Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Being Jewish in America

It’s a tough time to be Jewish in America.

To be fair, it’s a rough time being Jewish anywhere, anytime. Things are definitely worse in parts of Europe than they are in the USA. But all the same, things are getting rocky in the Goldine Medine. The numbers speak for themselves. And above it all, the trauma from the October murder of 11 Jews during Shabbat services at Squirrel Hill still looms large.

Amidst all this, what is dominating our news cycles is not the bullet holes in an Ohio synagogue, nor the swastikas that appeared on a yeshiva that was set on fire in New York State, nor the swastikas that appeared on the L train in NYC last week, or vicious antisemitic violence in Crown Heights the week before. Instead, what is dominating our news cycles is outrage over ill-conceived statements by Rep. Ihlan Omar.

This is not to say that Omar should not be held accountable for implying that Jews secretly control Congress through use of bribery and other manipulation, or that American Jews are secretly more loyal to Israel than to America. She absolutely should be held accountable — which is why it is good that she apologized (at first). On the flip side, neither is it acceptable that so many have responded to Omar with truly disgusting imagery rooted in bigotry, Islamophobia, and racism — or latched onto Omar and yet continue to ignore the veritable flood of bigotry and antisemitism coming from across the political aisle. It is inappropriate, morally reprehensible, and contributes nothing good to our already overheated political scene. The scandal roils onward. And violent antisemitism — the majority of it from the far-right — continues unabated.

This is exhausting.

But more than that, it is isolating.

When antisemitism becomes a partisan issue — as it quickly has in this case — Jews lose. As David Schraub cogently notes in writing for JTA, “Our public discourse about anti-Semitism seems almost immune to being influenced by what the actual Jewish community wants to talk about.”

“The net effect is that most Jews are silenced. We may speak the words, but they go unheard.”

Omar’s words, wrong-headed as they were, only became this large of an issue because they were convenient for the right-wing to weaponize against her and the Democratic Party at large. That is why the other incidents mentioned earlier, while more egregious, have received such little airtime — something that Rep. Max Rose explicitly detailed. But because the majority of American Jews are Democrats, there is also an element of betrayal at play. We have been hurt by someone many of us likely considered a political and social ally not just because of her party affiliation, but also because her status as a fellow minority in America. Why doesn’t she get it?

More disturbing, Omar’s own Jewish constituents have noted that they have tried to reach out to their representative and help her understand the issue — to no avail. “If you claim you are sensitive to these things, yet you keep repeating behavior that displays lack of sensitivity, at one point is that emblematic of an underlying attitude?” asked Minnesota state senator Ron Latz, who had hosted a meeting with Rep. Omar in his own home. It is not a stretch to say that many Jews around the country feel similarly frustrated when faced with the denial, stonewalling, and erasure from their non-Jewish peers on the issue.

In an interview with the Times of Israel, renowned Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt said, “I compare anti-Semitism to herpes. For most of the time we’ve had herpes, it couldn’t be cured. And if you were suddenly under stress, boom, up would come a herpes infection. Anti-Semitism is like herpes. When a society is under stress, it appears.”

Lipstadt continues, “If you’re only seeing [antisemitism] on the opposite side of the transom, you’re instrumentalizing this for political purposes.”

The result is that the issues of antisemitism and the safety of Jews in America are not treated as legitimate by either party. We are effectively tokenized for political purposes, a profoundly dehumanizing act, all the more insulting when it is presented in the guise of allyship. On the left, things are little better: for example, we see full-throated apologetics that insist that Omar “did nothing wrong.” In the interest of defending their political tribe, Jews are thrown under the bus. Antisemitism is hand-waved away out of sheer convenience — or worse, justified for the sake of politics.

When it comes to Omar, it’s not hard to see that the freshman (Black, Muslim, female) Congresswoman has received far more ire than her (white, male, Christian) peers who peddle bigotry of their own. However, many of her defenders mix up defending Omar from an unfair standard she is held to with defending her harmful language.

Part of the problem is that Omar simply has her facts wrong. Her flip comments on the issue show that she doesn’t understand AIPAC specifically, doesn’t understand how lobbying works in general, coupled with a broad ignorance about why most Americans in either party are pro-Israel at all. She fundamentally does not understand something about most of the country. But more disturbing yet is that the architecture of her statements about Israel show a world-view that lends itself to conspiratorial thinking about Israel. That’s both ignorant and dangerous when turned against a minority group, as has been done here. Bad enough when it’s coming from a peer — but worse when it’s coming from a member of Congress.

