Ten Ways Not
to Fight Antisemitism
By David Bernstein
Effectively fighting resurgent Antisemitism on both sides of the political spectrum requires us to kick some old, bad habits.
Here are 10 ways not to fight it:
1. Don’t fight it by using the “A word” haphazardly
We should be very careful about calling an act “Antisemitism” unless it is obvious to the average person. Using the “A word” willy nilly, even when it applies, vitiates its power. It’s one thing to identify a trend as “Antisemitism,” it’s another thing to call a specific act “Antisemitic,” and quite another to call a person who committed the act an “Antisemite.” Just because, for example, we label opposition to the existence of the Jewish state as Antisemitic, doesn’t mean we should publicly call a student-written op-ed Antisemitic because it argues for a “one state solution,” let alone call the student who wrote it an “Antisemite.”
2. Don’t fight it by prematurely condemning
When we come down too quickly and forcefully on a person’s words or acts, it can seem heavy handed – or even defensive – to the larger public. Just because it’s obvious to us that the dual loyalty charge is Antisemitic doesn’t mean it carries the same meaning to others. In most instances, it’s better to give the offender a chance to set the record straight before going on the attack.
3. Don’t fight it by refusing to accept apologies
Some in the Jewish community are reluctant to accept apologies from someone accused of Antisemitism, as if the offender has once and for all revealed their true character. Memo to the Jews: we want people to apologize. It means the offender is taking responsibility and signaling to the broader public that what they did was unacceptable.
4. Don’t fight it by overstating (or understating) the threat
This moment calls for a clear head and a sound strategy, not hyperbolic panic about “history repeating itself.” While some draw parallels to the 1930s, Jews are, in fact, more “warmly” regarded by Americans than any other religious group, according to a recent Pew study. Misdiagnosing a problem generates poor interventions.
5. Don’t fight it by pointing the finger at the other side of the ideological aisle
If you are a Democrat and point only to Antisemitism on the right, or a Republican and point only to the left, you are contributing to the politicization and weaponization of Antisemitism by both parties. What we really need is for each party to take responsibility for its own Antisemitism problem.
6. Don’t fight it by treating right and left-wing Antisemitism in the same way
Antisemitism on the right and left tends to manifest itself in very different ways, requiring different strategies. The right-wing variety tends to be easily recognizable (e.g. conspiracy theories about powerful Jews), and the left-wing variety more abstract (e.g. opposing Israel’s right to exist). It’s not helpful to demand, as some do, that just because a Jewish group condemns a right-wing act that it condemn a left-wing act in the same breath. The goal is to reduce Antisemitism in both camps over time, not demonstrate parity.
7. Don’t fight it by blacklisting problematic people and erecting litmus tests
Blacklisting and litmus tests are designed to deny a group or person acceptance in polite society for their bad behavior. But very often those imposing litmus tests overestimate their power to isolate the offending party and end up isolating themselves by not showing up. There are, of course, bad people we should stay away from, but they are few and far between. I would not meet with, for example, David Duke or Louis Farrakhan. In the fight against Antisemitism, however, it’s far better to be on engagement footing.
8. Don’t fight it by stifling free speech
Some want to put the kibosh on all Antisemitic events or speakers. Rarely is this the right approach, as it can be perceived as censorship. Trying to shut down events often backfires and brings publicity to the offender.
9. Don’t fight it by insisting we do nothing else
Some well-meaning Jews want Jewish organizations, such as local Jewish community relations councils, to cease doing what they consider less important social justice work and focus exclusively on combating Antisemitism. Ironically, this would hurt the fight against Antisemitism. If we only show up for ourselves, we will have no credibility with the populations we are trying to influence. As saying goes, “if you want a friend you have to be a friend.”
10. Don’t fight it by expressing concern and doing nothing about it
Some believe that Antisemitism is an immutable disease not subject to change or diminution. While Antisemitism has indeed proven quite resilient over the ages, it has been far more lethal and popular in some places and moments in time than in others. It’s constantly changing. Fighting it – smartly – can contain it.
Support the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, other national organizations, and local organizations such as Jewish Federations and JCRCs in the fight against Antisemitism.
David Bernstein is President and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. Follow him on Twitter @DavidLBernstein.