Erasing left wing anti-Semitism is the height of privilege
Wednesday night marks the start of one of the most profound days of mourning on the Jewish calendar: Tisha B’av. This is the day on which both the First and Second Temples were destroyed. It’s also the date of many other Jewish tragedies, including the British expulsion of Jews in 1290, the Spanish expulsion of Jews in 1490, and the opening of the Treblinka death camp in 1942.
For modern Jews, especially us 21st-century American Jews who have largely been spared mass destruction and tragedy, Tisha B’av is mostly treated as a day for mourning what was done long ago and for recalling the pain of what our ancestors suffered through — emphasis on the past tense.
This is deeply problematic. This Tisha B’av should challenge American Jews not only to recall our past horrors but to grapple with and denounce the hatred that we have either willfully ignored or have been too afraid to criticize.
I am deeply proud to see the Jewish mandate of Tikkun Olam in action right now as the United States is having a long-overdue reckoning with racial inequality and lethal injustices towards people of color. There is no doubt in my mind that Jews cannot be on the sidelines of this battle and that we must always be striving to do better. But as we learn and explore new ways to be strong and sensitive allies and advocates, we must also learn how to navigate combating anti-Semitism in a time and place where it can feel uncomfortable and selfish to draw attention to ourselves.
This summer has seen a parade of celebrities peddling anti-Semitism: Chelsea Handler was forced to apologize for sharing a clip of known anti-Semite and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan on her Instagram page; she claimed she was unaware of his anti-Semitism. Madonna, too, shared Farrakhan’s words with her millions of followers — and has yet to apologize for the video, which has racked up over 700,000 views. And Nick Cannon apparently only just realized that talking about how Zionists and the Rothschilds have too much power could be construed as anti-Semitic. (Like Handler, he eventually apologized.)
The litany goes on: Ice Cube, who has a [history of anti-Semitic comments and has long supported Farrakhan, shared a series of tweets, including one containing a “black cube of Saturn” within a Jewish star in it, interpreted to mean that Jews are stoking the flames of racism. He also shared an image of figures playing monopoly on the backs of people of color, which had once been a mural in London until it was taken down because, well, it was really anti-Semitic.
Then there was Philadelphia Eagles player DeSean Jackson, who shared an Instagram post claiming that Jews “will blackmail America. [They] will extort America, their plan for world domination won’t work if the Negroes know who they are.” And after a backlash, former NBA star Stephen Jackson defended him, saying he was “speaking the truth” and “You know who the Rothschilds are? They own all the banks…. I haven’t said one thing that’s untrue yet.”
To both DeSean Jackson’s and Stephen Jackson’s credit, they both apologized. DeSean Jackson went so far as to say, it “was a mistake to post this and I truly apologize for posting it,” noting, “We should be together fighting anti-Semitism and racism.”
I deeply appreciate these apologies. They should give me and American Jews no small comfort. But they do not erase my concerns about the modern American Jewish community itself, namely how few of my American Jewish peers or Jewish social advocacy groups seemed to care that they were made in the first place.
Capping it all off was another anti-Semitic episode that drew little commentary: Late last week, Rodney Muhammad, the president of the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP, one of the most revered civil rights groups in the country, shared an image of a giant, hook-nosed man, wearing a head covering and rubbing his hands together while defending three celebrities accused of anti-Semitism. He still has not apologized, claiming (implausibly) that he hadn’t paid attention to the image. He later released a one-line statement which did not contain an actual apology: “I do regret the insult, pain and offense caused to all, particularly those of the Jewish community, by this unfortunate episode.”
Muhammad has been criticized by a few Jewish groups — the familiar and commendable players, like the ADL and AJC — as well as individual African American and Jewish leaders in the Philadelphia area. I am grateful for their willingness to speak out. But it does not eclipse my disappointment that it has largely been crickets from Jewish social justice groups, and American Jews overall seem unfazed. There is no real energy or outrage, and so far, it is dubious that Muhammad will actually be forced to resign.
