Discover more from Tapestry
Why anti-Semitism is back, and why it's not just a problem for Jews.
I've written a lot of words in the last two weeks. I've drafted a number of pieces, but have felt uneasy when it came time to publish them. The thought of publishing something about interesting but abstract topics has felt inauthentic and a little dishonest, because in reality, I've been consumed by a different topic: a Jew’s place in the world today. So instead of publishing those other pieces, I thought I'd publish something that truly speaks to what's on my mind at the moment. And right now, it’s anti-Semitism.
Anti-Semitism is history’s oldest hatred. It never goes away, it just continues to change its form. It is now back in fashion, and I feel a responsibility to call it out. In this piece I’ll explain its resurgence, provide some examples of the hypocrisy it entails, consider the difficult position it places “progressive” Jews in, and explain why it’s a problem for everyone, not just Jews.
I hope this piece, like every other one I write, continues to be a spur for ongoing engagement. Let’s dive in.
The last few weeks have been challenging for Jews around the world, as anti-Semitism has clearly reared its ugly head in cities across Europe and the US. If you'd like to clearly see what I'm referring to, here's a list of recent attacks that have generally gone under-reported.
Anti-Semitism is therefore very much out in the open now, and I’ve been thinking a lot about how we got here. Just a few weeks ago, I expressed what I think it is about Jews that make us a target for all dimensions of the social or political spectrum: "Ultimately, Jews today are too "privileged" and "white" for the left, not "white" enough and too race-muddled or subversive for the right, and too "globalist" for the regular working person."
The catalyst for this latest surge in anti-Semitism is notionally the conflict in Israel, which to be clear, is a regional conflict in the Middle East, not a conflagration that demands the world’s breathless and disproportionate attention. Jews have always prided themselves on being able to address their Zionism and Judaism as two distinct things. But when a regional conflict in Israel is the catalyst for a surge of ugly and violent acts and rhetoric towards Jews, then the separation becomes a moot point.
The statement that "you can be anti-Zionist without being anti-Semitic" is academic when a large portion of those expressing the anti-Zionist views also harbor anti-Semitic views. It is curious that while “it has become an article of faith on the progressive left that anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism and that it’s slander to assume that someone who hates Israel also hates Jews,” that same progressive movement is comfortable sharing a platform with people and organizations who spout vile and anti-Semitic hatred.
Hypocrisy, double standards, and the ugly truth
It's therefore not just the physical attacks that concern me. I'm more concerned by the way it's now entirely acceptable, in a world so sensitive to racism, to publicly express racist views about Jews. Last week, it was revealed that Google's head of diversity strategy wrote a blog post in 2007 titled "If I Were a Jew." Among others pearls of wisdom, the piece suggested Jews have an "insatiable appetite for war" and an "insensitivity to the suffering [of] others." It's a pretty offensive piece of writing, and for the purposes of this piece, I believe this is the relevant point:
The individual in question was "reassigned." People have literally been fired from universities and newspapers for the crime of "thinking" things less offensive than this! In the same week that this blog post resurfaced, the editor of the Journal of American Medical Association was forced to resign because one of his sub-editors suggested in a podcast that “taking racism out of the conversation” in medicine may be helpful. How do these responses square?
To be clear, I'm not suggesting that the Google employee should be fired; the absence of space to make mistakes, and the impossibility of redemption, are both key parts of the problem that have pushed us towards the paternalistic and ideologically rigid state of public discourse we find ourselves in. But I'm saying as a Jewish person, living in a world that's so finely calibrated to seek out and punish any semblance of racism, this is not just hypocritical. It's scary.
I am generally hesitant to publicly express a view on race today given the current climate. Talking about race or a particular group of people is now so charged, and so central to the way people view the world, that even broaching it in private conversations can get prickly. But when it comes to talking about Jews, that same standard just isn't there. Consider some examples of positions or statements doing the rounds in public and private, those that I’ve either come across myself or have had referred to me by friends:
Referring to the “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” unfolding in Israel.
Referring to the clear statistical and anecdotal rise of attacks on Jews as merely propaganda being spread to promote the Israeli “colonialist” agenda.
Criticizing Jews for their treatment and murder of Palestinians.
Claiming that what is unfolding in Israel is simply history repeating itself; Jews are now doing to the Palestinians what the Nazis did to the Jews.
