Ignoring Anti-Semitism Is Sometimes Best

Exposing Hatred Isn't Always a Good Way To Eradicate It

To Protest or Not: Is it always a good idea to shine the light of protest on anti-Semitism?
COURTESY OF TEMPLE UNIVERSITY
To Protest or Not: Is it always a good idea to shine the light of protest on anti-Semitism?

By David Bernstein

Published August 21, 2012, issue of August 24, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Nearly 100 years ago, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously coined the phrase “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants” in praise of transparency and honesty in public policy. Not long after, Jewish communal organizations (within which Brandeis was an active supporter of the Zionist cause) appropriated the phrase for their own purposes, suggesting that exposing anti-Semitism was the best way to eradicate it from the public domain.

The theory behind the sunlight rule was that exposing anti-Semitism would provoke a negative public response and thereby delegitimize it as an acceptable form of discourse in the eyes of the public. Such a conclusion was understandable in the civil rights era, when a mass movement challenging racism and bigotry sparked a widespread shift in public attitudes and laws. Exposing hatred marginalized it.

But as the political hatred of Jews has taken on new and less obvious forms in recent decades, it has become apparent that sunlight can act not only as a disinfectant, but also as a spotlight, and have the exact opposite of the intended effect.

While it may be obvious to most Jews that the denial of the Jewish right to national independence is a form of anti-Jewish bigotry, it is not always recognized as such by others. Thus, publicly condemning anti-Israelism may do more to reproduce the bigotry than to drive it underground. The exposure can take an idea that at one time would have received little attention and propel it into public consciousness, leading to greater acceptance rather than to rejection.

A recent study by Israel’s Foreign Ministry confirmed that annual ritualized condemnations of the Jewish state on American college campuses receive nearly all their diminutive media coverage from Israeli or Jewish sources. Indeed, Ali Abunimah, a prominent American anti-Israelist active on campus, has even thanked the pro-Israel community for the publicity.

This is not to say that the Jewish community should do nothing in response to such hostility. When, for example, a conference designed to promote Israel’s isolation came to the University of Pennsylvania last winter, the local Hillel wisely mobilized students to hold dozens of Sabbath dinners with non-Jewish leaders around campus to talk about Israel. These dinners reached many times more people than the paltry student showing at the conference, and didn’t run the risk of feeding into publicity for the event.

Some see the failure to speak out against every vicious attack as evidence of weakness or trepidation among Jews reminiscent of the days of the European Jewish ghetto. And perhaps that mentality still does exist among some in the Jewish world. But today the sparing use of power is more often evidence of strength and political maturity.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • Before there was 'Homeland,' there was 'Prisoners of War.' And before there was Claire Danes, there was Adi Ezroni. Share this with 'Homeland' fans!
  • BREAKING: Was an Israeli soldier just kidnapped in Gaza? Hamas' military wing says yes.
  • What's a "telegenically dead" Palestinian?
  • 13 Israeli soldiers die in Gaza — the deadliest day for the IDF in decades. So much for 'precision' strikes and easy exit strategies.
  • What do a Southern staple like okra and an Israeli favorite like tahini have in common? New Orleans chef Alon Shaya brings sabra tastes to the Big Easy.
  • The Cossacks were a feature in every European Jewish kid's worst nightmare. Tuvia Tenenbom went looking for the real-life variety in Ukraine — but you won't believe what he found. http://forward.com/articles/202181/my-hunt-for-the-cossacks-in-ukraine/?
  • French Jews were stunned when an anti-Israel mob besieged a synagogue outside Paris. What happened next could be a historic turning point.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.