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How American progressives normalize anti-Semitism

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It is no secret that American progressives have become increasingly unsympathetic – some might say antagonistic or hostile – toward Israel. Members of “the Squad” in the House of Representatives, for example, voted against funding for Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system, even though its uses are solely defensive. Some friends of Israel have attributed such votes to anti-Semitism, but that is a mistake. There can be either principled or bigoted motives for questioning military aid to Israel, now in the seventh decade of occupying Palestine’s West Bank, and it is important to avoid confusing the two phenomena. 

Just as critics of Israel should not reflexively be accused of bad intentions, neither should expressions of anti-Semitism be brushed off as only anti-Zionism. Regrettably, there is a demonstrated tendency among American progressives to make excuses when their confreres use overtly anti-Jewish memes or stereotypes directed at Israel, to the point that anti-Semitism is becoming a normalized aspect of liberal discourse in the United States.

Recently in The Hill, I explained how criticism of Israel can cross the line to anti-Semitism by invoking ancient anti-Jewish conspiracy theories. A prime offender was a then-serving member of the Virginia House of Delegates named Ibraheem Samirah, who tweeted the fevered accusation that Israel was “enabling oil wars burning our planet,” including the “Iran-Iraq war [that] killed MILLIONS of Iraqis and Iranians.” In another tweet, Samirah claimed that the “Mossad creates fossil fuel wars [and] the WMD lie Colin Powell spewed to the world to justify the Iraq war.” 

Those sentiments seemed like an obvious starting point for identifying anti-Semitism because they are recognizable as an updated “blood libel,” similar to those leveled at Jews for centuries. Actor Mel Gibson, far from a progressive, made a similar outburst when arrested for drunk driving, shouting “the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world.” 

Even such a blatantly bigoted screed, however, can evidently be rationalized if characterized in anti-Israel terms. In an unfortunately typical response to my essay, I received an email from a well-regarded First Amendment scholar who gave me permission to publish it. In defense of Samirah, he explained:

“He is a Palestinian-American who hates Israel’s policies and believes (correctly) that Mossad is a powerful secretive agency capable of quite nasty things. But being anti-Israel and anti-Mossad doesn’t make you anti-Semitic. If you hate Israel and hate Mossad, then you may latch on to anything negative to say about them, no matter how dubious the argument. . . .

“Consider this analogy: I am anti-Putin and anti-KGB. I am anti-Russia, but not anti-Russian. I attribute all sorts of evil things and murderous conspiracies to Putin and the KGB that they vigorously deny, and I think I’m quite right to do it, but my hatred of Putin does make me vulnerable to believing dubious conspiracy theories and perhaps even descending into anti-Russian hatred. If I were a Ukrainian-American, I might be even more likely to say anything bad about the KGB and Putin, no matter how dubious the grounds. But that wouldn’t necessarily make me someone who hates anyone of Russian origins.”

In reasoning all too common among American progressives, anti-Jewish conspiracy theories, steeped in millennia of persecution, become merely “dubious arguments.” Intellectually severed from existential threats to an endangered minority, they are recast as mere rhetorical excesses of the sort routinely endured in everyday politics. That is the definition of normalization. 

I doubt that anyone would make such light of other forms of thinly veiled racism. Did post-9/11 Islamophobes, such as Laura Loomer and Pamela Geller, protest the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” because they hate terrorism? Did Derek Chauvin, the murderer of George Floyd, hate counterfeiting? Did the Detroit autoworkers who killed Vincent Chin hate Asian imports? Did Trump adviser Stephen Miller, the instigator of children in cages, merely hate undocumented immigration? And was Donald Trump’s own disdain for “shithole countries” unrelated to the people who happen live there? In these cases, and many others, American progressives are easily able to recognize the underlayment of racism, although the perpetrators insist otherwise. When it comes to anti-Semitism, however, the backdrop is frequently dodged, sanitized or flatly denied. 

Especially insidious is the definitional limitation of anti-Semitism to interpersonal animosity. Thus, references to manipulating governments and warmongering are overlookable if they are accompanied by an “I don’t ‘hate anyone’” disclaimer. 

A profession of affinity, however, is a classic way to discount prejudice. Donald Trump proudly pointed to “my African American” during the 2016 campaign, to demonstrate his pure heart, and even Mel Gibson probably had some Jewish drinking buddies. But voting for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) does not excuse spreading anti-Semitic conspiracy memes any more than voting for Barack Obama confronted structural racism.

Nonetheless, I will remember the Putin analogy whenever I come across “The Protocols of the Elders of Moscow,” or when I hear stories of Russian kidnappers using children’s blood in religious rituals. The belittling comparison to non-existent anti-Russianism demotes anti-Semitism to the level of an imaginary prejudice that can be noted and dismissed. It is similar in spirit to the anti-vaxx protestors who wear yellow stars to protest so-called vaccine passports.

Although the anti-vaxxers seldom hate individual Jews, their trivialization of the Holocaust – equating genocide to exclusion from restaurants or mandatory indoor masking – is still a manifestation of anti-Semitism.

It has become commonplace on the American left to condemn anti-Semitism among neo-Nazis and white supremacists, while viewing its anti-Israel instantiations as only overheated taunting, or perhaps just an expression of poor taste. There is painfully scant realization, for whatever reason, that ambient anti-Semitism has never in history led to anything truly progressive. It is a short step from normalizing anti-Semitism to enabling it, which will assuredly be worse. 

Steven Lubet is Williams Memorial Professor at the Northwestern University School of Law. His new book is “The Trials of Rasmea Odeh: How a Palestinian Guerrilla Gained and Lost U.S. Citizenship.”

Tags Anti-Zionism Antisemitic canard Antisemitism Barack Obama Bernie Sanders Colin Powell Criticism of the Israeli government Donald Trump Israel mel gibson New antisemitism Racism Stephen Miller

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