Politics Coloring A Tribal Divide


It’s hard to know where to begin when talking about recent incidents of anti-Semitism in the United States. There was the shooting in Pittsburgh, the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history. There was the shooting at a synagogue in Poway, Calif., six months later. There were physical assaults on Orthodox men on the streets in Brooklyn. And there were the comments made by President Trump about Jewish “disloyalty” and by Rep. Ilhan Omar about AIPAC’s role in politics and how “it’s all about the Benjamins.”

In 2019, one year after the shooting in Pittsburgh, the fact that anti-Semitism is on the rise has been a matter of widespread agreement. But when it comes to understanding where anti-Semitism is coming from, who is responsible for it and how best to respond, the Jewish community has never been more divided. And much of that division boils down to politics.

“There’s not one unified conversation, and there’s not one unified response to the murders that happened in October last year,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League.

Deborah Lipstadt, noted historian of the Holocaust and recent author of “Antisemitism: Here and Now,” agreed. “I don’t think we were ever one [community], but if we were ever one, we aren’t now,” she said.

The terms of that divide can be stark: Where many observers focus on the rise of white supremacy, others in the organized Jewish community focus on anti-Semitism from the left, whether from supporters of the Israel boycott or from the harsh rhetoric of several freshman Democrats.

The ADL has tallied the incidents on both sides, but Greenblatt has been particularly alarmed by the deadly violence from the far right and the increasing mainstreaming of its ideas here and abroad.

“There’s the world pre-Pittsburgh and there’s the world after Pittsburgh, and I think the first alarm bell wasn’t Pittsburgh, it was Charlottesville,” he said, referring to the 2017 Unite the Right rally where neo-Nazis chanted anti-Semitic slogans and a white supremacist killed a counter-protester. “The fact of the matter is there’s a through line from Charlottesville to Pittsburgh to Poway to El Paso,” the mass shooting in August by a gunman believed to have written a white nationalist and anti-immigrant manifesto. “White supremacy is a global terror threat.”

There’s the world pre-Pittsburgh and there’s the world after Pittsburgh, and I think the first alarm bell wasn’t Pittsburgh, it was Charlottesville.

Meanwhile, just days after 11 Jews in Pittsburgh were gunned down by a man espousing anti-immigrant views, Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, called for the passage of anti-boycott legislation.

Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, seconded the notion that the massacre in Pittsburgh was of a piece with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel.

“To simply say that this is because of one person, it only comes on one side, is to not understand the history of anti-Semitism or the reality of anti-Semitism,” Dermer told MSNBC the day after the massacre. “One of the big forces in college campuses today is anti-Semitism. And those anti-Semites are usually not neo-Nazis on college campuses. They’re coming from the radical left.”

And in April, in testimony before a House Judiciary Committee specifically convened to address “Hate Crimes and the Rise of White Nationalism,” Morton Klein of the Zionist Organization of America devoted the bulk of his remarks to BDS, anti-Israel activism on the left and anti-Semitism by Muslims, including Omar. Klein also praised Trump, calling the president a “partner and a leader in the battle to stamp out neo-Nazi and KKK and white supremacist and anti-Semitic hatreds.”

“I don’t see Pittsburgh tipping that divide in any way,” said Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. “I think if anything, it just has ramped up the tension between these two totally different schools of Jewish thought in terms of what Jews should be more scared of.”

Weaponizing Anti-Semitism

The politicization of anti-Semitism can be seen in the reactions to accusations of anti-Semitism against Omar and President Donald Trump.

When Omar was accused of tweeting various anti-Semitic tropes, condemnation came from all sides — including a Congressional resolution condemning anti-Semitism and other forms of hatred.

Many on the right, especially, were eager to condemn Omar and suggest she represented a trend within the Democratic Party. They accused Democrats of watering down the anti-Semitism resolution to appease their left flank. The president himself accused Omar of anti-Semitism repeatedly over the summer in an attempt to cast the “Squad,” a progressive quartet of congresswomen including Omar, as the face of the Democrats. After tweeting that members of the squad should “go back” to where they came from, Trump accused them of being “anti-Israel” in a tweet and later said that Omar “hates Jews.”

But the president, too, was accused of making an anti-Semitic remark this summer, which he subsequently doubled down on, when he said that American Jews who vote for Democrats “showed great disloyalty,” a comment he later clarified to mean disloyalty towards the Jewish people and towards Israel.

Trump’s comments unleashed a wave of condemnations from the left, while allies on the right rushed to his defense.

Lipstadt expressed frustration with the weaponization and politicization of anti-Semitism. “The right is very eagle-eyed on seeing it on the left; you go to a group that leans right and they’ll tell you about BDS and about AOC,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the New York Democrat who has defended Omar and has been highly critical of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“But then you go to the left and they can tell you about Pittsburgh and Poway and Charlottesville,” said Lipstadt. “When I hear that, I often think that the person to whom I’m speaking is not really interested in anti-Semitism but they’re interested in the political fight.”

