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Dear Well-Meaning Gentiles
On anti-Semitism and the meaning of allyship
In the days after Hamas’ brutal attacks on Israel last month, TV screens and social media feeds around the Western world were filled with gentiles, especially political liberals, pledging support for the Jewish community. If you are one of them — and if you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you are — let me start by saying thank you.
As you probably know, we live in an age of rampant anti-Semitism. To be fair, that’s true for basically anyone born since the dawn of the Jewish religion. But it has felt particularly acute in recent years as reactionary nationalist movements have gained increasing footholds both in the U.S. and around the world — I’ll never forget waking up to swastika graffiti in my neighborhood the day after the 2016 election. Along with the bloody history of the Israel-Palestine conflict, this baseline bigotry was the context for processing October 7, the deadliest day for Jews in my lifetime. Blanketing Instagram with the Israeli flag is not exactly how I would have suggested signaling solidarity with the global diaspora, especially as their government claims to be representing me in committing retributive atrocities that go against my values as a Jew, but I appreciate the sentiment nonetheless.
I will also emphasize that I am not speaking on behalf of all American Jews. There is a tendency for Jews and gentiles alike to treat our community as a monolith, especially in conversations involving Israel. For some reason this is seen as reasonable in a way that it would not be for other religious groups — no one would be taken seriously if they declared themselves the spokesperson for all of American Christianity, and it is not labeled hateful towards Buddhists to criticize the government of Myanmar. I recognize that many Jews will disagree with some of what I have written here, and I resent that I have to make this clarification.
With that said, I find myself frustrated by the shallowness of this anti-anti-Semitic solidarity movement. It is easy to condemn hatred when it arrives as a terrorist attack or an opposing political party. It is harder, yet still necessary, to condemn anti-Semitism when it comes from people and institutions whom you otherwise admire. A commitment to fighting bigotry means calling it out everywhere, even if doing so means reflecting on and rethinking your notions of who is actually working to create a more-inclusive society. And the silence in such recent instances from progressive goyim who Hashtag Stand With Israel has spoken volumes.
The last few weeks have seen the growth of the highly offensive argument, propagated particularly inappropriately by influential gentiles, that Jews who oppose the senseless devastation in Gaza are not really Jewish. This is perhaps best exemplified by Congressman Ritchie Torres, a gentile and self-proclaimed progressive Democrat who represents one of the poorest districts in the country yet talks about Israel twice as often as he does poverty. He is unmoved by the recent spate of Jewish-led peace demonstrations, like those in the Cannon House Congressional office building and at Grand Central Station, or images of rabbis being arrested for protesting the war. “Do not be fooled by names,” he warned, referring to a Jewish organization that opposes the Israeli offensive in Gaza. He doubled down in a now-deleted follow-up, writing: “‘Jews for Racial and Economic Justice' and ‘Jewish Voices for Peace’ are Anti-Israel organizations that exemplify deceptive advertising.” It would never occur to me to question whether Torres is really Black or Latino or gay based on his political beliefs, especially since I am not part of any of those communities. The lack of pushback within his ostensibly inclusive political party to a gentile attempting to gatekeep who counts as truly Jewish has been unfortunately telling.
Last month’s other major American political news was the chaotic race to elect a new Speaker of the House. In the three weeks between the removal of Kevin McCarthy for bafflingly being seen as insufficiently reactionary and the installation of aspiring theocrat Mike Johnson, Democrats made a big show of unifying behind Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries — an organized display of Adults In The Room to contrast with the Republicans’ catty infighting. Yet this gesture meant offering full-throated support to a man who once invoked the infamous words of George Wallace to declare: “Israel today, Israel tomorrow, Israel forever!” I admit that I’m unsure how to untangle the messy symbolism of a Black leader wrapping a Zionist message in segregationist rhetoric, but given that Jeffries too is not particularly careful about distinguishing between the Israeli government and Judaism at large, I can’t think of an interpretation that isn’t deeply offensive to us Jews. (Pretend that quote came from Ilhan Omar or Donald Trump and imagine what the reaction would have been.) The dissonance of liberal elected officials and pundits pledging no tolerance for anti-Semitism while cheering Jeffries’ leadership is highly disheartening.
