The furies have been unleashed. They were everywhere you looked these past two weeks, though you won’t read about them much in the papers.
We saw them on Thursday, when pro-Palestinian protesters threw an explosive device into a crowd of Jews in New York’s Diamond District.
We saw them on Wednesday, when two men were attacked outside a bagel shop in midtown Manhattan.
We saw them on Tuesday, at a sushi restaurant in West Hollywood, when a group of men draped in keffiyehs asked the diners who was Jewish, and then pummeled them. And in a parking lot not far away, when two cars draped in Palestinian flags roared after an Orthodox man fleeing for his life. And in the story of the American soccer player Luca Lewis, cornered by a band of men in New York demanding to know if he was a Jew.
Then there was the caravan careening through Jewish neighborhoods in North London carrying people screaming: “Fuck the Jews! Rape their daughters!”
And the rabbi, outside London, who was hospitalized after being attacked by two teenagers.
And the demonstrator in Vienna shouting, “Shove your Holocaust up your ass!” — the crowd of young people, mostly women, cheering.
The synagogue in Skokie that was vandalized. The synagogue in Tucson that was vandalized. The synagogue in Salt Lake that was vandalized.
The pro-Israel demonstrators in Montreal pelted with rocks. And the pro-Palestinian agitators in Edmonton driving around in search of Jews.
The teeming crowds in Washington, D.C., Berlin, Bangladesh, Philadelphia and Boston and San Francisco and, of course, across the Arab world. The seemingly ubiquitous accusations of “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing.”
The Turkish president, reaching all the way back to the Middle Ages, accusing Israelis of “sucking the blood” of non-Jewish children.
Every hour on the hour, the celebrities posted their memes and the elected officials and the influencers — it’s hard to tell the difference — called Israel an “apartheid” regime. Apartheid regimes, like regimes guilty of genocide and ethnic cleansing, are meant to be overthrown. Violently, if need be. So bloodshed is warranted, yes?
The silence-is-violence people — those who are quick to “call out” anyone deemed inadequately antiracist, experts at digging up any dusty book passage — have been remarkably quiet when it comes to Jews being dehumanized and hunted down.
Let us dispense with the fiction, once and for all, that hating the Jewish homeland, which contains the largest Jewish community on Earth, is different from hating Jews.
It has been exceedingly difficult in our blinkered, hyper-secularized present, so removed from the primal animosities of not so long ago, to conceive of a world in which tens or hundreds of millions of people who have never visited Israel or never met a Jew want Jews dead. We’ve been blinded by the oceanic success of life under the Pax Americana. We think this is how people are.
This is not how people are. This is a wondrous aberration. There were 2,000 years of ghettos, blood libels and pogroms, of dehumanization and second-class citizenship that culminated with the Shoah. For the past several decades — a sneeze in the span of Jewish history — we American Jews have been maundering through the happy, mournful echoes of the recent past.
That recent past meant that we weren’t shocked to see this violence from the Europeans, who have never stopped hating Jews, but who had been forced, by the camps, to camouflage their Jew hate in their criticism of Israel, their obsession with it.
We were not steeped in the Old World hatreds. We were deeply flawed — who wasn’t? — but our flaws were always in conflict with our identity. One of the many problems with antisemitism, like Jim Crow, was that it made a mockery of our ideals, which made it impossible to hold onto the old bigotries forever. One had to reject Jew-hate and support the Jewish right to self-determination for the same reason one had to dismantle literacy laws that limited voting rights: It was central to the American weltanschauung. It was part of our animating ethic. The progress was glacial and uneven but inexorable. It was America becoming more American.
We were supposed to have transcended the old blood-and-soil stupidities. But they can’t be transcended. That was a beautiful myth, a myth that was fundamental to our idea of ourselves. But we are losing ourselves.
How did this happen? It’s inane to try to superimpose a tidy, monocausal explanation on all of the above.
But we know a few things for sure. America’s great institutions, and the security and stability and rhythm they once provided, have been co-opted, and this has had an unbelievably destabilizing impact on all aspects of American life. We have lost this edifice, which took decades to build and about ten minutes to tear down, because of our remarkably spineless “elite,” who seem to have no concept what role they are meant to play, or if they do, simply don’t have the cojones.
Then there is the transformation of the American left. The left used to imagine itself having one job. That job was to protect the interests of the working class. In fact, until not long ago, the left could not imagine a politics outside the framework of a Herculean struggle pitting the working class against the managerial elite, otherwise known as the Republican Party. Literally every conversation started and ended with class. Class struggle, class warfare, the working class, the middle class.
But in the last quarter of the 20th century, the old fight against economic inequality gave way to the pressures of the market and geopolitics. The Chinese gave up on violent, socialist totalitarianism and embraced a kind of retrofitted capitalism. Then came Thatcher, Reagan, the end of the Cold War, the collapse of Soviet communism, the Indians (who, in 1991, embarked on a Reagan-like unwinding of the old Five-Year Plans), the internet, globalization, Bill Clinton, and the narrowing of our ideological differences. In just a few decades, traditional left-wing politics seemed to have lost its reason for being. There was a void, and a need for a new organizing principle to try to make sense of the world.
