Greenfield: How Not to Fight Antisemitism
On Yom Kippur, we went to our synagogues and stood in the presence of the ultimate force of the universe in the Day of Judgement. We tried to reach beyond ourselves, fasting and repenting, praying all day, until the sun went down and we rejoiced and sang believing that we had felt the mercy of the Infinite.
And then we turned on our phones, we came back online to find out that the biggest Jewish story was that some illiterate gutter trash was ranting about the Jews.
On Sukkot, several days later, we recalled the Torah’s commandment to take the fruit of goodly trees, branches of palm-trees, and boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook, and ye shall rejoice before the Lord your G-d seven days” (Leviticus 23:40). And then, with the first two days, done, we left behind the spiritual ecstasy of those days, with no television, no radio or internet, to discover that the news was full of one story and one story alone.
As the final day of Sukkot gave way to Simchat Torah, the celebration of the completion and its renewal, from Moshe’s blessings of the Jewish people at the end of Deuteronomy to the creation of the world in Genesis, we danced in the streets with Torah scrolls. The children were gathered up under a great raised Tallit and a hush fell over the congregation as we began with the birth of a new world.
And again we left those days of spiritual elevation and returned to a world of ugliness and hate.
Such contrasts between the sublime and the tawdry are the defining element of our declining culture.
As human beings, we are meant to live in both worlds. And as Jews, we know that we are exiled and that exile is a metaphor for the world as it is and the world that should be.
The Torah Parsha that we read the previous week was Lech Lecha in which Abraham, our forefather, leaves the cradle of civilization and goes to the wilderness of what will become Israel, friendless and vulnerable.
And yet the Haftorah, the prophetic reading paired with it, includes the verse, “And you Israel my servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, the descendants of Abraham who loved me, whom I took from the ends of the earth, and from its nobles I called to you, and I said to you, ‘You are my servant'”. I chose you and did not reject you” and “For I, the Lord your G-d, take your right hand. It is I who say to you, ‘Do not fear, I will help you.'”
Antisemitism can seem overpowering. The world, with its Nazi death camps and Soviet gulags, Iranian nuclear bombs and thugs beating people coming home from synagogue can seem horrifying and evil.
And without a sense of connection to G-d, the knowledge that life has meaning and purpose, that evil will ultimately fail, despair is natural.
Without either G-d or a sense of inner dignity and strength, Jews fall into panicked reactions to antisemitism. They are baited into traps, underreactions and overreactions, and fall apart.
Vulnerability comes from insecurity. Internal and external. Externally the Jews are vulnerable, and external threats can be fought. But they are internally vulnerable.
The trouble is that antisemites respect Jews more than they often respect themselves.
As the old anecdote about the Jew who is asked why he insists on reading the Nazi paper, Der Sturmer over the Jewish newspapers, goes, “In our papers, they say I’m being killed everywhere. In here, they say I’m running the world.”
To the antisemite, the Jews are incredibly powerful. They control everything. To the Jews, we control nothing. Not even our fate.
Antisemites often want to be Jews, directly or indirectly striving to replace Jews. But too many Jews don’t want to be Jewish. They cringe at their Jewishness. They are ashamed of it. They would rather not be noticed.
To truly “fight” antisemitism, Jews would do well to love ourselves as much as we are hated, to be as proud of what we have accomplished and to believe that we have a history and a destiny worth fighting for.
No great men, great civilizations or great deeds have ever gone unhated.
Antisemitism is not a reason to despair, it is not a cause of panic, but a sign of greatness.
American Jews didn’t invent “fighting antisemitism”, but they refined it to a fine and often useless art.
Unlike the traditional fight against existential threats, “fighting antisemitism” involves attacks not against the lives, bodies and rights of Jews, but most often the social status of a strata of lay leaders.
The IDF fights attempts to kill Jews by shooting Islamic terrorists. Men comes to Sabbath prayers in the United States armed with guns in anticipation of another attack by the Muslims, white supremacists or black supremacists who have repeatedly attacked synagogues in this country.
That is fighting antisemitism. It’s real in contrast to a booming genre of fighting antisemitic attitudes or comments of which there’s no evidence that it has ever worked or accomplished much of anything.
The ADL was created to fight vaudeville stereotypes of Jews. B’nai Brith waged fierce battles against its set being excluded from country clubs and hotels. Very little of that passionate energy was on display when 6 million Jews were being murdered in Europe with the complicity of the FDR administration. Or when the Truman administration imposed an arms embargo on the newly reborn Israel in the hopes that the invading Arab Muslim armies would clean up the Jews without any of the blood getting on its hands.
