Last June, Holocaust denial posters were found at a strip mall and near a Jewish day school in Sunnyvale, Calif. How do I know this fun fact? Because earlier this week I read the whole list of anti-Semitic incidents in the United States, published by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) as proof that “We’ve never had a moment like this,” as the ADL’s Jonathan Greenblatt said.
2017, argued the ADL, was the worst year in many years for anti-Semitism in the U.S. This argument prompted an article in The New York Times by Jonathan Weisman, who claimed: “American Jewish leaders … have been remarkably quiet, focused instead, as they have been for decades, on Israel, not the brewing storm in our own country.”
Anti-Semitism was also the focus of a conference in Israel on May 12–14. In preparation for it, another ADL leader, Sharon Nazarian, wrote an article in which she complained that “too many Jews are giving racist far-right movements” a “free pass.” Why? Because these movements are “pro-Israel.”
Let’s review: This moment is unique in its severity. It is a moment to speak up — and Jews don’t. Jews don’t speak up because their focus is Israel.
More than anti-Semitism changed in the last three decades — it is we Jews who changed. It is our response to anti-Semitic incidents that changed.
Is any of this true? One wonders. By the ADL’s own account, 2017 was not the worst year of anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. It was the second-worst since 1994. Now, scratch your head: Was Donald Trump president in 1994? Was it a year in which a focus on Israel prevented Jews from speaking out against anti-Semitism? Was Netanyahu in power at the time, allying Israel with anti-Semitic right-wingers?
No, it was Bill Clinton. And it was Yitzhak Rabin. And yes, there were incidents of Jews being attacked in the U.S. because of Middle East tensions and terrorism. And no, as far as I can remember — and some research seems to confirm my recollection — fewer Jews were using anti-Semitism as a political tool with which to hammer the office of the president, or the government of Israel, or Jewish leaders for “not doing enough.”
Looking back at 1994 and going through the long list of 2017 incidents (“Swastika found in restroom at high school – Lexington, Ky.”) helps one understand that more than anti-Semitism changed in the past three decades — it is we Jews who changed. It is our response to anti-Semitic incidents that changed.
Much more so than in the past, we point fingers at one another as we search for the mysterious factors that ignite anti-Semitism. We see anti-Semitism everywhere, we use anti-Semitism for thinly vailed political purposes, and we identify anti-Semitism among our ideological rivals while turning a blind eye to anti-Semitism within our own ideological camps. As Andrew Silow-Caroll aptly explained: Partisanship makes it “harder for Jews to agree on what constitutes the greatest anti-Semitic threat of the moment.”
Consider U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman’s response to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’ calling him a “son of a dog”: “Anti-Semitism or political discourse? Not for me to judge. I will leave that up to you,” Friedman said in a speech at the Sixth Global Forum for Combating Antisemitism on March 19.
Abbas deserves to be condemned for this ugly statement. But should we jump to the conclusion that “son of a dog” is anti-Semitic? Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak directed the term at Yasser Arafat in 1994, when Arafat refused to sign a document of the Oslo Accord in Cairo. “You kalb ibn kalb, you dog son of a dog, I am the host! What do you think you’re doing!” Mubarak yelled at him.
Is Abbas anti-Semitic? Surely, he has a questionable track-record of Holocaust denial. Was his comment against Friedman anti-Semitic or just ugly Middle East style? In today’s atmosphere, the answer of many Jews to this question will depend on ideology: Right-wing Jews will call it anti-Semitism, in their quest to delegitimize Abbas; left-wing Jews will call it a manifestation of frustration and anger, in their quest to delegitimize Friedman.
Maybe what we need is a Global Forum for Combating the Politicizing of Jewish Affairs.