Tragedies are never as simple as we want them to be. For the sake of digesting their meaning and working through the grief, we prefer when they follow from distinct causes and uncomplicated perpetrators. In that way, an anti-Semitic attack by a Nazi skinhead is far easier to accept than one by a lone black man with a reported history of mental illness, which describes the suspect in the recent stabbing attack of five people at a rabbi’s house in Monsey, N.Y. It’s supposed to be white supremacists who hate the Jews, not the people who ostensibly understand what it means to be persecuted.
But those who know their history recognize that anti-Semitism is a unique hatred unconstrained by geography, political orientation, race, colour or religion. To the Catholics, the Jews killed Jesus; to Europeans, they poisoned wells; to Communists, they were traitors and manipulators; and to radical Islamists, they baked the blood of their enemies into bread (among other things, of course). Even in contemporary Western society, where most minority groups can rely on support from either the anti-racist left or the freedom-loving right, Jews remain an inconvenient ally who are at once too white and powerful for the far left and too ethnic and “globalist” for the far right.
In an interview with The Atlantic magazine almost five years ago, French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut remarked on what then seemed like a turning point for Jews living in Europe. “We should not leave,” he said when asked about the increasingly hostile climate. “But maybe for our children or grandchildren there will be no choice.” At the time, much of the anxiety among Jews in Europe stemmed from the rise of far-right political groups, including the National Front in France and Jobbik in Hungary, as well as a stream of random attacks by Islamist militants against civilians.
Mr. Finkielkraut couldn’t have known then that just a few years later, almost half of British Jews would say they would “seriously consider” leaving Britain because of a far-left figure, Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn. During the recent British election, many Labour supporters simply couldn’t understand why British Jews were hung up on Mr. Corbyn, even though his tolerance of and excuses for anti-Semitism in his party were numerous and well documented. But from Labour’s perspective, it was the other guys who British Jews should have been worried about, so party loyalists dismissed those who complained as traitorous Blairites and Zionist agents. (In hindsight, perhaps Mr. Corbyn’s supporters shouldn’t have used anti-Semitic tropes to dispel accusations of anti-Semitism.) Had the election outcome been different, it wouldn’t have been the first time in history that a left-wing government saw to a Jewish exodus from Europe.
But now, some Jews in the United States – in particular, Orthodox Jews in the New York area – are suffering from the same anxieties that have plagued European Jews for years, with random acts of anti-Semitic violence being reported on a near-daily basis. And just three weeks ago, two people opened fire in a kosher supermarket and a nearby cemetery in Jersey City, N.J., leaving six people, including the two suspected perpetrators, dead. In response to the incident, Democratic Representative Rashida Tlaib tweeted, “white supremacy kills,” before realizing her error and deleting the tweet: The two shooters in that incident were black.
There are obvious reasons why we tend to associate anti-Semitism with the far right and white supremacy. The worst example in modern history of an attempt to exterminate the Jews was carried out by the Nazis, using the language of purity and racial superiority still favoured by white supremacists today. And the deadliest anti-Semitic attack on U.S. soil – the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018 – was the alleged work of a man whose online profile was practically a caricature of right-wing bigotry.
But those who understand anti-Semitism – and indeed, have lived through it – recognize that it doesn’t fit into any one box as other forms of prejudice tend to do. Anti-Semitism is not the exclusive domain of the right or the left or white supremacists or radical Islamists or Black Hebrew Israelites or Holocaust deniers or fundamentalist evangelicals. It is, rather, a chameleon type of prejudice that can be adopted by any group and every group – even the ones that actually hate each other. That’s what makes it especially hard to digest and comprehend and can make anti-Semitism a particularly lonely type of persecution.
A random stabbing attack at a rabbi’s house will always be shocking, but the profile of the perpetrator, whoever he is, will never be.
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