Fighting antisemitism also meant waging country club battles rather than fighting for the rights of poor and religious Jews, like those targeted by the New Deal in the Shechter chicken case. Today it means that the complex of Jewish organizations ignored or were complicit in the systemic discrimination by the Cuomo administration against Orthodox Jews during the pandemic and the new wave of harassment of Jewish schools. It also means that a million times more attention has been paid to Kanye West ranting about the Jews than to the daily violent attacks on Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn by his fan base.
Social antisemitism, especially when it touches the cultural demographic likely to run and donate to Jewish establishment groups takes precedence over existential threats to Jews in other countries, from Europe to Israel, and Jews in America, like Chassidim, Russian or Middle Eastern Jews, who are culturally different from them. That’s why the murder of millions of Jews in Europe or the daily attacks on Jews in Israel don’t stir up nearly as much outrage as cultural outrage over political incorrectness.
American liberal Jews of the leadership class remain highly attuned to social signals that antisemitism is becoming acceptable. Signals of this kind lead to a five-alarm fire reaction even as far more worrying trends in society are ignored. A celebrity saying something antisemitic is treated as a more urgent problem than a political party slowly becoming antisemitic without saying anything overtly offensive.
American Jewish sensitivity on social issues is understandable. There are doctors still alive today who remember medical school quotas for Jews. Social antisemitism wasn’t just about country clubs. And even the country clubs were about the ability of Jewish businessmen to make it in the door. Many Jewish entrepreneurs, doctors and lawyers of previous generations struggled against difficult odds to make it in a system that was rigged against them. Law firms would not hire Jews, some corporations would not do business with Jewish-owned firms, and Ivy League colleges fought to keep Jews out.
But all of that often comes with a lack of empathy among the Ashkenazi liberal establishment for Jews elsewhere, for different experiences and backgrounds, even as they claim to speak for American Jews.
A sensible people prioritize fighting violent threats directly, but American Jewish organizational leadership remained rooted in overlooking violent threats against other Jews while fighting social threats against themselves. And their idea of “fighting” relies on calling for boycotts, and pleas for solidarity. The boycotts failed catastrophically in Germany and the pleas for solidarity ultimately only highlight their sense of isolation and the extent to which elements of the Jewish community have cut themselves off from the larger Jewish people to become dependent on political allies, on civil society and other minority groups which prove unsympathetic and resentful when the target of the condemnations don’t serve their own political interests.
Jewish organizations want to fight antisemitism, yet struggle with Jewish solidarity because in their search for alliances, they isolated themselves from the people they claim to represent. Eventually they forgot who and what they are. Fighting antisemitism remained their only Jewish commitment even as they lost any positive reason for asserting their Jewishness.
Matters became much worse when Boomer liberals and then Generation X leftists became the dominant institutional generation and could not conceive of no Jewish values apart from those of the Left.
Fighting antisemitism still meant fighting for the cultural values of the same organizational establishment which no longer had any Jewish values or even any real sense of a Jewish community or history beyond their own liberal set. Having lost any meaningful Jewish connections, they instead fought for abortion, gay marriage and electing Democrats as Jewish values. These were not even means to an end. Like their liberal Protestant allies, fighting for leftist causes was the only end they could conceive of and the only means of bringing about a better world.
And yet, every now and then something reminds them that they’re Jewish.
Kanye West’s antisemitic rants were a kind of absurd blessing. Liberal Jews once again came face to face with the reality that they are Jews and that antisemitism enjoys a special immunity. That awkward Amy Schumer video, unfunny as it is, laid out what so many of us had been telling them, that relying on allies to stand with them against antisemitism would only lead to disappointment. That is one more reason why liberal Jews avoid confronting antisemitism except when it’s absolutely safe.
Because they know, in their hearts of hearts, that they’re alone.
Unlike religious Jews or Zionists, they just refuse to draw the necessary conclusions.
And yet I can’t help but feel a certain warmth for the sorts of people I usually despise for doing what they so rarely do, rallying to a Jewish cause. As badly as they do it, as much as they avoid confronting existential threats while focusing on cultural insults that strike at their anxieties, there is a momentary love for long-lost siblings and cousins who are having a brief realization that their real cause isn’t climate change, abortion, or voting rights, but that they are Jews and that they are hated for it.
I don’t expect that realization to sustain itself, yet there are signs that liberal Jews are covertly, slowly and bitterly waking up to reality. I don’t expect that to manifest in any real change, but even the realization that their political cocoon will not address the unique challenges that Jews face is progress.
If only it wasn’t progress on the edge of an abyss.
Kanye West’s antisemitism isn’t unique. In the throes of whatever sustained emotional meltdown that has sustained his career in one form or another, he’s merely voiced ideas and beliefs common to a lot of black entertainers and the black community in general.
