Violence between Jews and Muslims in the Middle East is often accompanied by spikes in anti-Semitic activity in the United States, but what’s happened over the last week or so has been different.
As Jonathan Greenblatt, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, put it to me, Jewish organizations are somewhat inured to, say, pro-Palestinian graffiti on a synagogue following a protest. What’s new, and more reminiscent of the sort of anti-Semitic aggression common in Europe, are flagrant public assaults on Jews — sometimes in broad daylight — motivated by anti-Zionism.
In Los Angeles, for example, a caravan waving Palestinian flags stopped near a sushi restaurant in West Hollywood, where men got out and attacked diners sitting outside. A witness recalled them asking, “Who’s Jewish?” In New York, a 29-year-old Jewish man on his way to a pro-Israel rally was beaten and pepper-sprayed by a group of men hurling anti-Semitic slurs. In southern Florida, men in an SUV reportedly pelted a visiting Jewish family with garbage and shouted: “Free Palestine” and “We’re going to rape your daughter. We’re going to rape your wife.”
What’s distinct about these attacks, said Greenblatt, is “the brazenness and the boldness.”
These apparent hate crimes are, first and foremost, a catastrophe for Jewish people in the United States, who have just endured four years of spiking anti-Semitism that started around the time Republicans nominated Donald Trump in 2016. “It feels like it’s a new front opening up against the American Jewish community,” Greenblatt said.
But this violence also threatens to undermine progress that has been made in getting American politicians to take Palestinian rights more seriously. Right-wing Zionists and anti-Semitic anti-Zionists have something fundamental in common: Both conflate the Jewish people with the Israeli state. Israel’s government and its American allies benefit when they can shut down criticism of the country as anti-Semitic.
Many progressives, particularly progressive Jews, have worked hard to break this automatic identification and to open up space in the Democratic Party to denounce Israel’s entrenched occupation and human-rights abuses. This wave of anti-Semitic violence will increase the difficulty of that work. The Zionist right claims that to assail Israel is to assail all Jews. Those who terrorize Jews out of rage at Israel seem to make their point for them.
Not surprisingly, there has been a rush to blame left-wing Democrats like Ilhan Omar, who described Israeli airstrikes killing civilians in the Gaza Strip as “terrorism,” for inciting anti-Jewish hostility. “If you blamed violent attacks against Asian Americans on Trump calling covid the ‘Chinese virus,’ but you can’t see how congresswomen accusing Israel of terrorism might result in Jews being attacked by pro-Palestinian mobs, you either can’t think or you have a problem with Jews,” Batya Ungar-Sargon, deputy opinion editor at Newsweek, tweeted last week.
But by this logic, those of us concerned about hate crimes against Asian Americans shouldn’t denounce China’s genocide of the Uyghurs. Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is often so shocking that just describing it neutrally seems defamatory; when Human Rights Watch decided, last month, to accuse Israel of the crime of apartheid, it was because the facts on the ground left it little choice. As Eric Goldstein, acting executive director of HRW’s Middle East and North Africa division, wrote in The Forward last month, it’s not just that Palestinians live under relentless Israeli oppression.
“What’s gone is the possibility of saying, with a straight face, that it is temporary,” he wrote. “Israeli authorities today clearly intend to maintain this system of severe discrimination into the future — an intent that constitutes the third prong of the crime of apartheid.”
It’s awful irony, but anti-Semitic violence helps shore up this system by strengthening the taboo against calling it what it is. I get the sense that some people on the left find talking about violence by Palestinian sympathizers embarrassing; it certainly doesn’t receive the same sort of attention as white nationalist attacks. But it should be treated as a crisis, both as a matter of basic human solidarity and because it’s a political danger.
Greenblatt and I don’t always agree about Israel; there are criticisms of the country that he considers illegitimate but I believe are fair. But I do agree with him that assaults on Jews are an emergency and should be treated as such, whatever the ideology of their perpetrators.
Greenblatt told me he is hearing from people who are afraid to wear their kippas or Jewish star necklaces in public. “To be honest, I have heard college students say that to me in recent years, because of the situation on campuses when it gets really hot,” he said. “But I have not heard of ordinary people in public places being afraid. That’s the situation in Europe. Talk to Jews in Belgium, in France, in Germany, in the U.K., and they will tell you that they modulate, they hide their Judaism.” It would be a disaster if this were to happen here, and not just for Jews.