I was caught off guard by a slew of messages and social media posts after the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), the organization I head, condemned the Charlottesville white supremacy march. “What about anti-Semitism on the left?” more than a few asked. Does that mean, I wondered, that every time we speak out against left-wing anti-Semitism we should condemn a Nazi?
Jewish organizations should, of course, fight against anti-Jewish bigotry on both the right and the left. But that doesn’t mean we should do it at the same time or even in the same manner.
Anti-Semitism on the two ends of the political spectrum manifests itself in distinctive ways, dictating different strategies, tactics and messages.
In dealing with anti-Semitism on the right, we should employ an isolation strategy designed to keep Jew hatred on the margins. Right-wing extremists tend to express their wrath toward Jews in the classical vernacular. They send messages to Jewish reporters that they’ll end up in the ovens. Or march outside a synagogue chanting “Jews will not replace us.” Or accuse Jews of controlling the media and the banks.
Right-wing anti-Semites tend to leave little to the imagination. Such abhorrent views have long been rendered unacceptable in American public discourse.
And while right-wing anti-Semites may be gaining ground in the current political atmosphere, the strategy for combating them remains the same as it has for decades: to enlist political and civic leaders — particularly mainstream conservatives — to condemn anti-Semitism whenever it rears its ugly head. Although President Trump fell woefully short in denouncing the march in Charlottesville, many mainstream conservatives spoke out in no uncertain terms. When anti-Semitism is so blatant, the isolation strategy can still keep the bigotry in check.
Anti-Semitism on the left is another matter entirely. While it’s sometimes expressed in crude and classical forms, as when leftist anti-Semites compare Israelis to Nazis, it’s often couched in the subtler tropes of anti-Zionism and anti-Israelism. Such expressions of leftist anti-Semitism include applying a double standard to Israel’s conduct by criticizing the Jewish state in a manner that one wouldn’t normally criticize other democratic nations or denying the Jewish people the right to self-determination.
While it may be obvious to many Jews that these are forms of bias, it may not be so obvious to the average university administrator, student government president, labor leader or environmental activist. Notwithstanding our best efforts to label such vicious anti-Israel activity as anti-Semitism, many people continue to see discrimination against Israel as merely harsh criticism leveled against a country.
For example, numerous attempts to get universities to treat rampant anti-Israel activity on college campuses as classical anti-Semitism have failed to convince the powers that be that such activity is indeed bigotry. University administrators and government bureaucrats, among others, just haven’t come to accept that pestering Jewish students at a mock checkpoint on the campus quad is equivalent to, say, painting faces black at a fraternity party. And they’ve routinely ruled against our petitions arguing that a pattern of the anti-Israel activity on campus constitutes a “hostile environment” and justifies intervention from the university.
In other words, the isolation strategy seems to work only when anti-Semitism is obvious to most people and falls flat when it’s not. It thus generally works well in combating the right-wing variety but not the left’s.
The main approach to battling anti-Semitism on the left is not isolation but engagement. The engagement strategy seeks to identify and reach out to those “fence sitters” on the left who are susceptible to a narrative that delegitimizes Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. The engagement strategy does not seek to convince the undecideds that anti-Israel activity is anti-Semitic — that doesn’t usually work — but rather that the conflict is more complex than the Israel detractor’s simplistic arguments would have them believe. It has the added benefit of being completely true and authentic. By exposing thoughtful progressives to a more nuanced view of the conflict, they can be inoculated against extremist propaganda coming from the other side.
Like the isolation strategy, the engagement strategy is designed to contain anti-Semitism on the social margins, but by persuading rather than shaming.
It’s time that American Jews who care about fighting anti-Semitism become a little less reflexive and a little more sophisticated in how we can truly make a difference in ameliorating the oldest hatred.
David Bernstein is CEO and president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA).