wingers plug their ears and mention the embassy move again and again, while those on the left just keep maniacally bleating “he said ‘good people on both sides’! He said ‘good people on both sides!’” None of these points are particularly helpful. There are many things to say about this president—a whole host of them bad. You can find his policies reprehensible, and his appointments of cabinet members appalling. But seeing him as an anti-Semite or even anti-Semite-adjacent requires leaving reason further behind than any educated citizen of a modern republic ought to ever do.
How best to understand Trump’s statement? You can begin by consulting with Louis Brandeis, America’s first Jewish Supreme Court justice and a founding father of American Zionism. As Daniel Gordis notes in his upcoming and stellar book We Stand Divided, American Zionism had always differed from its European counterpart in one important way: While the Jews of Plonsk and Pinsk and Minsk saw Zionism as the answer to the very existential problems that were robbing them of life and limb—Zion was a literal safe haven from persecution—their brothers and sisters in Boston and Baltimore needed a way to support a Jewish homeland in Eretz Yisrael without ever having to leave the Goldene Medina, the other promised land.
This, American Zionists realized early on, is a tricky proposition in a meting pot society where, as Woodrow Wilson thundered in 1915, “you cannot dedicate yourself to America unless you become in every respect and with every purpose of your will thorough Americans.” Conscious of the perpetually pending charge of dual loyalty, Brandeis helped engineer an ingenious solution.
“Let no American imagine that Zionism is inconsistent with patriotism,” he wrote, adding that “a man is a better citizen of the U.S. for being also a loyal citizen of his state, and of his city, for being loyal to his family… every American Jew who aids in advancing the Jewish settlement in Palestine, though he feels neither he nor his descendants will ever live there, will likewise be a better man and a better American for doing so.”
Put simply, Brandeis believed that if you didn’t support Israel, you either lacked knowledge or showed a great disloyalty to your own people — a view that would’ve been utterly uncontroversial, even banal, until very recently. Unless you require neither context nor reason and are inclined to hear everything the president says as hate speech, you can rest easy and understand his latest gaffe as poorly stated at worst.
So where does all of this leave us American Jews? Many of us are losing a bunch of sleep these days, feeling as if the world may be coming to an end. It’s not, but it is changing, which is history’s single defining characteristic and the thing that makes human life on this planet so terrifying and so thrilling. And, historically speaking, Jews who refused to take heed when things started changing dramatically all around them very often wound up as dead Jews.
Let us, then, observe these changes candidly and without succumbing to the pressures of screaming ideologues on either side. The party our parents voted for, the party we thought would be ours for eternity, appears to be well on its way to becoming something entirely hostile to Jews. The president we are told again and again is the single greatest menace to our community is many things, but certainly not that.
What you choose to do with these realities is entirely up to you. Decent people will likely invest their energies in divergent projects, working in good faith to create a safe and sustainable future for themselves and their children. We may still disagree. We may still find ourselves divided on important, substantive questions, from immigration to health care reform to foreign policy. Arguing, after all, is our birthright. But if we grow addicted to the narcotic effect of absurd histrionics masquerading as moral outrage on social media, and if we insist that observable reality take a backseat to our feverish fantasies and desperate hopes, we’ll find ourselves the authors of a new and particularly bleak chapter of the timeless Jewish story.
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Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.