May 28, 2021 — Paris, France
This piece first appeared in JNS.
I am feeling déjà vu. During the latest Israel-Hamas battle, my Twitter and Instagram feeds were flooded with messages from Hollywood stars, American supermodels, influencers and hard-left U.S. Democratic lawmakers condemning Israel in the strongest possible terms, often using terms such as “racial inequality,” “police violence” or “apartheid.”
Sitting here in Europe, I have seen these kinds of descriptions before. They not only prevented people from grasping the complexity of a century-old conflict but provided Europeans with what seems to have been the perfect means for collective group therapy. In the blink of an eye, Europe—with its legacy of the Holocaust and colonialism—has been able to atone for the sins of their past by finally standing with the “victims” and the “colonized.” As Josef Joffe sarcastically wrote years ago, “If Israelis are killing innocent Palestinian children, aren’t we all collectively less guilty?”
This narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict became visible during the Durban I conference in September 2001. Instead of focusing on the noble goal of fighting racism, the gathering targeted Israel as a racist apartheid state. As Vladimir Jankélévitch once wrote: “Anti-Zionism has become the miraculous find, the providential windfall authorizing heterogeneous groups to hate the Jews with a clear conscience.” After Durban, Jews were no longer hated in the name of racism but in the name of anti-racism.
In Europe, this diffuse ideology has had concrete, disastrous consequences for Jews. Already in the early 2000s, my organization, the American Jewish Committee, started to point out that contrary to the past, the danger did not come solely from the far-right. It was a multifaceted antisemitism. It was in particular the left, with a history of antisemitism dating back to Bruno Bauer, and later the Stalinists, who had equated Zionism with capitalism and imperialism, that fell victim to what British academic David Hirsh calls a “campist mentality,” wherein people engage in politics of position rather than in the politics of reason.
Zionism became the evil to fight, and the Palestinians the underdog to protect, even if that meant supporting Hamas or Hezbollah. The left provided Islamists and young European Muslims, who projected their identity crisis linked to Europe’s history of colonialism and their often-deep-rooted antisemitism onto the Palestinian cause, a free pass to target Jews and synagogues. When a terrorist declaring “I avenged Palestinian children” killed three Jewish schoolchildren and a father in Toulouse, France, many of us were not surprised.
For many years, the United States seemed a safe haven to most European Jews. None of the phenomena described above appeared to concern American society. But in recent years, things have changed dramatically. Not only is there a serious threat coming from the identarian far-right, as illustrated by the killings in Pittsburgh, Pa., and Poway, Calif., but there have also been individual attacks from African-Americans, such as in Monsey, N.Y., and Jersey City, N.J. And, as in Europe, the far-left has joined the assault on Jewish life and Israel.
Those who have come to be known as “woke,” who have embraced theories that were once described as fringe—such as post-modernism, post-colonialism, identity politics, neo-Marxism, critical justice and race theory, and intersectionality—have embarked on a journey of targeting Israel, Zionism and Jews.
Even before the most recent conflict, journalists such as Bari Weiss had rung the alarm bell—not only about critical race theory itself and the damage it does to American liberalism, but also the particularly devastating consequences it was having for Jews.
Indeed, in this simplistic view, with an extreme focus on identity—where the world is split into black and white, oppressors and oppressed—Jews, who essentially have a fluid identity, undermine this purist vision. Jews have conveniently become flattened into “white,” and as we have seen those past weeks, Israel and Zionism have been flattened into “colonialism” and “racism” while Palestinians have become “brown,” “black” and “oppressed.” Hamas—an Islamist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, misogynist terrorist organization that is targeting innocent civilians—is conveniently ignored.
In the current American cultural and social context, where woke ideology has seduced parts of the progressive youth and much of the mainstream media, this worldview is going viral. When supermodel Bella Hadid, with her 42 million followers, proudly shouts on her Instagram story, “Palestine will be free, from the river to the sea,” this radical and dangerous view goes viral and “mainstream” within a matter of minutes. Who cares whether what she says is clear call for eliminating the State of Israel? It looks cool and hip, and it provides the perfect “campist” mentality to her audience that feels it is doing something morally superior by “liking” and “sharing.”
All of this has consequences. It is timely to remember Alexis de Tocqueville’s warning about the tyranny of the majority as the reach of social media now places “truth” on the side with the seemingly higher numbers. It has consequences for the moderate liberal voices so afraid of being “canceled” that they often hide their pro-Israel sentiment. And, most of all, just as occurred in Europe, it has serious consequences for Jews. Jews are not only being attacked in London, Berlin or Brussels, but now in Los Angeles and New York by so-called pro-Palestinian activists.
From where I sit in Europe, all of this looks painfully familiar. As I wrote more than a year ago, Europe can offer a cautionary tale for the United States. Let’s just hope that enough brave souls are willing to listen and speak out.
Simone Rodan Benzaquen is general manager of American Jewish Committee (AJC) Europe.