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When I was younger, I thought that anti-Semitism was obsolete. Of course, I knew about the Holocaust. But it was so far away in time and space. (Only later did I learn that a great-uncle actually was murdered in Poland.) I even knew about George Lincoln Rockwell and neo-Nazi marches.
But compared to the actual murders and violence inflicted on African-Americans in the 1960s, when I was a teenager, anti-Semitism seemed a cross between smallpox and polio. It had been eradicated, or so it seemed.
That, of course, has changed in the past few decades or so with the rise of violent white supremacist groups targeting a whole panoply of ethnic and religious groups including Blacks, Jews, and Muslims, among others. There are terrorists among us who want to kill us just like Hitler did. Though luckily, until recently, we had the strong arm of law enforcement and federal officials who stood as a bulwark against such terror. We knew our leaders would fight this epidemic tooth and nail. That made us rest easier.
Until 2016. That’s when a white supremacist, and son of a Klan member was elected president. Then everything changed. Or at least got far worse. After neo-Nazis murdered an Antifa protester in Charlottesville, Trump’s response was that “both sides were very fine people.” After another terrorist murdered a dozen Jews during Shabbat services Pittsburgh Jews refused to accept his condolences, and preferred he stay away. The list of anti-Semitic statements from Trump is as long as my arm.
But now, mixed in with legitimate Jewish fear of anti-Semitic terror is a newly-spawned, politically-manipulated fear ginned up by the Israel Lobby. It has devised definitions and laws which conflate criticism of Israel including BDS, with anti-Semitism. It has essentially attempted to legislate pro-Israelism into state and federal law. As a result, anti-Semitism, whose definition every Jew knew, has become muddied and devalued.
This phenomenon has become embroiled in the Covid19 pandemic. Because of the massive dysfunction and incompetence of the federal response to the virus outbreak, citizens have been left to fend for themselves in terms of deciding how to behave and what to believe. In the past, we could all trust that a president would bring out his top science advisers and consult them. They, in turn, would devise a proper course of action based on science and evidence. The political leadership would then implement the plan devised by these experts. Everyone in the country knew we were in good hands. We trusted our leaders in such a crisis.
Now, that’s all turned upside down. Trump doesn’t trust doctors or scientists. And we don’t trust him. He trusts his sycophants and nostrums. No one’s at the wheel. We’re all left to our own devices. Into such a vacuum step the hacks and quacks, the frauds and grifters, the haters and the conspiracists. It’s in precisely such a period of upheaval and chaos that hate thrives. It’s when fear overwhelms us and we resort to our most primitive fight or flight instincts.
New York: Nexus of Covid19 and Anti-Semitism Hysterics
In New York City and in Israel, the ultra-Orthodox community reacted with denial to the Covid19 crisis. Segregated as it is from secular society, and dedicated as it is to a regime of strict Talmud study and religious observance, ultra-Orthodoxy rejects modernity. That includes secular education, science and even public health (except when used to save a Jewish life). Rabbinic leaders, if they said anything, told their followers to ignore the outside world. Some told their adherents that God would protect them from ithe virus through strict religious devotion. As a result, weddings, funerals, Bar Mitzvahs, and public prayer services continued unabated.
Even after authorities intervened to close yeshivas and break up weddings, religious schooling went underground and into private apartments. Civil authorities tried reaching out to these communities and their leadership. For some Hasidic sects this worked. But others continued to defy city regulations.
Then came the public funeral in Brooklyn for a Hasidic rebbe who’d died from Covid19. The custom in normal circumstances would be for all his male disciples to follow the hearse in respect, and walk with it to the cemetery. In normal times, tens or hundreds of thousands might turn out for such a ritual. Even though the numbers of mourners was nowhere near that, still thousands thronged the streets unmasked and failing to maintain social distance.
When Mayor Bill DeBlasio, who himself has not had a distinguished record of leadership during this crisis, heard this he hurried to the scene and angrily denounced the gathering in a tweet in which he warned “the Jewish community, and every community in the city,” that the laws must be respected. Anyone of any faith would be treated severely for continuing violations.
Quickly, the secular Jewish community rose in outrage at DeBlasio’s supposed “singling out” of the Jewish community for criticism. Twitter lit up with attacks on the mayor likening him to Hitler. The communal leadership wrote a joint letter, signed by many groups and individuals, warning DeBlasio that he’d crossed a red line in echoing anti-Semitic tropes of the past. I was shocked that progressive groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and Bend the Arc joined in baying for DeBlasio’s blood. Among the specious and lazy tropes in the letter was this:
In the midst of an historic wave of antisemitic hate violence in New York City, our community… has been feeling the pain of being singled out and blamed for the spread of this deadly disease. This singling out is especially potent because it aligns with longstanding antisemitic tropes that have, for millenia, blamed Jews for societal ills.