“Jew me, sue me, everybody do me/ Kick me, kike me, don’t you black or white me,” Michael Jackson sang in, They Don’t Care About Us. “
’Cause you can’t be the N*gga 4 Life crew / With a white Jew telling you what to do,” Ice Cube rapped.
“Crucifixion ain’t no fiction/So called chosen frozen/Apology made to who ever pleases/Still they got me like Jesus,” Public Enemy offered up in the storied hip-hop group’s long list of antisemitic rants.
There’s a reason it’s hard to find a black musician who hasn’t posed with Louis Farrakhan. But blaming Farrakhan for the antisemitism is also overly simplistic. Farrakhan is just supplying the demand.
Antisemitism, racism and all kinds of bigotry in general are endemic in the black community.
Anyone who denies this simply isn’t paying attention. Antisemitism exists alongside the hatred of Asian people, Arabs who run grocery stores, white people in general, gays, and other subgroups in the black community. Including recent arrivals from Africa. None of this is secret. Liberals just choose to ignore it while treating black people like plaster saints. And they are no more saints than we or anyone else are.
Pointedly ignoring bigotry in the black community while redefining racism as a one way street has made matters worse, not better. And the ADL and groups like it schizophrenically document black antisemitism while pushing critical race theory. But the ADL, like most liberal Jews, is crippled by Reform Judaism’s rejection of Israel and the Jewish historical role in favor of making the civil rights movement into their theological pivot. No amount of antisemitism has broken that theological dependency. Much as some German Jews couldn’t let go of German culture even when it was killing them.
There’s a reason that most of the recent antisemitism controversies have involved black celebrities, like Whoopi Goldberg, Kanye, Kyrie Irving, Nick Cannon, and Ice Cube. That’s where antisemitism is endemic and also most likely to earn a free pass.
It says something that antisemitism is the one thing that brings the Black Lives Matter movement and the anti-BLM movement in the black community together. Much as it bridged the gap between black Communists, nationalists, Islamists, and the complex factions in the often overly simplified black community. There’s no reason that the conservative movement should be unique.
The two reasons that the Democratic Party became more institutionally antisemitic was that it went leftward and it became more diverse. Fringe and extremist groups tend to be more antisemitic. And, in the ADL’s own surveys, minorities are far more likely to be antisemitic than white people. Jewish conservatives may want to consider the potential implications of those two elements as well.
Diversity leads to antisemitism. A more multicultural GOP will have more room for the Islamic antisemitism in Dearborn and the Farrakhanite hatred in Detroit, Baltimore and Oakland.
Assuming otherwise is naïve.
People bring their worldview into any movement. They change the movement more than it changes them.
Kanye West has sucked up a lot of attention. But his antisemitism is a symptom of the overall sentiment that is widely felt in the black community. The liberal Jews rushing to condemn him pretend that his antisemitism is something he absorbed from the MAGA movement, but it’s the other way around.
It’s easy for them to condemn him precisely because they don’t have to think about black antisemitism.
Fighting antisemitism socially depends on solidarity. And solidarity ultimately fails.
Solidarity expects people of goodwill to reject antisemitism from their side in the name of decency, morality and principles. Some do. Many don’t. As antisemitism grows and becomes more mainstream, factions that radicalize reject the price they have to pay to police antisemitism on their own side.
Solidarity starts out as lip service and ends with Jews being told to shut up for the greater good.
Liberal Jews invested heavily in solidarity with those they considered oppressed. No group was invested in more heavily than black people. And no major group in this country is quite as antisemitic.
There’s an unhappy lesson here.
Polish and Russian Jews invested in national and socialist movements. Up until the Holocaust, they insisted that solidarity would save them. It didn’t. Liberal Jews are slowly rediscovering that the intersectional solidarity of the oppressed doesn’t include them. This discovery is made every few years after a burst of antisemitic successes, like the Women’s March, and then quickly repressed again.
And then the faith in ‘allyship’, the contemporary progressive term for solidarity, is embraced again.
Conservative Jews should not assume that this doesn’t apply to them. Elements of the conservative movement are moving away from conservatism and to more Latin American and European right-wing politics. Others are mainstreaming conspiracism and incorporating leftist influencers who push anti-Zionism. Some are being defined not by a desire to restore America and the Constitution, but by a fight against globalist conspiracies in which they seek to make common cause with the Left. Elements of the movement are fragmenting into echo chambers that reject the nation’s founding principles. Some dream of a ‘Caesar’ to toss aside rule by the people in favor of totalitarian dictatorships.
The fractures are not obvious to most because we are coming to be defined by what we oppose more than what we support. It’s enough to be against the same things if we don’t ask what we’re actually for.
