Bari Weiss is a staff writer and editor for the Opinion section of The New York Times and the author of How to Fight Anti-Semitism, from which this is adapted.
In order to be welcomed as a Jew in a growing number of progressive groups, you have to disavow a list of things that grows longer every day. Whereas once it was enough to criticize Israeli government policy, specifically its treatment of Palestinians, now Israel’s very existence must be denounced. Whereas once it was enough to forswear the Jewish Defense League, now the very idea of Jewish power must be abjured. Whereas once Jewish success had to be explained, now it has to be apologized for. Whereas once only Israel’s government was demonized, now it is the Jewish movement for self-determination itself.
This bargain, which is really an ultimatum, explains so much.
It is why Jewish leaders of the Women’s March were subjected to anti-Semitic attacks and exclusion by the movement’s other leaders.
It is why at the University of Virginia, Jewish student activists were barred from a minority-student coalition to fight white supremacy.
It is why Manny’s, a popular café and event space in San Francisco, is being regularly protested. Its owner – a gay, progressive Mizrahi Jew – is, according to the protesters, “a Zionist and a gentrifier.”
And just as those on the far right have an out when accused of anti-Semitism – we like Jews just fine so long as they self-deport to Israel and keep our country unsullied – those on the far left have an out as well. We like Jews just fine, they say, as long as they shed their stubborn particularism and adhere, without fail, to our ever-shifting ideas of justice and equality. Jews are welcome so long as they undertake a kind of secular conversion by disavowing many or most of the things that actually make them Jewish. Whereas Jews once had to convert to Christianity, now they have to renounce Jewish power and convert to anti-Zionism.
These cases and hundreds of similar ones playing out across the United States are surely part of what’s motivating those who tell me they are preemptively censoring themselves in liberal spaces – by taking off a kippah before walking into a college seminar; by pretending not to hear when someone suggests that Israel does not have a right to exist; by allowing a comment about “white Jews” to pass without correction; by standing by as other Jews, the “wrong kind,” are denigrated and dehumanized.
Very few of these people fear literal violence. What these Jews dread is something more intimate and more likely: moral condemnation, social ostracism and reputational vilification meted out by peers, professors, friends and political allies. To be a good progressive increasingly requires distorting Jewish history and disavowing the Jewish state. Telling the truth is not worth the risk to reputations, careers or social standing.
But because the violence here is usually not physical, many of my progressive readers and friends tell me it is ridiculous to draw any kind of comparison or moral equivalence between white supremacy and what is coming out of the left, which they insist is basically criticism of Israel run amok. The “real” anti-Semites – the ones who shoot up synagogues – exist only on the right. To draw any attention away from that threat is not just irresponsible, they maintain, it is dangerous. As if hate were a zero-sum game.
How dare I use my platform, some say, on a phenomenon so much less urgent, a phenomenon that is certainly far less lethal? It leaves me wondering: When can we speak out about it?
It is, of course, true that left-wing professors, activists, tech workers, artists, lawyers and doctors aren’t the kind of people who tend to own automatic weapons. Nor will these people ever come out and say something so blunt as “Kill the Jews.” No, anti-Semitism that originates on the left is a far more subtle and sophisticated enterprise. It’s typically camouflaged in language familiar to Jewish tongues and ears: the language of social justice and anti-racism, of equality and liberation.
This anti-Semitism cloaks itself in the false guise of political difference – it claims to be “criticism of Israel” or “just anti-Zionism” – and demands that it be lauded for its noble goals: fighting racism, fighting nationalism, championing the downtrodden. This is how it successfully inoculates itself from criticism. Because in this perverse equation, anyone who points out that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitic, in effect if not in intent, is defending racism and nationalism. It puts me in mind of Susan Sontag’s famous observation that communism is fascism with a human face.
And yet it remains hard for many to see it as threatening because it attempts, at least at first, only to marginalize Jews rather than murder us.
Ben Hecht, one of the greatest screenwriters of his generation, wrote about this conundrum in a 1944 book called A Guide for the Bedevilled. Hecht describes receiving a letter in the mail from an anonymous person: “Across the page in large red crayon letters are scrawled the words, ‘Kill All The Jews.’” He muses about who might have sent the letter. It was probably not the smartest of men, probably someone who delighted in imagining the fear Hecht would feel when he read it. But, Hecht notes, “not all anti-Semites write in red crayon. Many of them write in fine ink, Monsieur Voltaire, for instance. Monsieur Voltaire does not come in my mail. He stands on my bookshelf with all his electric sentences alive between covers.”
The letter written in red crayon? The screenwriter easily tosses it into the garbage bin. Unfortunately, Voltaire, the prince of reason, is much harder to dismiss. “Monsieur Voltaire is open on my desk,” Hecht writes. “He is much more articulate than my correspondent from Hollywood. He depresses me much more. Perhaps this is because I am more sensitive to crimes of the intellect than to those of the body. They are more dangerous – because they are more lasting.”
Neo-Nazis, in a way, are straightforward. We know they wish us dead. Anti-Semites with PhDs, the ones who defend their bigotry as enlightened thinking, are harder to fight. And so North American Jews are confronting two fears at the same time, one from without and one from within: Being shot by white supremacists. And being made out to be them.
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