The recent media coverage of the events that unfolded after Rutgers University condemned antisemitism, the University’s qualification of the condemnation, followed by the latest statement by the University president that condemned it again, but linked it to a series of other societal hatreds, is indicative of a deeply problematic tendency that has continued to grow. It seems that for a great many people antisemitism can only be discussed legitimately if it is linked to other forms of prejudice and hatred. In other words, focusing solely on antisemitism, is somehow seen as unacceptable.
Obviously, all forms of hatred merit condemnation. Indeed, many of those hatreds share aspects with antisemitism. Moreover, there is much merit in comparing and contrasting phenomena. In fact, this is a basic method for increasing our knowledge. But, it is no less legitimate to focus on a specific phenomenon, among other reasons, when current events demand it be addressed. In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, there certainly was room to discuss, probe and condemn the specific murder, and the wider and directly related phenomenon of racism against the Black community in the United States. After the spate of attacks on Asian Americans, the same was true – focusing on anti-Asian prejudice was absolutely necessary. In both cases alongside, the focus, but not in place of it, a wider discussion about racism and prejudice in the United States, and not only in the United States, not only made sense, but was very much in order. Yet I do not recall individuals or groups protesting those focused discussions when they took place. So why does this occur when the subject is antisemitism?
To a significant extent, the answer seems to lie in current public discourse. As the sometimes, heated discussion about the IHRA definition of antisemitism has shown, many people have a very hard time accepting the fact that some – but by no means all - criticism of Israel and Zionism is antisemitic. It is an important and ongoing effort to try to determine when this is or isn’t the case. But for many people, any discussion at all of antisemitism has become controversial, since it ostensibly raises the specter of silencing criticism of Israel. A second issue relates to the increasingly popular contention, that as “white people,” Jews belong to a privileged group, and therefore cannot be objects of real discrimination and prejudice. According to this view, antisemitism is not a serious issue and complaints about it should be dismissed as being trivial, at best. Given this attitude, it is understandable that when some people seek to speak out against antisemitism, they feel they can only do so if they don’t focus on it alone.
No doubt, antisemitism remains a deeply entrenched and enduring hatred. The spate of attacks on Jews in Europe and North America that have appeared in the wake of events in Israel and Gaza constitute, tangible, severe, anti-Jewish violence by people who apparently believe the patent falsehood that all Jews everywhere are responsible for the actions of the Israeli government, or that all Jews regardless of where they live, what they think or what they do, are really agents of Israel, and therefore legitimate targets for their wrath. This prejudice also derives from the notion that Israel alone is responsible for any violence that breaks out between it and the Palestinians, a notion which ignores the complexity of the Mid-East situation and adopts instead a simplistic formula that demonizes Israel.
When there is antisemitic violence – physical or verbal - it must be accepted that to condemn it without qualifications, justifications or linkages, is not only legitimate, but imperative. The deeper, ongoing exploration of antisemitism demands both a focus on it by itself, and analyzing it in the light of related hatreds. Addressing both in depth is certainly not mutually exclusive, but rather profoundly complementary.