There is still a strong and vital conservative movement that believes in restoring America.
But solidarity here also fails. As it will across the political and cultural spheres.
Americans increasingly see themselves in a mortal battle. Fewer are going to set aside those they see as fighters for their side over antisemitism. Mostly, Jews will be told to keep quiet and move on.
Appealing to common decency doesn’t work nearly as well when people see themselves as being in a pitched battle for cultural survival. And when all that matters is that the otherwise bad people they ally with appear to be opposed to what they see as the current big threat of the moment.
Jewish conservatives rightly denounced liberal Jews for sacrificing opposition to antisemitism on the altars of civil rights, abortion rights, gay marriage and whatever other causes were important then.
They are finding that it’s not so easy when the shoe is on the other foot.
Political solidarity is no substitute for Jewish solidarity.
The causes of the conservative movement are important. They’re vital to saving America.
Fighting for them is important. But Jews should not forget that when it comes to antisemitism, history teaches us that we are often alone.
Before we ask for solidarity for others, Jews need to find their own solidarity.
There are general interest arguments against antisemitism from common decency to the canary in the coal mine. The folks who hate Jews invariably have major destructive obsessions that are bad for everyone.
But if Jews don’t believe that our history, our religion and our destiny are worth something, then fighting antisemitism becomes the grim panicked reaction of insecure people who lack a sense of self-worth.
110 years ago, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the great Zionist leader, responded to the culture of the blood libel with words that remain painfully relevant today.
“Each accusation generates such a furor in our community that people naturally think: “Look how afraid they are of everything! Clearly they have a guilty conscience.” And it is precisely because we are always ready to put our arms down straight by our sides and swear the oath of allegiance that the population has come to hold the ingrained view that we are some kind of peculiarly furtive tribe. We think that our continual readiness to subject ourselves without a murmur to searches, to turn out our pockets, will finally convince humanity that we are honorable people: “You can see what kind of gentlemen we are – we have nothing to hide!” But that is a terrible error. Real gentlemen will never allow anyone to search their apartments, their pockets, or their souls, for any reason whatsoever.”
Dignity comes from a sense of self-worth. And a sense of worth as a people.
No people have been as free as American Jews and none have spent so much time drawing grotesque caricatures of themselves. No other group of Jews primarily defines themselves by a sense of humor rather than by religion and national identity.
American liberal Jews would do well to consider what there is about their people and their religion that they love. The first frontier in fighting antisemitism is internal and there, American Jews are spectacularly weak which is why they produce so many kids who make common cause with antisemites.
Jews fighting against those who want to kill us is an important cause. And Jews, outside of a bunch of Jewish kids in green in Israel, are bad at it.
European Jews run away from the subject of antisemitism.
American Jews flail at it in often misguided ways.
Some people hate us for various reasons. That’s been true throughout history. Some can be reasoned with and some can’t.
Bigotry is a bad thing, but it’s also human nature. Tribalism often means resentment. There are few close-knit individual groups where, at least privately, a variety of prejudices, dismissive tones and offensive opinions aren’t held toward members of other groups.
Liberalism became obsessed with rooting that out. Which is impossible. That obsession gave way to an even more deranged need to create an intersectional hierarchy over who gets to hate whom. Followed by a twisted rewriting of the very concept of bigotry so that only groups with privilege could be described as hating others.
A sensible position is that human nature has its ugly sides. And that opinions are a matter of private concern unless they lead to action. The boundary of action is more of a twilight zone.
Jews are naturally oversensitive about these boundaries because they have thousands of years of actionable sustained persecution under their belt. The sheer universalism of antisemitism justifies some of what seems like hysteria about it. But the simplest way to narrow down actionable antisemitism is to look at which groups are actually engaging in antisemitic violence.
Certain Asian subgroups, have various prejudices, but they don’t punch people in the street.
Jews have their own share of prejudices, but don’t do it either.
Groups that do punch people in the street, blow up buildings or otherwise engage in ‘actionable’ bigotry enjoy very little of the benefit of the doubt that their bigotry is a private affair and concerns no one else.
The American Jewish fight against antisemitism might do well by focusing more on actionable bigotry while spending less time obsessed with social antisemitic signals.
There are people out there shooting up synagogues and assaulting Jews in the street. In the Muslim world, weapons are being readied for another war of extermination.
The American Jewish establishment has trouble taking things like this seriously, as they had trouble taking the Holocaust seriously when it was happening. While they were fighting stereotypes, the engines of mass murder thundered the Jews of Europe at the hands of the Communists and Nazis.
Let us hope that history does not repeat itself, in either Israel or America.