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Are Jewish Groups Responsible for Trump’s Rise? (Nope.)

Sometimes we all do it. OK, sometimes I do it, and earlier today, I did it: I got involved in a Twitter debate about anti-Semitism. It started, as all good Twitter debates do, with a retweet. Specifically, I retweeted Sarah Brodsky, a writer I went to college with but don’t believe I ever met, who was responding to Jeet Heer, of the New Republic, a publication I’ve written for, but an editor I don’t know personally. Both are people I did and do respect; a preface like this is helpful when one is discussing Twitter debates, to make clear that one is not coming at the debate from an ‘OMG outrage’ perspective. With that, onto the initial exchange:

Rather than continuing with a play-by-play of an ever-expanding (and ongoing!) Twitter battle, I’m going to try to tease out the essential, up through the part of the afternoon where I’d had it with Twitter and went out for tacos:

Basically, as I read him, Heer was arguing that Jewish organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League should do and should have long since been doing more to combat Trump’s followers’ anti-Semitism. (Heer refers to “official Jewish groups,” which I don’t believe exist in the U.S. context. The ADL isn’t like the former consistory system in France. It’s just… a group.)* The Trump campaign’s politicized anti-Semitism is scary and new, and Jewish groups are not, in my interpretation of Heer’s opinion as expressed on Twitter, sufficiently concerned.

Heer’s response to claims (from Brodsky, myself, and now a bit more of Jewish Twitter) that this constituted victim-blaming was to note that his grievance was with institutions, including Jewish ones, not with individual Jews. He also argued that marginalized groups have a responsibility to be involved in combatting bigotry against them, because if they don’t get involved, who will?

And then everyone Googled and offered evidence that actually the ADL and other Jewish organizations have spoken out against Trump’s… tolerance, shall we say, of anti-Semitism, as well as against the candidate’s own overt bigotry towards other minority groups. Heer faulted the ADL for – and here’s where I start not so much disagreeing as wondering when it became opposite day – speaking too much about the plight of marginalized groups other than Jews, rather than about anti-Semitism.

Why was any of this a problem? Why did a pocket of Jewish Twitter find itself arguing with someone who is, after all, trying to help? Who is, he notes, critical of many institutions for complicity in Trump’s rise, and not singling out Jewish ones?

Let me explain: American Jews, at least, had long gotten the message that it was not permitted to speak out about anti-Semitism, not now, not in reference to contemporary America. That doing so was, by definition, hysterical overreaction. After all, anti-Semitism meant Hitler and genocide! So how could (for example) Mike Huckabee dog-whistling about Christmas, or Sarah Palin insinuating about coastal elites, amount to the same phenomenon?

And that’s just (pre-Trumpian) mainstream right-wing anti-Semitism. If the topic at hand were left-wing anti-Semitism (by which I mean, the thing where certain white Westerners pretend to care about Palestinians as a pretext for hating Jews, or perhaps Jews and Arabs, because when was a bigot ever not a hypocrite; and yes of course there are also white Westerners with sincere concern for the Palestinian cause, concern not at all rooted in anti-Semitism, never said there weren’t, don’t @ me as the kids say…), oh boy. A Jew – even one opposed to the occupation – couldn’t bring up the existence of anti-Semitism on the left without standing accused of being a PR person for Israel.

The takeaway message was – and, outside of this Twitter exchange, perhaps still is – that anti-Semitism isn’t as serious as other forms of bigotry. That it doesn’t count. And that Jews, in bringing it up, are demonstrating parochialism, as well as callous indifference to real suffering. All of this wound up sort of training us to be a bit tentative.

So then, after years of… that, to hear that Jewish groups need to be more outspoken against anti-Semitism was jarring. Jarring, that is, even though I agree with Heer that Jewish groups should speak out strongly against anti-Semitism! (I also think that everyone, Jewish and otherwise, should condemn anti-Semitism from the right and the left alike, which is its own conversation.) I think Jewish groups are already condemning Trump’s anti-Semitism, but that, as Brodsky suggested, the longtime message we Jews have gotten to tone it down on this topic very well may impact how forceful these messages sound.

Any further analysis of this episode risks leading to one of those social-justice sinkholes, where we must discuss whether out-group allies (for lack of a better term) should have any say in how in-group members combat bigotry against their own group. I think Heer’s right that you don’t need to be part of a particular group to give an opinion regarding what constitutes effective anti-bigotry strategy. It’s just that speaker identity – I know, I’m such a millennial – can matter. A Jewish liberal who’s had it with Trump-supporting Jews is able to speak out about this phenomenon, in a communal setting, without this coming across as a comment on Jews generally. Coming from anyone non-Jewish, the same critique will get interpreted (in this case, it seems, misinterpreted but understandably so) as blaming The Jews for Trump.

*Was that aside about consistories a way for me to be all, I have a PhD in this topic, so listen to me? Was it a very, uh, woman-specific compensatory assertion of authority? It just might have been…

Phoebe Maltz Bovy edits the Sisterhood, and can be reached at bovy@forward.com.. Her book, The Perils of “Privilege”, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in March 2017.

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