Saturday, June 15th 2024   |

OP-ED: Why liberals failed in the fight against antisemitism


( –Turning points in history aren’t always obvious or easily recognized by those living through them. But the significance of Oct. 7 and the way the events of that awful day and the terrible reactions to them around the world—are such that few Jews have been unaware that they are living through a crucial moment in the history of their people. The horrific attacks on Jewish communities in southern Israel carried out by Hamas and its Palestinian supporters constituted the largest mass slaughter of Jews since World War II and the Holocaust. The rampage of murder, rape, torture and kidnapping began a war in which Israelis have been forced to defend their homes and families against a genocidal foe. But of perhaps equal significance is the impact this has had on Jews elsewhere, particularly those living in the United States, most of whom had thought of themselves as largely immune from the scourge of Jew-hatred that had been a constant theme of millennia of Jewish history.

Tens of thousands of people marched through central London against antisemitism. (Photo by Krisztian Elek/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The post-Oct. 7 surge of antisemitism has shaken that complacency and created what can only be termed a crisis of faith among secular Jewish liberals unlike anything they have previously encountered. As a cover story in The Atlantic magazine made clear, it’s not just the mobs on college campuses and in the streets of major cities that chanted for the destruction of Israel (“from the river to the sea”) and for terrorism against Jews wherever they lived (“globalize the intifada”) that has rattled American Jewish liberals. It’s the realization that the capture of much of the educational system, popular culture and even government by left-wing ideologies is not just aimed at toppling traditional ideas about Western civilization and America; it’s a direct threat to Jews. 

That’s the basic truth at the heart of Franklin Foer’s gloomy Atlantic essay, “The Golden Age of American Jews Is Ending.” As a member-in-good standing of the Washington liberal establishment, Foer, currently an Atlantic staff writer and a former editor of The New Republic, as well as the older brother of novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, is well-placed to speak to the collapse of self-confidence on the part of much of American Jewry in recent months. And though he gets some of it wrong in his attempt to place recent events in the context of the last century of American Jewish history and antisemitism, he’s certainly right about one thing.

The end of American exceptionalism

The shift in the way many American elites think has created more than just some uncomfortable moments for the large percentage of Jews whose lives are built around their unquestioned place in the life of the nation. Foer credits the widespread acceptance of Jews in virtually every sector of American life—academia, business, culture, government—to the heyday of a particularly inclusive brand of American liberalism that reached its peak in the late 20th century. The replacement of that belief system by the new orthodoxy of critical race theory, intersectionality and the woke catechism of diversity, equity and inclusion not only seeks to change American society for the worse; it marks the end of the very aspects of American exceptionalism that made that “golden age” for Jews possible.

Nevertheless, though Foer recognizes that Jews like him were wrong to think that antisemitism was primarily a feature of the American right, he is still far too much a product of a partisan mindset to fully recognize what has happened and why. His potted history of the last 100 years of Jewish life on American shores and the rise of antisemitism in the last quarter-century is determined to be evenhanded when it comes to apportioning blame for the current problems of the Jews.

It is this failure to be clear-headed about the problem that is at the root of a pessimistic conclusion about the end of the good times for American Jewry that, though the post-Oct. 7 atmosphere would seem to validate that belief, should not be entirely accepted. That’s because there is a path for preserving Jewish acceptance. But it must be predicated on Jews breaking ranks with their erstwhile allies on the left and not merely expressing resentment at their betrayal, as Foer does.

Instead, it will require a recognition that if liberalism is to be saved, the failure of liberals to defend both Western civilization and the Jews against the intersectional left must be acknowledged. That must be followed by both a full-throated rejection of woke antisemitism and an alliance with conservatives, who are the only force in this country willing or capable of rolling back the leftist tide that is endangering Jewish security. Whether Jewish liberals are capable of either the self-awareness and honesty to confront the truth of their predicament in this matter is doubtful. But the alternatives are something that most Jews are equally unprepared to live with: an acceptance of their status as a despised minority rather than one that is valued or packing their bags to seek a better life elsewhere.

What created the ‘golden age?’

Foer’s misunderstanding about what made the “golden age” possible—epitomized in his essay by the 1978 prime-time television tribute to Israel’s 30th birthday at which Barbra Streisand chatted with Golda Meir and then sang “Hatikvah”—is key to his unwillingness to think sensibly about how to defend it. While he sees Jewish acceptance in America as solely the product of mid-20th-century Democratic Party politics, this is a mistake. The immigrant community that came of age in the 1930s and that had seemingly overcome all traditional obstacles to advancement by the dawn of the 21st century (when Sen. Joe Lieberman’s nomination as Al Gore’s running mate seemed to elevate Jews to unforeseen heights) was overwhelmingly supportive of the Democrats and political liberalism.

While Jews faced a different set of problems than other ethnic/religious immigrant groups, their ability to prosper in American society was the product of the same process that led to the integration of other communities that had arrived in large numbers from Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Like the others, what the Jews needed was a country where the rule of law was unquestioned, and religious tests were prohibited. American exceptionalism was based on the nation’s adherence to Western values enshrined in its founding documents about equal opportunity as well as a belief in merit over entitlement based on race. It was those fundamental principles and, contrary to Foer, not Franklin Roosevelt’s favor or a liberal Supreme Court that banned school prayer, that protected Jews.

