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The Left Can No Longer Excuse Its Anti-Semitism

A couple of days into the social media storm that erupted following Israeli government’s decision not to let Representatives Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar enter the country, the two Congresswomen circulated a cartoon on their Instagram accounts, in Instagram stories, which disappear after 24 hours:

anti-Semitic instagram by Omar and Tlaib

Instagram posted by Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, then shared by Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. The cartoon was made by anti-Semitic artist Carlos Latuff. Image by Instagram

The cartoon depicted Benjamin Netanyahu extending one blue-suited arm toward Tlaib, silencing her with his hand over her mouth. Below him, Donald Trump did the same to Omar. The Star of David painted between the two parallel blue arms completed the picture of an Israeli flag.

The image, with the Star of David at its heart, evoked well-worn conspiratorial tropes of Jewish power — in this case personal control by Netanyahu and the Jewish state over the president of the United States and American elected officials. And while some defend this kind of thing as targeting the state of Israel rather than Jews, this sort of conspiracy theory, where Zionist power replaces Jewish power, has been a staple on the left dating back to Soviet times. For anyone from that country, these images are forever associated with a climate of anti-Semitism and oppression for the Jews.

Furthermore, Carlos Latuff, the Brazilian political cartoonist who drew this latest cartoon, has a history of producing anti-Semitic imagery. He, too, defends his work as anti-Zionist, or run-of-the-mill Israel criticism.

And yet, in 2006, he participated in the infamous Iran-sponsored Holocaust Cartoon Contest. He came in second with an entry that appropriated Holocaust imagery to depict Palestinians as the “new Jews” who experienced supposedly the very same atrocities at the hands of the Jews that the Jews had once experienced at the hands of the Nazis.

So far so outrageous, yet so ordinary. There is, sadly, nothing new about anti-Semitic cartoons in the progressive blogosphere or on “woke” social media. Latuff and his explanations are well-known entities. And confined to their corners of the internet, those cartoons are easy to ignore: All you have to do is avoid the sites that publish them. Most Jews have learned to do just that.

What made things different this time though was the fact that this cartoon was embraced and promoted by two American elected officials with a cumulative Instagram following of 1.3 million.

Making things worse was the fact that the cartoon came on the heels of the revelation that on their Israel trip, the two Congresswomen had planned to use the services of an NGO that had spread a blood libel about Jews, published an American neo-Nazi treatise about Jewish control of American media and entertainment, and celebrated terror attacks against civilians.

The cartoon felt like so much salt on the same wound.

When anti-Semitism is on the rise, as it is now, one ingredient for putting it in check is a robust response to anti-Semitic incidents from civil society and government officials. It sends a signal to the offending party and the rest of society that this particular form of bigotry is not tolerated. Silence from those quarters is tantamount to condoning and legitimizing it.

We enter an altogether different territory, however, when high-profile political figures themselves promote anti-Semitic content. A reaction then is crucial.

And yet, so far none has materialized from the Democratic Party.

In an attempt to coax a response, Yascha Mounk, contributing editor to the Atlantic, tweeted, copying at every Democratic presidential candidate: “Trump and Netanyahu are authoritarian populists. They are a danger to democracy and decency. But that’s no reason to pretend it’s OK to partner with organizations that publish the blood libel, or to tweet cartoons by people who ridicule the Holocaust. The silence is deafening.”

The silence has been deafening indeed — and for a while. The cartoon, in fact, is not the first time in recent months that Democratic presidential candidates have turned the other way when confronted with anti-Semitic content in progressive spaces.

At the recent Netroots Nation summit — “the largest annual conference of progressives” — panelists suggested that Zionism was equivalent to white supremacy. The summit sold t-shirts grouping Zionism with racism, sexism, homophobia and anti-Semitism “as maladies to be ‘resisted.’” ADL’s Jonathan Greenblatt condemned both, but the four Democratic presidential candidates who spoke at the summit — Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Jay Inslee, and Julian Castro — remained mum on the issue.

When it comes to anti-Semitism, the progressive wing of the Democratic Party seems to be the tail that’s wagging the dog, pushing the boundaries of the acceptable further and further. It is meeting only minimal public resistance from the rest of the party. The losers are, undoubtedly, American Jews, whose safety and standing are being gradually eroded.

But it’s not only Jews; the party as a whole is losing too. We are now way past the time when it was possible to say that the far right is the sole source of threat to American Jews. There’s been an ongoing string of attacks against Jews in New York City whose perpetrators are not white supremacists. Some attackers seem to have been influenced by the rhetoric of Louis Farrakhan, showing — as if we still needed proof of that! — a direct link between anti-Semitic words and actions.

And then there is another uncomfortable fact: appreciation that some anti-Semitic far-right figures heap on far-left “anti-Zionists.” Holocaust denier David Irving famously referred to the UK Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn as “impressive” and “a fine man” in the context of a discussion about the Party’s crisis over anti-Semitism. For the “resistance to ZOG” (Zionist occupied government, a far-right conspiracy theory), white supremacist David Duke called Omar the most important member of US Congress.

What this shows us — as if we still needed proof of that too! — is that anti-Semitism is anti-Semitism, no matter where on the political spectrum it resides. Once it’s out, particularly when expressed by a high-profile political figure, it isn’t confined to some clearly defined space. It resonates across the entire spectrum. And when there is no push back, it loosens taboos against anti-Semitism throughout the entire society.

True, thus far the deadly synagogue shootings have been executed by white supremacists. But who is to say that the New York Times cartoon, published right on the eve of the Poway Chabad shooting, didn’t play into the shooter’s mindset? And who is to say that the Latuff cartoon Omar and Tlaib circulated isn’t going to contribute to a future mass shooter’s decision to take action?

When it comes to anti-Semitism, it is time for the left to do some serious soul-searching. Pointing to the right as a worse offender is hardly a convincing strategy; surely, the left has better benchmarks than that.

One place to start is to learn the boundary of where the criticism of Israel ends and anti-Semitism begins. (Hint: Israel’s ban against Omar and Tlaib unleashed a storm of criticism from U.S. Jewish institutions and individuals. None of it was anti-Semitic.)

Doing nothing will cause the left to lose its moral edge and ensure that it keeps walking right into the trap that Trump seems to be setting up for it, one that cynically paints its most radical wing as representative of the whole party in an attempt to peel American Jews’ support away from it.

I can’t imagine that the Democratic Party would want to hand Trump that victory.

Izabella Tabarovsky is a writer in Washington, DC. She works at the Kennan Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.


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