June 16, 2021 — New York
This piece originally appeared in The Times of Israel.
Seemingly overnight, anti-Israel, anti-Zionist, and antisemitic incidents are being reported near and far. Many American Jews, who not so long ago thought these were threats faced by Jews elsewhere in the world but not here at home, are suddenly waking up to new realities.
From the halls of Congress to Silicon Valley, from high schools to universities, from Hollywood to labor unions, and from local town boards to globalized social media platforms, this has become a chilling version of Whack-a-Mole, where you don’t know the next source but do know it will rear its head—and with a vengeance.
One overarching question is how to respond. There is no one-size-fits-all answer, but here are ten possibilities:
First, elected officials should be held accountable for how they react – or fail to react – when Israel is maligned, or Zionism is demonized, or Jews are threatened – or, for that matter, when the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism comes up as a proposal for adoption.
Politicians who seek support in every election cycle should understand that these are factors that matter to many of us. They should not be allowed to get away with practiced soundbites or glib phrases when they appear in front of, say, a synagogue, but then take a different stance elsewhere.
Case in point: In the eleven days of fighting last month triggered by Hamas-launched rockets at Israel, many political leaders stepped up to express their support and clear understanding of the story line. But others, including some who purport to be friends of the pro-Israel community, were missing in action or resorting to whispered comments for fear they could otherwise potentially jeopardize their careers. That should be unacceptable.
Second, institutions need to be held accountable. Some schools and colleges support Jewish and pro-Israel students on campus who feel targeted, whether in the classroom or on the quad, while others have betrayed the trust of those students.
This is not about asking our institutions to become full-throated supporters of a particular political stance, but rather ensuring that their environments do not become poisoned by hatred, bigotry, intimidation, bullying, or ostracism. Jewish and pro-Israel students have the right to feel safe, protected, free to express their views, and take pride in their identity, no less than any others.
If those institutions fail, then they, too, need to be held to account by trustees, alumni, parents, prospective parents, and others.
Third, show Jewish pride. This is no time for American Jews to become Marrano Jews. We have not experienced the extraordinary journey from 1654, when the first Jews landed on this soil, to now consider, in 2021, removing the mezuzahs from our doors, or kippahs from our heads, or the word “Jewish” from the facades of our institutions, or in any other way seeking cover or hiding under the bed.
To the contrary, exactly like other Americans, we can and should openly affirm our identity, celebrate our remarkable heritage, and remind ourselves of the manifold contributions of Jews to every facet of American society. Our hashtag should be #JewishANDProud.
Fourth, embrace Israel. Some Jews seem to believe that distancing, if not detaching, themselves from any link with Israel will protect them or, at the very least, endear them to the anti-Israel, anti-Zionist mobs. How tragic that, after nearly 1900 years of Jewish yearning for even a sliver of land, where Jews could govern themselves and not be subject to the whim of the majority, the fact that we live in an era of Jewish sovereignty is not universally valued. No, Israel is not a perfect country. Nor is any other country on earth, including the United States. Still, the story of Israel is awe-inspiring, a metaphor for the triumph of enduring hope over the temptation of despair, and a democratic, progressive beacon in a part of the world with too few counterparts.
Fifth, when it comes to antisemitism, it’s essential to be swivel-headed. This age-old pathology comes from multiple sources. But too many have insisted on a narrower vision, only calling out the threat when it serves their own partisan political preference. So, Jews on the left point their finger at the far right, while Jews on the right point their finger at the far left, when the truth is they’re both correct.
The events in Charlottesville, Pittsburgh, and Poway, not to mention the conspiracy theories peddled by the likes of QAnon, are stark reminders of the real, deadly menace from the far right.
Meanwhile, the events of recent weeks, from the streets of New York to the restaurants of Los Angeles, demonstrate that not all threats to Jews today come from the far right. The same can be said for what Jewish and pro-Israel students are facing on some campuses, where, again, the danger does not emanate from the far right. And then throw in the ever-present danger of jihadists, too often in alliance with the far left, as we have seen both in the United Kingdom and U.S., and it becomes all the more clear that we must have a 360-degree view.