I think many of the people expressing these views are “conflict tourists,” who view the Israel and Palestinian conflict as another classic example of white people killing black and brown people, and are using it to confirm their pre-existing worldview; but in reality, the only “classic” example present here is a classic case of confirmation bias. To say that these views are dumb would be giving them too much credit. Israeli Jews are overwhelmingly not “white,” with only ~30% of them being of European descent; Israel is not an apartheid state—an Arab, Islamist political party just played the role of political kingmaker this week in Israeli parliament; and Israel is not ethnically cleansing anyone, it would be a poor tactic in the region’s only true democracy.
It is offensive to use this conflict to substantiate a particular worldview, and to use it as content for virtue signaling, but it’s also not incredibly surprising; the woke agenda excels at being irrational and paternalistic. And while the insincerity of some of these positions borders on hilarious, there’s something very serious about their impact: they are being embedded into the fabric of the “progressive” political psyche. And in response, these positions are being used to equate Zionism with racism, which is therefore a bridge to permit—or even demand—progressively-minded people to espouse false and racist views about Jews. It is this state of affairs that means that a head of diversity at one of the world’s largest companies gets a slap on the wrist when it comes to the resurfacing of highly offensive views about Jews, while others are cast into professional purgatory at merely the hint of a “problematic” view on the most inane, inoffensive topics.
The reaction is telling. And within progressive circles, the equating of Zionism with racism and the spreading of anti-Semitic mistruths is having a pretty profound effect on Jewish identity. It is now clear that membership of the political circles in which I traditionally thought we were at home as Jews, is now dependent on renouncing a part of my identity. Jews, through their association with Zionism, are once again unfashionable in “progressive” circles, and that’s a problem.
The price of admission
I find the current state of discourse very troubling because I am a progressive person. I am not an American, but through living in the US have been immersed in its political discourse, and therefore naturally form views about what I think the country should look like.
I believe people here should receive universal healthcare, that government policy and corporations should be doing more to fix the climate, that abortion should be considered a personal choice, that gun sales should be restricted, and that people of different sexualities, ethnicities and genders should all be afforded the same rights. I know that many American Jews feel the same way about these issues too; according to one recent survey, 77% of Jews voted for Democrat Joe Biden in 2020. This is consistent with American Jews' long-time voting tilt to the Democrats, and is consistent with my experience as a Jew when it comes to the majority of social issues and the way they’ve been interpreted by my community and my religion.
And this is why the last few weeks have been so alienating and concerning for me as a Jew. Anti-Semitic attacks have surged, creating a personal sense of foreboding. And at the same time, the political groups in which I and many other Jews previously felt we belonged, are now stating that support for the State of Israel—being a Zionist—is now to be equated with racism; the position is that one cannot be both a Zionist, and a member of the "progressive" camp. I've learned over the last few years that I probably don't belong in the capital P-progressive camp in any case; not because I don't share a lot of its views, but because I detest its ideology and its means. The last few weeks are the nail in that coffin. I am a Zionist, and if that means I can no longer share the a certain political platform, so be it.
"The Zionist camp includes everyone who, when pushed to imagine a future they’d want, can’t imagine one in which a Jewish state doesn’t exist. These are people watching their social media feeds fill up with one-sided hashtags, wondering when and how Hamas got laundered from a terrorist organization into an Instagram-ready social justice movement, or how the word “genocide” could be so casually applied to a war in which the total deaths on both sides amount to less than a third of the number of people killed in Chicago last year. They are people who are shocked by how Israel is somehow portrayed as a singularly evil human rights violator when the Syrian civil war has claimed 400,000 lives in 10 years—about 300,000 more than the total number of people who have ever died in the Arab-Israeli conflict, starting in 1860. These people are starting to suspect, as Einat Wilf put it, that “it’s not that attacks on Jews in the West are the unfortunate and unintended consequence of the persistent demonization of Israel, but rather the demonization of the Jewish state is undertaken so as to re-legitimize attacks on Jews in the West.”"
Viewed through this lens, the rise in anti-Semitism possesses some sort of logic. Jews—given our varied and non-standard combinations of race, ethnicity, religious practice and outsized-achievements in the face of millennia of persecution—occupy an uncomfortable space in a progressive agenda dominated by questions of race and oppression. To the loudest and most disingenuous members of the progressive crowd, the Israeli conflict is the perfect opportunity for them to confirm a particular worldview while simultaneously dealing with a group of people whose very existence and successes undermine the worldview itself.
The last few weeks have been illuminating in terms of clarifying my identity. I wrote a few years ago that “I am Australian. I am also a male, a Jew, a New York resident, of Lithuanian/Polish/South African/New Zealand descent, a Zionist, a social progressive, an investor, an operator and a Humanist.” All those things remain true, and I continue to be the same complex, contradictory mosaic of attributes, just like you and everyone else on this planet. My identity will continue to evolve, but I’ve never felt more aware of, and connected to, my Zionism and my Judaism.