Taking To The Streets

Just three days after the shooting in Pittsburgh, thousands of people took to Pittsburgh’s streets to protest a planned visit by Trump. As his motorcade drove through the Squirrel Hill neighborhood on its way to the Tree of Life synagogue, thousands of protesters paused their marching and turned their backs on the president to signal their disapproval of his visit and rhetoric which they blamed, in part, for inspiring the shooter.

The march, organized by the Pittsburgh chapter of the progressive Jewish organization Bend The Arc, set off a wave of organizing by Jewish progressives across the country. Jewish progressives have long been active political organizers, in particular since Donald Trump was elected in 2016, but the pace has picked up in the past year in parallel with the resurgence of the Democratic party’s left flank.

Stosh Cotler, CEO of Bend The Arc, says activists are feeling vulnerable as Jews.

“More Jews now are wanting to take public action to be involved in social justice as Jews,” said Cotler. “This moment has in many ways politicized and woken up a number of white Jews who had not previously felt the dangers of what it meant to be Jewish.”

Jews on the left aren’t the only ones who have been motivated to protest over the past year. At a rally in front of City Hall last month, Dov Hikind, the former New York state assemblyman, called on the mayor to declare a state of emergency in response to frequent incidents of violence against Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn. As of June, there were 110 hate crimes motivated by anti-Semitism in New York City, constituting 60 percent of all hate crimes in 2019, according to the New York City Police Department.

“Is this pre-Nazi Germany?” Hikind asked from the lectern as he kicked off the rally. Klein, president of ZOA, called on African-American and Hispanic leaders to denounce anti-Semitism, an apparent nod to allegations that anti-Semitic assaults in Brooklyn are largely being perpetrated by African-American and Hispanic men. According to the NYPD, 54 percent of anti-Semitic hate crimes in 2017 (the most recent year such breakdowns were available) were carried out by whites with 33 percent carried out by African-Americans and 8 percent by Hispanics. Police officials have said that the motivations behind the recent attacks are unclear.

In an interview with The Jewish Week, Hikind said politics have gotten in the way of dealing with the root of the problem. “Politics plays a major role in how you respond to anti-Semitism,” Hikind said. “If we’re going to address it, we can’t be politically correct.” Some have blamed the attacks on racial tensions between black and Jewish residents of Brooklyn and faulted police for failing to say so.

But Michael Miller, CEO of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, said the incidents in Brooklyn “defy logic” and cautioned against pinning them on a specific motivation or group. He was careful to say that while there was no “connection” between the attacks in Brooklyn and Pittsburgh, there was an “association.” “It’s very difficult to draw an analogy between the murder of Jews praying in a synagogue and physical assaults on individual Jews,” said Miller.

Security And Insecurity

On Oct. 31, 2018, four days after the Pittsburgh shooting, the Conference of Presidents convened leaders of several organizations at the Midtown offices of UJA-Federation of New York to discuss their response. Michael Masters, head of the Secure Community Network, spoke of the resources offered by SCN. Naftali Bennett, Israel’s minister of diaspora affairs, offered words of support on behalf of the Israeli government. 

Masters, whose SCN group coordinates security trainings and guards for Jewish organizations, said his organization has received over 2,000 requests for service so far this year compared to just 500 in the first 10 months of 2018. UJA-Federation and New York’s JCRC recently announced a $4 million investment in community security, with the goal of hiring six new directors to enhance the security of 2,000 local Jewish institutions. Synagogues throughout the country have hired guards or off-duty police officers to stand watch during services and other events.

But even these practical steps have drawn critics.

On the same day that the Conference of Presidents met in New York, another group of Jews spent hours on a phone conference planning a different response to the attack in Pittsburgh. Volunteers and staff at Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, a left-wing group, spoke about their fears of white supremacy and the Jews of color and LGBT Jews who, due to a history of police violence, could feel threatened by an increased police presence outside of synagogues.

The next day, JFREJ released its Community Safety Pledge in which they explicitly linked anti-Semitism to white supremacy, called for increased security measures that minimized police involvement, and encouraged Jewish communities to strengthen ties with other minority communities targeted by white supremacists.

“We don’t believe that policing is what creates more safety,” said Audrey Sasson, executive director of JFREJ. “We have to know that having armed guards at a synagogue does not make all Jews feel safe.”

Masters said he recognized the issues that armed guards and police presence can cause in a diverse Jewish community but urged communities to work with law enforcement to build trust. “Law enforcement has a responsibility to protect and serve the whole community and so it’s incumbent that law enforcement is engaged and proactive with the community in a positive way,” said Masters. “It’s also important for us to engage law enforcement as well, to hear from us as a community that we have concerns.”

The stakes, Masters said, are simply too high.

“We are facing the most complex threat environment at any time in this nation’s history,” said Masters. “The threats we face are often highly motivated, well equipped, and deadly. To counter that often requires a professional response.”

More coverage: Pittsburgh: 1 Year Later