And it is precisely the toppling of those principles by the neo-Marxist critical studies movement and the political vanguard that, as Foer admits, has put its heretofore extremist theories into practice throughout American society that created the situation threatening Jews today.

Where Foer particularly fails in his analysis is his inability to see the profound difference between the impact of extremist right-wing haters and the intersectional left, whose rage at Israel and the Jews could no longer be ignored after Oct. 7.

Right-wing antisemitism exists. It has made itself felt in demonstrations like the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017, whose tiki torches reminded Jews of Adolf Hitler’s Nuremberg rallies and online hate. The lone-wolf shootings by right-wingers, such as the murderous attacks on synagogues in Pittsburgh in 2018 and Poway, Calif., in 2019, were tragic and truly frightening.

But attempts to shoehorn a narrative about former President Donald Trump or Republicans enabling these extremists was a partisan smear. Those, like Foer, who treat criticism of leftist billionaire George Soros’s interventions in American politics— particularly his financing of the campaigns of local prosecutors who were not interested in jailing criminals—as antisemitic are dishonest and undermine efforts to combat real Jew-hatred.

The left really does hate Jews

By contrast, the political left’s enshrining of notions about Jews being “white” oppressors who should be fair game for terror and genocide in Israel, and intimidation and insults in the United States, has been mainstreamed throughout culture, journalism and politics in a way that has never happened with the right-wing variant of antisemitism.

Foer confesses that he thought left-wingers who attacked Israel were not a problem because he assumed that they were the equivalent of liberal Zionists like him who don’t like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or his government. And even now, he is reluctant to accept a definition of antisemitism that rightly includes anti-Zionism.

But as he has realized since Oct. 7, the intersectional left reserves its sympathy for Palestinians who want to destroy Israel and slaughter its people, not well-meaning left-wing Jews who want a two-state solution. And they have no compunction about extending their animus towards the overwhelming majority of Jews who are not willing to renounce Zionism or declare their opposition to the existence of the one Jewish state on the planet. If advocacy for Jewish genocide is no longer unthinkable even on campuses like Harvard, then it’s clear that there is little room for the kind of self-confident Jewish existence throughout elite institutions or in the public square where liberal Jews thought they were once so much at home.

The progressives who are enabling antisemitism are now a potent force in politics in way that is unthinkable about the right, where the Republicans have become a lockstep pro-Israel party, and philosemitism is baked deep into the political DNA of the evangelicals that liberal Jews fear more than antisemitic members of the left-wing congressional “Squad.”

Foer discusses the possibility of Jews fleeing to places like Germany for a safer existence, but that shows that he’s even more clueless about the situation in Europe. The red-green alliance between the surging population of Islamist immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa, and left-wing elites who agree on targeting the Jews, is particularly potent in Western Europe. Pointedly, Foer doesn’t discuss the one place that remains, even after Oct. 7, the most likely and the safest destination for Jews: Israel. There, they can defend themselves and hold their fate in their own hands.

What has happened since Oct. 7 is merely a confirmation of so many other trends in which traditional liberals have proven unable or unwilling to defend the Western canon in academia, the institution of the family against gender indoctrination as well as the principle of equal opportunity against the DEI doctrine that mandates its destruction. So, it is no surprise that they have similarly either abandoned the Jews against those attacking them or shown themselves too weak to oppose them. President Joe Biden’s willingness to pander to antisemitic voters in America’s “jihad capital” in Dearborn, Mich., is merely the most prominent example of this.

Foer also fails to grasp that as dire as the situation may be for Jews, it is not a foregone conclusion that a defense of that “golden age”—or at least the widespread acceptance of Jews—is doomed to failure. Granted, rolling back the intersectional and woke racist doctrines that have taken hold of so many American institutions and sectors of society, will be a daunting task. But it’s not impossible.

The progressives’ long march through U.S. institutions by which they promoted their doctrines was never voted on by the American people, and most oppose it. And the power of the government that enabled it can prohibit it just as easily. In this fight, Jews are not alone. The political right is committed to defeating woke ideology primarily because it is a threat to America and the West. Actions like the banning of DEI in Florida illustrate how the tide can be turned.

Only by winning the fight for the West and American values that liberals have punted on can exceptionalism be restored. But if liberal Jews are to play a role in stopping a movement that is targeting them, then they’ll have to overcome their abhorrence of conservatives and finally join the fight opposing the woke left.

That’s something that will be impossible for people like Foer, as well as the legacy organizations like the Anti-Defamation League and American Jewish Committee, which are too committed to their traditional political allies to do what is necessary to defend Jews. What they don’t realize is that if they continue to refuse to treat the battle against woke ideology as an existential struggle that should take precedence over every other domestic concern, they’re not just guaranteeing an illiberal future for this country where antisemitism will continue to be mainstreamed. They are also effectively ensuring that the days of America as a safe haven for Jews really are over.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him: @jonathans_tobin.

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