The definition of anti-Semitism, and who gets condemned for it, has become a major political battle in recent years. The Trump administration required colleges to prohibit a controversial definition of anti-Semitism that included criticism of the Israeli government. Ironically, Donald Trump himself recently used anti-Semitic tropes in an interview that condemned Jewish Americans, but this conservative anti-Semitism receives remarkably little coverage from rightwing media outlets. Yet the belief that progressives are the ones primarily responsible for ignoring anti-Semitism is common.
In his recent essay for The Hill, “How American progressives normalize anti-Semitism,” law professor Steven Lubet quotes an anonymous “well-regarded First Amendment scholar” he deems guilty of normalizing “thinly veiled racism.” Since I am the scholar Lubet quoted, I want to defend my position publicly. While the many people who have never heard of me would dismiss the term “well-regarded,” and everyone should question whether my personal beliefs represent the entire progressive movement, my core complaint with Lubet’s analysis is that he seems to accuse anyone who disagrees with his assessments of anti-Semitism of normalizing hatred.
Lubet’s key evidence of me normalizing anti-Semitism is my largely indifferent response to a Virginia state legislator who reacted to a media report that Mossad had known two decades ago that the Bush administration was exaggerating claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. As Lubet noted, this legislator “tweeted the fevered accusation that Israel was ‘enabling oil wars burning our planet.’”
While Lubet calls this a “blood libel” (which it definitely isn’t, unless someone thinks Mossad used the war in Iraq to supply its cafeteria), I see it as an example of conspiratorial thinking about government agencies. The truth is that secret organizations such as the KGB, the CIA, and Mossad are powerful and sometimes malicious, which leads some people to imagine conspiracy theories and attribute vast power to them. No, we can’t ignore the long history of anti-Semitism and how it inspires conspiracies about powerful Jews. But we also shouldn’t presume that every conspiracy theory involving Israel is inherently anti-Semitic.
Blaming Mossad for the Bush administration’s war in Iraq is certainly misguided and conspiratorial, and perhaps it is anti-Semitism. But I prefer to see more evidence of anti-Semitic motivation before I accuse a conspiracy nut of “blood libel.” I think we should compile extensive evidence before we attribute hateful intent to every bad idea blurted out on social media. I denounced Rutgers professor Michael Chikindas for his anti-Semitism because the evidence was overwhelming, but I think bigotry needs substantial proof.
One reason why I am reluctant to see anti-Semitism in every harsh critique of Israel is because of the widespread movement to silence criticism of the Israeli government by punishing such expression as a form of anti-Semitism. An exaggerated accusation of anti-Semitism isn’t a theoretical critique, but often the first step toward a call for censorship.
To understand the problem of anti-Semitism, we should focus more on truly influential figures (such as the former president of the United States) rather than minor ones, and be more careful to avoid knee-jerk assessments of bigotry over every stupid idea.
For example, I think Donald Trump is a white supremacist (and devoted an entire chapter in my book about him to make my case), but I would not assert that Trump’s false claims accusing Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaWhat does the Preamble to the Constitution have to do with Build Back Better? White House underscores action amid violent crime streak Biden frustration with Fox News breaks through surface MORE of ordering the FBI to spy on him are evidence of racism. Sometimes a dumb conspiracy theory is just dumb, and not proof of bigotry, even when a bigot says it.
Still, Lubet is correct to worry that some people excuse anti-Semitism for political reasons when it’s committed by their ideological allies. His error is assuming that progressives are the ones normalizing anti-Semitism today.
Instead, the refusal to condemn bigotry is much more common today among conservatives. In a recent interview, Trump complained that “the Jewish people in the United States either don't like Israel or don't care about Israel” and denounced the “Jewish people that run the New York Times.” Trump’s anti-Semitism received some mainstream media attention, including The Hill’s headline: “Trump evokes antisemitic tropes, says Jewish Americans 'don't like Israel.”'
But conservatives who support Trump were notable for their silence. I searched FoxNews.com for any coverage of Trump’s discussion of Jews, and there was nothing — a remarkable omission for a network that obsessively covers nearly everything that Trump says and does. But a Fox News article a few days earlier did declare “Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarSenate needs to confirm Deborah Lipstadt as antisemitism envoy — Now Overnight Defense & National Security — DOD watchdog to review extremism screening Omar calls for closure of Guantánamo Bay prison after 20 years of 'lawlessness and cruelty' MORE part of 'systemic' anti-Semitism,” based on far weaker evidence than Trump’s own anti-Semitic tropes.
At a time when leftwing voices are regularly censored for criticizing Israeli policy using false accusations of anti-Semitism, while anti-Semitism by the most powerful conservative figures in the world goes largely ignored, I don’t see any need to apologize for my consistent, principled opposition to anti-Semitism. The hypocrites here are the conservatives who try to silence progressives under the pretense of fighting anti-Semitism while they continue to ignore Donald Trump’s bigotry.
John K. Wilson is the author of eight books, including “Patriotic Correctness: Academic Freedom and Its Enemies” and “President Trump Unveiled: Exposing the Bigoted Billionaire.”