Into the void seeped the new, soft-boiled thinking about race and gender, which had been fomenting, mostly on campus, for the past two decades. Identity soon acquired a new status among liberals, who now called themselves progressives. It comported with our shifting demographics, and it gave the Democratic leadership, which could no longer talk about soaking the rich, something to talk about.
Over the past two decades, this obsession with identity has intensified and spread. Progressives are now incapable of talking about anything important without mentioning human beings’ immutable traits.
Any politics of identity was bad for the Jew. On the right, the identiarians said that the Jew lacked whiteness — it was a new version of the old Nazi claim about our impurity. On the left, the Jew was said to have too much.
In 2021, we are well-aware of the white-nationalist inanities. We have memorized the horrific footage from Charlottesville. We remember every Jew murdered in Pittsburgh and in Poway.
But their chants of “Jews Will Not Replace Us” are now being joined by the identitarians of the left, who wield vastly more capital and power, in government, in the media, in the universities, in Hollywood, and in Silicon Valley. (It’s curious that Rep. Rashida Tlaib has accused Israel of “forced population replacement.”) Together, they form a bleating chorus of grievances. Somehow their roster of The Hurt never includes the Jew.
The betrayal of the Jew has been building. It started with an unexpected moral relativism (one recalls Howard Dean, on the presidential campaign trail in 2003, saying it was not America’s place to take sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict). Then there were the apologetic Jews, the Jews who felt, as so many Jews have felt across the centuries, that they must have done something wrong, the self-haters, the internalizers, who fashioned themselves into perfect fig leaves. This escalated into a low-simmering hostility (with Joseph Lieberman, the one-time vice-presidential nominee, slowly exiting his party), and the coolness of Barack Obama, and his insistence on an Iranian nuclear deal that seemed to excite American progressives more than any Israeli (or Saudi or Emirati) general.
Then there were the activists. All of them seemed to have a — what’s the word? — problematic relationship with the Jewish community. It wasn’t just an incident or untoward comment. It seemed characterological. The Women’s March was helmed by a Louis Farrakhan acolyte who was not shunned, but put in the pages of Vogue and now stars in an ad for Cadillac. Black Lives Matter was birthed by a fake Marxist who apparently enjoys when her book is compared to Mao’s, and whose original charter accused Israel of “genocide” and “apartheid.”
The progressives will respond that there is nothing antisemitic about criticizing Israeli policy. They are right! All governments should be scrutinized. But criticism of Israeli policy is often just criticism of Israel’s existence. We know this because the criticized policies almost always involve Israel being able to defend itself against hostile neighbors (being able to exist); and because there is an obsession with Israel that distinguishes it from any other country or foreign-policy issue. Countless Muslims have suffered at the hands of the Chinese, Indians and Russians — to say nothing of the Assad regime having incinerated as many as 600,000 Syrians, the nearly 500,000 Palestinians confined to refugee camps in Lebanon, or the indentured servants, including many Palestinians, in the nearby Gulf. This is not whataboutism. It is perspective.
Progressives will insist that we have progressed, as it were, beyond antisemitism. We don’t live in that world anymore. Don’t be paranoid! The violence in the streets doesn’t represent the movement! Note that the same people who insist that America hasn’t made one iota of progress on race — that we have so much work to do — also insist that we have resolved with the Jewish problem that goes back to Jesus. Sure.
Elected Democrats, for a while, mostly held it together. They used to call the Jew hate what it was. Recall, for example, Senator Chuck Schumer, just two years ago, comparing Rep. Ilhan Omar’s remarks about Israel to Donald Trump’s comments about neo-Nazis. That was when Democrats embraced Israel’s right to defend itself, and condemned the loss of Palestinian life, but didn’t hesitate to note that it was Palestinians compounding Palestinian misery: a corrupt regime in Ramallah and an even more corrupt and violent and unimaginably inhumane regime in Gaza that was controlled by a terrorist organization backed by Iran.
But over the past few years, progressives have slowly — and then not so slowly — abandoned those positions. They have succumbed, like so many on the right, to their partisan manias. Trump was “for” Israel; they had to be “against” it. They have stumbled into the bottomless rage of the identitarian left. They have embraced the new racial-gender taxonomy, which reimagines thousands of years of Jewish history into a wokified diorama. Today, the conflict can only be seen through this flattening prism, with Israel playing the role of the white, colonial settler and the Palestinian that of the settler’s dark-skinned, indigenous victim.
