We live in a time when, as the US State Dept. has noted, a “rising tide of anti-Semitism” has swept across the globe. Anti-Semitism has crept into the mainstream from the margins of society in the West, as a coalition of intellectual elites and Muslims has produced a surge of venom against Israel and Jews who identify with it.
That movement has found a foothold on American campuses and among left-wing groups, resulting in Jews being stigmatized and isolated in the public square, and students being subjected to violence and intimidation.
But the growth of this noxious form of hate is not what most American Jews are most worried about. Instead, it is the spectacle of neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan and alt-right allies parading in Charlottesville, Va., that scares Jews the most.
A reasonable argument can be put forward to assert that, even now, with far-right anti-Semites being more active than in recent memory, their left-wing counterparts pose a more serious menace to global Jewish security.
But fear of the anti-Semitic right is always going to be the threat that resonates the most in the Jewish community. The thought process leading to the conclusion behind this mindset might be debatable, but it also reflects a disturbing truth about the persistence of anti-Semitism and the failure of both liberals and conservatives to think clearly about the issue.
Part of the reason why right-wing anti-Semites are scarier to American Jews is a function of imagery and historical memory. The spectacle in Charlottesville of large numbers of neo-Nazis and Klan members holding a torchlight parade while chanting anti-Semitic slogans is chilling in of itself, but also because it is reminiscent of the Holocaust.
These thugs aren’t anything close to being the threat the Nazis were in Germany, but their brazenness provides a visceral shock that even the most vicious and perhaps more influential Jew-haters on the left can’t provoke.
The increasingly central role anti-Semitic attitudes are playing on the left often flies under the flag of anti-Zionism rather than open Jew-hatred. But that is a distinction without a difference. Even in the US, where it is less prevalent than in Europe, this has meant boycotts and even violence, as well as inflammatory rhetoric — coming from many prominent members of the anti-Trump “resistance” — that demonizes affiliated Jews as racist oppressors.
Liberal Jews have been slow to respond to this threat because it requires them to confront erstwhile allies who are part of the Democratic Party base or groups they view with sympathy, like Black Lives Matter or organizations that purport to represent the LGBTQ community.
But liberals aren’t the only ones who have ignored things that didn’t fit into their worldview.
Republicans have become a lockstep pro-Israel party, and the main organs of conservatism like National Review chased anti-Semites out long ago. This has led Jewish conservatives to believe the virus of right-wing anti-Semitism was dead and buried. But anti-Semitism on the right has made a comeback in the form of a virulent and violent alt-right movement that rejects mainstream conservatism.
Neo-Nazis and the Klan and their alt-right allies, may be small in number and make up only an infinitesimal fraction of the coalition that elected Trump. But their impact is magnified by Trump’s reluctance to consistently take them on.
Trump is no anti-Semite and has governed as a staunch friend of Israel. Yet he has encouraged right-wing anti-Semites by alleging a false moral equivalence with those who oppose them, while also signaling sympathy with the cause (preserving Confederate statues) that the anti-Semites and racists turned out to support in Charlottesville.
Neo-Nazis may seem scarier than Jew-haters on the left, but the challenge for American Jews now lies in trying to rise above the partisan loyalties that can blind us to both sides of the anti-Semitic coin.
Liberals prefer to ignore the potent influence of those who promulgate anti-Semitic boycotts of Israel while encouraging intimidation and attacks against Jews. Many seem to think calling out left-wing anti-Semites in the anti-Trump resistance is not as important as opposing the administration.
At the same time, conservatives need to acknowledge that speaking up about the anti-Semitic right isn’t chasing ghosts. They need to understand that calling out Trump for his encouragement of alt-right anti-Semites will neither betray Israel nor aid left-wing Jew-haters.
What is needed is a Jewish community with the wisdom to take up the fight against hate and bigotry no matter its origin.
Until that happens, liberals and conservatives alike will continue to fail to adequately address a problem that ought to transcend politics.