DeBlasio was not blaming Jews for causing Covid19. He was blaming them, and any other community, for disobeying regulations meant to protect the entire population from the disease. There are those offended by the fact that DeBlasio’s used the term “Jewish community” to point the finger at a specific groups of Hasidim. The fact is that a large portion of the city’s Jewish population is in fact ultra-Orthodox. In Brooklyn, where the funeral was held, the percentage is even higher. And all of the Jews who have violated these protective measures are ultra-Orthodox. So it is natural that he used this term in this context.
For a critique and comprehensive overview of the Haredi community’s response to Covid19, read this excellent report.
The secular communal leaders demanded to meet the Mayor in order to school him on their view of anti-Semitism and what they expected of him in future. It was clearly a shot across the bow and meant to take the mayor down a peg or two and remind him that the Jewish community helped put him in his job.
There were a few problems with this over-hasty response: first, the ultra-Orthodox community (which essentially rejects the non-Orthodox Jewish community as well as the secular society) admitted its error in permitting the public funerals. The Hasidic sect which organized it apologized to the mayor for its behavior and said it would do better in future. After a second public funeral was held, again violated city ordinances, the ultra-Orthodox community released another statement rejecting the anti-Semitism smear entirely.
That left the secular Jewish communal leadership in a bind: how do you become outraged on behalf of a fellow Jew who hasn’t taken any umbrage at all at the mayor’s actions. That’s the last we’ve heard of taking Mayor DeBlasio to the woodshed.
In the anti-Semitism wars, the Israel Lobby and Jewish groups enlist all manner of allies to amplify their presence. Sometimes the Jewish groups reach out and sometimes non-Jewish allies act on their own to support their Jewish allies. That’s why, in this particular instance, an African-American leader with a reputation as an expert on white supremacism and anti-Semitism, barged into the DeBlasio maelstrom, tweeting that the mayor had engaged in a phenomenon he called “biological othering.” He all but called DeBlasio an anti-Semite.
Though I’m not a fan of DeBlasio as mayor, such an attack was outrageous and ill-informed. It also violated another unwritten rule of intersectionality: support your allies if they as a community have a consensus around an issue. But if they don’t and you attempt to insert yourself as referee and tell them what’s kosher and what’s treif, you’ve walked into a hornet’s nest. That’s what Eric Ward, a senior fellow at Southern Poverty Law Center and director of the Western States Center did with his tweet:
Positioned perpetually as “the biological other,” Jews often find themselves wrongfully cast as the existential evil behind every social disparity, scandalous leaders or societal disaster. This is largely how anti-Semitism functions in the West today. https://t.co/pgi8rLIDri
— Eric K. Ward (@BulldogShadow) April 29, 2020
Even the Hasidic sect which hosted the funeral apologized for the behavior of its adherents and acknowledged its error:
“We understand Mayor Bill de Blasio’s frustration and his speaking out against the gathering. As said, we thought that the procession will be in accordance with the rules, and we apologize that it turned out otherwise,” said Jacob Mertz, a spokesperson for the local synagogue.
When I pointed out that the ultra-Orthodox community itself disagreed with Ward, he fired back calling me “Karen.” An interesting choice of words. It turned a simple disagreement into a racial confrontation: the term Karen is used pejoratively to describe a “middle-aged racist white woman.” I, of course, am not middle-aged, not a woman, Jewish, and not racist. So Ward was wrong on all counts. Nor did I introduce race into the thread. He did. Further, in calling me a Karen he employed a technique used regularly by the Israel Lobby to target its enemies on social media: gender shaming. That is, deliberately inverting someone’s gender in order to demean or belittle them.
Later, in trying to establish his bona fides on the question of anti-Semitism, he touted an article in which he’d been interviewed by the Jerusalem Post. I pointed out to him that the Post was widely known as Likudist and a rabid supporter of settler Judeo-supremacism. If he’d known anything about Jewish media, he would not have agreed to be interviewed for such a publication. But he seemed proud of it.
Not sure why Richard would be adopting similar word usage as David Duke but there you go. pic.twitter.com/YD5iqGU3Xl
— Eric K. Ward (@BulldogShadow) May 3, 2020
In his response, he managed to dig an even deeper hole for himself: he dredged up a book David Duke had written and accused me of being allied with Duke because of the similarity of the terms “Jewish” and “Judeo.” Once again this showed a high level of ignorance about Israel, contemporary Zionism, and Israeli media. I never use the term “Jewish supremacism,” because I will not permit settlers to monopolize Judaism. I do not concede their Judaism is normative or based on a religious consensus. That’s why I use the term developed by famed Israeli public intellectual, Prof. Yeshaya Leibowitz: Judeo-Nazism. It denotes that this ideology is a distortion or perversion of Judaism and Jewish values. Nuance, of course, lost on Ward.
The terrible irony of this is that the African-American community has been especially hard hit by Covid19. 35% of U.S. deaths are from the Black community. Yet when a mayor demands accountability from residents of his city who are defying rules in order to protect them from this menace, he’s called an anti-Semite by an African-American “expert” on racism and anti-Semitism. This is too cruel to be believed.
