How Partisan Affiliations Blind Us to the Threats Next Door


In his new memoir cum manifesto, “Never Alone: Prison, Politics, and My People” (PublicAffairs), the former Soviet refusenik recalls his years as a political prisoner, as an Israeli politician and as the head of the Jewish Agency, while offering his vision for a united Jewish people ready to take on the challenges of anti-Semitism and the Middle East. Written with Gil Troy, a professor of history at McGill University in Montreal. Below is an excerpt.

The Trump dilemmas which vex Israel and American Jewry – to criticize or not to criticize such a bullying leader, to thank or not thank the president who finally recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital – fit into a bigger global phenomenon. In many countries, the postmodern assault on identity has unleashed an inevitable nationalist counter-reaction trying to restore a sense of national pride. The old country expression “one knife sharpens the other,” is coming to life. One extreme — denying national pride as the enemy of liberalism — keeps colliding with the opposite extreme — denying liberalism as the enemy of national pride.

Postmodernism pushed the noble ideas of peace and universalism to such an extreme it negated traditional identities. Similarly, nationalism began with an equally legitimate desire to protect your identity, to feel pride in your people, comfortable with your community. For extremists, however, nationalism can too easily override essential liberal approaches, ideals, and protections for others.

Unfortunately, Israel’s insistence on being a democratic state with a strong national identity is what makes it so unpopular with postmodernists. But that national pride is exactly what many new nationalist parties find so appealing about Israel. Caught in this crossfire, the politics has often turned messy for Jews.

If a growing number of illiberal liberals didn’t even want to talk to us, some devious ultra-nationalists seemed obsessed with embracing us.

Zionism’s identity cocktail of ethnicity, religion, and geography, is one of the many valid mixes underlying modern democracies. But to defend its balance between liberalism and nationalism in debate or in real life is much more difficult today; many prefer veering toward liberalism or nationalism.

Humans are tribal. Distinction isn’t always discrimination. A community needs boundaries to be a community, otherwise there’s nothing in common to contain – and distinguish from other. Jews survived for millennia by having boundaries, preserving our people. But our nationalism goes with our liberalism and our liberalism with our nationalism. Take one or the other out, and you don’t have Zionism. Israel’s Declaration of Independence makes the duality clear.

When the New anti-Semitism started spiking nearly two decades ago, my writing partner at the time, Ron Dermer, and I developed the 3Ds to distinguish valid criticism of Israel from anti-Semitic Israel-bashing. Now, with new ultra-nationalist parties fighting liberals, we need criteria tailored to the right, too. We need clear criteria distinguishing valid attacks on liberals from anti-Semitic liberal-bashing. We need to see when critics cross the line from legitimate, even toxic, attacks on their political opponents, some of whom are Jewish, to Jew-hating.

Noticing the recurrent tics on that side of the spectrum, I propose three possible criteria, of many: Do they deny the Holocaust or use it against us? Do they try to outlaw Halacha, Jewish legal practices, like circumcision or ritual slaughter? Finally, more generally, in their political struggles do they deploy any of the historic prejudices against Jews? When criticizing a Jew, an Israeli action, the Jews, or all of Israel, do they resurrect any of the historic libels that have tormented us for centuries, especially claims of Jews being greedy, seeking financial or political hegemony, trying to control the world, being guilty of dual loyalty, lying, cheating or having big-noses, sharp chins and beady eyes? My co-author Gil Troy proposes calling these the 4Hs – Holocaust, Halacha, Hegemony and Historic libels.

It’s depressing to watch so many Jews fall for the anti-Semites’ well-known tricks: “I love Jews, I’m only critical of Israel,” or “I love Israel, I’m only critical of those cosmopolitan Jews.” But we have enough experience to see how the poison flows from one polluted platform to the other. Look at Islamists in France or the Labor Party in England. There, the anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism blur.

Then look to Jew-haters like David Duke of the Ku Klux Klan, with his rants about “Z.O.G.,” the supposedly Zionist-Occupied Government of the United States. This right-wing White Supremacist ended up congratulating a left-wing woman of color, Ilhan Omar the Congresswoman of “what about the Benjamins” and “foreign … allegiance” infamy. Duke saluted her as someone who hates Israel, and thus hates the Jews. Duke and his far-right Klansmen, as well as the crazed gunman who shot up the Chabad Synagogue of Poway near San Diego, prove it once again: those who start by hating Jews, end up hating Israel.

Our Urgent Need to Unite Against Anti-Semitism

Too many of us are too happy to attack our political opponents’ anti-Semitism, while overlooking it among our allies. I’ve heard Israeli ministers and some leaders of major American Jewish organizations scoff at right-wing anti-Semites as “lone wolves,” who lack the reach of left-wing BDS activists. And I’ve heard liberals and leaders of other major Jewish organizations dismiss left-wing anti-Semitism as a fringe phenomenon from either mentally-imbalanced people or a few overwrought critics of Israel.