All this cartoonishness has led progressives to erase the “lived experience,” as one is now trained to say, of the nearly one million Arab Jews who did not migrate to the Middle East but were expelled from their homes, in 1948, the year of Israeli independence, by Arab regimes. They have also ignored the pivotal role that was played, for two decades, by Egypt, which occupied Gaza, and by Jordan, which occupied the West Bank — a two-pronged occupation that presaged the broader Arab community’s attitude toward the Palestinians, whom they treated as fodder. The Palestinians, in the eyes of most other Arabs, were not a people but bodies they were happy to sacrifice to achieve what their armies could not in the Six-Day War of 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973. That was the moral of the Arab military humiliation: Conventional armies could not defeat Israel, but maybe a protest movement pushing up against Israel’s borders — abetted by an adoring press corps, aid groups, repurposed Soviet propaganda and lots of E.U. cash — could. It was a brilliant segue.
Now we are confronted with the spectacle of members of Congress droning on on the House floor about how the Israeli army is somehow guilty of systemic racism and superimposing complicated ideas concocted by a French philosopher they’ve never read onto a conflict they barely comprehend.
They are an embarrassment and a disgrace and they are enabled by the cowards in their own party who are reluctant to criticize them for fear of being called racist or, God forbid, being primaried.
That is not the worst that can be said. The worst that can be said is that, by squeezing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into the Procrustean Bed of left-wing identitarianism, the new progressives have alienated the Jew, who, for the most part, remains attached to the Jewish State, from the American body politic. By transforming the Jewish State into a force for evil, they have forced the Jew to defend that attachment. They have created a space separating the Jew from America, and, in that space, they have legitimized violence against the Jew for defending the indefensible: “apartheid,” “colonialism,” “white supremacy,” “ethnic cleansing,” “genocide.”
It is the Jewish youngs who are most vulnerable to the new idiocy. It is in their classrooms, on their screens. They find themselves in a sad lacuna. They have been steeped in Jewishness at home. But, on campus, on Zoom, on TikTok, on YouTube, on Instagram, they are pummeled by a ceaseless and acrimonious anti-Zionism.
They respond predictably. Only 48 percent of American Jews under 30, in a recent Pew Research Study, feel close to the Jewish State (but 82 percent of Jews overall do). They prefer not to be affiliated with it. They say that Israel doesn’t represent them, that it doesn’t embody their version of Judaism, that it doesn’t align with their brand. They talk endlessly about Palestinian narratives and the need for the white settler to check his privilege, and they seem to forget that they are the most privileged Jews ever to walk the face of the Earth and that turning away from Israel is nothing more than exercising that privilege, flaunting their great fortune. One suspects their contemporaries raised in more antisemitic climates do not share their antipathy.
The Jewish olds will reassure you that the sclerotic Democratic leadership — the 81-year-old Speaker of the House, the 70-year-old Senate Majority Leader and the 78-year-old president of the United States — are keeping the crazy in check. They are mistaken.
This is not about who outmaneuvers whom in Congress, or the midterms, or the presidential primary. It is not about whipping votes or moving legislation. It is about the sea change that has engulfed us and that has exposed this most meaningless of distinctions without a difference: anti-Zionism and antisemitism.
The olds won’t be here forever. What will come next?
For the 75% of Jews who vote Democrat, they will, presumably, continue to believe the right is unpalatable. That the G.O.P.’s lunatics are not tunneling their way into the party leadership, like they are on the left, but have already wrested control. Yes, the Abraham Accords are a great achievement, but what does policy matter when we can’t agree on who won an election? When members of Congress are comparing mask mandates to the Holocaust?
Are there any other options?
Right now, there is a single freshman congressman from the Bronx trying to hold back the tidal wave of insanity. Soon enough, Ritchie Torres’ colleagues will declare that anyone who is not adequately anti-Zionist is a white supremacist or else ok with white supremacy. Jews who refuse to disavow their Judaism and their Zionism will be discouraged from leadership positions or running for office. Their money will be welcome at closed-door meet n’ greets on Park Avenue or in the Palisades. Bagels, lox, a few Yiddishisms sprinkled into the conversation to make everyone feel tolerant, but please, no talk of that godawful abomination of a Nazi desert.
Most of us will delude ourselves, Sarah Silverman-style. We’re good Jews. We’re not Israelis. I love Shabbat! I just don’t like Israel. We will wrap ourselves in our hypocrisy and self-loathing and fear. We will try to wish it away. We will post the right things, about defunding the police or hate having no home here or whatever. We will genuflect. We will pretend that we are not alone, like the Jewish State. That will be the only way to navigate our alienation. To lie and lie and lie to the world and, most importantly, to ourselves.
It’s a pleasure to publish Peter Savodnik again. If you missed his last essay, it’s worth your time.
As always, our friends at Tablet are covering this subject with typical insight and incisiveness. Among the stories we recommend:
This piece by the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy (not Michel Foucalt).
And this excellent essay by the hilarious and insightful Suzy Weiss (OK, I’m biased, she is my sister!) on the bogus notion — now all the rage — that young American Jews were lied to about their history.
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Have a relaxing weekend. See you next week.