On Antisemitism Fought

How should Jews fight antisemitism?

American Jews have mulled this question for a long time, but it has garnered particularly zealous attention over the last six years. A veritable library-shelf of recent books, urban rallies, sprawling twitter threads, viral hashtag campaigns, well-funded start-up not-for-profits, data-packed surveys, and other feverish activity have been driven by the nightmarish feeling that antisemitism is worsening in the United States and must be combatted.

Anyone who reads my scribblings likely knows that though I sympathize with Jews’ fears about Jew-hatred, I remain skeptical that it is measurably worse now than it has been in previous eras. Regardless, in this essay I’d like to take that contention as axiomatic — let’s assume that antisemitism has indeed become more of a problem of late. Here I’d like to examine why the proposed solutions to that frightening reality are so, well, underwhelming.

Before you get upset at me, please know that I write this in the spirit of constructive criticism. I think exploring how some have answered this question will help us understand how our theories of antisemitism can dictate our solutions to antisemitism. When the solutions turn out to be insipid, we may wish to return to our theories in the first instance.

My basic contention here is that if we think antisemitism is systemic, and if we think we are currently living through a period where it’s systemic qualities are more pronounced, we may wish to consider responses to it that are themselves targeted at the economic, technological or legal systems that help produce antisemitism. That many Jewish leaders and thinkers haven’t gone to this place as of yet, barring one crucial exception, is worthy of further inquiry. I hope this piece encourages precisely that.

On the heals of a violent attack on a rabbi in Boston and another round of Israel-Hamas violence that generated assaults on Jews in the US and Britain, organizers convened a “NO FEAR: Rally in Solidarity with the Jewish People” in Washington, DC. The July 2021 gathering, which attracted a few thousand to the mall, offered the ideal forum for politicians, celebrities, and other figures of note to rollout their vision for how to stop Jew-hatred in its tracks.

Some ideas that emerged from the speeches included:

  • Television pundit Meghan McCain: “We will not let [antisemitism] happen here in the United States of America…We cannot be quiet, we cannot be silent, and first and foremost above all else, we cannot be scared.”

Unafraid protest, bipartisan unity, Jewish education and pride — these are the responses that the speakers provided.

They are all no doubt important in their own right, but I also find the general approach rather puzzling. None of the rally speakers, I’d imagine, think the instances of antisemitism they had come to protest were random or disparate. Likely they think these incidents were stitched together by an invisible, transhistorical force called “antisemitism”. They all ostensibly believe that this force goes through periods where it is latent but then periods where it is more prevalent, festers within multiple and varying political circles, and can inspire anything from venomous speech to macabre acts of violence. This is because this bigoted force is in some way embedded in society, produced and reproduced regardless of how friendly and sympathetic most American may be towards Jews.

But doesn’t this mean that antisemitism is, to use a favored word in our contemporary political lexicon, systemic? And if antisemitism is indeed a systemic force, doesn’t that demand more than just attitudinal or other dispositional responses to counter it?

I don’t have any silver bullet solutions myself, but I can still limn what bolder, more far-reaching rejoinders to antisemitism might look like. If social media is a caustic gullet of antisemitic bile, maybe Jews should push for tech companies to more vigorously moderate their content. If latter-day Nazis and their ilk are more of a threat today than ever before, maybe Jews should entertain limits on group libel that hide behind the shield of free speech (there’s in fact some historical precedent to this; see University of Virginia Jewish historian James Loeffler’s terrific article). If political polarization is part of the problem, maybe Jews should embrace electoral reforms that make elections more competitive and empower voting majorities. If antisemitism flows downstream from socioeconomic marginalization, or from the scourge of mental health problems, maybe Jews should get behind a reinvigorated welfare state. You get the idea.

Perhaps I’m being unfairly critical of a rally that was meant to uplift Jewish spirits and convey to the broader public a sense of Jewish defiance rather than offer discreet policy responses. But if you consider wider punditry on this issue I think you’ll find that the rally was largely in-line with reigning approaches.

One of the most successful books to advance answers to this question has been Bari Weiss’s How To Fight Antisemitism. The vast majority of the book is devoted to documenting how, in Weiss’s view, antisemitism is part of our “cultural DNA” and therefore ubiquitous on the political right and left (33). This happens to be a favored way in the US of describing racism against blacks, which is deemed to be systemic in nature, as well. Nikole Hannah Jones, for instance, wrote in the inaugural “1619 Project” New York Times Magazine issue: “Anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country.”

Only the final chapter of Weiss’s book actually takes up the titular query. A few answers that represent the chapter’s largely attitudinal approach to the systemic problem of antisemitism include: call out antisemitism even when it’s hard, display your Jewish pride unafraid, expect solidarity from neighbors and allies, disavow identity politics, remain committed to “liberalism”, support Israel, and “nurture” your Jewish identity.

Or consider another leading writer on antisemitism, Yair Rosenberg. Just this past week, Rosenberg took up the question as posed to him by a reader of his popular Atlantic newsletter, Deep Shtetl. By his lights, the answer lies primarily in education and outreach:

(a) full-spectrum anti-Semitism education and curricula that incorporate the Holocaust but do not reduce anti-Semitism to genocide; (b) proactive efforts to humanize Jewish people and explain Judaism to non-Jewish communities and schools…(c) bottom-up approaches to countering anti-Semitism and the ignorance that causes it, rather than just top-down efforts to work with elites and people in power to punish it…working with grassroots populations and everyday people in their communities and schools prevents problems before they occur, and is not susceptible to this anti-Semitic dynamic.