Into this debate, another progressive intervened on Ward’s behalf. Ben Lorber is a research analyst for Public Research Associates, which has published Ward’s work. Lorber took me to task for besmirching Ward’s reputation and told me what I was tweeting “wasn’t a good look.” I’m always bemused by people who attempt to police political debate on behalf of the side they prefer, while pretending only to care about maintaining solidarity within the movement. Not to mention that Lorber also Liked Ward’s tweet likening me to David Duke. Lorber is someone who once worked for Jewish Voice for Peace. Yet somehow he’s reduced himself to supporting a charge that a Jewish progressive is an ally of a neo-Nazi: a shameful abdication of values and common sense.
White Supremacy, the Holocaust and Covid19
Of course, the white supremacist movement has weighed in on the matter as you’d expect they would, given that their president has practically invited them to. They’ve demonstrated in multiple cities demanding that they “re-open.” That social distancing be abandoned. That businesses reopen. That state legislatures permit everyone to return to work and life “as normal.”
Despite their attempts to articulate their motives as an economic matter, it’s not. It perfectly fits the anti-government message they espouse. Anything the government does is designed to suppress freedom and liberty. Everything government officials decree must be a conspiracy to deprive us of rights.
Unfortunately, most state governments have taken no steps to stop these hooligans invading state offices with semi-automatic rifles, armed to the teeth. The media display images of police officers being screamed at by protesters as the former stand silent and unresponsive. I was pleased to see that Gov. Newsom arrested 25 of these militia members in a protest at the state capitol in Sacramento.
This was one of the signs at the “Re-open Illinois” event today. She assured those that she was not a Nazi, and stated, “I have Jewish friends.” Thank you for representing yourself and your “movement” for what it is. pic.twitter.com/CcIX2SVu6s
— Dennis Kosuth, RN (@Dennis_Kosuth) May 1, 2020
For some reason, instead of blaming Jews or Blacks for the virus (though that may be happening too), these protesters have decided to turn themselves into victims, while likening the government to Nazis. In Chicago, a protester waved a sign saying “Arbeit macht frei,” the slogan hanging over the entrance to Auschwitz. In the extermination camp, the message was a cruel joke as no amount of “work” from an inmate would earn him or her their freedom. To the guileless anti-government protesters, the slogan was a demand to permit residents to return to work.
“Arbeit macht frei” was a false, cynical illusion the SS gave to prisoners of #Auschwitz. Those words became one of the icons of human hatred. It’s painful to see this symbol instrumentalized & used again to spread hate. It’s a symptom of moral & intellectual degeneration. https://t.co/ZRxja8x6eS
— Auschwitz Memorial (@AuschwitzMuseum) May 2, 2020
These mindless cretins didn’t think for a second how, J.B. Pritzker, a Jewish governor and grandson of penniless immigrants who fled Ukrainian pogroms, or any of the remaining sensible residents of the state would feel about him being called a Nazi. As the Auschwitz Holocaust Museum itself tweeted, this is a “symptom of moral and intellectual degeneration.”
Other supporters of the re-open movement further desecrated history and the Holocaust by tweeting nonsense like this:
If Hitler were alive he would make us wear masks. They told the Jews they were relocating them for their own protection. Now they tell us masks are for our own protection.
— Jane Hautanen (@snipercatcher) May 3, 2020
Hitler didn’t make Jews wear masks. He made them wear Stars of David. Then he gassed them. And when he did, he didn’t give anyone a mask. If only he would have. A further irony is: it was the Nazis themselves who likened Jews to rats and vermin, accusing them of bearing disease and introducing it to European society. It is an abomination for these thoughtless creatures to liken their predicament to the fate of 6-million murdered Jews.
And what does Pres. Trump say about the protesters? Echoing Charlottesville, he says they’re “very good people.” He encouraged Michigan Gov. Whitmer, who was confronted with armed militia assaulting her state capital building, to “give a little.” Sure, why not give them the entire state government and reward insurrectionists with the prize they seek: abdication of democratic authority.
Covid19: When Fear Overwhelms Solidarity
The leaders of NYC Jewry ought to think twice and thrice before they engage in similar rhetoric invoking the Holocaust and, as some Jews did on Twitter, likening the mayor to Hitler, and accusing him of anti-Semitism. Such charges are not only toxic in themselves, they create enormous division within society. They set elected officials against a portion of the citizenry and do so unnecessarily. They divide when we need solidarity.
In such a crisis, we need ethnic and religious communities to endorse mutual aid and commonality. We especially need unity in the face of the chaos seeded by the Trump administration, who seeks to set us against each other. That is why the grandstanding of the city’s Jewish leadership and figures like Eric Ward is so dangerous.
I’m pleased to say that Ward’s tweet was met by polite demurral from almost all those in the thread. Only Ward seemed oblivious and chose to double-down on his divisive tweet.
When the Jewish community took DeBlasio to task, they were engaged in policing of political speech. They took advantage of the current epidemic of anti-Semitism mongering to take a politician who has been suspected of insufficient loyalty to Israel to task. We must divorce the very real phenomenon of anti-Semitism from politics and not use it as a cudgel to enforce pro-Israel discipline in such public discourse.