Next week will be my 10th anniversary working as a Jewish community professional. For the first two-thirds of my career I would have told you that anti-Semitism was always a problem, but it was a problem that was always at a low simmer. A few calls would come in each year about some graffiti, or a bad joke gone wrong at a local high school, but nothing too serious. And then something began happening about two and a half years ago. Someone turned up the burner.
At first it was Europe. Far right nationalist parties were starting to make advances in Germany and Denmark and other places. A mass shooting at a Jewish museum in Copenhagen. An attack at a Jewish Day school in France. French soldiers standing guard outside of day schools and synagogues in French cities.
Then, about eighteen months ago we began to see a strong uptick of anti-Semitism here in the United States. Nothing like we’d seen in recent years. But, the dynamic of this resurgent anti-Semitism is different than what we’d been used to. Now the Jewish community finds itself squeezed not only by the extreme right, which we had long been accustomed to, but also by the extreme left who have begun to masquerade their anti-Semitism in the rhetoric of anti-Zionism. This has put Jews in a challenging and nerve-racking position.
On the right, the Jewish community continues to confront the same foe that we have been battling for over a century – albeit with a fancy new 21st century title, the “Alt-Right” – White supremacists and nationalists who have always made Jews a prime target for their bigotry. Locally, we have seen a well-documented uptick in anti-Semitic hate crimes and discrimination. Nationally, these individuals have realized that they have a powerful new ally in their cause – the internet.
With the internet reaching the mainstream in the last 25 years, these groups have been able to spread their message faster and further than ever before. Websites like The Daily Stormer and Stormfront have become well known by organizations like the Anti-Defamation League and law enforcement agencies, particularly the FBI. Those who have had a long history of white nationalist viewpoints, and even those that have simply harbored but never expressed them before, are now able to verbally attack and make threats behind the shield of anonymity provided by these websites and mainstream social media. During last year’s presidential election there was a very specific targeting of Jewish journalists on social media. Reporters often recounted finding tweets directed at them with pictures of themselves with bullet holes in their heads or nooses around their necks, and pictures of their children and families Photoshopped into gas chambers and crematoria ovens. The ADL recently published a report that showed that Jewish journalists were the focus of at-least 20,000 anti-Semitic tweets and that more than two-thirds (68 percent) originated from the same 1,600 Twitter accounts. Many of these journalists had to seek whatever limited legal protection they could be provided or hire security for their families.
Anti-Semitism on the extreme left is a bit of a newer phenomenon. As I said, it is often disguised as a challenge to the political movement of Zionism, or as a rebuke of the policies of the State of Israel. Personally, I have many concerns about the policies of the current government of Israel and, I believe that everyone has a right to question those policies, but I am a Zionist. I believe that Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state. What is now beginning to happen though is that in progressive circles a Jew’s position on Israel and these existential questions of its Jewish identity and right of self-determination are used as a barometer of their dedication to progressive causes.
The current buzzword on the left at the moment is “intersectionality,” which the Urban Dictionary loosely defines as a “concept used to describe ways in which social constructs like ‘isims’ and phobias are interconnected and not separate issues”. For example, the concept of intersectionality would stipulate that you cannot care about feminism, or be a feminist, and not also care about confronting racism since both women, and communities of color, have experienced similar and overlapping forms of discrimination. While I often believe this to be true, what Jews often experience is that they are being told you cannot be things like pro-LGBTQ, or a feminist, or worry about police corruption, and at the same time support Israel. Then when efforts are made to understand why Israel is singled out as that barometer, when so many other countries have far worse records on almost every progressive cause, the true underlying anti-Semitism of the extreme left presents itself using many of the same tropes and stereotypes – Jews control the banks, the Jewish lobby controls Congress, etc. – as are used by classic right wing anti-Semites.
A perfect example of this took place in Chicago in June of this year. At an event called the Dyke March, which takes place during Pride Week, a number of LGBTQ Jews were forced to leave the parade because they chose to carry pride flags emblazoned with the Star of David, a Jewish symbol. The organizers of the parade said that they were only choosing to be “anti-Zionist” (confusing the universal Jewish symbol of the star with the Israeli flag) and had nothing against Jews themselves. But, any doubt of their true beliefs were eliminated when Dyke March organizers began to receive some blow back, particularly from progressive Jewish organizations and individuals, who have historically been longtime supporters of LGBTQ rights and the LGBTQ community. The official Dyke March Twitter feed lashed out tweeting “Zio tears replenish my electrolytes” and then continuing to publicly ridicule anyone who dared question their actions. The catchword ”Zio” has long been utilized in neo-Nazi and white supremacist circles and was popularized by former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke.
The Jewish community relations field, of which I’ve been an active participant in for ten years now, often says that as the country becomes more polarized we must work to hold on to the rational center. As a community that believes that holding that center is the key to our own safety and security, I will tell you that the effort is becoming more difficult with each passing year. We are continuing to find ourselves squeezed by these two extreme ends of the political spectrum, and in an ever more precarious position. But, I guess if we look on the bright side, can the extreme left and extreme right at least have one thing they can agree on?