Insidious attacks on identity
I'm clear about the importance of my Jewish identity. It's a huge part of who I am, and I'm committed to ensuring it remains a healthy, robust and vibrant part of my future. It therefore pains me when I see other Jews desperately trying to make it clear to their fellow "progressives" that they too are horrified by the “racist,” “apartheid,” “colonialist” regime in Israel; that they’re different; that the injustices being wrought upon Palestinians are being pushed by “other” Jews, and that their Judaism is different, more woke, more humane, more empathetic. That they, the progressive Jews, are the “good” Jews.
Membership in progressive circles is now dependent on acknowledging that, from the ideology’s perspective, Jews (through their support of Israel), are complicit in racist and genocidal acts. Membership is dependent on accepting the positions of a disingenuous, ideologically extreme culture that demands fealty to its dominant, blunt-force, race-obsessed worldview.
I understand that it's hard for certain people to push back on this; our lives are built around the people we associate with, and if those people collectively say "this is what we believe — are you in or out?" I am sympathetic to those who submit and are persuaded that the application of a specific ideological toolkit spits out the demand to prioritize wokeness over Jewishness. And to those people, I'm telling you: don't. Because it will never be enough:
“Increasingly, the energies of this group will be devoted to conjuring new loyalty tests for Jewish members—yesterday’s was OK, so you have denounced Zionism, but you won’t be considered virtuous until you stop condemning antisemitism, which is as insane as it sounds, and also perfectly predictable.”
To borrow Einat Wilf’s comment from above, it’s hard to counter the sense that “the demonization of the Jewish state is undertaken so as to re-legitimize attacks on Jews in the West.” And in this construct, it’s ultimately irrelevant whether you’re a “good” Jew in the eyes of your woke friends and comrades. Whether today, or at some point in the near future, you will be asked to sacrifice more. Every con starts with a small ask.
Every Jew and every Zionist is entitled to their own interpretation of what Judaism means to them, and whether or not Israel is sufficiently important to them to publicly defend it. And in theory there should absolutely be space for Jews to criticize Israel and some of its policies; that is entirely legitimate and part of our responsibility as true supporters of the state. But in practice, that agency has been taken away. It has now been ordained that support for Israel implies an endorsement of all its policies, and because its policies have been labelled as “racist” or “apartheid,” it is inconceivable that a “progressive” person could support it. I am definitely not suggesting that all progressive people hold this view; but I am suggesting that those with the loudest megaphones often do, the Hadid sisters and the Squad amongst them.
Judaism, through its association with Zionism, is now unfashionable, and that’s a dangerous place for all of us to find ourselves in. If you don't believe me, try wear a Star of David on a rainbow t-shirt at a Pride event this month.
Bringing it together
I don't want to write about anti-Semitism. But I can't not write about this right now. It's front of mind for me, and it’s clearly an issue I believe is of the utmost importance to Jews and non-Jews alike.
Anti-Semitism is an irrational hatred. It is one of the most successful viruses of all time, constantly finding ways to mutate and adapt to infect the minds of people and cultures spread across over two thousand years. It’s important to see this latest surge for what it is: simply the next chapter in one of the most coherent threads in world history. Observing how the conversation around Israel, Jews and anti-Semitism has evolved over the last few weeks, it’s clear to me—as an invested and rational observer—that Jews are subject to language, demands and acts that simply have no place in what should be a “progressive” world. Ultimately, a progressive movement that “claim[s] to be horrified by every form of prejudice…[has] indulged an anti-Israel movement that keeps descending into the crudest forms of anti-Semitism.”
The way we all respond to anti-Semitism is a test for the health of our societies. The message of this piece is therefore equally important for non-Jews: anti-Semitism is the canary in the coal mine. It is the sign of a sick society; one that accepts conspiracy over reason, and has a willingness to tolerate hatred, as long as it's directed against the "right" group as determined by the loudest voices. And when the world is defined in terms of the "right" and "wrong" binary, I promise you it's a lot easier to find yourself on the side of the "wrong" than the "right," whether you can see it today or not.
Now is not the time to be silent. I have been energized and encouraged by the response to previous pieces I’ve published on this topic. So please, keep responding and reaching out. And the next time you get something from Tapestry, I promise it will be a little lighter.
If you’d like some further reading, here are a few pieces that elaborate on some of the topics and sentiments I’ve expressed: