Magazine | April 8, 2019, Issue

The Anti-Semitism Virus

Representative Ilhan Omar (D., Minn.) in Minneapolis, October 26, 2018 (Brian Snyder/Reuters)
On the Left, it is spreading once again

One of the surest signs that somebody does not understand anti-Semitism is that he talks about defeating it, destroying it, or otherwise ending it. For many Jews, and anyone else who has had to take note of anti-Semitism, such inflated claims elicit only a dark laugh. Imagining you might end anti-Semitism is like saying you might forever postpone the aging process. An ambition, certainly, but one perpetually condemned to disappointment.

Yet as though to demonstrate their unfamiliarity with the whole concept, this is the language that the Left has begun to adopt when it is forced to tackle this resurgent challenge in its midst. In the United Kingdom it can be heard since Jeremy Corbyn’s takeover as party leader of Labour. Corbyn had swum among the most vicious anti-Semites all his campaigning life. But after his election as leader — as member after member, from the party’s grassroots to Parliament, got caught in the milieu their leader had lived in — those who still aspired to moral hygiene attempted to make a stand. Corbyn joined them. Like the party members, whenever evidence emerged of yet another anti-Semite in the ranks, he stressed that this demonstrated that “anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and all other forms of racism” must be defeated once and for all.

At one moment of especial panic last year, one of Corbyn’s principal cheerleaders even called for the Labour leader to deliver “a definitive speech on anti-Semitism.”

Yet of course no definitive speech can be given on anti-Semitism, any more than a definitive piece can be written about it, for the same reason that talk of ending anti-Semitism once and for all is so revealingly ignorant. Anti-Semitism can never be fully explained for the same reason it cannot ever be fully defeated. Because it is a shape-shifter. It is a virus that endlessly mutates, taking advantage of environment, locale, host, events, and more. To survey the number of its ostensible causes is to survey accusations that themselves encompass everything.

At times in their history, Jews have been hated for their religion. In other periods they have been hated for their race. In our own time they are most acceptably attacked for their state. And in the variety of these moves, as well as their multiplicity, we see the ineradicable origins of this evil into which the Democratic party has also begun to sink.

In March, I happened to be in Israel. It was a good vantage point from which to watch Ilhan Omar become the first American politician in generations to be visibly enjoying her Jew-baiting: a shallow person demonstrating a deep problem. Her rejoinder on Twitter about American support for Israel was to write, “It’s all about the Benjamins baby.” After another similar innuendo, and another insincere apology, Omar was questioned by reporters. “I’m pretty sure that was stated in my statement,” she said repeatedly, as she chewed gum and smirked at what she was getting away with.

In our day and age it is no longer acceptable to hate people openly because of their race. Hating people because of their religion has also come to be deemed unacceptable and bigoted. So what route in is the anti-Semite to use to make an acceptably plausible claim against the Jewish people? The best is to reframe ancient hatreds in the guise of modern-day political obsessions, as Omar and others of her generation of Democratic newbies have done. To their way of thinking, Israel is a colonialist, bigoted, racist state. And one that — to boot — is guilty of the generalized modern crime of “punching down.” For them, Israel stands out as so obviously evil that it should most properly be compared to apartheid South Africa. In that vein, Representative Rashida Tlaib (D., Mich.) supports BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanctions) measures against Israel, measures that were taken against South Africa in its apartheid era.

Yet here we are, more than seven decades after the establishment of a Jewish state in the historic homeland of the Jewish nation, and what are Jews found guilty of this time but of not being unrooted? Of having a place. Of being at home. Of not wandering. Some footage of Jeremy Corbyn recently resurfaced from 2013 in which during a speech he remarked that some “Zionists” had not imbibed the British “sense of irony.” In fact almost any Jew can see the irony of the situation the Jewish people now find themselves in. It is one familiar from thousands of years of Jewish history: a situation in which they are allowed to make no move for which they will be applauded, only to make another move and be hated in another way.

There is a fine example of this in Gregor von Rezzori’s luridly titled masterpiece Memoirs of an Anti-Semite (1979). In “Youth,” one of the five stories that make up that magnificent novel, he details a proud young man’s relationship with an older Jewish woman. For all the benefits she brings him, this “Black Widow” can never fully win over her young gentile lover. For she is on one hand to him an embodiment of a type of Jewish shop owner of the Central European pre-war stripe, and for this he hates her. Where she goes with him, people know whom he is with and that she is a Jew. He worries about being seen with her and is mortified when people he knows from the rest of his life see them at a restaurant. Yet whenever she attempts to bridge the canyon in any way, to adapt, to integrate into the world of her proud young gentile, she makes another mistake. The only thing worse than a Jew who refuses to integrate is a Jew who makes even the slightest effort to integrate. A Jew who is attempting to integrate looks “suspicious,” “artificial,” and “unsuitable.” Rezzori’s narrator reveals that “we saw the so-called assimilated Jew as aping us.” To be Jewish is to be different. To try to be the same is to be Jewish. It isn’t that the accusations and hate can come from a couple of directions. The problem is that they can always come from every direction imaginable.

Europe has been relearning this lesson. Last year one of the heads of the Jewish community in Berlin warned German Jews not to wear a kippa or other sign of their faith in public in the major German cities. Of course it is not as though Germany has had any deficit of anti-Semites. But the warning struck an icy chord for at least two reasons. The first was surprise that this situation, of Jews being at risk of attack in public places for being identifiably Jewish, had come about so swiftly again in Germany. The second was that everybody knew, though few wanted to say, just what was the cause of this resurgence in threats to Jews. On this occasion the cause was not the neo-Nazi movements that still bubble in the subterranean recesses of that country. The threat came from the fact that Germany has taken in a large number of migrants from Muslim countries in recent decades and that not all of these people viewed Jews with the eyes of most post-Holocaust Germans.

Such shifts are enormously painful for a society to acknowledge. And even in their mildest manifestations, they cause an equal level of discomfort in modern America. Because like Europeans, Americans are very familiar with a number of anti-Semitic types. Not just the remaining anti-Semites of the Klan variety but the anti-Semitism that has lingered in America — as in Europe — among people who would like to think themselves as (in a specific sense of the word) rather “smart.” A certain type of country-club set. People who think that looking down on Jews might make people look up at them. It is a type. But we know them by now, and know how to avoid them. Unfortunately this is not the case with the group of people now most permitted to swim in these waters.

There is naturally something profoundly depressing in the fact that the first two Muslim women elected to Congress should be two women so willing to play to the worst crowd of all. But it might have been expected, because a similarly depressing trend occurred in Britain. When David Cameron was the Conservative-party leader, he fast-tracked for promotion a British woman of Pakistani descent who became the first Muslim woman to serve in a British cabinet. Sayeeda Warsi still sits in the House of Lords but no longer sits anywhere near cabinet. That is because during the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas, Warsi believed that the British government should not be remotely close to supporting Israel. She resigned from her position as a Foreign Office minister and has used her energies in the years since to — among other things — urge that British citizens, or dual-passport holders, who serve in the Israel Defense Forces be treated in the same manner in which Britain would treat those who went to fight for ISIS.

If Cameron had fast-tracked a reformist Muslim, or one of the many Muslims who now feature successfully in British political life, this would not have happened. But the first person in held fast to the most predictable priorities. Now the pattern repeats itself with the arrival of Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar in the U.S. Congress. If the first Muslim congresswomen had been not them but a brave Muslim progressive such as Asra Nomani, an American author and scholar born in India, then the message that would have been sent to the American public about the diversity of the Muslim communities and the possibility that the best people would prevail could have been profound. Instead the American public has had to watch as Omar chooses to try to use a bully pulpit to attack, defame, and silence a patriotic American Jew, Elliott Abrams. Did she look like she had the wind in her sails during that period of questioning? Certainly. Did the online chorus who want to be as openly anti-Semitic as possible but are looking for examples of how to do it celebrate? You bet. But to this and her other provocations, America — like Britain and Europe before her — does not know quite how to respond.

The Democrats thought they did. After Omar failed to go another week without releasing another anti-Semitic meme, Nancy Pelosi and colleagues seemed ready to denounce anti-Semitism wherever it occurred. But then the Democrats got caught in the same zugzwang that their European neighbors had struggled with before. If a Muslim attacks a Jew, what are those who are neither Muslims nor Jews to say or do? In particular, how might they condemn the Muslim’s anti-Semitism without appearing to be Islamophobic? In this situation it becomes impossible to single out anti-Semitism for specific condemnation. The only way to do it is to condemn, as Corbyn does, “anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and all forms of racism.”

And so when Omar — like Warsi across the pond — chose to mull on the theme of Jews and dual loyalty, there was some expression of concern from the Democratic party. But the concern got caught in the moral jam, and sure enough Pelosi and Co. managed to respond to Omar’s anti-Semitism only by condemning anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and white supremacy, as though there were any doubt on the last and any agreed-on meaning for the second. When Steve King was accused of flirting with white nationalism nobody had any trouble criticizing that, or felt much need to spread the censure around further or search for semantic excuses. Pelosi herself was reduced to wittering about Omar’s perhaps having “a different experience in the use of words” and not understanding “that some of them are fraught with meaning.” Which is one way to suggest that a Muslim immigrant such as Omar is not necessarily like other Americans but may be different in ways that Nancy Pelosi would ordinarily refuse to explain.

Still, it is possible that Pelosi is right in one way. Anti-Semitic memes are additionally troubling because people can indeed imbibe and excrete them without apparently realizing it. On the far right and the far left these days, you can witness people jabbering about Rothschilds and financiers and rootless figures and be all but certain that they have no understanding of the historical or present meaning of what they say. But among their number will be others who very distinctly do know what fever swamps they are swimming in. Is Omar ignorant, or clever? Experience so far would suggest that she is clever. One might even say smart. And a certain portion of the Left clearly delighted in her remark that “Israel has hypnotized the world” and in her denunciation of a “push for allegiance to a foreign country.”

Of course both they and she will have get-outs. They will find “good Jews” to cite. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has already been careful to meet with the fanatical, minority, and extreme anti-Israeli Jews of Neturei Karta, a small Haredi sect opposed to any Jewish state until the Messiah arrives. It’s a cover that her new friend Corbyn has long hidden behind. And her supporters will continue to find a few people who attack her and Muslims in the most reprehensible ways imaginable. This will continue to allow them to claim that anti-Semitism is to be tackled only if the fight against it goes hand in hand with the right of Omar to say whatever she likes, on a regular basis, about the deeds of Jews. Though it is unclear how this helps get through the Chelsea Clinton conundrum. She turned up at a memorial event in New York for the New Zealand mosque massacre only to be condemned by some of those present, the condemnation being that she was responsible for the massacre because she had recently highlighted, mildly, Ilhan Omar’s anti-Semitism.

And that is why the description of anti-Semitism as a virus is so accurate. It gets into hosts who aren’t always aware of what they have let in. It cannot be conquered, for one day it will come from one direction, the next from another, with the charge sheet changing as swiftly as the direction of assault. Yet it still has to be fought, of course. For a society that gets lax about trying to keep the virus down is likely to develop a full-blown contagion in due course.

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