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The troubling new visibility of anti-Semitism

Linda Sarsour speaks at a rally in Foley

Linda Sarsour speaks at a rally in Foley Square to protest the Trump muslim ban on June 26, 2018. Credit: Jeff Bachner

One troubling sign of the times is the new visibility of anti-Semitism in the Western world, more than 70 years after the horrors of Nazism had seemingly driven this ancient bigotry beyond the pale of acceptability.

Some forms of Jew-hatred are obvious and universally condemned: There is no debate about the internet bottom-feeders who troll Jewish social media users with Adolf Hitler memes, or the slightly more sophisticated white supremacist ideologues who blame Jews for infecting Western culture with decadence and diversity. But the question of what is and what isn’t anti-Semitic can get much more complicated, particularly when the animus is directed at Zionism, the belief that Jews should have their own state in Palestine.

Last week, Brooklyn-based progressive activist Linda Sarsour, known for her outspoken anti-Zionist views — she has argued, for example, that Zionist women cannot be true feminists — came under fire for a remark that critics said crossed the line into overt anti-Semitism.  Speaking at the conference of American Muslims for Palestine in Chicago, Sarsour assailed progressive Zionists who oppose white supremacy in the United States but support Israel, a state “built on the idea that Jews are supreme to everyone else.” The idea that Jews believe in Jewish supremacy is an anti-Semitic trope. 

After an outcry, Sarsour sought to clarify her comment, saying she was referring to Israel’s recent nation-state law which specifies that national self-determination in Israel is “unique to the Jewish people.” But that explanation makes little sense, since most progressive Zionists in the United States or in Israel, have opposed that legislation.

This is just one of several recent controversies over anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism on the left. In England, there is a simmering conflict over what many say is virulent anti-Semitism in the Labour Party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, a man who has described the terror groups Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends.” While Corbyn has condemned anti-Semitism, numerous Jewish Labour supporters have said Zionist-bashing has increasingly taken the overt form of Jew-bashing. Nearly half of British Jews have said they would “seriously consider” emigrating if Corbyn becomes prime minister after the upcoming election. 

Meanwhile in France, plagued by a rise in sometimes violent anti-Semitism, the parliament has overwhelmingly voted for a resolution urging adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism, which states that certain forms of anti-Zionism — such as comparing Israel with Nazi Germany or equating Zionism with racism — are anti-Semitic. Yet many French Jewish intellectuals oppose the resolution, which they believe risks delegitimizing criticism of Israel.

Such questions are tackled by New York Times opinion writer Bari Weiss in her insightful book, “How to Fight Anti-Semitism.” Weiss stresses that criticizing Israeli policies is distinct from attacking Israel’s very existence not only as the Jewish state, but also as the world’s largest Jewish community. 

One could say that Weiss’ position is too sweeping. But in practice, strident anti-Zionism — whether in the Soviet Union in the 1970s, in many Arab countries in recent decades or among Western progressives — tends to turn into antipathy toward Jews (unless they’re “good Jews” who renounce Zionism).

Recognizing this does not mean overlooking the threat of anti-Semitism on the right, including its subtler versions. Populism and nativism, ascendant in mainstream American and European conservatism today, have historically had an anti-Semitic streak. 

But there is a special danger in progressive prejudice that, as Weiss notes, can appeal to decent people by donning the cloak of advocacy for the oppressed. Without suppressing debate, we should recognize this threat. 

Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.

Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly stated the title of Bari Weiss' book, "How to Fight Anti-Semitism."

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