Discover more from The Bulwark
The Left’s Growing Antisemitism Problem
How can the left present its case for a more hospitable and just society if it makes Jews—the most persecuted minority in history—feel unwelcome and endangered?
IF A UNITED, ROBUST MOVEMENT of progressive politics was ever necessary in the United States, it is at this exact moment. An increasingly authoritarian right, under the spell of bizarre conspiracy theories and revolving around the personality cult of Donald Trump, threatens the foundation of American democracy. Yet antisemitism, the most lethal prejudice and most dangerous conspiracy theory in the history of the world, is now thriving on the left. It is a moral outrage in itself, but it could also undermine progressive politics, robbing it of intellectual and ethical credibility in its fight against the nationalist-populist right.
Antisemitism differs from reasonable and responsible criticism of Israel. As is the case with any country, Israel’s policies provoke lively debate, and it’s natural that they would lead many critics to express disapproval. Many Israelis themselves have condemned the expanding settlements in the West Bank, levied accusations of unfair treatment toward Palestinians, and relentlessly protested Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposed judicial reforms. Antisemitism is therefore not simply criticism of Israel, but it becomes an obvious motivating factor in many unreasonable criticisms of the state. Examples include holding Israel to standards of conduct that apply to no other country, arguing that Israel is an inherently racist and colonial state without a right to exist, and using deliberately inflammatory language while protesting Israel—the sort of language that makes a mockery of the Holocaust while encouraging hostility, even to the point of violence, against Jews in general or the Jewish state, its citizens, and its supporters.
As a practical matter, progressive politics is almost always coalition politics, and prejudicial hatreds are anathema to both progress and solidarity. Yet there is, inside the tent, an ancient hatred that I, along with many other liberals, have found impossible to ignore since October 7. After Hamas’s stomach-turning violence and barbarity in Israel, protests broke out across the United States, and social media transformed into a flurry of outrage—not at the harvesters of death in Hamas, but toward the victims.
Chapters of the Democratic Socialists of America and Black Lives Matter issued statements showcasing the lazy moral relativism of chalking up mass murder to little more than “resistance” and even calling Hamas “freedom fighters.” At DSA-sponsored rallies in major cities, audiences chanted “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!”—a rallying cry for Palestinian self-determination that also describes the destruction of Israel and the human beings within it.
After October 7, the New York Review of Books published a letter by youngish literary and artistic figures, including Ta-Nehisi Coates, condemning Israel and accusing it of ethnic cleansing (if not worse). In a short paragraph, seemingly as an afterthought, the authors disavowed violence against Israeli civilians, though in a circuitous manner that appears designed to absolve Hamas of all responsibility: “On Saturday, after sixteen years of siege, Hamas militants broke out of Gaza. More than 1,300 Israelis were subsequently killed with over one hundred more taken hostage.”
Even the most cynical observer of today’s antisemitism would be shocked by our most prestigious universities. Thirty-four student organizations at Harvard cosigned a statement declaring Israel “entirely responsible” for the violence of October 7. Cornel West, an academic, independent candidate for president, and hero to the far left, argued that the Harvard statement “lacked nuance,” but was “largely right.” Russell Rickford, a history professor at Cornell, confessed to feeling “exhilaration” upon hearing the news of Hamas’s attack. Stanford lecturer Ameer Hasan Loggins, on the day after the Hamas pogrom, ordered Jewish students to stand in the corner while calling them “colonizers.”
It would not be difficult to list dozens of other reports of ugly statements and incidents of antisemitism on campuses; they have emerged on almost an hourly basis since October 7. Student organizations across the country have held rallies accusing Israel of “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing.” Many have expressed sympathy with Hamas.
It’s worth keeping in mind that antisemitism on college campuses was already reaching disturbing levels even before October 7. According to the Anti-Defamation League, one-third of Jewish students experienced antisemitic rhetoric or threats in 2021. Two years later, in the aftermath of the worst single day murder of Jews since the Holocaust, the fuse is burning closer to the detonation point. Jewish students have come under attack. Threats of violence against Jews on campus continue to multiply—enough to encourage several Jewish organizations and a major law firm to launch a helpline specifically for antisemitic incidents on campuses.