When the former New York Times columnist Bari Weiss condemned left-wing, right-wing, and Islamist anti-Semitism equally, many Twitter-bullies mocked her supposed moral equivalence. A review in Slate called her book How to Fight anti-Semitism “a bizarre and undercooked exercise in rhetorical bothsidesism, in which she argues that American Jews should be just as worried about college students who overzealously criticize Israel as they are about the aspiring Einsatzgruppen who shoot up shuls.”

Partisan Jews and mainstream media organizations could not resist this silly sifting between supposedly benign anti-Semites (their allies) – and real, malignant, anti-Semites (their rivals). In December 2019, the popular conservative columnist Caroline Glick argued that “whereas white supremacists are political orphans,” because “progressive, Islamist and black anti-Semites have become powerful actors in the Democratic Party and converge most powerfully” on campuses, they “present the greatest threat to Jewish life in America.” By contrast, and just as predictably, the left-leaning New York Times editorialized that month that “the larger threat to American Jews goes beyond college students sparring over Israeli policy: Violent anti-Semitism is being fomented most significantly by white nationalists and the far right.”

Such dismissals—including a Forward headline claiming “Anti-Semitism on the Right Is the Only Real Threat to Jews”—ignored many inconvenient facts. First, that same Forward edition of November 6, 2019, covered the most frequent expressions of anti-Semitic violence in America. It did not come from Far Right haters or left-wing BDS supporters, but from hoodlums who, the day before, had assaulted and chased a number of “Brooklyn Orthodox Jews” in a “series of nighttime attacks. Denouncing those attacks didn’t advance any Jewish faction’s partisan agenda. In fact, one prominent radical rabbi, Jill Jacobs, tweeted: “The horrible attacks on Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn & elsewhere likely relate to long-term tensions & don’t fall easily into left/right category. Not parallel to white nationalists whose beliefs are based on anti-Semitism.” In 240 characters, Jacobs blamed the victims by using code words hinting that Orthodox Jews were generating “tensions,” she sounded frustrated that these crimes didn’t fit into her Left-Right paradigm, and she ended by claiming that the real threat, the only genuine anti-Semitism worth worrying about, was from “white nationalists.” As a result, too many American Jews minimized these street crimes, until December 2019, when the murders in a Jersey City kosher supermarket and the slashings at a Monsey, New York, Hanukkah party drew attention to the problem of Jew-hatred among some African Americans.

While right-wing anti-Semitism riles up Neo-Nazis who might kill, left-wing anti-Semitism encourages Palestinian terrorists who kill Israelis far more frequently. But beware, even pointing out these facts somehow legitimizes this ridiculous debate. Instead, we should have zero-tolerance for all forms of bigotry against everyone, regardless of the target or the source.

Hate is hate. I hate this insulting, distracting new fight about whether left-wing anti-Semitism or right-wing anti-Semitism is worse. I can’t think of a more intellectually hollow, morally shallow, pointless debate today. No one cares that the disgraced Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein supported liberal causes – his sexism was quite literally criminal. No one asks if a racist is right-wing or left-wing, if you mistreat or pre-judge African-Americans, you are racist, period.

In the swamps of hatred, the mud doesn’t change colors, it’s neither Republican red nor Democratic blue. Selective indignation undermines the righteousness of indignation, emboldening the haters. From up close, when you’re experiencing Jew-hatred, it looks the same and feels the same, regardless of the haters’ background or affiliation.

Consider these recent Jew-hating incidents. Did a left-winger or a right-winger Tweet out the sick riddle asking “What’s the difference between a Jew and a pizza – the pizza leaves the oven.” Who was guilty of abusing a young Jewish politician in California, with cries of “Fire up the oven?” Who photoshopped the face of a Jewish journalist onto the body of an Auschwitz prisoner? Who made a mock album cover for “Set Fire to the Jews” with a distorted picture of the singer Adele as “Adelef Hitler?” And who knocked the kippa off of a fourteen-year-old’s head in Brooklyn? The first Tweeter was a BDS supporter. The second online bully was a Neo-Nazi. The third was an inflamed far-right Trump supporter. The fourth was a Student for Justice in Palestine activist. And the fifth was just a hoodlum.

I understand the appeal. When Right fight Lefts and Left fights Right, it confirms our media-shaped view of the world. Partisans feel virtuous, having scored their ideological points. Right-wing anti-Semitism does feel more threatening to liberals, because it threatens their more universalistic survival strategy. Similarly, left-wing anti-Zionist anti-Semitism particularly targets Israelis while threatening Zionism’s more nationalistic survival strategy.