Sixth, focus on young Jews. Insofar as one of the major battlefronts has indeed become educational settings, it’s all the more important that our children and grandchildren are as prepared as possible for what they may face. Not easy under any circumstance. In the classroom, there is a power imbalance between, say, a hostile professor or teaching assistant, on the one hand, and a student who tries to push back, on the other. A young person bucking the “politically correct” and “intersectional” crowd could easily face social isolation or worse. When it comes to affirming Jewish identity, Zionism, and pro-Israelism, it can require not just confidence in one’s sense of self, but also a heavy dose amount of social courage.
That’s why if we count on young people to stand up and be heard, then we have to help prepare them for the various situations in which they may find themselves. Plus, they need to feel the support of family, Jewish organizations, and Jewish institutions on campus. What’s happening is not just battles over, for example, a boycott, divestment, and sanctions referendum, but, more broadly, a high-stakes fight for the outlook of the next generation of American leaders.
Seventh, antisemitism is not just a Jewish problem. When Jews are targeted as Jews, on the streets, in shops, or at synagogues, the threat is most immediately, of course, directed at Jews, however, these also need to be seen as assaults on the fabric and fiber of America’s democratic, pluralistic society. In other words, when any minority is threatened, our country as a whole is at risk. There are both real and potential allies out there, who understand the stakes involved, just as there are such allies who recognize that Israel is a key American partner, sharing both values and interests with our country. Hence, it would be shortsighted to try and portray the current challenges we, as Jews, face as if they were Jewish alone. They’re not, and we shouldn’t shortchange ourselves by thinking and acting as if they are.
Eighth, engage partners. In the current moment, amidst this new sense of vulnerability, let’s be mindful of some basic facts about the United States. For one thing, poll after poll, year after year, reveal that large numbers of Americans support Israel and the U.S.-Israel relationship. Similarly, a number of studies have also shown that Jews are highly regarded among the panoply of American group identities. So, it’s not as if we’re suddenly alone, isolated, and friendless.
Nor is it as if we, the Jewish community, haven’t been a friend to other communities in America over years, decades, and even centuries – whether it’s been in the fight for civil rights and social justice, or overcoming unjust immigration restrictions, or standing up for other targeted or beleaguered communities. True friendships must work both ways, all the more so in times of need.
Ninth, learn some basic truths. Sure, the Middle East is an informational minefield, with competing narratives and story lines racing in every direction.
But, none of that should obscure some basic facts, such as: (a) Jews are indigenous to the region, just as Arabs are. (b) The relationship between Jews and this part of the world dates back continuously more than 3,500 years. (c) Israel’s modern-day birthright emanated from the Balfour Declaration, the San Remo Conference, the League of Nations, and the United Nations. How many nations on earth, including a number of Israel’s neighbors, can claim so many layers of legitimacy? (d) The Palestinians could have had a state of their own on multiple occasions, beginning in 1947-8, but spurned every opportunity. (e) Israel withdrew lock, stock, and barrel from Gaza in 2005. (f) By 2007, Hamas, designated a terrorist organization by both the United States and European Union, seized power. (g) The Hamas Charter explicitly calls for the destruction of the State of Israel and accuses Jews of fomenting the French Revolution, the First World War, and the Second World War. (h) Hamas is funded and supplied by Iran, whose leadership openly calls for the annihilation of Israel. (i) Gaza has borders with both Israel and Egypt, and not just Israel, as many allege. (j) Israel is among the most multicultural, multiracial, and multifaith societies on the planet. (k) Israel is a vibrant democracy and Israeli Arabs, who comprise approximately 20 percent of the population, can be found on the Supreme Court, in the Knesset, and throughout Israeli society.
And tenth, draw lessons from Jewish history. It should be abundantly clear from Jewish history that antisemites, whether from the far left or the far right, don’t differentiate for long between “good” and “bad” Jews, any more than they would distinguish among “Zionists,” “non-Zionists,” and “anti-Zionists.” Yet, astonishingly, some Jews still don’t seem to have gotten the message. They think they can buy time or space or security by joining in the assault against Israel or even by rationalizing attacks against Jews. Sooner or later, though, as has happened over the centuries, their day of reckoning would be likely to come if antisemites ever gain sufficient power again.
Bottom line: There is much we can, must, and should do, and the more we can achieve a sense of common purpose – dare I say unity? – the more likely we are to succeed in confronting both the old and new demons that we’re facing today.
David Harris is the CEO of the American Jewish Committee (AJC).