It is generally assumed that the Jewish community, whatever its internal differences, takes anti-Semitism seriously. But as someone who has been reporting on the subject for some time, I’m beginning to suspect that’s not the case. Allow me to explain.
Whenever I write about right-wing anti-Semitism or my support for pro-peace activism in Israel, the harsh reaction of many conservative Jews often astonishes me. I’ve been accused, quite prematurely, of failing to raise Jewish children, and have been called everything from an “imbecile” to a Nazi sympathizer. At the same time, when I write about left-wing anti-Semitism or anti-Zionism that conceals it, the vitriol of my fellow left-wing Jews shocks me just as much, and stings all the more. After experiencing such backlash repeatedly, it has become clear to me that many of my fellow Jews are inclined to ignore anti-Semitism when it is expressed by people who share their politics.
This is a deeply dangerous dynamic. Both the political right and the political left in America have very real problems with anti-Jewish prejudice, and if we are serious about confronting anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, we all need to be willing to stand up to our friends as well as our rivals. This will mean standing apart from both political poles at times, but that is not a new experience for Jews.
As a product of millennia of Diaspora dispersion, Jews have long been a people of in-betweens. Often straddling the line between two conflicting ethnic or ideological categories, we have historically been spurned by both. The czar forcibly displaced hundreds of thousands of Yiddish-speaking Jews during World War I in part because the Germanic roots of the Yiddish language raised suspicions that Jews might betray Russia for Germany. In the years following that war, however, German nationalists accused Jews of being in league with Soviet Russia, one of many allegations that laid the groundwork for the Holocaust. Likewise, in the Russian Civil War, Jews suffered pogroms at the hands of both armies—the Red Army regarded Jews as bourgeois capitalists, while the White Army regarded Jews as communist provocateurs. Among colonialists in Algeria, the Ligue antijuive (Anti-Jewish League) became one of the most crucial organs of French identity formation, while Algerian Arab nationalist factions like the Front de Libération Nationale (National Liberation Front) identified indigenous Algerian Jews with French colonialism. Today, even the Jewish state suffers from in-between status: Israel is just Ashkenazi enough for Iran and BDS to accuse it of European imperialism, but also Southwest Asian and Arab enough for American and European leaders to condescend to it, interfere in its politics, and devalue its citizens’ lives like they do in other Southwest Asian and Arab countries.
In the United States, Jews are rapidly becoming an in-between people again. On the left, anti-Semitism thrives under the guise of anti-Zionism. At large rallies on my majority-leftist campus, I join my fellow students in declaring solidarity for movements that range from Black Lives Matter to Asian American rights, but not once have I heard Jewish issues make the list of demands at campus demonstrations. Many of the same people who march against other forms of oppression and discrimination openly support BDS, a movement that explicitly promotes discrimination against a single nationality and implicitly against an ethno-religious group. Some of my leftist peers express discomfort with the existence of a majority-Jewish fraternity on campus and vigorously defend campus anti-Zionists even when they cross the line into blatant anti-Semitism by protesting Hillel’s participation in social justice conversations.
At the same time, anti-Semitism is rising sharply on the right. Jewish journalists have been increasingly targeted with Holocaust imagery, and I have seen a dramatic uptick in right-wing anti-Semitic responses to my own writing. There has been an increase in Holocaust-evoking graffiti incidents at my former high school. Neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan grow more emboldened by the day. The new Republican president has retweeted anti-Semites and their memes, echoed classical anti-Semitic tropes in his conspiratorial closing campaign ad, and expressed a conviction that the Republican Jewish Coalition wouldn’t back him because he wouldn’t allow the Jews to influence his government. His Jewish family members do not make him any less anti-Semitic, just as his female family members do not make him any less misogynistic.
American Jewry thus finds itself, once again, in-between. My experiences on campus make clear to me that the left, which tends to regard Jews as wealthy, privileged, and white and to project that image (falsely) onto Israel, does not regard Jewish rights as a priority. My experiences off-campus make clear to me that the right, which is increasingly host to white supremacists who also regard Jews as wealthy and powerful but see us as an enemy of whiteness, is no better off.
How do we push back against this encroachment on both ends? It starts with uniting against the threat, not excusing it where it is inconvenient.
One of the many dangers of being an in-between people is that our liminal status can divide us. During World War I, even while the Russian army evacuated Jews from their homes and the German army used falsified data about Jewish soldiers to blame them for military defeats, Jews fought on both sides, dying by the thousands to defend the flags of their rival anti-Semitic monarchies. I fear that Jews in America are beginning to fall into the same pattern, defending political movements that have troubling relations with the Jews without addressing Jewish issues among their fellow activists.
None of this is to say that Jews should not be involved in political and social movements. Personally, I align myself firmly with the left and am politically active. But I also try to hold my friends and fellow activists accountable for the ways in which they handle Jewish concerns. My fear is that Jews on both sides of the aisle are prioritizing Jewish issues only when doing so benefits their respective political causes. There are exceptions, but they are not the rule.
My fellow leftist Jews often take the easy path. They ignore or deny the existence of anti-Semitism on the left and join their non-Jewish friends in gaslighting (dismissing lived personal experiences as illegitimate or imagined) those of us who try to speak out about it. Occasionally, they even try to prove their loyalty to the hard left by joining the anti-Zionist movement and offering themselves as tokens.
At the same time, right-wing Jews, and even Jews in the political center, are often hesitant to call out anti-Semitism on the political right. Many leftist Jews have been disappointed to see so little reaction from centrist and non-partisan Jewish groups to the rise of Trump and the anti-Semitic far-right. The decision of the fringe right-wing Zionist Organization of America to unreservedly embrace the Trump administration made my stomach turn. Meanwhile, many centrist Jewish organizations, while not actively endorsing the ZOA’s activities or odious Trump advisers like Stephen Bannon, have remained conspicuously silent about them.
But as long as Jews only call out anti-Semitism when it is convenient for their political allies, the bigotry will continue to metastasize. We need to prioritize anti-Semitism, not instrumentalize it.
This is a time of political divisiveness in America, and the in-between status of the Jews is increasingly being laid bare. As leftist and centrist/rightist Jews rally behind our respective sides and toe the party lines of political movements that don’t value Jewish issues, we risk ignoring the problems that threaten all of us. Jews can exist on opposite sides of the political divide, but we ought to be united against anti-Semitism across the political spectrum. As a young, progressive Jew, it is a priority for me to defeat anti-Semitism and the anti-Zionism that masks it on the left just as it is a priority for me to take on right-wing anti-Semitism. It should be just as high a priority for those who disagree with me politically to confront anti-Semitism within their own ranks.
If Jews on both sides of the political divide only raise Jewish concerns like anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism when it is convenient to do so or when it supports our political aims, our activism is doomed to fail. Our Jewish rights advocacy ceases to be an end in and of itself and becomes a political tool to bolster movements that are increasingly hostile to us and to our needs. In order to be effective, we must be willing to call out our allies as well as our opponents. As long as Jews are an in-between people—as long as neither the left nor the right is willing to genuinely champion all Jewish issues—we, as Jews, need to shoulder that responsibility ourselves, and together.
Benjamin Gladstone studies Judaic Studies and Middle East Studies at Brown University and has written for the New York Times, The Forward, and The Tower, among other publications.