All this cherry-picking, choosing convenient enemies and excusing annoying allies, is like fighting a grease fire with water. The fire gets crazier and steams shoots up. You fail to make a difference, while politicizing something sacred. When conservatives attack progressives, or liberals attack governments they already oppose, they feel good about the political points they score, but don’t pack much of a punch. Progressives have to fight the anti-Semitism in Black Lives Matter which artificially links Gaza with Ferguson or blames US police violence on Israeli army training; those who allied with Donald Trump have to fight the Jew hatred in the alt-Right that led to Charlottesville.

When partisans have the courage to fight from within, the results are impressive. “I am happy to debate Middle East politics or listen to critiques of Israeli policies. But why should criticism of Israel be key to feminism in 2017?” the millennial writer Emily Shire wondered. When she proclaimed in a New York Times op-ed: “I see no reason I should have to sacrifice my Zionism for the sake of my feminism,” many previously-silenced feminists applauded.

By 2019, the hostility against Jews among some leaders of the Women’s March became too blatant to ignore, especially when several of its leaders supported Louis Farrakhan, a crass anti-Semite who compares Jews to termites. Most notably, the #MeToo founder and Melrose Place actress Alyssa Milano joined the Will & Grace star Debra Messing in boycotting the 2019 Women’s March. These two anti-Trump actresses felt the march’s leaders were too tolerant of an anti-Semitism only occasionally hidden behind anti-Zionism. Milano declared: “Any time that there is any bigotry or anti-Semitism in that respect, it needs to be called out and addressed. I’m disappointed in the leadership of the Women’s March that they haven’t done it adequately.”

Once again, many followed.

Similarly, the fight against boycotts on campus has been much more effective when pro-Israel forces from left to right unite, and pro-Israel progressives can speak sincerely not cynically about not feeling “safe” and feeling “othered.”

Is Our Common Journey in Danger?

I have experienced many situations which made it clear: a healthier dialogue could help us address our differences while working together. Better teamwork would have helped us deal better with the “dropping out” of Russian Jews or the immigration of the Falash Mura from Ethiopia or the growing tension between American Jews and Israelis during the Obama-Netanyahu brawls.

But, today, when it comes to the question of uniting our efforts against all forms of anti-Semitism, I am not just saying that it’s nice to have a dialogue or we’ve missed some opportunities to solve problems more easily. We face a national emergency. The fact that this renewed Jew-hatred is stirring partisan divisions between us, not broad solidarity among us, tests our very willingness to continue our journey together.

At so many searing moments throughout the long Jewish past of enduring hatred and trauma, anti-Semitism united Jews. When Syrian authorities kidnapped 63 Jewish children during the Damascus Blood Libel, when the French government framed Alfred Dreyfus as a traitor, when the Russian empire and press accused Menahem Mendel Beilis of draining the blood of a Christian Ukrainian boy, Jews of all stripes rallied together, recognizing our common enemy. We were never alone because they never left us alone. But today, with Jew-hatred spiking left and right – while going mainstream – our partisan affiliations often blind us to the threats next door.

Anti-Semitism has often been the last bond linking us to our history. It was the great Jewish pressure cooker, throwing us together whether we liked it or not. In my Soviet childhood, my Jewish identity was a dead one. Like a dead language it existed on paper – in my identity card – without any practical use. Yet, while reading the classics, every mention about anti-Semitism I stumbled across, from William Shakespeare’s Shylock to Leon Feuchtwanger’s Jew Jew Süss, felt like a message-in-a-bottle sent directly to me. It was one more reminder that I belonged to this ancient people and was still targeted by this ancient hatred. I sympathized with these heroes-on-paper, while identifying with them too.

Now, sixty-years-later, if we cannot even recognize the anti-Semitism targeting the other half of our people, in real time, right now, if our passing political differences somehow wipe out thousands of years of camaraderie and instinctive alarm signals, then our common journey together really is in doubt.

The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre claimed in 1946: “The anti-Semite makes the Jew.” What he said was true if your identity is as dead as it was for me in the Soviet Union. There, anti-Semites did keep Jews aware of our Jewishness. In that vacuum, we sought solidarity to defend ourselves physically, as we so desperately sought to assimilate successfully – making Sartre essentially correct.

But when I discovered Israel, history, and the Jewish people, I went far beyond this defensiveness. By embracing my Jewish heritage, I resurrected my identity. A constructive Jewish identity is proactive not reactive — it’s not just about physical survival.

The Jew makes the Jew. That’s how I found my extended Jewish family. And that’s how I realized what the real answer is to anti-Semitism. The best response to Jew-hatred is not to run away from Judaism but to be a Jew, in every way possible. Joining the dialogue with your people, building partnerships with them in a mutual journey, turns your identity from dead to alive.

Like what you read? Get the book here.