As Rabbi Linda Holtzman, a prominent Philadelphia rabbi and one of the organizers of Jewish social justice advocacy group Tikkun Olam Chavurah, told public radio, while she was nauseated by the picture, “What I see in it is a plea for greater conversation and greater understanding.”
This blase attitude towards anti-Jewish bigotry would never pass muster for progressive American rabbis or Jewish social justice advocacy groups when it comes to racism, immigration, or LGBTQ rights—nor should it. We want forceful condemnation of hatred. It’s safe to say that in progressive circles, dialogues with bigots are no longer deemed productive or appropriate.
So why is someone peddling anti-Semitic imagery unapologetically deserving of a “conversation” and not a denouncement?
The situation with Rodney Muahammad is eerily and unfortunately familiar to what happened less than a year ago when New Jersey Board of Education member Joan Terrell-Paige denounced Jews as “brutes” following the anti-Semitic attack on a kosher supermarket in Jersey City. Not only did she not have to resign, but a Congressional candidate defended her against calls to step down and tried to put a positive spin on her comments as an “invitation” for dialogue.
I am mad and disappointed at America and the communities that let these leaders remain in power. But American Jews simply didn’t do enough to speak out and decry these leaders.
Our rabbis didn’t do enough, our teachers didn’t do enough, our Jewish nonprofit and advocacy leaders did not do enough, and most of all, we, American Jews, did not do enough.
I understand why American Jews find it easier to remain silent when it comes to anti-Semitism, especially from their own natural home on the left. For one, we live a life of relative ease and security in the United States compared to our ancestors. There is a high bar for what counts as suffering in the history of the Jews, and I can see why many of my peers just don’t think the incidences I have mentioned rise to the level.
And yet, for every celebrity remark that gets a whiff of attention, there’s many more acts of violence, vandalism, and harassment towards Jews in America and Europe that are never publicized. We may not think Madonna is worthy of our rage, but when we give her a free pass, it contributes to the overall normalization of anti-Semitic rhetoric, the kind that fuels the attacks in Pittsburgh, San Diego, and Jersey City, the kind that leads to Jewish elementary school students being bullied at surging rates, according to the ADL, or Jewish cemeteries being vandalized.
And Jews have been murdered this year in the name of the same ideology spouted by people like Farrakhan and Ice Cube.
We just can’t afford to ignore anti-Semitism when it’s coming from an inconvenient source.
Young, liberal, and progressive American Jews are really good at calling out anti-Semitism when it comes from Trump and other Republicans. Just yesterday, news broke that Republican Senator David Perdue had enlarged his Jewish Democratic challenger, Jon Ossoff’s, nose, which sparked immediate outrage and cries of anti-Semitism from young, liberal, progressive American Jews, as it should.
But to ensure that we as Jews do not repeat the destruction we commemorate on Tisha B’av, we cannot pick and choose which forms and sources of anti-Semitism we choose to denounce.
Perhaps American Jews are reticent to speak up because they feel self-conscious about their privilege in these conversations. But we can acknowledge that Jews don’t face police brutality and systemic racism like non-Jewish people of color do in America while also fighting anti-Semitism.
It is the ultimate narrow-minded form of privilege to ignore all the statistics, studies, and news stories showing how anti-Semitism is affecting the daily lives of Jews of all denominations, nationalities, and socio-economic statuses simply because you, an American Jew, perhaps one living in a liberal, tolerant city, do not personally experience it (yet).
In fact, it is, perhaps, the most noxious form of privilege to say anti-Semitism doesn’t directly touch your life and, thus, you don’t have a responsibility to navigate both support for racial justice and opposition to anti-Semitism.
On this Tisha B’av, we need to do more than mourn and remember. We need to internalize that the destruction we commemorate is not just a distant memory if we decline to take action today.
Emily Shire is a journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, The Daily Beast, WashingtonPost.com, Slate, and Salon. She is also currently pursuing her J.D. at Yale Law School.