The Biden administration has announced a plan to combat antisemitism on campuses, creating a partnership between the Department of Justice, Homeland Security, and campus law enforcement offices to track hate-related threats and adopt greater efforts to prevent hate crimes. Most Democratic officials were quick to join President Joe Biden in his forceful denunciation of Hamas, expressing solidarity with Israel. But there are notable exceptions.
Rep. Rashida Tlaib initially refused to disavow Hamas. She and fellow “Squad” members Reps. Ilhan Omar and Cori Bush blamed Israel for the death and destruction and called for an immediate ceasefire, which would leave Hamas in place and poised to attack again.
Tlaib, Omar, and Bush are in a political minority within their own party, but they represent a growing constituency that views Israel with suspicion, if not contempt. Recent polls have found that a slim majority of 18- to 29-year-olds, who lean Democratic, view Israel “unfavorably,” and that only 34 percent of Americans under 40 view Hamas as responsible for the current conflict, compared to 58 percent of Americans over 40.
THE ABANDONMENT OF ISRAEL marks a departure from the left’s most inspiring leaders and intellectuals. Martin Luther King Jr. called Israel’s right to exist “incontestable,” praising the country as one of the “great outposts of democracy in the world.” His close ally, Bayard Rustin, who helped to organize the 1963 March on Washington, offered an assessment in 1975 that could just as easily apply to 2023: “Since Israel is a democratic state surrounded by essentially undemocratic states which have sworn her destruction, those interested in democracy everywhere must support Israel’s existence.”
The late Michael Harrington, author of The Other America and president of DSA, never wavered in his support for Israel. Former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, running as the preferred presidential candidate for progressives in 1968, was a strong ally of Israel. His assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, cited Kennedy’s support for the Jewish state as motive for his murder.
Today, Kennedy and Rustin would risk repudiation in progressive circles. There is already speculation that aid to Israel could cost Biden crucial votes among young progressives and Arab Americans, a sizable minority in the swing state of Michigan.
As important as the next election is, there are even more significant cultural and political implications to the antisemitism boiling on the left. When Joe Biden announced his candidacy for the presidency in 2019, he spoke of the battle for the “soul of America,” referencing the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville who spewed “antisemitic bile.” Yet Biden seems at times not to belong in the same party with the antisemites who profess “anti-racism.” An “anti-racist” movement cannot tolerate—not to mention celebrate—hatred of Jews. Universities have demonstrated a paternalistic obsession with making students “feel safe,” but have gone weak-kneed when considering the actual physical safety of Jewish students and faculty.
A progressive pro-democracy movement cannot speak with coherence about the need to defend democratic institutions in the United States while encouraging the destruction of the only democracy in the Middle East. A liberal party that defends women’s rights and LGBTQ rights has no common cause with Hamas, a theocratic organization that executes gays and imprisons women who stray from the most rigid interpretations of Islamic code.
The #MeToo movement rightfully decried blaming victims for their sexual assaults. Yet those who wish to “contextualize” Hamas’s terror by pointing to the Israeli government policies are telling the victims—the murdered, the raped, the tortured, the maimed, those hostages now held captive in Gaza—that their skirts were too short.
Those who proudly proclaim that “No human being is illegal” must condemn an organization whose sole purpose is to kill or displace millions of people from their homes.
Many on the left call for boycotts and censorship of authors like J.K. Rowling over alleged anti-trans bias but will suddenly cite “nuance” and “context” when reacting to the slaughter of innocent civilians.
The contradictions are too obvious and hideous for reasonable people to ignore.
My politics are not as far left as any self-identified socialist, but I was happy to work alongside leftists for universal health care, voting rights, women’s reproductive freedom, and more aggressive efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change. I will not associate with antisemites, and I suspect that I am not alone in establishing that unbreachable political border.