Then there’s Joe Biden. In an interview the week after the Hamas ambushes, Biden told 60 Minutes that the attacks were “as consequential as the Holocaust” — a statement so offensive and ahistorical that I had to hear it for myself to believe it. The horrific events of October 7 killed approximately 1,400 Israelis. The Jewish death toll from the Holocaust reached six million. The difference in scale so large that it’s hard to comprehend. I consider it anti-Semitic, and bordering on Holocaust revisionism, to present the two atrocities as comparable.
In the absolute most-generous interpretation, the Leader of the Free World spoke incredibly insensitively about a delicate subject and should have immediately apologized, which he has not — and typically it’s unwise to give those who downplay the tragedy of the Holocaust any benefit of the doubt. Yet Biden’s comment barely made a blip in the political ecosystem. I have yet to see a single one of the progressive gentiles who posted the Israeli flag in solidarity last month condemn the President for his repugnant remarks. I’m not asking you not to vote for him in 2024 if Trump is the alternative, but I will infer something about the superficiality of your allyship if you still insist he is a fundamentally decent man after hearing that quote. Are you so tunnel-visioned by partisan loyalty that you can’t call someone who downplayed the significance of the Holocaust a schmuck?
The rot of tolerance for intolerance goes beyond politics. I have written before about MSNBC continuing to platform Michael McFaul after he claimed on-air that Hitler never killed fellow Germans, embracing the tenet of literal Nazi ideology that Jews could not be true Germans. Has the network’s condoning Holocaust revisionism made you think twice about tuning in, or are you content to pretend the incident never happened? (Biden has also sought McFaul’s counsel as a White House advisor, a connection that feels even more disturbing now that Biden has downplayed the scale of the Holocaust too.) When the New York Times wrote last week that “influential and financially savvy” are “positive stereotypes” about Jews — not 50 years ago, last week — did you consider canceling your subscription? If you were building a party playlist, would you think about how your Jewish guests might react if a Kanye West song came on, or have you decided the statute of limitations on caring about his hateful beliefs has expired? Do you still stand with us once the prospect of calling out anti-Semitism is no longer abstract?
There is a straight line between normalizing such anti-Semitism by silence and actual violence against Jews, like the threatened shooting at Cornell University this week. The ability to compartmentalize bigotry from someone you otherwise like is a privilege that your Jewish friends may not have.
Two weeks ago, former MLB superstar Alex Rodriguez tweeted out a Shabbos greeting.
At first glance it was an instant-classic entry in the storied internet genre of celebrities and brands weighing in on oxymoronically serious subjects. But in the days since, Rodriguez’ message has stuck with me as a surprisingly meaningful gesture. As far as I can tell, the deserving Hall of Famer has not commented directly on the current war; before I saw his tweet, I wouldn’t have known he was even aware of Shabbat. Still, it was more thoughtful than the vast majority of solidarity statements I’ve seen from gentiles over the last month. He wrote this on October 20, long after celebrities became more reticent to talk about the conflict. He demonstrated a genuine interest in Jewish life and culture deeper instead of just screenshotting the Israeli flag. And he resisted the pressure to couch his message to our community in jingoistic presumptions that an increasing number of us disavow.
As dangerous as our society’s anti-Semitism is, our discomfort as American Jews need not the main focus right now. Israel’s attacks on Gaza are killing hundreds of civilians every day in a land where half the population are children. Not even refugee camps are spared from the IDF’s bombs; even hospitals that are still standing are shuttering due to fuel shortages. When a ceasefire is finally called and the illegal-under-intentional-law white phosphorous dust clears, we can have a deeper conversation about the nature and necessity of gentile allyship. For now, the biggest urgency in defining anti-Semitism is clarifying that opposing the devastation that Israel is visiting upon Gaza is not under its purview.
In the meantime, I respectfully ask the progressive gentiles reading this to reflect on whether you are really my ally in the fight against anti-Semitism, or if I am merely checking a box on your COEXIST bumper sticker. Have you discounted the Jewish voices calling for peace as a fringe movement? Are you already trying to rationalize why Biden diminishing the magnitude of the Holocaust wasn’t actually that bad? Or are you open to listening when I say that my Jewish values teach me to sympathize with the oppressed, and that right now the vast majority of the suffering is in Gaza? The Jewish community could use your solidarity — but not your tokenization.
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