Omar seems to have trouble understanding that this isn’t a word game, or a game of gotcha — but so do her supporters, likely because they also carry around this type of subtle conspiratorial sort of thinking about Israel and the concept of Jewish power. While many of her defenders consider themselves proudly anti-racist, they are unable and unwilling to accept that their conception of what antisemitism is and how it functions may be limited. They think they know what the lines are, and will show support in the face of right-wing antisemitic violence, and yet simultaneously be dismissive of Jewish concerns precisely because they’ve already drawn their conclusions, leaving no room for them to even consider the possibility that there are forms of antisemitism they are incapable of recognizing in themselves or others — leading them to justify bigotry in the face of broad Jewish concern.

Often, these justifications can feel like a form of gaslighting. It usually boils down to “stop whining, you white, privileged Jews.” (This of course assumes that all American Jews are white, privileged, or both.) Following this, one can usually expect an unasked for lecture about what Jews “really” are and what “really counts” as antisemitism — deliberately erasing any Jewish perspective on our own lives. This is, in part, simply how antisemitism works. Unlike other forms of more familiar bigotries in the USA (ex, anti-blackness), antisemitism is not predicated on outward markers like skin colour or cultural costume. Rather, it functions by falsely positing Jews and Jewishness as categorically privileged, if not uber-privileged at the expense of the everyman (and conveniently allowing the actual powers that be a handy-dandy scapegoat). In the common parlance of today, antisemitism looks a lot like punching up — hence its description as “the socialism of fools.”

In the her 2007 zine “The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere,” April Rosenblum effectively breaks down antisemitism and what it looks like, directly talking to liberal and progressive activists about how to recognize antisemitism for what it is and how to effectively challenge it without sacrificing one’s goals or ideals (though the information and advice is applicable regardless of one’s personal political proclivities).

I wish Rep. Ihlan Omar would read this zine. I fervently wish her defenders would read it, as the zine has a nifty little chart that breaks down exactly what kind of rhetoric, including Omar’s, is problematic — and why.

Rosenblum’s zine recommends education and anti-antisemitism training for people and organizations. If only things were so simple. Complicating the issue of how to combat antisemitism is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Naturally, there is nothing in the world that excuses antisemitism, and the notion that Israel “causes” antisemitism is specious. But despite the opinions of American Jewry, most of whom poll fairly moderately on the issue, the conflict looms very large in the social imagination, and acts as a wedge to divide and polarize. In a 2017 interview, Imam Abdullah Antepli called it “the main obstacle dividing our [Muslim and Jewish] communities.”

Muslims and Jews make up a tiny percentage of America’s total population, 1.1% and 2% respectively, but both groups also occupy a very large portion in the American imagination far out of proportion to their actual numbers. Imam Antepli notes that “Jews and Muslims everywhere have become proxy foot soldiers, defining each other as adversaries through the prism of this conflict. There’s nothing wrong with being pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian, for lack of better terms, but defining an entire community in the context of that conflict is suffocating us and empowering anti-Semites in the Muslim world and anti-Muslims in the Jewish world.”

Writing for Vox, Zack Beauchamp says that the need for the political left to address the issue is dire, despite not being the source of most of the antisemitic violence in the USA. “There is a special need on the left — where most pro-Palestinian sentiment resides — to be careful about just how you discuss those things. It’s not just a matter of providing ammunition to the David Dukes of the world; it’s about the moral corruption of the left and pro-Palestinian movement.”

“If references to the baleful influence of Jews on Israel policy become too flip, too easy, things can go really wrong.”

Even lobbies have started speaking out about the issue. During the last round of this media frenzy, JStreet, a comparatively dove-ish lobbying group that has spent far more money than AIPAC, released a statement condemning the weaponization and oversimplification of the Israel debate, as “this pattern of overheated, ill-considered and reductive attacks, playing out on social media and in the press, has failed to address these issues with the nuance, sensitivity and seriousness that they deserve. It does nothing to advance the true interests and needs of Israelis or Palestinians, nor those of the American Jewish community.”

“Elected officials must be extremely aware that tropes about Jewish money and political influence have been used for centuries to target and stigmatize our community…Elected officials should also refrain from labeling all criticism of Israeli actions or policies as “anti-Semitic,” in a transparent effort to silence legitimate discussion and debate. Such attacks only undermine the vital effort to counter the actual scourge of anti-Semitism in the United States and around the world.”

And there’s the rub. Education and outreach are part of the solution to this thorny problem, but they take time, effort, and a willing partner to build bridges with. There’s a lot of work to do, but increasingly, little space to do it in. When our communities are leveraged against each other for political clout, we all lose. When our peers refuse to listen, and when we refuse to listen to our peers, we all lose.

Imam Antepli noted that “Jewish and Muslim communities cannot defeat anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim bigotry on their own. We need each other. We need to be conversation partners. We need to develop a deeper, sustained relationship that can withstand the violence of another Gaza war or the diplomatic disappointment of another Oslo Accords.”

“We have no time to lose. If not now, when?”

Writer, journalist, analyst, and editor. I have too many emotions and not enough sleep.

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