For the past few decades, we have witnessed the rise of anti-Semitism from the left. From Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in the United Kingdom to college campuses across America, the phenomenon is real, and it is dangerous. Yet, all too often, some Jews — both individuals and organizations — who inhabit the liberal or left end of the spectrum have tried to explain it away with the classic “yes/but” rationalization: “Yes, it’s wrong, but if only Israel would… then the anti-Semitism would disappear.” Maybe their fear of losing their left-wing bona fides blinded them to the fact that the only proper response to prejudice of any kind — anti-Semitism included — is unambiguous condemnation.
Now, some of these same Jews are excoriating establishment Jewish leaders who have failed to condemn anti-Semitism from the right. They lambast these leaders for cozying up to Donald Trump and his newly appointed White House chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, who has proudly supported the rise of the so-called “alt-right,” the self-serving marketing term for a group rife with anti-Semites and white supremacists.
These left-wing Jews, who are currently exhibiting so much indignation, should examine their own record. When they do, maybe they’ll understand why they don’t exactly have a ton of credibility right now.
This is not to say that I think the establishment Jewish leaders have been wise in their approach to Trump and Bannon. Not at all. In recent months and days, much of the organized American Jewish community has indeed failed the test of recognizing and condemning the very real anti-Semitism streaming from the right. The left is absolutely correct about that.
During the presidential campaign, Jewish reporters and pundits who were critical of Trump were widely subjected to virulent anti-Semitic attacks from people who openly identified as his supporters. With the exception of the Anti-Defamation League, most leading Jewish organizations said nothing. More recently, when Trump named Bannon as his chief strategist, most Jewish organizations chose to remain mute or adopt a “wait and see” position. They argued that the president-elect and those around him should be given a chance to establish their own record. Groups willing to fight for pro-Israel presidential appointees suddenly discovered a new agnosticism when faced with an anti-Jewish presidential appointee. One suspects that, in light of Trump’s record of nursing grievances, they feared being denied a future place at the table, failing to see that such a place is worthless if it telegraphs weakness and lack of principle.
Some did more than sit on the sidelines; they gave Bannon precious political cover. The head of the once venerable Zionist Organization of America, Morton Klein, lauded both Bannon and Breitbart News, which Bannon used to lead, for their “friendship and fair-mindedness towards Israel and the Jewish people,” and insisted that “Breitbart bravely fights against anti-Semitism.” Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador to America, expressed satisfaction about working with Bannon.
Did they not see how Bannon, in his capacity as Trump’s campaign manager, deployed anti-Semitic rhetoric for political purposes in Trump’s speeches, particularly in the campaign’s carefully produced “closing argument” advertisement? That ad featured four supposed enemies of the American public — Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and three Jews: financier George Soros, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen and Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein. Over images of them, Trump thundered: “The establishment has trillions of dollars at stake in this election for those who control the levers of power in Washington and for the global special interests. They partner with these people who don’t have your good in mind.” These insinuations of greedy global Jewish conspiracies are worthy of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”
This is not playing with fire. It is lighting one.
We cannot know whether, on a personal level, Bannon is an anti-Semite. He and his defenders always cite an Orthodox Jewish aide to whom Bannon wishes a “Shabbat Shalom” each week. We cannot know what is in his heart, but we know plenty about what is in his publications and speeches. At the very best, he is an enabler, peddling racist and anti-Semitic views because he thinks it politically advantageous to do so. I might prefer dealing with a “genuinely” prejudiced person. At least I would know that he has the courage of his ugly convictions.
For American Jews, particularly those aligned with the new administration, to remain silent is to send a signal that anti-Semitism and racism can be tolerated — and injected into the heart of American politics. Expediency, or tactical thinking, can have its place. But in this case, it is completely trumped by the need for honesty — and a bit of backbone.
The established leadership (with the exception of ADL) failed this first test regarding the Trump administration. Only after an outcry from many quarters — including from the editor of this publication — did they begin to issue somewhat lukewarm condemnations.
Yet it’s not only anti-Semitism from the right, but also anti-Semitism from the left, that should have been met with steel, not mush. The protesters from the left end of the political spectrum have also failed a test. Let’s hope they’ll do some soul-searching, too. Sadly, given the tenor of recent events, Jewish organizations from all ends of the political spectrum will probably have other opportunities to stand up. Let’s hope they do. Far more than just their already wounded credibility is at stake.
Deborah E. Lipstadt is the Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University, and is a contributing editor at the Forward. Follow her on Twitter, @DeborahLipstadt