The past week has seen a shocking outbreak of anti-Semitic violence in New York and elsewhere. A man badly beaten in Times Square simply for being Jewish; firecrackers thrown at Jewish-owned businesses in midtown Manhattan — these are things that we would like to believe simply don’t happen in America. But, along with revulsion and condemnation, the attacks have also provoked political soul-searching: the assailants were not neo-Nazis and white supremacists but protesters waving Palestinian flags.
Such Israel-linked displays of anti-Semitic hate are, regrettably, not new in Europe, where London and several other cities have also seen a rash of such incidents in the wake of clashes between the Israeli government and Hamas. Now, this is America’s problem, too. Suddenly, the debate on whether anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism is a lot less academic.
Certainly, Israeli government policies can be criticized like those of any other country — and are often criticized by people who consider themselves Zionists. But a lot of progressive rhetoric about Israel does not so much critique as demonize the Jewish state, treating it as uniquely violent and oppressive and accusing it of apartheid and genocide. Meanwhile, Hamas’ long history of not only targeting Israeli civilians but terrorizing Palestinians in the territories under its control — particularly gay people, women who defy strict Islamic norms, and anyone suspected of collaborating with Israel — is ignored.
Soviet-born Jewish commentator Izabella Tabarovsky has pointed out that in the Soviet Union, anti-Zionist rhetoric demonizing Israel often served as a transparent cover for anti-Semitism — and that the rhetoric on the left today has uncanny similarities.
Obviously, Jews living in the United States and other countries should not be treated as representatives of Israel — by anti-Israel activists or pro-Israel politicians. But the reality is that most Jews worldwide support Israel, and anti-Israel polemics routinely vilify Israel’s Jewish supporters. The Anti-Defamation League points out, for example, that the militant campus group Students for Justice in Palestine has compared pro-Israel students to white supremacists and Ku Klux Klan members and tried to get pro-Israel groups such as Hillel barred from campus events.
When Jewish students say that anti-Israel militancy on campus makes them feel unsafe, one could see this as a version of "politically correct" hypersensitivity about offensive opinions. But after the recent outbreaks of violence, such concerns cannot be easily shrugged off: they may refer to actual, and justified, fear of violence.
President Biden and Vice President Harris have both condemned anti-Semitic hate crimes in the strongest terms. Unfortunately, many figures from party’s progressive wing and its allies, from Sen. Bernie Sanders to Congressmembers Ayanna Pressley and Jamaal Bowman to New York Councilman Brad Lander, have issued more general condemnations coupling anti-Semitism with Islamophobia and other forms of hate. Critics point out that they did not similarly broaden the focus when denouncing anti-Black or anti-Asian bias crimes.
None of this means that we should ignore anti-Semitism on the far right, or the Republican Party’s entanglement with fringe elements that promote anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. But the left should not be let off the hook, either. Progressives often warn that strident denunciations of China by conservatives and centrists can turn into "yellow peril" rhetoric that promotes anti-Asian hate (even though most Asian Americans oppose China’s communist leadership). They need to look closer to home when it comes to Israel and anti-Jewish hate.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine.