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You can’t solve anti-Semitism. American Jews, meet Jewish history.

It’s natural to want to solve problems. We see something wrong in the world and we want to fix it. Something seems misaligned, and we want to set it right. And the truth is, many things lend themselves to being solved; the appearance of insulin and the disappearance of bubonic plague come to mind. Here’s the thing, though: Anti-Semitism isn’t one of those things. And the first step to combating that is to acknowledge that fact.

Ari Hoffman | artist: Noah Lubin

Ari Hoffman | artist: Noah Lubin

One of the many awful things about anti-Semitism is that the only thing it has to do with Jews is the harm it does to them. It persists not because of anything Jews do or say, but because it is incredibly effective. It works, and it works for everyone, regardless of political orientation; anti-Semitism is itself a political orientation.

The clearest sign that someone is unserious in today’s Jewish world is if they tell you that all our energies should be focused on fighting white nationalism, or Islamist aggression against Israel, or left wing anti-Zionism, or the kind of violent hatred seen recently in New York.

If only it were that easy. Anti-Semitism is all of these, and more besides. It is the hand gripping the machete in Monsey and the smirk of the Labor leader taking tea in London and the finger on the trigger in Poway and Jersey City.

Faced with an ideology of a complexity unmatched in the annals of prejudice, it is understandable that many turn towards a kind of victim-blaming. This is a moral travesty and an analytic error.

The idea that “racial tensions” or “gentrification” are responsible for the recent spate of brutality against Ultra-Orthodox Jews by their black neighbors parallels the notion that Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians justifies prejudice against Jews here, or buses blowing up there. Miss the parallels and miss the core of it: the Jew as interloper, despite the number of institutions built and roots put down and generations born and buried in the soil.

Just as the reasons provided for anti-Semitism are misguided, so too are too many of the solutions proffered inadequate.

Immediately disregard any voice suggesting that anti-Semitism can be solved by something Jews do. Often this takes the form of equating size with purity: If Israel took up less space, we are told, it would be more accepted. If Jews bought fewer apartments in certain neighborhoods, tensions against them would calm. If Jews were better allies and quieted our voices so that others might be more loudly heard, our turn would come eventually.

All of this is nonsense. Anti-Semitism proceeds from what Jews are perceived to be, not what they do. There is a world of difference, and a world that makes all the difference, between the self-criticism that is the lifeblood of a healthy community and the pandering to a solidarity that in fact makes Jews far less solid, and far more disposable.

The difficult truth is that just as the marvel of Jewish resilience and creativity surpasses the impoverished words we have to capture it, so too the hatred of Jews and the desire to hurt them far surpasses the meagre language we see applied to it; it scoffs at the thin explanatory gruel offered by the likes of “intersectionality” and “prejudice.”

Just as American Jews were tempted to see it only in the guise of the white nationalist lone wolf, it shape-shifted into the slow-rolling, brutal pogrom unfolding in the Northeast in the last days of 2019. It is the temptation of the high intellectual and the deranged and angry.

We must tell the truth, or we will be rendered vulnerable by believing our own lies. The truth is this: American Jewry has unhappily returned to Jewish history. This is what it has mostly looked like, and our eyes will soon enough adjust to these sights.

But that history has also been the scene of indescribable heroism, and unmatched achievement. We hope that we get that sweet with the bitter. And it has also been a record of true allies of every race and creed who saw that a society where Jews are prey is one where the predators will soon come for everyone, and that once the hunt is underway, it is not so easily called off, and who knows how many fall before the sun sets?

Ari Hoffman is a contributing columnist at the Forward.


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