On Saturday, a white supremacist attacked the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, murdering eleven people, specifically targeting the elderly and the infirm. In the aftermath of the attack, two separate narratives emerged regarding anti-Semitism. The first acknowledged the different nature of anti-Semitism; the second attempted to obscure that nature. The first narrative argued that anti-Semitism is a special sort of evil: a shapeshifting evil tied inextricably with conspiratorial thinking, an evil dedicated to the proposition that a shadowy cabal of ethnically tainted or religiously motivated villains have been manipulating the levers of power. The second narrative argued that anti-Semitism is merely a special phylum of a broader kingdom: It’s a mere form of generalized bigotry, springing from the same sources as other forms of bigotry.
The first story was told, interestingly enough, by President Trump — a man whose failure to properly condemn the alt-right supposedly provided the backdrop to the attack. (Suffice it to say that while Trump’s behavior with regard to the alt-right in 2016 and 2017 was deeply scurrilous, no serious evidence exists that Trump is an anti-Semite; white-supremacist attacks on Jewish targets have long predated Trump; the shooter in this case didn’t like Trump because he felt Trump was insufficiently anti-Semitic.) Trump explained, “We must stand with our Jewish brothers and sisters to defeat anti-Semitism and vanquish the forces of hate. That’s what it is. Through the centuries, the Jews have endured terrible persecution. . . . Those seeking their destruction, we will seek their destruction.”
The second story was told, in tweet-form, by President Obama. Obama stated: “We grieve for the Americans murdered in Pittsburgh. All of us have to fight the rise of anti-Semitism and hateful rhetoric against those who look, love, or pray differently. And we have to stop making it so easy for those who want to harm the innocent to get their hands on a gun.”
Why are these two different narratives important? Because they say something about America, and they say something about how best to fight anti-Semitism.
First, what they say about America.
If anti-Semitism is different, then America is one of the great success stories in world history. America has been uniquely friendly and welcoming to the Jews; it was George Washington who told the Jews of Newport, R.I., “May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants — while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.” America has suffered historically from racism, sexism, and bigotry of all sorts — but America’s warm view of Jews springs from its Judeo-Christian heritage, and from its recognition that in a land of free people and free minds, conspiracy-laden thinking is the enemy of liberty.
If anti-Semitism is merely a sub-section of broader bigotry, America’s treatment of Jews is an anomaly — and an anomaly driven by continued American racism. Jews, after all, are not identifiable by race or sex. They can assimilate into the community. Their very success is due not to American tolerance, but to America’s abiding willingness to judge based on skin color rather than content of character. And when Jews are targeted, that’s merely American bigotry breaking loose once more.
Then there’s what these two theories say about the fight against anti-Semitism itself.
Understanding the particular nature of anti-Semitism requires fighting it wherever it exists. Believing that anti-Semitism is merely a symptom of generalized bigotry, by contrast, allows the parsing of anti-Semitism — and its sublimation into broader political conversations regarding hierarchies of power and privilege.
Take, for example, the anti-Semitic murder of Jews in Israel. The first theory of anti-Semitism suggests that such murder is the byproduct of radical Islamic anti-Semitism — and that such anti-Semitism isn’t driven by socioeconomic concerns, but by hatred of Jews. The death of a Jew in Pittsburgh at the hands of a white supremacist is driven by the same basic issues as the death of a Jew in Jerusalem at the hands of a member of Hamas.
The second theory of anti-Semitism suggests that such murder isn’t actually about Jewishness per se. In fact, such murder may be completely different than the anti-Semitic murder of a Jew in Pittsburgh. The solution, therefore, isn’t fighting anti-Semitism, but catering to its underlying causes. The first theory leads to a policy of staunch opposition to Palestinian terrorism and Iranian Jew-hatred; the second policy leads to a policy of appeasement and diplomacy with Palestinian terrorism and Iranian Jew-hatred.
The same logic holds true of anti-Semitism in Europe. The first theory suggests that such anti-Semitism is part of an age-old hatred of the Jewish people; the second theory suggests that anti-Semitism is merely a byproduct of Israeli policy.
To properly understand America, and to properly fight anti-Semitism, we must understand that the first theory of anti-Semitism is correct; the second is wrong.
The second theory actually feeds anti-Semitism: If hatred of Jews isn’t special, then why are Jews constantly in the headlines? It must be their outsized power and influence, brought about by structural inequities. Where fighting anti-Semitism conflicts with fighting other forms of bigotry, fighting anti-Semitism takes a back seat.
The first theory recognizes the amazing nature of America: a country founded on religious freedom, and on tolerance. We’ve strayed from that mission all too often — but the Jews are a success story.
Furthermore, the first theory recognizes that anti-Semitism is something different — and that it ought to be treated as such. That doesn’t mean that the interests of Jews ought to take precedence over those of other groups, of course — that would be ethnocentric and idiotic. But it does mean that Jew-hatred can’t be curbed by generalized progressive policy prescriptions. It must be fought at every turn.