Rosenberg’s suggestions are intriguing and constructive. But they’re also rooted in the assumption that Jew-hatred largely emanates from wider ignorance about Jews that can be mitigated via education. And that’s curious to me because, like Weiss, Rosenberg too thinks that antisemitism is a structural phenomenon rooted in western history and culture. In a recent video Rosenberg produced as part of an illuminating explainer series on this topic, the narrator speaks of a “massive antisemitic foundation” of which the Holocaust is only the uppermost floor. Again, can we really rely solely on relational approaches to respond to a vast and immense systemic problem such as this?

How might we understand the conundrum of approaches to antisemitism that affirm its systemic nature but advance comparatively meager responses to fight it?

I don’t have an easy answers to this difficult question, but one theory worth considering is that the ways a lot of Jews conceive of antisemitism generates this kind of approach. Consider again Weiss’s book, which I think was successful in part because it confirmed the preconceptions many Jews already carried about antisemitism. For Weiss antisemitism is decidedly not a variant of racism or prejudice, but rather an “ever-morphing conspiracy theory” (31), a “grand unified theory of everything” (32), and an “intellectual disease” (33). The antisemitism Jews in the west face today, she says, is the product of “thousands of years mutations.”

Antisemitism for Weiss, then, is timeless and eternal. It has its roots in the origins of Christendom and has remained a malady of Christian and other civilizations ever since. It is ahistorical insofar as it remains a constant and unchanging element of the substratum of the world Jews inhabit. She thinks it can be anticipated — societies apparently embrace antisemitism when they’ve “gone mad” — but never fully eradicated. In a sense, this view of antisemitism resembles more traditional Jewish understandings that chalked up Jew-hatred to a punishment God levied on Jews that would only disappear when God deemed it pertinent to send a Messiah to save them from their diasporic afflictions.

Weiss might have other reasons for limiting her suite of responses to antisemitism to the attitudinal and dispositional, but it’s worth meditating on the possibility that her ahistorical understanding of antisemitism has something to do with it. Weiss focuses in her last chapter almost exclusively on how Jews, in her words, “orient” themselves towards enemies, allies, and themselves, and not really on bold projects that might ameliorate bigotry in American life. This reflects a remarkably deep pessimism about the prevalence of antisemitism in our world and its fundamental staying power (168). If one thinks, as Weiss, does, that antisemitism is inherently different from other forms of bigotry in its ontological salience, is it terribly surprising that one may embrace policy positions which focus more on Jewish pride than on actually taking on the problem of Jew-hatred? If one sees antisemitism as Weiss does, can it really be taken on at all?

But one need not see antisemitism in this way. One might instead see instances of Jew-hatred in different times and places as separable in origin and distinguishable in kind. One might instead conceive of Jew-hatred as not unlike other forms of prejudice even if it, like all prejudices, has certain unique characteristics. One might instead consider how Jews have devised all sorts of ways of dealing with animosity, and while some have fallen short others have succeeded or hold great promise. Approaching the problem in this way would, I think, might open avenues to different responses than the ones currently in-play.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a complicating, and befuddling, dimension to this story.

In fact, there happens to be one front where we actually have seen Jews supporting brash legislative activism to combat perceived antisemitic threats — the passage of anti-BDS laws at the state level.

To date, over thirty states have enacted measures that penalize entities or individuals who engage in boycott-related activities against Israel or the territories by severing the state’s professional or financial relationship with the boycotter. Even if these laws are of dubious constitutionality, many Jewish organizations, not to say anything of the Israeli government, have for the most part supported them.

Why are some American Jews more willing to entertain legislative solutions that are legally creative, that may attract negative attention, and that depart from a legacy of free-speech liberalism only when it comes to the matter of boycotts of Israel (consider, for instance, the American Jewish Committee’s stance on the laws)? I don’t have an easy answer to this question either. Some critics will likely see this as another example of how Jews check their liberalism at the door when passing through the threshold of Israel politics. Whether or not that’s true, I’m not sure it explains all that much. Perhaps it has something to do with how most Jews and others who consider themselves pro-Israel are opposed to BDS (though, to be sure, some polling indicates that opposition to the anti-BDS laws transcends partisan divides). Far-reaching legislative responses to domestic antisemitism that target hot-button issues — voting rights, social media regulation, limitations on free speech, whatever the response might be— are likely to be more divisive.

Regardless, we are left with the startling image of American Jews who are willing to take legally daring approaches to what they see as Jew-hatred when the hatred is directed toward a country in which they don’t live, but less willing as of yet to do the same in regards to Jew-hatred directed at them living as they do in the United States. Here again we might return to theories of antisemitism to explain this. We’d need to ponder in particular the deep connection that has obtained in the Jewish imaginary between antisemitism and Zionism, and we’d need to plumb the enormous ways in which Zionism has revolutionized how Jews understand the world in which they live.

But that’s for another piece.

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