Let’s Talk About the Left’s Appalling Tolerance of Anti-Semitism
Updated: Sep 13, 2018
Over the past several months, there have been several incidents where my fellow leftists have refused to appropriately condemn anti-Semitism. There’s a reason for this—an un-examined double-standard. When I have raised this issue in the past, fellow activists have responded with all manner of defenses we have rejected in other contexts: “Not all leftists”; dismissing the voices of Jews discussing our lived experiences; insisting that concerns over anti-Semitism are distractions from the “real issues.” But this problem is real, and widespread, and needs to be recognized and addressed. As a leftist, and as a Jew, I am deeply distressed this is where things are, and that I need to publicly beg for this conversation to happen. We can, and must, do better; as Jews are increasingly targeted for violence, we must start now.
Unfortunately, the first task here is to review the numerous recent incidents of anti-Semitism, and the failure of many of us on the left to respond adequately. About two months ago, one of the leaders of the Women’s March, Tamika Mallory, attended an important gathering of the notoriously anti-Semitic Nation of Islam where its leader, Louis Farrakhan, delivered one of his addresses famously filled with Jew-hatred. When some objected, she refused to back down, saying that if “your leader does not have the same enemies as Jesus”—obviously, Jews—“they may not be THE leader.” It was unsurprising when more of her anti-Semitism came to light. She has repeatedly praised Farrakhan in the past, calling him the “greatest of all time.”
If asked, most, if not all, leftists will agree, or at least concede, that Jews are among the all-too-many oppressed groups in the world. Those of us on the left subscribe to the notion that when members of, or organizations representing, an oppressed group express concerns about oppression or prejudice, we should take those concerns seriously--not dismiss them out of hand.
So, an outside observer could have reasonably expected that when Jewish groups quickly registered their consternation about Mallory's anti-Semitic comments, leftists would show up as allies in support of those concerns, and denounce anti-Semitism. Instead, leftist allies were nowhere to be found. Social media accounts of prominent left-wing groups were defeaningly silent, or outright voiced support for Mallory.
Center-left and left-wing publications ran articles defending Mallory, all trying to explain away the problem. The Root objected that she was “being held accountable for Farrakhan’s words,” and attempted to justify her seventeen-year-long involvement in NOI because it had been there for her in the past. The post quoted the president of the New York State Conference of the NAACP saying that it was unreasonable to expect Mallory to condemn Farrakhan. “It’s complicated,” the author concluded. In the Atlantic, Adam Serwer told Jews that the appeal of Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism was just fine because we (Jews) are “outside the black community.” He—like other apologists for Farrakhan and Mallory—pointed out, as if it excused anti-Semitism, that a few decades ago Farrakhan organized a march that brought to the fore important issues about race in the United States.
Some have argued against holding Mallory accountable because she is not an elected official--but events unfolded similarly when a District of Columbia councilman, Trayon White, made news by proclaiming that “the Rothschilds” controlled the weather. In the face of widespread objections, he apologized. Immediately, my progressive Facebook friends insisted that we forgive him. “We all make mistakes,” said one, describing it as an “opportunity for learning and growth.” A Jewish progressive friend instructed others to get off their “high horses” about the issue, expressing gratitude that the councilman had “taken responsibility.” To show how sorry he was, he took a tour of the Holocaust Musuem, which he then cut short—they were only half-way through—but not before insisting to the tour guide that, in a posted photograph from the Holocaust-era, Nazi soldiers were “protecting” a woman they were in fact publicly humiliating for her relationship with a Jewish person. Somehow, some persisted in trying to justify his behavior even after news outlets revealed he had illegally donated money to Farrakhan.
One Twitter thread shared widely by my progressive and leftist friends said that we needed to “step back.” The author pointed out that White’s district is very poor, that White had grown up poor, that White had “coached sports,” and “worked with clergy.” The thread also objected that “no one asked” if White “meant Jews” when he talked about how the Rothschilds control the weather. The real problem here, “Rafael” insisted, was that “rich white people” were “waiting” for “this under educated Black man” to “say something offensive accidentally.”
Well. Now it is really time for us to take a step back. Imagine if any person had said or done any of this about any other oppressed group. No leftist I know—and I include myself—would have tolerated that to this degree, let alone spent dozens of hours and pages trying to give more “context” to the bigotry as a defense against holding someone accountable. There is a great deal of context behind bigoted comments and bigotry generally, but somehow that context only becomes determinative in what we demand from the offender when the offense is directed at Jews.
Nor can the failures of the left to adequately confront anti-Semitism be explained by changing internal norms, or because Mallory and White, though problematic, are also members of an oppressed group. In fact, there are innumerable examples of leftists holding accountable elected officials and activists, women and men, people of color and white people, for all manner of offensive comments about any oppressed group--except Jews.
When the Women’s March, on the death of Barbara Bush, tweeted: “Rest in peace and power, Barbara Bush.” Bush's death was, of course, sad--but leftists resisted the tendency to venerate the dead without nuance; they rightly recalled Bush's defense of Clarence Thomas among accusations of sexual harassment, and her more recent comment that Katrina victims were better off in shelters; near-unanimously, leftists and progressives asked the Women’s March to delete the Tweet and apologize. There were no think-pieces insisting talking about the need to "understand" Bush's background, or arguing that the Women's March does not need to distance itself from Bush.
Similarly, Hillary Clinton’s 1996 remarks about “superpredators” were widely—and rightly—condemned as racist. There were no paeans about her time defending the indigent during her time as a public defense attorney, because that was not relevant. No one asked if she knew that her comments implicated and perpetuated racist stereotypes. No leftist I know cared that the reporters who had been “following her around” were overwhelmingly male. And, again, they were right not to mention any of that, because none of that matters; what matters when you make bigoted comments like Clinton’s and White’s is that you made them and you need to do better—and if you persist in not doing better, you should be condemned.
Other examples abound. Progressives called for a Democratic Missouri state legislator to resign after backing a radio host who was notorious for "racist rants." In February of this year, the New York Times hired Quinn Norton whom leftists on Twitter soon revealed to have disturbing connections with the alt-right. Within hours, she had been terminated. Around the same time, The Atlantic announced that it had hired Kevin Williamson; it was soon revealed that in 2014 he had argued that abortion should be treated as premeditated homicide. In response to a growing chorus from progressives, Williams was soon fired.
When a member of the steering committee of the Los Angeles chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America posted a rape joke on twitter, he was removed and sent to sensitivity training. The person in question rightly recognized in his apology that “[r]egardless of any intentions, my actions minimized the pain and suffering of victims of sexual assault, and that is unacceptable.” A Trump administration appointee was forced to resign after racist and homophobic comments he made between 2012 and 2014 came to light. He similarly recognized the impact his words had: "There are certain comments that I made that are inexcusable." He posted an apology on Twitter as well, which included the hashtag "#noexcuses."
Why are we on the left so unwilling to apply these same standards to elected officials and leading leftists who make anti-Semitic statements and defend those who do? Our growing list of failures to treat anti-Semitism as we treat racism, or sexism, or homophobia, manifests a disturbing refusal be serious when it comes to Jewish oppression; perhaps, notwithstanding disclaimers to the contrary, many of my friends on the left do not really consider Jews to be oppressed at all.
But if I am wrong--and I hope I am--our tolerance of anti-Semitism is easily remedied. It starts with a few simple words. Repeat after me, comrades: “anti-Semitism is bad, and I condemn it. I do not need to elaborate on this statement.”